If Jesus is God, Why is He Called the “Son of God” and “the Firstborn Over All Creation”?

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In my recent post, Was it Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?I mentioned that one of the issues that some people struggle with is regard to the deity of Christ is that the New Testament calls him the “Son of God” and Colossians 1:15 says that he is “the firstborn over all creation.”

If Jesus is God, why is he called the “Son of God”? And if Jesus was not created, as Christians claim, then why is he called “the firstborn over all creation?”

Let’s look at these two questions one at a time:

Why is Jesus Called the Son of God?

The long and short of it is that “Son of God” is a Messianic title, which means that Jesus is the long-awaited, promised king of Israel whom God had promised to send to save the people and set them free in an eternal and ultimate way.

The most important text for understanding this is Psalm 2, which is a “coronation psalm,” meaning it would be read at the coronation of a king. 

It includes this line: I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2:7) This line is quoted and applied to Jesus in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 & 5:5.

Most important is to understand the context of this phrase “Son of God” in reference to the king. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings were considered to have a special relationship with God. In many cases, like in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the king was considered to be deity themselves. Such an idea would be an abomination to the Jews and in complete contradiction to everything their Scriptures said about God. However, they too believed, as we see in Psalm 2 and other “royal psalms” that the king had a special relationship with God.

Thus, the term “son of God” spoke of the king’s special relationship with God, but throughout the Old Testament there is the hope of a true and better king, the one who will establish the throne of David forever and rule over an everlasting kingdom which will have no end (see: the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7). Then though there were many kings of Israel, none of them were the ideal, TRUE KING that God had promised and Israel waited for.

To call Jesus THE Son of God is a reference to him being THE king whom God promised to send to set the people free and save them ultimately and eternally, i.e.: the Messiah.

For more on the meaning of the term “Son of God” check out: What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?, or the related topic: If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself “the Son of Man”? 

Why is Jesus called “the firstborn over all creation”?

Does Colossians 1:15 imply that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated God created? If Jesus is the uncreated God, then why is a term like “firstborn” used of him – I mean, it actually contains the word “born” in it, which implies coming-into-being, does it not?

The word firstborn (prototokos) is also applied to Jesus in Colossians 1:18, Romans 8:29Hebrews 1:6, and Revelation 1:5. In each and every case, when this word is used of Jesus, it refers to supremacy in rank.

All ancient culture had a practice called “primogeniture” – which meant that the firstborn son got all the wealth of the father and he got all the father’s status and power. From a legal standpoint, a firstborn son was equal with the father.

So when this title is used of Jesus, it in no way means that Jesus is less than God, or that he was created by God, rather it refers to supremacy of rank. To say that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation means that he holds the position of primacy over all of creation, i.e.: no one and nothing holds a candle to him; he has all the status and power of the Father and is equal to the Father, although still distinct from the Father. 

Interestingly, John Lightfoot cites Jewish rabbis who sometimes referred to God as “the firstborn of the world,” meaning that God was supreme over all of the world — that there is none higher than him.

How do we know this interpretation of Colossians 1:15 is the correct one? By looking at the verses which immediately follow, which declare Jesus to be the uncreated creator. 

Colossians 1:16-17 say: For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Bible begins by telling us that God created all things, and here it tells us that Jesus created all things. The clear message is that Jesus is God in the same way that the Father is God. He is beginning-less creator, equal to the Father in substance, status and power, and yet distinct from the Father.

Thus, rather than undercutting trinitarian theology, Colossians 1:15-17 undergirds the foundation of trinitarian belief.

Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?

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Advent is the time of year when we think and talk a lot about the incarnation, that event in which God took on human flesh and became one of us in order to save us.

Recently on the Calvary Live call-in show on GraceFM someone called in asking if it is necessary to believe that Jesus was fully God in order to be a Christian. He explained that he believes that Jesus was fully human, but not fully God.

