Thursday, September 15, 2011


I've been mulling over whether or not to do a post or two about translation theory, since translations are back in the news. Whether or not I'll get around to it, I'm not sure, but two of my points would be that much of the issue comes down to (a) the meaning of "meaning" and (2) the relationship between "form" and "meaning."

But perhaps I can offer just a thought or two about the word literal. The word is almost unavoidable, but I think we should take pains to use it carefully and rarely. The reason is that it can be used in a number of different ways, and it is quite easy to misunderstand.

Consider the question, "Do you take the Bible literally?"

Many of us would answer, "Yes," because we take the Bible seriously in accord with its varying genres seeking to determine the author's intent; in other words, we don't treat it as a fictional fable with spiritualized lessons. The questioner probably has in mind things like whether Adam and Eve were historical people, whether Jonah was really swallowed by a whale, whether Jesus really walked on water, etc. They are not asking silly things like, "So if Jesus says he's the door, where are his hinges?" They want to know if we understand the details of history and miracles metaphorically.

With regard to translation debates, some people use "literally" to mean translating woodenly. For them, translating "literally" is tantamount to "transcribing" (which is not the same as "translating").

And on the other side of the spectrum, there are well-known pastors who tell their congregations every week that in this passage, the term "X" is "literally, A." In other words, by "literally" they mean lexically.

So when someone asks me if I take the Bible literally, or what this passage means literally, or what the literal meaning of this word is, it's quite difficult to answer until we know how they are using the word. Are they asking about seriousness, the cognitive element of a metaphor, the lexical meaning of a word, etc.

Let me say just one more thing about the idea of saying about a word that it "literally" means X.

What we are seeking in interpretation is an author's communicative intention in using particular words in particular ways in particular contexts. A good lexicon is a helpful too but an artificial construct. It provides readers with a range of words in the receptor language that correspond with, or denote, the term in the source language. But merely looking up term X in the lexicon and seeing the verbal equivalent A does not mean we should say that "X is literally A." It may be that A accurately represents X, but that is not determined by the lexical entry but rather by the context and the way in which the author intends to use the word to communicate his point.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Thieves on the Cross

We all know the story of the two criminals crucified with Jesus on the cross.

The details are relatively sparse. We know that three men were crucified: Jesus the Messiah, with one man on his left, and one man on his right (Luke 23:33).

One of the men--on the left or on the right, we don't know--"railed at" (or reviled) Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).

Little did he know that the only way for Jesus to "save them" was to refuse to "save himself."

But the railing criminal received a surprising response. He was rebuked by his fellow criminal, who responded: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong" (Luke 23:40-41).

He recognized the necessity of fearing God, the reality of his guilt, the justice of his punishment, and the innocence of Jesus. These were all the facts he knew. He then turned to Jesus and cried out, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Mark 15:32: "Those who were crucified with him also reviled him."

39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Poythress blurbs

“Each of Vern Poythress’s books has been, in my judgment, the best book on its particular subject, whether science, hermeneutics, dispensationalism, theological method, gender-neutral Bible translation, or the Mosaic law. Not only are these books expertly researched and cogently argued, but they are explicitly Christian in their starting point, method, and conclusion (to use a phrase of Cornelius Van Til). Poythress does not merely claim that these disciplines allow a place for God, or that a theistic worldview provides useful context, or that engagement in such studies is somehow useful to Christians. Rather, he comes right in your face with the claims of Christ: All of these studies are grounded in the nature and work of the triune God, and nothing can be rightly understood apart from him. God is not merely a possibility, not merely a conclusion, but the starting point for any understanding at all.

“So in the present book on language, Poythress shows that the foundation of human speech is the speech between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so that without God meaningful language would be impossible. He makes this audacious claim, not as a mere preacher but as one who has gained an expert knowledge of linguistics as well as biblical theology. This book is essential for anyone who would pursue an understanding of language. It is also a great help to those who are troubled by contemporary challenges to the very possibility of meaningful communication. And to those who wonder how the word of God can possibly be expressed in human speech, Poythress shows us that without the word of God human speech is impossible.”

John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“If you were to ask me to propose one person to guide me through a thoroughly Christian view of language, Vern Poythress would be my first choice. His detailed knowledge of both the Bible and linguistics, his creative ability to see connections, his determination to be true to God, and his engaging personal manner, all come through in this book. I came away with a fresh appreciation for our creaturely dependence on the triune God, and renewed thankfulness to God for his remarkable gift of language.”

C. John (“Jack”) Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

“This book represents a lifetime of theological thinking about the significance of language: about God’s involvement with language, the nature of language itself from phonemes to literary genres, and the diverse ways humans interact with one another, and with God, through language. Here one finds not only a biblical but a systematic theology of language built on the insight that human language reflects the triune God, sometimes in surprising ways. And, as if thirty-six chapters were not enough, Poythress includes significant appendices analyzing language in postmodernism, translation theory, speech acts, deconstruction, and more. There is nothing like this book on the market!”

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School