Literal does not mean word for word
I found this article by Doug Moo (a paper given at the 50th anniversary of the NIV) very helpful and clear with a general and particular application for preachers.
The general application is that, when it comes to translating, literal does not equate to word-for-word. No translator believes that. And therefore the classroom exercise of translating word for word is even somewhat unhelpful.
“I turn to a second major principle of modern linguistics: meaning is found not in individual words, as vital as they are, but in larger clusters: phrases, clauses, sentences, discourses. We take this principle for granted in our study of the biblical languages, insisting on the importance of syntagmatic relationships in our word studies. The object I put after the verb ginôskô dramatically
affects its sense: “knowing” that Jesus is God is very different from “knowing” God or from God’s “knowing” me. Once again, however, the principle is too easily ignored when translations are being evaluated. Translation is not, as many people think, a matter of word substitution: English word x in place of Hebrew word y. Translators must first determine the meaning that the clustering of words in the biblical languages convey and then select a collocation of English words that accurately communicates that meaning to modern listeners and readers.”
More specifically, Doug suggests that it is unhelpful for preachers to say, as many do (myself included!), “more literally, this word means….” This, he argues, give a false impression of how words and translations works:
“Such [comments] seem to be communicating to [listeners] one of two things. First, the note might be implying that the NIV is somehow at fault for taking a liberty with the original languages, choosing an English word that is not “literally” what the Greek says. Or, second, the note may be suggesting that the English word the NIV has chosen, while accurate enough, should be seen as
also connoting the “literal” meaning of the Greek word. Each of these alleged faults could, indeed, be genuine problems. As good as the NIV is, I am sure there are places where an English word does not accurately convey the sense of the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word. And, of course, a particular word can be intended to convey more than one sense. But in neither case is the issue one of being “literal.”
For NIV read ESV or whichever translation you use. Thought provoking stuff, and quite possibly something for me to repent of.
You may think it is too early to plan to be with us next year. But almost 200 have just spent a few days with us in Leicestershire this year and things soon book up – both at our end and, more importantly, yours too.
Next year, we’re joined by Bryan Chappell. He’s a great catch and I’m personally looking forward to spending a couple of weeks with him. Here’s a little sneak preview.
Hope we will see you. When it comes to workshops, by the way, they’re allocated on a first come first served basis. Just sayin’.
Don Carson on Justification
In yesterday’s post I mentioned some audio from our recent ministers conferences. We’ve also continued working to add older media from our archives and now have almost every talk from every EMA online. We’re still filling in the gaps from other past conferences, and one of the recent additions has been material from one of the Theological Students Conferences we used to run. These are rather longer – and perhaps more ‘heavyweight’ – than talks from our ministers conferences. In 2000, Don Carson gave a series of three talks on justification – they’re an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half each, but well worth investing the time when you get the opportunity.
- Peter Adam on Habakkuk
- Paul Mallard on the uses of suffering in Christian ministry and on staying fresh
- David Robertson on apologetics
- Vaughan Roberts opened and closed the conferences with expositions from Acts
Video from the conferences will be online in the next couple of weeks.
By the way, did you know that if you click underlined items in the right hand column on our resources page, they link to appropriate material? E.g. click on a speaker’s name for all our talks from that speaker, or on a bible book for all our talks on that book?
Better study equals better application
One practical reason why preachers are tempted to short-circuit working hard on their Bible-text is because they feel the pressure to have compelling applications. And the truth is that it can sometimes feel as if the further we bury ourselves in the text, the further we are getting away from the real lives of the people we’ll be standing in front of come Sunday.
Here’s one simple example from a passage that came up in our Cornhill practice classes this week, which demonstrates that we must hold our nerve and believe that the opposite is the case: namely, the further we bury ourselves in the next, the closer we are getting to the profound and precise message that the Lord has in it for our people.
The passage is Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unmerciful servant. It’s provoked by Peter asking Jesus how often he must forgive a brother or sister who sins against him. “Up to seven times?”, asks Peter.
Already there in the opening verse of the passage we are given two limitations to our application: this is primarily about sins committed against us…
– by fellow-believers, not the world in general;
– by fellow-believers within the life of the church family, rather than within our own family relationships.
There’s more. The immediate context is the well-known passage on church discipline (18:15-20), which speaks of the two possible outcomes for a sinning Christian: repentance and restoration, or coming to be regarded as an unbeliever. Peter’s question in v.21 can only have in view the repentant believer, since he asks about multiple acts of forgiveness. Here then is a third limitation to our application: the sinning Christian is assumed to be repentant.
