Monday, May 16, 2011

Which is the Best Bible Translation?

For over two hundred years, the King James Version (KJV) reigned supreme as the English Bible. However, there are a number of reasons why it is not the best translation for daily use for most Christians. Among these reasons are: 1) Since the translation of the KJV, many more Greek manuscripts have been discovered that give us a better picture of what was in the original writings of the New Testament letters, 2) Since the translation of the KJV our knowledge the ancient languages and ancient cultures has increased. 3) Since the KJV, our understanding of linguistics has increased. Most importantly, 4) the KJV uses archaic language that is not easily understood (and often misunderstood) by modern readers.

For most people, the discussions about ancient languages and manuscripts seems a bit esoteric. Furthermore, these factors account for little difference in the most popular translations. The real issue is, which is the most accurate translation?

The problem of “literal” translations

While this seems like a straightforward question, is a bit more complicated. The question, “which is the most accurate?” can be taken in two ways? By most accurate, does one mean the translation that is the most literal or does most accurate mean the translation that gives the modern reader the most accurate understanding?

Some might think that the most accurate translation is the one that is the most literal. That is, a translation is accurate by translating word for word from the original language to English. However, there are times that a “word for word” translation leads to an inaccurate, misleading, or unintelligible translation.

For example, if a Spanish speaker wants to say “My nose is cold” in Spanish, she would say, “Tengo frio en la nariz.” However, a literal translation of that sentence into English would be “I have cold in my nose.” In this case, a word for word translation would be misleading. One might think this person is saying that she has a runny or stuffed up nose. So, even though it is a word for word translation, it is inaccurate and misleading.

If you say “Thank you,” to someone and he replies in Spanish, he would probably say, “De nada.” However, a word-for-word translation of de nada would be “of” [de] “nothing” [nada]. Yet, that does not make sense in English. Once again, a word for word translation would be misleading.

Another problem with trying to translate strictly word-for-word from one language to another is that most words have a wide range of meanings. Few words in one language have the exact same range of meaning as a word in a different language. Their meanings overlap, but they are not identical.

For example, consider the English word “capital.” If I said, “I am trying to raise capital to start a business in the Colorado capital of Denver (where the “D” should be a capital letter). I thought that was a capital idea. In Denver, murder is a capital offense.” In the first instance, the word “capital” means money. However, if I translated it consistently that way, then it would make sense. It would read, “I am trying to raise money to start a business in the Colorado money of Denver (where the “D” should be a money letter). I thought that was a money idea. In Denver, murder is a money offense.”

Another problem with a literal, word-for-word translation is that it usually does not sound very natural. The beauty of a phrase or passage can be lost by the literalness of the translation. The beauty and style are part of the meaning. That is, not only the meaning of the words, but how words sound, are part of the meaning of a passage of Scripture.

For example, Shakespeare said, “A rose is a rose by any other name.” A person might “translate” that as, “No matter what name you give to a rose, it is still a rose.” In one sense, the two sentences mean the same thing. In another, they are very different. The reader does not react to the second sentence in the same way he would to the first. In translating the Bible, the meaning is not only conveyed in the particular content of each word, but also in the sound and style of the sentence.

A final problem with literal translations is that there are times when a literal translation simply very difficult to understand in English. At times, the Apostle Paul writes very long sentences in the Greek. Because of the differences between Greek grammar and English grammar, these sentences are intelligible in the Greek, but would be very confusing in English. That is why most, if not all, English translations, break up some of Paul’s long sentences into shorter ones.

Bill Mounce, who was the New Testament Editor for the English Standard Version (ESV) as well as a member of the New International Version (NIV) translation committee writes, “I wonder if a ‘literal’ translation that makes no real sense in English can accurately be called ‘literal,’ or even a translation that makes a biblical writer sound almost illiterate. . .I am simply wondering if a ‘word of word’ translation that makes no real sense can in any way be called ‘accurate.’”[1]

The problem of non-literal translations

All translations require some interpretative work on the part of the translator. However, when one is dealing with the Word of God, the desire is to keep interpretation to a minimum. As Christians who believe in that the Bible is inspired (literally, God-breathed), we believe that the Bible is inerrant as originally given.[2] Because we believe that every word of Scripture, and not just the ideas, are inspired by God, we desire to have translations that reflect this most accurately. The less literal a translation, the more interpretive it is. Since our desire is to read God’s Word, and not merely an interpretation of God’s Word, the more a translation can reflect the original meaning and the original wording, the better.

