Ephesians 4 and the Americanization of Christianity (Why Greek Matters Part 15)

Does being American (or the citizen of any modern democracy) influence how one interprets the Scripture? Can one’s commitment to democracy affect how we even translate the biblical texts? Let’s consider one text, Ephesians 4:11-12. It names certain types of ministry leadership in the Body of Christ and then describes their purpose. Here is the text as translated in the KJV, under the reign of King James, pre-democracy of course:

(11) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; (12) for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…

Now for the same passage in the New King James Version, translated some 350 years later:

(11) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, (12) for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…

Besides the addition of “himself” at the beginning of verse eleven, did you notice the removal of the comma in verse twelve? This significantly changes the meaning of the text pertaining to the purpose of the listed ministry leaders. In the KJV—and many other older translations such as Webster (1833),  Young (1862), the Geneva Bible (1599), Douay-Rheims (1582)—verse twelve contains a list of three independent items which are functions of the ministry leaders of verse eleven. These leaders are given:

1) for the equipping/preparation/completion of the saints
2) for the work of ministry/service
3) for the edifying of the body of Christ

When you remove the comma, the first two items in the list actually become one function—the leaders are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. I have heard some describe this to mean that church leaders are simply in place to equip the common people so they can do the real ministry. In other words, the leaders don’t do the ministry, the people do the ministry.

Does this sound familiar? Does this not sound like democracy—of the people, by the people, for the people? The playing field is level—the power returns to the people—the leaders aren’t the real ministers–the people are! Unfortunately, I have all too many times heard this verse used to legitimate grumbling by lay people who were not “released” into their “rightful” ministry by “controlling” leadership. In less severe situations, it serves to reinforce a concept of “Christianity” where I have the power and control, and others do not, or at least should not.

But what is the rationale for adding this comma, such that many modern translations now include it (NRSV, NIV, ESV, NASB)?

The larger question is: are the three items listed all functions of the apostles, prophets, etc., or is the first the function of the leaders, which they perform so the laity can carry out the second and third? Some arguments are commonly advanced to support the “democratic” view:

1) There is a change of preposition in Greek from the first phrase to the second — the word translated “for” in “for the equipping” is Greek πρός (pros) and in the second and third phrase it is εἰς (eis). This seems to be putting too much weight on a tiny word like a preposition. Prepositions are notoriously flexible in Greek (as in many languages). In common speech we often alternate our prepositions without huge meaning entailed.

2) Verse seven says, “all have been given grace,” and this is taken as “grace for service.” Therefore, it would seem, the ministry in verse twelve is done by all. However, in verses seven and following, it is important to trace the use of “gift” and “giving” language. Grace is indeed “given” to all according to the “gift” of Christ. Verse eight begins with “therefore” and intends to further explain this “grace” and “gift.” In Christ’s ascension to power, he has given gifts to people. Verse eleven makes clear that these “gifts” are the four types of ministry leadership: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. The grace being described specifically in verse seven is grace that flows to the Church through its ordained leadership. While certainly all believers receive grace directly from God, this is not what is in view in the present passage.

In support of the reading with the comma, I would argue:

1) The word translated “equipping,” (καταρτισμός, katartismos), means “completion.” The english word “equipping” sounds like it needs another word to complement it, as in “equipping for what??” However, the Greek word does not need any complement and the phrase “equipping/completion of the saints” stands on its own.

2) It is likely that the work of “service/ministry” (διακονία, diakonia), simply refers to the ministry of the ministers already listed. This word does not appear any other time in Ephesians, but the related word “servant/minister” (διάκονος, diakonos) does twice. Once it occurs in 3:7 where Paul is describing himself, incidentally joined with the words “gift,” “grace,” and “give,” significant words in this passage as well (see the second “democratic” view argument above). The other time is in 6:21, to speak of Tychikos, who seems to have some definitive ministry role. This usage is also paralleled in Colossians (1:7, 23, 25; 4:7, 17). Thus, diakonia, probably here refers to the work done by specifically set apart ministers.

