Why I Hate the New International Version of the Bible

July 4, 2016

As readers of this journal may know, I am writing a book on how to read and interpret the Bible.  So, I’m thinking a lot these days about hermeneutical matters.  Yesterday provided me with a shock that somehow has to find its way into the book.

Vittore_carpaccio,_vocazione_di_san_matteoMy Sunday School class is studying Mark’s gospel.  Yesterday’s lesson was on Mark 2.  In one episode, Jesus calls the publican, Levi, to be a disciple (2:14).  In the next episode, Jesus is eating in “his” house, along with many publicans and sinners (2:15).  In class I made the point that in Mark’s gospel it is not clear in whose house Jesus is eating.  Luke’s gospel removes the uncertainty by telling the reader that the meal occurs in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29).  I wanted the class to notice that Mark sets the two episodes side by side without directly connecting them.

I then learned that the NIV Bible takes it upon itself to connect what is unconnected.  It translates Mark 2:15 thus: “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house. . . .”  In other words, the NIV gratuitously adds to the biblical text, thinking that it thereby helps the reader.  (I learned this because most of the class uses the NIV.  Some years ago it became the translation unofficially endorsed by my denomination.)

The clods responsible for the NIV, thinking that they have done the reader a favor, have, in fact insulted the reader.  The NIV consistently assumes that the reader is stupid and needs the translator to clarify whatever in the biblical text is unclear.

The NIV approach fights against the very thing that is most needed, namely, for Christian disciples to read the Bible very carefully and slowly.  The NIV hinders such careful reading by making the biblical text more familiar–in this case, by importing information from Luke into the translation of Mark.  Doing so eliminates the need for the reader to linger over the text, puzzling about its narrative flow or lack of flow.

Speed_bump_(asphalt)

The NIV refuses to acknowledge that sometimes lack of clarity is a good thing.  Lack of clarity in the Bible functions like a speed bump, slowing the reader so that reading becomes more laborious but also more careful.  The problem for many Christians is that, having read and/or heard the Bible for many years, they are overly familiar with it–it contains no surprises.  One way of getting them to read more carefully is to draw attention to the surprising points of unclarity in the text–the places where it doesn’t make sense or says something different from what we think it says.

Wrinkled_Paper_Texture_Free_Creative_Commons_(6816216700)The NIV subverts this process by smoothing out the wrinkles in the Bible, making for a smoother text and a faster read–exactly the thing that is least needed today.  That is why the New American Standard Bible is superior–when the biblical text is unclear, its translation is unclear; when the biblical text lacks coherence, the translation lacks coherence.

Trying to increase biblical literacy in the church is a daunting task today.  It’s too bad that the translation that is most popular in my church makes the task more daunting.

Galileo: The Man Who Made the Bible Safe for Science (continued)

July 1, 2016

Scientists as workIn my journal entry of June 28, I discussed Galileo’s notion of the two books, viz., the Bible and the book of Nature.  Galileo’s goal was to prevent theological and ecclesiastical inference in scientific research.

Pictured: Scientists at work, happily free from ecclesiastical interference

 

To achieve his goal, Galileo limited the message of the Bible to one issue, salvation.  As he said in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany:

The Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side. . . .  Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?

NOMA

A modern form of this view was offered by Stephen J. Gould.  Gould advanced the notion of non-overlapping magisteria.  Gould, neither a Christian nor a theist, discovered at some point in his life that not all Christians were anti-scientific dolts.  In particular, he seemed appreciative of John Paul II’s efforts to reduce the tension between the scientific community and the theological community.  In response, Gould articulated the NOMA principle, a sort of division of labor between science and religion.  In Gould’s words:

If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.

The truce between science and theology thus called allows each to work undisturbed by the other.  Fuzzy but sincere lines of demarcation are established between the domain of science and that of theology.  Each agrees to work its own side of the street:

The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.

Two circles black white 2

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Gould’s view represents a vast improvement on the idiotic picture that many scientists seem to have of theology’s relation to science, a picture of unrelenting hostility caused by thick-headed religious believers who willfully refuse to accept the results of science.

Distinguishing, as Gould does, the domains of theology from those of science performs a practical service.  As the long, sad, and baffling history of biblical creationism has shown, trying to extract scientific knowledge and theories from the Bible is futile. It is, moreover, a hindrance to the scientific enterprise when adopted into scientific education.

