Seminary Ramblings

Updates from life at seminary

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me

My friend Sonia challenged me to make this list, and because we all like to talk about ourselves and because hopefully a few people will find it interesting, here’s it is. Only two caveats.

1. The Bible, while it would top the list, is not included. I needed space for ten other books and thus the Bible should just be assumed.

2. These ten are not in any order of importance. As you’ll see, these books range from novels to academic monographs. I have included such a wide diversity because all of these books have affected me tremendously, yet in different ways. Some have simply delighted me, others have shaped the way I think, and others have shaped me more as a Christian or as a minister.

Here we go.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I simply love this book, which is not to be confused with loving the very different movie (which is not a personal favorite). I love this book for several reasons. First, I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Second, and more importantly, I’m a sucker for the main character, Edmond Dantes, and the moral ambiguity that pervades his character. Is Dantes good or bad? It’s hard to say. He is an innocent hero, betrayed, cast into exile, and he returns to exact vengeance on his enemies, all the while being portrayed in near demi-god like fashion where the reader suspects that if they judge his actions they are judging more than a mere mortal. The moral complexity coupled with romance, adventure, and history which pervade this work get me again and again.

2. Holiness by J.C. Ryle

J.C. Ryle (“Bishop Ryle”), is one of my favorite churchmen and this is the first work of his that I ever read. A classic on the nature of sanctification, this book portrays Ryle at his best, as he hits the reader again and again with short, punchy sentences that leave you thinking and praying.

3. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull and William Russell

This collection of writings spans Luther’s career and was my first introduction to the man. After reading it I felt like it was my first true introduction to Protestantism. Luther makes me wince, he makes me laugh, he makes me ponder, and he makes me worship. This work is an excellent collection from his vast corpus and I suspect most people who have not read Luther would be surprised at his accessibility and his continued relevance.

4. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This book deserves a place on my list because it dominated my high school years. I literally used to be able to recite large portions of chapter 2, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” from memory almost verbatim. While I now find much of Thoreau’s philosophy on life to be almost silly, I still love his writing for its mastery of the English language and I remain gripped by the sense of moral earnestness that pervades his work. In fact, I love Thoreau’s writing so much that I think he deserves a quote (where he slyly insults the Westminster Confession).

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

5. Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics by Stephen Westerholm

Apologies for the more technical works that are on this list, but they remain the works that have shaped me. This book helped solidify me in a “Reformational” understanding of Paul vis a vis some current debates. Westerholm exemplifies the best of biblical scholarship in this book as he writes with flair, with exegetical sensitivity, and with firsthand historical awareness of the tradition that precedes him.

6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read this trilogy more times than I can remember while I was growing up and I still love it and reread it to this day. Tolkien gave me my love for fantasy and transported me into another world that I have never stopped finding fascinating.

7. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe by Steven Ozment

If the title didn’t already put you to sleep, the reason I love this book is because of how very fascinating it ended up being. Ozment’s book was probably the single most influential factor in pushing me to do a second masters degree in Church History. His 50 or so odd pages on scholastic theology opened up new worlds of thought to me and transformed the middle ages from a regrettable “dark age” to a vibrant world filled with intellectual sophistication, imagination, and deep wrestling with questions that we still ponder today.

8. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

This is Twain’s last completed novel; decried by critics and yet believed by the author to be his finest work. I personally love Twain and this book, while very different from almost everything else he ever wrote, won me over with its romanticized vision of Joan and of her world, with its charming and disarming mentions of fairies and dragons, and with the sheer force of personality with which Joan is portrayed. Read this book and you will want to be Joan of Arc.

I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others needed no preparation and got none.  -Twain

9. The Harvest of Medieval Theology by Heiko Oberman

My last (and most) academic work on this list. I include it because Oberman has become the most influential historian for how I conceive of history as a discipline and because this book opened up new thought worlds to me. This is one of the most technically difficult books I have ever read, but it challenged me intellectually at a time when I needed that and showed me how historical persons should be studied on their own terms, not on the terms and values of a later era imposed upon them. This in turn opened up the history of the pre-Reformation church to me, as it taught me how to appreciate historical persons even though I might strongly disagree with them.

10. Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper

This book was huge for me as a new believer, simply in the message of its title. While I haven’t read it since then, God used Piper’s intensity to challenge me to not live a halfhearted Christian life.

