Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Ruminations on Learning NT Greek --- Part 3

Summary So Far

Parts 1 and 2 in a nutshell: rattled by Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons who claimed that our Bibles were not translated correctly, especially in those passages where the question is whether Christ is being called God, our protagonist [or antagonist depending on your point of view!] set off to learn New Testament Greek. He made quick progress through it, found himself at a stage where he was semi-literate in Greek, relearned it again, and then found that he could read the NT in Greek, or at least translate it slowly and surely. Alas, learning Greek did not answer the big theological questions in an indisputable way as hoped! In particular, the deity of Christ was still something that could conceivably be sufficiently obscurantized.

Now for Part 3!

Were Christians wrong in proclaiming the full deity of Christ all of these centuries? Were the Mormons and Watchtower folks correct with their claims that the early church went astray as soon as Jesus left the scene?

Appeals to the Greek text were always parried with the flat denial that went of the form No, no, the Greek text really says this!

About late 1998 I made a rather profound discovery --- at least it was profound to me, but in retrospect it was painfully obvious and one wonders why I didn't see it before.

This discovery was that arguments pertaining to the deity of Christ [among other things] were not dependent so much on "the Greek text of the NT" as they were on mere general thinking skills and the ability to evaluate an argument and distinguish evidence from assumption.

The above sounds rather abstruse and general, so an example might be helpful.

Consider Titus 2:13 and II Peter 1:1. Both of these passages have a formally identical construction: article - substantive - conjunction - substantive
Titus 2:13 has, if we translate in a wooden interlinear fashion in word-for-word order: [using "h" for "eta," "w" for "omega," and "he" for "eta with a rough breathing mark]

The great God and Savior our Jesus Christ
tou megalou theou kai swthros hemwn Iesou Christou

The question is whether the construction above (a) is referring to two separate things, namely, the great God as distinct in some sense from our Savior Jesus Christ, or whether the construction above (b) is referring to Jesus Christ as both our great God and our Savior. Framing the question up to this point doesn't require any extensive knowledge of Greek.

So, which one is it? Some Bibles take (a) as the translation, others take (b). Why is it correct [if it is even correct at all] to go with (b)?

Basically, the answer is roughly as follows: every other such similar construction, where an article links two substantives connected by a conjunction, with other similar syntactical properties that are too detailed to discuss in a brief blog entry, has the property that the two substantives have the same referent. Daniel Wallace's oft-mentioned text Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics gives the full scoop on the issue in his chapter on the use of the article, and the reader who peruses this will be thankful that I didn't eat up the bandwidth repeating the arguments and distinctions here!

Now a seminary professor [such as Wallace!!] would wince with the above over-simplified formulation of the argument, but this is the gist of it. Let X = the construction mentioned above, and let Y = the property that there is a single referent.

(1) Titus 2:13 [and II Peter 1:1] have construction X
(2) Every instance of X that appears elsewhere in literature in roughly the same time period has Y

THEREFORE

(3) It seems exceedingly likely that Titus 2:13 [and II Peter 1:1] also have the same property.

The conclusion is not dogmatic, but it is quite strong. The burden of proof falls heavily on those who take interpretation (a) over (b).

Observe that the syllogism doesn't require any great knowledge of Greek, really. A knowledge of Greek helps a little bit, but it certainly doesn't make the argument more solid than what it is. The argument itself is free of considerations of Greek:

Every A that has been observed has property B.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that another A will most likely have property B as well.


So on the one hand, Greek by itself didn't solve anything, but we did move the argument back to an objective background. Again, Wallace provides the stimulating details.

It turned out for the other disputed passages dealing with the deity of Christ, such as John 1:1c, Rom 9:5, Hebrew 1:8, the argument hinged not on Greek, but mostly on the study and cataloging of other places in appropriate literature where the construction under question was used.

The best book that I know of concerning passages that call Christ God [along with the arguments against claiming that they call Christ God] is Murray Harris' work Jesus as God which is a fine work of great detail that even Arians must admit is well-researched and careful. The big point I'd like to make here is that you can understand the arguments, technical as they are, without being a master of NT Greek.

For another example, I realized in reading CEB Cranfield's commentary on Romans that the evaluation of the arguments for or against Christ being called God in Romans 9:5 did not require Greek mastery, but a mere willingness to catalog and ponder the details of the argument. The argument for Christ's deity in Cranfield's book were just as strong before I felt like I had attained NT Greek utility as they were after I had attained utility.

By late 1998 I had convinced myself according to my own high standards of evidence that, yes, the NT calls Christ God in many places, and hence if the early church went astray soon after the Lord left the scene, it didn't go astray in this point!
To this day, the PP sees the deity of Christ ring out of scripture with mighty bell tones of saving grace.

But, I had spent a good 18 months at least being involved with NT Greek. This time was enjoyable, but what good in the end was it? After all, NT Greek was supposed to help me solve doctrinal problems objectively, in particular, appeal to the Greek text by itself was supposed to prove the deity of Christ convincingly. But the Greek text by itself didn't give an argument, for only sound argument forms and appeals to evidence [which things transcend whatever language one uses] were what did the trick. I had spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars filling my shelves with the standard big tomes on Greek grammar, and I had invested countless more dollars buying advanced commentary sets and volumes on the NT books. Yet if Greek couldn't by itself answer a big question such as Is Christ called God? then what good was it? The PP could've been lifting weights, playing Super Nintendo or Playstation, or goofing off with something lighter and fluffier.

So, by late 1998, the question then became this: What practical value was there in learning NT Greek?

Coming next: Part 4: What learning Greek did for the Pedantic Protestant.

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