I don’t know Greek. In fact it is appalling the depths of my ignorance of Koine Greek. I took the minimum amount of the language I needed to get my degree. Frankly, none of my jobs over the decades (US Navy, mechanical engineer, missionary) required much depth in Greek. I enjoy reading some of the arguments people have over specific exegetical issues in the Bible, but I read them as an outsider to the craft of translation and interpretation.
One of my favorites is the fun around the translation and interpretation of John chapter 1, verse 1. Many of you know this verse. For added fun, I will quote it from the Geneva Bible (1599).
In the beginning was that Word, and that Word was with God, and that Word was God.
The big fight is on the end. There are three major camps (that I know of):
A. … Word was God
B. … Word was a god
C. … Word was divine
The ones who fight most strenuously seem to be those who argue between (A) and (B). Presumably, this is because (C) is the most ambiguous. It is not all that fun to argue from (or against) an ambiguous standpoint. Those in (A) and (B) pull out all sorts of rules of grammar to support their points. Viewpoint (A) is seen as supporting a Trinitarian (monotheistic) view, or perhaps a modalistic view. Viewpoint (B) is seen as supporting a classically Arian view, or perhaps a henotheistic view. I don’t know which viewpoint has a stronger case grammatically; but I don’t really care that much since grammatical rules are established by usage, every bit as much as grammatical rules determine usage. That does not mean that one doesn’t have a stronger case than the other… but certainty can’t really come from grammar. Human language is too sloppy.
In line with that, one can see Moises Silva’s statement in his Commentary on Philippians (Thanks to Ptr. Bruce Felt for pointing out this quote to me):
“The viewpoint adopted in this commentary is that the significance of <aspectual distinctions> for biblical interpretation has been greatly overestimated by most commentators, particularly conservative writers. ..In short, no reasonable Greek author, when wishing to make a substantial point is likely to have depended on his readers’ ability to interpret subtle syntactical distinctions.” (“Philippians”– Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 13)
Silva is saying that an writer, and even more so a Biblical writer is not going to make a strong statement that depends entirely on the the likely hearer or reader having a strong, subtle, nuanced understanding of grammar. The grammar is suggestive only of the intent of the writer… but inadequate.
Besides, “I love a mystery.” That is the name of an old time radio (OTR) program serial. I never cared for it all that much, although even today, there are fans of it. But I enjoy mystery. Let’s look at this passage from the standpoint of mystery.
Viewpoint A. If the Word is God, we are then to struggle that it follows the fact that the Word was with God. How does one reconcile the idea that the Word was God and also with God?
Viewpoint B. If the Word is a god, we struggle in verse 2, where the language labels this “lesser god” with the characteristics of the one and only God described in Genesis 1. And the connection is not irrelevant– the language of of verse 1 is supposed to remind one of Genesis 1. How does one reconcile a lesser god who created all things with a Jewish worldview of monotheism of a single creator God.
Viewpoint C. If the Word is divine, what does that really mean? Verse 1 suggests a secondary god (“with god”) while verse 2 suggests the Word as the one creator God of the Old Testament. How does the descriptor “divine” (God-ish) clarify the tension between verses 1 and 2?
For me, I would suggest a fourth viewpoint (D):
Viewpoint D. The language is intentionally ambiguous to establish a mystery to be solved. The writer starts with the metaphor of the Logos… and gradually leads one to the identification of the Logos through the Greek term Theos to Jesus and the Hebrew idea of the Messiah. Chapter 1 leaves a lot of questions… and the mystery is not answered in this chapter. Rather, it sets the stage for the rest of the book… and comes back full circle to it in the summation:
But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name. -John 20:31
It becomes almost an inclusio– Jesus as Messiah, and Son of God (or God who is with God). The middle of the book helps one wrestle with these designations.
So how does this tie to missions (clearly I am not a Greek scholar)?
Speaking with those from other religions or creeds is challenging. Some seek to approach them with dogmatism. This involves giving people answers. The problem is that answers often are unconvincing. A better option for many is to give people a mystery. Help others wrestle through an issue… rather than tell them what to believe. I know with myself… I may or may not believe what I am told, but that which I have wrestled with becomes part of me.
Mystery is common in the Bible… the narrative stories of the Bible have a lot of unresolved questions… but that leads to great dialogue and that leads to great opportunities to theologize. Some Evangelicals accept the idea that the Bible is a collection of true propositions. I never cared for this belief. But even if it has some truth, it seems more useful to think of the Bible as a collection of important questions and the tools to attain answers.
People don’t learn by being taught. They learn primarily via modelling and discovery. So sharing our faith comes from:
- Living our faith
- Helping others discover
The Book of John is like this. John chapter 1 tells us about who Jesus is… but also establishes mysteries that are to be clarified by the rest of the book. Not a bad idea: Bad dogma comes out of an answer-based orientation. It seems to me that this view lends towards a proof-texting methodology. It seems better to dig deeper and draw wider… and encourage others to do likewise.
Besides, wrestling with mystery can often be a better method for outreach– because many others love mysteries as well.