Tag Archives: scripture

Who can be saved?

Something Christians don’t pause to consider enough is what the Bible does and does not say. An obvious example is “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” This sounds biblical, but it’s found nowhere in the pages of scripture.

Most other examples are not as obvious. Terry Tiessen, professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics here at Providence Seminary, wrote an interesting post about why there are so many differing conclusions about scripture when most of those conclusions are arrived at by a similar method of interpretation.

His post deals in particular with the question of who can be saved (about which he has published a book through IVP). Tiessen is an accessibilist. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I think it is essentially the same as inclusivism (but Tiessen does not like that term). It has something to do with the wideness of God’s salvation (vs. exclusivism) in terms of an individual’s context and level of received revelation (he is not a universalist).

Anyway, he had this to say about what the Bible does and does not say about who can be saved:

I find no texts in the Bible that state explicitly that only the evangelized will be saved, nor any that state explicitly that any of the unevangelized will be saved. Although gospel exclusivists cite numerous texts which appear to them to affirm explicitly what they assert, four problems are common in their interpretation of these texts: first, texts asserting the uniqueness of Christ as the world’s only Saviour are read as assertions that knowledge of Christ is necessary to benefit from his saving work (eg. Acts 4:12); second, texts asserting the saving efficacy of belief in Jesus are read as assertions that only such fully informed faith can save (e.g. the citation of Joel 2:32 in Rom. 10:13); third, Scripture is clear that all who believe in Jesus are saved and that all who reject Jesus remain condemned. But it is often not observed that texts which speak of not believing (i.e. rejecting) Jesus are in contexts where knowledge of him is assumed, and so these cannot be extended to refer to the unevangelized (e.g., Jn 3:16-18); and fourth, the context of texts is ignored, as in Romans 10, where Paul rejects, as a possible explanation for widespread unbelief in Jesus as the Messiah, that Jews were ignorant of him. So, this much cited text is not speaking of the unevangelized, though it does state clearly the necessity of revelation for saving faith.

I posit that this absence of texts explicitly stating gospel exclusivism is probably the main reason for widespread agnosticism on this point among evangelicals these days.

(Read the whole post here.)

Defending Genre in the Bible

Does [the Bible] match up with scientific evidence? Who cares? … I do not believe science, history or archaeology of any kind establishes the truthfulness of the scripture in any way. Scripture is true by virtue of God speaking it. If God spoke poetry, or parable, or fiction or a prescientific description of creation, it is true without any verification by any human measurement whatsoever. The freedom of God in inspiration is not restricted to texts that can be interpreted “literally” by historical or scientific judges of other ages and cultures beyond the time the scriptures were written.

In my view, both the scientific establishment’s claims to debunk Genesis and the creationists claims to have established Genesis by way of relating the text to science are worthless.

…Does the Bible need to be authorized by scientists or current events to be true? What view of inspiration is it that puts the Bible on trial before the current scientific and historical models? Has anyone noticed what this obsession with literality does to the Bible itself? - iMonk

iMonk’s idea might make some of us uncomfortable.  And, to be sure, archeological and historical research at the very least provides some affirmation of the Bible.

However, I think iMonk’s point is very important: we tend to argue for the authority of the Bible based on imported categories–categories set in a field which fundamentally has no place for such a thing as “inspired” scripture or anything supernatural in the first place–or by meeting some kind of external standard of acceptance.  But when we do that we are essentially handing the Church’s text to those who already reject it as anything but an ordinary book and saying, “Here: you decide.” This is a mistake.  The Bible is the Church’s text and need not be handed to those outside the church to be vetted by their external categories.

And this is true of other issues as well.  From what I’ve read of Stanley Hauerwas, for example, his MO is to refuse to debate ethical issues based on non-theological categories.  So in Abortion Theologically Understood, he suggests that for Christians the question of the rights of the mother or the rights of the fetus are the wrong basis on which to look at this subject.

It’s an interesting and refreshing way of looking at things: we are not required to think about ethics or theology or the Bible on someone else’s terms.  For most things these days those terms are what you might call “Enlightenment terms”, in which reason is, essentially, God. While I would never suggest that we should not use our reasonable faculties, I am beginning to wonder if sometimes the term “irrational”, a term with negative connotations, should be embraced a little more.

“Faith seeking understanding” (was that Augustine or Aquinas?) or “I believe so that I may understand” seem like irrational statements in our society.  But somehow those phrases carry a lot of weight and power.

Red Letters

At Midwinter Conference in Chicago I was made aware of the recent release of two books isolating the words of Jesus in scripture: The Words of Jesus (Phyllis Tickle) and The Red Letters (Timothy Beals).  Phyllis Tickle said that the result was so powerful that her publisher insisted that she add headings and breaks so as not to overwhelm the reader.  There is certainly an appeal in this sort of thing.

