Even the Plowboy Shall Know

January 31, 2014

I want you to mentally travel back in time to the 14th century AD. As we travel back in time, we notice that all of our English translations have disappeared. How’s your Greek, Hebrew, or Latin? Upon arrival in the 14th century, not only are there no English Bibles, but the religious leaders of the day regard allowing the “common man” to have a Bible to be a great danger. John Wycliffe produced an English translation in 1382 prior to the invention of the printing press. But the reaction to translating was so severe, that the Council of Constance in 1415 ordered Wycliffe’s remains to be disinterred and burned, and the ashes thrown on the River Swift.

In 1525, John Tyndale was the first to translate and produce a printed English New Testament. He was incensed by the prejudice of the religious clerics of his day. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells of Tyndale having a argument with one of these “learned” men:

Not long after, Tyndale happened to be in company of a certain divine, and in disputing with him he pressed him so hard that the doctor burst out into these blasphemous words: “We were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.”

Tyndale full of godly zeal, replied: “I defy the pope and all his laws;” and added, that if God spared him life, ere many years, he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.

Tyndale made good on this, but he had to leave England to do it because of opposition. And irony of ironies, the English Bible had to be smuggled into England in bales of cloth. Religious leaders burned copies of it, and Tyndale was later imprisoned and finally executed.

Your English Bible is a priceless possession. Not everyone has been so fortunate as to be able to read for themselves the Word of God. Regrettably, the dream that even the plowboy shall know scripture can be lost today, not for lack of a Bible, but for lack of a Bible reader.

Faithful Lament

January 25, 2014

The psalms model faithful lament. Lament is the expression of grief, pain, and sorrow. Our everyday word for it would be complaint. Life does not always go merrily along without a care even for people of faith. Bereavement, calamities, loss, illness, and painful interpersonal relationships may come to the best of us. The psalms reflect this aspect of real life. The psalms express these raw, but honest human emotions, but they do so in the framework of trusting God.

In Encountering the Book of Psalms, C. Hassell Bullock notes:

While the boldness and naked honesty of the psalmists may shock us, this attitude is nevertheless instructive for our own spiritual lives. We sometimes hold back too much from God, conceal our true feelings in prayer, and create a false image of ourselves at the heavenly throne of grace.

The psalms become tutors for our own prayer lives. We learn that God wants us to be fully open and transparent before him. We can cast our anxieties upon him; he is willing to hear our pain as well as our praise.

Bullock, however, offers a caution:

But it is also a dangerous freedom that can too easily move us, on the divine level, in the direction of spiritual defiance and mutiny.

Jeremiah provides a warning example of this freedom going too far. At one point, he says to God:

Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Will you be to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail? (Jeremiah 15:18 ESV)

In the very next line, God tells him to repent, so that he might stand before God.

But given this caution, the psalms encourage a great deal of openness and intimacy even in sharing the painful things of our lives. I think it is one of the ways we cast our anxieties on God. The psalms can teach Christians a great deal about faithful lament.

The Reverse of the Curse

January 17, 2014

In many ways, Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 serve as the bookends to the Bible. The new Jerusalem of Revelation has Garden of Eden imagery. The earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden is found in Genesis 2-3. In both places the Tree of Life is found. The curse because of sin (Genesis 3) finds its reverse in the making of all things new in Revelation 21. I used the phrase, the reverse of the curse, in a recent lesson, and someone asked me what I meant by the curse.

When sin entered the world, God’s punishment involved a curse. The pain of woman’s childbearing was increased. Men too would experience pain laboring by the sweat of their brow and finding thistles and thorns (see Genesis 3:16-19). The greatest curse, of course, is death: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 ESV).

Paul reflects on the problems sin has caused.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23, ESV)

Creation is personified in this passage, which is also common in the Old Testament. The important thing to note is the creation was subjected to futility, and this subjection to futility has led to a lot of groaning.

Humanity was intended to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26), and there is still a sense in which we do. We are stewards of God’s creation. Yet, the point of these passages seems to be this: because humanity rebelled against God, God made the creation “rebel” against humanity. We experience thistles, thorns, and weeds. We experience droughts, storms, and calamities. We can only ponder how different life in the Garden of Eden would have been. But the frustrations, calamities, and the decay of death are our present experiences of this curse.
Because of the death of Christ, God will some day make all things new: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 ESV) In hope, we look forward to the reverse of the curse.

Which Bible?

January 10, 2014

“Which Bible should I read?” The question is simple enough, but sometimes people ask the question with a subtext. The subtext goes something like this: there are so many different translations of the Bible, how does God expect me to sort this out? The subtext’s complaint then becomes an excuse for procrastination and inaction.

Informed Christians know that the Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew with a small portion in Aramaic, and the New Testament was written in Greek. That means when there are controversies over meaning, the final appeal must be to the original languages. Yet, that does not rule out the importance of translations.

Translating the Bible into various languages has been done since earliest times (for example with the New Testament into Syriac and old Latin), but it received a greater emphasis beginning in the Reformation. Most people are not going to be in the position to learn Greek and Hebrew, yet we have a great interest in knowing what God’s word says.

So what are some good guidelines for choosing a Bible translation?

  1. Choose a translation done by a committee. Committee members serve as checks and balances on one another to prevent a bias from entering the translation. Most major translation have been done by a committee, and most modern ones have had committees composed of a spectrum of Christian groups. That doesn’t mean never read a translation by an individual, and it doesn’t mean that bias can never be found in a committee translation. It rather reflects the safest place to start.
  2. Be informed about translation philosophy. There are two basic approaches to translations: formal equivalence (more word to word) and functional equivalence (more thought to thought). Most translations can be described as formal equivalent or functional equivalent. Most translations will describe their approach in the preface. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Comparing the two approaches can be valuable. It is important to know which approach you are reading. I find formal equivalence helpful for close study, but when I was a new reader of the Bible, I found the functional equivalence helpful to my fledgling understanding.
  3. You can read more than one and compare. Although most of us will choose a primary translation for reading and study, we live in a world where it is easy to compare translations. Computers and mobile devices make this especially true. I’ve learned a lot through the years comparing the two kinds of translation approaches and different translations. Sometimes differences in translations make no real difference in overall meaning. Sometimes differences reflect possible nuances in the original languages, and sometimes differences alert the reader to problems of interpretation. But having read many different translations of the Bible, my overall impression is that they are all translating the same book. We may find verses where one translation is preferable to another, but the overall, big picture message remains the same.

According to a recent listing from the Christian Booksellers Association, these are the top selling translations by units sold:

  1. New International Version
  2. King James Version
  3. English Standard Version
  4. New King James Version
  5. New Living Translation
  6. Holman Christian Standard Bible
  7. Reina Valera 1960 (if you read Spanish)
  8. New International Readers Version
  9. Common English Bible
  10. New American Standard Bible

Although I would have preferences in this list, the reality is that you could learn how to become a Christian and what you need to be saved from reading any translation on this bestseller list. Just read it!