Saturday, July 18, 2015

Modern English Versions and the Greek New Testament

Some of us remember the days before the internet and Google, when a new software program came with an immense user’s manual. If you have ever seen any of these in a used bookstore, you probably noticed that it was relatively unused. The problem with those manuals is that they really were unusable. The indices were usually poorly done and the text was written by the people who wrote the program. Between “geek speak” and making gratuitous assumptions about what the computer illiterate user actually knew, the manuals provided more frustration than clarification to the user.

Modern English versions, in relation to the Greek text of the New Testament, are somewhat like those old user manuals. They tend to assume too much, and hence give the ordinary reader too little information. For example, the Preface to the ESV makes the following statement: “The ESV is based on … the Greek text in the 1993 editions of the Greek New Testament (4th corrected ed.) , published by the United Bible Societies (UBS) and Novum Testamentum Graece (27th ed.), edited by Nestle and Aland.… in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 27th edition.”  The Greek texts referred to here are the NAET of my prior post. Similar statements are found in the prefaces of other modern English versions. The problem is that, while accurate, it is full of “geek-speak” and thus of relatively little use to the ordinary reader of the New Testament. It does not, for example, note the existence of MT and TR texts. Granted, the NAET is currently something of a consensus text among New Testament scholars, but a significant minority support for an MT probably should merit some recognition. In my estimation, the Preface to the New King James Version is much more informative and more “user-friendly” for the ordinary reader.

The other point at which most modern English versions under-serve their readers is in the textual notes. For the most part, the notes themselves are clear enough, but the rationale behind them is unclear. So, for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in the NIV reads, “the man of lawlessness.” There is a textual note that says, “Some manuscripts sin.” In other words, some manuscripts have “man of sin” instead of “man of lawlessness.” The ESV has the same note. The NASB (1995) has “lawlessness” but no textual note, as does the NLT. What the various versions do not make clear is why in some cases there is a note, whereas in other cases there is not. One might think that the idea is to have a note whenever there is a difference between the NAET and the MT or TR, but that is not supported by the evidence. For example, in regard to one of the most notorious passages in the New Testament (1 John 5:7), the NIV and the NASB (1995) both have a note explaining the “missing” verse, the ESV and NLT do not.

On this issue, my philosophy is “less is more.” The modern English version indicates its textual preference in the preface. The reader should assume that the translation reflects that textual preference. In that case, textual notes are unnecessary, unless there is a case where the translation differs from its preferred text. Then there should be merely a note indicating that the translators have preferred a different reading. As it is, most of the textual notes serve merely to confuse the reader.

Next: The New Testament text and the Westminster Confession.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Removing Verses from the Bible

What do the following verses have in common: Matthew 17:21; 18:16; 23:14; Mark 7:16; 9:44, 46; Luke 17:36; 23:17; Acts 8:37? That’s right. They are all verses that the "heretical new translations" have removed from your Bibles. Those “heretical” bibles include the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV. This assertion showed up in my Facebook newsfeed from a Facebook friend who wondered about it, because he had looked those verses up, and sure enough they were missing from the Bible he was using.

First, this is just an old scam from KJV-Only folks that want to stir up people against any translation but the KJV. But the real question is, why are these verses “missing” from most modern versions? The answer is: textual criticism. (Warning: the following discussion is simplified.)

Translations of the New Testament are based on printed texts that are collations (detailed comparisons) of ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts that we have of the New Testament originated in the period between the early second century and the late Middle Ages. These are copies of copies at least. Any time a text is copied, errors will occur. Such things as misspellings, mishearings (some manuscripts were copied by scribes from a manuscript that was read to them), accidental skipping of lines and words, “corrections” supplied by the copyist, and other issues accrue in the copies. New Testament scholars, in working to determine what the New Testament originally said, need to get behind these copies to what the original read. They do this by comparing manuscripts, and evaluating diverse readings on the basis of generally accepted principles. The result is the modern printed Greek New Testament.