In an attempt to “smooth” out a translation to make it readable to the English reader, some aspects of the original are lost. For example, in Galatians, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word for “flesh” 18 different times. Yet, this one word is translated several different ways by modern translations. The chart below shows how both the NIV and the ESV handle this word.




Galatians 1:16

I did not consult any man

I did not immediately consult with anyone

Galatians 2:16

no one will be justified.

no one will be justified.

Galatians 2:20

The life I live in the body

the life I now live in the flesh

Galatians 3:3

are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

are you now being perfected by the flesh

Galatians 4:13

because of an illness

because of a bodily ailment

Galatians 4:14

Even though my illness was a trial to you

and though my condition was a trial to you

Galatians 4:23

was born in the ordinary way;

born according to the flesh

Galatians 4:29

born in the ordinary way

born according to the flesh

Galatians 5:13

But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature

Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh

Galatians 5:16

the desires of the sinful nature

the desires of the flesh

Galatians 5:17

For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh

Galatians 5:19

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious:

Now the works of the flesh are evident

Galatians 5:24

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature

those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh

Galatians 6:8

The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction;

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption

Galatians 6:12

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh

Galatians 6:13

they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh

they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh

In this instance, the NIV translates the word for flesh nine different ways and the ESV translates it five different ways. Neither translation is woodenly literal. Yet, each can be given to different misunderstandings. If a new Christian were to read the ESV, he might misunderstand what Paul is saying and think that the body itself is evil. He could fall into a dualism that sees the spiritual world as good and the physical world as evil. On the other hand, with both translations, especially the NIV, one misses the thread of “flesh” that Paul has woven throughout the book of Galatians. He will not see the connections that Paul might be making throughout the book, particularly in the way he uses the word “flesh” in chapters 5 and 6.

If the language sounds stilted or wooden, or it sounds like the Bible was written by someone for whom English is not their natural language, then part of the meaning and impact of a text is lost.

Bottom Line – Which is the Best Translation?

I don’t think there is a single answer to this question. Fortunately, there does not need to be a single best translation. I think most Christians are best served by having more than one Bible translation. Here are the translations I recommend for various uses:

English Standard Version – (Literal) Good for everyday use for most Christians. Also good for detailed study of a passage of Scripture. Tends to be more literal.

New International Version – (More Readable) Good for new Christians and for reading larger sections of Scripture. However, I must confess I do not like some of the changes they have made with the 2011 version.

New American Standard Bible – (Very Literal) This is the most literal translation Available. If you want to know what the Greek says, this is the Bible to get. However, it is lacking in beauty and readability.

The Message – (Very Readable) This is very dynamic and does a good job of conveying the sense in modern English. This is good both for those who are very familiar with the Bible and for those who have no familiarity at all. For those who are very familiar, this translation will shed a different light on certain passages. For those who are not familiar at all, this is the most readable translation available. However, it is not very literal and is highly interpretative. For most Christians, I would recommend this as a supplement to their study and not as their “main” Bible.

The Living Bible and The New Living Translation – (Very Readable) The Living Bible is a paraphrase. That is, the “translator” simply took the King James and put it into modern English. This Bible is very nostalgic to me because it was the Bible I used in my early years of high school and helped the Word come alive to me. Both of these are good for new believers and for reading large sections of the Bible.

[2] For more on this, see either the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy or the Ligonier Statement.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A History of the King James Bible

May 1 marks the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. In honor of the occasion, I will be posting some articles on the Bible, Bible Translation, and the authority of the Bible. This is the first in the series.

The Old Testament has 39 books which were written in primarily in Hebrew, although some portions of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic. By the 3rd century BC, many Jewish people were no longer living in Israel. As a result, for many of them, Hebrew was not their native tongue. A work was begun to translate the Old Testament into the common language, which at that time was Greek. This Greek translation of the Old Testament is called the Septuagint. We do not know a lot about the history behind this translation. However, we do know that it became very popular. When the New Testament writers quote from the Old Testament, they often use the Septuagint.

All 27 books of the New Testament were written in Greek because Greek was the common language of the day.

