God – speaks Greek to me?

„Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tabets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.“ (2 Cor. 3,1-6)

Yesterday I had another conversation with another friend of mine. He studied koine Greek at a Theology School and we talked about how to use or not to use Greek word and/or grammar studies for a regular Biblestudy. In his „Lectures to my students“ Spurgeon wrote, that in his opinion, preachers only quote the Greek to impress their hearers. So my friend and I talked about the tendency to do that and asked ourselves in how far it really does benefit the hearers.

One thing that is often overlooked among us evangelical lay preachers/theologians is the fact, that koine Greek is a dead language. That means that we depend on findings of other writings to give us insights on when which words or tenses were used. The more writings we have to compare, the more we will understand the language of the Bible. Now that means that we understand the language of the Bible today better than 50 years ago. Which is a real problem when my Greek lexicon is that old… It also means that we will understand the language of the Bible better 50 years from now then we do at this present time. So we should be careful not to build our theology on word studies in the Greek. We don’t have a holy language, like the Muslims do, because our book did not come down from heaven completed. It was rather a beautiful, God-in-time-and-space-kind-of-organic-process, we call it inspiration.

Which language does God speak? Does he speak Hebrew, Aramaic or koine Greek? Yes and No. God is Spirit. His language is not a human language, but a spiritual language. He uses human language, but a language can never embody the truth like the person of Jesus Christ. Everything human is earthly. Everything earthly is temporal, imperfect. Just as God cannot and does not live in a building build by human hands and is not served by human hands, he cannot be fully contained in human language. Not even the Bible languages. But also generally speaking are the thoughts, ideas and realities behind the words bigger and better than the words themselves. Words are only shells. Even Bible words.

George MacDonald writes in the Chapter „Truth is of the Spirit, not the letter“: „God has not cared that we should anywhere have assurance of his very words – not merely because of the tendency in his children to word worsip, false logic, and corruption of the truth, but also because he would not have his people oppressed by words. For words, being human, therefore but partially capable, could not absolutely contain or express what the Lord meant. No matter how precise the words used, to be understood the Lord must depend on the spirit of his disciple. Seeing it could not give life, the letter should not be throned with the power to kill. It should be only the handmaid to open the door of the truth to the mind that was of the truth.“

For this reason the early Christians were somewhat sceptical when they first heard of the idea of a Christian Scripture Canon. For them, this was one of the differences between the Old and the New Covenant. The Christian Faith was something that was passed on and lived out by the believing community of Jesus followers. Why would we want to go back to serving the letter? But in order to defend orthodoxy against heresy, the church fathers rightly judged that clear definitions of what Christians believe and what they reject were necessary.

William Law writes: „…every kind of virtue and goodness may be brought into us by two different ways. They may be taught us outwardly by men, by rules and precepts; and they may be inwardly born in us, as the genuine birth of our own renewed spirit. In the former way, as we learn them only from men, by rules and documents of instruction, they at best only change our outward behavior, and leave our heart in its natural state, only putting our passions under a forced restraint, which will occasionally break forth in spite of the dead letter of precept and doctrine.“ He goes on to say, that this is still the first stage in spiritual growth, just as the law (the letter) was a schoolmaster to the gospel. And that after all Scripture cannot do more than point us to the living Word. Words in themselves are dead. Even written words. Even New Testament words – apart from the life-giving and life-changing Spirit.

Andrew Murray comments on this: „In answer to the scruple that this appears to derogate from Scripture, we are reminded of the difference between Christ, the living Word, and the letter of Scripture. We are told that this is the very way to exalt Scripture when we own it to be the faithful and only direction to Him who is the true light of men. Just as the highest honor a disciple of John the Baptist could confer on his teacher was to leave him and go to Christ, so the Scriptures, the more we study and rejoice in them, will only have their full effect upon us as they daily point us to Christ.“

E. M. Bounds writes: „The preaching that kills may be, and often is, orthodox – dogmatically, inviolably orthodox. We love orthodoxy. It is good. It is the best. It is the clean, clear-cut teaching of God’s Word, the trophies won by truth in its conflict with error, the levees which faith has rasied against the desolating floods of honest or reckless misbelief or unbelief; but orthodoxy, clear  and hard as crystal, suspicious and militant, may be but the letter well-shaped, well-named, and well-learned, the letter which kills. Nothing is so dead as a dead orthodoxy, too dead to speculate, too dead to think, to study, or to pray.“

I wonder how much I have fallen into the same trap as the scribes, who wouldn’t accept the living Word when it came to them, because it didn’t fit their interpretations of the written word. Jesus is everything the Bible reveals him to be. And it is – in one sense – all we need to know about him. But yet Jesus is bigger than the Bible. That might sound shocking or even heretical. But in reality, everyone who doesn’t agree with that statement is an idolatrer – because he doesn’t only worship the Jesus of the Bible but Jesus and the Bible. And that’s wrong. The Bible is only means to an end. And that End is God.

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    • carpentarius
    • 22. März 2008

    When I preached in the past I liked to throw in greek words. Because I thought that this would be somehow helpful to make my point. That´s nonsense. First reason: I didn´t know greek myself, I used a Strong´s. Second reason: Telling people what the greek „really“ says undermines their trust in their own translations. Third reason: the more I talk to people who know koine greek and the more I study it myself it turns out that you can not really translate this language word by word, „literally“, but you should, as you said, compare it with other texts and try to figure out the context of your passage. It makes me think when one of the most renowned german greek scholars says that his favorite translation is Good News for Modern Man… So I agree that the message is more important then the written word itself. But the danger to have a view to low of the written word is obvious and the outcome can be seen all around us. Jesus says: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthäus 5:18 ESV) Well, He ist the King.

  1. That danger is definitely there and – especially here in Germany – a real plague. But one more comment on that verse you quoted: Obviously it refers to the Law, the letter. If you try to bind the New Covenant to mere words, you take away from it. The New Covenant (as the rest of the Sermon on the Mount shows) is about bigger principles, attitudes, heart matters. While the Rabbis were argueing over ‚what does the word for ‚adultery‘ mean‘, Jesus said: the spirit is important, not just the word.

    Maybe the point I’m trying to make is best illustrated by the life of Jesus. He didn’t just come to fulfill the written Law. He did so much more than that. He lived in the Spirit of the Lawgiver. And that is also the way we are supposed to live – and that is also what it means to make disciples!

    • carpentarius
    • 22. März 2008

    I agree. Not just the word. The written law just gives us boundries in which real freedom can take place. And only there. Because God is good. Not having the right attitude is already breaking the first commandment. The one who loves God and his neighbor fullfills the law. So the law in my opinion is not about rules but it is the law of freedom. But I think I´m getting kind of off topic now… Anyways, great blog, my next comment is going to be in german, it´s weird to talk to you in english, alter Siegerländer!… 🙂

  2. Dat kannste ja moh mache…echt jetzt. Soll auch ein zweisprachiger Blog werden, hat nur bis jetzt nicht geklappt!

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