A recent survey of Bible translations used by pastors in the U.S. of different denominations [dead link removed] gave me the idea for this post. I have little to say about the survey itself except that it was strange that they didn't include Presbyterians as a category and that they didn't single out the NET, RSV, or ESV.
What I'm mainly interested in doing here is giving people enough information to choose what English translations of the Bible are best for various purposes. I don't think there's one best translation, and which one you pick will be affected by a number of factors, including things about yourself and the circumstances in which you'll be using this particular Bible. First, though I want to report two real occurrences from my friend who worked in a religious bookstore. One woman asked about purchasing a Bible. He asked her what translation she wanted. Her response: "English!" This was not someone who spoke English as a second language, from whom such a response makes perfect sense. The second case is often told as a joke, but this really happened to my friend. Someone came into the store asking for a Bible. He asked what translation the person wanted, and he received in response, "The King James, you know, the one Jesus used." Well, I hope to do a better job of explaining Bible translations than those who failed these people.
First I should say that some people, for reasons they have little or no control over, already have some reasons to prefer Bibles of certain sorts. Some factors that might go into this are age or level of understanding of the English language, both of which can easily (or will of necessity) change over time. Someone at a very young age might do best with a translation that's easier to use, particularly with an easier vocabulary and more straightforward grammar that sounds like English. Some translations don't have this, and sometimes they have good reasons not to (e.g. in service of a certain sort of accuracy). For new speakers of English, similar criteria will come into play. So this is one factor that will be important for some people but not others, and it's not something you should expect to continue to have the same role ten years down the road.
A couple weeks ago Volokh blogged about 'thee' and 'thou'. One thing he mentioned that I've known for a little while but seems so contrary to popular opinion is that 'thee' and 'thou' were the informal and more personal versions of the second person pronoun, and 'ye' and 'you' were reserved for more formal situations. The informal 'thee' and 'thou' eventually became archaic, and their association with old-fashionedness, which also somehow got associated with formality, led to the dominant myth that 'thee' and 'thou' are more formal.
Should people use these terms when praying? Should people prefer a Bible translation that uses them with respect to God? I've encountered a number of people who prefer them and some who insist on it. I've also encountered probably a much greater number who have preferred 'you', many of them insisting on it. The issues become quite complicated, simply because most people don't understand the history of their own language enough to know why these words were chosen in older translations (and the archaic on this matter NASB) when referring to God.
There's a debate within those who believe in some sort of rational defense of Christianity about how it should be done. The main lines of the debate are between what I call the classical apologetics view and the presuppositional view. I've never understood the presuppositionalist position, and all the arguments I've ever seen in favor of it seem so bad to me that I have to think there's something to the view beyond what people seem to me to be saying, but I've still seen no evidence that anyone has a better statement of the view and its claims than the bad ones I've so far seen. I've finally gotten around to putting together my thoughts on why I think presuppositionalism is fundamentally mistaken.
In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Muslims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.
I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.
Not too long ago my wife and I finished reading through Matthew's gospel, and my own reading of the gospel strikes me as so far removed from the direction of a lot of scholarship. There seems to be a sense among some scholars that Matthew had a loose view of history and just sort of made things up about Jesus, not caring if many of it really happened. There's also this contrary sense from the same people that Matthew looked long and hard to find passages in the Hebrew scriptures that were vaguely similar to events in Jesus' life, usually resulting in huge stretches of the imagination to try to connect the two as if the first had been a prophecy of the second.
This combination creates a strong tension. How can it be both that Matthew twists OT passages way out of context and that he invents stories that never happened to fulfill those same OT passages? If he was in the business of inventing stories that never happened, he could have made it so that they were closer to the events as described in the OT passages he's referencing. That suggests that he's not simply inventing stories and finding OT passages to fit them. I think it's absolutely obvious and not even an open question that there are many levels of what it might mean to fulfill something, and Matthew is well aware of that.
The view I'm questioning assumes only the kind of fulfillment that simplistic apologists assume when they say that a reference to an OT passage is about Jesus simply because the NT references it, then listing countless passages and giving the sum of all this as an argument that Jesus must have been who he said he was because he fulfilled so many prophecies. Not all the fulfillment in the NT is that kind of fulfillment, as if some prophet said something and it was about Jesus and not about anything else.
President Bush has gotten in trouble with some of his fellow evangelicals. They don't think he's a real evangelical because of his comments about other religions. He says Islam is a good religion, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God, and that the beliefs of other good religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. will help contribute to a better society. Meanwhile, Christianity (at least any Christianity that takes the scriptures as authoritative) states quite clearly that there's no other way to the Father except through Jesus. It says that God is three persons in one being, a Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), while Islam and contemporary Judaism insist that God is one in every way possible and that Jesus, a mere creation of God, is not to be identified or confused with God. Islam does believe he's a prophet and will return. They don't believe he died, never mind that he was resurrected. Judaism (except for Messianic Jews, if you count them) don't even believe that much about him.
