What is Context?

The other day I had a friendly disagreement with another believer over the interpretation of Romans 8:26 in which Paul said,

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (ESV).

Actually, our conversation began with reference to the gifts of the Spirit, particularly that of healing and then moved to speaking in tongues. I’ll spare you the details because neither is the point of this post. Romans 8:26 came into the discussion and my friend assured me that this couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us praying since it clearly says that the “Spirit himself” prays.

He claimed that this excludes us from being the ones who pray because it is an activity of the Spirit. I wanted to provide some context for why I disagree with this interpretation. I noted how in Galatians Paul speaks of the Spirit of God’s Son crying, “Abba! Father!” My friend said that he’d need to see this and that he didn’t think that’s what it said. Fair enough. Nobody has exhaustive knowledge of the entire Bible. So we looked at Galatians 4:4-7 and he was satisfied that it said what I claimed.

I then noted that when discussing the same thing (i.e., adoption) in Romans Paul has the believer, who has received the Spirit of adoption, crying, “Abba! Father!” We both agree that Paul is consistent and that he doesn’t contradict himself so my point was that the Spirit cries “Abba! Father” through the believer who has received adoption. Likewise, my contention is that the “groanings to deep for words” (or “inarticulate groanings”) is the Spirit praying through the believer.

He told me that it’s not what the text says and that I’m reading into it. He told me that the number one rule of hermeneutics was to deal with a text in its context and that when we have to leave the context then that means we can’t deal with it on its own. But that’s the point I want to discuss in this post. All of this was setup for me to say that context is much more than what my friend would have us think.

You see, he wanted to look at this singular verse. I wanted to look at this verse within the argument of the chapter and book but also within the context of Paul’s overall theology. I noted that Galatians was one of Paul’s earliest letters; Romans was one of his latest. I wasn’t leaving Romans to run to Galatians. I was reading Paul’s later theology in light of his earlier theology. My understanding of Galatians informs my understanding of Romans.

Context is more than the verse before and the verse after the particular verse we’re reading. Context is knowing the situation of the author and his audience. It’s following the flow of the argument being put forth before us. It’s having an overarching understanding of the author’s theology. As I said, my understanding of  Galatians informs my reading of Romans, no differently than my understanding of Deuteronomy informs my reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1–10:22 or my understanding of Leviticus informs my reading of Hebrews.

But the immediate context of Paul’s very argument in this section of his letter does, I believe, point to the Spirit groaning in our groans but I’ll write about that another time.

B”H

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Basically Good

Repeatedly in the Scriptures we read that man is not good. Jesus said “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18 // Luke 18:19). Likewise, Paul, quoting Psalm 14:1–3 // 53:1–3, says that “no one does good.” Many more statements to the same effect could be added to these and yet somehow we find ourselves surprised or shocked when we hear the news of somebody doing something wicked.

We say things like, “I can’t believe it,” or “that’s crazy.” We ask, “what’s wrong with people?” or “how could they do that?” It seems to me that for some reason or another a good amount of people (and I’m talking about Christians here) believe that man is basically good and it surprises us when they do things that aren’t basically good.

Rather, we shouldn’t be shocked when people do wicked things. That’s what people outside of Christ do. And we shouldn’t ask what’s wrong with them. We already know. They’re dead in sin and acting according to their sinful inclinations. What should surprise us is the impulse to think of people as basically good in the first place. Why do we think this way when both Scripture and experience show us otherwise?

Something to ponder…

B”H

Keep It Real, But Not Too Real

I just read an article about a former worship leader and Hillsong songwriter becoming apostate. In it he asks all the tough questions (I’m being facetious) and claims that no one is talking about these issues. The lead singer of Skillet (John Cooper) responded to this article on Facebook (reproduced here) and said many insightful things in his response. But the one thing that stood out to me was this bit:

“My second thought is, why do people act like “being real” covers a multitude of sins? As if someone is courageous simply for sharing virally every thought or dark place. That’s not courageous. It’s cavalier. Have they considered the ramifications? As if they are the harbingers of truth, saying “I used to think one way and practice it and preach it, but now I’ve learned all the new truth and will start practicing and preaching it.” So the influencers become the voice for truth in whatever stage of life and whatever evolution takes place in their thinking.

How many times have we heard people justify being hurtful with the words, “I’m just being real” or “I’m just being honest.” Okay, maybe you are being real, but perhaps there’s a way to be real that’s seasoned with salt and takes into account the ramifications (as Cooper notes) of your words.

I’m the type of person who tries to the best of my ability to think before I speak. One reason for this is that I don’t like to repeat myself so I like to be clear the first time I say something. Another reason is that I try to be as diplomatic as possible. There’s almost always a way to make a point without being offensive. And yet another reason is that I don’t want to over-divulge and share more than should be shared. Everything isn’t for everyone.