Arianism: A Brief Background

Without knowing the name for it, he described his beliefs, which were basically Arianism: a belief popularized in the early 300’s by a man named Arius, who taught that – contrary to the generally-held Christian belief, Jesus was not fully God in the same way that the Father is God, but that he was a special created being, whom God created in order to bring about salvation for human beings. Arius was afraid that by saying that Jesus was God, Christians were slipping into polytheism, and that in Colossians where it says that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), it means that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated Father created.

Arius’ beliefs were condemned as unbiblical and incorrect at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the church, which gave birth to the Nicene Creed, asserting that Jesus was of one substance (ousia) with the Father and that Jesus is “very God of very God”, leaving no ambiguity whatsoever that Christians unanimously believe that Jesus is in fact God.

(For more on Arius, Nicaea and St. Nicholas of Myra, check out: Taking Back the Story of Saint Nicholas)

But still… why is it important that we believe Jesus is God?

Is it just because that’s who Jesus is and who God has revealed him to be (ontological/revelatory reason)?  – OR – was it actually necessary for our salvation that Jesus be God (soteriological reason)?

Nicaea dealt with the ontological and revelatory side of this question, but my caller on the radio show asked the latter question: is there a soteriological reason why Jesus had to be God in order to save us?

My immediate answer was to point him to Romans 8:1-4, which says that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s righteous requirements on our behalf. In other words: Jesus lived the perfect life that I should have lived, and the good news of the gospel is that he then offers his perfect record to me. Jesus, having been the only human not born of the seed of a man – other than Adam – becomes the “new Adam”, who then fully obeys God whereas Adam disobeyed and sinned (see Romans 5:12-21 or listen to Who is Your Champion?)

He then asked, “Couldn’t God have created a perfect being, without a sin nature, in order to do that work of fulfilling God’s righteous requirements on our behalf in order to save us?”

Here’s Why Jesus Had to Be “Very God of Very God” in Order to Save Us:

The Scots Confession of 1560 addressed this issue directly. The answer it gave is that the full reality of Christ’s deity is essential for salvation because salvation must be an act of God, or else it is not salvation. The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

Karl Barth explained that the full deity of Christ is essential because it is only God who can forgive sins. He refers to Mark 2:7, ‘who can forgive sins but God alone?’ It is equally necessary for atonement, Barth pointed out, that the one who makes amends for sin is human. 

Salvation, in other words, is an act of God, but an act that must be done from within humanity – thus Jesus had to be fully God and fully man in order to save us.

The whole of our salvation depends on the fact that it is God in Christ who suffers and bears the sin of the world, and reconciles the world to himself.

T.F. Torrance discusses the terrible implications of denying the full deity of Christ:

If the deity of Christ is denied, then the cross becomes a terrible monstrosity. If Jesus Christ is man only and not also God then we lose faith in God, because how could we believe in a God who allows the best man that ever lived to be put to death on the cross? If you put Jesus Christ as a mere man on the cross and put God in Heaven like some distant god imprisoned in his own lonely abstract deity, such a god is monstrously unconcerned with our life as he does not lift a finger to help Jesus.

The validity of our salvation depends on the fact that he who died on the cross under divine judgement is also God the judge, so that he who forgives is also he who judges.

Thanks be to God for what He has done for us by becoming one of us!

“Heap Burning Coals on Their Head” – What Does That Mean?

Every week, Mike and I sit down in front of the camera to film a sermon-extra: a further discussion about the text we studied at White Fields on Sunday.

You can find those videos on the WhiteFields YouTube channel and Facebook page, or you can get the audio on SoundCloud. Check those out and subscribe so you can get keep up with those discussions and content.

Here’s this week’s video in which we discuss the somewhat confusing phrase in Romans 12:20 – “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head”:

Christian Truth is in the Service of Christian Love

In the introduction to his book First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes this, which is worthy of a devotional thought for today:

Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

This one thing I know: there is no more vital task facing Christians today than responding faithfully to Scripture as God’s authoritative speech acts — not because the book is holy but because the Lord is, and because the Bible is his Word, the chief means we have of coming to know Jesus Christ.