I think I detect even a fourth limitation, too: since Peter assumes repeated forgiveness, primarily in view are sins that are committed pretty regularly, rather than enormous, infrequent sins.
If I notice all of this, I won’t start my sermon by talking about a Christian who said she forgave her unconverted father who sexually abused her as a child (not a Christian; possibly not repentant). I won’t start talking about a converted man who stays with his church-going wife through her continual affairs (possibly not a Christian; not repentant). If I start like this, I’ll probably do pastoral damage.
Instead, I’ll start talking about the kinds of sins committed regularly among church family members: gossipping, back-biting, lack of hospitality, etc. I may think that this passage speaks to forgiveness in other areas too. But if I think that, I’ll be guided by the text to work my way there through a series of careful pastoral steps.
As I said, in this case when I finally emerge from the hours spent buried in the text, although there’s still much to do, I know exactly in which direction my applications need to run.
Why talk of trajectories is necessary but dangerous
I often hear theological positions described in terms of trajectory. That can be a very helpful and necessary analysis. It’s insightful and useful to see where a certain path takes us if we’re not careful. It’s especially useful when applied to our own theologies (something we rarely do, by the way: I wonder why!?). I was not always a Calvinist; even when I understood what that meant and realised it was not a description of my position, it was some time before I embraced it willingly and happily. But it means – guess what – I’m on a trajectory too. And if I don’t want to end up a hyper-Calvinist, I’d better watch out.
And here’s the danger. Thinking in terms of trajectories may be helpful generally, but it can often be harmful personally. Just because it is possible that a general trajectory may take you in a certain direction (Unitarianism, acceptance of same-sex relationships, hyper-Calvinish) doesn’t mean it will. Not every 19th Century convert to Calvinism gave up on evangelism, and not every 19th Century General Baptist became a Unitarian. Not by a long shot.
And the trajectory argument can be personally very damaging if used in an attacking way. If you send me an email and tell me that it’s most likely I’ll end up with the anti-evangelism nutters, I will rightly take offence. However, neither is it an argument we want to entirely lose – I do need to keep hearing that general warning.
So I want to make a case for keeping talk of trajectories, but using it very, very carefully, and not ascribing to people views they simply don’t have.
A tale of two books
I’ve just finished reading two fiction books I saw reviewed positively in the weekend papers. The first is The Good Girl by Fiona Neill, a rather sordid tale about a headteacher who discovers her teenage daughter has made a sex tape and it is going around her school. Hardly proper reading for a Christian, you might think and, at one level, I’m inclined to agree. However, though the tale is sordid, the book is not explicit and it is well written. That is still not to say that it is suitable reading material for Christians, except that I think we have absolutely no idea how the world thinks about sex and how, especially, teenagers, are sexualised. I find reading books like this the least objectionable way to discover some of those truths – and, at one level, discover them we must if we are to connect with a broken world which desperately needs to hear the healing and redeeming news of Jesus.
Here’s what I learnt.
First, I think most of us have absolutely no idea the extent to which the school and teenage environment is saturated with sex. Part of the plot line is about a teenager who is addicted to porn, and if the press at the weekend is right, this is hardly rare. That addiction is hugely damaging in so many ways and we are naïve if we think these issues are not in the church. We must also hold out a gospel which both brings forgiveness of sin and healing to broken lives.
Second, people sometimes do bad things for good reasons. This is a plot spoiler – but it becomes clear as the book progresses that the sex tape is not all it seems to be (or you assume it to be). In Christians terms, it is still a wrong thing, but in ways that are too complex to explain, it was done with good motives. Incredible for us to grasp. We can be very black and white about sin. But the Bible is not (read Numbers 15). Even for God’s people there are intentional and unintentional sins. They are still sins note – I am not going soft on sin. But as we reach out to a world, we must realise that some people get themselves into a mess with God and with each other through good motives. It makes understanding those who walk through our doors even more important.
Third, there is a growing therapy culture which is all about blame shifting. In the book, the family in question is pretty messed up. No one is squeaky clean. And the insights and asides we get about therapists are all about passing the buck. If someone other than the sinner can be blamed then that is always a good result. This also qualifies my previous point. Something bad done for a good reason is just about OK in the book. Not so with God. And ultimately, sin is only dealt with when we’re prepared to point the finger at ourselves.
