Friday, September 22, 2006

Ideology in Translations

My OT professor is not a fan of the NIV. The problem, as he sees it, is that they had a "theological axe to grind" when translating. He made an admission that everyone "brings in suppositions," but somehow we were supposed to view the suppositions of the NIV translation committee with suspicion, while his own suppositions, while they may not be perfect are at least "scholarly."

Let's take a case that he mentions -- Genesis 2:19. Here is the NIV:

"Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them"

Here is the NASB:

"Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them"

The difference is that the second one seems to have a time order contradiction to the Genesis 1 story (God made man, then the beasts), while the first one switches the verb tense slightly to make it fit (God made man, and had already made the beasts).

Now, the professor admits that "had formed" is within the semantic range of the verb (יצר). But apparently, it is invalid to use that even though it makes the most sense within the text.

On another occasion, the professor has said that he finds it very interesting that the Hebrew people kept multiple versions of accounts, and even let them conflict with each other, because they were more interested in preserving a diversity of traditions than having them all work together.

Now, the question is, doesn't this make his determination of the verb form actually the one that has a theological axe to grind? The NIV committee seems to have simply chosen the tense of the verb (of the range of valid choices) that makes the most sense within the text. He wants to choose the one that makes the least sense, which just so happens to coincide with what he likes about the way the Hebrews collected scripture.

I don't mind that he claims the NIV committee had a theological perspective. It's the fact that he claims that they are translating according to a theological perspective and he himself is not (especially when his choice goes against what would make sense within the text) which really chaps my hide.

For more reading on why people like the NIV translation of this, see here (look under "Factual Contradiction #2") and here.

For more reading on why people do not like the NIV translation of this, see here (second half of posting -- if someone has a better reference for a "no NIV" let me know).

Of course, what's really silly is that in a language that deals so much less precisely in tense, we are arguing over precisely what tense is meant! Perhaps the point is that chronological order was not the main point. In that case, the specific verb tense is irrelevant. You have to pick one, but ultimately it doesn't matter, because all of them are going to be more specific than the Hebrew one. Harmonize with Gen. 1? Fine, but don't pretend that this is exactly what the Hebrew is saying. Don't harmonize? Fine, but don't pretend that the verb tense is specific enough to make a contradiction, either.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What is the Difference Between Conservatives and Liberals?

Joel at Connexions attempted to make a distinction between conservatives and liberals. I think in his list he missed the core issues at hand. This post is a slightly modified version of what I posted in the comments over there.


I would say that a “liberal” is someone who has decided that the constraints of the past are unnecessary. Whether in interpretation — historical interpretation is fairly meaningless; cannonization — the historical cannon decisions are not authoritative; or theology — everyone gets to write their own. It is re-interpretting the past as “well, that was okay for them, but this is today” as opposed to “we should continue on in the authority of the apostles”.

This stems from a completely different understanding of God’s work in the world. As a conservative, I view apostolicity as a primary determinant for what is valid in the canon. Why? Because the apostles were chosen by God in a major move of God in history. I don’t personally have a right to change those things, and it would take another similarly-major act of God to do so (with the signs demonstrating as such), and then those who had the closest connection to God’s movement would have the authority to do so. Perhaps someone may have the ability to write into the canon absent that if they had the same sort of multi-century evaluation process that our current canon went through. Maybe.

The liberal view is that God is active equally all the time. Therefore, we are just as able to make theological judgments for our time as the apostles were for their time, and there is no reason to harmonize these. We should listen to their advice, but ultimately we must construct our own theology, hopefully even better than theirs.

That's the fundamental issue, here's my take -- The difference is that in the conservative view, God has the ultimate authority, and we are obedient to His actions. In the liberal view, man is the ultimate authority, even on theological issues. It may be because we all have God’s spirit in us, but the reality of the situation is that liberals consider themselves to be responsible (and maybe even mandated) to construct their own theology. Conservatives believe that authoritative theology must be from God Himself, and must be likewise authenticated through God’s actions in the world.

