Friday, January 21, 2011

From Babel to the Bible

I always ask the question, “Did God know that most people in the world would not have the original languages of the Bible readily available to them?” And every question that starts with “Did God know…” is answered in the affirmative.

I listened to this talk by Jason DeRouchie given at Bethlehem College and Semenary (ht: Justin Taylor). He gave 7 arguments for the need for understanding the Biblical Languages:
  1. Using the biblical languages exalts Jesus and affirms God’s wisdom in giving us his Word in a book.
  2. Using the biblical languages enables us to observe more accurately and thoroughly, understand more clearly, evaluate more fairly, and interpret more confidently the inspired details of the biblical text.
  3. Using the biblical languages allows us to use more efficiently and evaluate more fairly the best secondary tools for biblical interpretation.
  4. Using the biblical languages fosters a depth of character, commitment, conviction, and satisfaction in life and ministry that results in a validated witness in the world.
  5. Using the biblical languages provides a warranted boldness, a sustained freshness, and a more articulated, sure, and helpful witness to the Truth in preaching and teaching.
  6. Using the biblical languages equips us to defend the Gospel and to hold others accountable more confidently.
  7. Using the biblical languages helps preserve the purity of the Gospel and a joyful glorifying of God by his Church into the next generation.
There are many hindrances to the availability of the Biblical languages. Some I can think of:

  1. While we have had the Bible in one form or another throughout and since its writing, we have only within the past century found enough evidence in the ancient manuscripts to be reasonably sure what was precisely written in the original languages. So they have not been readily available throughout most of history.
  2. The printing press has only been available for a few hundred years now. Most people throughout history have not even had a Bible in any language readily available to them.
  3. There are hundreds of people groups who even today barely have the Bible translated into their language, much less have the education available to them to delve into the original languages themselves.
  4. A significant number of people don’t have the intellectual capacity to learn and understand the original languages. Many are barely literate in their own language.
  5. Of the people who have some education in the original languages, the vast majority don’t think in those languages.
  6. God confused language at Babel for a reason.

Regarding number 5: Scientific American has a short article touching on some research that is being done in the link between language and thought. The language that a person typically uses governs his thought. The example in the article was a 5-year-old Australian aborigine girl who could easily point the way north where a lecture hall of accomplished academicians could not. It reminded me of my mom’s side of the family. Always, they refer to things by their compass directions: “the south bedroom,” “the west field,” “Go to the end of the road and turn north on Kessler Road.” I can’t talk to my wife this way or she would get lost. For her, directions are relative: “the bedroom to the right of the bathroom,” “turn left on Museum Road.” Mastering language means being able to follow the linguistic logic of the references over and against those that one is accustomed to.

Regarding number 6: I’ll deal with this one shortly because it’s in the title. I wanted to make a reference here so you don’t think I just made a provocative statement without talking about it.

What can we make of the fact that A) Studying the Biblical languages is essential and B) The vast majority of Christians are not going to have the spiritual luxury of doing so? I mean, if this were the case then we revert back to dependence on priests for our understanding. We should close our Bibles and not even try to read them because we’ll never quite get it right.

And we indeed need to get it right. Our salvation is at stake if we don’t follow the true gospel. God’s glory is at stake if we don’t get our understanding of Him correct. Judging by the disputes and disagreements between Christians, it is more normal that we disagree on many things than if we agree.

What are we to do? I go back to my original question: “Did God know that most people in the world would not have the original languages of the Bible readily available to them?” We could also ask, “Did God not know that nearly all of the people who profess to follow Him wouldn’t get their theology straight?” So, if we assume that He knows these things we can further ask if He takes this all into account?

This is where we discuss things like the perspicuity of scripture (how clear it is), what is necessary to understand for salvation, and how understandable different things of scripture are. Some factors I see:

  1. Some passages of scripture are more understandable than others no matter what language you use.
  2. Some topics are more understandable than others.
  3. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is necessary for proper understanding.
  4. Some understanding depends on wisdom aside from intelligence.
  5. Some understanding requires great intelligence or education.
  6. Individual levels of understanding depend on personal experiences.
  7. The understandability of some things of scripture depends heavily on cultural influences.
  8. The understandability of most things of scripture depends on our level of spiritual discernment.
  9. God causes a lack of understanding for His perfect purpose.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it is these last points that are key to tying Babel with God’s revelation of Himself in scripture and walking away with an assurance that we can know enough well enough.

God caused language to be confused in Babel and then proceeded to reveal Himself through prophets and inspired scripture.

In Babel, the goal of mankind was the exaltation of Man over God and the self-sufficiency of Man. God confused the language of Man so that His revelation to Man would be clear to Man when it came. In other words, Man could not rely on himself for knowledge of God, but had to rely on God to reveal Himself.

We still do. That’s the bridge between Babel and the revelation God gives us in the Bible. Inasmuch as we approach knowledge of God on our own accord, we lack understanding. Inasmuch as we approach knowledge of God by the light and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, we have understanding. Those who lack understanding don’t understand how those who have understanding got it, and they often disparage those who have understanding as though they cannot have understanding. Those who lack understanding typically cannot believe that there is some understanding that they do not possess.

Here is another list (I seem to be into lists today) of how God works with us to understand His revelation:

  1. Obtaining an understanding of scripture is part of our being made perfect as we are sanctified, set aside, for His glory. (Romans 15:14-21)
  2. We are told, clearly enough, to study scripture. The implication is that we can know something from it. (Ephesians 5:17; 1 Timothy 4:13)
  3. We are told that scripture is a sufficient revelation for us. (Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16)
  4. We are told how to deal with each other in grace as we differ in our understanding. This indicates that God knows that we are going to have slightly differing understandings for a time although we are all brothers and sisters in the faith. (1 Corinthians 8)
  5. God deals with us graciously in our lack of understanding. (Romans 7:15-25; Philippians 4:7)
  6. Although we often get things wrong and disagree, the revelation of God is not open to interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20)
  7. God gives us understanding. (1 John 5:20; 2 Timothy 2:7; 1 Corinthians 2:12; Romans 1:19)
  8. God takes understanding away. (John 12: 39,40; Romans 1:29; 11:25)
  9. It is our desire to understand and our trust in God rather than our own intellectual machinations that give us true understanding. (Hebrews 11:3)
  10. Understanding is not the ultimate goal. (1 Corinthians 13:12; John 5:39-40)

So, seek understanding. Study the Bible. Struggle to get it right. Learn the original languages if you can, but do not despair if you cannot. Understanding comes from God. Trust Him and seek Him above all, and deal graciously with others when you disagree.

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