The Latin Vulgate

By the 4th century AD, few people spoke Greek any more. In order to make the Bible accessible to the people, the church authorized Jerome to translate the whole Bible into Latin. There were some Latin versions already available, but none of them were complete and may not have been the most accurate. Jerome was uniquely qualified for this task because he was one of the few Christians who not only could read Greek (the New Testament) but also Hebrew (the Old Testament. His translation of the Bible was called the Vulgate. The word “Vulgate” comes from the same Latin word from which we get the word vulgar. This does not mean the translation is crude. Rather, it means common. The Latin Vulgate was a translation of the Bible into the common tongue.

Just as the Greek language passed away, so did Latin. However, instead of translating the Bible into modern languages, as the church had done with the Vulgate, the church insisted that the Latin Vulgate (itself a translation) was the official version. The church was concerned that, if the Bible was translated into the common language, people would come up with interpretations that were contrary to the official position of the church. So, in order to protect the teaching authority of the church, the church refused to translate the Bible into the common language and even banned modern translations. Even though nobody spoke Latin, church services were still conducted in Latin and the Bible was still read in Latin. Sadly, the Vulgate, which was meant to be a translation to make the Bible accessible to the people, became a tool to keep the Bible from the people.

Back to the Originals

The Renaissance (14th – 17th centuries) brought a revival of learning to Europe. With this, there was a renewed interest in studying the classical writings in Greek and Latin. This also created a renewed interest in reading the Bible in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek) rather than in the Latin translation. This was one of the factors that led to the great revival of the church we now call the Protestant Reformation.

One of the scholars who developed a keen interest in reading the New Testament in the original Greek was named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536). However, Erasmus and other scholars were facing a challenge. As with all ancient documents, the original copies of the New Testament books no longer existed. Instead, there were various ancient copies, or manuscripts, scattered around the world. At this time, no one had a complete New Testament in the original Greek. So, Erasmus decided that he would gather the evidence and put together a New Testament in the Greek based on the best available copies.

At the same time Erasmus was putting together his edition of the Greek text, Cardinal Ximenes in Spain was working on one as well. According to some historians, there was some pressure on Erasmus to get his work to the publisher first. Consequently, he rushed the project, resulting in numerous typographical errors in the original printing. Also, there were some places where Erasmus did not have any copies of Greek manuscripts. In order to complete his Greek New Testament, he translated from the Latin back into the Greek. In the process, he created some Greek words that do not exist anywhere else. Some of these stayed in the Greek text (later called the Textus Receptus) and were used as the foundation for parts of subsequent translations of the Bible, including the King James Version.

Despite its flaws, Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was a tremendous advance in helping the church return to the Bible. Over time, others edited and improved Erasmus’ text. In 1633, the publishers marketed the Greek text by claiming, “you hold the text, now received by all, in which nothing corrupt.” This is how Erasmus Greek New Testament became known as the Textus Receptus, or Received Text. It then served as the basis for Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German and even served as the foundation for the King James Version in English.

Early English Versions

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe translated the Latin Vulgate into English. While there is some evidence that other parts of the Bible had been translated into English before Wycliffe, he was the first to translate the whole Bible. The English of the 1300’s was very different from the English of today or even the 17th century when the King James Version was translated. Here is how Wycliffe translated John 3:16: “For God louede so the world, that he gaf his oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.”

In 1526, William Tyndale, inspired by what Luther had done in translating the Bible into German, published his translation of the New Testament in English based on Erasmus’ text. Because the Roman Catholic Church was still in control of England, Tyndale’s Bible was not authorized and, like Wycliffe’s Bible before it, was banned. Tyndale was martyred in 1536 for his work in bringing the Bible to the people.

Tyndale never finished translating the Old Testament. One his disciples, Myles Coverdale, together with John Rogers, completed the work. In 1535, the Coverdale Bible, as it became known, was the first complete English version of the Bible ever published. It is safe to say that no man has had more influence on the English Bible and the English language than William Tyndale. His work became the foundation for all future English translations, including the King James Bible.

By 1539, Henry VIII was on the throne. He had broken with the Catholic Church. As a result, the people were now free to read the Bible in their own language. Coverdale was then hired by Thomas Cramner to publish an English Bible for public use. This was the first authorized English version. It became known as The Great Bible, primarily because of its large size—it measured over 15 inches tall.