I heard a little parable once, and I'm sure I'm going to botch it up, but I think it's relevant.

There was a man and a rabbi at the grocery store. The rabbi told the children with him, "go get these items," and immediately they did so. The man said to the rabbi, "I wish my children were so obedient." The rabbi said, "those aren't my children -- those are my students. If those were my children, then you would have _really_ seen service." The man asked, "why do your children respect you so much?" The rabbi said, "you see these children view me as one generation closer to Moses than they are, while your children see you as one generation closer to the apes than they are."

Can Acts Be Used as a Background for Paul?

My NT professor is now claiming that Acts is not a legitimate source for information about Paul. I find this claim highly suspicious.

Apparently, what we are supposed to do is let Paul speak from his own words. THIS is supposed to be the sole influence on our thoughts about what Paul was like, and what his theology was like. Acts really only counts in the places where it is explicitly in agreement with Paul (in which case it is redundant anyway).

Now, let's think about this for a minute. What is the thing that they hammer into your head about hermeneutics?


Okay, what is the thing that they hammer into your head about the hermeneutics of epistles?

1) They are occasional (i.e. written in response to specific situations)
2) They are for the most part not general theological works
3) They were not intended by the author to be scripture

Now, I agree with all of these, except for perhaps 3 (does anyone want to argue that Paul didn't view his letters as normative?). So, if all we have are non-systematic, occasional works, why should we think that these are sufficient to produce a typical idea of how Paul thought and worked? Shouldn't these be viewed as being punctuations on a backdrop of a more "typical" Pauline style which isn't necessarily expressed in the letters?

Therefore, the idea that we should "let Paul speak in his own words" is going _against_ what is the most important hermeneutical principle -- CONTEXT! On a more general historical background, we don't use autobiographies as the only definitive source of information on an author. I believe it is well recognized that it takes an outsider to judge a person as a whole -- people often don't do a good job of that themselves. Therefore, rejecting Acts' depiction of Paul just because it doesn't mimmick exactly what you would get by reading the letters alone is counter to any legitimate claims of historical inquiry. The only purpose it seems to serve is to aid those who are attempting to de-legitimatize scripture by dicing it up and only viewing the parts individually, and in doing so, so overemphasize the details of difference as to make them seem contradictory. By removing Paul's letters from their context, it distorts Paul. Would any of you want the details of your life to be judged as true or false based on whether a scholar 2,000 years later thought that a letter you wrote someone made you sound like a different person?

Attack of the Straw Men

I was annoyed with all of my teachers today at seminary. Not because they were liberal. Not because they argued against conservatism. Not because they didn't acknowledge the fact that "the scholarly consensus" depends on who you ask. No, my problem is that they presented two sides to the story -- the liberal side and the straw-man-conservative side. THAT is what really chaps my hide.

In Old Testament, the professor presented the choices as, basically, either accept the documentary hypothesis as true, or reject scripture because there are minor contradictions in the stories (no, I didn't understand it either). And more blatantly, the Torah could not have been written by Moses because (a) Deuteronomy talks about Moses' death and (b) there are many notes about current names of places after Moses in the Torah. Now, Mosaic authorship is a long conversation in and of itself. But let's just say for the time being that Moses was either the author or the primary redactor of the material in Genesis. Do EITHER of these claims do any harm to that fact? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! As for (b), there is no reason to think that Joshua would not have seen it fit to end the story after Moses' death. So what? As for (a), think of it this way. Look in your favorite study Bible. Do you see all those footnotes giving you reading helps and current place names and money conversions? Well guess what -- ancient documents DON'T HAVE FOOTNOTES! So what do the scribes do? The insert the footnotes into the text itself. Why is this so hard to imagine?