So there are my 10! I have no one else to challenge (perhaps a sign that I’m a self-centered blogger?), but I hope you found that interesting!

When a Narrow Focus Works, and When it Doesn’t

Several posts back I wrote on the irrelevancy of the academy and in particular lamented the fact that humanities professors feel the need to create “sexy” new course offerings in order to generate student interest. What is more, these courses are often very narrow, focusing on a felt-interest that currently resonates with popular culture, such as pirates, gender-issues, and the like. My friend Sonia commented and asked a very helpful question to which I’d like to respond. She wrote:

It sounds like you’re asserting that the humanities have made themselves irrelevant by failing to be accessible. But then, isn’t offering a course on just one aspect of a discipline creating an inroad to the entire study?…….I guess what I’m wondering is, is there a way to make it work with these more trendy spins on classic disciplines?

This is a great question and one to which I’ll respond, though I don’t pretend to have all the answers (I’m just a punk grad student after all). First, the idea that offering a course on one aspect of a discipline can create and inroad to the entire field of study. In short, I totally agree with this sentiment. Some topics (perhaps most topics) are so broad, so vast, that having a more narrow inroad into them can help reduce the risk of being completely overwhelmed. A narrower focus can provide a helpful lens through which to see things and a vantage point from which to view the wider field.

For example (I apologize that all of my examples are history related, but that’s just the field I know!), suppose one wished to study the history of the Middle Ages in Western civilization. If we place an arbitrary time limit on our period, it might cover all the way from 500-1500. That’s 1000 years of history. There’s no easy way to understand that. Understanding the past week is hard enough! Thus, it could certainly prove helpful to focus more narrowly than just “the history of the middle ages.” Rather, one could use, for example, the more narrow lens of the changing institution of the papacy in order to understand this period. This allows for a more narrow subject matter but nevertheless deals with one which is deeply embedded in the history of this entire period. Understanding the shifts from a more monastically-oriented model of the papal office from Gregory the Great in the 6th century until the first half of the 12th century, to a more legal, canon-law oriented focus of the papacy from the mid 12th-century onward invariably ties into wider political, economic, and social changes that were going on in this period of Europe’s history.

Now for the inevitable downsides. What I have issues with is not focusing on narrow topics per se, but when this focus is done in such a way as to exclude all else from the wider field of vision. Thus, if a student were to take a course on the history of cuisine in early modern Italy but learned nothing about the papacy, nothing about the Renaissance and humanism, and so on, this would be tragic. However, because immense specialization is seen as “true scholarship” and because drawing wide historical connections is inevitably harder to defend and seen with suspicion in a postmodern context which is suspicious of all meta-narrative, this is often the case. Thus, professors are often reticent to tie in their more narrow focus with the subject matter more broadly.

Hans Hillerbrand, one of the great scholars of the history of Christianity in our time, writes about the problems of this narrow focus in an address entitled “Church History as Vocation and Moral Discipline,” given to the American Society of Church History in 2001.

A third characteristic of our current enterprise is a tendency toward marginalization. This is a complicated matter, where one can be easily misunderstood. If you survey some of the most impressive work done in recent years, it becomes obvious that a goodly portion has dealt with aspects of Christian marginality, such as popular Fundamentalism, ethnic Catholics, or Native American Christianity. Carlo Ginzburg wrote a splendid exemplar of such micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. No doubt,we have been immensely enriched by some of these studies, especially when they were accompanied, as was the case in Ginzburg’s book, by methodological reflections on how such micro-history is to be placed into a larger context. Still, notwithstanding the protestation that what seems to be marginality is, in fact, addressing major issues, I would suggest that precisely because some of these studies have been so good, our appreciation of addressing larger issues of the Christian past has diminished. The telltale question would seem to be rather simple: has our understanding of sixteenth century popular religion been really enhanced by Ginzburg’s book?

There is the question in summary form: does the narrow focus really enhance our understanding of the broader issues?

Now on to Sonia’s second point, about whether or not there is a way to make trendy spins on classic disciplines work. While I’ve been playing the curmudgeon, in short I believe there is. What I’m against is the market-driven attitude that leads to these courses, but they are not in and of themselves necessarily bad. They are bad when 1. They exclude from their vision the wider field of study, and 2. They so pander to a “relevant” felt-need that they ignore the information and connections that may actually be more significant (like if a student studied the history of animals in WWI and comes out knowing all about how many horses were shipped across the Atlantic but couldn’t give basic details about the life of Kaiser Wilhelm II or the Treaty of Versailles).