I wonder, though, do the words of Jesus make sense out of context?  Some of them will: love your neighbour, for instance.

On a related, but shallower, note, what do you think about red letter Bibles: Bibles in which the words ascribed to Jesus are printed in red?  This blogger makes an argument in their favour.

These days it seems nearly impossible to find black letter (i.e. Bibles without the words of Christ in red) editions of certain translations, at least on bookstore shelves (although pew Bibles tend to be black letter).  Specifically, the translations favoured by evangelicals: New International Version; New Living Translation; English Standard Version; and Today’s New International Version.  Both Bibles my parents bought me (both NIV) were black-letter.  I wonder if red letter Bibles are becoming increasingly popular?  With the release of the above books, I suspect they are.

Everything else aside, I tend to find the red print distracting and sometimes difficult to read.  But there are some other issues, which didn’t really come to mind until I bought a copy of the TNIV: which words are the words of Christ?  The original languages did not have quotation marks denoting speech.  Take John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (That’s the Marc version, an amalgam of several versions, I’m sure).  Most translations have Jesus saying those words–so in red letter Bibles they’d be printed in red.  The NRSV and the ESV, however, have a footnote indicating that “some interpreters hold that the quotation concludes with verse 15″.  The TNIV actually goes the whole way and does not include verse 16 as part of Jesus’ words, but (in my edition) prints the words in black as part of John’s narrative.

Where Jesus’ words begin and end is often a case of guesswork on the part of translators, unless the context clearly calls for it being speech.  Looking at John 3:16, I can see arguments working both ways.

Ultimately this issue of translation doesn’t make a difference, but it’s an interesting point anyway.

Probably of more concern is whether the words of Christ are more valuable or “more scripture” than the rest of scripture (what the blog I link to above quotes Don Carson as calling “a canon within a canon”).  In a sense I can see Jesus’ words calling for special attention.  But if we hold that all of scripture is God’s word, then the words of Jesus (the God-man) aren’t more valuable than the rest of the Bible.

A more minor issue: nobody held a tape-recorder to Jesus’ mouth when he spoke and as far as we know he didn’t write his own words down (he didn’t employ a stenographer), so the text we have of Jesus’ words are someone else quoting him by recollection.  This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be trusted, but simply that the words of Jesus are perhaps not quotations in the sense that we might have in mind.

Semi-related things:

  • Everything else aside, I tend to find the red print distracting and sometimes difficult to read. 
  • The TNIV people have done something clever: all of their two-column editions of the TNIV are printed such that if I say I’m reading on page 985 of my TNIV Bible, if you turn to that page in a different edition of the TNIV, you will end up with the same text as I’m reading.
  • I don’t like the sans-serif font the TNIV people decided to use.  I prefer serif fonts for reading (the font of this text is serif–it has little hooks or dots at the ends of the lines of the letters.  The title of this post is a sans-serif font.)  Plus it’s a little too light–which I suspect is partly due to its lack of serifity.
  • Lastly, what do you do with your old, worn out Bibles?  Do they gather dust on the shelf or do you throw them out?  (See this ancient post of mine.)

Reclaiming the Old Testament

Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, it struck me how the overwhelming majority of Augustine’s scriptural references (and the text is riddled with them) are from the Old Testament.  Reading Rob Bell’s Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I was reminded of the story of the travelers  on the road to Emmaus, in which Jesus uses the Old Testament to explain why the Messiah had to suffer (there’s one moment I’d travel back in time to visit, assuming the time machine was equipped with an Aramaic/Greek to English translator), as well as the story of Philip and the eunuch, in which Philip tells the good news of Jesus starting with a passage in Isaiah.

These days Christians, including myself, don’t seem to know what to do with the Old Testament.  We are embarassed by the harsh passages and unsure of what to do with the rest, which for all we know is just a prelude to the New Testament.  But the Old Testament books were the scriptures of the earliest Christians.  For the longest time, they had nothing else.

There is spiritual food to be gleaned from the Old Testament and it can easily stand on its own proverbial feet, it seems.  We need to reclaim it.

Abraham

I caught a bit of Ideas on CBC Radio One.  I see now that it’s an interview with Susan Neimann, author of Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists (sounds like just the book for me).  I’ll have to listen to the podcast of the full program later, but she talked about some interesting things in those 5 minutes or so in which I was listening.

She was talking about two stories about Abraham: Abraham’s pleading with with God for Sodom and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.

She noted in the Sodom story that Abraham pleads with God on a moral basis even though the Law as Jews and Christians would know it did not exist.  On what did Abraham base his ethics?  On something other than the written (Mosaic) law.

While Abraham pleads for Sodom on ethical grounds, Abraham says nothing to God later on when God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Clearly, Abraham could have taken issue with this on an ethical basis as well.