I am sure that there are good arguments against Mosaic authorship, but THESE AREN'T THEM. These are INTELLECTUALLY LAZY ARGUMENTS. The big problem is that this is shaping the way that the rest of the students in the class will perceive theology. They will think, "OK, things aren't quite as simple as I originally supposed, so therefore whatever solution the teacher is proposing must in fact be the only reasonable alternative." An additional problem is that even at the graduate level, people have trouble questioning the underlying assumptions of their teachers, and accept WAY too much uncritically.

For the NT, it seems that the only alternatives (according to the professor) is either the four gospels must tell the story the exact same way or truth is relative. What? Here was how he stuctured his argument:

1) The four gospels each tell their own story (OK, I'm with you on this one)
2) Putting them together in a single harmonized version takes away from what the other stories were trying to convey, and actually create a new gospel that is different from the other four (OK, I'm still with you -- no disagreement here)
3) Therefore, you can't conclude that these are historical accounts (what the #@$@#$?!?!?)

He then proceeded to give the most idiotic "problems" in the NT that any third grader _should_ be able to see right through, and should not even be _considered_ to be problematic if one admits the possibility that not all of the gospels were arranged chronologically. The number of times passover was eaten was actually brought up to be a point of contention! I mean, puhleease!

There seems to be a general consensus that harmonizing biblical accounts is an a priori wrong thing to do. I find that just plain idiotic. ANY time I have two different accounts of ANYTHING, ANYWHERE in life, my first idea is to try to find a way to give both people the benefit of the doubt, and find a way they both can be right. Life is more complicated than even the most detailed books could show, so ANYONE who gives an account of ANYTHING will necessarily have to gloss over some details, and might even be mistaken on a detail or two. So the heck what? The most charitable thing to do is to find the reading that makes them both correct.

Apparently, however, in seminary, the point is to stretch the text -- not to harmony, but to disharmony. It is almost a command, FIND DISHARMONY WHEREVER YOU CAN AND EMPHASIZE IT!!! It's almost laughable the kinds of things the professors come out with that in their view can't be harmonized, or can't be harmonized except by fanatics who refuse to face reality. It makes me wonder if they have ever thought about their own descriptions of things in their own lives. I know that if you asked me to describe an event on two different occasions, on each one you would get a completely different description, and both of them would probably be completely true! I can just imagine a liberal professor trying to reconstruct the historical cseminarian, and what they might come up with!

Anyway, stuff like this drives me nuts. "Either you can be a stark-raving-mad-lunatic-right-winger, or you can be scholarly -- that's your choice." Give me a freakin break.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Removing Tradition -- Clarity of Original Intent or an Attempt to Rewrite Christianity?

Often times in seminary one is asked to set aside one's preconceived ideas about the past, and about scripture, and read it again fresh, read it new. Read it without the constraints of two thousand years of commentators. Read it for how it originally was.

First of all, let me say that I am all for this practice -- it is genuinely helpful to approach a topic fresh, without carrying in all of the baggage that came before. HOWEVER, once one has done this, it is vitally important to reconnect with tradition. Why? Obviously we do not hold to tradition as being equal to scripture. However, sometimes we forget that our historical distance from the text prevents us from seeing some things which the ancients saw.

It's interesting, because a lot of time professors will want you to "read without preconceptions," but what they really mean is "read with the preconceptions imposed by the humanistic scholarship of the last two hundred years."

For example, the "mythic" status of Genesis. It has been suggested that we read this as the ancients would -- as a story that conveys universal truths, not historical truths. By why would he say that the ancients would regard it in this way? In fact, the weight of the evidence shows that this was regarded as history for as long as there has been commentary. Josephus certainly regards the Genesis history as real (even relating it to other ancient histories). Jesus likewise. So who are all of these ancients who thought that Genesis was not a real history but a "universal truth"?