At the same time, I’m not convinced of the wisdom of limiting the Bible so one-dimensionally to matters of salvation.  Gould’s approach gives us a workable strategy for reducing conflict between science and theology, but can the Bible so easily be restricted to “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectHere’s what I’m getting at: the Bible (mainly the Old Testament) makes assertions about the non-human portions of the universe: sun, moon, and stars; animals; natural forces and processes; and so on.  Only Fundamentalists want to continue the preposterous agenda of squeezing scientific information from these biblical assertions. But are such assertions one and all expressions of “proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives”?

Here’s a good cliffhanger on which to end.  More to come shortly.

Galileo–The Man who Made The Bible Safe for Science

Two books (Bible and nature)

Two Books and the Man Who Separated Them

June 28, 2016

Back at work after a hiatus occupied with grading and other necessary tasks.

In March I gave a short presentation at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.  In it I talked about the way in which my church (the Church of the Nazarene) and many other Christians have enthusiastically embraced a view of the Bible that goes back at least as far as Galileo.

Among other things, Galileo is famous (among people who read such things) for an essay

Christine_of_Lorraine_Medici4

Christina, happy to hear from Galileo

(the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany) in which he argued that the purpose of the Bible is strictly to reveal the way to salvation.  Put differently, it is not the Bible’s purpose to reveal anything about the natural world.  Galileo cleverly used a metaphor to get his point across–God has spoken in two books, the Bible (for knowledge about salvation) and the book of nature (for knowledge about the world).

 

Judging from my experience in the dialog between science and theology (a curiously one-sided dialog), my sense is that many Christian thinkers are attracted to Galileo’s way of dividing the intellectual pie.  This embrace is due to the perception that too much unnecessary controversy between the theological and scientific communities has ensued because of faulty assumptions about the Bible. Fundamentalists, in particular, are known for their trust that the Bible delivers to us accurate knowledge about everything, at least everything mentioned in the Bible.

For example, there is a physician, Dr. Mel Mulder (http://www.muldermel.com/author.html), who has a radio show (“Beyond Intelligent Design”) whose tagline is that the Bible is our only source of truth.  This is farther than many Fundamentalists would go, suggesting as it does that the sciences are not at all sources of truth.  Nonetheless, most Fundamentalists would say that the results of scientific study are valid only as long as they do not contradict the Bible.  The assumption is that the Bible does indeed reveal to us certain vital truths about the natural world.  If scientific theory disagrees with the Bible, too bad for science.

Galileo thus provided Christians who are anxious to preserve the autonomy of science with an alternative to Fundamentalism.  Instead of assuming that God lodged truths about nature in the Bible, many, perhaps most Christian thinkers, have embraced Galileo’s division-of-labor approach.  We go to the Bible if we want to know about salvation; we go scientifically to nature if we want to know about the world.

Adopting Galileo’s view carves out a space in the anxious world of Christian universities, a space that, in principle if not always in practice, allows scientists to go about their work without ecclesiastical interference.  This space allows worried university administrators to permit more-or-less untrammeled scientific teaching and research with a good conscience–at least until scientists annoyingly encroach on recognizably theological topics such as the soul and ethics.  Nonetheless, as long as Christian scientists abide by the rules of the Galilean game, the only people complaining are Fundamentalists, who reject the game.  The existence of Fundamentalists, however, is actually a blessing in disguise for Christian universities.  They enable the Christian university’s scientists and administrators to engage in self-congratulation for bring broad-minded and enlightened (compared to Fundamentalists) and also authentically Christian (compared to those afflicted with liberal theology).

Oddly both Galileo and Fundamentalism have proven to be blessings for the Christian university.

Although it is not uncommon for scientists today to play up Galileo’s controversy with the Renaissance papacy, the truth is that he laid the foundation of much contemporary Christian thinking about how faith and theology relate to the sciences.

However, I for one am not happy with Galileo’s depiction of the Bible.  In particular, the notion that the Bible is strictly and only about salvation seems questionable.

However, I’m typing this book on scripture and need to maintain momentum, so I will continue this journal entry on Galileo shortly.

Dance, a Metaphor for Lent

Romeo and JulietTerrie and I last night went to see Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet.

One of the striking things about dance, when done well, is how effortless it seems.  We all know that dance requires a lot of effort, but when professional dancers perform, they seem to float above the floor.  Unlike the clumsy rest of us, there seems to be perfect coordination of body and spirit. The body has been perfectly spiritualized; the spirit has been perfectly embodied in the body’s movements.

This is a symbol of Lent.  Lent is a time for, among other things, detaching ourselves from the pleasures of the body.  It is easy to interpret this detachment as a revolt against the body and a rejection of its fleshiness, but we can also see detachment as an exercise designed to spiritualize the body–to overcome gap between the spirit and the body, so that the spirit can be fully embodied.

