Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Easter Test

How can you recognise a true King James Onlyist? There are a number of ways, but one of the best is the Easter test. In Acts 12:4 the New King James reads, "So when he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to keep him, intending to bring him before the people after Passover." The King James says, "And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people." Aside from the King James Bible's use of the technical term 'quarternion', the thing that stands out is that in the KJV we have the word 'Easter', while the NKJV has 'Passover'. Now, the two translations come from the same Greek text, and besides, there is no manuscript variant here; the Greek is the same in every manuscript of Acts 12:4.

that is why this is a test of King James Onlyism; the variation is in the English, not the Greek. A person who makes this a litmus test of orthodoxy has made the English text the test, and is claiming, at least by implication, that the KJV is actually superior to the Greek.

The Greek word here is 'Pascha', the same word that is translated 'Passover' everywhere else in the New Testament. However, the word 'Passover' was not coined in English until William Tyndale translated the book of Exodus, some years after he made his English translation of the book of Acts. While the Wyclifite translation followed the Latin in transliterating the Greek as 'Pasch', Tyndale decided to use the word 'Easter', referring of course to the Christian festival of the resurrection of Christ, and does so throughout his New Testament. In Tyndale's New Testament Acts 12:4 reads, "And when he had caught him he put him in preson and delyvered him to .iiii. quaternios of soudiers to be kepte entendynge after ester to brynge him forth to the people." However, when he turned to the Old Testament he realised that it would be a massive anachronism to use 'Easter' before the birth of Christ, and so he coined, probably following the German, the word 'Passover'. He was martyred before he could revise the New Testament. Thus Coverdale's 1535 Bible reads, "Now whan he had taken him, he put him in preson, and delyuered him vnto foure quaternions of soudyers, to kepe him: and thought after Easter to bringe him forth to the people." The Bishops' Bible is practically identical, "And when he had caught hym, he put hym in pryson also, and delyuered hym to foure quaternions of souldiers to be kept, intendyng after Easter to bryng hym foorth to the people." Spelling varies because English spelling was still largely phonetic and not for any other reason.

The Geneva Bible, in 1587, was the first English Bible to change 'Easter' to 'Passover' in the New Testament, and did so consistently, so that in the Geneva Acts 12:4 reads, "And when he had caught him, he put him in prison, and deliuered him to foure quaternions of souldiers to be kept, intending after the Passeouer to bring him foorth to the people."

It must be remembered that the King James Bible was intended by the King himself to be a revision of the Bishops' Bible rather than an entirely new translation, so that it is most correct to say that 'Easter' in Acts 12:4 was retained, not introduced into the text. Why we do not know; it might even have been just an oversight on the part of the translators and not deliberate at all. The point is that until 1587 every English Bible translated from the Greek used 'Easter' to translate Pasch.

There are very few King James Onlyists who will explicitly say that they think that the English of the KJV is the standard and trumps the Greek; this verse, because it is not a textual variant but a translational oddity, exposes the truth. And the KJV-Onlyists can camp out here, denouncing anyone who thinks that the word should be rendered the way it is everywhere else in the KJV. There are various crank theories that will be trotted out, but the answer to them all is that there is nothing in the text that suggests an alternative translation. To insist that Acts 12:4 should say 'Easter' is to set the KJV above the Textus Receptus, and indeed every Greek text.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sheer Insanity

The brutal murder of three US diplomats in Libya has frankly left me shocked more than I could have thought. The facts seem to be that this, like the attack on the US embassy in Cairo, was a response to a nasty little low-budget film released on the internet that is said to make fun of Mohammed in a rather obscene way.

This should leave every decent and sensible individual gasping in horror. The US government was almost certainly not even aware that the film was being made; the dead were utterly ignorant of why they were murdered. And the justification offered by a man on the ground, which was along the lines of "if you insult our prophet, our people will get angry, and they will kill." That is surely utter insanity; killing to relieve tension, not because of any understanding of justice.

As for Pastor Terry Jones of Florida, who is reported to have some link with this film, the man is frankly repellent. He is not trying to reach Muslims with the Gospel, and has no business doing anything else. The media are reporting that this film includes scenes of simulated sexual intercourse, which would count as immoral and quite inappropriate for Christians to support. But the makers of the film are not to be blamed for the violence and the murders; the killers and the perpetrators of the violence are to blame, and they should be blamed.

Contrast this with the reaction of Christians to films and TV shows mocking the Lord Jesus Christ. I think we learn something when we do that.

The bottom line; this is sheer insanity. It is also evil, and those who will not condemn it as such are themselves to be condemned.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"Power Tends to Corrupt" - Why we Should Beware the Monarchical Episopate

When I was being interviewed by the leadership at Bethel with a view to my taking up the pastorate, someone asked me my views on Church leadership. I replied, a little facetiously, "I am not in favour of the monarchical episcopate." The immediate response from a group of ordinary men was, "What?" I then explained that the Monarchical Episcopate is the reign of one Bishop, one-man Church leadership, where the authority finally rests in one person at the top.

The historic episcopal denominations, such as the various national Episcopal churches, many Lutheran national churches and the United Methodist Church of the USA with the various Methodist Episcopal Churches planted by them have evolved a series of checks and balances; that and the fact that many local clergy just tell the Bishops where to go if they do not agree with them, a definition of "canonical obedience" which may be defined as, "I obey the Bishop when I think he is acting canonically". Behind and above the bishops lies the Canon law. Of late even the Roman Catholic Church has had priests who have done this.