Even with that last example which I’m overusing, I am not necessarily opposed to it. I’m only opposed to it at the undergraduate GE level and at the level where students do not actually have the broader knowledge of context into which to place specific pieces of information (and I believe this knowledge of broader context is often assumed to exist where it in fact does not). A history of animals in WWI might make a great topic for a graduate seminar, just not for an undergrad GE.

Alright, before I talk myself in way over my head, we’re going to end this current post. In the next post I’ll offer what I think are some of the ways in which humanities professors can teach their disciplines in a way that galvanizes student interest without necessarily altering their curriculum. I’m also going to (at Sonia’s) request, post a list of the top 10 books that have stayed with me. Be prepared for a disparate group of books!

You Don’t Have to be “Hip” to be Relevant

“Much like the Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms, revered, yet rarely used, so humanities departments are revered, but as far as society is concerned, ever farther from the center of things.”
-Hans Hillerbrand, Professor Emeritus, Duke University

In my last post I bit off a fairly massive topic; we’ll see if it is too much for me to chew. The main focus of the post was hopefully on how the humanities academy has often made itself irrelevant for the broader university and for society at large by its increasing specialization. I then discussed how this specialization has made its way into the undergraduate classroom, along with the related but distinct issue of creating courses that are “hip” or “sexy” in an attempt to fix the problem of irrelevance and to generate student interest. It is this latter notion that I want to deal with in particular in this post.

So the problem we are dealing with in this post remains the seeming irrelevance of the humanities. In particular, we are dealing with one of the solutions offered for this irrelevance, the “solution” of redesigning the educational curriculum and creating courses that are “interesting” or “relevant” to students (such as the “History of Piracy”). What I want to do in this post is to simply argue against such an idea; to say that the way to make the humanities relevant again is not by making them relevant to whatever a college freshman already feels is relevant.

In short, I believe this desire of professors and departments to be “hip” and “relevant”  is not increasing interest in the humanities (which is what it is intended to do), but is paradoxically actually killing that very interest by pandering to the whims of the moment. Allow me to illustrate with Brad Gregory, previously a professor of history of Stanford University who now teaches at Notre Dame. Gregory is a specialist in Early Modern religious history and wrote a dissertation on religious martyrdom in the 16th century. During his second year in teaching at Stanford (which was also his second year of teaching ever), Gregory won the university’s highest teaching award. His classes have had consistently high enrollment and he is generally liked by students at large. Why is this? Allow me to venture a few thoughts.

In a talk he was asked to give to Stanford faculty entitled “Some Tricks of the Trade: Connecting With Your Students” (available for free on iTunes U), Gregory offerings the following thought:

“Far from going out of my way to design a curriculum or a course that I think is really going to appeal to students per se, I think the challenge of teaching is: on the basis of your energy, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, to show students not what they want to hear, but that something they might never have thought of is interesting, is purposeful, and that it matters. That they should learn about something besides what they simply care about coming into the course. So, I am strongly against a market-driven approach to education.”

Read that whole quote twice. It’s gold.

So Gregory is against a market-driven approach to education (which is what many humanities departments are succumbing to in hopes of generating student interest). Indeed, he makes a point of telling students on the first day of class that trying to understand people who lived and died hundreds of years ago is hard work, and that the student’s varied opinions about their lives, their values, what they did and didn’t do, is an entirely separate issue that will play no part in the course whatsoever. In effect he tells them that their own feelings and opinions are irrelevant to the course. This has the paradoxical effect of taking off a burden (the burden of “what do I think about this”) and allowing students to focus on the matter at hand. How’s that for relevance? And yet Gregory’s courses have always been popular.

Or take another professor, Michael Sandel at Harvard, whose undergraduate course entitled “Justice” has become one of Harvard’s most popular classes and the online version of which has become one of the most popular online courses ever. I doubt many students come into that class with an especially high interest in Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of utilitarianism or with a particularly high regard for Aristotle’s views on teleology. And yet what Sandel manages to do, rather than designing a course that feels relevant, is show students how these old ideas do in fact matter, how they are intellectually challenging, viable, and how they continue to shape our modern world. By the end of that class everyone is interested in what Aristotle has to say.