3) The phenomenon of stacking up phrases in lists, often using differing prepositions, is a common stylistic feature of this author. We see this in Ephesians 1:3, 5, 6, 20-21; 2:6; and 6:12. But most significant are verses thirteen and fourteen of the present chapter, the verses immediately following the text we have been looking at:

until we all reach unity in the faith
and in the knowledge of the Son of God
and become mature,
attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants,
tossed back and forth by the waves,
and blown here and there by every wind of teaching
and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

To therefore see

for the equipping/preparation/completion of the saints
for the work of ministry/service
for the edifying of the body of Christ

as yet another list of items in parallel seems entirely consistent with the stylistic patterns of writing in this letter.

4) As we saw earlier, the author’s point from verse seven onwards is Christ’s gift of ministry leaders as a source of grace for the Body of Christ. Verses 11-14 form one sentence in Greek. If we understood the phrase “for the work of ministry” to mean the ministry of all, then it might seem that the rest of the sentence (12-14) flows out of this ministry of all. But it would be more consistent, since the author’s point seems to be describing the leaders Christ is giving, to not change the focus mid-sentence to something different. Rather verses 11-14, along with 7-10 all focus on Christ’s gift of ministry leaders.

All in all, it seems reasonable to believe that “the work of ministry” in this passage is not the ministry democratically given to all believers, but simply the ministry of the leaders. Does this mean lay people have no ministry? Of course not. But we should be cautious not to read our commitments to certain forms of governance (especially ones that give power and significance to ourselves!) into the text. Unfortunately, the punctuation in most modern translations of the Bible make this extremely difficult in this text.

Beyond the caution of allowing our political persuasions to taint our understanding of Christianity, we stand perhaps to see a central point of this passage: the leadership Christ ordained and established in the Church is a primary source of grace for the Body of Christ. History—never mind history, our own experience—has shown that leaders can often be abusive and hurtful to the people Christ cherishes. Being open to receive grace from other leaders once one has these experiences can be extremely difficult—and reasonably so. It can perhaps be easy to develop a negative view of leadership in general—they are almost like a necessary evil—and certainly never to be trusted.

But what if we were to have a vision that the grace of Christ flows through leaders when they, despite their many shortcomings, are full of love, compassion, humility, and gentleness! Spiritual and leadership abuse is real, the pain is deep, and it is never to be treated lightly. But to retreat into an impenetrable enclave of independence and invulnerability is worse still. This is perhaps all the more reason to cultivate in ourselves and in others the kind of leadership qualities that can be a fountain of grace to many. And wherever we find this fountain, let us do all in our power to celebrate, support, and in time, to trust those leaders who are truly serving and edifying the Body of Christ.

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Does God Make People Sick in Order to Be Glorified? (Why Greek Matters Part 14)

In John 9, upon passing a man who had been born blind, Jesus’ disciples ask him a question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer, according to the NRSV is: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (most other modern translations are similar). I placed in bold/italics a phrase that does not appear in the Greek text. The Greek text literally says “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but in order that the works of God might be revealed…” This phrase (“he was born blind”) is added in order to help the text “make sense.” It was a common practice in Greek to leave certain words out that could be inferred from what was immediately just said (a phenomenon called “ellipsis”). We do this in English also. If I said, “Mark can play the piano. Jaime can too.” You don’t need me to repeat “play the piano” for you to make sense of the second sentence. Rather, you infer from what was immediately said, and intuitively complete what grammatically is an incomplete sentence.

The difficulty in the John passage is Jesus’ answer, as construed in most modern English translations, does not answer the disciple’s question. The disciples ask, “who sinned?” and then give two possibilities. Jesus’ response “neither this man or his parents” answers that question. But the supposed follow-up doesn’t address that issue, but changes the subject. Instead of talking about who sinned, he would be talking about the divine reason for this infirmity. It makes less sense that Jesus would leave out parts of the sentence that needed to be inferred from context, if he was changing the subject.

There is another option for understanding this passage, though it is not immediately obvious when looking at an English translation. This is a picture of Codex Sinaticus, the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament, from the 4th century. This particular column shows the passage we are looking at:

One thing you may notice is all the letters are jammed together with no spaces. This is how all the early new testament manuscripts were written. In the earliest centuries of the  first millennium, there was also not a practice of placing a period at the end of each sentence. One mostly inferred from the context where one sentence ended and another began. So, the placing of a period after “in order that the works of God might be revealed in him” is a decision made by editors of the various editions of the Bible. That period is not part of “the Word of God.” If you had this to work with, where would you separate the sentences?