But we have seen the rise within evangelicalism of what can only be described as one-man megachurches. Now, there have always been individuals possessing great charisma who have gathered Churches, or regenerated decayed churches and who have as a result had a great following. In these cases it has been hard to deal with such people when they go off the rails. But this is a new phenomenon, dating back to the decline of the old denominations after World War 1.

The old denominations had just that in their favour - they were old. They had a past, a heritage and a tradition. The Methodists had their Conference (British Methodism is not Episcopal), the Presbyterian system was well defined, Congregational Churches had the power to depose their pastor by a majority vote. What was more, they looked back on their heritage, and the Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians could all say "our forefathers tore down episcopacy, we will not build it again." But the new Churches, the Pentecostals in particular, had initially very unclear ideas on the government of the Church. Where one man planted a Church, he could very easily become a monarch.

The modern megachurch does exactly that; the minister is a monarch, accountable to no-one but God. That Divine Right of Kings, so forcefully rejected by our Puritan forefathers, has been brought into the Church as the divine right of pastors. Brethren, this ought not to be so. It tramples on the rights of the Christian people, and it exalts a man to a very dangerous place.

Lord Acton famously wrote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." It should be no surprise that churches where the power is concentrated in one man have so often ended up in spiritual abuse, as even elders cannot stop the 'Man of God' in his rampage, however delusional he may have become. The end result in far too many cases is a man who is a little local pope, whom none may question without facing his wrath and ultimately anathema if they persevere in criticism.

This is, I would contend, the necessary result of such a form of monarchical Church government. Make a man a king, and such is the nature of sinful humanity that he will be tempted to act like the worst sort of absolute monarch. Add to that the idea that he has a special personal revelation from God, and you have the sort of mentality that drives the cults. Is it any wonder that a refugee from one of these churches said to a friend of mine, "the Church has become a cult centered on the Pastor"?

I am one of four elders in a Church governed on Congregational lines. For all the criticism that has been made of that system, it has one great advantage; it does not concentrate power in one person, but shares it among the people, it recognises that God's temple is the people of God, and the Holy Spirit dwells in us all. And best of all, it recognises that as councils and synods may err, so too pastors and elders may err.

Friday, June 22, 2012

I See Adulterous People: Mark Driscoll and the Dangers of Supposed Revelations

Mark Driscoll, senior pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington State, is an odd figure. Originally identified with the Emergent Church movement, he distanced himself from that group a few years ago when it became clear that Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and others were leading the way into a new phase of Protestant liberalism and away from historic Evangelicalism. At the same time Driscoll began to identify himself as a Calvinist, one of the so-called "New Calvinists". Many saw this as a promising sign; while we found Driscoll's use of profanity in the pulpit offputting (and let's be honest, what is the point of that? It's to shock, it's to provoke a reaction), we recognised, and still recognise, that people mature and change. His affirmation of Calvinism was a step in the right direction.

Recently, however, a number of things have happened to cause deep concern for Driscoll. First of all, Mars Hill has become a multi-site megachurch. The idea of the Multisite is that in addition to the main location, you have a number of satellite campuses where the sermon from the main location is beamed in on big screens. This amazes me, because the Emergent Church began as a protest against the inauthenticity of the big-box megachurches, and an affirmation of community. Now, I can imagine few things as inauthentic as a church meeting where the sermon is beamed in rather than being live. Ironically, the musical portion of the service is live at these locations, perhaps a telling point. We put this down to an inadequate doctrine of the Church, recommend that Driscoll read P.T. Forsyth's The Church and the Sacraments and move on.

More worrying was Driscoll's participation in the mainstreaming of Word-of-Faith teacher T.D. Jakes at the Elephant Room 2 conference earlier this year. Despite having the doctrinal knowledge to pin Jakes down, Driscoll refused to do so. Many of us were left with the impression that Jakes was affirmed because he has a huge congregation, and so his false teaching on the Trinity, the nature of faith and the whole Prosperity issue was roughly papered over and another person was allowed to insinuate that opposition to Jakes was racist, a low blow if I ever heard one. And not a whisper of criticism from Driscoll. It seemed that he had been pulled off course. It happens sometimes, a man passes through orthodoxy on his journey from one form of heterodoxy to another. I pray that is not what has happened to Mark Driscoll.

And then there was Driscoll's very public claim that God gives him what can only be described as "pornographic visions". Well, this is the result. You may ask why I tend to believe the woman over Driscoll? Very simply puit, because I have come across such things before. I have counselled a woman whose pastor falsely accused of having an affair, and asked to leave the Church and go elsewhere. Thankfully in this case it was the pastor who left, though leaving the Church in a terrible state. But this man I refer to was not Driscoll, he did not think he was having direct revelations from God; he was just suffering from a mental complaint.

Leaving aside the question of Driscoll's sanity (though the parallel worries me), here is the problem: when a minister says, "I suspect that Mrs. Smith is having an affair", then his fellow-elders can ask, "Really, John, are you sure? What makes you think that?" (Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the recovered). But what if Pastor John says, "God has shown me that Mrs. Smith is having an affair"? What if he shares salacious details? Well, then to question Pastor John is to question God. This is the Achilles' heel of the Charismatic; when a popular and influential pastor claims visions about private lives, how can he be stopped? Well, you may say, what about Pastor Driscoll's story? Wasn't it accurate? We do not know. If a man is actually delusional, he may see things that are not there and reconstruct events in his memory. So the claim is unproven.

