Monday, October 9, 2023

Accuracy and Credibility as a Teacher, Take 2

Almost five years ago I wrote a post about the importance of accuracy as a teacher of the Bible and Christian doctrine, and how that impacts one's credibility in this important ministry. I've come across some things lately that have prompted me to post this follow-up.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I'm a nerd. In junior high back in the early 80s, I was a computer nerd before computers were cool and part of every household. I taught myself to program in BASIC with a book from Radio Shack, and lots of Friday mornings sitting in front of a TRS-80 Model I at the store in the neighborhood strip mall (the manager would let me come in and tinker while my mom was getting her hair done at the other end of the shopping center). In high school, I was the math nerd. In college, I majored in computer and information sciences, with a minor in mathematics. 

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that when I started diving into biblical and theological studies about fourteen years ago, I went full-bore academic. While making the four-hour drive each way from Little Rock, AR to Springfield, MO for weekend and week-long intensives at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, I would listen to recorded lectures from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis on the same topics as the courses I was taking at AGTS. I wanted to capture everything I could.

The morning of the graduation ceremony in May 2017, while waiting for the rest of my family to finish getting ready at the hotel, I was sitting at the desk reading Thomas Oden's The Transforming Power of Grace, which I had used portions of as research for my capstone seminar paper. My oldest daughter said, "Dad, you're graduating today. You can stop reading." But I had found Oden's work to be so well-written and theologically rich, I just had to finish the rest of the book, even though it would no longer contribute to my coursework.

Six year after finishing my MA, and still not being in a doctoral program, I'm still reading from 20 to 25 books a year on biblical studies and theology. Some are written for a more general, biblically literate audience, and others are very academic (over the last few months, I've been reading several commentaries on Leviticus, the Old Testament book that has been the death of many Bible-in-a-year reading plans). So I'm accustomed to reading material that makes you slow down and think.

Now, I certainly don't believe that the only helpful Christian books are those written by seminary professors with doctorates. I've found many helpful non-academic books over the years, written by everyday Christians and pastors without advanced degrees, but with great wisdom drawn from many years of experience living the Christian life. But when a book starts to venture into more technical territory, such as the biblical languages, the author (and the editor at the publisher), need to verify the accuracy of the material.

I was recently sitting in on a Christian book study group. The notes on the screen made reference to a Greek word, agoridzo. The class facilitator played an audio clip of the word being pronounced, and the audio had the sound of an alpha (pronounced ah) instead of a iota (pronounced ee). I was thinking, "that program isn't pronouncing the Greek correctly." But then I did a search on my iPad, and found out that the actual transliteration of the word is agorazō. So the computer-generated pronunciation was correct after all.

After class, I approached the facilitator to let them know that the slides on the screen had the word spelled wrong. I was informed it was copied straight from the book, and shown the page. Sure enough, the book had agoridzo. I did a little checking online and in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis when I got home, and it turns out there isn't even such a word as agoridzo in Greek (or agorizō for that matter).  

Now, I can let it slide that the book's author used dz instead of simply to transliterate the Greek letter zeta, as he was likely attempting to give a spelling in English letters that would approximate the Greek pronunciation. But I found it very troubling that a vowel had been changed from an alpha to a iota. 

However, this author sets himself forth as an expert on deeper meanings from New Testament Greek. In fact, he has published two books purporting to reveal deeper truths by going back to the original language. (Incidentally, reviews of those books written by people who have studied Koine Greek as part of their seminary education consistently point out that the author tries to overload every possible English gloss for the Greek words into his explanations, committing what D. A. Carson calls the exegetical fallacy of "illegitimate totality transfer." One reviewer went so far as to describe these books as prime negative examples of every error Carson presents in his book Exegetical Fallacies.)

