Friday, May 20, 2005

Ruminations on Learning NT Greek --- Part 4

It was discovered [embarrassingly late enough, I might add] that arguments about theology and exegesis really weren't solved by appeals to the Greek text alone, but could be understood and evaluated with confidence without so much of a Greek mastery. This is due, as stated in the previous thread, to the fact that any of the exegetical questions really appealed in their most primal form to argument forms and basic principles of evidence.

For example, in settling the deity of Christ once and for all, it wasn't Greek by itself that did if for me, but the arguments involving usage and comparative studies. In questions involving, say, sprinkling versus immersion in baptism, one doesn't require a high level of Greek skill. One merely needs to do a word study and see how the various words and verbs used for baptism are used, not only in the sacred texts, but also in the surrounding literature of the time. Similarly, to understand the meaning of the verb dikaiow, "to justify," used heavily in Romans, one doesn't have to master Greek, but one can instead consult the various word-studies done in most excellent commentaries such as CEB Cranfield's ICC volume on Romans and Murray's NICNT volume on Romans. One doesn't need Greek to understand these.

As mentioned, 18 hard but pleasurable months were spent learning and applying Greek. [This was done as it could fit around "real life" --- don't think that this was all the PP did with his time.] But in the end, given a theological question, it would either be the case that (a) I could settle it without having appeal to my newly-found status with Greek, or (b) the question wasn't found to be definitively answered either way. I really didn't "need" Greek.

So what was the point? Other than learning something for its own sake, what actual good relative to the Christian faith was accomplished by such an undertaking?

No Christian Conspiracy

Most importantly, it made the claims of those who opposed the Christian faith on the basis of textual subjectivity utterly laughable. I had run into Watchtower people and Mormons who made very strong claims regarding how Christians had mangled the text and completely mistranslated large portions of text. Also, conversations with people in graduate school had often taken a turn whereby somebody would make some claim along the lines of "We don't know what the true text is" or "The text has been copied so many times, how do we know that fundamental mistakes haven't crept in." Basically, it was a militant agnosticism regarding the actual text of the New Testament. Furthermore, where there wasn't a militant agnosticism, there were assertions that the text was deliberately mistranslated to oppose whatever fashionable progressive views [usually involving sexual matters and homosexuality] happened to be the flavor of the month.

Now that I knew Greek, I could do my own translations of the text. In a sense not to be construed as triumphalistic, I could chuck my NIV, NASB, RSV, AV, etc if push came to shove, because I could read the original. In translating most of the New Testament, I came to the realization that if there are problems with Christianity, it isn't because the Greek text has been deliberately mistranslated or hijacked to conform to some reactionary agenda.

It was a powerful witness [so I hope!] to those Mormons and Watchtower folks to actually pull out a Greek text and read it to them, countering their nihilistic claims regarding the state of the NT text. I do not know if this planted a seed of doubt, though I sure hope the more intellectually honest Watchtower folks would've taken note.

Therefore, in a negative sense, there was nothing inherently invidious regarding the translation process for the orthodox versions. So on that account I could sleep well at night.

In a positive sense, the knowledge of Greek also serves as a nice defensive measure. For example, I can look at new translations such as the ONE translation and have full confidence that such a translation is not to be taken seriously. I know what the Greek says, or, at worst, I know the maximal semantic range of what the Greek can say, and in various places, that maximal range is definitely violated in the interest of a progressive agenda. Now this is hardly a feat of brilliant deductive thinking, since most orthodox Christians could see this. However, the PP is a Doubting Thomas at heart, so even though this fact is an obvious one, it was well worth learning Greek for just this fact.

The Text is Stable

Another positive thing that comes from a good working knowledge of NT Greek is seeing for one's self that the text of the NT is stable. In other words, we can have full confidence that what we have today isn't different in any substantial way than the autographa. For example, in my UBS 3 or UBS 4 Greek New Testament, I can see the major variants that might be of interest to translators of the Bible. Knowing Greek, I can read the variants and see how a passage is affected by choosing Variant A over Variant B. I can see for myself that no choice of variants will affect any doctrine that I hold, so the more wild-eyed claims regarding textual degeneracy are rendered laughable in as satisfying a way as possible, namely, by seeing it myself instead of having to trust scholarly opinion.

In discussions, I still run into textual agnosticism: "We can't really know what the originals said." [Combine this with interpretational subjectivity: "We don't know what the text means" and you have a real double whammy!] When confronted with such claims, it is comforting to actually [unlike the person advancing the claim] know that I know of what I speak. Again, other Christians may as well have the same degree of assurance without having picked up Greek, but, again, this was something that I had to see for myself, and the only way for me was to learn the language.


Learning Greek and the time spent on it paid off in the two ways mentioned above, but I'll readily admit that I can see somebody coming to the same conclusions above without learning Greek.

Also, looking back, the quest for an easy way out was part of the motivation in learning Greek. Even as recently as a decade ago, I thought that a knowledge of a language could settle theological questions and allow me to mechanically crank out objective truth. However, I found out over the next decade that issues of interpretation and such involved many facets, not just Greek. Again, I do not say this as a profundity, but as an admission that I observed an obvious fact rather late in the game!

If I could go back and do something else with all of that time spent on Greek, would I take advantage of that offer? It's really a moot question, since what is done is done, but, the mood for the day is such that I'd strongly answer in the negative. As mentioned, it was a stimulating undertaking, and I'm too used to being able to read high-level commentaries without having to skip through their Greek discussions. Also, it makes a pretty powerful witnessing tool to cultists, even though I haven't had any visible success. So, there is no wailing about what could've been the case in the alternative scenario.

Scary Thought

If the PP ever darkens a seminary doorstep [God help us] he'll have a good part of the curriculum already in the belt!


Blogger Aaron the Truck Driver said...

That was a very long post! I predict you will win the lottery in 5 years.

Friday, May 20, 2005 6:02:00 PM  
Blogger chaudes said...

I have posted some of
my photos here

Friday, May 20, 2005 6:05:00 PM  
Anonymous 1689 said...

Isn't Greek fun? Easy way to confuse your congregation and to look smart at the same time.

Both temptations are, of course, to be avoided. As is the so-called 'One Translation', which seems to be on a level with the 'New World Translation' for accuracy.

Monday, May 23, 2005 11:38:00 AM  

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