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Archive for November, 2008

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I recently completed Tim Keller’s latest book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.  If you’re like me, you raise a suspicious eyebrow every time book claims to “recover” or “rediscover” anything about Christianity, let alone its heart.  It is a bold claim, and worthy of scrutiny.  Thankfully, Pastor Keller lives up to the hype, and then some.

As the title implies, the book focuses on one of Jesus’ best known parables: The parable of “The Prodigal Son.”  You know the story:  A man has two sons, the younger demands his inheritance, runs off and squanders everything on wild living, only to find himself destitute.  Repentant, he returns home to his father, who welcomes him with opens arms, and throws him a feast.  The other, ever-obedient brother, is indignant.  The parable closes with the father explaining his actions to the elder brother: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours…was lost and now is found” (Lk. 15:32).  The sermon practically writes itself, and you’ve probably heard it before.  Here is a perfect picture of God’s love for us:  Though we sin, if we return to God, he welcomes us, and longs to restore us as His children.

True enough, says Keller, but focussing on the younger brother’s story, “misses the real message of the story…because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven” (p.7).  So begins Keller’s careful analysis of the text, and his focus on the oft-neglected story of the elder brother.

Keller’s text is such a pleasure to read that I am wont to summarize it all here.  Suffice it to say that his primary focus is on the elder brother, while drawing parallels to the ‘elder brothers’ who haunt our churches today.  Keller’s description of the elder brother’s attitude towards his father (i.e., God) was most striking to me.  The elder brother is indignant because his moral record has not won him his own feasts and rewards.  Keller makes the point that the elder brother’s attitude evidences that his service is not motivated by love for the father, but rather by a desire for control; a spiritual quid pro quo.  “If I do this, then he owes me that.”  His actions spring from self-righteousness with manipulative undercurrents.  These lead to entitlement, disappointment, bitterness, and ultimately alienation from God.  Although the parable begins “There was a man who had two sons” (Lk. 15:11), at the end, only one is reconciled to God.

In the last two chapters, Keller pulls back from the parable and takes a broader view of its place in the Bible as a whole.  This leads to a simple but effective presentation of the gospel which looks forward to our own homecoming, and feast with our Heavenly Father among redeemed creation.

The book is all of 133 well-spaced pages, so it will take even slow readers (myself among them) very little time to finish.  The text itself is immensely readable, and suitable for any audience, Christian or not.  Don’t let the approachability and readability fool you, however.  This is not a quick “feel good” devotional read for a short flight or long weekend.  Taken seriously, The Prodigal God packs a punch that is equal parts conviction and hope.

This is the first time I’ve read Keller, who is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He is also the author of the best-selling The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  It’s already on my Christmas list.

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Lovers of obscure 80’s movies may recognize the title of this post from Real Genius; it’s a line spoken by a young Val Kilmer.  This line comes to my mind most often not when I’m thinking of random movie quotes (though I do that frequently), but when I’m reading an English translation and find it to be, well, awkward.  I find myself asking, “who talks like that?”

Truth be told, I find myself asking this question a lot when I’m reading the ESV.  Sure, it’s a fine translation, and it sticks closely to its translation philosophy, which is a fairly literal one.  But almost on every page I read something and ask, “who talks like that?”

So, I’ve been following a paper presented by Mark Strauss at last week’s Evangelical Theological Society meeting.  This paper critiques the ESV and shows how it often translates the original languages into English that hardly anyone actually uses.  The paper is being posted by Wayne Leman over at Better Bibles Blog (my proposed subtitle: Making Good Translations Even Gooder) in a series of posts, which I will link to below.  There’s also a mini-response at Koinonia by William Mounce, NT editor for the ESV, which I will also link to (he promises a full response in next year’s ETS meeting).  Strauss gives numerous examples of where the ESV can be improved, many of which I’ve noticed and many that were new to me (largely because I don’t use the ESV as my every day translation). 