And it gets worse: Driscoll believes that he has a vision from God as to how Mars Hill ought to develop, and anyone who disagrees with that should be "thrown under the bus". Well, it happens to those who were in leadership roles at Mars Hill, as we see here. Now, call me an old-fashioned Congregationalist, and I will take it as a compliment, I am an old-fashioned Congregationalist. I am also a firm believer in a collective leadership and plurality of elders - in fact I am one of four elders at Bethel Evangelical Free Church, and we each have equal authority, but different roles. Mark Driscoll is over the elders at Mars Hill. That means that anyone who does not sign up and follow him 100% gets thrown under the bus, because Mark is certain that he has a special message from God.

Now, he is by no means alone in this: whenever a person or a group think that they have a special revelation of God's will, this tends to happen. It happened in the Ecumenical Movement in the 1960s and 70s, when the advocates of church union schemes so identified their schemes with the will of God that they were willing to ignore the proper procedures in their denominations in order to reach that union (see Ian Henderson, Power Without Glory [London, Hutchinson, 1967] for Scotland, and R.W. Cleaves, Congregationalism 1960-1976 [Swansea, John Penry Press, 1977] for the URC in the UK). The man or organization that believes it has a private revelation from God is liable to become a despotism. Worse, this supposed private Word will tend to overshadow the revealed Word. In a culture obsessed with modernity and the now, a word given yesterday is far more exciting than a ward given almost two millennia ago, or before. And so they will follow that word, even though it is, to quote the very worst of the Star Trek films, "A vision you created."

My plea to all who think so is that of Cromwell to the Scots Presbyterians: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Paranoid Eisegesis: Or, Antichrist Spotting for Dummies

Today on Facebook, a friend whose political views are well known shared a link to a certain video, which claims that in Luke 10:18, Jesus may be giving the name of the Antichrist. The video caption claims that "This video simply reveals what is written in the Bible's original language without the translations." To which I have to reply, having watched the video, "Rot."

Yes, Rot. For, rather than dealing with the text in Greek, the original language of Luke's Gospel, the video goes on at once to say "Jesus spoke Aramaic." You can see at once where this is going; appeal to a supposed original version, to "what Jesus really said." This is a common ploy by those who are trying to insert their own ideas into the Bible; rather than dealing with the actual text, they posit a lost Aramaic original, or just back-translate the words into Aramaic (most amusingly if they go from English into Aramaic, which is not unknown). Actually what this video does is considerably more daft - it announces that "Aramaic is the oldest form of Hebrew", which it is not (it is a different, though related language), and then renders the text into Hebrew, despite having just said that Jesus spoke Aramaic and would have spoken the text in that language, not Hebrew. Actually it does not even do that, because the person behind the video does not actually know Hebrew; but just looks in Strong's Concordance for the translation of two key words, 'Lightning' and 'Heaven'. And he doesn't really do that either, because rather than the familiar Hebrew word Shammayim, which means 'heavens', he goes with Bamah, which means 'Height' or 'High Place'. This is of course because Bamah fits what he wants the text to say, rather than the other way around.

What makes this all the more ridiculous is that the name Barak is of course Arabic, which is also related to Hebrew. It means 'Blessed', and while it sounds like Baraq, it is a completely different and unrelated word. The name Barak is also found in the Bible - in Judges 4 and 5 as the name of a hero of Israel.

We are then treated to a discussion of Isaiah 14, at which point my own particular views come into play, as I would argue that the text is not referring to Satan under the figure of the King of Tyre, but to the King of Tyre. One could argue that until the cows come home, so I will not do so; I will merely point out that the appeal to Isaiah 14 as the context explaining Luke 10:18 is a stretch to put it mildly. To put it less mildly, it's the tactic the cults use when they want you to accept their false interpretation of the Bible.

The end result of all of this solemn mockery is that we are gravely informed that if a modern Jewish Rabbi wanted to say "I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven", he would say , "I saw Satan as Barak Obama." This is of course complete nonsense, and I am certainly not going to accept it on the say so of a person who has given abundant evidence that they know even less Hebrew than I do (although I have studied the language, I do not claim to be very good at it).

Why does this matter? Because it is a supreme example of the abuse of the Bible. Rather than the Word being treated with respect and investigated in an effort to bring out its true meaning, it it being pressed into the service of an agenda. Antichrist spotting is a long-lived hobby, but historically it has always taken its cues from actual prophetic texts. In this case we have someone who is so intent on claiming the current President of the United States as Antichrist that they are willing to treat the Word of God with the utmost contempt. Any Christian who approves of this video cannot consistently disapprove of any of the Bible twisting of the cults, it is really that bad.

Do we care enough about the Bible? The person who produced this video cares deeply about politics - and as a result is willing to treat the Bible as a wax nose. Jesus was not talking about the identity of the Antichrist in Luke 10:18, and it is dishonest to claim that he was. Saying that to get the true meaning of the text we have to translate two key words into Hebrew - one of them poorly - is a reversal of the Reformation principles of exegesis. Instead of the perspicuity of Scripture, we have the Bible treated as a code (rather ineptly as well). Everyone should care that such a video exists, and that conservative Evangelicals are circulating it.