There are, at present, essentially three modern printed Greek New Testaments: the Textus Receptus (TR), the Majority Text (MT), and the Nestle-Aland Eclectic Text (NAET). The TR is the text that lies behind the King James Version of the Bible. It was based on a relatively small number of Greek manuscripts. In the four centuries since then many more manuscripts have been recovered.

The MT and the NAET are both modern (20th-21st century) printed texts. They both use a large number of manuscripts that were not available to those who developed the TR. The main difference between the MT and the NAET is the set of principles used to compare and evaluate differing readings in the manuscripts.

Most New Testament scholars today (including theologically conservative scholars) hold that the NAET is the closest to the original New Testament. Some modern scholars (mostly theologically conservative) hold that the MT is closest to the original. Almost no one holds that the TR is the closest to the original.

All modern versions of the New Testament, except for the New King James Version, are based (with some variation) on the NAET. In the judgment of the editors of the NAET, the verses in the list above were later additions to the text of the New Testament. In other words, the modern versions are not removing verses from the Bible; the TR was adding verses to the Bible.

I’ll have more to say in a later post.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Making Sense of Kings

For many people, the Books of Kings are two of the most confusing books in the Old Testament, for the simple reason that the historian is telling two stories at once. Here are some clues to helping make sense of it all.

First, get the big picture. The two books easily divide into three sections. The first section is the reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 1-11). The second section is the period of the Divided Kingdom, down to the fall of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 12-2 Kgs 17). The third section is the story of Judah, from the end of the northern kingdom until the Babylonian Exile. Another big picture item is the story of Elijah and Elisha, which covers most of the material from 1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 8.

Second, get the names straight. The northern kingdom is Israel. The southern kingdom is Judah. The first king of Israel is Jeroboam. The first king of Judah is Rehoboam. Later on there is a second Jeroboam in Israel. There are two kings named Jehoram (also spelled Joram), one in Israel and one in Judah. They rule about the same time. There are also two kings named Jehoash (or Joash), one in Israel and one in Judah. They also reign about the same time. Then there is a King Azariah in Judah, but he is known as Uzziah in 2 Chronicles and in Isaiah 6.

Third, notice how the historian tells the story. He begins (after the split) with Israel, telling the story of Jeroboam. After the death of Jeroboam, he tells the story of the kings of Judah until he reaches past the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Then he shifts back to Israel. It is the back-and-forth nature of the narrative that loses most people.

Fourth, the order of the story is as follows, identifying the king, the nation (I for Israel, J for Judah), and the length of his reign: Jeroboam (I, 22 years); Rehoboam (J, 17 years); Abijam (J, 3 years); Asa (J, 41 years); Nadab (I, 2 years); Baasha (I, 24 years); Elah (I, 2 years); Zimri (I, 1 week); Omri (I, 12 years); Ahab (I, 22 years); Jehoshaphat (J, 25 years). At this point, we have arrived at the end of 1 Kings. 

Ahaziah (I, 2 years); Jehoram (I, 12 years); Jehoram (J, 8 years); Ahaziah (J, 1 year); Jehu (I, 28 years); Athaliah (J, six years, a usurper); Joash (J, 40 years); Jehoahaz (I, 17 years); Jehoash (I, 16 years); Amaziah (J, 29 years); Jeroboam II (I, 41 years); Azariah (J, 52 years); Zechariah (I, 6 months); Shallum (I, 1 month); Menahem (I, 10 years); Pekahiah (I, 2 years); Pekah (I, 20 years); Jotham (J, 16 years); Ahaz (J, 16 years); Hoshea (I, 9 years). At this point, the nation of Israel is destroyed by Assyria.