Jesus answered neither this man sinned nor his parents rather in order that the works of God might be revealed it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day night is coming when no one is able to work.

What if we punctuate this way:

Jesus answered, “neither this man sinned nor his parents. Rather, in order that the works of God might be revealed, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one is able to work.”

If this is the case, then Jesus’ statement “in order that the works of God might be revealed” is not the divine explanation for the origin of the sickness, but rather, the rationale undergirding the necessity of working the works of God while there is time. Interpreting this phrase as one sentence with the following clause (“it is necessary…”) rather than the former clause (“neither this man sinned…”) has at least three points in its favor:

1) It avoids the unbalanced nature of the question and Jesus’ answer that is present in most translations. They ask about who sinned (a “cause-and-effect” question). Jesus answers about the divine origin of sickness(es). Most translations add in a phrase not present in the Greek, which necessitates that the disciples would have been able to know he was switching subjects. Is this possible? Maybe, but I doubt it is likely.

2) It balances better with the following phrase. Words related to “work” appear three times. “In order that the works of God might be revealed in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of him…”

3) If you look closely again at John 9 in the manuscript from Codex Sinaticus, you will notice something very interesting:

I have circled two sets of two letters. In between each pair of letters, there is a dot in the middle of the line. This is some early form of punctuation. While not marking every sentence, there are places where Codex Sinaticus has these markings to make certain distinctions. Without knowing Greek, could you guess what is in between these dots? Remarkably, between those two points of primitive punctuation, is what we are here identifying as a singular sentence: “But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day.” There is no such marking after “might be revealed in him.”  While it is not part of the inspired text, there is a long and ancient tradition of making a significant break between “Neither this man sinned nor his parents,” and “But in order that the works of God” that corroborates the interpretation we are setting out here.

What does all this mean? It means we probably cannot continue using this passage to defend an idea that God makes people sick in order that he can be glorified through it. Despite the modern craze with explaining evil and suffering, Jesus’ passion here is not to philosophize or sermonize about the origins of the illness but to underscore the urgency of taking action against it. He does not assign a divine cause to the suffering, but rather reaches out to touch those who are suffering with compassionate solidarity. Identifying with those in pain, he acts to alleviate it, and points to the presence of the kingdom, where there is no more mourning, or sorrow, or pain, and all tears are wiped away. While we are tempted to rest easy thinking God will somehow be glorified through the world’s horrific suffering, or our neighbor’s, or even our own, Jesus awakens us out of our slumber, calls us to action, and implores us: “It is necessary for us to work the works of him who sent me, while it is still day!”

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When the NIV Gets Tricksy (Why Greek Matters Part 13)

I am one of the last people I know to dog on the NIV. Honestly, I think its a fairly decent translation. Not my favorite modern english translation, but decent. Nevertheless, there are moments when reading the NIV that make me go, “hmmmmmmm…” Here’s one of them:

1 Thessalonians 2:7-8: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you,  but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.  We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

Here I will briefly point out places where this translation diverges from the standard Greek text accepted by scholars (the Nestle-Aland 27th and 28th editions)

1) “we were gentle among you” (NIV) vs. “we became infants among you”

The word “infant”(νήπιος, nēpios) is only a letter away from “gentle” (ηπιος, ēpios). There is evidence from a number of major manuscripts in the 4th century, that they originally read “infants” but were changed to read “gentle.” However, the oldest evidence (a papyrus manuscript from the 3rd century) also reads “infants.” Why not go with the best available manuscript evidence? Probably for the same reason as one commentator (reasoning from which I take exception) — that “gentle” makes more sense than “infants,” considering the apostles are pictured as nursing mothers in the next line. But why is it beyond Paul to change his metaphors, especially when they potentially communicate a common idea? More on this to come.

2) “like a mother caring for her little children” (NIV) vs. “as a nurse warming her own children.”

The phrase “her own children” probably implies that the “nurse” in picture is the childrens’ own mother. But why then remove the word “nurse” or any reference to “nursing”? The text literally reads “warming” rather than “caring.” Caring, comforting, or cherishing can be a metaphorical use of this word (θάλπω, thalpō), but with nursing already in view, is not a literal “warming” also in view, which would be accomplished by the mother holding the child close to herself, thus sharing the warmth of her own body?