God has given us his Word; if the Bible matters at all, it matters because of that. If the Bible has any relevance today, it is because it is the Word of God. So, as far as this video is concerned, every Christian who really respects and values the Bible should denounce it. It is merely trifling with holy things. To say "Oh, I don't believe it, but isn't it interesting, makes you think" is equivocal nonsense. That is not an option for us!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Teh LOL Cat Bibl: Reflections Called Forth by a Spoof

It appeared on Facebook, where all manner of stuff does, in a discussion about a particularly inane edition of the NIV featuring pictures of puppies, apparently because the Bible is not that exciting without images of cute juvenile dogs. Then someone posted a link to it on its own. It was This.

“How terrible” the poster said. “Is this for real or a joke?” a comment asked. But really, that does not represent the issue here. Yes, it is “for real” in the sense that (unlike the 'Gay Bible' article from 'Dead Serious News'), this is a real thing, it can be purchased (always a sign that a product exists). But no, it is not 'for real' in the sense that anyone actually believes that it represents the actual meaning or text of the original Biblical manuscripts. Yes, it is a joke; it is not meant to be taken seriously. But it actually exists, having been created in a Wikipedia-style manner, meaning that no one person had to do very much work.

So what are we to make of Teh LOL Cat Bible? First of all, with the greatest possible respect, it is not a “legitimate translation” by any means, quite simply because it is not a translation at all, unless you hold the 'LOL speak' that it is in to be a language, in which case it would be a secondary translation (there being no evidence at all that the original languages were used). No, it is a paraphrase that renders the English Bible (probably from a variety of translations) into a humorous idiomatic English. In that respect it would be no different from 'TheWord on the Street' except that unlike that book it does not actually take itself seriously. Cockney Rhyming Slang Bible? We have one of them. Good as New was a project that sank without trace, but actually produced books (I have seen and handled one, so I know it was not just a joke) in which 'Peter' became 'Rocky'.

Which raises the question (this is the proper idiom); how far is it proper to 'contextualize' the Bible text? Teh (I have just tried to type that three times, each time my brain auto-correcting to 'The', isn't the human brain amazing) LOL Cat Bible is just a bit of fun; it is certainly trivializing the Bible, but it is not meant to be taken seriously. Good as New was meant to be taken seriously. That worries me far more than a silly joke; by throwing the canon open again (Good As New did just this), the Bible is far more trivialized than by any LOL Cat fanatics, or Spike Milligan (The Bible According to Spike Milligan) being silly.

More seriously, translations are not paraphrases; they do not involve anachronisms. The Welsh New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd said that in his opinion Romans 12:2 could be rendered “Don't try to be with it”, but he would never dare render the text that way. Now, I disagree completely with Dodd on his refusal to use the word 'Propitiation' in the Bible, but that is a theological matter. Until very recently we were all agreed that the phrase “with it” had no place in the Bible, and not just because ministers by virtue of their office can never be “with it”, nor should they try to be (You may watch 'Iron Man', but do not try to talk to the Kid's club about the movie). No, it is because the Bible was not written yesterday, and to put it into modern slang is just wrong on a number of levels.

Teh LOL Cat Bible is, when all is said and done, a little piece of humour. But it raises questions that it never meant to raise. We live in an age when there are far too many books in the English language claiming to be, either implicitly or explicitly, versions of the Bible. They range from the Revised English Bible, a wonderful British effort that because it does not belong to any American Evangelical publishing house is doomed to obscurity (I received my copy from the hands of Hugo, Bishop of Thetford, and so I have an affection for it that it really does not warrant), to the New NIV, owned by the mighty Zondervan (subsidiary of the Murdoch Empire), to the Holman Christian Standard Bible, owned by the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention who have no business producing Bible Versions at all, however good the end product may be.

What Teh LOL Cat Bible does is point out the inherent ridiculousness of the project to produce a niche Bible translation for every group. The people behind it no doubt did not intend it, but Teh LOL Cat Bible is a perfect satire of our over-saturated Bible market. In a world where professing Christians of all stripes are modifying the Bible the way some people modify their cars, Teh LOL Cat Bible challenges us to think about what we are doing.

It's a funny world, and sometimes it takes the court Jester to tell the king that he is behaving like a fool himself. The Evangelical World needs Teh LOL Cat Bible to get it to wake up and see what it has been doing to the Word of God that it so professes to value. The inerrancy controversy gave us the NIV; will the final legacy of the NIV be a veritable Babel of Bibles, in which the voice of God is drowned out by the conflicting voices of those claiming to be its interpreters?

Monday, May 21, 2012

'Singing the Faith', a Review of the New Methodist Hymnal

Singing the Faith, the new authorised hymnal of the Methodist Church in Britain, was issued last year. Methodism, more than any other denomination, is defined by its hymnal; while Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Anglicans have produced hymnals, it is the Methodist denominations that have produced hymnals that defined the denominations.

John Wesley's A Collection of Hymns for The Use of the People Called Methodists, issued in 1780, set the standard for Methodist hymnals. In the preface he described it as "a little body of experimental and practical divinity", that is to say a little systematic theology. The hymn-book defined what it meant to be a Methodist in terms of both theology and piety.

Wesley's book held the field, though with a supplement added in 1831 and revised in 1875, until the issue of The Methodist Hymn-Book in 1904, which was a completely new book. While Wesley's book had a structure pattered after Christian experience, beginning with the call to return to God, passing through the difference between formal and inward religion, and finally ending with hymns for believers, the 1904 book had a structure that began with the glory of God before moving on to the Gospel call, the Christian life, the Church, and time, death and eternity. Yet the 1904 book and its revision in 1933 retained a systematic form.

