August 24, 2009

Understanding the Historical Context of Scripture

One of the key components in properly understanding a verse, section, or book of the Bible is to understand the historical context in which it was written. The Bible is God’s Word for all people and for all time, but much of the Bible is occasional in nature. That is, it was written at a particular point in history, by a particular inspired author, addressing a particular audience which faced a particular situation. With this in mind, proper interpretation involves finding out what the text says, understanding how it applied to the original audience and situation, determining the underlying principles which guided that application, and then applying those principles to parallel situations today. The historical context is the means by which we can gain clearer understanding of how the text would have been understood by the original audience.

What should we look for when trying to understand the historical context? Three types of contextual information are fundamental and will go a long way in bringing the original context to light.

1. Old Testament Background – The New Testament makes extensive quotations and allusions to the Old Testament, and in many passages it is assumed that the audience understands the Old Testament context. For example, the NT concept that Jesus is the Lamb of God is properly understood only in the context of the OT sacrificial system (in particular, the Passover of Exodus). This is not only true for the NT, but also much of the OT. The historical books, wisdom literature, and prophets all make reference to or assume understanding of the Pentateuch. When examining a passage, look for quotations and allusions to the OT, or for concepts that might be explained elsewhere in the Bible. When you see a quotation, it’s a good idea to read it in its original OT context because many times the author will assume understanding of the whole context though only quoting a small portion. A Bible with a good cross-reference system can be very helpful for identifying quotations and allusions. See the recommend resources below for additional useful tools.

2. Specific Historical Situation – Understanding the occasion or the specific historical situation in which the book was written will help to guide your interpretation. Often times it will not be possible to know the full situation with certainty, but a partial understanding and knowledge of the range of possibilities can go a long way. For example, understanding that 1 and 2 Chronicles was written after the Jews began to return from exile and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem will help you to understand why the author focuses on certain themes over others. Understanding that 1 Corinthians was written to address specific problems with the church in Corinth will help you to follow Paul’s flow of thought as he touches on the various issues and will help prevent some possible misunderstandings or misinterpretations. The best sources for information on the specific historical situation would be clues from the book itself and introductions to books such as can be found in Bible dictionaries or at the start of a book in many study Bibles. See the recommend resources below for additional useful tools.

3. General Background (e.g. Cultural, Political, Religious, Economic, and Geographic) - Understanding the general background and cultural aspects of life during the time in which the book was written will help clarify the meaning behind concepts that may be foreign to our culture or provide other insight that may be missed due to cultural distance. Additionally, it may help us more appropriately apply a passage that has a cultural aspect to it. For example, if we attempt to directly apply Paul’s command to “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” this could result in some awkward social engagements in certain cultures. However, when we understand that the kisses were a common way to give someone a warm, affectionate greeting, then we can take the principle and apply it all cultures (Christians should greet one another with an affectionate greeting). Bible dictionaries and commentaries are often helpful sources of background information. See the recommend resources below for some useful tools.

One of the earliest Christian creeds was the phrase “Jesus is Lord.” When a 21st century Christian reads those words today, the most common way that this is understood is in the sense of “Jesus is the boss” or “Jesus is in charge.” While this concept is certainly present in the phrase, an understanding of the historical context can provide additional insight into how significant this phrase was in the early church (and is for us today).

· Old Testament Context – The most common form of Scripture available to the Greek-speaking world was the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint (often abbrev. LXX). This is significant when we learn that the LXX translates the Divine name ‘Yahweh’ as ‘Lord’ (the Greek word kyrios) and that this is the same Greek word used in the statement “Jesus is Lord”. For a Greek-speaking Jew who was well-versed in the OT, there would be an instinctive connection between “the Lord” and Israel’s God, Yahweh. This subtle connection is made explicit when we study the Old Testament context of the “Jesus is Lord” passages. Compare the following NT passages and their corresponding OT quotations/allusions (Note: Most English translations translate Yahweh as LORD in all caps):