As a minister there are conversations that I will have with other ministers that I wouldn’t have with someone outside the ministry. There are questions I’m wrestling with and need to find answers to first before I’d ever mention them to the congregation. Imagine if every minister shared every doubt that they had. How edifying would that be to the body at large? I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have doubts; I’m just saying that we don’t have to be vocal about every little thing we’re unsure about.

Or take a common question that we ask and get asked multiple times throughout the day, “How are you doing?” My answer to that question is going to be different depending on who’s asking it. If my wife asks then she’ll get the whole truth out of me because I can share that with her. If a close friend asks then they’ll get something close to that but there’s even limits I have to set with them as to how much of my interior life I share. If an acquaintance asks then they’ll get a stock “good, ok, or meh,” without much detail at all. And if it’s a complete stranger then they’ll get a “good,” as I keep it moving.

I could be “real” with everyone and just unburden myself and spew out all of my issues and problems without taking into account how that’s going to make anyone else feel. The casual acquaintance doesn’t really want to know what’s going on. They’re just being polite and making small talk. The stranger doesn’t want that information either. It’s just a standard greeting; no different from saying hello. But imagine how uncomfortable they’d be if I unloaded on them. I know how uncomfortable I’d be.

The point is that we have to take our audience into account when we say anything. As Cooper poignantly asks in his article, “Why be so eager to continue leading people when you clearly don’t know where you are headed?” In the words of Qohelet, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words” (Ecc 5:2–3).

B”H

Being Built Up

In 1 Corinthians 8:1 Paul tells the Corinthian knowledgable that their so-called knowledge “puffs up” while love “builds up” (οκοδομε). This, of course, is in reference to the eating of food offered to idols. Some of the Corinthians without this so-called knowledge are scandalized by this behavior and Paul’s point is that love for the weaker brother will not do anything to violate their conscience.

By the time we get to vs. 10 we see that if a weaker brother sees someone with this so-called knowledge eating idol food in an idol’s temple then they will be “encouraged” (οκοδομηθσεται) to do the same. This is the same verb used in vs 1 to say that love “builds up.” Paul continues in vs. 11 to say that by this “knowledge” the weaker person is destroyed. There’s an irony here in that the same knowledge that puffs up can also build up but it does so for the ruin of the one being built up. The building up that comes through love is for their strengthening.

There’s also something to be said about the differences in voice between the building up, encouraging, and destroying of vss. 1, 10, 11 but I’ll save that for another post.

B”H

In Appreciation of Larry Hurtado

I was saddened to hear the news of Larry Hurtado’s leukemia reactivating after having been in remission for 9 months. I pray his strength in the Lord as he explores whatever options for care that he has, but I wanted to take a moment to note my appreciation for him and his work.

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of books and that I have a decent sized personal library. But there was a time when my library consisted of a single KJV Bible, an NIV Bible, and a Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. This was what I had for the first 3.5–4 years of my salvation. And then in 2006 I purchased Brenton’s Septuagint, a New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, and Simon Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son.

Letham and Gathercole were both springboards into various streams of scholarship in trinitarian theology and early Christology. I had been studying these doctrines in Scripture, researching them on the internet, and debating them with detractors in chatrooms but I hadn’t really been exposed to academic books on these subjects. And then on July 21, 2006 I printed out an article from a website called For an Answer by L. W. Hurtado. This article was entitled “What Do We Mean by ‘First-Century Jewish Monotheism’?.”

I gleaned a lot from this article while having no idea who its author was. And then in my reading of Letham and Gathercole I saw the name Larry Hurtado referenced several times throughout their books. I looked at their bibliographies and then took to Amazon. I purchased Larry W. Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity and gave it a careful and slow reading. This book would change the way I thought about, argued in favor of, and defended early Christology.

I proceeded to spend years getting my hands on all of the Hurtado resources that I could find. I have a folder on several hard drives (in the even that any one of them crashes) filled with articles that he has written and most of the books that he has authored (save a few of his more recent volumes) and have read them all with great profit.

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On three separate occasions I have emailed Professor Hurtado and three times he graciously responded. The first time was a question concerning a claim about Matthew 28:19 not being original. At the time he was preparing for a 3 week lecture trip to Australia and Singapore and passed my question along to Paul Foster who replied promptly. The second time was a note of appreciation, which I will reproduce along with his response below. The final time was to run a few of my disagreements with James McGrath’s The Only True God by him and see if they held weight (he thought that they did). But I’ve said all this to say that even being as big a name in the field as he was, he always took the time to offer a response to a nobody like me.

