September 14, 2009

Translation Matters

It's always fascinating to me when theological questions usually reserved for the seminary classroom find their way into popular discourse. One current example is the matter of Bible translation theory, which has recently received a significant amount of attention with the announcement that the current edition of the New International Version (NIV) is undergoing a significant revision. Indeed, a website has been created to explain the translation committee's decision to revise the translation - NIV Bible 2011. This decision has raised questions in popular circles that are usually reserved for graduate theological education. Such questions are: What makes for a good translation? What makes one translation superior to another? What makes each translation different? And why do we have so many translations anyway?

A translation's quality can be considered in whether it is faithful to the meaning of the original text. The problem here is how we determine faithfulness. Is faithfulness to the original best achieved by strict adherence to the original form in an attempt to reproduce the syntactical elements as closely as possible. Or is faithfulness best achieved by rendering the original into the best colloquial language? Different translators would give different answers.

So, what is the average churchgoer to do when considering which translation to buy? Some use the translation that their parents used. Others choose to use the translation that their preacher uses because it's easier to follow on Sundays. I would say that you are safe with any translation that has the word "standard" in the title. Beyond that, the NIV is a very popular (best-selling) choice as well. For serious Bible study, it is wise to consult several translations including representatives from different translation philosophies. For example, one might study a passage in the NASB, NIV, and NLT. This selection would provide a "standard" translation that attempts to capture the grammatical form of the original (NASB). It would also provide a very dynamic translation which moves entirely away from the grammatical form to idiomatic expressions (NLT). Some balance is achieved in this selection by the NIV which comes down somewhere in between formal and dynamic equivalence. A word of caution is order though. One should never, never, never use only a paraphrase (e.g., The Message, The Living Bible) for serious Bible study. These are not translations and they are not done by a committee of scholars. They are usually one person's take on how biblical passages could be interpreted or applied to the present day. They are helpful more along the lines of a commentary. They should not be used solo for serious study. No matter what!

I preach from the New Revised Standard Version, not because it's the best translation but because I developed a strong familiarity with it in seminary where it was required in a number of classes. I used to use the NIV and appreciated a fresh and unfamiliar rendering of many texts when reading them in the NRSV. The switch caused me to go back and think about some things a bit more closely. I'm not committed to the NRSV for life by any means. In fact, as I've been preaching through Philippians lately, I've noticed a number of places where it seems to take some liberty with the original Greek text. Also, the language is becoming a bit dated for contemporary readers. It may not be a bad idea to switch from time to time just to keep things fresh. I'm interested in looking more closely at the English Standard Version, which has developed quite a good reputation as of late and uses a translation philosophy similar to the NRSV.

All that to say, there are some good translations out there. Never before have so many translation options been available to the masses. This is really quite a historical achievement when we consider that as recently as 600 years ago people did not have personal copies of the Bible. When taken together, several translations can cast a great deal of light on some difficult passages. Familiarity with different translations keeps us thinking afresh about the Bible, which is a good thing. Thanks to the NIV translation committee for their interest in keeping their translation up-to-date and for bringing these important translation matters into popular purview.

September 12, 2009

The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will

"For God is the one who works in you both to will and to work for the sake of his good pleasure." Philippians 2:13

Arminians often tout the importance of the freedom of the will while often forgetting the importance of understanding the bondage of the will. I've met seminarians who did not understand that we are not born with the freedom to will rightly and to will in such a way that is pleasing to God. Philippians 2:13 is instructive in this situation.

First, the will, and any freedom it might have, is understood as a gift in this passage. Paul has just exhorted the Philippians to live out the salvation that Christ has secured through his obedient life, death, and resurrection. Paul's command to work out, or live out the implications of, our common salvation is grounded in the fact that God is already at work in us enabling our wills. This, of course, means that our wills lack ability in their natural state. If God has to do the work so that we can will, then we do not have freedom of will when we come into the world. It's all gift. This means that when we reject this gift, we are rejecting freedom of the will. To resist grace is to run to slavery.

Second, God does this work for the sake of his own good pleasure. It pleases God to free our wills so that we can will what he wills. It pleases him that we would share his pleasures. It is a good and comforting thing to know that God is at work in us to give us freedom because he enjoys it.