  • Romans 10:9-13 with Joel 2:32
  • Philippians 2:10-11 with Isaiah 45:23-25
  • 1 Peter 3:14-15 with Isaiah 8:12-13

(For further examples – Jn. 12:40-41/Isa. 6:1-10; Heb.1:10-12/Psa. 102:25-27; 1 Cor. 2:8/Psa. 24)

· Political Context – In Roman society, it would not be uncommon for people to profess their allegiance to Caesar using the phrase “Caesar is Lord.” By this they would be declaring that Caesar is the supreme ruler and king over all. In fact, as the emperor cult grew in prominence towards the end of the 1st century and into the 2nd century, refusing to confess “Caesar is Lord” and offer incense to his image would be punishable by death. For Christians in this environment, the confession that “Jesus is Lord” rather than Caesar was no glib concession to Christ, but was a profession of allegiance on which they would often have to stake their lives.

Within the historical context above, the simple statement “Jesus is Lord” carries a lot of weight and could be understood in the sense of:”In the person of Jesus, Yahweh has visited His people and has taken His rightful place upon the throne as King over all creation, and to Him belongs all glory, all honor, and all praise.”

Recommended Resources for Historical Context:
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
Dictionary of Biblical Imagery
New Bible Dictionary
Dictionary of New Testament Background
Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

August 21, 2009

Choosing a Bible Translation

Why are there so many different Bible versions? What’s the difference between them? How do I know which one to choose? If you’ve ever stood in the Bible section of a bookstore, I’m sure these questions have come to mind. While choosing a Bible is ultimately a matter of personal preference, a little information about the different versions available can go a long way in helping you to make an informed decision.

The goal of every English Bible is to accurately convey the meaning of the original languages (Hebrew for the OT, Greek for the NT) into English. Unfortunately, since no two languages share all of the same characteristics, a translation is never exact. There is a continuous need for revision because of gradual changes in the English language, advancements in Greek and Hebrew language studies, new manuscript evidence, and a desire to improve upon the accuracy of an existing translation. Add to this competing translation philosophies and sufficient funds and ‘Voila,’ we have a plethora of English translations at our disposal.

So what’s the difference between them? Are they all essentially the same? One of the best ways to understand how two translations differ is to know the principles that guided the way each was translated. There are three broad styles of translation will help us distinguish the various translations (though 3 categories are presented below, the reality is much more like a sliding scale than neatly fitting categories).

1. Formal (or Direct) Equivalence This style seeks a literal reproduction of the original text, including sentence structure and word order. This usually involves an attempt to translate each word in the original language with an equivalent word in English whenever possible. Sometimes called “word for word.”
Example translations: KJV (1769), NRSV (1989), NASB (1995), ESV (2001)
Pro: By maintaining the structure of the original, logical connections and subordinate clauses will often come through clearer than in a dynamic translation where the tendency is to shorten sentences for smoother reading. In the example below, we see that v7 is a dependent clause to v6, suggesting that the manner in which we humble ourselves is by casting our anxieties on Him.
1 Peter 5:6-7 (ESV) - Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:6-7 (NLT) - So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.
Con: By seeking a “word for word” rendering, certain phrases may not be easily understood by the English reader.
Matthew 3:15 (ESV) - But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
Matthew 3:15 (NLT) - But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

2. Dynamic (or Functional) Equivalence – This style attempts to translate the meaning of the text as it would have been understood by the original readers in a way that results in the same understanding for the readers of the translation. Sometimes called “though for thought.”
Example translations: NIV (1978), HCSB (2004), NLT (2004), TNIV (2005)
Pro: By seeking an equivalent phrase in English to convey the message of the original, it often reads more smoothly than a formal translation, thereby aiding comprehension.
Ephesians 4:20-24 (NASB) - But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit
Ephesians 4:20-24 (NLT) - But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception.
Con: In a dynamic translation, the translator is often required to make interpretive decisions that may or may not be the correct one. This decision would be left up to the reader in a formal translation.
1 Corinthians 5:5 (ESV) - you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 5:5 (NLT) - Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.

