In the course of teaching Greek (both classical and Koine) the past 34 years I’ve found that translating Greek into English is a very different enterprise from understanding what the text means. A translation may at times sound very erudite, but to be relevant and beneficial the text must be understood — and then applied. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher has been to get my students to see the need to give up theological jargon when translating from Greek into English. If we can use simpler and clearer words to express the truths of Scripture, then by all means let’s do so. Why, for example, should we render Rom. 12:11 “distribute to the needs of the saints” when “share what you have with God’s people who are in need” will do the job and is much clearer? Or why should we insist that the purpose of pastor-teachers is “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry” when we can say “to prepare God’s people for works of service”? If all we do is parrot the standard English versions while translating from English to Greek, I’m afraid we’ll end up with nothing but another secret religious society. If insisting on the use of theological jargon actually helped people to become more obedient to the Word of God, I’d say do it at all costs. But is there any evidence that it does?
To admit this inadequacy honestly can be very intimidating to the teacher. It means, in fact, that we can no longer be content to offer courses in Greek exegesis that fail to include serious self-examination.
We lose meaning and truth and community when we take a universally understood concept like “service” and consistently prefer to translate it as “ministry” when the concept shows up in the scriptures. Stop it! I still remember when I quoted Jesus to a law school buddy like this “Father, forgive them, cause they don’t know what they’re doing.” He had heard that comment from Jesus many, many times (in the yoda-speak version–who talks like that?!?), but he said he had never really heard what Jesus was saying until I said it like that. Think about that folks. Why had this man who had attended so many services and heard that text quoted never “heard” it? How many other messages have we failed to deliver, I wonder? And this wasn’t a listener issue, as if he lacked ears that wanted to hear Jesus. It was because in church, we’re proud of our mastery of Christian-ese and we revere the yoda-speak of so many translations like a badge of honor. It’s not. It’s a reason for shame. Building or maintaining barriers to God’s message that aren’t necessary, or saying his message in ways that only insiders can understand when we don’t have to is nothing to be proud of. It’s trying to mark our churches off as ‘separate’ and more mature, more reverent, more godly by our religious sounding language. It’s going the way of the Pharisee.
Scot McKnight asks this question in his second post discussing Greg Boyd’s new book, The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution:
How central to the gospel and to the Christian faith is following Jesus? Is a Christian someone who follows Jesus? Or, would you define “Christian” in another way? How would you define it?
Go by Scot’s blog to read and comment on those and some other great questions posed by Scot about Boyd’s book. Here’s my comment:
On the first set of questions, yes, following Jesus is central to the Christian (little Christ) faith and to the gospel, IMO. Are we called to trust the atonement? Yes. But that is only one facet of trusting Jesus, which is the focus of the New Testament. Putting our faith in him simultaneously includes trusting his atonement, his resurrection, his promises, his teachings, his plan for overcoming evil, his Spirit, his ongoing leadership, joining his people, etc. The gospel is at the core, the proclamation of a person, the “Christ”-ened King, and his great deeds and plan for the world. This gospel calls us to quit working against him (because of what we all naturally trust and love) and start trusting, loving and following him above all.
But Luther defined “gospel”, despite the much larger NT usage, as “properly nothing else” than our justification. (Very odd for a founder of the ‘sola scriptura’ movement.) Our idea of God’s “salvation” has also been similarly whittled down from the much larger biblical usage of that term to our legal status alone. Our “orthodoxy”, our ‘right teaching’ or ‘right belief’ of Christianity only includes facts about Jesus, generally speaking, but no teachings of Jesus. I think it is hard to understate how thoroughly, at least in its core concepts and our mental mapping of the faith, that we have divorced being a Christian from becoming a little Christ. Kudos to Boyd and the many others that point this out.
At the recommendation of a Lutheran brother and for my own edification, I am reading through the Lutheran Confessions (not necessarily in order). [Brief disclaimer: While I’m not a fan of several distinctives of reformed or Lutheran theology which will be clear here, I am, more importantly, a fan of folks in those camps. I’ve been raised in the camps spawned by the reformation and still enjoy their company. This is not a venue to bash such folks; it is a venue to discuss ideas that shape our thinking and practice.]