Those who interpret the Bible rightly — those who look and live along the text, following the written words to the living Word — will have rightly ordered loves and rightly ordered lives. The apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to either his first theology or his first love: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, & Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2002), 40-41

What is Dual-Covenant Theology and What Does it Mean that “All Israel will be saved”?

Romans 11:26 makes an interesting statement, which has led to much confusion and debate:

“And in this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:26a)

Context

As we’ve been studying through Romans at White Fields on Sunday mornings, we have come to chapters 9-11, which deal with questions concerning Israel, such as: Has God forsaken Israel? Since the Old Testament contains many promises to the nation of Israel, are those promises no longer valid? How do we make sense of the fact that many Jews have  rejected Jesus as Messiah – and that most Christians are not ethnically Jewish?

In answering these questions, Paul is quick to assert that, No, God’s word has not failed in regard to Israel (Romans 9:6), nor has God forsaken Israel (Romans 11:1).

Paul explains Jewish unbelief in two important ways:

  1. The remnant argument: “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” (Romans 9:4), & “And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved'” (Romans 9:27).
    Additionally, it is understood that many who are not ethnically Jewish will be added to the “chosen people of God” – As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9:25-26)
  2. The responsibility argument: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)

Dual-Covenant Theology?

In an attempt to explain this idea that “all Israel will be saved”, some have adopted a dual-covenant theology, which basically says that the Jews are going to be saved under the old covenant (law), but Gentiles are saved under the new covenant (Jesus, grace).

The problem with dual-covenant theology is that it goes against everything Paul has been teaching in Romans, and what the rest of the Bible teaches: that Jesus is the only way of salvation for all people, both for Jews and Gentiles (i.e. everyone in the world).

John Stott writes this:

There is no hint of a special way of salvation for the Jews which dispenses with faith in Christ. It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism. So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God’s covenant with Abraham was an ‘everlasting covenant’, they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus. This proposal is usually called a ‘two-covenant theology’.

Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it,47 namely that there are two different salvation ‘tracks’—the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God’s covenant with them. Professor Dunn is surely right to reject this as ‘a false and quite unnecessary antithesis’.

Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jewish and Gentile believers both belong. Jewish people ‘will be grafted in’ again ‘if they do not persist in unbelief’. So faith in Jesus is essential for them. Whether or not Dr Tom Wright is correct in the notion of ‘a large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’, his emphasis on present evangelism (‘now’, three times in verses 30 and 31) is healthy: ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith.’

The two-covenant theology also has the disastrous effect of perpetuating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles which Jesus Christ has abolished. ‘The irony of this’, writes Tom Wright, ‘is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.’ ‘It would be quite intolerable to imagine a church at any period which was simply a Gentile phenomenon’ or ‘consisted only of Jews’.

Stott, John. The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 304-305). InterVarsity Press.

If not dual-covenant theology, then how will “all Israel” be saved?

Since Paul has made it clear that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel,” i.e. not every ethnically Jewish person is part of Israel, i.e. the remnant of God’s chosen people who will be saved – and that additionally, many non-ethnically Jewish people will be grafted into the “olive tree” (Israel) as “wild branches”, from which many “natural branches” have been cut off (Romans 11:17-24), it is in this way that we understand that “all Israel” (the remnant of believing Israel) will be saved, along with the “fullness of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25) who will be “grafted in”.

Here’s a short video discussion we had about this topic this week:

An Antinomy, Not a Contradiction

In our study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans at White Fields, we have recently been looking at chapters 8, 9 and 10 which talk about divine election, predestination and how those relate to human responsibility. What these chapters teach is that God is sovereign over all things, and yet we are responsible for our actions.