3. Free Translation (or Paraphrase) – When translating from the original languages, this style could be considered a stronger form of dynamic equivalence, with an emphasis on conveying the ideas of the original with less concern for the words and the form used. Some versions in this category are not translations from the original, but a paraphrase of an existing English translation.
Example translations: TEV (1976), TLB (1971), NCV (1991), The Message (2002)
Pro: Since the paraphrase is not as tied to the words and form of the original as the other translations, they are capable of producing much more vivid pictures for the reader.
Psalm 73:11-14 (ESV) - And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?” Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.
Psalm 73:11-14 (The Message) - What's going on here? Is God out to lunch? Nobody's tending the store. The wicked get by with everything; they have it made, piling up riches. I've been stupid to play by the rules; what has it gotten me? A long run of bad luck, that's what— a slap in the face every time I walk out the door.
Con: Interpretive decisions must be made similar to the dynamic equivalent translations, though more frequent in number (see dynamic example above).

So which do you choose: formal, dynamic, or paraphrase? The best answer is, “Yes!” There are benefits to each type, and it’s a good idea to consult multiple translations during your study of a passage. Oftentimes, the differences between them will give you insight into the different ways a specific verse could be (and probably has been) interpreted.

This discussion has not touched on every area in which translations can differ, but you should be more equipped to wade through the many options the next time you purchase a new Bible. The good news in all this is that most newer translations (such as the TNIV, NLT, ESV, and HCSB) have attempted to incorporate the best features of both the dynamic and formal methods, attempting to achieve optimum accuracy and readability even if they lean more towards one end of the spectrum. Ultimately, the best translation will be the one that you will actually read. Find a translation that you are comfortable with and use it as your primary Bible, then have an alternate translation available to consult during deeper study of a passage.

August 15, 2009

Recommended Resources

I was asked to compile a list of sermons and other resources that I have found to be beneficial. Below is a list of speakers, books, and classes that have had a big influence on my spiritual development. I generally don’t spend time listening to sermons when I could and should be doing other things, but I have found it extremely rewarding to hear God’s word preached and taught during times that I would otherwise be listening to the radio or doing nothing (for example, the two most frequent times that I listen are on my commute to/from work and while working out on the treadmill). However, I do make an effort to read when I can, even if that means sacrificing time normally spent watching television, playing video games, or golfing (not to imply that those things are inherently bad – we just all have limited free time and must choose how to spend it). That decision has had a huge impact on my spiritual development.

It should go without saying that I do not endorse everything that you will find in the links below and that there is no substitute for your own prayer-filled Bible study and wrestling with the scripture to know and believe things for yourself. It is frightfully easy to think someone else’s thoughts without ever having to think for yourself. What you should expect from proper use of these resources is to have your soul fed by the preaching of the Word, your mind stimulated by profound and sometimes controversial discussion, and your heart moved by the Holy Spirit to greater devotion to Christ.

Sermons and Conference Messages
Desiring God – Tons of Christ-centered sermons, seminars, and conference messages. Plus almost every book that John Piper has written is available in pdf form for free.
Cornerstone Church, Simi Valley, CA – Francis Chan has become one of my favorite preachers, and you can find his sermons here along with other solid preaching from Cornerstone.
Village Church, Highland Village, TX – Dynamic and convicting sermons by Matt Chandler, etc.
HeartCry Missionary Society (links on the left side) – Sermons, conferences, and seminars from the preacher of HeartCry. Expect to be stirred.
Additional Paul Washer – In addition to the links at HeartCry, this site has many other messages by Paul Washer.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones – Perhaps one of the most influential preachers of the 20th Century, God is still using the late Dr. Lloyd-Jones to turn hearts to Himself.
Truth for Life – Solid, biblical preaching from Alistair Begg.
Grace To You – John MacArthur just recently made the past 30 years of his sermons available for free online.
Mars Hill Church, Seattle, WA – Mark Driscoll is somewhat controversial and has a tendency to cross the line sometimes in his sermons, but he does not shy away from preaching hard truth.
Terry Virgo – Excellent Spirit-filled preaching from the UK
Tim Keller – Several conference messages and sermons, with a lot of good stuff about doing ministry in the cities.
David Wells – Engaging the postmodern world with a Christian worldview. This guy should make you think.
Bryan Chapell – Sermons from the president of Covenant Theological Seminary
Don Carson – D.A. Carson is always stimulating to read or listen to and he will teach you a lot about the message of the Bible.

