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Saturday, December 06, 2014

Bad Ideas That Refuse To Die

What is it about bad ideas?

I’m not thinking of anything as egregious as false teaching making its way into the church, though that tends to happen on a regular basis too. No, I’m thinking more of the natural preferences and tendencies we have and assumptions we make that can hinder the work of God and drive a wedge in between believers.

The worst part about bad ideas is that, unlike many varieties of false or heretical teaching, they often come from good people, which makes them that much more sensitive to deal with. They are also not demonstrably sinful in most cases, making it more difficult to mount a case against them and disinclining those who harbor them to easily abandon them.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Neither is a critical issue that (unless terribly mishandled) needs to be the cause of a church split or believers taking sides, but both have historically done damage, hindered growth and fellowship and led to discouragement and apathy if not carefully and prayerfully managed.

Bad Idea #1: The KJV is the Only Legit Translation

The King James version of the Bible was a superior translation of the best available Greek and Hebrew manuscripts in its day, no argument. But words and their meanings are not static: they fall out of use and are replaced with new ones, acquire shades and nuances uncontemplated by their original users and sometimes even reverse meanings (the word “grin”, for example, used to mean “scowl”). New generations require new translations of scripture in order to communicate truth accurately.

The first real Bible I ever owned was a KJV. The language was ancient even then, but it was quoted constantly in church and at home and I became thoroughly familiar with its anachronisms and linguistic oddities. Then in 1971 came the NASB, and in 1973 the NIV. As a result my world changed significantly (though not immediately because at the time I was a teenager, paying little attention to preaching and even less to personal study).

But upon turning to the Lord for good in my early twenties, I became involved in discipling a group of teens and twenty-somethings and it became obvious that a translation other than the King James was urgently needed. Without the modern versions almost every Bible study would have bogged down with my efforts to explain why the actual meaning of a text wasn’t the obvious meaning, if indeed the meaning was obvious at all.

Each of my limited, cursory investigations of Greek and Hebrew demonstrated the superiority of the new translations to meet the needs of that generation. Further, I was seeing the evidence of their effectiveness in transforming lives on a regular basis. So you can imagine how it bewildered me to find that serious Christians in my own church were quite opposed to their use.

Some folks who promoted the KJV as the “only version” were cantankerous and transparently silly; their arguments were easily dismissed for the unpleasant way they were delivered, their lack of scriptural support and often their sheer absurdity. But others who preferred the KJV from the platform were loving, pleasant people who simply had a strong attachment to a source of many years of blessing and were uninformed or misinformed about the scholarship and reliability of the new translations.

It made for a few awkward confrontations, but fortunately most of the churches in which I encountered these attitudes had sensible and gracious leadership and the KJV rarely became a divisive issue. Certainly it was well managed in my home church.

Today I find such opposition is all but non-existent. Why? The obvious of course: many of those with whom I disagreed over the issue are now with the Lord.

Bad Idea #2: Credentialism

Then in my twenties and early thirties I began to encounter Bible teachers with seminary training. That was not in itself objectionable; in fact I had briefly considered the possibility of attending seminary or Bible school in my first year or two of serious Bible study. I regularly enjoyed the meaty word studies in the Dallas Theological Seminary publications of the day and bought and devoured numerous books and commentaries written by such men. And of course logic dictates that serious scholarship on the part of some in the Christian community is an ongoing necessity in the life of the church.

So I had and continue to have no bone to pick with religious education in principle. What began to irk me big time was the ostentatious aura of superior knowledge emanating from some who were given the pulpit and insisted on using their years of study as the be-all and end-all in any investigation into history, language or theological meaning. A degree became the excuse to curtail all discussion. Context, common sense and comparison with other scripture — tools by which the common man for whom the word of God was written was able to understand his Bible — took a back seat to credentialism and “higher knowledge”.

One man in particular seemed to take great delight in offering his listeners a weekly game of interpretive whack-a-mole. You know what I mean: “The verse looks like it means this, but if you know Greek, you’ll understand that it actually means that”. Such practices can be deeply discouraging to those who are rightly attempting to find meaning in the scripture without an omnipresent ecclesiastical authority holding their hands.

Let me go out on a limb here: in translating scripture, there are not a lot of wheels to be reinvented, at least not legitimately. If a word can reasonably be translated this way or that way, somebody somewhere has already done it more than once. You don’t need to be a Greek scholar to have an adequate knowledge of what the Bible teaches.

Today we have all kinds of Greek and Hebrew tools previous generations did not. Certainly in English (and very likely in other languages, though I have no knowledge of specifics) we are now able to look up individual root words, access a variety of expert opinions on the syntax and idioms of ancient languages — and to do it with a few keystrokes. The bulk of translation work has already been carefully and repeatedly performed by those whose conclusions are openly accessible, and dissenting opinions with scholarly merit are easy to find, enabling the layperson to draw informed conclusions about matters that Christians in other generations often had to take on faith. Both these factors significantly reduce the benefit of on-site linguistic expertise to any individual local church. Translation is not an easy job, but no book in the history of the world has been as well-translated, as meticulously studied, as vigorously debated and as admirably supported with scholarship as the biblical texts.

Further, the sorts of questions that can only be settled by Greek or Hebrew scholarship are rarely significant to faith or practice. The important doctrines in scripture recur so frequently in its pages and are explained in so many different ways that they never hang on the translation of a particular word.

That’s not to devalue scholarship or translation. Both are immensely valuable. But translation needs to be done every generation or so, not each Sunday from the platform. And scholarship needs to inform a message, but it should only become its content if you happen to be teaching how to study or teach.

Twenty years ago, this was a problem that needed addressing (and in the particular instance I’m thinking of, the elders addressed it), but today I find appeals to authority from degree-waving and ostentatious scholarship are a rarity. Whether a general lack of Bible knowledge is actual or merely assumed by those who teach is hard to say unless you are familiar with the congregation in question, but either way it seems to me that Bible teaching is often ‘dumbed down’ to the perceived lowest common denominator.

Under such circumstances credentialism is a non-issue; a grade-school teacher would get more mileage from a diploma or knowledge of Greek than some pastors and teachers.

The Infection that Breaks Out Elsewhere

I am always happy to see a bad idea disappear for a while. But almost invariably, bad ideas will resurface in another form before long.

Take traditionalism — by which I mean the elevation of preferred methods and familiar church tropes to competition with the expressed will of God in his word, not merely older ways of doing things — as one example. Traditionalism in the form of legalistic adherence to the idea of one ‘divinely preserved’ Bible translation may no longer be a common problem, but traditionalism of one sort or another is always with us.

Or take the issue of overdependence on scholarship in the interpretation of scripture or unduly reverencing credentials in church leadership, for that matter. Such things may disappear in any given local congregation for a while, but in the Body of Christ generally they have often been a huge problem. Seminary students are constantly finding employment as pastors on the basis of being able to produce a degree despite a lack of life experience, critical interpersonal skills and most importantly, the qualifications set out in scripture for those who desire to serve as shepherds of the flock.

Perhaps this is why both Paul and Peter warn believers to “be on your guard”. A guard is only necessary when we expect our situation to change in some unpredictable and potentially dangerous way. This can happen with (relatively) minor concerns like the ones I’ve mentioned or with very significant problems like false teaching and immorality.

Being on guard is never a bad thing. Christians need to be conscious that an ongoing stream of bad ideas winding its way into the gatherings of believers is not merely a possibility; it’s inevitable.

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