In theological terms, this is called an “antinomy.” As opposed to a contradiction, antinomy refers to the tension between two things which seem at odds, but are yet both true at the same time. Antinomy is not to be confused with antinomianism (a rejection of, and even antagonism towards the moral commandments, rules and obligations which the Bible lays out. For more on antinomianism read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer)

John Stott writes that “few preachers have maintained this antinomy better than Charles Simeon of Cambridge, who said:

‘When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, I give myself up to that.’ “

To illustrate this antinomy, Simeon borrowed an illustration from the Industrial Revolution:

‘As wheels in a complicated machine may move in opposite directions and yet subserve a common end, so may truths apparently opposite be perfectly reconcilable with each other, and equally subserve the purposes of God in the accomplishment of man’s salvation.’

Here is a short video we recorded in follow-up to a sermon which touched on the topics of predestination and election:

Discipleship is a Direction

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Recently I posted some things I had learned from a book I read called No Silver Bullets by Daniel Im. (Read that post here: “Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity”)

Last week I was in California attending the CGN Pastors and Leaders Conference at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, and Daniel Im was there speaking about some of the topics covered in his book.

By the way, recordings of the messages and panel discussions from the conference are available here. I thought the panel discussion on current issues in theology was particularly good.

One of the things Daniel wrote about in his book and talked about at the conference is the idea that discipleship is a direction, rather than a destination. While there is an ultimate destination to our discipleship: experiencing the glory of God in the fullness of His Kingdom forever, as long as we are here on this Earth, being a disciple of Jesus is about direction, not destination.

  • A destination is a place you can arrive at. Once you’re there, then you’ve arrived.
  • A direction implies active and sustained movement towards something.

What is the measure of maturity?

What is it that makes a Christian disciple “mature”?

Consider this: in the Bible, we read about many people who encountered Jesus, from ultra-religious pharisees to prostitutes, extortioners and even thieves.

If the measure of spiritual maturity is simply knowledge or religious observance, then it’s no question: the pharisees were more mature. They knew more about the Bible and their record of religious observance was spotless. The only problem was: the pharisees were far from God in their hearts. (Mark 7:6 – “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me).

On the other hand, you have people like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), an extortioner who hasn’t got everything in his life sorted out, but he’s changed directions and is moving towards Jesus even though he’s just now at the beginning of his journey.

Who is the greater disciple? The answer is: Zacchaeus, because he is moving towards Jesus, as opposed to the pharisee who isn’t.

The implications of viewing discipleship in this way

Viewing discipleship as direction rather than a destination has profound implications. It means that you don’t become a disciple by successfully learning a block of material or completing a discipleship workbook or 4-part class. Rather discipleship is an ongoing process.

Unlike justification, which is an outside, definitive, unchanging status that is bestowed on a believer by God, discipleship by definition implies sustained movement. So, if at one point in your life you were passionately seeking God and following Jesus, but are not currently doing so, your past discipleship doesn’t make up for your current posture. Knowledge, longevity nor familiarity equate to having “arrived” as a disciple, in other words. Discipleship is about direction.

A Case Study: the Cussing Christian

When I was pastoring in Hungary, we had a young woman come to our church. She had grown up in an atheist family and her father was a musician. She was a bohemian herself. At our church, she heard the gospel, and she received it – and immediately she began to grow and change. She was at every Bible study, taking copious notes, so hungry to know God and understand His Word and His will for her life. She was all-in, whole-heartedly following Jesus and asked to be baptized.

She also cussed like a sailor. My wife and I learned some new Hungarian words from her… You see, we were fluent in Hungarian, but being in church settings, there were certain “colorful” words, which we had never been exposed to. That all changed when this woman came around. Every Wednesday, after Bible study, there was a time for people to ask questions and then we would pray together. She would often have questions or comments, a praise report or a prayer request – and as she would speak, we’d hear her say some words which didn’t recognize, and then we’d watch as the others in the group grimaced from the words she chose to use. Quickly, we learned what those words meant.