What's even more amusing is that after pointing out that Genesis is scriptural because it is a universal truth instead of history, the professor then went on to say that it isn't so much "universal" as only applying to the society in which it was written. Of course, there were _some_ parts that were still useful today. So what is happening is that we are the judge of scripture, not the other way around. This is what scripture calls "being wise in one's own eye". We take the parts that we think are useful, and leave the rest. Frankly, you can do that with any writing.

At the same time, the professor had us look at Genesis 3:8, where God says "where are you?" Many of us in the class took this as God giving them time to fess up on their own -- much like we would treat children. But the professor called that "reading our own presuppositions about God into the text" (not exactly quoted). How ludicrous! It has nothing to do with presuppositions about God and everything to do with how you treat children who have done something wrong and are hiding. What the professor wanted us to see was that the God in Genesis did not know everything. This gets into a thorny theological bush that I don't want to get into right now, but let's just say no matter how that question turns out, what was clear was this: the professor did not want us to view it just with the lens of tradition off -- he wanted us to view it with the lens of the modern secularist view of ancient culture on.

Likewise, this happens a lot with the resurrection. Modern secular scholasticism has placed the resurrection idea as a late one, yet there are several psalms and even Job refer to the idea of resurrection. They would have us read the OT with our "blinders off" to grasp it as the author's audience would have heard it. But really they just want to give us their own set of blinders to work with.

I guess what I'm saying is that often times tradition is there because other scholars have invested a lot of time researching, and it is silly to throw it all away just for the latest fad in biblical scholarship. I agree that it is good to stop and go back to the text and read it how someone in the ancient culture would have read it, but sometimes the heavy push to do that comes from individuals wanting to impose their secular views on your reading, and the easiest way to do that is to remove all of the assumptions so that any assumption we do make while reading will be that of the professor, and not that of the testimony of Christianity thoughout the ages.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Our Non-Ideological Ideology

The seminary I go to has a policy about gender-inclusive language. Now, I'm not a big fan of gender-inclusive language (come on, grow up people), but I don't mind it per se. If it was just a simple policy about gender-inclusive language, I wouldn't even bother blogging about it. But our gender-inclusive language policy is absolutely hilarious.

Now, I'm not going to quote it, because that might overly-identify the seminary. You might accuse me of making it sound worse than it is. Whatever. Here is the outline of how I read our gender-inclusive language policy.

  1. Language is not inert, but defines an ideology (they did not use this word, but this is essentially what they were saying)

  2. Here are some suggestions about gender-inclusive language

  3. Here are some absolute requirements about gender-inclusive language in the seminary

  4. This policy is not meant to push an ideology, but to increase awareness about gender-inclusive language

Did you see it? Point #1 is that language creates an ideology. Point #4 is that we are controlling your language, but it's not an ideology.

This is what drives me nuts about the liberal mindset. They freely point out everyone's ideological bias except their own. They can't even admit to when they are clearly establishing an ideology even by their own definitions. As I said, I have no problems with their guidelines at all (except as a general why-change-the-English-language-just-for-you type of thing), but they want to say that they aren't establishing an ideology.

This is real important for liberals. They want to be carriers of the truth, and therefore the idea that their thoughts and actions are constrained to an ideology just like everyone else's is an idea that they simply can't handle. They pride themselves on not requiring belief statements and not being fundamentalist. But they can't see that this is the same thing. They are just sneaking in a belief statement through the back door here. They just need to get over it, and admit that they have standards of belief. These aren't things that can be deduced from first principles, but they are required for participation. Just admit it! Is it really that hard!

Of course it is, because they can't be "respectable" academically and have a belief statement. But yet they have a required ideology. It even matches their own definition given in the policy itself!

The irony is amazing.