Part V of the Large Catechism of the Lutheran Confessions is titled “Of the Law and the Gospel.” It only consists of 11 paragraphs (for which I am very grateful), the first of which lays out the issue of:
Whether the preaching of the Holy Gospel is properly not only a preaching of grace, which announces the forgiveness of sins, but also a preaching of repentance and reproof, rebuking unbelief, which, they say, is rebuked not in the Law, but alone through the Gospel. (Emphasis added.)
Right off the bat, we can see a difficulty that never really leaves reformed theology, namely, where does the announcement that the government of God has come near (which dominates the gospels and continues in Acts as “good news”) fit in response to that question? Unfortunately, it doesn’t really fit. The gospel issue as framed by Luther only concerns itself with sinning. Specifically, according to Luther, the issue is whether forgiveness of sin alone is “gospel” or whether the oft accompanying reproof of and call to repentance from sin is also “gospel.” That’s it; it’s “A” or “B”. This “gospel” question is already too narrow to include the much fuller and richer “gospel” usage of the NT that includes God’s revelation of Jesus’ lordship and his government’s agenda for re-creating the earth and the people and activities within it according to God’s desire to redeem and his sense of justice and love. From Luther’s question, one can genuinely wonder whether the larger revelation and movement of God’s reign (which Jesus and the apostles clearly called “good news”) is “properly” called “Gospel” in the Lutheran view.
In the following couple of paragraphs, after naming the issue as Luther sees it, he briefly describes the now famous reformed distinction between “Law” and “Gospel.” Next, in what is perhaps the strangest paragraph of this section, Luther admits that the term “Gospel” is used differently and more broadly in the New Testament (by comparison to his Law-Gospel usage) and is recommended as such by Jesus himself and the apostles:
But since the term “Gospel” is not used in one and the same sense in the Holy Scriptures, on account of which this dissension originally arose, we believe, teach, and confess that if by the term “Gospel” is understood the entire doctrine of Christ which He proposed in His ministry, as also did His apostles (in which sense it is employed, Mark 1, 15; Acts 20, 21), it is correctly said and written that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and of the forgiveness of sins. (Emphasis added.)
I am in complete agreement with that. In fact, Let me add that “if” we use the term “Gospel” in the broader, more common way that “[Jesus] proposed in his ministry as also did his apostles”, we will “correctly” say not only that the “Gospel” is an announcement of repentance and forgiveness as Luther suggests, but also an announcement of everything that God has done and has purposed to do through his Servant, the now revealed Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus. In other words, to proclaim “the Gospel” according to the New Testament is to announce the identity, purpose, actions, and agenda of God’s chosen Lord of heaven and earth, namely Jesus. And preachers, or announcers of this Jesus and the good news of what God is doing through him will call everyone, in light of this full, and amazing plan in Christ (which includes but goes well beyond forgiveness), to repent and trust this good news, this King.
But that’s not the way Luther continues, which is odd for a guy that is big on “sola scriptura.” Rather, he says, despite the larger usage of “gospel” in the scriptures by Jesus and the apostles, we get a different, preferable, view of “gospel” if we compare Luther’s own smaller concept of “Gospel” to his (arguably larger) concept of “Law” (for reasons he doesn’t really state in this section anyway):
But if the Law and the Gospel, likewise also Moses himself [as] a teacher of the Law and Christ as a preacher of the Gospel are contrasted with one another, we believe, teach, and confess that the Gospel is not a preaching of repentance or reproof, but properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation, and a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify, but comforts consciences against the terrors of the Law, points alone to the merit of Christ, and raises them up again by the lovely preaching of the grace and favor of God, obtained through Christ’s merit. (Emphasis added.)
I hope it is by now obvious where a significant problem may lie, aside from any circular reasoning Luther used: The Holy Scriptures (including Jesus and the apostles) talk about “Gospel” in a large, full way, Luther says, which led to “dissension” (as well as the birth of the Church, to be fair). But if we take one particular component of that larger scriptural concept of good news, namely, the forgiveness of sins, and compare it alone with Luther’s very broad definition of “Law” (which would include not only the Mosaic law, but Jesus’ own teachings and example), then “the Gospel is properly nothing else than a preaching of consolation,” by which he means forgiveness, or justification, or not being condemned for one’s sins.