Although we didn’t love the fact that she was using this language, we were happy to see the change in her heart and in her life and her obvious love for Jesus. This was how she had talked before she came to know the Lord, and we trusted that the Holy Spirit would do the work of sanctification, and as she followed Jesus, she would be transformed in every area, including this one.

One day a middle-aged woman from the church approached me. She was angry that we allowed this woman to come to our church and be baptized, considering that she used foul language. This middle-aged woman had been raised in a Christian home, but had a penchant for gossiping about others and slandering them. Unlike with the young woman, I had not witnessed any of the fruits of the spirit in this middle-aged woman’s life, but instead had distinctly seen judgmental and legalistic tendencies.

Which of these two women was the greater disciple? Clearly the older woman knew more about the Bible and had been a Christian longer, but if discipleship is a direction, then the answer is: the younger woman.

What direction are you moving in?

If discipleship is about active, sustained direction, what direction are you moving in? Have you perhaps stagnated?

The good news is, you can change direction. That’s what the word “repentance” means: to change direction.

That was, after all, the first message Jesus preached: “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Change directions, whatever you’ve been pursuing, running after – instead, change directions and follow me.

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

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In this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, in Part 1 we looked first at translation theory in general and some basic guidelines for choosing a translation, and in Part 2 we looked at the King James Version specifically. Here in Part 3, we will be looking at the question of gender inclusive language and how it relates to the New International Version.

The “Nearly Inspired Version”?

During my undergraduate studies, I had to learn Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, and our final project was to translate 1 John and then analyze other translations based on our reading and translation of the Greek text. For my analysis, I chose the NKJV, the NIV and the Message.

I had heard people joke that the NIV stood for “Nearly Inspired Version” or the “New Inferior Version,” so I was curious to see how it stood up under scrutiny. Much to my surprise, the NIV was much more literal and accurate than I had expected. The Message, however, does not qualify as a translation at all, in my opinion, but is rather a commentary – as in it, one person (Eugene Peterson) gives his interpretation of what he deems the text to mean, not what it says.

Side note: any translation that is made by one person should be suspect, especially when that person is pushing a particular agenda, as in the case of the Passion Translation.

A Case Study: Hebrews 11:6

Some of the main criticisms that are leveled at the NIV, are that it waters down the meaning of the text, and that it imposes gender inclusive language on the text. This week on Calvary Live, the call-in radio show that I host on Mondays, one caller pointed out Hebrews 11:6 as an example of this. Let’s take this as a case study to see if there’s any validity to it.

  • NIV: And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
  • KJV: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
  • Greek: χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι, πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται.

Here’s my hyper-literal translation of the Greek text:

Without but faith impossible to please (a direct object), believe (a direct object) because must he who comes to God that (object) exists and those who seek him [he] rewards.

So, which translation is more accurate? Both are good translations which convey not only what the words say, but what they mean.

Gender-Inclusive Language

As can be seen in the example above, the NIV tries to use gender-inclusive language when possible. The word προσερχόμενον – means “he who comes” and is in the male singular accusative case. Yet the NIV translates this with the gender-neutral “anyone who comes.”

The question is whether this accurately reflects the meaning of the text or whether it is imposing a modern bias towards gender inclusivity upon the text.

In academic writing today, gender-inclusive language is required whenever possible, including moving away from terms like “mankind” in favor of “humankind,” and “every man” to “everyone.”

In some cases, this is warranted and more accurately reflects the author’s intent. For example: Colossians 1:28 in the NASB says: “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ.”
Paul is clearly speaking about “every human being,” not only about males. So most modern translations translate it: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
In this case, gender-inclusive language more clearly communicates what Paul was saying.