One of the first things a student learns in a course on New Testament Greek is the alphabet in Greek letters, and how those letters are represented in Latin characters used by the English language (this is called transliteration in linguistic terminology). This author consistently uses o (the transliteration for the letter omicron, the "short o" in Greek) instead of ō for the letter omega (the "long o" in Greek) that comes at the end of the verb he is discussing. This is an error that would cause first semester Greek students to have points deducted from their work, yet this "expert" in the Greek commits this error throughout this book and others he has written. Now, one may try to defend the author by saying that this is a lay level book, not a scholarly volume, and therefore there is no need to get the transliterations exact, since the average lay reader doesn't know or care about those details. But that defense doesn't hold up when one looks at books written by biblical scholars, yet directed at a lay audience, that nevertheless hold to the standard rules for transliteration as taught to students of Greek in seminary classes. Besides, the fact that a book is written for a lay audience instead of the academy is no excuse for letting inaccuracies slide, simply because the readers won't know any better.

Now, let's look at some of the other inaccuracies in this "expert" author's use of Greek.

In discussing the verb metanoeō, which means "to repent," the author states that it is a compound word composed of the "verb" meta, meaning "to change," and noeō, which is derived from nous, meaning "the mind." So, for this author, metanoeō "literally" means to change one's mind. Now, while it is accurate that "to repent" means in part having a change of mind (though the biblical usage of the term also involves a conversion of the whole person, including his or her actions), meta is NOT a verb. It is a preposition, meaning "with" or "after." Granted, when used in compounds it has the sense of involving change (think of the English word "metamorphosis," which comes from the Greek and means a change of form), but meta itself is not a verb as claimed by the author. In fact, in another part of the same book, discussing the word methodos, the writer correctly states that meta is a preposition meaning "with." So, this author contradicts himself, in one place calling meta a verb, and in another place identifying it as a preposition.

The author says that the Greek word ginomai "normally describes something that happens unexpectedly or something that catches one off guard" (emphasis in original). He first talks about this word in relation to the account of Jesus and His disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee to the region of Gadara, where Jesus delivered a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs (Mark 4:37). The specific form used here is γίνεται, which in grammatical terms is a third-person singular present middle/passive (Mark frequently uses present-tense verbs to describe past-tense actions, something fairly common and known to interpreters as the "historical present"). 

The author goes on to talk about how this verb ginomai is used in Acts 10:9-10 to describe Peter's vision of the unclean animals in the sheet lowered from heaven. 

Especially, notice the words "fell into." This phrase is derived from the Greek word ginomai. Because Luke uses the word ginomai, we know that Peter didn't expect this visitation to occur that afternoon. He was waiting on dinner when suddenlyunexpectedly—he "slipped into" a trance. This was an encounter with God that caught him off guard.

Now, while it is certainly reasonable to think that Peter was not expecting to have a vision that day, basing this conclusion on the verb used here is very reckless. The form used in the Greek text of Acts is ἐγένετο (egeneto), which is a third person singular aorist middle (generally translated in the past tense, though aorist is not technically past tense as we think of verb tenses in English—but that's a discussion beyond the scope of this blog post). But the author's claim that ginomai refers to things that happen unexpectedly falls apart when we realize that the exact same verb egeneto is used to describe Peter becoming hungry at the beginning of verse 10. I seriously doubt that Peter's hunger caught him off guard; it would be a normal thing to expect at this time of day, which the Scripture says was around noon.

But even more devastating to the author's claim that ginomai has to do with events that are unforeseen or unexpected is the fact that this verb, in the aorist form egeneto, is commonly translated in the King James Version as "it came to pass" (Matt. 7:28 and 9:10 are just the first two examples of many in the New Testament). According to the standard Greek lexicons, ginomai basically just means "become" or "take place." The author in question is guilty of severely overreaching in his attempt to mine "deeper meaning" from the Greek.

The author repeatedly shows that he doesn't understand even first-year Greek grammar. In one passage, he writes:
In fact, the Greek tense used here is the locative sphere of influence. This is extremely important! Quite literally, this meant that Paul knew he was "locked into" his fleshly body and could not get out of it, nor could he trade it for another! He was "body-bound." This state of being "body-bound" would never change until death, when his carnal, natural body would be gloriously transformed into a spiritual body.