For instance, I was recently reading 2 Samuel in the ESV and ran across 2 Samuel 18:25 (which is also noted in Strauss’ paper): “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.”  So, I ask, “who talks like that?”  Seriously, I can’t even imagine saying such a thing, unless I was intentionally trying to sound like an overly wooden Bible translation (which I’ve been known to do on occasion for comic effect, see my use of “with child” in a previous post).  I don’t even see what you gain from such a translation.  It’s just odd, plain and simple.

So, here are the links for the paper.  But I want to make some preliminary comments for my readers:

1. I am a whole-hearted believer that for in-depth study of the Bible, you are better off using translations from multiple translation philosophies, simply for the fact that no translation gets it entirely right.  We even mention this in our Learning the Bible article (where we recommend the ESV under the “literal” category).  So, I’m not arguing that the ESV isn’t worth using.  I’m just saying that it’s far enough from normal English that it’s hard to use it on an every day basis when other translations are available.

2. I don’t think this is a matter of using a more formal or educated form of English.  “There is news in his mouth” is not formal English.  It does not sound educated.  For the record, I believe that we ought to teach and use proper English grammar.  That isn’t to say that mine is always perfect (in fact, I’ve noticed grammatical problems in this post, which I’ll leave as is out of sheer laziness), though I’ll point out that I’m one of about 5 people on the planet who still make a strong effort to avoid split infinitives.

3. I think Mounce brings up a good point.  Sometimes Strauss’ language is a bit inflammatory, specifically when he says that the ESV translators didn’t “consider” a possible translation.  I’m not sure how Strauss could have such knowledge, unless he was there when they were making decisions (and he wasn’t) or got a play-by-play breakdown from someone who was present (highly doubtful).  He’s better off not pretending to know what they did or did not consider and stick with what’s actually on the page in front of him.  With that said, it doesn’t negate his many valid points.

4. It’s helpful to remember that Strauss’ paper is entitled: Why the English Standard Version (ESV) should not become the Standard English Version.  It isn’t Why the ESV is an Imperfect Translation, because any translation could have been critiqued.  The question is whether or not the ESV should be the standard translation.  I’m amazed at how many people argue that very thing- that the ESV is the best translation around and should be the most widely used English translation.  The thought of a translation that causes me to say “who talks like that?” becoming the standard translation is a baffling one to me.  It’s good for what it is, but it’s hardly “standard.”

5. I learned my lesson back in seminary from Dr Roy Ciampa, who blasted me on a paper for an overly wooden translation.  In our exegesis papers, we were to provide a translation at the beginning that reflected our exegetical decisions, providing the defense of those decisions in the body of the paper.  I won’t give my actual translation (sorry, it’s embarassing), but I translated a phrase awkwardly, then said in the body of the paper, “this means _____.”  Ciampa’s comment in the margin was telling: “if it means that, then why don’t you translate it that way?”  Ouch.  Point taken.

Anyway, here are the posts, in order with the titles.  I’ll warn you, the formatting is a little weird, but you’ll figure it out.  Thanks to Wayne Leman for taking the time to put these up, to Mark Strauss for making his paper available, and to William Mounce for his response.

Mark Strauss’ Paper

Why the English Standard Version (ESV) should not become the Standard English Version

Oops Translations in the ESV (this one made me laugh out loud at points)

Idioms Missed in the ESV

ESV Lexical Errors and Problems

Exegetical Errors in the ESV

Collocational Clashes in the ESV

ESV Archaisms

Inconsistent Gender-Language in the ESV

Awkward and Unnatural Style in the ESV

Word Order Problems

Run-on Sentences and Tortured English

Mistranslated Genitives

Conclusion (at the end of this post is a link to download the entire paper in a pdf format)

William Mounce’s Response

Go here.  It’s a little ways down in the post.

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Book Review: Neither Poverty nor Riches

Special thanks to my friends Clark & Bryn for buying this book for me as a gift.

How often is it that a book can be considered timely almost 10 years after it was published?  I’d say it’s true of Craig Blomberg’s Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (New Studies in Biblical Theology).  As is characteristic of Blomberg’s writings, you come away from this book with greater confidence that you understand what the Bible actually says about money and possessions.  That isn’t to say it’s always an easy book to read, there’s a lot crammed in these 253 pages (not including bibliography and index).  This isn’t really a devotional type book, though it certainly has its moments of practical application, which is often quite challenging. 