So what am I really saying? I’m simply saying that the best way to show the importance of the humanities and to restore them to the place they deserve is not to pander to the whims of our present moment. The best method is not to attempt to be relevant, when relevance is defined by our present historical moment.

If all of this is what we should not do, then what, positively, should we do in order to show that the humanities are in fact relevant? What are Gregory, Sandel, and other professors like them doing that works, if what they are not doing is seeking to be relevant? That is another post for another time.

On the Irrelevancy of the Academy

Today, pragmatism is in and therefore the humanities are out. “Where are the immediate benefits?” “What is the payoff?” Questions like these have seemingly assigned the humanities to irrelevance or rather uselessness while the STEM disciplines can come in to take over, with their promise of quick returns and obvious, tangible benefits. While I lament this state of affairs, what I want to do here is not to lament the lack of interest in the humanities. Rather, I want to propose that one reason the humanities currently seem irrelevant is because the field has made itself irrelevant. The very people who should be promoting the humanities, university English and History professors, for example, are most often the very ones who have assigned their disciplines to irrelevance for the public at large. Article after article, book after book, and lecture after lecture, they have quietly written themselves into they obscurity they now currently enjoy.

Now what do I mean by that? What I mean is that as these disciplines have become increasingly specialized (by no means a bad thing at the dissertation level), they have begun to ignore the wider currents that are accessible to the thinking public at large and have therefore assigned themselves to irrelevance. Let’s take history for example.

This morning I received an email from Boston University, which, among other things, carried with it news that enrollment in history courses has been steadily declining at BU for years. To combat this, professors were encouraged to offer “sexy” new course offerings such as the “History of Piracy” (as in pirates; not internet piracy). This apparently helped as that particular course had high enrollment. The article then continued on by praising a new post-graduate researcher who is teaching a class on the “History of Animals” and how we write the history of animals. That particular researcher wrote a dissertation on how animals were used during World War I, and is now taking many of those findings to the undergraduate level. And this, all of this, is precisely the problem.

First, the history of piracy. While the topic might be in itself a fine one (and good perhaps for a graduate seminar), is this the type of course that should be taught about at the undergraduate survey level where students are taking the course to meet general education requirements? How will the life of a biomedical engineering major be substantially enhanced by knowing more about the history of piracy? Perhaps he will have a better historical sensibility about him the next time he goes to see a new Pirates of the Caribbean film, but aside from that, the course seems ill-suited to impact  his day to day life and thought. The course is simply too narrow, too specialized, and therefore, too irrelevant for anyone but the academic historian.

Or take the History of Animals, which is simply a more severe case of the same thing. Here specialization has again crept its way into the undergraduate level in a way that is perfectly suited to kill any and all interest in history. Rather than spending a whole semester discussing the use of animals in WWI, why don’t we rather spend the semester talking about WWI in general; its causes, its major turning points, its subsequent affect on the history of the 20th century? Sure, we were all supposed to learn the basics of world history at the high school level, but let’s be honest; how many of us really did? Taking a broad topic like WWI (or perhaps wars of the 20th century in general) and learning its major contours is a subject that has potential to be deeply impactful for any student if well taught and if the students are given ample space to think for themselves.

All of this to say, the academy is a self-perpetuating piece of machinery. New academics need to write new dissertations on previously under-researched subjects, then they need to write additional narrowly focused monographs in the “publish or perish” mentality needed to gain tenure. Whatever the relative merits of such a machine, my point is simply that the sort of narrow specialization with which academics are trained to think (as it is necessary for groundbreaking research) is not something that should be brought into the undergraduate classroom. What we need is not more classes on the history of cuisine in early modern Italy or on the rhetoric of dissent in Tudor England, rather undergraduate general education level courses need to focus on the broad strokes, helping students to learn how to read primary sources discerningly and to think for themselves, all the while being guided by the professor to think through the implications of what they are learning for today. Until this happens again, humanities professors are simply asking to be relegated to the margins of the modern academy.

In my next post I’ll look at a professor who has bucked the current trend of narrowed, specialized topics, and has thereby seen huge classroom success. And all of this without needing to tailor any “sexy” new courses to the latest whims of Hollywood.