After the end of Israel, the story is straightforward, because there is only one nation to deal with. The rest of the kings of Judah are as follows: Hezekiah (29 years); Manasseh (55 years); Amon (2 years); Josiah (31 years); Jehoahaz (3 months, then taken captive to Egypt); Jehoiakim (11 years); Jehoiachin (3 months, then taken captive to Babylon); Zedekiah (11 years). At that point, Judah was destroyed, bringing the period of the monarchy to an end as well as ending the narrative of the Books of Kings.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Do You Read the Bible?

I can hear the answer now: Same way I read any book, one word after another.

I just re-read C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism and it got me thinking about how we read our Bibles. He makes a distinction between reading for use and reading to receive. Since he is dealing with literature, he’s really making the distinction between reading literature for the sake of the literature (reading to receive) and reading for some other purpose, such as learning truths about life, or learning a worldview (reading for use).

In some sense the Bible is literature. But I fear that most Christians never read it as such. They read it for use, to use Lewis’s category. They read it in bits and pieces. They read selected verses that they’ve drawn together with the help of a concordance so that they can do word studies, or investigate particular doctrines. That’s not necessarily bad. It is an application of Paul’s statement about “all Scripture” in 2 Tim 3:16ff. But the end result of such an approach can be that the Bible is never really seen as anything more than a mine of doctrinal or practical nuggets: verses that can be committed to memory for some memory plan, or pulled out in case of need, like the lists of recommended verses for different counseling situations.

That may be part of the explanation for why many sermons on the psalms seem to completely miss the psalm itself. The preacher has, instead of seeing it as a literary whole, seen it as a series of doctrinal assertions. It may also explain why many Christians have a hard time reading the Bible. They’ve been taught that they need to read it for use. But as they begin to read it, they realize that the only parts they understand are the handful of verses they’ve memorized. Even the Sunday school stories they learned are a lot more complicated than they remember them to be: there’s a lot more to Noah than a big boat, or to David than the battle with Goliath. And don’t even mention the prophets.

Another part of the difficulty is that the Bible isn’t written at a fifth-grade level. Yet folks seem to think that they ought to be able to understand it the first time through. I’ve been reading it regularly for over forty years and there are parts that only now I think I am beginning to get a real handle on.

So try this the next time you read the Bible. First, lower your expectations. There’s a lot you’re not going to understand. There’s even a lot you’re not going to like. Second, get a Bible without the chapter and verse divisions. When was the last time you read a piece of literature that had page-long chapters subdivided into verses? Then just read it. Read it for its own sake. Read it receptively. Read it the way you would listen to a friend tell you a story. You listen because you want to hear, not because you think what he says is going to change your life, or teach you something you didn’t know before. The Bible will do that, because it’s God’s word. But if you read it just because you think you must, you’re missing out on the joy of it.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Thoughts on Study Bibles

On my desk at home I have the following study Bibles, in no particular order: the NLT Study Bible, the NKJV Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible (2015 edition), the CEB Study Bible, and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. In my office at school I have at least the following (there may be more, but since I’m not there right now, I’ll probably miss some): the 1599 Geneva Bible, the Harper-Collins Study Bible (1st and 2nd editions), and the Apologetics Study Bible. In the past I have also owned the NIV Study Bible, the Open Bible, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible, and no doubt others. In addition, there are dozens more study Bibles on the market, some for general use, and many intended for niche markets.

There are two strengths to study Bibles. First, they all include helps to understanding the message of the Bible. These usually include introductions to the books of the Bible, a concordance, maps, timelines, additional theological notes, and brief running comments on the biblical text. In that sense, they are a mini-library for biblical study. For ordinary Christian folks, who have neither the time, the training, nor the patience to labor through larger commentaries, Bible encyclopedias, and other reference works, these Bibles can be an immense help for working through what is often a puzzling book.

Second, because of the helps the reader can often be directed away from dangerous misunderstandings of the Bible that are promulgated by various cults. Or the reader may misread something, due to a failure to understand the language. Study Bibles can generally help the reader avoid these kinds of mistakes.