In 1983 a new hymnal was issued by the Methodist Church in Britain. Called Hymns and Psalms, it was intended to be an ecumenical book, with not only Methodists but representatives of the Baptist Union, the Churches of Christ, the Church of England, the Congregational Federation and the United Reformed Church involved in the project. Its ecumenism was not just a matter of the denominations involved in its preparation; no longer did the Methodist hymnal express a single, coherent theology, but rather differing theologies were present in its pages. Its divisions were different again, the three principal divisions being God, the People of God, and God's world.

Which brings us to Singing the Faith. The title is perhaps rather unfortunately close to that of the Unitarian book, Sing Your Faith, but the book looks quite different. Rather than the solid blue respectability of Hymns and Psalms we have a rather jolly red cover with exuberant gold lettering on it, so we must give the book full marks for appearance. In fact the presentation is excellent; rather than the double columns of Hymns and Psalms we have a single column in clear, readable font even in the small pew edition. In fact it reminds me of nothing more or less than the original Christian Hymns from the Evangelical Movement of Wales.

While Singing The Faith does not have the ecumenical input of its immediate predecessor, it is if anything far more diverse in its contents, and there is the main problem with this book; unlike older denominational hymnals, it does not present a coherent theology at all, it is perfectly postmodern in that, containing differing views on many theological matters, not least the atonement. Singing The Faith illustrates the difficulty of the task facing the older mixed denominations today, that of producing a hymnal that will cater to a wide variety of theological perspectives. As such there are many good hymns in the book, but also many that are anything but good. Attempting to serve everyone, the book will not be seen as satisfactory by any one congregation. It is very, very revealing of the state of Methodism today

[Image credit: The Methodist Church in Britain]

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reading 'The Message' in Church

The Message is a very popular paraphrase of the Bible, especially in some quarters. What is more interesting is that it is often read in Church services, and used in sermons as if it were a Bible translation. The cover, shown here, proclaims it to be "The Bible in contemporary language", but anyone familiar with the Bible in a good translation such as the English Standard Version will soon find that The Message is not that at all; it is Eugene Peterson's interpretation, not a translation.

Why the fuss? One may ask, Why write this; if Peterson is getting people to read the Bible, is that not a good thing? My concern is that what the reader of The Message is getting is the false impression that he or she is actually reading the Bible, rather than Peterson. Hence this piece.

This is basically a potted version of British Methodist scholar Neil Richardson's article "Should Eugene Peterson's 'The Message' be Read in Church?" from the November 2009 issue of the Epworth Review. Richardson concentrates on Peterson's rendering of Paul's Epistles. I have made some alterations, giving some passages in full rather than merely giving a reference. I must confess that Richardson's article has woken me up to the real danger posed by churches and Christians treating The Message as a Bible.

The great question we must ask about any rendering of the Bible is; is it accurate? Hearing The Message, a congregation, "Will hear something comprehensible, but unless they compare it with a translation which is closer to the original Greek or Hebrew, they can't assess whether it is an accurate interpretation or not." It is not an accurate interpretation.

Richardson identifies nine classes of problems in The Message. They overlap, but can be described separately.

1. Inaccuracies of translation. There are many places where, though a direct equivalent of a word should be used (lists in particular), Peterson gives a less-than-equivalent rendering. So in Galatians 5:19-21, Peterson renders Paul's description of 'The Works of the Flesh' as: "It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on." It would be difficult to find the equivalents for some of these in the original text or indeed in a decent English translation. In Romans 1:18 Peterson writes that, "But God's angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate". The original word here is apokaluptetai, which means "is being revealed", and is significantly the same word used in the preceding verse of God's righteousness. For the sake of a striking metaphor, Peterson has actually abandoned what Paul wrote. Romans 8:35 is another example of a list where Peterson has significantly amended what Paul wrote, "Bullying threats" is not a satisfactory equivalent to the more accurate 'danger' in the ESV. In Romans 8:38, rather than the accurate (and sublime) "neither life nor death", Peterson has "Nothing living or dead," which is flat and dull.

2. Misleading readings. These are paraphrases that misunderstand Paul. The first example Richardson gives is Romans 2:10, where The Message reads, "if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs". The context shows however that Paul's perspective is the future, the Second Advent, not the present. In Romans 8:26, we read, "If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter". The words "it doesn't matter" have no antecedent in the Greek at all. At times Peterson is trying to smooth out Paul's style, which is never a good idea. Romans 5:10 in The Message reads: "If, when we were at our worst, we were put on friendly terms with God by the sacrificial death of his Son, now that we're at our best, just think of how our lives will expand and deepen by means of his resurrection life!" Even if "While we were at our worst" is accepted as a half-way decent rendering of the Greek, "now that we're at our best" is by no means an acceptable rendering of what should be translated "now that we are reconciled." Paul is often uneven in his writing style, but that is Paul; one should not try to smooth Paul out, for then he ceases to be Paul.

3. References to Jews and Judaism. Peterson is not a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul. He is however far too ready to overplay the legalism of Pharisaism, so that in Romans 7:6, instead of 'Letter', we have, "oppressive regulations and fine print". The rendering of 2 Corinthians 3:15, "Whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds," as "Even today when the proclamations of that old, bankrupt government are read out, they can't see through it" is simply awful. Then there are such gratuitous additions to the original as "all their talk about the law is gas" in Galatians 6:13. There is simply no need to do this.