Think about what just happened there. Luther states that only a part of the usage by Jesus and the apostles of the term “Gospel” is “properly” called Gospel based on Lutheran systematics, namely the Law/Gospel comparitive approach.
This creates the following situation, then: Certainly what Lutherans declare as gospel is gospel (since it is a subset of what the New Testatment calls “gospel”). But, unfortunately, much of what the NT would also unequivocally call “gospel,” Lutherans and many reformed would hesitate upon or even dispute, saying such announcements of God’s will and plan for earth should be called “Law.” This results in a downgrading of everything in God’s plan, God’s dream for the world, that goes beyond forgiveness and justification from “Gospel” to “Law.” I can’t help but see the logical connection between that theology and the silliness of “weak on sanctification” t-shirts, the idea that we are disciples of the gospel (of justification) as opposed to disciples of Jesus, and the large scale phenonmenon of what Dallas Willard has called “bar-code faith.”
Rather than trying to live from a concept of “gospel” that is smaller than that which Christ and his apostles announced, let’s look at the all that God has done and wants to do through Christ and start soaking in it. Let’s take it all in as good news. We might find that God’s love and his “gospel” go way, way beyond just forgiving us, which is really good news.
I’m no expert on the market, but apparently selling sermons is a growing business. Just google “sermon ideas” or “sample sermons” or the like and you’ll get the idea. Here’s the deal, I have no interest in making a pastor who’s already beat up and tired feel worse because he’s bought a sermon. But to all such folks and others who are tired and feeling the pressure of preparing a sermon week after week for sometimes years on end, I will offer another, more thoroughly Christ-like and exponentially more life-giving alternative: Start building and leading a team of people for the task. Every elder is supposed to be “able to teach.” Every one. Beyond that, it appears that Stephen (a mere deacon!) wasn’t so bad at it. And Paul urges Timothy to teach the truths of the faith to to capable men who can pass them on to others. So do that. Jesus sent out the twelve and the seventy to preach (and heal and cast out demons) after shockingly little training. Paul had to tell the Corinthians to limit the speakers to “two or three” at each meeting. Two or three at each meeting! Not counting guests from outside the congregation, many churches have fewer than that per month, per quarter, sometimes per year.
Equip the saints for ministry. I guarantee that few if any congregations have exhausted the human potential for teaching within their own congregations. Yes, don’t be hasty with the laying on of hands. But we’ve reduced the process of training to something slower than a crawl. Quit buying sermons from people you don’t likely even know and don’t know your church. Start building sermons in the folks right under your nose. Who knows, you might not only get a break, but you might even conclude you’re doing a better job.
The following is a comment I made at i-Monk’s great recent post, that I’ve already linked to (but it deserves a second link!), in response to a comment that the answer to evangelicals’ problems with preaching is better preaching . . .
Clearly our preaching can be improved (I still have reservations about using that word to refer to a practice that is almost entirely directed to those who are already believers, but that’s a subject for another day). But the point of this post is that evangelicals tend to over-rely on the practice, whether doing it well or badly. Our over-reliance is based on a selective reading of scripture, an overly-intellectualized view of the faith and of humanity, and, now, the inertia of tradition. We have made a primary practice out of our least relational and participatory interaction with one another and it produces its fruit. In fact, if I had to name the necessary ingredients of evangelical ecclesiology, they would be a person preaching and someone listening. A song or two may also be required. That’s what evangelicals need to have to call something “church.” Maybe you agree with that assessment, maybe you don’t, but it’s worth thinking about, and about how warped that is relationally compared to a body concept. And it’s worth thinking about how that working definition of church, when practiced over decades, will form and even mal-form people given its lack of relational accountability or even interaction and the “role” it tries to place on the vast majority of people, which is essentially a non-role. The answer to this problem, which is the problem raised here, is not “good, biblical, Word-centered, Gospel-focused, Spirit-empowered preaching that points people to Jesus Christ” as wonderful as that sounds and can be. We need a bigger, better picture of being human and of being the church than our current ecclesial practices and priorities reveal.