Fourthly, the internet is a game changer. When I was at school, porn was something a couple of bad boys sneaked into the hall balcony at lunchtime in the form of a magazine. Now, it’s completely privatised, more graphic, more extreme. Things that get onto the internet stay for life. In the book the teenage girl recognises this and says everytime she meets someone new, for the rest of her life, she will always be wondering, “have they seen the video.” Yet, sin is unchanged by all of this. The God who forgives sin in the 1950s is the same God who forgives today. Sin has deeper and uglier consequences perhaps (though it has always been deep and ugly), but the gospel is unchanged and absolutely able to deal with all sin.
It’s a book of course, so only fiction. But the author seems to know her stuff and I have no reason to doubt the picture, even if it is an extreme. The most depressing thing about this book is that it is absolutely and utterly Christless. There are no Christians in it, no church, no Bible, nothing. And that is why it ultimately left me feeling depressed, even though it was a made up story. Our world without the gospel is desperate and it’s why what you do and what I do really, really counts.
The second book was quite different. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain is translated from the French and is gentle, lovely and undemanding. It’s predictable and touching – just what I needed after Good Girl. It’s still explicitly Christ-less, but it’s redemptive and simple. In modern terms it’s completely un-taxing and really un-thought-provoking. Common grace at its best. And sometimes it’s really good to read books like that. I loved it.
David Gooding resources
Vaughan was preaching on Acts at last week’s ministers conferences and in a very brief aside said: “Anything you can get hold of by David Gooding is always worthwhile.” I agree. Go and check out tenofthose’s Gooding selection. Highly useful and high quality content. I would classify these as pastor level rather than, say, Bible study leader level. But that caveat aside, I’m with Vaughan on this. Some very under-rated resources that are worth searching out.
** Update: there is nothing like holding a physical book in your hands, but there is also nothing like getting something for free. So check out these free resources from David Gooding and John Lennox here.
Where do you get your news from?
If a preacher is to have some grasp of the world (and he must, mustn’t he, to be effective) there is an interesting question: where do you get your news from? This was a question that was asked of David Robertson from St Peter’s Dundee at our recent Senior Ministers Conference. His reply was illuminating: he said that newspapers report less news and more comment so he doesn’t go there. News feeds on the web, even news sites like BBC use complex algorithms to show you the stories they think you want to read (or like similar stories based on previous history). So, you don’t get a balanced view there. Therefore, says David, he reads The Economist for news. Interesting thought.
I personally think David is a bit too bleak about print news, but I take the point – there is a lot less news than there used to be and a lot more comment and styling tips (which some preachers do need to read!). But I don’t think the broadsheets have quite sunk to the depths he thinks. Nevertheless, the warning about the internet algorithms is very timely. Increasingly we will find tailored content (and some sites do this a lot – Facebook, Amazon and so on). Best, therefore, to think about the internet as a useful repository rather than an objective source. I’m sure you do this already, but it’s good to be thinking straight because the convenience of the internet can often make us blind to its limitations.
Cornhill fest, kind of
I looked around on Sunday morning at church and was encouraged to see the influence of the Cornhill training course here in our medium size part of non-conformity. There’s me, of course. But a few others. Our Youth and Community Pastor is also an alumnus. Then our Assistant Pastor is just finishing up Cornhill, plus we’ve another young man who has just applied. Then we have a teacher who helps out with one of youth groups, also ex-Cornhill. Our guest preacher was not a Cornhiller, but his co-pastor (whom he left behind preaching) is. Two other visitors completed the job lot: one whose father is an overseas pastor trained through a Cornhill bursary and another ex-Cornhiller who is a inner city pastor in Speke. Quite a crowd.
And none of them in chinos. That’s the thing about Cornhill. Sure, there’s a caricature which sees everyone who trains with us as churning out sermons that are all the same, but actually we work very hard to teach principles and apply them to people’s preaching rather than turning out clones. In fact, if you’d heard the preaching at our gaff on Sunday you would know that it is the case.
And it’s why I still believe that the Cornhill training course is an excellent preparation for ministry, whatever your background. We won’t squeeze your personality out. That goes right against our theology of preaching. But we will help you try to preach the Bible faithfully, engagingly, appropriately, in an applied, relevant way whilst still keeping you, you.
It’s just around now that people start seriously thinking about September and it’s not too late to apply. Nor is it too late for your church to think about whom to send. We’ll maybe see you this autumn….?