Arminians need to strive for clarity with regard to the biblical teaching on freedom of the will. We need to acknowledge that, apart from grace, our wills are in bondage to sin. Only through the God's good pleasure to work in us to will as he wills are we able to experience the freedom of our will's natural bondage.

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 6: Responding to Objections

It may come as a surprise to some that the expositional preaching of scripture has met with objection in many quarters of the church. Despite the goal of the method to plainly expose the life-giving word, it has been met with resistance, at times, from both pastors and congregants. So, with this final post on the case for expositional preaching, I aim to respond to some common objections.

First, some have objected to expositional preaching on the grounds that the method is dated. In response, I would say: Absolutely! This objection is faulty because it assumes that anything old is irrelevant. The obvious answer here is that the scriptures themselves are quite dated. The most recent of them are 2000 years old. The fact that expositional preaching is dated and has historical precedent as the best way to preach the word of God is an argument in favor of the method.

Second, some have objected that expositional preaching is dull and boring. This objection is probably not so much evidence of a dull method but dull preachers. If a sermon that is intended to explain the scriptures is boring, then the preacher needs to do more work in preparation before preaching it. The word of God is life-giving, and if the preacher makes it boring, then he ought to work harder not to hinder the power of the word.

Third, and closely related to the second, it has been objected by some preachers that preaching through a whole book is not preferable because the congregation might get bogged down. Once again, it must be seen that the problem is not with the word but with either the preacher or the congregation. If the congregation gets bogged down by the word, then either the preacher is not doing his job or the congregation has an insufficient appreciation for the life-giving word.

In conclusion, my aim through this series of posts has been to make the case for expositional preaching. The argument for expositional preaching is based on scriptural authority and sufficiency, personal growth for the preacher, and the fear of God's judgment to make the word scarce. All objections fail when considered in light of power of the word. The problem is never with scripture; it is always with either the preacher or the hearer and is a manifestation of our common fallenness. Let us, therefore, be faithful to preach the whole counsel of God to the people of God that our faith might be increased and our God might be glorified.

September 10, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 5, The Fear of God

In Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser argues that, "continual neglect of [God's] word can lead to God himself making that word scarce so that few can find it and thus profit from applying its message" (18). I was shocked when I first read this statement. But Kaiser makes his case quoting Amos 8:11-12:

"'The days are coming,' declares the Sovereign Lord, 'when I will send a famine through the land - not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it.'"

Kaiser points out that possession of God's word is not enough. God's people must love God's word and give it central place in everything they do. If we do not, then the consequence (or judgment) is that we get what we asked for. If we neglect God's word, then he will make it scarce.

In light of this, we must renew the call for thoroughly biblical preaching, preaching that seeks to exposit God's word and explain it clearly to God's people. The pulpit must be a place where love of the scriptures is exemplified and communicated. The preacher must demonstrate through his preaching that the word of God is authoritative and valuable. By preaching expositionally, the focus is on what God has said. This is the best way to cultivate among our people a sense of the importance of what God has said and a deep love for the scriptures.

We might be tempted to think that the word of God could never become scarce in our own day. After all, we have new translations, paraphrases, and study bibles published on what sometimes seems to be a daily basis. We have bibles for doctors, farmers, teachers, Marines, students, hunters, fishermen, and others. We have study bibles, application bibles, green bibles, bibles for him, and bibles for her. Despite the commercial proliferation of variously marketable editions, we may not have a deep love for the word of God. Indeed, for all our many versions of the Bible, we live in a day of great biblical illiteracy. I fear this is because our people all too often receive from the pulpit the latest self-help-psycho-babble rather than the vigorous declaration of the whole counsel of God. We guard seekers from the word because we do not want to offend them. But we forget that we offend the one who alone is Holy God when we harness his word and cloak the uncomfortable parts. The consequence for such neglect is that God makes his word scarce.

Therefore, let us give the scriptures a central place in our churches and pulpits. Let us preach to expose the word to our people and our people to the word. Let it not be said of us that we neglected the life-giving word in our ministries. Let it not be said of our day as it was said in the days of Eli that, "in those days the word of the Lord was rare" (1 Sam 3:1).

