The First Question:
In a response to yesterday’s post someone asked me, “If human beings are flawed, full of sin, then how do Christians grapple with the fact that prophets were also human, and therefore subject to the same flaws? What if the interpretation of divine inspiration was inherently flawed from the beginning?”
In short, the person was asking how we can trust the Bible and Bible translations.
I hope to speak to those questions in this post.
First, the Bible was written over the course of 1500 years. There were multiple authors with varying skill in writing, and the text was written in 2 languages: Ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek.
The prophets and apostles who penned the text were in fact flawed, so how do we know they accurately wrote down the words God wanted them to write? This question gets into our understanding of inspiration. We believe that the Words of the Bible are the very words God convicted the authors to write, but we believe that God allowed them to write in their own style and on their own writing level. We do not believe that God dictated the words to the authors. If he had, the Bible would read more like a book with a single author than one with numerous authors. So while we believe that God is the divine author we do not think that the prophets and apostles were just being told exactly what words to write.
Secondly, the Gospels and other parts of Scripture paint a picture of what God has revealed to humanity about himself, about our world, about truth, and so on, but they do not include everything there is to know about these issues.
Anytime someone reads a text, he or she is bound by his presuppositions. While it is easy to say that we trust that the flawed authors of the text wrote without error because God was convicting their hearts about what to write, we can agree that they may not have accurately understood everything they wrote down.
Today we have translations of the Bible in English. While we do our best to translate passages accurately (and to reflect the authors original intent) we sometimes find passages that can be understood in more than one manner. When this happens, the translator must make a choice. Like readers of the text, the translator is also bound by his or her presuppositions.
Presuppositions are any ideas or baggage we carry with us when looking at the text. For example, I am a white American male, who is among the middle class of society, and who lives in the South. No matter how much I would like to read the text from the perspective of an African American female from Boston, who lives in the lower class, I just cannot do it.
Does this make our interpretations flawed?
I do not believe that all of our interpretations are flawed because there are things that virtually everyone sees the same when we read Scripture. However, there is room for gray. As a theologian I regularly read books from other authors about how to understand parts of Scripture. Sometimes I find that I have been thinking incorrectly about a specific passage and that I need to correct my interpretation. The closest I can come to reading Scripture from another perspective is to simply read someone else’s perspective on the text.
We now have 2,000 years of church history to look at how others saw and understood the text. We also have more scholars from more perspective than ever before writing about the text.
While Scripture itself is trustworthy, we must remember that we are always in need of bringing our beliefs into better alignment with Scripture. We must also leave room for gray areas where different conclusions about how to interpret certain passages are inevitable.
The Second Question:
“How does the translation of the Bible affect contemporary understanding?”
Contemporary translations do affect contemporary understanding, but translators today are familiar with past translations. They are also familiar with how words used in the Bible in their original language are also used outside of Scripture. We believe that context is one of the most important factors for choosing how to interpret and translate the Bible into our modern languages.
Looking at how others have understood and interpreted the Scriptures throughout church history, we are better able to ensure that we are being faithful to the original meaning of the text when we write modern translations today.
As a side note, different translations are intended for different audiences. The NASB is closest to the original language. The ESV is second closest, but it uses English grammar rules while the NASB uses Greek and Hebrew Grammar rules for sentence structure. The NIV is written on a lower reading level for younger readers.
The Third Question:
“I’m curious about one of the rhetorical moves you make in the post. At one point, you mention that Christians should not judge, that they should spread the Word of God to nonbelievers in order to save their souls. Some have taken that same rhetorical stance to advocate their treatment of homosexuals. That is, they use the same rhetoric to justify truly horrible actions, all in the name of saving the soul of the homosexual, for their own good.
How effective is it to simultaneously state “Don’t judge” and then say “Save souls by introducing nonbelievers/non-Christians to Jesus”? There seems to be an element of judgment in such a stance. I only bring this up because the conflict between Christians and non-Christians hinges on this very point. There’s frequently a hint of “I know better than you” within Christian rhetoric, which undercuts the stance of “Don’t judge.” And so, to finally reach the question I want to ask, do you think it’s possible to employ Christian rhetoric that avoids a judgmental stance when engaging with nonbelievers/non-Christians?”