In 1553, Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary, ascended to the throne in England. Under her reign, the Protestants once again suffered great persecution. During this time, John Rogers and Thomas Cramner were both burned at the stake. Myles Coverdale fled to Geneva, the home of the great Reformer, John Calvin. In 1560, they published a new English Bible, known as the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible had notes in the margins, much like today’s modern study Bibles. It also was the first English version to add chapter and verse numbers. The chapter and verse divisions that it used are now the standard for Bibles today. The Geneva Bible retained most of Tyndale’s original translation.

After the death of Queen Mary, the Protestants were able to return to England and the English Bible was allowed to be read openly. However, some of the English clergy did not like the distinctly Calvinistic and anti-establishment notes of the Geneva Bible. So, in 1568, they published a revised version of The Great Bible, which became known as The Bishop’s Bible. However, this Bible never became very popular. It seemed that people preferred the Geneva Bible.

The King James Version

In 1604, the Puritan clergy approached King James about producing a new English translation to replace the authorized Bishop’s Bible. The king accepted their proposal, but rejected their involvement. He did not like the Calvinistic spirit of the Geneva Bible (the very thing the Puritans liked). There is some evidence that his primary concern was that the Geneva Bible was undermining his authority as well as the teachings of the Anglican Church.

Even though this became the official translation of the Church of England, it was not warmly received by the people. There was just as much controversy surrounding it as today’s modern translations. The Puritans, including those who came to America, as well as other non-conformists, continued to use the Geneva Bible. Even when the English stopped printing the Geneva Bible, people continued to smuggle new copies in from Amsterdam. However, in the 18th century, The King James Bible became the exclusive Bible for most churches in the English speaking world.

Over the years, the King James Bible has undergone revisions. In fact, there were so many revisions by different printers that in 1769, a new Standard Text was released. In fact, even though there are printings of King James Versions that claim to be the 1611 edition most likely are the Standard Text of 1769. While the text of 1769 differs from the 1611 version in about 24,000 places, most of these are changes in spelling.

The King James Bible was, and still is, a masterful translation. It is not as literal as some of our modern versions, like the New American Standard (NASB) or the English Standard Version (ESV), but might be considered more literal than the New International Version (NIV). Yet, it captures the beauty and the original text in ways that no other English translation has done to date. It has shaped our language and our religious practices. For many in the English speaking world, passages like the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer do not sound right unless one uses the form of the King James Version. Just like the Latin Vulgate and other translations that had gone before, some people—even to this day—believed that the King James Bible is the only inspired and proper Bible.

Since the English language has changed a great deal since 1611 (and even 1769), the King James Bible is not the best translation for most modern readers. However, we can all be thankful for the remarkable impact it has had on the church and the English speaking world.


Some of the material in this article comes from notes dating back to my college and seminary days. As a result, I no longer know the original source of the information. However, much of this data can be gathered from the following sources:

Bruce, F. F., History of the Bible in English

The King James Bible Trust,

Metzger, Bruce and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament.

Ryken, Leland, The Legacy of the King James Bible

Silva, Moises, Introduction to the New Testament, lectures given at Westminster Theological Seminary, available on ITunesU or

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Church and Culture (Part 3)

The following was adapted from a my old blog that I posted on May 24, 2006.

A few years ago, Os Guinness wrote a book on the modern church growth movement entitled, Dining with the Devil. It comes from the expression, “If you are going to dine with the Devil, then you must use a very long spoon.” In our pursuit of relevance, I wonder if our spoon has been long enough.

In a nutshell, here is the problem: in our desire to be culturally relevant and reach lost people, we have worked hard to grab their attention and speak with relevance. Much of the results of this have been good. In many “contemporary” churches, we have seen many people come to church and eventually to Christ that never would have gone to church before. The truth of the Bible has not been veiled behind unintelligible cultural practices. Lives truly have been changed by the gospel.

However, churches have not just grown by attracting non-Christians, but by attracting Christians. People now crave relevance more and more. In reality, they want a church that entertains them and puts on a good show. We have created a church that values entertainment over doctrine. I heard a pastor of one of the largest churches in my denomination (a true megachurch) say, "If we changed our theology, a few people might leave. If we changed our music, half the church would be gone by next Sunday." I know many traditional church pastors who would say the same thing.

I agree that church should not be boring. God isn’t boring. It is the equivalent of a modern miracle how we preachers can talk about our amazing God in such a way that puts people to sleep. However, the danger is, when you build your church on having a good “show,” you now have created an appetite for entertainment that constantly needs to be fed.