The Helpfulness of a Footnote

It was around 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon and there were still two long hours of class to go when my professor exclaimed, “Don’t you just love reading a good footnote!?” Judging by the blank stares he got from those around the table, it seemed that not too many of us did. I think most of us were rather more excited to get out of class and eat some dinner than we were to revel in the glories of the footnote. But while footnotes in most books may strike 99% of readers as boring, those in the Bible, while they can also be boring, can on occasion also be extremely helpful.

Continuing this series of posts on Bible reading and translation, I want to explore a footnote that is in several English versions of Romans 6:6. In taking this seemingly mundane expedition, I’ll hopefully be able to give you a taste both of the usefulness of footnotes in the Bible and also of how you can see things in a more literal translation that a more dynamic translation may hide from view.

Romans 6:6, a case of a good footnote

We’re more than a third of the way through his letter and Paul has just finishing a heady exposition of world history as the history of two humans, Adam and Jesus Christ (Rom 5:12-21). Now he has turned in 6:1 to counter the objection that God’s free grace means we should continue to live in sin. Then in 6:5-6 he writes the following (ESV translation):

For if we have been united with him [Jesus] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

Now in both the ESV and NASB there is a curious footnote to the word  “self” in verse 6. The ESV note reads, “Greek man“. In other words, the Greek literally reads, “We know that our old man was crucified with him….”

“So what?” you may say. This is a seemingly small detail, yet does it carry any importance? Well, let’s review what Paul has said up to this point. As I noted, in the immediately preceding context, Paul has drawn parallels between Adam and Christ, specifically between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience. Note the language he has used in doing this though:

“There, just as sin came into the world through one man…” (5:12)

“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (5:17)

“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinner,s so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (5:19)

In fact, in 5:12-21 I count Paul using the term “one man” 9 times, not to mention several more uses of the plural “men.” What’s more, each of these usages is either of Adam or Jesus. While it might make sense to designate Adam, the first human being, as the “one man”, isn’t it striking (even strange) that in 5:17 above Paul goes out of his way to say “the one man Jesus Christ.” He could have just as easily said, “…reign in life through Jesus Christ” without adding “one man” in there.

But Paul is emphasizing the parallels here! He is emphasizing two humans in history and the historical acts of disobedience (by Adam) and obedience (by Christ), and the results that followed from these acts. All of which gives us some very helpful context when we get to 6:6.

As a reminder, here in 6:6 Paul says “We know that our old man was crucified with him [Jesus]…” Is not possible, even probable, given that Paul has been repeatedly using the words “one man” and making an argument explicitly based in history, that when he talks about the “old man” in 6:6 he is continuing to talk about the “old Adam”? If so, this is somewhat different than the “old self”, especially as we usually understand the term “self” today. What’s more, it’s all in a footnote!

So what?

For most readers, I suspect we would see Romans 6:6 and say that Paul is telling us that our old sinful nature, our old way of life, our old bad habits, were crucified with Christ. These kinds of conclusions are the natural interpretation since we most often use the word “self” in phrases like self-discipline, self-esteem, self-improvement, and self-acceptance. Our old “self” has died, now we get to have a new way of life, a “new self”. But if our idea about the “old Adam” is correct, then what Paul is saying is both more historical and more radical than this. What Paul is saying in Romans 6:6 is that in Christ and in his crucifixion, the entirety of us which lived “in Adam” was crucified. Doug Moo is quite helpful on this in his commentary:

Many popular discussions of Paul’s doctrine of the Christian life argue, or assume, that Paul distinguishes with these phrase between two parts or “natures” of a person. With this interpretation as the premise, it is then debated whether the “old nature” is replaced with the “new nature” at conversion, or whether the “new nature” is added to the “old nature.” But the assumption that “old man” and “new man” refer to parts, or natures, of a person is incorrect. Rather they designate the person as a whole, considered in relation to the corporate structure to which he or she belongs…the “old man” is what we were “in Adam”–the “man” of the old age, who lives under the tyranny of sin and death (Romans, pg. 373).

The upshot of all this is twofold. First, as John Stott put it, “what was crucified with Christ was not a part of me called my old nature, but the whole of me as I was before I was converted.” In other words, conversion is not cleaning up our old act or continuing on with life but bringing God into it. Rather it is something much more radical. It is the entirety of our ourselves dying and being resurrected. It is the whole of our old man who lived “in Adam” being crucified, and then an entirely new man who lives “in Christ” being resurrected. Conversion is not an inner reformation to a now “religious” life, but a crucifixion and a resurrection.