But study Bibles also have shortcomings. In order to keep the size of the Bible within a reasonable scope (the ESV Study Bible really pushes the envelope here, at almost 2,800 pages) something has to give. Generally what is lost is commentary on the text itself. Comments on difficult passages are often the first to suffer in this regard. Comments can be terse to the point of being incomprehensible. The comments are usually written by specialists on the various books of the Bible, who sometimes do not have a good sense of what the ordinary reader needs. In that sense, it can be like the old computer “help” manuals. They were written by the people who wrote the programs, so they did not understand the needs of the computer-illiterate user.

Second, study Bibles can interfere with actually reading the Bible. Having the text of the Bible surrounded with cross-references, commentary, devotional paragraphs, and theological notes easily distracts the reader from actual reading. They are Bibles, as the name says, for study, not for reading.
Do I recommend study Bibles? Yes, for study. My current preferences are for the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible and the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. The former is a significant improvement over its previous edition, with better and clearer commentary, as well as improved additional materials. The latter, while being somewhat hobbled by the KJV, is a very fine resource for family worship.

However, in addition to a study Bible, I also recommend a reading Bible. My preference here is for the ESV Reader’s Bible. Until you begin to read a Bible such as this one, you will not realize how distracting verse numbers, chapter divisions, and textual notes can be to the progress of your reading. It is much easier to read continuously without those distractions, and that continuous reading helps the reader to get a good grasp of the big picture of the Bible.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Final Note on the 43rd PCA GA: RPR

RPR is shorthand for the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. Being a connectional denomination, the PCA exercises “review and control” by means of higher courts (presbyteries and GA) reviewing the actions of lower courts (sessions and presbyteries). The purpose of RPR is to check that everything that the presbyteries do is proper and is done properly. If it is the opinion of RPR that what is done is not proper, this is considered an exception of substance. If it is the opinion of RPR that what is done is proper, but is not done properly, that is considered an exception of form. When RPR finishes its work, all exceptions of form are sent directly to the presbyteries. All exceptions of substance are brought to the GA for review and approval. This year, there were three particular exceptions of substance that drew debate. Two separate presbyteries were cited for exceptions of substance in that they approved men who hold to paedocommunion (the idea that young children, even very young children, may properly take the Lord’s Super). This view is directly contrary to our doctrinal standards, but how significant a departure it is, is a matter of debate. In both cases, RPR brought it as an exception of substance, though with significant minorities voting against the citation. In both cases, a minority report from RPR was also filed, asking that the exception of substance be removed. In both cases, the minority report was supported by the GA, so in the end, neither presbytery was cited.

We appear to have reached the point in the PCA where the paedocommunion view is being increasingly tolerated. This is a serious mistake, as the view weakens our commitment to our doctrinal standards, and undercuts the doctrine of the sacraments as it is laid out in our standards. For those who want a more detailed discussion of the issues, I recommend this:

The other major exception of substance concerned a presbytery that ordained a man who wasn’t entirely sure that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women as elders. RPR brought it as an exception of substance. Again, there was a minority report, arguing that the presbytery should not be cited. In this case, the minority report was defeated. Two things about this are troubling to me. First, there is the fact that a majority of the presbytery did not find this man’s uncertainty problematic. This man was going to be teaching and preaching in a denomination that holds that the ordination of women to church office is contrary to the Scriptures. If he is uncertain on that point, on what else is he uncertain? Second, this case indicates that there is an undercurrent in the PCA that is not opposed to women in church office. The long-term effects of such an undercurrent will not contribute to the long-term health of the church.

However, the presbytery has now been cited, and must respond to the GA next year with an explanation of their actions.

In general, it was a peaceable assembly. My own sense, however, is that the assembly tries to do too much too quickly. As a result, many things do not get done well.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Results of the Overtures Committee

The overtures that had been submitted to the GA were given to the Overtures Committee. This committee reviews the overture and submits their recommendation to the Assembly as a whole. The Assembly can adopt the recommendation of the committee, they can overturn the recommendation of the committee, they can recommit the overture to the committee for further discussion, or they can commit the overture to the next year’s committee for perfection. I list here the recommendations from the committee regarding each overture and the action taken by the Assembly.