Survey of the book

Blomberg argues that the Bible’s teachings on money and material possessions can be summarized in Proverbs 30:8- “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”  “There are certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are in and of themselves intolerable” (p245, italics original).  I like the word choice here- “intolerable.”  In other words, making a lot of money isn’t sinful, nor is being poor.  However, since it is intolerable for both extremes to be in place, it is the responsibility of the people of God to ensure that does not happen.

Blomberg surveys the biblical data: the Pentateuch and Historical Books, Poetical and Prophetical Books, Intertestamental literature, Jesus’ teachings, the early letters and Acts, and ends with Revelation.  Blomberg notes that there are times when material possessions are a sign of favor from God, though we can’t always assume that because one has material wealth that they are blessed by God.  In fact, Blomberg argues that there is a shift from the old covenant to the new in regards to material blessing.  “The covenant model that assumes material reward for piety never reappears in Jesus’ teaching, and is explicitly contradicted throughout” (p145).

I had started to write a full review at this point in the post, but realized that it quite frankly was going to be too long.  So, despite my penchant for long review, I just simply want to highlight a couple quotes to give you a flavor of his book.

“Even within the Old Testament economy, however, material blessing was never viewed as an end in itself.  An abundance of resources was to be shared with the nations and particularly with the needy” (p83).

“It goes too far to say that one cannot be rich and be a disciple of Jesus, but what never appears in the Gospels are well-to-do followers of Jesus who are not simultaneously generous in almsgiving and in divesting themselves of surplus wealth for the sake of those in need” (p145). 

Blomberg also makes an interesting point regarding Jesus’ participation in, and seemingly endorsement of, lavish celebrations (such as weddings and large celebratory meals).  “There is room for periodic celebration of God’s good, material gifts, even at times to a lavish extent.  But these celebrations will be the exception, not the norm” (p145).  This seems backwards from how we often think, since we often hear “the poor will always be with you” as we use our money for ourselves.  Yes, there are times to celebrate and that celebration may include generous use of money and resources.  But those times of celebration are to be limited, and the poor remembered frequently, not the other way around.

On pages 211-212 Blomberg gives an excellent summary of Paul’s teaching in regards to money & wealth, which I’ll quote in full here:

Right from the outset of his letter-writing career, Paul is eager to remember the poor (Galatians).  The Thessalonian Christians may have been more impoverished than many of the Pauline churches, but that gives them no right to be idle and depend solely on ‘welfare’ from others (1 and 2 Thessalonians).  The church at Corinth is torn apart by wealthy house-church leaders who expect their riches to buy them all the privilege and influence it did when they were pagans (1 Corinthians).  Instead Paul calls on them to give as generously as less well-to-do believers have already done to meet the needs of the acutely poor in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians).  It seems the Corinthians and others eventually agreed and give generously (Romans).  Christian freedom should produce liberating relationships and accountability structures (Philemon and Ephesians).  Christian workers should be grateful for financial support from fellow believers but not depend on it (Phillipians).  And ultimately, the Christians with material possessions must recognize their seduction and avoid their snare by giving generous quantities of them away (the Pastorals).

A couple questions for further clarification

There’s so much more to say, as I haven’t even mentioned some important portions of the Bible’s teachings and Blomberg’s treatment of them (Acts, James and Revelation come to mind).  But since this is getting long enough, I figured I’d hit two main questions I have.  One is a critique, one is something left unanswered.

First, the critique.  At points, due to the lack of space, Blomberg doesn’t argue clearly enough.  One place that stood out to me was in his discussion of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, where Paul says, “whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”  Blomberg claims, “contra ‘prosperity theology,’ Paul’s primary referent cannot lie in the material realm” (p196).  Now, I’m not necessarily disinclined to agree, but I do think he needed to offer up more argument for this than he does.  After all, most people reading these verses will probably not come to the same conclusion.