In the first story, she says, Abraham was acting on reason and in the second he was acting on faith.

(I didn’t hear if she thought one was better than the other, but I suspect she will not give either one priority.  I also don’t know if she pointed out that God still destroys Sodom, because it didn’t meet even Abraham’s minimal requirements.  However, in the story of Isaac, in which Abraham says nothing, God spares Isaac in the end.  Not sure if any of those things have anything to do with her topic either.  I must listen to the podcast later.)

I always enjoy seeing scripture through fresh or different eyes.  Growing up with the Bible and its stories it’s easy to take them (or the way you have always read them) for granted.  And I rarely take the time to sit down and really contemplate a passage of scripture, but this sort of interesthing tends to be the result.

Which translation of the Bible do you use?

Which translation of the Bible do you use? (AKA, my defense of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible)

I grew up with the New International Version (NIV)—standard text, I think, for my generation of evangelicals—and I still use it: I use an NIV Thompson Chain Reference Bible and have an exhaustive concordance based on the NIV text, and most of the scripture I remember is from the NIV.

In the last couple of years I’ve been checking out other translations.  Initially it was about finding the best translation, but I no longer believe there is an overall “best” translation or that such a thing is even possible.  Of course, each translator or translation committtee claims that their version is the most accurate or the most faithful rendering of the original languages of the Bible, and each of us poor, non-original-language-reading saps must decide which committee’s or scholar’s word to go by.

Now, from what I can tell (as a layperson) the difference between the translations is for the most part superficial: placement of punctuation (which does not exist in the original text), word choice (between similar English words), word order and whatnot.  Two people using two different translations are not likely to come away from the same texts with a different interpretation or understanding—if they do, it’s because of what the interpreters bring to the text, rather than what the translation gives the interpreter.  But with the proliferation of translations these days, we do, at some point,  have to make a choice.  (Is it me, or is it evangelical Protestant groups that are releasing all these new versions these days?  What does that say about us?)

In the last couple of years I’ve been drifting more towards the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  Growing up, I was told that this was a “liberal” translation, though the reason for this was never made clear to me.  As far as I can tell, the NRSV is considered “liberal” because of two things: the use of gender inclusive language and the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (is it “virgin” or “young woman“?).  I’m assuming gender inclusive language is no longer much of an issue, as both the New Living Translation (NLT) and Today’s New International Version (TNIV), both generally accepted in conservative circles, use inclusive language.

As for the translation of Isaiah 7:14: first and foremost, it seems to me to be a moot point, given that in the NRSV both Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:26-34 use the term “virgin” in reference to Mary.  So the doctrine of the virgin birth is not at issue between translations.  Second, I don’t want my choice of translation to be based on an ideological or doctrinal slant.  In fact, I don’t want the process of translation itself to be based on that (which again makes me wonder about the myriad new translations appearing from evangelical publishers). The goal of any translation should be to provide an accurate, faithful rendering of the original text (within the limits of the translation process), even if that means that the most faithful, accurate and, dare I say, honest translation of that Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14 (for example) is “young woman” rather than “virgin” (I’m not a scholar, so I’m not saying it is).  This is not at all an unreasonable expectation, particularly from an evangelical viewpoint which believes that it should be scriptures shaping our theology rather than our theology shaping scripture (or translation).

I’m sure the issue is more complicated than I’ve described here and I don’t have the answers in the translation debate.  I simply have to take someone’s word for it, and before I can do that, I have to decide whose word is most trustworthy.  And so on and so forth.

Which is precisely why I am increasingly leaning towards the NRSV.  The NRSV is the only translation, as far as I’m aware, which in general knows no denominational boundaries.  The NIV, TNIV, NLT (New Living Translation), ESV (English Standard Version), and others tend to be accepted and used specifically by evangelical or conservative denominations.  This doesn’t make them poor or inferior translations, but I do find it curious that the majority of those using these translations belolong to a relatively small section of the Christian spectrum (I admit this is conjecture, rather than fact).  The NRSV, on the other hand, is widely accepted among evangelical Protestant churches and mainline Protestant churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (there may be exceptions of course, such as the King James Only-ers), and academics and scholars respect the translation as well. So I lean towards the NRSV because it’s ecumenical—it’s not the translation of one view of the Bible.  The NRSV is not a conservative Bible or a Reformed Bible or a Catholic Bible or what have you—it can be any one of those, but it need not be any.

I’m not saying the NRSV is perfect.  I’m not saying the other translations are bad (I can be kind of neurotic about having one of everything, so I own several translations).  I’m not saying the NRSV the most readable. I’m just saying I appreciate the fact that it’s ecumenical.  It is meaningful for me that, in a world of increasing division between liberal and conservative, this ideology and that ideology, this theology and that theology, the NRSV is a translation of the Bible that seems to transcend those boundaries.