First, let me just apologize for the way that many homosexuals have been treated by Christians who believe that condemnation is the way to save souls. That has been a problem with numerous cultural and religious issues throughout the history of the church.
When I state not to judge what I mean is that only God is the judge. We can hold Christians to a specific standard because the Bible tells us how we are supposed to act. We cannot force our standard on non-Christians. Jesus modeled how we are to act towards non-Christians. He ate with them, he talked to them, he was kind to them, and he offered salvation to them. He did not lower his standards for anyone, but he realized that we are all sinners and that what we need only he could give. He knocks, but he never forces entry into the lives of people.
When I state that we should be about saving souls, I am interested in introducing people to Christ. I believe that we share Christ with others because he loves us and wants the best for us and desires to have a relationship with us. I think we should be about helping people develop their relationship with God, not just get fire insurance.
I hope that when I write these entries people will not view me as saying “I know better than you…” I know that the issue of homosexuality is incredibly complex. I know that with abortion the issue is incredibly complex. With most any significant issue, there are no easy answers. We cannot just say, this is how it is and everyone should agree with me and do what I say. Life is too messy for that to be the case.
It is not my place to judge the way that non-Christians live. I can tell Christians how they are supposed to act, because they claim to follow the same book I do. But I cannot tell non-Christians that they must adhere to Christian standards. In the same way, a Muslim cannot require me to uphold Islamic standards. Though there are many ethical issues where Christians and Muslims are in agreement.
The church has clearly handled many situations in the past very poorly. Part of the reason I write this Blog is to help Christians do a better job of living out their faith as we move forward.
The reasons Christians have a reputation for being legalistic hypocrites who are judgmental and mean spirited is because that is how many of them have acted in the past. But the actions of those people are diametrically opposed to the way that Christ wants us to live. He threw the money changers out of the temple, but he did not throw the prostitutes out of the bar. Christians need to focus on how we live…meaning those of us who practice Christianity, not how others live.
The Final Question:
“1 Corinthians, in addition, also seems to focus on uncontrolled urges and desires, instructing Christians to find balance in their lives. While this seems to suggest that same-sex relationships are to be avoided, it’s important, I think, to note that uncontrolled fornication is seen as a negative, not necessarily stable relationships built upon the foundation of balance and controlled desire. Fornication is the sin, not necessarily relationships.”
With this analysis I am somewhat in agreement. Paul is speaking about uncontrolled urges and desires and he notes in vs. 1-13 that those in the Corinthian church lived that way before they were saved but that they were no longer to live that way. One can make a case that the passage has moderation in mind. However, in the exact verses I quoted he mentions adultery and stealing and idolatry and no one would argue that those are only to be practiced in moderation. I believe he is saying that everything he mentions in vs. 9-10 is to be avoided in total. However, Paul also mentions greed in those verses. While we should avoid greed in total, many Christians struggle with being greedy. So while we are to avoid these things, many of them remain struggles for Christians throughout their lives. Christians must constantly make sure they are not making idols in their hearts and putting those idles in the place where God should be.
I want to thank you for writing me and asking such good and thought provoking questions. You may not agree with all of my answers, but I hope that you have a better understanding of where I am coming from. I believe that these kinds of discussions are healthy and necessary in our culture today. I value you as a person and know that you are a good thinker. I would go so far as to say that you make a good philosopher (a lover of wisdom). I wish that everyone could converse about such topics without resorting to personal attacks and name calling. There is really no place for that kind of behavior among Christians or anyone with cognitive faculties.
Here is a great resource on different views related to homosexuality and Christianity: https://www.gaychristian.net/
This site has really opened my eyes to some of the vast issues with regard to homosexuality and the Christian faith. It also deals very specifically with your questions about Bible interpretation.
If anyone else has questions or comments with regard to this topic, I would love to converse further.