While the contemporary church has been far more successful in reaching lost people than the traditional church (look at the PCA’s statistics on those joining by profession of faith and this is apparent), it also has grown by attracting people who are bored with their old church. If people come to your church because yours is more exciting than their old church, then they will leave when they find another church that is more exciting than yours.

This has created a consumer mindset in church members. The members of the church no longer see themselves as owners/ministers, but as consumers. Just as they will leave Safeway to shop at Wal-Mart, they will leave one church for another if it provides a better show or better services for their family. (For more on this, see

We are seeing this all over the country. I can cite a number of examples in my own denomination where a church was once “the hot church” in its community, but now is experiencing decline because some other church has come that puts on a better production. The drive for cultural relevance has resulted in consumerism. Consumerism will eventually bite the church. It is a beast that cannot be contained.

Leadership Magazine published an article entitled iChurch: All We Like Sheep that illustrates this growing problem. It is long on diagnosis and short on prescription. However, that in itself may not be a bad thing. The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that there is one. This article moves us toward that end.

What now?

So, now that we have seen the dangers of cultural relevance, do we return to cultural irrelevance? Of course not. That is unbiblical. We must continue to work to contextualize the gospel without compromising the gospel.

I do not know what the whole answer is, but part of it is that we must call people to radical discipleship. If people are living for the glory of God, living with a sense of mission, then they cannot live as consumers as well. So, we need to challenge people to see that their calling in Christ is not merely to pursue their own comfort, but to pursue the glory of God and the good of others.

Will this solve the problem? It depends on what you see as the problem. It won’t solve the problem of the church having a revolving door. Most people will always be consumers. They are fully enculturated and, until the gospel takes root, they will not be disenculturated. However, it will solve the problem for some because some will get it. If we help people to see that part of the message of the gospel is “Take up your cross and follow me”, the Holy Spirit will empower many to do just that.

I am not optimistic about reversing the consumerism trend. However, I am extremely optimistic that, if we focus as much energy on calling people to radical discipleship as we do on being culturally relevant, that we will see a new generation of disciples who will joyfully answer Christ’s call to live for Christ and His mission. When the traditionalist is willing to give up his tradition and the “contemporary” Christian is willing to give up his craving for personal fulfillment, then the church will once again be a powerful force in our world.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Church and Culture (Part 2)

Recently, I reread George G. Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Abingdon Press). This may be the most thought provoking book I have read on how the church can/should minister in the post-modern world. To help us understand how to reach the contemporary world, Hunter takes us back to the days of St. Patrick. [Let me add a disclaimer. Just because I like a book, that does not mean I agree with everything in the book or even all of its conclusions.]

Most people think of Patrick as Irish and, one might argue, that he became Irish. However, he was born a Briton. Patrick was born in Britain in the year 387. When he was 16 years old, he was kidnapped by the wild people of Ireland and forced to live as a slave. However, six years later, he escaped and (eventually) returned to Britain. Upon his return, he entered the priesthood. After a few years, he believed the Lord was calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary. So, he petitioned the church to send him there. However, the church was reluctant to do so because the church at that time did not believe the Irish could ever become Christians. Why? Because the Irish were barbarians. Hunter notes that, “The perspective of the ancient Roman Christian leaders can be baldly stated in two sentences: (1) Roman Christian leaders assumed that a population had to be civilized "enough" already to be Christianized, that is, that some degree of civilization was a prerequisite to Christianization. (2) Once a sufficiently civilized population became Christian, they were expected in time to read and speak Latin, to adopt other Roman customs, and to do church ‘the Roman way.’”

Still, Patrick went and his ministry was hugely successful. He planted 700 churches and ordained 1000 of these wild Irish “barbarians” to the priesthood. Within his lifetime, estimates are that 30-40 of Irelands 150 tribes became substantially Christian. Furthermore, the Irish then sent missionaries back to the barbarian tribes of Europe. Following Patrick’s model of ministry, they too saw huge success where other missionaries had failed.