Second, I can’t help but wonder what the definition is of “rich” and “impoverished.”  It seems to me that these terms are somewhat relative.  There is no internationally accepted definition.  So, the extremes of wealth and poverty are “intolerable”- but relative to what?  Wealthy and impoverished compared to whom?  Our neighborhood?  Our town or city?  Or country?  Christians around the world?  What we do in practice depends partly on the answer to this question.  Truth be told, according to some American politicians, my wife and I are in poverty.  We don’t feel impoverished, though we’re acutely aware of the lack of expendable income at points.  But, I suppose compared to some, we are impoverished.  On the other hand, if our reference point is, say, global Christianity, we’re practically swimming in money.  Blomberg doesn’t really address this question, nor should he have necessarily down so, but I’d love to get his thoughts on it.

Some final thoughts

While this book does not major on application, there is certainly plenty of it sprinkled about.  Blomberg does favor a “graduated tithe.”  In other words, if we’re supposed to give out of our surplus, then the more surplus one has, the more they’ll give.  I’m inclined to agree.

But let me make a point that may derail the review slightly, but I feel I ought to hit on it.  When one hears the concept of a graduated tithe, that those with greater surplus ought to give greater amounts, one is likely to think “socialism.”  Now, I finished reading this book a few months ago, but opted to wait until after the elections to write this because I wanted to avoid the potential “Danny thinks the graduated tithe is a good idea, he must be voting for ___.”  This would be, of course, typical of American Christians, who view such things through the lens of politics rather than the church.  It is the church’s job to help the poor.  Wealthy Christians are called to help their brothers and sisters in need- that is undeniable.  Whichever way we vote, we are called to help.

(So much for this review not getting long, huh?)

In the end, this is a fabulous book, one that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the subject.  If you’re actively involved in ministry to the poor of your society, I’d suggest you pick this book up and let Blomberg take you on a guided tour of the biblical teaching on the subject.  If you’re not involved, or don’t support any such ministry, you probably ought to read this book as well.  I’m thankful I did.

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Introducing Mary Pierce

Okay, so this is a completely selfish post, but 50% of this site belongs to me, so I can be selfish at some point. 

Believe it or not, by some strange oversight in the laws of our country, I, Danny Pierce, am allowed to procreate.  Thus, I celebrate in the manner most appropriate to my generation: a family blog.  Go check out the first pictures of my daughter, Mary, who is actually still in the womb.  I suppose you’ll also see pictures of my wife and me.  I’m the one with the beard.  She’s the one who is with child.  Enjoy.

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Get Yourself Some Hymns

We here at BBG have hardly kept it a secret that we love hymns.  In fact, if you look under our worship links to the right, you’ll find them to be hymn-heavy.  So I wanted to take a moment to let you in on some hymn news that I’ve run across in the last few weeks.

First, you can check out the live worship from the 2008 Together for the Gospel Conference.  The music is pretty simple: Bob Kauflin on the piano, the voices of the attendees carrying the powerful words of worship.  You can download 3 songs for free right now (Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Jesus Paid It All, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name).  The other 16 songs will be released sometime next month.  Check it out here

Second, and staying in the Sovereign Grace network, Covenant Life Church in Maryland has released a cd of hymns entitled How Sweet the Sound.  Good news- you can pay whatever you want for it.  Don’t believe me?  See for yourself.

Lastly, Sojourn Music has been working on a 2-disc project based on Isaac Watts’ hymns.  You can keep up with the latest on their blog, but also check out videos of the recording process here.  So, if you’re interested not only in hymns but in the work that goes into an album, you might enjoy these.

Anyway, there you go.  I hope you enjoy these little treasures that only the internet can provide.

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Most of us have heard of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.  We learned about them in world history class in high school, noting that it sparked the Protestant Reformation (which is more or less true).  A few of us know that Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the chapel door in Wittenburg, Germany- and a couple of us even know this happened on October 31, 1517 (as noted by Brian here). 

What surprised me, however, is what I found when I actually sat down and read them.   I suppose I expected a compendium of Luther’s theology: sola scripture, justification by faith alone, etc.  What I found, however, was a different sort of Luther.  Luther wasn’t necessarily angry with the pope, he was angry that there were priests who were abusing the sale of indulgences.  He seemed more angry that the pope didn’t know about the abuses perpetuated by these renegade priests.