Online Classes for Biblical and Theological Studies
Biblical Training (free registration required) – This is a great site with tons of classes from the very new believer’s level to seminary level classes. You will find teachers from a broad range of Evangelical traditions.
Worldwide Classroom (free registration required) – These are class lectures from Covenant Theology Seminary, including the course syllabi and handouts. Quite a variety of classes offered.
Reformed Theological Seminary (iTunes Podcast) – Podcasts of courses from RTS.

I do quite a bit of reading and make ready use of the library in order to avoid spending all of my money on books. The below suggestions are books that I feel are either good enough to warrant buying so that you can mark it all up or simply worth having around for reference or another reading.
Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) – There have been several excellent English translations of the Bible in recent years (some of the most recent being the ESV, TNIV, and the HCSB). Having read significant amounts from all of these, I am comfortable with saying that if your primary reading Bible is an NIV, NKJV, KJV, NASB, or anything else earlier than the 1990, then getting one of these Bible translations could rejuvenate your Bible reading, giving you a fresh look at a passage that you may have simply read over 100’s of times before. Of the choices above, my opinion is that the HCSB is the best all-round translation, especially for a primary reading Bible. It’s very readable and accurate to the original languages. It is also a new translation rather than an update of an earlier one, so while some of the readings are less familiar, they have a freshness to them.

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem – This is a very accessible introduction to Biblical Doctrine that still manages to be fairly thorough. It is especially useful for those who are new to theology as well as those looking for a broad view of reformed evangelical doctrine. Each chapter cross-references relevant sections in Systematic Theologies from a number of traditions, which allows you to pursue more perspectives on a particular topic.
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan – Written in 1678, this parable of the Christian life is probably the most widely circulated English book in history next to the Bible. It is just as relevant now as it was 300 years ago. If you haven’t ever read it, read it. If you have, it’s worth reading again periodically. If the older language is a stumbling block for you, you have also the Pilgrim’s Progress in Modern English.
The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther – This Reformation classic from its most prominent figure will give you a glimpse into Luther’s wit, an introduction to some of the controversies of the Reformation, and an appreciation for the sovereignty of God.
The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader – This will give you an taste of Jonathan Edwards’ phenomenal presentation of the Gospel of Christ. Follow this up with The Religious Affections, which is not the easiest read, but is an important and relevant book by one of the greatest minds in American history.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen – This is an excellent book from a great puritan scholar on fighting against sin with the power of the Gospel. It is a difficult book to read, but if you have the patience, it’s well worth the time invested.
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo - This classic is stirring to read and will make you think.
Knowing God by J.I. Packer – Mind and heart meet in this classic.
Desiring God by John Piper – Ditto.

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan and Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper – These two books may change your life.
Grasping God's Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall – This book will give you solid guidance on reading, understanding, interpreting and applying the Bible to your life. The Bible is not just a collection of verses to be pulled out and used as needed, but is a God-breathed book with a specific and coherent message.
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin – This is an amazing work of theology and a classic of western literature. Contrary to what is commonly thought, this is no dry academic work, but is devotional and pastoral through and through. You probably won’t agree with everything that’s written in here, but if you’re a protestant Christian (or even if your not), it’s worth working through just to see how pervasive an influence this work has had on your own beliefs and traditions. Be sure to get the McNeill-Battles translation.

There are so many more books that could go on this list, but the above is a good start…