February 23, 2002

FELLOWSHIP, THE CTRF WEBZINE, deserves enough of my (and your) attention that a personal (vanity?) blog like Clutter doesn't seem to belong on my priority list at the moment. So I will direct most of my posts there instead of here. I'm posting here rather infrequently as it is. Fellowship is building a bigger team of contributors anyway, so there will be more activity there. If there are items that really don't belong at that webzine, I'll still put them here.

I did receive some kind notes about this site, and I appreciate them all.

10:45 AM

February 14, 2002

I HAVE JUST SPENT way too many hours making this site frames-free. If the result doesn't work on your browser, let me know.

10:47 PM

YIPPEE! A new evangelical theological webzine has joined the world: Fellowship, a project of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship. This one has a rather innovative editorial strategy, specially designed for the web.

Pass it on!

10:45 PM

February 10, 2002

I HAD AN EPIPHANY while speaking with a student over lunch Friday. Our doctrine class has just been through the doctrine of election. Every time I teach this course, election (better known as "predestination") has been the most discouraging lecture of them all. I keep tinkering with it every time, but so far to no avail. We evangelicals hate it, except for those of us who love it; and those of us who love it just make the rest of us hate it even more.

This year I had the class read an article in which I have tried to rescue the doctrine, then report back on whether and how it had helped. (The answer was that it basically hadn't.) In the article I contend that the debate over predestination got off on the wrong foot in the fourth century, has never really recovered, and never will until the terms in which the debate is conducted are exchanged for better ones. In other words, centuries of Augustinianism, Pelagianism, Calvinism, and Arminianism are basically (though not entirely) one very long dead end.

What comforting news to offer a class of freshmen learning theology for the first time! My student quite rightly asked why I bothered to teach it when I'm criticizing it. Now of course one reason to teach dead ends is so that people can recognize them, navigate them, and perhaps even avoid them. But I found another, better answer, stumbling across an analogy worth repeating here (which probably means that it isn't worth all that much).

The Church's theological traditions are full of problems. We disagree. We change our minds, and refuse to admit it. We confuse the eternals of the gospel with the temporals of our cultures, and force the wrong things on our communities and mission fields. Sometimes we draw conclusions which we then use as a basis for excommunicating fellow Christians, only to discover some time later that they were wrong conclusions.

But the Church's theological traditions are also our treasure. They have brought us what we know of eternal life, and to forego them because of their problems would give up everything that matters. They protect the glory of God, who was in Christ reconciling the world to him. They guide the grammar of praise that sustains us, rekindles our hope, and gathers the nations into the peace of Jesus Christ.

Our theological tradition is like Noah's ark: leaky, dark, smelly, confining, sometimes even oppressive. The alternative is free, light, fresh, open – and fatal.

What do we do on the ark? We muck out the stalls. We bail out the water. We fix leaks and try not to cause bigger ones in the process. We go up on deck to search for the land we've been promised – then back down to do the jobs on which our lives, all of our lives, depend. And we thank God for every new breath we take, even if every new breath carries a stench that "could knock a yak flat."

Today I wouldn't give up this job for anything. But someday, when we see "face to face" (1 Cor. 13), I'll give it up in a flash, to join the chorus that forever sings with perfected words the praises of the one we already find among us in the shadows.

Of course, that won't be the end of theology. It will only be the beginning of a wonderful new chapter.

God bless you, class, as you study for your first exam.

3:35 PM

AKM ADAM ("AKMA"), a Duke friend, wonders why the coverage of the brewing fuss over the gender-inclusive TNIV hasn't mentioned the NRSV, which quite thoroughly re-worked the RSV's masculine language. In my opinion, it is because (a) news media have no clue about the ins and outs of the Bible translation industry, and (b) evangelicals wrote off the RSV in the fifties because of its translation of the Hebrew almah in Isaiah 7:14 as "young woman" rather than "virgin."

Indeed, the original NIV was the evangelical answer to the RSV! To fundamentalists, for whom the virginal conception of Jesus is one of the five fundamentals, the RSV translators' concession to historical criticism came across as skepticism. Evangelicals fought fire with fire, coming up with a modern-language translation they could trust. (The NIV, NLT, and others dutifully translate the word as "virgin," a concession to christological typology that I find quite satisfying.)

So the RSV/NRSV ceased being theologically interesting to most evangelicals long ago, except as an illustration for why fundamentalists were right to oppose modernism in the early twentieth century. The NIV is a counternarrative to the RSV -- a fact that probably helps explain the offense evangelicals take at the TNIV. (To quote Firesign Theatre: "I thought we were fighting fascism!")

I myself read the RSV, because it comes in a cool facing-pages English-Greek New Testament from the American Bible Society. My Old Testament is a Jewish Publication Society Tanakh, Hebrew on one side, JPS English on the other. In class I can read the English, but pretend I'm reading the Greek or Hebrew!

Just kidding, class.