You would think that the church in Rome would have celebrated Patrick’s success and the success of his followers among the Germanic peoples. Instead, the church powers of the day were highly critical. The reason was that Patrick and the church movement that he birthed did not do church in “the Roman way.” This all came to a head in 664 at the Synod of Whitby. The two major issues were 1) that the Celtic churches celebrated Easter on a different date than Rome prescribed (they used an earlier dating method than Rome) and 2) the Celtic priests and monks wore their hair differently than the Roman priests and monks. The Roman church wanted all churches to do things exactly the way they did it. They wanted cultural uniformity and insisted that the all others adapt to their culture. The church could not be indigenous to its location. The result of the Synod of Whitby was that Christianity could not longer be indigenous, but must be “Roman.” Within two centuries of Whitby, the missionary movement of the church was effectively squashed. It would not be until the Reformation that the church would recapture its missionary vision in any significant way.

The Roman Church insisted that churches be Roman in their practices. Of course, there was no biblical basis for this. The early church in Jerusalem did not dress Roman, it did not speak Latin primarily. It did not look “Roman.” It looked Jewish in its cultural forms. Yet, within 400 years, the early church had gone from insisting on Jewish cultural forms to Roman cultural forms.

The same issue presents itself today. The western church today looks very different from both the Roman church of Patrick’s day and the Jewish church of the Apostle Paul’s day. The Christians of the early church (and Patrick’s church) would have found many of our church practices shocking. Our music--even in the most traditional of our churches--would have been strange to them. The formality of our dress would have been foreign to them. Yet, just like the Romans of Patrick’s day, many Christians, even Christian leaders, insist that the only right cultural form for doing church is that which was established 400 years ago. However, we must recognize that something is terribly wrong when we insist that “the right way” of doing things is a cultural form that would have been completely foreign to both Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

There are some valuable lessons that we can, and should, learn from Patrick. One is, if the gospel is going to take root in a culture and bring real transformation, it must be indigenous. That is why the church in Colorado Springs can and should look different from a church in Haiti. Of course, there are biblical norms that transcend culture. If one studies Scripture (and even church history), one can discern those norms. When it comes to how to “do church,” the church must insist on Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone must be our only rule for faith and practice. We cannot make our own cultural practices normative for all people.

This is a problem in my own denomination. Years ago, I was at General Assembly (the national gathering of the leaders of our denomination) and in the public discussion, a minister stated that the church should be like McDonald’s. That is, you should be able to go to any Presbyterian Church in America any place in the country and it should be exactly like all the others. Not only that, this same minister insisted that we should use only the Psalter in worship. As if that were not bad enough, he insisted that we should sing the Scottish Psalter to the old Scottish tunes. This minister is a highly intelligent, educated man, far more so than I. Yet, where in the Bible does it canonize Scottish music? Must every American become a Scot in order to be a Christian? Sadly, some would say “yes.”

Yet, we must take seriously the Apostle Paul's declaration "I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22, NASB). Paul never compromised the gospel. He never engaged or advocated sinful practices or bad theology. However, he did adapt in culturally appropriate ways in order to take the gospel to the world. We must do the same.

Hunter begins his book with an obvious statement followed by a rather provocative one. His obvious statement is “The Church, in the Western world, faces populations who are increasingly "secular"-people with no Christian memory, who don't know what we Christians are talking about.” That is, the culture is undergoing a dramatic shift. His provocative statement is “In the face of this changing Western culture, many Western Church leaders are in denial; they plan and do church as though next year will be 1957.”

This raises some important questions: Which is more important to us: our culture and comfort or God’s mission? Are we willing to adapt, in biblically appropriate ways, in order to achieve God’s mission, or are we, like the Roman’s of Patrick’s day, going to insist that our culture adapt to us? Do we view the mission of God as a nuisance or is it central to who we are as the people of God?

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Church and Culture (Part 1)

