Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hope Through the Encouragement of the Scriptures

I need to hide more of God's word in my heart, and I need to keep training myself to call it up when I'm tempted to depression and negative thinking.There is always some kind of dialogue running in the background of my mind, and left to itself it without fail becomes of the negative sort. "I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Psalm 119:11).

Those negative thoughts of pessimism (inarticulated though they may be) are a direct affront to God's generous nature (Romans 8:32, 2 Peter 1:3), to the kindness he has shown me in Christ (Titus 3:4-7), to the promises he has made of a future with him and the hope of heaven (Romans 8:18-24). That's why to succumb to depression and gloom is so often, for the Christian, actually a sin against God--it amounts to unbelief in what he has said and promised! We feel like it's all about us, but what's at stake is our lives lived to glorify and honor him by believing him. He has prescribed his truth, standing outside of ourselves, as the antidote to fear and self-absorption. Let's not neglect the Scriptures. "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 4)

This is the last in a series of four posts on Bible translations, commentaries and the NLT; I've specifically been talking about problems I saw with the NLT recently, not because I enjoy being negative, but because there's really nothing more important than having an accurate translation of God's word. If you haven't read those posts and want to, you can find them here. What I'd like to do now is just offer a few concluding thoughts on the whole issue of translations and commentaries.

First, no translation of the Bible from the original languages will be perfect. Essentially literal, word-for-word translations like the ESV, the NASB, the KJV and others will be most true to the Greek and Hebrew and to the true meaning of the text. These should be the translations we use and read and study, though they will here and there contain a "clunky" word or phrase (as in the phrase from Romans 5:5 I was researching). This is usually because the translator wants to preserve the integrity of the word-for-word translation. Often the meaning is made clear by the context (the surrounding verses and passages). But when more clarification is needed a good commentary can be helpful.

Some interesting statistics: the ESV reads at about the 10th grade level. The Holman Christian Standard, another essentially literal translation, reads at about the 9th grade level. The NLT, a dynamic equivalence (thought for thought, rather than word for word) translation, reads at about the 6th grade level, while the Message is at about the 3rd grade level. Though sometimes readers feel they can better understand the NLT or the Message, the reading levels of the literal translations are not that difficult (interesting chart on that here). After all, shouldn't we prefer to read an accurate translation of the Bible, and do the challenging work required to get us reading at that level? Thousands of generations grew up reading literal translations of the Scripture; the first paraphrase was only introduced in 1971. 

The problem with a dynamic equivalence version is that its translating team makes editorial decisions. Where they see fit, they will leave out a word that is in the original language (as they left out the important connecting word gar, translated "for", in Romans 5:6). In doing so, they are saying that they disagree with the connections the Bible itself makes; doctrine is at stake, yet these translators are willing to make these changes when it suits their interpretation. Worst of all, they don't alert the reader that they have translated this way.

The NLT is at least partly a paraphrase, but calls itself a translation; therefore its readers think they have in their hands an accurate rendering of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. The reader should understand that in reading the NLT they are reading varying degrees of paraphrase, as well as the translation team's unspoken commentary implicit in their editing.

A good stand-alone commentary can indeed be hugely helpful. Reading an essentially literal translation and turning to a commentary for clarification is a good method. Of course, the very best way to understand the meaning of the Bible is to read it regularly and widely, in context, prayerfully and reverently and with enjoyment.

However it's worth saying again, that good commentaries are helpful; they're written by faithful scholars who revere God's word as given in the original language, and who seek to let the Scriptures speak for themselves. These commentaries will refuse to omit or change any word or phrase in the text. They will lay aside any doctrinal prejudice, and will come to the text believing that these are the very words of God, as given to the Bible authors under the Holy Spirit's inspiration. The only goal of such commentaries will be to understand, and help the student of God's word understand, what God meant for them to know in the text. Of course, even a good commentary can make mistakes, so ultimately it is up to each Christian to become a good student of the Bible, to learn to study and understand for themselves.

Lastly, finding a good commentary is not that hard, but it helps to get some recommendations. People and their writings get reputations for accuracy, for honesty, and for biblical faithfulness. Two scholars whose commentaries have stood the test of time are John Calvin and Matthew Henry. Following in that tradition of biblical faithfulness are more modern commentaries by John MacArthur, Kent R. Hughes, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, D.A. Carson, and even the study notes of the ESV Study Bible. This article on commentaries at Desiring God may be helpful.

All will be similar in their approach to Scripture; none of them will be willing to omit, ignore or change words from the original language. They will offer their best shot at helping to interpret a passage's meaning. Good comments on Scripture can be immensely helpful and devotional, helping us to grow in the knowledge of God so that we ascribe even greater praise to God for all his wonderful deeds and purposes. This is a good indication that you have hit on the right translation and the right interpretation of a passage!