Overture 1, requested a change in the rules regarding a judicial commission. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overtures 2 and 9 requested a study committee regarding recreations on the Sabbath. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overture 3 requested a change in the wording of baptismal vows. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

Overtures 4-6 asked for changes in various presbytery boundaries. Those overtures are given to the Mission to North America Committee for execution.

Overture 7 asked for a change that would require church officers to testify in judicial cases (sort of an anti-5th Amendment change). The Committee recommended that this overture be approved, modified by some changes in the language. This recommendation was, after considerable debate, rejected by the Assembly, nullifying the overture.

Overture 8 requested some changes in the BCO regarding the treatment of church officers without call. The Committee recommended a rejection of that overture. That recommendation was upheld by the Assembly.

The overture regarding the establishment of a provisional presbytery in Paraguay was given to the Mission to the World Committee for execution.

There was one overture and several personal resolutions that desired memorializing particular men who had died since the last GA. These were all approved, both by the Committee and by the Assembly.

Finally, there was a personal resolution from TEs Sean Michael Lucas of Grace Presbytery and J. Ligon Duncan of Mississippi Valley Presbytery (the text of that resolution can be read here: This resolution was given to the Overtures Committee to deal with. After some nine hours of occasionally heated debate, the Committee brought a recommendation that the resolution be referred to the next GA, with added grounds for that referral. Those grounds can be read here: This was taken up by the Assembly after the worship service on Thursday evening. After about an hour and a half of debate, the Assembly voted to sustain the Committee’s recommendation. This was followed by a time of prayer. A fuller description can be read here:

And such were the actions of the Overtures Committee of the Forty-third General Assembly of the PCA.

The Mechanics of PCA GA

Those of you who were hoping for my post-mortem on GA will have to wait a couple of days, until I have had more time to process it.

This is a description for those who have never been to GA, expect never to go, and yet are somewhat curious about what goes on there. (Yes, I know. All twelve of you.)

The Assembly begins with a worship service on Tuesday evening. The departing moderator preaches, and the Lord’s Supper is observed. Following the worship service, the business begins. The first item is the announcement of attendance and determining of a quorum. (for the quorum requirements, see PCA BCO 14-5). This year the attendance was 991 TEs and 329 REs, which is fairly typical, though a bit higher than the last few years. Ostensibly, there should be an equal number of TEs and REs, but a 3-1 TE margin is typical.

After the announcement of the quorum, a new moderator is elected. The office alternates between RE and TE. Since last year’s moderator was a TE, this year’s moderator was RE Jim Wert, about whom I know almost nothing, except that he did a fine job as moderator. After the election of the moderator, clerks and parliamentarians are appointed, and the meeting is recessed for the evening.

Wednesday begins with the report of the stated clerk: statistics on the denomination, communications of various sorts, etc. Then the Interchurch Relations Committee gives its report, and we hear greetings from representatives of various denominations with which the PCA has fraternal relations.
After the report of IRC, the various committees of commissioners give their reports. These include an informational report from the permanent committee or agency, and the approval of recommendations for the coming year. These tend to be brief and for the most part non-controversial. The committee reports that generate debate are those of the Overtures Committee and the Committee on the Review of Presbytery Records. I’ll discuss those in the next few posts.

The last committee to report is the Committee on Thanks. This expresses thanks to the host presbytery and all those involved in making the GA run smoothly. RE Mel Duncan from Second PCA in Greenville, SC has become something of an unofficial permanent member of the Committee of Thanks, because he writes a good report, full of local color.

Though the Assembly is docketed to go through Friday at noon, the last several years there has been a concerted effort to finish early. This year, everything concluded about 11:45 Thursday evening.

In the next two posts, I’ll give my post-mortem on this year’s GA.