The second implication lies in how this crucifixion and resurrection takes effect in our lives by faith and by conscious effort, and is not something known by “experience.” We see this several verses later. After expounding on our death and resurrection with Christ for a few more verses, Paul goes on in 6:11 to say, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, while he has taught us in v. 6 that our old man actually did die, along with its propensity to sin, now he says in v. 11 that we must consider (or “reckon” or “impute”) ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. In other words, our old life is actually gone. But from our perspective we may not always feel it is gone; we must realize its ‘gone-ness’ in our own lives by considering or thinking of ourselves in this way. We must say, “Sin, you feel pleasurable right now, but I am dead to you. I am not who I once was. I am a new person in Christ Jesus and live to God now. I will make every effort to consider myself as God has already declared to me to in fact be.” As Doug Moo says, “what we were ‘in Adam’ is no more; but, until heaven, the temptation to live in Adam always remains” (pg. 375)

I’ll leave you with a glorious statement by Martyn Lloyd-Jones on what it looks like in practice to act out the implications of Romans 6:6 and 6:11. While we often base our entire spiritual lives on our experience or how we feel God to be, Paul’s teaching about “considering/reckoning” in Romans 6:11 points in an entirely different direction. Here is Lloyd-Jones.

We are told to realize, and to hold before ourselves and in our consciousness constantly, something that is already true of our position or status. It is not an exhortation to us to do anything with regard to sin, but to realize what has already been done for us with respect to our relationship to sin. It is an exhortation to us to remember what is already true of us; it urges us to realize what has already happened to us as Christians, those of us who are joined to the Lord Jesus Christ. And what is true of us is that we are already in an entirely new position and standing with respect to sin.

This is something which we have to believe solely because the Word of God teaches it. You do not ‘experience’ your position, you are told about it and you believe it. That is what justification by faith alone means. We have this Word of God which tells us that this is God’s way of salvation; and we have nothing but the Word of God. As we have seen, we have all got to do what Abraham did, as the Apostle has already reminded us in chapter 4. We must just take the bare Word of God, believe it, submit to it, and act upon it. That is what we have to do with this statement.

Bible Translations: Which One and Why?

I promised in a previous post that I would write something about Bible translations and translating, and this is that post.

Let’s start with an obvious fact. Nowadays we have an absolutely huge number of Bible translations available in the English language. Off the top of my I can think of the NIV, ESV, NRSV, RSV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, NET, CEV, HCSB, and…….you get the point. What I’d like to reflect on for a moment is how the contemporary proliferation of Bible translations may be affecting our approach to the biblical text itself. In particular, does the sheer quantity of different translations encourage us to pick and choose the one that’s our favorite (not necessarily a bad thing), with little regard to its accuracy (a bad thing).

Bible Translation Theory: A Few Basics

First off, if you’re unfamiliar let me briefly explain the basics of Bible translation theory. Most often, Bible translations are spoken of as falling somewhere along a spectrum of formal to dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence is a more “word for word” equivalence with the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and the Greek text of the New Testament, while dynamic equivalence is usually defined as “thought for thought” equivalence. Thus formal equivalence tends to a more literal rendering, while dynamic equivalence tends toward a more interpretive rendering.

What needs to be recognized up front, however, is that no translation is, strictly speaking, entirely “literal.” This is because, as anyone who speaks or reads more than one language can attest, it is often impossible to translate from one language into another strictly literally. What takes three words to say in English may take one to say in Chinese,and what Greek may express by means of an idiom would make little to no sense if rendered literally into English. Therefore both pure adulation and pure disdain of translations is a futile exercise. All translations are relatively more or less literal, but none is or ever can be perfect.

Translations: A Few Considerations

With these qualifications in place, I do believe that we can speak of the relative merits of one or another translation in relation to each other. In doing this, the point I want to draw out is that the more dynamic the translation, the more interpretive decisions are being made for the reader (and which the reader is usually unaware are even being made). Let me take one example of a term that many are familiar with. If you read an NIV printed before 2011 (when there was a translation update), in the New Testament the term “sinful nature” shows up relatively frequently in Paul’s letters. For example, Galatians 5:13 reads “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” However, what the NIV (prior to 2011) renders “the sinful nature” is in fact a translation of the Greek word sarx“, which literally means “flesh.” So Paul more literally says, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh….”