In another place, speaking of Ephesians 6:10, he says
The phrase "in the Lord” is grammatically called the locative tense. Simply put, this means that this special power (endunamoo) can be found only one place – and that is “in the Lord.”

The fact that Paul wrote in the locative tense tells us that this power is “locked up” in the Person of Jesus Christ and that this power cannot be found anywhere else. We cannot obtain this special, supernatural power by reading books, listening to teaching tapes and books, but this special power can be obtained only through a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. This power is locked up “in the Lord.”

Doctrinally, this means that once we are redeemed by Jesus Christ, we are “locked up” in the Person of Jesus forever! As Paul told the Corinthians, “But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:17). …Paul told his audience on Mars Hill, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being…” (Acts 17:28).

This wonderful locative tense is used seven times in Ephesians 1 to declare that we are perpetually, endlessly, and infinitely “locked up” in the Person of Jesus Christ. He has become our realm of existence and habitation. For all eternity, we are “in Him.”
First off, in Greek grammar, there is no "tense" known as locative. The grammatical term is "case." Tenses are used with verbs. Cases are used with nouns, adjectives, and participles. Greek is what is known as an inflected language. To show whether a noun is a subject, a possessive, an indirect object, or a direct object, the ending of the noun changes. The fact that the author repeatedly refers to locative as a tense rather than a case is a strong indicator that he really doesn't know Greeknot even the first semester of a basic New Testament Greek course from Bible college.

Also, he writes repeated as though "locative" has some meaning related to "locked up," apparently simply because they sound similar. But we should think of "locative" as "locate-ive," having to do with location. Here's an example: “While I was eating on the patio.” “On the patio” is a locative phrase, giving the location of the verb “eating.” It has nothing to do with being “locked up” on the patio.

The locative case is simply a sub-case of the dative. Grammatically, they have the same form (using the same ending added to the noun stem). So the reader of the Greek must make the interpretive choice as to whether the dative is in fact locative, denoting location, or if it is possibly a dative of means (telling the means through which something is done). Philippians 4:13 is an example where the dative case is most commonly translated as a dative of means rather than a locative; ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με can be translated "in the one strengthening me" (locative) or "through the one strengthening me" (dative of means).

Discussing Ephesians 2:2, the author states:
Notice that Paul says, "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world..." The phrase "according to" is taken from the word kata. This word portrays something that is forceful or dominating.

By choosing to use this word, Paul tells us that before we met the Lord, we were not just influenced by "the course of this world." The word kata emphatically means that we were completely dominated, manipulated, and controlled by it!

According to standard Greek lexicons, kata is simply a preposition, which can mean "against," "according to," or "with respect to." In fact, the titles of the four Gospels in Greek are all kata followed by the Greek name of the evangelist in the accusative case ("According to Matthew," "According to Mark," etc.).  Romans 11:28 starts with κατὰ μὲν τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (the first word being kata), which in the King James is translated "As concerning the gospel." Hardly an image of domination, manipulation, and control!

The author then goes on to write:
The word "course" is taken from the Greek word aiona. This is a simple word that describes a specific, allotted period of time, such as an age, a specific era, or a generation....You could say that this word denotes the influence of one particular generation or a short-lived period of time.
Yet the Lexham Theological Wordbook in Logos Bible Software has this entry for αἰών: "age. A long period of considerable time." Pretty opposite of what the book's author claims. 