And while I don’t find Hurtado’s arguments as substantial now as I once did I still have the greatest appreciation for his work and the paths it led me down. My library grew by leaps and bounds from reading his footnotes and bibliographies. My thinking about the importance of actual real life worship practices wouldn’t be what it is without him. I’d take a lot more issue with his work these days than I did in those days but I’d still argue that it’s necessary reading and has to be dealt with by anyone talking about early Christology and Christian origins.

I will be praying for him and his family as he deals with his health issues and I invite you to join me in doing so.

– – –

Below is my email in appreciation of Prof. Hurtado and his response. I’ll note that he responded to me on July 4, which is my birthday.

July 3, 2009, 1:59 PM

Hi Prof. Hurtado,

My name is Nick Norelli and I’ve emailed you a couple of times in the past to ask questions and you’ve always graciously responded; for that I am thankful.  I was writing now, not to ask any questions, but rather to express my appreciation for your work.

Having come to Christ in mid-2002 in a small Pentecostal church in New Jersey I wasn’t immediately exposed to works of scholarship.  I was of the ilk who thought that the best that Christianity had to offer could be found on the Trinity Broadcastng Network with the likes of Benny Hinn and T. D. Jakes.  It wasn’t until I really got interested in learning more about the doctrine of the Trinity that I was exposed to what I’d consider ‘real’ scholarship.  I noticed your works One God, One Lord and Lord Jesus Christ cited in the footnotes and bibliographies to the books I had been reading so I dutifully got a copy of LJC.  It was life changing in terms of the way I argued for a divine Christology and understood the New Testament.  It’s also the book that got me interested in Biblical studies as much as I was interested in theology.  And I also credit LJC with giving me an appreciation for historical inquiry into Christian origins.

Since then I’ve tried to get my hands on everything that you’ve written (articles and books) and I can’t tell you how encouraged I’ve been by your work.  I consider you the top scholar in the field, and I do so after having read the work of many of your peers.  I just wanted to write this note to let you know how appreciative I am for all that you’ve done for me without even knowing it.  May God continue to bless you and your work.

All the best,

Nick Norelli
https://rdtwot.wordpress.com

– – –

July 4, 2009, 7:41 AM

Dear Mr. Norelli,

I’m very grateful for your taking the effort to send me your  encouraging words.  It is very heartening for a scholar to be read at all, and for me especially so by readers beyond one’s circle of fellow academics.  It is even more encouraging that my works communicate clearly and effectively to you and others.

So, thank you again for your encouragement.  It is really appreciated.

Best wishes,
Larry Hurtado

The Myth of Objectivity

Eric Vanden Eykel posted a Tweet thread on a recent blog post by Tavis Bohlinger on the Logos Academic Blog. The post in question was Joel B. Green’s answer to the question: “What makes a good biblical scholar?” Joel has clarified in the comments to that post that he was addressing a similar but different question, namely: “What makes a good scholar of the Bible understood as the church’s Scripture?”

My concern isn’t with the post itself but rather with one of the comments that followed the post. Someone named Matt West said the following in response:

What makes a good Biblical scholar is someone who studiess [sic] the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent; someone who strives to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy. What you describe in your essay is what makes a good Christian scholar. There is a huge difference between these two. The first is objective and scientific, the second is subjective and done with prejudice.

I wish I had the time to adequately unpack everything that’s wrong with this comment but I’m writing this on the fly before I head off to work. I will say two things. First, objectivity is a myth. What do I mean? I mean that there is no such thing as a “brute fact,” that is, an uninterpreted fact that has no reference to some other fact. Any-and- every-thing has to be interpreted and every interpretation will be contingent upon the facts that one has already acquired or the beliefs that one already holds.

An atheist who interprets the Bible does so through the lens of their disbelief. A Christian who interprets the Bible does so through their lens of belief. There’s a lot more to be said about this (especially in terms of autonomous reasoning versus thinking God’s thoughts after him) but I’ll have to say those things at a different time. The point is that Bultmann was right when he said there is no presuppositionless exegesis. This idea that one can just read the text and understand it without coming to the text with both hidden and apparent presuppositions is preposterous.

Second, Mr. West seems to say, or at the very least imply, that a Christian is not capable of this so-called scientific and objective scholarship. Christians, you see, approach the text subjectively and with prejudice. One could reason that as long as you’re not a Christian then you’re good to go and can understand the text for what it’s really saying. I mean, Christians don’t study “the writings in terms of their origin, history, and intent” and they certainly don’t “[strive] to comprehend the material and its impact on history, literature, and philosophy.” Why would they?

I’d love to take a moment to note how absolutely arbitrary this list is anyway, but I really do have to get to work. I’d argue that Christian scholarship is even more concerned with getting to the truth of the biblical text because they’re the ones who think this stuff actually matters! The believing scholar genuinely cares (or should) about what the original author intended to communicate to his audience and is constantly asking what impact this has on the community of believers today. Asking that question forces the believing scholar to look at the impact of the text throughout history.