I point this out as an example of where a more dynamic rendering has made rather large decisions for the reader that they are then not free to make themselves. The decision is simply this, when Paul uses the word sarx (“flesh”), what he means by it is “the sinful nature.” Now, in general I love the NIV, but I simply point this out as what is seen by many (myself included) to be one of the more infamous missteps of a contemporary translation. While sarx may mean something like “sinful nature” in some places, this is certainly open to debate, and rather than allowing the reader the deserved confusion over the word “flesh” (preserved in the ESV and NASB for example), decisions are made in advance for the reader.

Now you may be thinking, “I never would have wondered at the use of the word ‘flesh’ or been able to figure what it meant even if I did.” And that’s ok; in fact that may even be precisely the point. The Bible is not easy to read and I don’t think we do ourselves a service by relying on extremely dynamic translations for the majority of our Bible reading (here I am thinking more of translations like the CEV, some parts of the NLT, or a paraphrase like The Message). While we may have trouble understanding what the Bible is saying, that is what good Bible teaching is for, not what translation is for. In other words, it’s best to learn how to understand the Bible by pastors and elders “teaching the word” as is their specific duty (1 Tim 3:2), rather than having translations do the interpreting for us.

Let me sum up: all translation is interpretation to some degree, as one language never cleanly passes over 100% into a different language. For our Bible reading though, it is best to not rely too much on translations that do lots of interpreting for you, because they are less translations and more interpretations and in places can very arguably obscure the sense of a text (as the old NIV arguably did with “sinful nature”).

Bringing it back to where we started, my concern is that the wide availability of numerous translations makes us never even consider these things, but rather just pick a translation whose English we like or which is “easy to read.” We should, however, give some thought to what degree the translation is reading is faithful to the biblical text. To that end, here is a chart giving the relative “literalness” of most major Bible translations:


translations(Note: I think the KJV and NKJV should probably be to the left and not the right of the ESV. But the general picture is alright.)

In my next post I’ll give a test case of how very good many Bible translations are, and point out in particular how helpful those pesky little footnotes in your Bible can be.

Why do we read the Bible so little?

The Bible is undoubtedly America’s most owned and least read book. The average American household owns three Bibles; a quarter of American homes own six or more (see here). One of the true tragedies, however, is how little the Bible is read among the evangelical Christian population. Almost every evangelical has their opinions about this or that in the Bible and has heard stories about Jonah, Moses, or Elijah; very few have ever actually read those stories for themselves though.

Now in saying that us Christians nowadays do not read the Bible enough, I am not saying two things. First, I am not saying that I am exempt from this charge. Second, I am not intending to set up a new legalism where we say believers need to spend X amount of time reading the Bible every day. I wholeheartedly repudiate such a notion. In fact, I am concerned that too often the evangelical idea of a “quiet time” gets turned into a spiritualized form of “God only loves me if I have a quiet time” legalism. More on that later though.

What I do want to focus on is the phenomenon of Bible reading and how it may relate to Bible publishing. Confused? Let’s clear up what I mean.

In an interesting article, former Bible publisher Ben Irwin has written about the modern proliferation of Bible versions and Bibles in general. The first point he tackles, and the only one I’m going to comment on is the idea of the “commodity” or the “niche” Bible. Think things like age specific Bibles (Teen Study Bible; Girls Life Application Study Bible; The Boys Bible), topic specific Bibles (The Apologetics Study Bible, The Archaeological Study Bible), and what the marketing world would call “interest group” Bibles (Comic Book Bible; The Soldier’s Bible; and even the Firefighter’s Bible). Nowadays we have a thousand different versions of the Bible and are reading it less than ever. This leads Irwin to ask, “What if the proliferation of Bibles is part of the reason we’re reading scripture less?”

Now I’m not against “niche” Bibles and I know that they have done a lot of good. What I am concerned about however, is how the “niche” Bible may be affecting our attitudes toward the Bible itself. In particular, is this phenomena of the “niche” Bible subconsciously turning us into consumers of the Bible, much like we consume fashion trends or movies based on our own interests and preferences? Does having a “Firefighter’s Bible” actually counter-intuitively lower how much we read the Bible?