3) “We loved you so much” (NIV) vs. “having yearned for you so strongly”

The relevant word here (ὁμείρομαι, omeiromai) does mean “love” as much as “to have a strong yearning” (BDAG). NASB translates this as “having so fond an affection for you.” So why does NIV opt for such a colorless translation like “love” rather than bring out the aspect of “strong desire”?

Let’s put this all together. The NIV translation has three significant differences from the Greek text – (1) The apostles are “gentle” rather than “infants;” (2) they are “caring mothers” rather than “nursing mothers warming others with their own body” and (3) the apostles “love” their disciples rather than “yearning for them strongly.”

At this point we cannot comment on the intentions of the translators (which would be near-impossible to discern without direct knowledge), but we can discuss potential effects of these translational differences. Taken together, these changes significantly soften the force of what this passage is saying about apostolic ministry, and Paul’s view of his own leadership. The apostles are not merely “gentle,” but “infants” – vulnerable, weak, and innocent before those they lead. They do not simply care for their disciples – they nurse them tenderly; they warm them by holding them closely to their own bodies. This is metaphor of course, but the imagery is stark and much more emotional, intimate, and vulnerable than “caring.” Finally, “to love” is certainly less emotionally charged language than “to yearn for another strongly.”

According to Paul, ministry is marked by vulnerability, attachment, tenderness, emotion, and closeness — five words that can send shivers down our spines, because, as much as we may want them, they open doorways to an unspeakable capacity for pain and hurt. This is the type of leadership the Holy Spirit beckons us to, as the Godhead is fashioning the church in the image of the self-giving love of the Trinity — which bears at its center the self-giving love, sacrifice, and pain of the cross. Nevertheless, it is perhaps easier to adopt a style of leadership which exempts us from these qualities. And an image of the apostles that corresponds to such a closed and self-preserved posture cannot be any more opportune. The NIV rendering of this passage may help us do this by avoiding the strength and precision of the original language. The Greek text, however, does not afford us this convenience.

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We Too Have Ascended With Him – A Meditation for Ascension Day

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.

Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.

Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.

He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.

These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are the sons of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.

Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.

From a sermon by Saint Augustine, bishop

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“The Importance of the Biblical Languages” by Martin Luther

An excerpt from: “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany That They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” (1524)

“All right,” you say again, “suppose we do have schools; what is the use of teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the other liberal arts? We could just as well use German for teaching the Bible and God’s word, which is enough for our salvation.” I reply, Alas! I am only too well aware that we Germans must always be and remain brutes and stupid beasts, as the neighboring nations call us, epithets which we richly deserve. But I wonder why we never ask, “What is the use of silks, wine, spices, and other strange foreign wares when we ourselves have in Germany wine, grain, wool, flax, wood, and stone not only in quantities sufficient for our needs, but also of the best and choicest quality for our glory and ornament?” Languages and the arts, which can do us no harm, but are actually a greater ornament, profit, glory, and benefit, both for the understanding of Holy Scripture and the conduct of temporal government–these we despise. But foreign wares, which are neither necessary nor useful, and in addition strip us down to a mere skeleton–these we cannot do without. Are not we Germans justly dubbed fools and beasts?

Truly, if there were no other benefit connected with the languages, this should be enough to delight and inspire us, namely, that they are so fine and noble a gift of God, with which he is now so richly visiting and blessing us Germans above all other lands. We do not see many instances where the devil has allowed them to flourish by means of the universities and monasteries; indeed, these have always raged against languages and are even now raging. For the devil smelled a rat, and perceived that if the languages were revived a hole would be knocked in his kingdom which he could not easily stop up again. Since he found he could not prevent their revival, he now aims to keep them on such slender rations that they will of themselves decline and pass away. They are not a welcome guest in his house, so he plans to offer them such meager entertainment that they will not prolong their stay. Very few of us, my dear sirs see through this evil design of the devil.