In theological circles these days it is customary to assume that we are embodied creatures, but perhaps embodiment is a task to be accomplished, not something that we can just assume.  Perhaps embodiment is an acquired skill, like dancing.

If so, then those who, in the spirit of Lent, achieve, however fragmentarily, the spiritualization of the body are like the greatest of dancers who in the act of dance realize the union of spirit and body.

Progressive Revelation

Work in progressThe
Christian faith affirms the reality of progressive revelation; without it, the New Testament would be, not new, but only a different version of the Old Testament. For Christians, the New Testament bears witness to a revelation that is more complete than what we find in the Old Testament. And even in the New Testament we can see some developing insight into revelation, as when the church, after considerable discussion, came to see that God does not require male Gentile converts to be circumcised.

What usually worries us about the idea of progressive revelation is the possibility that there could be a revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ or a witness to revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The Church of Latter Day Saints, for instance, professes to have a revelation that goes beyond and adds to the revelation of Christ to which the New Testament bears witness. Muslim theology claims that Mohammed received from God the ultimate revelation that gives the true interpretation of Jesus Christ’s significance. It is these sorts of beliefs that make the idea of progressive revelation problematic.

Jesus Christ is the
ultimate revelation of God

It is a bedrock element of the Christian faith that there is no revelation more ultimate than Jesus Christ and no witness to that revelation more ultimate than the New Testament. The basis of this belief is the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the
Logos, the word of God, incarnate. Before Jesus Christ there were many preliminary expressions of the word of God, such as Moses’ law or the declarations of the Old Testament’s prophets, but Jesus Christ is the word of God itself, and not merely an expression of that word. It is also a fundamental conviction of the Christian faith that the New Testament is the unsurpassable witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ and is so because it rests on the testimony of Jesus’ apostles.

However, revelation is not only something sent but is also something received. Revelation that is not received by human eyes and ears and minds is not yet revelation. There can, accordingly, be a development in the human understanding of revelation–a growing awareness of the implications of revelation. So, although in one sense no revelation can surpass Jesus Christ and the New Testament’s witness to Jesus Christ, there is a developing history in which God’s revelation is understood with increasing insight.

The possibility of such a developing history is grounded in the fact that the revelation of Jesus requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches disciples (John 14:26) and guides them into the truth (John 16:13). This Johannine theme reminds us that revelation must be received and that our minds must be suitably disposed by the Spirit to receive it. History shows us that the Spirit’s attempt to lead the church into truth is progressive, even if the pace of progress is frustratingly slow and uneven.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

For example, take the practice of slavery. Paul wrote (in Galatians 3:28) that in Christ there is neither slave nor free person. The revelation of Jesus Christ, in other words, means that God is overcoming the distinction between slave and free. Yet the New Testament writers took slavery as a fact of life. They did not and, in their cultural situation, could not envision an end to slavery. But over the centuries, the Christian church came to understand that slavery is contrary to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. It took more than 1800 years, but the Spirit finally succeeded in helping the church grasp this important truth. There has thus been progressive insight in the meaning and implications of revelation. Or, take the ordination of women into the ministry of the church. It took Christian churches more than 1800 years to grasp the point that the oneness of men and women in Christ implies the propriety of ordaining women. Most churches still do not acknowledge this point, but some do. Finally, consider the centuries-long Christian belief that the Bible teaches that the earth lies at the center of the universe. It took the labors of astronomers to convince the Christian community otherwise. In this case, astronomy was useful in helping Christians gain insight into what God’s revelation teaches and what it does not teach.

These examples show us that revelation is one thing and the human understanding of revelation, of its meaning, significance, and consequences, is another thing. It is good for us not to confuse the two. When we forget this distinction, we identify our finite, fallible interpretations of scripture with the declaration of scripture itself; we think that our understanding of revelation is revelation itself.

