"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. "Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. (Act 20:29-31)
The Apostle Paul, giving his farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian church, warned them of two serious threats to the people of God: external attacks (“savage wolves”) and internal corruption (“men . . . of your own selves . . . speaking perverse things”). Of the two threats, the second is by far the more serious. Persecution, while having a purifying effect on the Church by testing true commitment and faith, certainly hinders the progress of the Gospel and the ministry of edification of the members. That’s why we are to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2).
The gravest threat to the spiritual life of the Church – God’s flock – is the internal threat from those who profess to be believers, especially ministers who lead people astray with “perverse” (distorted or corrupt) teachings.
With this article I am beginning a series on what I see as serious internal threats to the spiritual health of the Church in our day.
The first threat is a subtle attack on the Holy Scriptures – The Bible. That is always the first point of attack. The Serpent’s challenge to Eve in the garden was a subtle attack on God’s Word: “Has God said . . .?” Foundational to the Christian faith is the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Paul declared, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (literally, ‘God-breathed’), and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV)
The doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration affirms that the very words of Scripture (verbal) were given by God’s Spirit through the agency of the human authors, that all of Scripture (plenary) is inspired by God, and therefore all of the Bible is inerrant as originally given by God.
Now there have always been those preachers, commentators, and theologians who have denied this truth outright. Their denials come in various forms: Some say that the writers of Scripture were simply recording their experiences with God in their own words, more or less accurately. Others have said that the concepts were inspired by God, but the authors recorded them as best they could in their own words, however fallible. Others have denied any divine inspiration, claiming that the Bible is simply a collection of religious writings, including myths and legends, and should not be read as fact but for inspiration and insight into Hebrews and Christian culture. It’s not difficult to recognize these denials; they’re not subtle. What is happening in evangelical circles today is, indeed, subtle, and therefore dangerous!
The essence of this threat is a diminishing, or outright denial, of the distinct meaning of the words of Scripture. According to certain professors of biblical linguistics, words that have been understood to distinguish various forms of love, righteousness, goodness, forgiveness, etc., are simply stylistic variations of the writers and should not be pressed as to their individual significance. To these scholars, making any distinction – ever, in any context – between agapao (love involving the will) and phileo (a love of affection) is “linguistic nonsense.” Biblical word studies, like R. C. Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament, A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in The New Testament, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, M. R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, and the like, were all useless endeavors. Etymology, the study of the roots and development of word meanings, is likewise, useless since words have no meaning outside their current context.
It is not difficult to see that this notion has serious implications regarding our belief in the verbal inspiration of Scripture. If the words of the Bible, in their original languages, were given by God, howbeit through the agency of the human writers (2 Peter 1:21), are we not to give careful attention to the specific meaning of those words, as well as the context and syntax in which they are found? Don’t words contain a story, a history in themselves? Indeed they do. James Hope Moulton and George Milligan gave the Christian world a marvelous gift in their monumental lexicon, The Vocabulary of the New Testament, in which they trace the usages and development of New Testament Greek words. In the introduction to the 1930 edition, Milligan gives an example of how the “story” behind a word can be very edifying.
In Colossians 2:14, we read that our Lord “blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us,” and the verb used for “blotted out” (exaleipsas) is a technical term for “washing out” the writing from a papyrus sheet.
Normally, a new generation of scholars “stands on the shoulders” of the giants of the past and climbs higher. The tendency in much of biblical scholarship today is to be iconoclastic, to tear down and sweep aside the works and views of great scholars of the past. And as it is with all iconoclasts, the movement is extreme. It is one thing to point out inaccurate conclusions from Greek and Hebrew etymology, but quite another to deprecate the study of etymology altogether!
This devaluation of the importance of the individual words of Scripture undermines the uniqueness of the Bible, and it discourages the average reader from meditating on the very words of Scripture. This new theory of the fluidity of words forms the basis for the new translations based on “dynamic equivalence.” (See blog post: Is What I'm Reading Really God's Word?)
According to the new school of biblical linguistics, words have no meaning apart from their context. I would counter that verbal, plenary inspiration means that God gave all the words of Scripture, and therefore the context also. Certainly, biblical words must be understood in their context. That’s the first rule of biblical interpretation. But words in context still have individual meanings. The semantic range of a word is limited by its context, but its meaning and etymology are not obliterated by the context. Each word brings its accumulated color to the text.
The inspiration and impetus for this new way of thinking about Scripture came from a Scottish scholar named James Barr. His monumental work, The Semantics of Biblical Language, changed the way interpreters and, most importantly, translators thought about the Scriptures. Barr was an outspoken critic of Fundamentalism, Evangelical Conservatism, and Biblical Inerrancy. His book on biblical semantics was published in 1961, and in its wake came a line of Bible translations that expressed what the translators called “dynamic equivalence”. Thanks to Barr, the individual words of Scripture were not important so long as the meaning of the text (as interpreted by the translators) was made clear to modern readers. That meaning can stray so far from the original words of Scripture that it is difficult to recognize the passage. Note the following “translations” of John 6:27:
On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (NIV, TNIV)
For on him God the Father has set the seal of his authority. (REB)
Because God the Father has given him the right to do so. (CEV)
For God the Father has sent me for that very purpose. (NLT)
He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last. (The Message)
The liberties taken in these “dynamically equivalent” translations are what Prof. Leland Ryken calls the “destabilizing of the text.” A reader could not be sure if these quotations, especially the last three, were from the same passage of Scripture.
This all springs from a depreciation of the very words of Scripture. The evangelical scholars involved in this movement would undoubtedly affirm their belief in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, but in their writings, they rarely mention the Holy Spirit’s work in the choice of words in the Bible. Someone has said: “Our beliefs must change our behavior, or sooner or later, our behavior will change our beliefs.” There is a disconnect between the profession of these scholars and their practice. One cannot continue to minimize or ignore the individual inspired words of Scripture and still affirm faith in verbal inspiration. It will not surprise me when some of the prominent names in this movement declare that they have changed their belief and now hold to something akin to concept inspiration. Sadly, it may go virtually unnoticed by most Christians.
In the meantime, I want to know what the Bible says, not what someone tells me it means!