Therefore, my beloved Germans, let us get our eyes open, thank God for this precious treasure, and guard it well, lest the devil vent his spite and it be taken away from us again. Although the gospel came and still comes to us through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it came through the medium of languages, was spread abroad by that means, and must be preserved by the same means. For just when God wanted to spread the gospel throughout the world by means of the apostles he gave the tongues for that purpose. Even before that, by means of the Roman Empire he had spread the Latin and Greek languages widely in every land in order that his gospel might the more speedily bear fruit far and wide. He has done the same thing now as well. Formerly no one knew why God had the languages revived, but now for the first time we see that it was done for the sake of the gospel, which he intended to bring to light and use in exposing and destroying the kingdom of Antichrist. To this end he gave over Greece to the Turk in order that the Greeks, driven out and scattered, might disseminate their language and provide an incentive to the study of other languages as well.

In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone–the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others. St. Paul declared it to be the peculiar glory and distinction of Hebrew that God’s word was given in that language, when he said in Romans 3, “What advantage or profit have those who are circumcised? Much indeed. To begin with, God’s speech is entrusted to them.” King David too boasts in Psalm 147, “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation or revealed to them his ordinances.” Hence, too, the Hebrew language is called sacred. And St. Paul, in Romans 1, calls it “the holy scriptures,” doubtless on account of the holy word of God which is comprehended therein. Similarly, the Greek language too may be called sacred, because it was chosen above all others as the language in which the New Testament was to be written, and because by it other languages too have been sanctified as it spilled over into them like a fountain through the medium of translation.”

And let us be sure of this we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the Spirit is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored; and, as the gospel itself points out, they are the baskets in which are kept these loaves and fishes and fragments. If through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall not only lose the gospel, but the time will come when we shall be unable either to speak or write a correct Latin or German. As proof and warning of this, let us take the deplorable and dreadful example of the universities and monasteries, in which men have not only unlearned the gospel, but have in addition so corrupted the Latin and German languages that the miserable folk have been fairly turned into beasts, unable to speak or write a correct German or Latin, and have well-nigh lost their natural reason to boot.

For this reason even the apostles themselves considered it necessary to set down the New Testament and hold it fast in the Greek language, doubtless in order to preserve it for us there safe and sound as in a sacred ark. For they foresaw all that was to come, and now has come to pass; they knew that if it was left exclusively to men’s memory, wild and fearful disorder and confusion and a host of varied interpretations, fancies, and doctrines would arise in the Christian church, and that this could not be prevented and the simple folk protected unless the New Testament were set down with certainty in written language. Hence, it is inevitable that unless the languages remain, the gospel must finally perish.

Experience too has proved this and still gives evidence of it. For as soon as the languages declined to the vanishing point, after the apostolic age, the gospel and faith and Christianity itself declined more and more until under the pope they disappeared entirely. After the decline of the languages Christianity witnessed little that was worth anything; instead, a great many dreadful abominations arose because of ignorance of the languages. On the other hand, now that the languages have been revived, they are bringing with them so bright a light and accomplishing such great things that the whole world stands amazed and has to acknowledge that we have the

gospel just as pure and undefiled as the apostles had it, that it has been wholly restored to its original purity, far beyond what it was in the days of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. In short, the Holy Spirit is no fool. He does not busy himself with inconsequential or useless matters. He regarded the languages as so useful and necessary to Christianity that he ofttimes brought them down with him from heaven. This alone should be a sufficient motive for us to pursue them with diligence and reverence and not to despise them, for he himself has now revived them again upon the earth.

Yes, you say, but many of the fathers were saved and even became teachers without the languages. That is true. But how do you account for the fact that they so often erred in the Scriptures? How often does not St. Augustine err in the Psalms and in his other expositions, and Hilary too–in fact, all those who have undertaken to expound Scripture without a knowledge of the languages? Even though what they said about a subject at times was perfectly true, they were never quite sure whether it really was present there in the passage where by their interpretation they thought to find it. Let me give you an example It is rightly said that Christ is the Son of God; but how ridiculous it must have sounded to the ears of their adversaries when they attempted to prove this by citing from Psalm 110 “Tecum principium in die viftutis tuae,” though in the Hebrew there is not a word about the Deity in this passage! When men attempt to defend the faith with such uncertain arguments and mistaken proof texts, are not Christians put to shame and made a laughingstock in the eyes of adversaries who know the language? The adversaries only become more stiff-necked in their error and have an excellent pretext for regarding our faith as a mere human delusion.