There is no such thing
as generic revelation

What about the phenomenon of Christian prophecy? We read of prophets in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-11; 1 Corinthians 14:29). These prophets may deliver a revelation (1 Corinthians 14:6, 26, 30). Do these new revelations transcend the revelation of Jesus Christ? The book of Revelation shows us that such utterances of Christian prophets are new revelations, but are not thereby progressive revelations. They do not constitute a revelation beyond Jesus Christ, but they are fresh occasions of revelation in new contexts. Because revelation must received and because this reception always takes place in particular historical and cultural circumstances, there is no such thing as generic revelation. Revelation is always the intersection of God’s speech and human situation. That is why we read the repeated refrain in Revelation, “Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (e.g., 2:7; 2:11). The revelation of Jesus Christ is, in a sense, a treasure. Those who are trained for the kingdom of God can bring from it both what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52). Expressed differently, the Spirit of God may have a new word to speak to the church–new because the church dwells in ever-changing contexts that require fresh adaptations of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

God and Dance

SD Ballet

Terrie and I attended the San Diego Ballet’s “Evening of Jazz and Dance” yesterday.

It’s always inspiring to see people doing creative things excellently, like young people with fluid and sinuous movements.

But since I’m a theologian, my thoughts inevitably turn to theology.

During the performance, it occurred to me that there is an important analogy between God and dance (and music). Dance is a matter of form–tempo, rhythm, motion but above all the form of the body, its shape, its posture, the arrangement of head, hands, and limbs, as in a painting composition.

As form, dance is not about something or the expression of something. It simply is something. It doesn’t re-present something, it simply is presentation. When we see dancing, we don’t seek something behind the movement, looking for a meaning. The motion that we see is the whole thing.

There is, then a wonderful superficiality in dance (and music)–not superficial as in shallow, but superficial in the sense that everything lies on the surface, available for seeing.  We see the motion and hear the sounds, but not in order to get at something deeper.  There is nothing deeper; the motion and the sound are the depth.

There is a tradition in theology, going back to Aristotle, that thinks of God as form. Like dance, God is not about something or the expression of something. God simply is. As in dance, there is nothing behind God that would provide the real meaning of God. As in the experience of dance, in encountering God we experience the reality itself, not a reality being mediated to us by an expression.

With God, the divine form, given in the movement of revelation, is not the re-presentation of something behind the revelation or deeper.  The form lies right on the surface of revelation’s movement.

You can learn a lot from dance (and music).

A Few Observations about Holiness

SeparationI am teaching a course, The Doctrine of Holiness.  It’s a seminar, so students are presenting.  Since I want someday to write a book about holiness, I decided to keep track of ideas and insights this semester.  Here are some thoughts I’ve had about holiness as I’ve listened to the presentations this week:

 

The Bible contains a dialog about holiness and separation.  On one hand, there are plenty of texts that assert the importance of separating the holy people of God from the pagan world–think of Ezra demanding that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives (Ezra 10).  On the other hand, there are passages that are less concerned with separation and instead emphasize God’s desire for inclusion.  Ruth, for instance, was from Moab and thus not part of the holy people, yet she plays a vital role in the history of salvation.

This dialog within the Bible insists on two points: 1) God’s people must be ethically separate from and different from their pagan neighbors and 2) God’s project in the world is to demolish walls of separation.

The book of Acts is suggestive in this regard.  It abounds with gratuitous uses of holy: the prophets are holy (3:21), the temple is holy (21:28), angels are holy (10:22), and so on. Holiness in these contexts implies difference and separation.  At the same time, one of the lead items in Acts’ agenda is to erase the distinction between Jews and Gentiles–Peter says that we are to call no one, even Gentiles, unclean or unholy.  So, Acts simultaneously emphasizes holy people and things and their distinctiveness and also subverts the distinction between the holy and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Is Acts saying that every person is holy and clean? Is there no distinction between the holy and the profane?

Luke’s gospel has something to say about this as well.  It contains several episodes that involve a reversal of expectation:

  • Take the parable about the person giving a banquet who discovers that none of the invited guests can attend (14:16-24).  Enraged, the host orders his slaves to round up people who would otherwise be unworthy of such a banquet–the poor, the crippled, the blind, and so on.  This parable is about membership in the holy people of God. At the beginning of the story, we assume that the attenders will be those with social standing; but at the end, we realize that it is the unworthy who have been selected. The holy people thus comes to consist of the unworthy, while the worthy folks are de-selected.
  • Or, take Jesus’ harangue against the Pharisees in 11:37-44.  The Pharisees want every Jew to live in a priest-like state of purity; they try as hard as they can to remain pure.  But Jesus declares that they are like unmarked graves–they are an unwitting source of defilement.  Thinking that they are upholding standards of purity, it turns out that they defile anyone whom they contact.
  • In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (18:9-14), it is the publican who is declared to be righteous, not the Pharisee.

These parables make it difficult to know what separation means.  As the parable of the Good Samaritan shows, knowing who is and who isn’t a member of the holy people can be difficult to determine.