4. Colloquialisms and anachronisms.  In Romans 8:3 The Message reads, "God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son." Really? The image may be striking, but seems unwarranted by the original text. There are some places where a colloquialism obscures the meaning of the text, such as 2 Corinthians 7:13, "That's what happened—and we felt just great." Which is all very well, but the original literally reads, "Because of this, we have been comforted." The anachronisms include a reference to sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11:33. Anachronism is always a danger in a paraphrase of didactic material like the Pauline letters, but should be avoided as much as possible due to the danger of distorting the original and distracting the reader. Introducing sandwiches in 1 Corinthians 11 is a good example of unnecessary anachronism: "go home and eat" would have been just as understandable.

5. Additions. A paraphrase is bound to be longer than the original, but Peterson is guilty of addition for the sake of addition in many places, and many of these are misleading and distort rather than clarify Paul. For example in Galatians 6:14-15 we read, "I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate." Gone is Paul's striking image of the world crucified to him, and in its place is this long 'explanation' of the idea of Paul being crucified to the world that explains nothing. One gets the impression that there are places where Peterson is making Paul say what he thinks Paul ought to have said, rather than what Paul actually meant to say.

6. Disappearances. Paul's 'And the world is crucified to me' is certainly not the only omission. What is striking in fact is that the phrases that are missing are often ones that are somewhat difficult; one cannot avoid the impression that where Peterson did not understand what Paul was saying and knew that he did not, he just left that bit out. The phrase "God will destroy him" is lacking in 1 Corinthians 3:17. In Romans 12:20-21 Paul's striking metaphor of heaping coals on an enemy's head by kindness is excised. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 the phrase "These things happened as examples for us" has been replaced with the rather bland, "the same thing could happen to us." The troubling thing is that phrases and passages are being omitted despite the fact that they appear in every Greek manuscript; the omissions are not textual choices, they are entirely at Peterson's pleasure.

7. Blandness. Though in places Peterson has introduced striking metaphors, overall The Message tends in the opposite direction, replacing Paul's striking language with bland platitudes. So in Romans 5, where Paul wrote, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded far more", Peterson renders it, "When it's sin versus grace, grace wins hands down." "Abba! Father!" at Romans 8:15 becomes, "What's next, Papa?" At Romans 8:18, "The revelation of the children of God" becomes "what's coming next?" Roams 8:37, instead of "more than conquerors" we have, "None of this phazes us." The rendering of 1 Corinthians 4:8 completely eliminates Paul's biting sarcasm. In 1 Corinthians 7:29 an escatalogical reference becomes, "Time is of the essence", and worst of all, in Romans 2:4, "the riches of his kindness" becomes, "because he's such a nice God." One gets the impression that Peterson really is not competent to paraphrase Paul.

8. Unnecessary. There are places where some of the additional material is quite unnecessary; Peterson seems to have let himself go and often paraphrased for the sake of paraphrasing rather than just where it makes the text clearer. There is no need to paraphrase where the original is clear enough already. So why add "How can they render justice if they do not believe in the God of Justice?" to 1 Corinthians 6:6? That has nothing to do with Paul's point, and the text is clear enough without it. And of course "The Message" is not an adequate, or clearer, substitute for "The Gospel."

9. Reductionist renderings. Richardson explains, "By this I mean paraphrases which reduce or remove the extraordinary, eschatalogical, counter-cultural nature of Paul's writings." Peterson does not always do this, of course, but he does it a lot; "affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity" are just not adequate replacements for, "Love, joy, peace" in Galatians 5:22, and the list of the fruit of the spirit gets worse from there. "Be cheerful" is not the same as "be joyful" (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Again, Peterson's tendency is to reduce the Bible to his own level, rather than being lifted by it.

So what is to be done? The Message is obviously not a Bible translation, or even a terribly good paraphrase. Rather than allowing the Bible to expand his understanding, Peterson has often contracted the Bible to fit his own ideas, omitting those bits that he cannot fit, and adding his own material in far too many places. With the aim of making the Bible and the Gospel comprehensible, he has actually done something quite different; he has made them manageable, which is not to be done. While paraphrases can be useful, they must be faithful to the original material, and that is precisely where The Message falls down. To read The Message in Church as if it is a Bible translation is misleading and wrong. When The Message is read, the reader must be aware that he is reading what Eugene Peterson thinks God meant to say, not what God actually said. The charge may sound harsh, but it is quite accurate.

[Neil Richardson's original piece is found in The Epworth Review Vol. 36, No. 4, Pp. 71-77. And yes, I am aware of the irony of paraphrasing an article about a paraphrase. What follows is my own]

The Message should not be marketed as a Bible at all, and there the publisher is emphatically to blame. What ought to be marketed as a paraphrase (because it is) is being marketed as a Bible version (which it emphatically is not), and being read in churches. Preachers are making points based on The Message, points based on things that the original text does not say. It would be funny, if it wasn't so serious. The Message does not belong in the pulpit. No-one should use it as their primary Bible, because it is not a Bible. If you read only The Message, you are not getting all of God's message.