When our faith is thus held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no other way out than to learn the languages. Was not St. Jerome compelled to translate the Psalter anew from the Hebrew because, when we quoted our Psalter in disputes with the Jews, they sneered at us, pointing out that our texts did not read that way in the original Hebrew? Now the expositions of all the early fathers who dealt with Scripture apart from a knowledge of the languages (even when their teaching is not in error) are such that they often employ uncertain, indefensible, and inappropriate expressions. They grope their way like a blind man along the wall, frequently missing the sense of the text and twisting it to suit their fancy, as in the case of the verse mentioned above, “Tecum principium,” etc. Even St. Augustine himself is obliged to confess, as he does in his Christian Instruction, that a Christian teacher who is to expound the Scriptures must know Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin. Otherwise, it is impossible to avoid constant stumbling; indeed, there are plenty of problems to work out even when one is well versed in the languages.

There is a vast difference therefore between a simple preacher of the faith and a person who expounds Scripture, or, as St. Paul puts it, a prophet. A simple preacher (it is true) has so many clear passages and texts available through translations that he can know and teach Christ, lead a holy life, and preach to others. But when it comes to interpreting Scripture, and working with it on your own, and disputing with those who cite it incorrectly, he is unequal to the task; that cannot be done without languages. Now there must always be such prophets in the Christian church who can dig into Scripture, expound it, and carry on disputations. A saintly life and right doctrine are not enough. Hence languages are absolutely and altogether necessary in the Christian church, as are the prophets or interpreters; although it is not necessary that every Christian or every preacher be such a prophet, as St. Paul points out in I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.

Thus, it has come about that since the days of the apostles Scripture has remained so obscure, and no sure and trustworthy expositions of it have ever been written. For even the holy fathers (as we have said) frequently erred. And because of their ignorance of the languages they seldom agree; one says this, another that. St. Bernard was a man so lofty in spirit that I almost venture to set him above all other celebrated teachers both ancient and modern. But note how often he plays (spiritually to be sure) with the Scriptures and twists them out of their true sense. This is also why the sophists have contended that Scripture is obscure; they have held that God’s word by its very nature is obscure and employs a peculiar style of speech. But they fail to realize that the whole trouble lies in the languages. If we understood the languages nothing clearer would ever have been spoken than God’s word. A Turk’s speech must needs be obscure to me–because I do not know the language–while a Turkish child of seven would understand him easily.

Hence, it is also a stupid undertaking to attempt to gain an understanding of Scripture by laboring through the commentaries of the fathers and a multitude of books and glosses. Instead of this, men should have devoted themselves to the languages. Because they were ignorant of languages, the dear fathers at times expended many words in dealing with a text. Yet when they were all done they had scarcely taken its measure; they were half right and half wrong. Still, you continue to pore over them with immense labor even though, if you knew the languages, you could get further with the passage than they whom you are following. As sunshine is to shadow, so is the language itself compared to all the glosses of the fathers.

Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study languages, especially in these days when God is offering and giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book. O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor–yes, almost without any labor at all–can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame! Yes, how sternly God will judge our lethargy and ingratitude!

Here belongs also what St. Paul calls for in I Corinthians 14, namely, that in the Christian church all teachings must be judged. For this a knowledge of the language is needful above all else. The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done in any other way. Therefore, although faith and the gospel may indeed be proclaimed by simple preachers without a knowledge of languages, such preaching is flat and tame; people finally become weary and bored with it, and it falls to the ground. But where the preacher is versed in the languages, there is a freshness and vigor in his preaching, Scripture is treated in its entirety, and faith finds itself constantly renewed by a continual variety of words and illustrations. Hence, Psalm 129 likens such scriptural studies to a hunt, saying to the deer God opens the dense forests; and Psalm 1 likens them to a tree with a plentiful supply of water, whose leaves are always green.

We should not be led astray because some boast of the Spirit and consider Scripture of little worth, and others, such as the Waldensian Brethren think the languages are unnecessary. Dear friend, say what you will about the Spirit, I too have been in the Spirit and have seen the Spirit, perhaps even more of it (if it comes to boasting of one’s own flesh) than those fellows with all their boasting will see in a year. Moreover, my spirit has given some account of itself, while theirs sits quietly in its corner and does little more than brag about itself. I know full well that while it is the Spirit alone who accomplishes everything, I would surely have never flushed a covey if the languages had not helped me and given me a sure and certain knowledge of Scripture. I too could have lived uprightly and preached the truth in seclusion; but then I should have left undisturbed the pope, the sophists, and the whole anti-Christian regime. The devil does not respect my spirit as highly as he does my speech and pen when they deal with Scripture. For my spirit takes from him nothing but myself alone; but Holy Scripture and the languages leave him little room on earth, and wreak havoc in his kingdom.