Okay, I really gotta go. More anon…

B”H

The Greek-English New Testament (NA28/ESV)

The Greek-English New Testament: Nestle-Aland 28th Edition/English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

There are no shortage of Greek-English Bibles on offer in the world of modern publishing. I have a number of useful editions of the Greek New Testament with English translation on facing pages adorning my shelves. They each have their own particular strengths while some exhibit more weaknesses than others.

There is the NIV Greek and English New Testament, which features the Greek text underlying the NIV translation. This is a rather straightforward volume presenting mainly text with very little by way of notes. When a note appears on the English side it’s usually signaling a translational issue. When they appear on the Greek side it’s mostly to note differences between this text and the UBS/NA text.

I also have a NA27/RSV diglot, which is a real gem. This contains the full NA27 critical text with full textual apparatus alongside an RSV translation that has quite a substantial textual apparatus in its own right. For quite some time I considered this the gold standard by which I judged all other diglots.

The NA28 Greek-English New Testament was a departure from the one modeled a version before. This particular text gave the full NA28 with apparatus on one page and then on the facing page in double columns the NRSV and REB. The NRSV appears in standard print while the REB is italicized throughout. There are scant notes for the English translations.

The UBS5/NIV is more in line with the NA27/RSV in terms of appearance aside from a thicker white Bible paper of the UBS5/NIV to the thinner cream colored paper of the NA27/RSV. But once again we’re left with hardly any notes for the English edition accompanying the Greek text.

The NA27/NET diglot on the other hand provides more notes for the English translation than even the RSV. The RSV contained a critical apparatus but the NET is another animal altogether. While the regular NET Bible contains three types of notes, namely study notes, translator’s notes, and text critical notes, this edition has removed the study notes and opted to abbreviate the translator’s notes, and have placed many (though certainly not all) text critical notes in an appendix. Still, this is the most useful volume of the lot in terms of information provided and layout. It’s also the only large print version available.

But all of these diglots, useful as they are, lack one thing: ample room to take notes. This is where the NA28/ESV excels. Alongside the full NA28 critical text and apparatus is the ESV, which has become my English translation of choice over the past few years. Like many of the newer editions it has very little by way of notes for the ESV text, but the lack of notes and the absence of a textual apparatus creates a large void on every  page of English text that leaves a significant amount of space to write.

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Like the NA27/NET diglot this one is also large print. And like the UBS5/NIV this one has a seemingly thicker white paper than the standard cream colored paper of other versions. This makes things quite easy on the eyes. However, this is the only volume of the Nestle-Aland lot that doesn’t contain the standard leaflet of witnesses, signs, and abbreviations. Sure, there are appendices in the back matter (1581-1674) that contain this information but it is an unnecessary burden to have to flip back and forth between the back of the Bible and the page that you’re studying in order to decipher the textual apparatus. We’re not all textual critics who have this thing committed to memory.

And while this is a beautifully bound volumes in blue cloth-over-board there is regrettably no ribbon marker (something missing in the NA27/NET as well). This was an easy enough fix but you’d think that by this point in that Bible publishers would include such things of necessity. I shouldn’t have to modify my Bibles to meet basic needs.

Lastly, because this is the large print version of the NA28 it follows the same page layout as the standard edition. This is fine as far as it goes but it creates a strange flow when dealing with the facing English page. Remember, there is no textual apparatus or significant amount of space dedicated to notes on the English page. So if the Greek page begins a new verse and there is only room for one or a few words of that verse at the bottom of the page it creates an awkward look and feel on the English page. For example, on p. 980 Romans 5:15 being with “Ἀλλ᾿” which looks fine. On the facing English page (981) we have “But” just floating there by itself.

On p. 1022 Romans 15:8 has “λέγω γὰρ Χρι-” with the facing English page (1023) having “For I tell you that Christ” but this signals another awkward type of break in the text. The beginning of Χριστὸν appears on p. 1022 but we don’t see the rest of the word until p. 1024. The English translation opted to not break the word up (how could they?) but there’s something unsettling about this kind of break. I don’t know how much work would be involved in the removing little things like this, nor do I know if anyone other than me would be bothered by it, but in a perfect world they wouldn’t exist.

These are rather minor complaints though and the strengths of this particular diglot outweigh its weaknesses considerably. Those readers of the ESV who would like the reference the Greek text without a separate volume would do well to pick this one up. Honestly, anyone who likes to take notes other either the Greek or the English text of the New Testament would do well to pick this up. There’s more than enough room to do so and this is its major benefit in my opinion.

B”H