One of the great obstacles to the mission of the church is the church. The church can become so busy and preoccupied with herself that she sees her mission as an "add-on," an appendix to her ministry rather than central to her life and purpose. This is not a modern problem, but has been a struggle since the church's earliest days.
In the book of Acts, Jesus commissioned the church to be His witness in "Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Yet, for the most part, the church stayed in a holy huddle in Jerusalem until God scattered the church through persecution (Acts 8:1-4).
Yet, even after this, in the "glory days" of the early church, there was still resistance to God's mission. We live nearly 20 centuries after the days of the early church. Since we already know the rest of the story, it is hard for us to imagine how precarious the early Christian movement actually was in the book of Acts. Yet, the early church nearly imploded over the issue of mission.
Paul was commissioned by Jesus Christ to take the gospel to the Gentiles. No one was openly opposed to this. In fact, the early Jewish Christians were very open to reaching out to the great unwashed herd, as long as the Gentiles adopted Jewish cultural practices.
Therein lies the rub. Paul saw great success in his ministry to the Gentiles. However, when these Gentile Christians were converted, they remained Gentiles. They did not adopt Jewish cultural practices. They did not observe the Jewish holy days. They did not adopt Jewish dress. They did not observe the Jewish dietary laws and, worst of all, they did not get circumcised. This was scandalous to many back in Jerusalem. It caused such an uproar that Paul was recalled back to Jerusalem and the church had to convene its first council (Acts 15). Tensions were high at the Jerusalem Council. The mission of the church was hanging in the balance. On the one side where those who said that Gentiles could follow Jesus, as long as they became like the Jews. On the other side was Paul, who said that the Gentiles did not need to adopt Jewish customs, only the Christian faith. If, in the providence of God, Peter had not offered such a compelling speech, the mission of the church would have been lost and the early church would have blown apart. Of course, God did not allow that to happen, but the stakes were that high.
No doubt, the presence of Gentiles in the church made many of the Jewish believers uncomfortable. Can you imagine what it was like the first time someone brought pork to a covered dish dinner? How do you think the elderly Jewish man who from childhood had observed the law reacted when he had to sit next to a Gentile at church who did not even observe the Levitical law on cleanliness? It must have been scandalous to these early Christians. These unwashed Gentiles were coming in to THEIR church and doing all sorts of things that a good Jew would never do.
I wonder if they had battles about music. I do not know anything about 1st century music, but I am sure the musical forms of Greek and Roman culture were different from the musical forms of the Middle East. We do know that the Jews of that era (and the centuries before) objected strongly to the hellenization of their culture. Can you imagine how those early Jews felt when their beloved psalms were sung to hellenized music and even sung in Greek? Such a thing never would have happened in the synagogue.
This is a bit speculative. What is not speculative is that the early church struggled greatly with the issue of mission and adapting their ministry to reach a Gentile culture. Even the Apostle Peter, the same man who had a direct vision for God about the inclusion of the Gentiles (Acts 10), and who gave such a stirring speech at the Jerusalem Council, had great difficulty not looking down his nose at the uncouth Gentiles. He wouldn't even sit at the same table as them until Paul rebuked him for his hypocrisy (Galatians 2).
The issue then, as it is now, is this: what is more important to the church--maintaining the cultural purity of the church which is so prized by its members, or the mission of the church? This is not an issue of theological or biblical compromise. The truth of Scripture must shape culture, not be shaped by it. The church must not allow the world to squeeze it into its mold (Romans 12:1-2). Yet, when the church clings to its culture over against its mission, it has become worldly. A neglect of mission is itself theological compromise. When the church insists that her beloved cultural forms, the ones not mandated by Scripture, are more important than the mission given to her by her Lord, then the church has lost her way.
In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul reminds us of the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. He writes, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor so that you through His poverty might become rich." Paul writes these words to inspire the early Christians to sacrifice for the sake of others. The same principle applies to the mission of the church. If Jesus was willing to give up His comfort in order to reach us, shouldn't we be willing to give up our personal preferences and cultural forms for the purpose of reaching others?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Is Science God? A Brief Review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

Let me begin by saying that I am not a scientist. I barely passed science in college due to a lack of both interest and ability. However, my understand is that The Grand Design, much like his previous best-seller, A Brief History of Time, was written with the non-scientist in mind. If that is the case, then I am the best qualified reviewer of this book because no one qualifies more for the title “non-scientist” than I. Since I am not a scientist and since there were a number of concepts in the book that I failed to understand, my concern in the book has less to do with his scientific conclusions and more with his philosophical beliefs and conclusions.

Hawking begins with the assumption that math and science alone are the only reliable guides to truth. He asserts, “…Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

Hawking states that his goal is to answer three questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?” Yet, he never answers these questions, at least not in the sense that most readers would understand them. His answer to the question of “why” is an answer of causation, not purpose. That is, he says that the answer to these questions can be summed up in scientific laws like gravity and M-theory. These theories explain cause, but they do not explain purpose. This difference may seem subtle, but it is very important.