So I can by no means commend the Waldensian Brethren for their neglect of the languages. For even though they may teach the truth, they inevitably often miss the true meaning of the text, and thus are neither equipped nor fit for defending the faith against error. Moreover, their teaching is so obscure and couched in such peculiar terms, differing from the language of Scripture, that I fear it is not or will not remain pure. For there is great danger in speaking of things of God in a different manner and in different terms than God himself employs. In short, they may lead saintly lives and teach sacred things among themselves, but so long as they remain without the languages they cannot but lack what all the rest lack, namely, the ability to treat Scripture with certainty and thoroughness and to be useful to other nations. Because they could do this, but will not, they have to figure out for themselves how they will answer for it to God.


The material above [to which emphasis has been added] may be found in several places, including an annotated edition in Luther’s Works, ed. W. Brandt and H. Lehman (Philadelphia Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 340-78 entire article (this selection = 357-66); in the 1915-43 Philadelphia edition (often cited as PE), 4103-30; and in the German edition, D. Martin Luthers Werke, Deutsche Bibel (Weimar, 1906-).



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Is Jesus a Narcissist? Christ and Preeminence (Why Greek Matters Part 12)

…he is the head of the body, the church. He is  the beginning,  the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (Col 1:18 ESV)

What does this language of preeminence mean? In somewhat caricatured form, this language, as used in some Christian circles, sounds like the purpose of our faith is to convince ourselves how great Jesus is and hold a big pep rally for him. This usage strikes others, however, as a tremendous divine self-aggrandizement scheme. This obsession with image, reputation, and worship is popularly referred to as “narcissism” (we’ll leave clinical definitions of narcissism aside for the time being). Is Jesus a narcissist? What does it mean for him to have preeminence in all things?

In verse eighteen, there are three terms, all of which can loosely mean either “first in rank” or “first in sequence:”

κεφαλή (kephalē) – Christ is the head of the body, the church – “head” is frequently used as a metaphor for authority, but in Colossians 2:19 (and Ephesians 4:16) the head is described as the source of origin from which the nourishment and the unity of the body flows.

ἀρχή (archē) – this word frequently means either “beginning” or “origin.”

πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) – this word can refer both to birth order (first-born), or the special status of being firstborn, especially with regards to inheritance.

What light can we now shed on the word which is translated as “preeminence” (KJV, ESV), “first place” (NRSV), and “supremacy” (TNIV)? From these representative translations we see that they uniformly and exclusively express the notion of “first in rank.” The word in Greek is πρωτεύω (protevō) which is simply a verb form of the adjective “first” (πρώτος, prōtos). It should not surprise us that this verb can have both nuances of “first in rank” and “first in sequence.” This is the only time the verb appears in the NT, but it does appear three times in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT).   One passage in 2 Maccabees seems to be of particular relevance:

“He [Judas Maccabeus] gave his troops the watchword, “God’s victory,” and with a picked force of the bravest young men, he attacked the king’s pavilion at night and killed as many as two thousand men in the camp. He stabbed the leading (πρωτεύοντα, prõtevonta) elephant and its rider.” (2 Mac. 13:15)

The “leading (‘first/preeminent’) elephant” was the elephant designated and trained to lead a procession or charge of other elephants, cavalry, and infantry in battle. Here we see πρωτεύω (protevō) being used evidently with the “first in sequence” nuance for the one who leads the way which others are to follow.

How does this relate to Colossians 1? It seems as though all four words (head, ruler/beginning, firstborn, and ‘one bring first’) have both nuances of “first in rank” and “first in sequence.” It also seems like the “first in sequence” nuance is the primary one with the first three. It stands to reason that such is also the case with “to be first.” What would it then mean for Jesus to be the first? What is he the first of?