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of posts on Bible translations, commentaries and the NLT Bible. You can read Part 1 here, and follow the link from it to Part 2. I was originally going to title these posts "How the NLT Both Helps and Falls Short" in studying the Bible. I did want to find the NLT helpful. But I can't say it is. It may be, in places, but I can't point to where, as I haven't compared it a lot to the original languages. I can only say you need to be careful in relying on it to be accurate, and that its failure to be faithful to the Greek in this one experiment of mine is troubling.

Here's the story: in researching a phrase from Romans 5:5, "hope does not put us to shame", I turned to the NLT to see if it could offer some clarification. But in reading Romans 5:5 in the NLT and then continuing to verse 6, I found problems. The most glaring, which I discussed in my previous post, was the NLT's omission of the Greek word gar ("for"). But there were other problems, too. First, for clarification, here is Romans 5:5-6 from the two translations I used in my research.

From the ESV's word-for-word translation:

"(5)... and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (6) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly."

Then the NLT's thought-for-thought translation:

"(5) And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (6) When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners."

I wanted to see if it worded that phrase in a way that made it more clear in meaning. Let me just mention here that what Paul is saying in Romans 5:5 is that this is a unique hope. It's the hope expressed in the hymn line, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness..." "Hope" in Romans 5:4-5 isn't a wish, but a solid conviction springing out of something God has done, which Paul will describe in the next verses. We won't be ashamed of having had that hope, because it's all going to happen just like God has promised.

I noticed when I first looked at Romans 5:5 in the NLT that "disappointment" was used instead of "shame". I don't know all the ins and outs of that choice, but the Greek word, kataischuno, means "to shame down", to "put to the blush", to "confound" (from Strong's concordance). It's used when one has been proven wrong. So translating that it's a hope that "does not put us to shame" seems better than that it "will not lead to disappointment". That same word is used elsewhere in Scripture (Philippians 1:20, 1 Peter 2:6) where it has the idea of standing before God to give account. And in this passage, it helps to get the meaning and understand the translation issues if the word "shame" is used instead of "disappointment".

For the sake of brevity, then, I'll just use bullets to go through verses 5 and 6 in Romans 5 and talk about the differences in these two translations. I'll try to point out how I think the thought-for-thought translation fails to make clear the meaning of the passage.

Verse 5: Paul begins his reason that we have such a hope with the words "for God's love has been poured into our hearts". Notice that Paul's emphasis is on God's action. He is saying that we have this kind of hope, a hope that will not put us to shame, because of something God has done, and he has begun to tell us about it.

The NLT changes the wording, making it instead, "For we know how dearly God loves us." Paul didn't say this; he didn't ground the reason for our hope in our knowledge of how dearly God loves us, or on anything else about us, but on something true about God and about what he has done. This is a subtle but important difference in wording.

Verse 5: Paul builds on the reason for a hope that does not put us to shame by explaining that the love God has poured into our hearts was "through the Spirit who has been given to us". Now it's even clearer that Paul is talking about something God has done. In the Bible, to be given the Holy Spirit is to be born from above. Paul's wording puts the emphasis on God's gracious act in giving the Holy Spirit to us. He is explaining that the reason our hope is the kind that does not put us to shame is that it's based on what God has done in giving us the new birth, not on anything we know or feel.

Unfortunately, the wording of the NLT again fails to make clear the reason for a hope that does not put us to shame. In saying that God has "given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love," the translators fail to make clear that Paul is talking about the new birth as the basis for our hope. In saying that the reason God gave his Spirit was "to fill our hearts with his love," it inserts something into the text, emphasizing the "us" whose hearts are thus filled. This isn't the way the Bible talks about conversion (see, for instance, Titus 3:5-7).

Verse 6: Paul has just explained that the reason we have this hope is that God has poured his love into our hearts through the giving of his Spirit, which is the new birth. Now Paul gives us the reason God gave us the new birth. In doing so, he arrives at the very heart of the gospel, the very reason God has loved us and given us his Spirit: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly." The little word "for" is critical, connecting God's love and giving of his Spirit in the new birth with the person and work of Christ, who died at the right time for the ungodly. This action of Christ on our behalf is thus clearly shown to be the basis for all the benefits of Romans 5:1-5.

The NLT leaves out "for" in verse 6. In verse 5, its wording failed to make clear that the reason our hope doesn't put us to shame is that God has given us the new birth. Now its wording fails to make clear that the reason God gave us the new birth is that Christ died for the ungodly. Without the little word "for" to connect, verse 6 isn't seen as the reason for all the wonderful benefits of Romans 5:1-5.