What do we make of this? I want to explain what I think President Bush means when he says these things and why I think it's not just consistent with evangelicalism but it's what evangelicals should say. What the evangelicals who resist saying these things want to avoid is the kind of pluralism that attributes one reality to the multiple beliefs systems in world religions. They're all getting at the same reality but in different ways. I don't think that's at all what Bush has in mind, and I think a careful look at the nature of the language will show that the many repeated claims against Bush's statements are assuming an implausible view of how names function in natural languages like English.
John Owen argues for the view Reformed thinkers call limited atonement, basically the view that Christ's death was only for the sake of those who would be saved. Since those who never become saved never take advantage of the atonement, in what sense is it for them? Their sin is never atoned for. His argument is slightly for a more detailed, though it's very short and worth looking at.
I think Owen gives a good argument for limited atonement (or what more recent theologians have preferred to call particular atonement, which I think is just as obscure a term). But what about I Timothy 2:5, which says that Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? What about John 3:16, which says that God's love is for the world that anyone who believe in him will have eternal life? Reformed thought has an easy answer to the second part. Those who do end up believing, i.e. those chosen by God to believe, will have eternal life. But what about God's love for the whole world? What about God's desire that no one die in Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:10? This essay is intended to sort out such issues.
Some people say yes, but can there be if theological determinism is true? The idea is that if God stands behind every action in some way, good or evil, then there cannot be potentiality in God. It's somehow inappropriate to say that something different could have happened, I could have done something different, etc. I am the one who did it, and I am responsible for doing it, but could it have been different if God stands behind it in some fundamental sense? Many Reformed thinkers will say no. There is no potentiality in God.
I disagree with the conclusion, though I think the general picture behind it is correct. To get a sense of why I think the fundamental picture behind it is correct, read through chapter 10 of Isaiah's prophecy and Peter's speech in Acts 2 and Acts 4. Evil actions are described -- first the king of Assyria and his attack on God's people, then Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the Jewish leaders -- follow-through that led to his being put to death. These are evil actions. There's no question about that in the minds of Isaiah (who gave the prophecy from God but presumably through his own mind and ways of expressing things, including through his own divinely inspired theological reflection), Peter (who gave the speech in the Acts narrative), and Luke (who gave us the Acts narrative). These people are blamed by the biblical writers for their evil actions. However, it's also true that God stands behind these events. The actions of Judas and the Jewish leaders, while evil, were necessary for God's plan of salvation. They are, in effect, part of that plan. Similarly, the actions of the Assyrian king are evil but are part of God's process of judging Israel. Isaiah goes so far as to call him a tool in God's hands, and yet somehow he's responsible for what he did! There is a mystery here. I'm not trying to sort it out, but its background is important for this issue.
Now about the conclusion many Reformed thinkers draw -- does this mean that only one thing is possible? After all, God has his one plan, which includes evil things in it, so we can't insist that the evil things are not part of God's plan and say that they allow for the various possibilities. If it's possible that God can in some way stand behind evil actions without himself being morally responsible for the evil people do, then we don't need to insist on human free action as something outside God's control. Then there really only needs to be one possible outcome, and it seems as if there aren't real possibilities. I once thought this was a good argument, but I'm now convinced that it's not. The biblical data from above points us one way. What you'll find is another set of passages in tension with the ones above, pushing us in a different direction. First let's consider those, and then we'll move on to discuss the philosophical implications.
Some people say something like the following:
"You can't quote the Bible to prove the Bible because it's circular reasoning."
There's something about what they're saying that's right. The following is a bad argument:
1. The Bible says it's the word of God.
2. I can trust what it says, since it's the word of God.
3. Therefore, I can trust it when it says it's the word of God, so I should believe that it's the word of God.
However, that's not the only thing someone can mean when saying that the Bible can count as evidence for Christianity. I have in mind a very different kind of argument. What Christians call the Old Testament (and what scholars today call the Hebrew Bible) could have taken something like 1500 years to produce, perhaps shorter but certainly well over 1000 years even by liberal estimates (though how much of it one says is early depends on one's presuppositions). Adding in the New Testament (or Greek Bible, if you prefer that name) brings it to 1500-2000 years. Think about what's happened in the last 2000 years.
Two related arguments come to mind. One has to do with prophecy. The other is from the unity of the Bible.
Reformed thought affirms the idea that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross covers only the elect, only those God has predestined to be saved without regard to anything they deserve. Arminians question much of the Reformed picture, but limited atonement comes under fire even by middle-of-the-road people. One way Calvinists often put the doctrine is misleading, and they often have to give what seems to me to be a strange reinterpretation of very straightforward passages about God’s love for the world or for everyone or about Christ’s death for all or for the whole world. However, I don’t think you have to give up the doctrine of limited atonement to affirm these passages the way that seems most obvious. These reflections below explain why I think that. They were written in a context of an online debate, and I’ve included some of the statement that I’m responding to.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.