We are told that Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead in order that he might be the first in all things.” Jesus “being first in all things” is logically dependent on him being the firstborn from the dead. To be “firstborn from the dead” means that in Jesus’ resurrection, he was the firstborn of a family of many other brothers and sisters who would share his resurrection existence. In Jewish thinking, the resurrection of the dead was linked to the restoration of all things, even the entire cosmos. The Colossians passage says that Jesus would be first “in all things.” In verses 15-17, the phrase “all things” is used five times and in each instance it refers to the entire creation. Thus to say Jesus is “first in all things” is to say that Jesus’ resurrection is the first in sequence of what will happen to “all things,” namely the entire cosmos.

When we look to the Resurrection Lord, our “leader,” we see the destiny and future of the life we share with all of creation. Jesus goes before us and participates in the restored life promised for the age to come and makes it present even now. Just as Jesus broke the bonds of death, as the curse of corruption and decay was eradicated from his body, as he was restored to the pleasure of a life fully-alive, so the entire creation will follow after him. Jesus is the source (κεφαλή, kephalē) from which the new life of the entire creation flows, the beginning (ἀρχή, archē) of the restoration of all things, the firstborn (πρωτότοκος, prōtotokos) of the whole family who share his exalted humanity, and the leader (πρωτεύω, protevō) drawing the entire creation after him into eternal life. As he beckons us to follow him, we know full well where he is leading us. He is inviting the world he created and loves to follow him into a future where all things will be made new; where the will be no more mourning, or sorrow, or crying, or pain—where he will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

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Women and Submission in Ephesians 5 (Why Greek Matters Part 11)

One of the more contentious passages in the Bible is Ephesians 5:22, which in the NASB reads as follows: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” NASB puts “be subject” in italics because it is not actually in the Greek. All major English translations include “submit” or “be subject” by implication from the previous verse. This previous verse is grammatically dependent on the three preceding verses, which translated literally is (the indentation indicates that the indented lines are by the nature of Greek grammar and syntax, necessarily dependent on the previous ones):

(18) …You all be filled with the Spirit

(19) speaking to one another…

(20) giving thanks always…

(21) submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,

       (22) wives to their own husbands…

The main verb in this paragraph is “be filled,” to which there are three subordinate verbs which either express how the Church experiences this filling, or how the Church lives once it gets this filling: (1) speaking to one another in Psalms and hymns, (2) giving thanks, and (3) submitting to one another. What is critical to note is that this submission is mutual — all members of the Christian community prefer one another and submit to one another as a central component of their spirit-filled living. The old one-way street of authoritarian submission is being eradicated from the midst of the redeemed by the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and destroyed the age-old entrenchments of sin and death. In place of the death-producing cycles and structures of exploitation, domination, and violence, so common in Paul’s day, as well as our own, the Spirit of God is fashioning a community characterized by a gracious, loving, and radically counter-cultural mutuality. We all give and receive, sharing as together we sit around a common table. Imagine leaders submitting to followers, clergy submitting to lay persons, the old submitting to the young, parents submitting to children, veterans submitting to neophytes; and of course vice-versa. In such, the Church is caught up into the divine dance of Trinitarian love and delight—as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have eternally engaged in the joy of loving one another in mutual submission. Thus the Church becomes the image of the Divine Trinity, of Divine Love on earth, where “none is before, or after other; none is greater, or less than another” (Athanasian Creed).

In Ephesians 5:22, the text says, “wives to their own husbands.” The lack of a verb in the Greek text indicates that the verb is to be implied from somewhere else, in this case, from the previous verse. Therefore whatever it means for wives to “submit to their husbands” (and I am not arguing here for any particular view), it only functions as part of the larger mutual submission that is a mark of the Spirit-filled Christian community, and is merely one example of this mutual submission. As Paul goes on to talk about the relationships of wives and husbands, parents and children, slaves and masters—all of these relationships are re-understood in ways that significantly go against cultural convention. This all flows out of Paul’s understanding that whatever position one holds, as Christians we are all part of the larger loving mutual submission the Trinitarian community has impressed upon the life of the Church. Specifically regarding women, if somehow we manage to use verse 22 (wives be subject to their own husbands) to remove or relativize the radical call to mutual submission in verse 21, we must stand condemned as quenching the life the Spirit of the resurrection is desiring to bring into our communities as he overturns the power of sin and death with the love that makes all things new.


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