September 2, 2009

Why I Preach Expositionally, part 4: Personal Growth

Up to this point in this series of reflections, my case for expositional preaching has been based primarily on biblical-theological argument. I turn now to a much more personal reason. An important reason for pastors to preach expositionally through whole books of the Bible is the opportunity it provides for personal spiritual growth and formation.

Many pastors face hectic schedules and often the thing that is neglected is time for personal study and formation. Preaching through a whole book of the Bible provides opportunity for me to immerse myself in the text of a single book for several months. It gives me the opportunity to really consider the flow of a single biblical document, and provides extended time to reflect on the meaning of the text for its original hearers and the application of the text for its modern hearers. Perhaps most importantly, such a method of preaching provides opportunity to be shaped by the text. If your congregation can see that the text has said something important to you, then they will be more likely to listen to what it says to them.

Weekly sermon prep time becomes continuing education for the pastor who takes seriously the task of preparing to preach an entire book of the Bible. By reading several reliable commentaries as he moves through the book, the preacher can integrate life long education into his daily work. A couple of good commentaries will introduce the attentive pastor to translation difficulties and possible interpretations of key texts. Also, consulting commentaries will provide accountability for what the pastor says in the pulpit on Sunday. Over the course of his ministry, the dedicated preacher can develop quite a handle on a significant amount of biblical text in its original cultural context. This will provide the preacher with a stronger ability to apply the text to his own contemporary cultural context.

This, for me, is one of the greatest benefits of preaching expositionally. I get to read, read, read. I get to study the Bible and about the Bible and about the world in which the Bible was written. This type of study gives me the chance make a habit of life long learning. If we preach only the texts we know, we will never grow. Preaching through whole books of the Bible forces us to wrestle with difficult and unfamiliar texts. It forces us to deal with hard issues. Such preaching provides outstanding opportunity to grow both as a Christian and as a preacher.

September 1, 2009

Preaching & Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church by Walter Kaiser

According to Walter Kaiser, the Old Testament (OT) has posed a significant problem for a lot of Christians. All too many Christians struggle with the significance of the OT particularly because so much of it is no longer in force and normative for the church (29). The result is that the OT has suffered serious neglect. Thus, Kaiser has written the present volume to give pastors and teachers some answers to the problems posed. For many pastors the OT remains strange and inaccessible. Kaiser's aim is to provide a guide to help pastors navigate the daunting texts of the OT.

The book is split into two main parts. In the first, the author makes the case for the need to preach and teach from the OT. The chapters are devoted to the value of the OT, the problems involved in teaching the OT, and the task of preaching and teaching the OT. In the final chapter of the first part, Kaiser argues that the expository preaching of the Bible (both testaments) is the solution to many ills facing the church today.

The second part of the book presents a practical guide for preparing sermons from the OT. Each of the seven chapters in this part takes a different OT genre and outlines a method for approaching the texts in that genre. The chapters include guides for preaching narratival, wisdom, prophetic, lament, praise, and apocalyptic literature. There is also a chapter on preaching from the Torah, though, as the author acknowledges, this really falls in the category of narrative. I found most helpful the chapters on narrative, the prophets, and wisdom literature. I found the chapter on laments least helpful in that it provided more example sermon outlines than it did specific method for approaching the laments. Of great value is that each of these chapters concludes with an example sermon from the genre dealt with in the chapter. These sermons are excellent models of expository messages from the OT.

Kaiser also proposes that the relationship between the testaments be thought of in terms of promise and fulfillment. He sees the OT as unified around the promise-plan of God to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 (32). The New Testament (NT) writers claimed that the fulfillment of the promise came in Jesus of Nazareth. I take this to be a particularly helpful lens for approaching the canon and for preaching the OT. The OT is always looking forward to something. Our sermons on the OT can highlight this and provide the answer that the NT authors provide, namely Jesus.

I am happy to give this book a high recommendation. It really is one of the most helpful books I've read lately. My guess is that most pastors are quite intimidated by the thought of preaching from the OT, not to mention preaching an entire book of the OT. But imagine the benefit of preaching through an entire OT book for both the pastor and the congregation. The church owes Kaiser a debt of gratitude. An excellent writer with the ability to make complex matters accessible to the non-specialist, Kaiser has provided an essential guide for preaching and teaching the OT. Every pastor should put this one on the list of must-reads. I intend to consult it again and again.