Let me illustrate the difference between cause and purpose this way. Suppose I was at your house and you gave me a drink in your finest crystal. As we are talking, I intentionally let go of the crystal. It falls to the ground, exploding into a thousand pieces. You might look at me and ask, “Why did the crystal break?” I might say, “Because the gravity the earth is so strong that it attracted the crystal with such force that it collided with the floor. Since your tile floor is stronger than the crystal, the crystal shattered on impact.” I just answered the question truthfully. I explained why. However, that was not really what you were asking. You were not asking me to explain the cause of the crystal destruction, but the purpose.

Hawking never answers the purpose question. He never even attempts to answer the real question of why do we exist. He explains it only in terms of natural law, which, for him, is completely impersonal. The only conclusion that he gives to the real “why” question seems to be “because that is how it is.”

Hawking describes his own philosophical position as “scientific determinism.” He defines scientific determinism in this way: “There must be a complete set of laws that, given the state of the universe at a specific time, would specify how the universe would develop from that time forward.” In other words, everything in the universe is predetermined by scientific laws. If that is the case, the even the actions of Stephen Hawking writing his book (or me writing this review) were predetermined by natural law. Both Hawking and I (and you, the reader), are nothing more than complicated robots responding to a set of stimuli ( a comparison he makes later on).

Hawking goes on to say that people do not really make choices. Instead, in comparing us to robots, he writes, “We would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will—not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions.” In other words, it is all predetermined. Any appearance of choice, or any appearance of randomness, is simply an appearance. If it were possible to do all of the calculations of all of the variables, then it would be possible to predict every action of every human being. Of course, there are too many variables. However, that does not change the fact that everything is predetermined. The universe, then, is nothing more than a highly complicated computer program.

Not only does Hawking’s view mean that everything is determined by natural law, it also means that there is no God. He writes, “Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. . . A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.”

This is nothing more than a naked assertion. He states that a law, by definition is not a law unless it always holds. Therefore, there is no possibility of miracles. However, the definition of a miracle would include, at a minimum, the suspension or abrogation of a law. By asserting that a law can never be broken Hawking does not prove that a law can never be broken. In the same way, he simply asserts that miracles cannot exist. He does not prove this. He rules that out with a wave of his pen.

If one accepts Hawking’s conclusions, then one is left with a meaningless world and a meaningless life. Everything is predetermined by cold, impersonal natural laws. All of our behaviors, our loves, our pleasures, our pains, are simply the out workings of these natural laws. The real why questions, “Why, for what purpose, am I here?” “Why, for what purpose, is this pain in my life?” “Why, for what purpose, should I love my wife, care for my children, or even steward the planet?” are meaningless questions. We are left with a cold, impersonal universe.

One question that the reader is left asking is, why does Hawking (and Dawkins, Harris and others) write with such passion in an attempt to prove that the universe is meaningless? Why is he so adamant that even his own work means nothing in the end? Something is animating him. His own answer would have to be, “I have no choice, but even my passion was scientifically predetermined by the M-Theory.”

The Bible gives another explanation for Hawking’s passion for meaninglessness. Romans 1:18 and following says that natural man suppresses the truth about God in unrighteousness. That is, he knows the truth about God but does not want to acknowledge God. Natural man will go to any lengths, even to the length of denying his own life has purpose, rather than bow down before the Living God.

In contrasts to Hawking’s philosophy of meaningless that has the impersonal laws of math at the center, the Bible offers a philosophy of love. The Bible does not deny natural law, but says that even the laws of nature were created by a loving God. Out of love, this God governs the universe with natural law (and sometimes against them). He does this for His own glory and for the good of the children that He loves. Furthermore, this loving God created people in His own image and intervened into history for the very purpose of having a personal, meaningful relationship with them.

If this is true, if there is a good, loving God governing the universe, then our suffering has meaning. Rather than being the outworking of natural law, which has no purpose, the suffering of God’s people always serves a redemptive purpose. Love, rather than being a chemical response in the brain to certain stimuli, is true passion for another. At the center of the universe, rather than finding nothing, we find a God who works out everything in accordance with his love (Ephesians 1).

In the end, Hawking’s book shows the despair of a world without God. He takes modernism to its logical conclusion. Its logical conclusion is meaninglessness. Life, rather than having any “grand design,” is, in the words of MacBeth, “but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

Thankfully, there is another answer: there is a design because there is a Designer.

Note: I apologize for not including page numbers. I read this on my Kindle before Kindle added the page number feature.