Even more surprising was Luther’s concern for the poor.  It’s not that I didn’t think Luther disliked the poor or anything, it’s just that I was expecting theological debate.  What I got was a good lesson in social justice and concern for those in need.  I’d encourage you to read the 95 Theses to see what I mean.

For example, check out number 45: “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a man in need, and passes him by, and gives [his mony] for pardons, purchases no the indulgences of the pope, but the indignation of God.”

It’s hard not to imagine that Luther was thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan as he was writing this.  The poor were being asked to fulfill a religious duty, even when the needs of those around them were not being met (or even the needs of their own families, as number 46 of the Theses alludes to).  Of course, the devout Catholics of that day probably didn’t know Jesus’ parable, since they could not read the Bible for themselves (as Brian touched on in his Reformation Day post).

I also couldn’t help but think about the description of “true religion” in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Reading the 95 Theses is a lesson in a pastor’s care for the flock.  Luther was indignant at the abuse of the poor- those renegade priests who, in effect, turned the poor upside down and shook the money out of the pockets and said “God bless you.”  I suspect that as Luther continued walking down this path of fighting this abuse, he began to notice the flawed theologically foundations that led to such abhorrent practices, which is why we tend to think of Luther the Theologian before Luther the Pastor. 

When I look at the church today, I can see where Luther would find similar abhorrant practices.  We see the health & wealth preachers who bilk the devout poor out of their money, all the while flying in private jets from one mansion to another, or building some unncessarily elaborate facility in the name of God (they ought to read Thesis number 86).  If we wanted to go outside the realm of the church for a moment, we could note how many people throw money into already well-funded political campaigns in the name of helping our country (including helping the poor in our country), all the while walking past the hungry guy with the Dunkin’ Donuts cup sitting next to him holding a few coins.

Well, I could go on with this, but I’ll spare us all the speech.  My whole point is this: what Luther noticed was that those in need were being passed over in the name of religious duty, and devout believers were being taken advantage of by those they trusted.  Are there ways in which we do the same thing?  Are we able to walk past the beaten man on the side of the road so we can get to our next occasion to serve God?  Are there still devout believers who feel the message coming from the pulpit that they need to give (time, money, etc) in order to know God’s forgiveness?

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Leviticus & Romans 8

Memorizing Romans 8 and studying/teaching Leviticus at the same time has been an eye-opening experience.  I admit to my limited knowledge of Leviticus, and realize that I am (unfortunately) in the majority in this.  I’ve made it a point this year as I teach through the Pentateuch to grow in my understanding of this neglected book.

Two points jump out at me as I’m also working through Romans 8.  The first seems somewhat obvious.  In verse 3, Paul writes, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering” (TNIV).  For now I won’t get into the discussion over whether that last phrase should be translated “to be a sin offering” or simply “for sin” (ESV).  Either way, the point I’m making is not affected.

All throughout Leviticus we read about various types of sacrifices and purifying rituals to deal with the issues of sin and uncleanness.  Paul is well aware of the levitical background and is making a powerful statement here- that the problem of sin and broken relationship with God was solved by God Himself in His Son.

The second point is the relationship between holiness and uncleanness.  To quote T D Alexander’s book From Paradise to the Promised Land, “… holiness and uncleanness are totally incompatible… [it was] impossible for anyone or anything to be holy and unclean at the same time” (p.212).  Immediately when I read these words, I was reminded of Paul’s refusal to accept that the people of God (those who have been made holy by Him) should be slaves of sin.  “You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the Spirit” (Romans 8:9).  “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness” (6:19). 

For Paul, and Leviticus, the mixture of holiness and impurity is impossible.  This should disturb all of us who are accustomed to having our feet planted firmly in both worlds.  But Paul reminds us that God has made us holy through Jesus, and is continuing to make us holy through the power of His Spirit.  We are to “become as we are,” as it has been said.  God has made us holy.  Now let’s act like it.

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