Historical Versus Scientific

My OT professor is constantly harping on the fact that Genesis is not scientific. He points to many things about ancient Hebrew cosmology and how it is totally incompatible with science. For instance, he points out that the Hebrews probably thought of the sky as a literal dome into which the stars were more-or-less pasted on. I'm not going to argue with whether or not Israel had such a cosmology (though I do think he exaggerated a bit -- both on the epistemelogical side [how much we can know about ancient Israeli cosmology] and on the facts [much in the OT gives a much better view of cosmology than he was giving them credit for]). I have no ideological problems with believing that the Bible was written by people who had a cosmology that was incompatible with the facts. What I do have a problem with is his using this idea to argue against the idea that the creation story is history.

You see, he wanted to argue against Genesis' historicity by arguing against it's science. But not even Young-Earth Creationists generally argue for Genesis being a science textbook, but rather a book of history.

Look at it this way. Let's say I was living several centuries ago, and was describing events I saw in the sky. What if I said, "the meteor came in out of the ether and glowed for several minutes until it's phlogiston ran out." Note that the science in this statement is completely false, though that is irrelevant to whether or not it is describing a historical event.

You see, we always speak in categories. Our categories are very conditioned. So the fact that ancient Israelites used a set of categories which are not scientifically true is irrelevant. We still talk about sunrise and sunset. Whether or not ancient Israelites believed something bizzarre about the universe, and were describing creation in terms of the categories relative to their cosmology is irrelevant to whether or not it is historically true.

In fact, I'm sure that future generations will view our cosmology as similarly quaint. Does that mean that they should consider all of our statements about history as allegorical or mythical?

I am personally of the opinion that there are no "right" set of categories. In fact, you might say that ANY category is necessarily "wrong," because life is too messy to be put completely into well-defined categories. We must use categories to communicate, but all of them are going to be approximations of the world, not realities themselves.

There are other things about Genesis that I'll get to when I have more time.

Why Do It?

So why do it? Why would a conservative student enroll in a liberal seminary?

There are many reasons. First of all, I've always been surprised at the mere existence of liberal Christians. I just don't get it. Going to a liberal seminary will expose me to the "why" of liberal Christianity. Think of it as cultural anthropology. There is a huge Christian culture that I am totally clueless about, and I want to know what makes them tick.

Second of all, I like a challenge. I could go to a conservative seminary, but would I really learn much? Whether or not I agree with everything presented, I can be certain that a liberal seminary will present me with new ways of looking at scripture. Often I find that there is a nugget of truth even in the things I most disagree with. By finding the wheat among the chaff, I can be a better student of scripture, as well as exercise discernment.

This blog is meant to chronicle the things that stand out to a person like me. Please note that while I will probably do a lot of liberal-bashing on this blog (and possibly a lot of professor-bashing), that really is not the point. The main point to take away is to understand the different assumptions that we bring to scripture, and how that affects the way we look at it. Keep in mind that EVERYONE I have met so far in seminary I have appreciated, and that I have learned a lot even from my most liberal professors. In fact, the great majority of what they have taught has been beneficial even from a directly conservative evangelical perspective. This blog isn't about those similarities, it's about the differences. So please don't take my continual posting about the problems to indicate that there is only bad stuff, or only annoying stuff, or only differences. This blog is just meant to highlight those things.

Also, I don't plan on revealing my identity on this blog. This blog is not about me, and it's not about the seminary I go to. You may be able to guess who I am or where I go, but I can assure you, any comment containing personally revealing information about me, the seminary I go to, or the professors I am taking will be IMMEDIATELY DELETED. This isn't about individuals, it's about ways of approaching scripture and ways of approaching God. Sure, I am a particular person at a particular seminary with particular professors, but we're going to leave them out for this blog.

My goal for this blog is several:

* Provide insights to both liberals and conservatives about why we differ (though the liberals will have to suffer through my screeds)
* Provide help for seminarians who find themselves in the same situation, and are having trouble in their faith as they go through seminary
* Provide an outlet for when I get really annoyed with seminary
* Provide a place for me to remember my seminary experiences

Also, just so you'll know, I reserve the right to go off-topic whenever I darn well please.