So why has it been marketed as a Bible version? The simple answer is because of the desire of all the major American Christian publishers to have an 'in-house' Bible version that they can use in their publications. Crossway has the ESV, Zondervan the NIV, Broadman and Holman the 'God's Word' Translation, and Thomas Nelson the NKJV. Navpress have The Message, and are determined to use it as if it were a Bible translation. So we have as their offering in the lucrative study Bible market, The Message Study Bible. So much for comments that "The Message is not meant to take the place of study Bibles" (introduction to the 2003 edition of The Message). 

Brethren, these things out not to be so. The Message is not a translation of the Bible, it is not a Bible at all, it is a paraphrase of the Bible. There it differs from every Bible version, in that it is one man's interpretation, and one that, if his mangling of Paul is anything to go by, is far from adequate.

There is another reason why The Message should not be treated as a Bible version; there is no lack of people who would like to re-imagine the Bible for their own purposes, creating a 'Bible' that left out or completely re-worked passages they find difficult or challenging. Treating The Message as though it were a Bible makes such projects seem that much more acceptable in our postmodern age. Peterson is relatively innocuous compared to those ideologues who would alter the Biblical text in a few key places to remove the condemnation of certain specific sins, and whom an acceptance of Peterson's work as a Bible would encourage to do just that.

In conclusion, then, The Message is not a Bible, and should not be treated as such.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Yes, but What Do You MEAN by That?

The Elephant Room controversy has claimed another victim, Brian Broderson of Calvary Chapel. In a blog post he has stated:

"According to the Oneness doctrine, there is no Trinity—one God in three persons; rather there is one God who expresses Himself in different modes, sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Spirit. Now this teaching is certainly contrary to the biblical doctrine of the triune nature of God and is therefore "heretical," but to say that those who hold this view are not Christians is in my opinion going too far. Granted, it is an incorrect view regarding the nature of God, but it is not like other anti-trinitarian views that deny the full deity of Christ. I personally do not think you can put those who hold the Oneness doctrine in the same category as a Jehovah's Witness or a Mormon. I might be wrong, but that's the way I see it at this point. Should we seek to correct the view of the Oneness Pentecostals? Yes we should, in the same way we would seek to correct any person or group that has fallen into theological error. What I don't think we should do is spurn them or cast a final eternal judgment on them."

Now this is, I am afraid, appallingly bad theology, and shows a huge doctrinal blind spot in Broderson's thinking; yet it is a blind spot that is increasingly common in Evangelicalism. Increasingly the tendency is to say "Well, so-and-so believes in Jesus" and leave it at that, as if that is enough. Broderson has taken this a little further and said, "Well, so-and-so believes Jesus is God, so he can't be that bad."

On the contrary, he can be; for the question is really more fundamental than "who is Jesus?" it is, "Who is God?" That brings us back to the question of the Mormons, for the Mormon says "Jesus is God." Now Mr. Broderson is still sharp enough to recognise that the Mormon god is not the same as the God of trinitarian Christianity, but seems to have compromised enough that he is willing to fudge the issue on the god of Oneness Pentecostalism.

A denial of the Trinity is fundamental, for it affects one's whole perception of God in a multitude of ways. If God is unipersonal, then what does it mean for God to be love? Love is defined in the Bible in terms of self-giving, but if God is unipersonal, to whom can that one person give himself? It means that either he is not essentially love, or that the universe is necessary to God; that God could not have done other than create beings whom he could love. It challenges the doctrine of the love of God and changes it, it also challenges the independence of God, giving us a picture of a god who needs something outside of himself and upon whom is therefore laid the necessity of creating.

And despite Mr. Broderson's naive remarks, Oneness does alter the conception of Christ. According to classical Oneness teaching Christ has two personalities, a human and a divine, and when he prayed it was the human personality praying to the divine. That creates at best a schizophrenic deity, and at worst an incarnation that is not truly an incarnation at all, where the human and divine are separated to such an extent that the divine merely indwells the human, in which case I fail to see how there is a difference of anything but degree between Jesus of Nazareth and a Christian who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It creates huge problems for our Theology and Christology.

Where does one draw the line? The moment you start to draw it anywhere other than where the Bible has drawn it, you are in trouble. Who is a Christian? Either we say "All those who claim the name are", which Broderson does not do, or we say "all those who believe in the Christ of the Bible." There is no middle ground.

So what is going on in Broderson's statement? What is going on all over the place; based on a personal and unwritten standard people are affirming modalists as, in some sense, brothers in Christ. Well, I am having none of it. If a fellow will not confess the Apostles' Creed I will not baptize him, and I cannot affirm as a brother in Christ a person whom I could not baptize. Nor can I share the Communion with him, and so again, he is not a brother in Christ.

That does not mean I could not call him a friend, or like him; I have never met a Unitarian I did not like, and I parted from the last Jehovah's Witness I had any interaction with on the best of terms, but we are quite clear; the Unitarians and I, the JW and I, may be friends, but we can never call one another brethren. We certainly cannot call one another Christians

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Note on Changed Lives

Doing some research into our Church's history, I came across this article in the magazine of the denomination we used to belong to in the 1930s. It is instructive, particularly given that the Bethel Society had Pentecostal roots.

A Note on “Changed Lives”
Can Satan Change Lives?

Practically every 'modern' movement seems able to produce 'changed lives', so that the true believer is apt to be considerable puzzled. Cults such as Christian Science and Spiritualism most certainly have men and women whose lives have been transformed into characters of beauty. Surely evil could not produce such fruits? Many think therefore that though such cults (and there are many others!) may contain plenty of error in doctrine etc., yet Christ must be dwelling in the lives of many of the adherents who are so clearly living the life of kindness, unselfishness and peace. Is it possible that Satan can change lives?