One last quibble about verse 6: The phrase translated "us sinners" in the NLT is more accurately translated "the ungodly". Christ died for those who were destitute of the fear of God, condemning in their stance toward him, blasphemous in their words and deeds toward him (all implications of the Greek word asebes). Asebes is always translated, as far as I can tell, "godless" or "ungodly" in literal translations. It has a different and, seems to me, much stronger implication.

Well, those are the issues that concerned me about the NLT's translation of Romans 5:5-6. I've got one more related post coming down the pike, which will just be a little summing up about translations and commentaries. Thanks for reading (you can find the final post here).

(I linked to this article in previous posts, but here it is again: a good, short article on the issues involved in choosing a translation is here.)

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 2)

In my first post on translations, commentaries and the NLT,  I mentioned the question that arose in a Bible study with friends over the phrase in Romans 5:5, "hope does not put us to shame". I decided recently to look at a translation like the NLT to see if its wording would help clarify what Paul meant. What I saw and learned prompted these posts on the accuracy of the NLT (its faithfulness to the original languages) because I know a lot of people use it and depend on it.

So I wrote last time that some Bibles are translated using the "essentially literal" word-for-word method (like the ESV and the NASB), and some are translated using the "dynamic equivalence" thought-for-thought method (like the NLT and the NIV). You can a read a short and helpful article about that from Ligonier Ministries here. I said previously that translating the original Greek or Hebrew using the thought-for-thought method involves making editorial decisions, decisions that will be guided by the personal views of the translators, and leading to changes and adjustments in the wording of the text. This amounts to commentary, but sort of an undercover kind, since many readers won't know the issues.

Maybe it will help to see a comparison of the two translations I used to study Romans 5:5-6. First, the ESV's word-for-word translation: 

(5)... and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (6) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

And the NLT's thought-for-thought translation:

(5) And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (6) When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.

The first difference I noticed was that the NLT changed the phrase "put us to shame" to "lead to disappointment" in verse 5. As I read on I noticed other things, including the omission of the Greek word gar in verse 6, which is translated "because" or "for". This is the issue I'll talk about first. In the original Greek gar occurs twice in this passage, once in verse 5 and again in verse 6. In verse 5, it connects us with the reason this hope does not put us to shame: God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given us. In verse 6, it connects us with the reason the Holy Spirit was given to us: at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

But unaccountably, the NLT leaves out gar in verse 6. The result is that the reader will not connect Christ's great accomplishment as being the reason for the wonderful benefits just listed. The connecting word "for" makes it clear that it was Christ's coming and dying that accomplished all that's described in Romans 5:1-5 (all those wonderful benefits of the new birth). Aside from the spiritual implications, this doesn't even make literary sense. In any text a connecting word like "for" or "because" is quite important. How especially true this is in the Bible, where truths vital to our knowledge of God are being connected together. If a "for" is deleted by the translators, the reader can't make those connections and will miss something the Holy Spirit wanted them to see and understand.

This is how the NLT acts like a commentary in its editorial decisions. The unwritten commentary here must be that the translators believed the connection made in the original Greek to be unimportant, and so they left out the connecting word. This one little Greek word, gar, conveys a great deal of beautiful and crucial truth about the accomplishment of the Lord Jesus Christ. Most important of all, the Holy Spirit inspired it to be placed right where it is. I learned, sadly, that this is a common problem throughout the NLT, and in other dynamic equivalence translations as well.

I began this research on Romans 5:5 simply to check out the NLT's rendering of one phrase, "hope does not put us to shame". I wanted to see if its thought-for-thought method of translation could shed any helpful light on the meaning of that phrase. In doing so, I came across problems in the NLT's decisions concerning this passage, the most glaring being their decision to omit the important connecting word "for" in verse 6.

But there were other problems with the NLT's decisions, as I realized upon further investigation. Next post I'll explain what I mean (you can find the next post here).

I found this article very helpful-- "Dynamic Equivalence: The Method is the Problem". Jim Hamilton explains some things you may not have realized about why this matters.

Also, if you are feeling scholarly and want to read a more detailed paper on the subject, see Wayne Grudem's essay "Translating Truth".

Translations, Commentaries and The NLT

A while back I was reading and studying through Romans 1-5 with some dear friends. These chapters are wonderfully important. And they're so important to get right; Romans itself has been called the "crown jewel" of all the Scripture, and a right grasp of the truths taught in the first 5 chapters means a right grasp of the gospel.