Now lest you think that all this bandwidth devoted to Bible translations is just my academic esotericism peeking through, let me assure you otherwise. Did you know that we evangelicals can tell our stories in terms of our Bible translations? It's true. Though an unbeliever, I was nevertheless confirmed into the PCUSA at 13 and presented with an RSV. I read the introduction in church and pretty much ignored it thereafter. I was born again one night when, home from college and bored to death, I found the William Barclay translation of the New Testament that my godparents had given me at my (infant) baptism, read the Gospel According to Luke, and had the living hell scared out of me. Bless you, Dick and Barbara! As a new evangelical, I was of course introduced to Bible study through the NIV, in a leather study Bible edition that my next door neighbor Bob Vernon (an evangelical leader who at the time was an elder at John MacArthur's Grace Community Church) and his family generously gave me. Bless you, Vernons! I stuck with the NIV until my time at Fuller Seminary converted me to the RSV, with which I remain happy. Ironically, my confirmation Bible, so long unused, now sits open on my desk. Conservatives may consider that a defeat, but I consider it a testament (pun intended) to the sacramental power of God's Word, which has managed to shine through every one of these translations, even the relatively poor ones.

Two years ago I picked up a NLT at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The folks at Tyndale bravely decided to keep the word "Living" in the title, a reference to the "Living Bible" paraphrase. Even the Living Bible has a place in my walk. After our Christmas dinnr, my extended family had a hallowed tradition of reading Luke 2 in the KJV while we kids waited in agony for the chance to open our gifts. One year someone received a Living Bible, and read its paraphrase of the Christmas story while the family laughed uproariously. (Mary, no longer "full with child," was now "obviously pregnant.") My family might not have cracked our Bibles more than once a year, but we knew that one follows a Christmas meal with the King James, not some wannabe Tillichian paraphrase from K-mart. Reading the Living Bible after Christmas dinner is like smoking a clove cigarette with Winston Churchill.

Anyway, the presence of the word "Living" in "New Living Translation" blinded me to the NLT for over a year. But Tremper Longman, my fellow Westmont faculty, was a translator and editor. The cognitive dissonance forced me into its pages. And when I opened up my NLT, I was impressed -- very impressed -- by the NLT's accessibility and grace. It rocks! The NIV, by contrast, is timid, stodgy, and too theologically safe. Of course the NIV's constituency would freak out about replacing "man" with "human." That's who they are. The NLT, by contrast, is already more sensitive to gender in translation. Where's the scandal? Nowhere -- because the NLT is a different community, evangelical without being reactionary, pastorally sensitive without being politically correct.

Have I mentioned before that Westmont is a very special place? Westmont is a very special place. We're firmly evangelical without being obsessed with drawing boundaries. We're centered in Christ and open to the Spirit. Westmont is a place where the evangelical left and the evangelical right come together in warm fellowship. Where the RSV meets the NIV in the NLT, so to speak.

Like I said, our Bibles tell our stories.

Back to my first answer to AKMA for the NRSV's absence in the TNIV furor: These are squabbles between families who are just about invisible to the American mass media community. My heart goes out to all those people who have no idea what I've been talking about all this time. (Would you like me to suggest some reading?)

3:01 PM

February 6, 2002

CRITICS ARE TAKING AIM at gender-neutral Bible translations such as the forthcoming Today's New International Version from Zondervan. This story is perfect for Southern Baptist boycotts, news media frenzies, liberal snobbery, and culture-warfare in general. Lost in all the fun will be clear thinking about how the Bible should be translated into English.

In Greek, as in Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, and so on, all nouns are gendered: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In English, gender has nearly disappeared (ships and countries are still occasionally called "her," but only by the politically incorrect). So in English the idea of gender is now restricted to personal pronouns. As Calvin College's Richard Muller once put it to me, this "supercharges" English personal pronouns with human-style gender.

This supercharging is one of the reasons why academics and others have grown suspicious of using "man" and "mankind" as generic for humanity. In other languages, where everything is gendered, the association is less intense. As a result, there is less pressure for gender-free language in gendered languages. As an illustration, consider Spanish, where I have two padres (parents) and four abuelos (grandparents). A literal translation from Spanish into English -- "I have two 'fathers' and four 'grandfathers'" would mislead. Any Bible translation committee that translated that literally would, and should, get into trouble.

The question, then, is not whether the Greek huios literally means "son," but whether in context it is better translated "son" or "child." Another legitimate question is whether the Greek pater, less supercharged with masculinity than the English "father," is appropriate for describing the one who sent Jesus. I think it is, but I worry that unsophisticated readers are reading God as a "guy," and creating perceptions of God that are all the more offended by gender-neutral translations. The history and continuing dilemma of translation of texts into modern English practically forces people into the very camps that are firing at each other over the TNIV.

I am both sympathetic to gender-neutral translating, and sometimes disappointed with the result (as when the New Revised Standard Version translates "son of man," an extremely important loaded term, into a term that no longer echoes the divine judge of Daniel 7). The problem is not with the Bible, nor with American conservatism, nor with American liberalism. The problem is that here English fails us.

9:05 AM

I THINK I JUST DISCOVERED why my writing needs improving, in this weblog entry by Matt Welch, L.A. journalist.

One of my doctoral committee members once remarked, "You write like a German!" It wasn't a compliment.

8:32 AM


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