More pointedly, do niche Bibles subtly encourage us to read the Bible to focus on our felt needs, rather than focusing on what the text of Scripture actually says and means? Does it reinforce our trend to read the Bible looking for immediate application without first putting forth any effort to understand what the text is actually saying?

While I don’t think there are definitive answers to these questions, I do think they’re worth considering. In particular, I am especially afraid that the sheer quantity of versions of the Bible that we have today does encourage us to read the Bible as a sort of self-help manual, written to solve all my problems and assuage my felt needs. If I’m not getting what I want out of Bible A, that’s fine, I can just go to Amazon and order Bible B. After all, this one has notes just for me.

At the end of the day though, this kind of Bible reading will never satisfy. In won’t satisfy because the Bible was not written directly to me (though it was written for me), and it does not always directly address my pressing felt-needs, like “How do I get a job?” or “Why doesn’t my boss like me?” Thankfully, however, the Bible does something much better. It tells us of a story bigger than our own little lives and it beckons us to be swept up into that story; a grand story of God redeeming all of creation through his Son. And it’s not that the Bible doesn’t deal with our needs. Rather it’s that it redefines our needs and shows us our true needs, in turn leading us to true “abundant life” through becoming disciples of Jesus (John 10:10). At the end of the day, that is the kind of Bible that is worth reading; that is the kind of Bible that will make all other books pale in comparison.

(Note: this is the first in a series of posts where I’ll be dealing with topics Bible-related. In future posts I’ll deal with the proliferation of Bible translations and how that is affecting the way we think about the Bible, and I’ll also give some thoughts on The Message and what it means to build our Christian life upon the possible quicksand of highly-interpretive translations.)

Evangelicals and History: An Uneasy Relationship

Evangelical Protestants have an uneasy relationship with their past. To put it more bluntly, they have an uneasy relationship with the past, because they are not sure if there is such a thing as their past. To be sure, they are not entirely ahistorical. They love to quote Edwards, Spurgeon, Luther, and the like; however, these men all lived within the past 500 years. In America historians trace Evangelicalism’s roots to the First and Second Great Awakenings. However, that does not take the movement back even 300 years. Does not the history of Christ’s church extend for nearly 2000 years?

What of Bonaventure, Aquinas, Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Catherine of Sienna, Anselm, or Thomas Bradwardine? What of the entirety of the Middle Ages? Do evangelicals have no legitimate claim to this era; is it entirely the property of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy? Or can Evangelical Protestantism rightly stake a claim in this territory; can it rightly and in a historically justifiable manner trace its own narrative all the way through 2000 years of tangled and messy ecclesiastical history?

I believe it can. What’s more, I believe it must. While the question does not trouble many evangelicals, if evangelicalism and evangelical Protestant doctrine is only several hundred years old, should that not make it immediately suspect? Why should we believe something that…..young? While we live in a day of constantly shifting fads, I for one do not wish to stake my life on a religious fad that is simply a product of my own historical and cultural location. Moreover, should not we evangelical Protestants wish to be part of a story that extends for thousands of years; a story filled with good and evil, tragic mistakes and great victories, rather than a truncated narrative only invented rather recently in America? I for one want to be a catholic Christian in the small-c sense of that word; a Christian who traces his lineage through the whole scope of our 2000 years of history.

In the 19th century, Anglican turned Roman Catholic John Henry Newman famously wrote, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I disagree. To be deep in history is to become a catholic Protestant, a Protestant who sees themselves not only as a product of the 16th century, but as an heir to the entire history of Jesus’ church.

In the following weeks I’ll be writing a series of posts aimed at helping us recover some of that past.

A Thought on Theodicy

“The suffering of the guiltless, which is the primary problem of life for those who look at history from the standpoint of their own virtues, is made into the ultimate answer of history for those who look at it from the standpoint of the problematic character of all human virtue.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr, Faith and History: A Comparison of Christian and Modern Views of History (London, 1949), 161.

God in Suffering

In an age of “name it and claim it” theology where God becomes our tool to accomplish our own worldly desires, we need words like Luther’s which thunder against any and all forms of triumphalism. Here is Luther, from his explanations of Theses 20 & 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation (1518).


Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering–to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in the Divine works should honor God hidden in suffering…Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does one no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah (45:15) says, “Truly, you are a God who hides yourself.

So, also, in John 14, where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeking God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father.” For this reason, true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ…

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said.

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