In our study when we came to Romans 5:5, the wording of the first phrase seemed a bit strange: "hope does not put us to shame". We were using the ESV (English Standard Version), an "essentially literal", word-for-word translation. Sometimes in any essentially literal translation (which includes the King James, the New American Standard, the New King James, etc.), the word-for-word method of translating won't result in the smooth flow we're used to. This all depends on how the Hebrew or Greek translates into English.

In our study one friend had puzzled over that phrase in Romans 5:5, wondering how hope does or does not put us to shame. We discussed it and moved on, but missed the opportunity to slow down and look at a commentary. I decided to write this post after reading Romans 5 this morning and remembering my friend's question. I'd like to show how, in researching that phrase, I looked at Romans 5:5 in the New Living Translation (NLT), and found it to be problematic. I don't want to be negative for negativity's sake about any Bible translation. But it's so important to read an accurate translation of God's word.

When I decided to see how the NLT translates Romans 5:5, I did so because I had sometimes wondered if referring to the NLT in cases like this could be useful. I knew that one needs to be careful, since the NLT is not a literal word-for-word translation, but a "dynamic equivalence" (thought-for-thought) translation. What I learned is that the NLT is actually a commentary, of sorts. When translators use the thought-for-thought method to translate, they make editorial decisions about what the thought of the original writer really was, and adjust the wording accordingly. These editorial decisions will accord with the personal leanings and views of the translators. You can read a little about that here.

The NLT translates Romans 5:5, in contrast to the ESV's "hope does not put us to shame", "this hope will not lead to disappointment". On first reading that seemed fair enough; but as I considered the word change, read the rest of verse 5, and then read verse 6, I saw problems. The most obvious was that the translators had chosen to leave out the little Greek word gar, which means "because" or "for". That little word at the beginning of  verse 6 has big implications for why we have a hope that "does not put us to shame"! In fact it is of gospel significance, and to leave it out is to radically alter Paul's flow of thought and meaning. Next post I'll continue with how I worked through some of the issues in this passage in the NLT.

(You can read the next article in this series here.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What A Torn Body Can Mean

“If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves or pigeons. And the priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head and burn it on the altar. Its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. He shall remove its crop with its contents and cast it beside the altar on the east side, in the place for ashes. He shall tear it open by its wings, but shall not sever it completely. And the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD" (Leviticus 1:14-17).
I can have so small a view of my sin and God's holiness. When I read this passage in Leviticus, or other passages describing the slaughter of a bull or a goat as a sin offering, my understanding can be trite and shallow. "Tear it open by its wings..."; ugh, but okay, whatever.  (Can't we secretly harbor a view of God, and of the times, as brutal and ancient... appallingly, embarrassingly violent, an offense to our sanctimonious sensitivities?)

But then this.

  "Who has believed what he has heard from us?
        And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
    For he grew up before him like a young plant,
        and like a root out of dry ground;
    he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
        and no beauty that we should desire him.

 "He was despised and rejected by men;
        a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
    and as one from whom men hide their faces
        he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
    Surely he has borne our griefs
        and carried our sorrows;
    yet we esteemed him stricken,
        smitten by God, and afflicted.
"But he was pierced for our transgressions;
        he was crushed for our iniquities;
    upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
        and with his wounds we are healed.
    All we like sheep have gone astray;
        we have turned, every one, to his own way;
    and the LORD has laid on him
        the iniquity of us all."
(Isaiah 53:1-6 )

Stricken, smitten and afflicted; pierced and crushed for MY iniquity. For MY lawlessness. For MY arrogance, and my sanctimonious sensitivities. The Son of God must be stretched and fastened with nails to a crucifix of wood because of my unholy insistence on my own, deficient righteousness.
Simeon with Christ in the temple (Luke 2:25-35).
The Bible is silent in Genesis on the abhorrence of God as he slaughters a good and innocent beast (the first physical death of his creation) to provide a covering for my first parents for the first arrogant transgression (Genesis 3:21).

The Bible is silent in Leviticus on the revulsion and horror that must have been felt by many, or most, or all of the priests when they learned they must tear apart the body of a bird by its outstretched wings; again, for the iniquity of my first parents.

The Bible is silent in Isaiah on the unfathomable depths of the Father's heart as he crushes and bruises his only Son, the true Scapegoat sent to bear the iniquity "of us all".

Yet the Bible so clearly reveals, throughout, the horror of man's rebellion, God's love for his good creation and his holy rules, his anger and wrath against the transgression that brought death and ruin, and his mercy and justice in sending his own Son to redeem all back. We may infer from all this that the tearing open of a living bird and the spilled blood of beast after beast after beast was never meant to be taken as normal-for-the-times. It was always unnatural, always abhorrent, always horrible.

And that gives me a much more sober view of my sin, and God's holiness, and what he accomplished in the death of his Son on the cross.