The LTW goes on to say:

This term originally meant “vital force” or “life,” but eventually came to mean “age” or “lifetime.” Since it generally presumes a “long space of time,” it is often translated “eternity” or “age.” The term has two primary meanings. First, it can refer to a period of indefinite time, whether in terms of the future or the past. The NT writers frequently use several similar phrases to express the concept of future time. The phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (eis ton aiōna), for example, denotes a future period of time without end (e.g., Luke 1:55; John 6:51; 10:28; Rom 9:5; Heb 1:8). Many of the NT doxologies use the similar phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας (eis tous aiōnas), which uses the plural form of aiōn, to speak of the perpetual nature of God and his reign (e.g., Rom 9:5; 16:27; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 13:21; Rev 1:6; 7:12; 22:5). The repetition of aiōn in the phrase εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων (eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn) intensifies the meaning of the term to convey the idea of “forever and ever” (e.g., Phil 4:20; 1 Pet 4:11; Rev 4:9–10). In addition to these meanings, aiōn can express the object of eschatological expectation, as in eternal life (John 4:14), the eternal kingdom (2 Pet 1:11), the heavenly body (2 Cor 5:1), and the eternal fire (Matt 18:8). Related to the past, aiōn can refer to the distant past (e.g., Luke 1:70; Acts 3:21) or to the “age” before time began (1 Cor 2:7).

The related adjective αἰώνιος (aiōnios) is used for actual statements of eternity, such as “what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). As such, it can represent a long, distant, uninterrupted time in either the past (Luke 1:70) or the future (John 4:14).

This is the complete opposite of the "short-lived period of time" the author claims is meant by the word. Someone here doesn't know what they're talking about, and I sincerely doubt it is the editors of the LTW, which was developed and underwent editorial review by biblical scholars with decades of experience working in the biblical languages.

Not only does this author get many of the basics of the Greek language wrong, he also mangles history. In the book, he claims that the "dead bodies of martyred Christians were strung on poles along the road and set on fire to serve as huge 'lanterns' by which the road workers could continue working" on the Appian Way, a road leading from Rome to southern Italy. Big problem: the Appian Way was constructed in 312 B.C., during the Roman Republic (preceding the Empire), long before there were any Christians to persecute. And the Apostle Paul traveled along the Appian Way on the final leg of his journey to Rome, before official persecution of Christians by the Empire had even begun. (Note: the use of martyrs' bodies as torches is usually associated with Nero and his elaborate garden parties at the imperial palace. Never in my readings about church history have I seen this claim that the burning bodies of Christians were used as illumination for highway construction crews to be able to work at night.)

The internet bio of the book's author claims he is "a prolific author and a highly respected Bible teacher" and that he holds a "Doctor of Philosophy in Ministry." However, I have not been able to find anywhere on the internet which university or seminary granted him this degree. Besides that, I am familiar with the PhD (doctor of philosophy) degree, sometimes called a D.Phil. by European institutions, as well as the Doctor of Ministry (DMin). But I've never heard of a "Doctor of Philosophy in Ministry" degree before. 
The author seems to have some decent things to say about spiritual warfare in the book. He warns against extremes, and against forming our ideas about spiritual warfare based on superstitions and anecdotes, emphasizing that we need to stick to Scripture. Yet, in what seems to be an attempt to bolster his authority by saying a lot of stuff about the Greek, the author ends up undermining himself in the eyes of anyone who has actually studied biblical Greek in an accredited setting.

Reiterating something I said near the beginning of this (rather lengthy) blog post: I don't expect that everyone will read the more academic books that I am drawn to, nor do I think there is nothing of value or worth in books written for everyday Christian believers who don't know anything about the original languages. But in every case, in every level of reading material offered to help Christians grow in their walk with the Lord, I do expect accuracy. If you're going to venture into the original languages, get them right! Don't feed the sheep, who are hungry for good spiritual nutrition, things that are simply not accurate, which can give them a false sense of understanding and knowledge. God's people deserve better.

It is frequently better to not have information, than to have inaccurate or faulty information. At least the person who has no information can be aware of his or her ignorance concerning a topic. But the person who has been given inaccurate information thinks he or she knows more than is truly the case, and that can be dangerous.
James, the Lord's brother, warned that not many should become teachers, because they will face stricter judgment. That warning drives me to strive for precision and accuracy when I write or teach.
I'll close with a statement I recently read from New Testament scholar Mike Bird (who has a PhD from the University of Queensland, so we can verify the legitimacy of his degree), which seems to apply here:

So do your preparation and don’t pretend to be smarter than you are.

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