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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Three words: Context. Context. Context.

Fundamentalists of the religious variety and fundamentalists of the atheistic variety both get their backs up when they are challenged to understand a text within its social, historical, grammatical and literary contexts. But there is no other way to study a text. There is no passage of any document that exits in a vacuum apart from its context – least of all the Bible. The practice of "proof texting" or ripping verses out of their context to score points is an easy thing to do - it requires no special skills or insights. It is a much more onerous task to understand the meaning of words, sentences and paragraphs within the frame of reference in which they appear.

A far-too-common tactic from atheists and other "Bible critics" when challenged to read and understand the Biblical documents in context is to immediately launch into attack mode and start berating the Christian something along the lines of: "You ignorant Christians will try to justify any stupid thing in the Bible by claiming that I, the horrible Atheist, am taking the bible out of context when I quote from it!"." Or perhaps this version of the same charge: "You Christians are quite happy to use the literal' meaning of a word when it suits you but then you hide behind the need for 'context' when it doesn't suit you."

Let's call a spade a spade. This sort of response is downright stupid. Only an ignoramus or an intellectually irresponsible person disregards context. It has been said that "Context is the most important word in anyone's education. Everything has a context, and to understand anything fully, its context - its frame of reference - must not be ignored." That being said, ignoring context is the raison d'etre of far too many Internet critics of Scripture; who in their fundamentalistic enthusiasm for disregarding all cultural and historical context, succeed only in demonstrating their mastery of the dubious skill of pulling verses out of context to "prove" any number of so-called "contradictions".

A primary error of the fundamentalist is to rely on the abbreviated meanings from Strong's Greek Concordance in order to understand the nuances of Greek language usage. This is folly - and a well known trap for the unwary. Unfortunately it is a folly and a trap beloved of fundamentalists – of all kinds. The irony is that the fundamentalist found pushing this barrow is often of the atheist variety. Frequently he is imbued with a pathetically incompetent grasp of both Biblical theology and the principles of exegesis, covering up for his ignorance and lack of insight beneath a torrent of straw-man arguments, proof texts, sound bites, quips and vitriol directed at, God, the Bible, Christians and Christianity. “Context” of course is both a foreign language and a foreign country to him.

This reliance upon the abbreviated meanings given in Strong's Concordance comes despite Strong's own warning on the inherent danger of doing this apart from an appreciation of context, a point clearly made in the preface to all editions of the work. Anyone with a basic understanding of linguistics and exegesis should be well aware of the pitfalls of naive usage of Strong's Concordance in do-it-yourself exegesis. At the very least anyone who wants to know "what the Greek text really says" would be advised to start by getting themselves a copy of Wenham’s "The Elements of New Testament Greek" or D. A. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies", or even a copy of Gordon Fee's "How to Read the Bible for All its Worth", before setting themselves up as a Biblical critic or an expert in the use of Strong's to pronounce on the meaning of Greek words. Experts are made, nor born, though being “born again” is an essential pre-requisite for anyone who seeks to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures.

A second tactic is the equally dubious idea of conducting a straw poll of the different ways in which certain words are rendered in various English translations of the NT. I am sure Greek scholars will be bemused by this approach. The use of paraphrases and dynamic translations (such as the NIV), makes reading the Bible easier but any serious word study of the Bible should be based on a more accurate literal translation like the KJV, NASB or ESB - especially if one is going to launch oneself into the realm of Biblical exegesis.

Here is indeed a simple thing that should be easy to grasp - but apparently is not: The books of the NT were written in Greek - they were not written in English. To seek to hang an argument about the meaning of certain words in those Greek texts upon the meaning of English words rather than of the original Greek words is problematic.

English is a rather precise language but it is nowhere near as precise as Greek which is rich and diverse, concise and accurate, and at the same time laconic and elegant in style”. The nuances, subtlety and exactitude of meaning in Greek words is not something that an unschooled person can pick up from leafing through Strong's Concordance, and certainly not from looking up Webster's dictionary of the English language!

Let me suggest - and this is not be controversial in any way - the correct way to study biblical words is by looking at their usage in context. Etymology is indeed a very useful tool but it alone cannot proscribe the way words are used in the Biblical texts or in other documents. Our English translations are more than sufficient in most cases for the general reader to clearly understand the message of the Bible but there are times when the nuances and subtleties inherent in the original language cannot be fully comprehended until one examines both the original word use and its contextual frame of reference.

Fundamentalists might believe that all authors use words in exactly identical ways but in actual writing this is just not true. Furthermore most of us who discuss theological matters on the Internet are not Biblical scholars so to make sweeping and grand - and dogmatic - claims about the “correct” meanings of Greek words and about contradictions one believes one sees in the text is the height of foolishness and arrogance.

12:51:00 pm