Some years ago the Sunday School Times published the testimony of a Christian woman who had been remarkably delivered in answer to prayer from the Satanic cult of Bahaism. When she first accepted the teachings of this cult, there came into her life a wonderful peace and quietness, and she had a remarkable control over her children that she had never had before. Please note that her life was 'changed' – but not by Christ. Finally she was delivered and entered into the 'fulness of the blessing of the Gospel of Christ' – and knew the meaning of the fruit of the Spirit, but not before.

So Satan can change lives and apparently for the better (but the word in italics is very important!), and the true Christian has to be very wary in judging a new movement by its 'changed lives'. There are counterfeits of the Christian spiritual life which are very subtle, very deceptive and highly dangerous, They imitate certain parts of the Fruit of the Spirit. Note, in passing, that there is only one Fruit of the Spirit, although it is in a cluster of nine parts (Read Gal. 5:22, 23). Then how may we tell the real from the false? By observing whether one special part of this fruit is present or absent. One part of the fruit of the Spirit is absent from all false religions, even though other parts are simulated, and that part is Faith. No false cult brings its adherents to faith in the shed blood of the Lamb of God as the only way of Salvation. If this one part of the fruit of the Spirit is missing, you may safely assume that that other eight are likewise absent no matter how plausible the counterfeits may seem.

Anon. The Bethel Messenger December 1937

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Communion of Old Books

This morning, as I was hard at work in my study, I had occasion to take down the stout and handsome volume of Christian Dogmatics by J.J. Van Oosterzee, second edition, 1878. For the first time I saw the signature on the title page, 'R.F. Horton, Sept 1881, Dunedin, Hampstead'.

The eyes rested on the words, and I thought 'have I read them correctly? Is this really a volume from the library of the famous preacher of the early 20th century, Robert Forman Horton (see cartoon)?' The answer, after a little research, was yes, it is. His signature in 1881 is a little different from that of 1910 that appears in his autobiography, but it is the same hand. 'Dunedin' was his address at the time. I had a book from a noted man's library, complete with his underlinings to highlight passages he liked!

And that set me thinking about books in general. We own books; we ministers have many books, they are our helps in study, and good books are like old friends. Some books we allow to pass through our hands pristine and untouched, others get used. The marks of a previous owner can be seen as annoying when it is a fellow-unknown, a man who lived in the same relative obscurity we do, but when it is a man like Horton, a known, then suddenly those markings are important! Double standard, I thought, why shouldn't the markings by William L. Holder in his copy of Westcott's The Gospel According to St. John be just as valued? Or the many and varied marginal notes made by Wesleyan theological students at Richmond in the margins of the College's copy of Calvin's Commentaries on Genesis? Sheer prejudice, surely!

This is part of the joy of second-hand books; we are not their first owners, we are their stewards who hand them on to the next generation. They had owners before us, and unless the Lord comes again, or they shall be consumed in a catastrophe, they shall have owners after us. They come to us from all directions, some from great public libraries like Liverpool and Norwich, others from the libraries of theological colleges in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, The United States and Canada, great and small college libraries give up their stock. Yet others come from Church libraries, as the old is removed to make way for the new. But the vast majority come from private libraries, great and small. Bought and sold, the books move around, making one combination, then another. Books that belonged to men poles apart theologically come together in the library of a third man; books from Monasteries are found side-by-side with volumes from Free Church ministers. Books sent to Canada return from there to the shores from which they departed a century and more before, while other books remain within the narrow geographical limits within which they were sold.

Some books have spent all their working lives (as it were) in large libraries, and seem somehow lost in the smaller compass of a minister's study. Others bear in their bindings the marks of their previous exalted position, and seem to have come down in the world in their transition to the study, while others are in bindings so humble they look embarrassed to be found in such exalted company as Mr. Horton's copy of Van Oosterzee, which has a binding to match its background.

And by those books we hold fellowship, not only with the men who wrote them, but also in some ways with the men who read them before us. Those signatures in the front, those underlinings in the text, they all say that others have been there before us, and those others may still, by their marks and annotations, be there still to guide us, to argue with us, to held us and to annoy us. And that is the Communion of Old Books.

Monday, January 16, 2012

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: The Methodist Book Centre

For a depressed industrial city in the Midlands, Stoke on Trent is well supplied with Christian bookshops. The largest is the Methodist Book Centre (established 1945). As the name suggests, this is not a specifically Evangelical bookshop, but an ecumenical Methodist shop. It has a huge selection of books from all sorts of perspectives, so discernment is needed in shopping, but hopefully anyone who actually reads this blog realises that. There is literally something for everyone here.

Located in a quiet side-street in Hanley, at the Bethel edge of the town centre (which is a good thing). It sells books, which is becoming something for comment where Christian bookshops are concerned. It is a browser's paradise; you can spend hours here just looking around, but be sure to buy something!

The staff are helpful and willing to order books in. The shop does not just sell books, you can buy almost anything a Church might want here, from Sunday school materials to hymn-boards and communion sets. Prices are fairly reasonable, and there's even a small fair trade cafe.

But be sure to come on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, and drop in at the Bethel Bookshop, which I won't be reviewing because I happen to buy the stock for it.