Another example worth considering is Leviticus 24:15. NASB: “If anyone curses his God, then he will bear his sin,” versus the NIV: “Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible.”
In this case, it is not only gender-inclusive language, but a removal of the concept of “bearing one’s sins” being rephrased as “being held responsible.” While the latter may justifiably be called a “watering down” of the text, since the word “sin” is in the original text, the gender-inclusive language could be justified in the sense that this law did not only apply to men but to men and women.

The NIV does not go as far as some other translations when it comes to gender-inclusive language, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible which replaces the often-used “Brethren” with “Brothers and sisters.” Again, it could be argued that this is still appropriate in that it conveys the fact that the people being addressed are both men and women.

However, there are other examples of gender-inclusive language which do actually have theological implications, and therefore are inappropriate impositions on the text. Examples of this would be replacing the masculine “Father” with “Parent”, or “sons of God” with “children of God.” In the case of “sons” versus “children,” there were very specific differences in the way that sons specifically were treated in ancient society regarding rights and inheritance. Whether this was fair or not, that understanding is built into the use of the term “son” as opposed to children in general, and therefore has direct theological implications. The same is true of the masculine pronouns and terms used consistently throughout the Bible for God. To change these is actually to change the meaning of God’s revelation of Himself in the Scriptures.

To those who may feel that it is odd for a female to consider herself a “son of God,” it should be noted that men are similarly included in the feminine term “bride of Christ.” These terms paint pictures by making allusions and parallels to things which are diminished by disregarding the gender-specificity of “son” and “bride”.

There and Back Again

The NIV has dabbled in varying levels of gender-inclusive language, including a 1997 Inclusive Language Edition, which was only released in the UK, but quickly discontinued.  In the early 2000’s, the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) was released, which included changes such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God.” However, the TNIV was also discontinued, and the most recent update to the NIV (2011) actually reinstated some of the gender-specific language which had been removed in the TNIV, because of recognition of the theological importance of the gender-specifity of those terms.

Conclusion

While I don’t think the NIV is the best translation available, I don’t think it’s the worst either. As we have seen, some gender-inclusive language may be justified and warranted. The question is whether gender-inclusive language is being introduced because of cultural pressure or by a desire to accurately translate and convey the meaning of a text.

Even the best translation, however, won’t benefit you if you don’t read it. So, go do that!

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible

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In Part 1 of this mini-series on Making Sense of Different Bible Translations, we looked at the fundamentals of how Bible translation is done, why so many translations exist and some guidelines for choosing a good translation.

Here in Part 2, we will be looking at the King James Version (KJV) specifically. In Part 3, we will look at the New International Version (NIV) and the question of gender-inclusive language.

When it comes to the King James Version of the Bible, some people feel very strongly that it is the only Bible that English speakers should use. Why is that, and is that a good position to hold? Let’s consider the main issues at stake in this discussion:

Manuscripts: Textus Receptus

The King James Version was translated based on a collection of Greek New Testament manuscripts called the Textus Receptus (Received Text). The Textus Receptus was compiled in the 1500’s by Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam, a Catholic priest and humanist.

Although he was a humanist and his work played a significant role in the Reformation, by putting the Word of God back into the hands of the people, Erasmus remained loyal to the pope. Martin Luther disputed with Erasmus over theology, which you can read more about here.

There are two kinds of KJV adherents: those who trust the Textus Receptus, and those who trust the KJV itself.

As discussed in Part 1, the Bible doesn’t change, but language does. As a result, new translations of the Textus Receptus have been done, most notably the New King James Version (NKJV), which also uses the Textus Receptus as its basis, but which translates it into modern English. Those who are trust in the Textus Receptus are happy to use the NKJV and other translations of the Textus Receptus which use current rather than archaic English, such as KJ21 and MEV.

However, there are some KJV Only loyalists who reject any translation other than the original KJV, showing that they are not loyal to the Textus Receptus, but to the KJV itself. This brings up several problems:

KJV Only Problem #1: Which King James Version?

The King James Bible has undergone three revisions since its first publication in 1611, which updated the spelling and use of many words – in order to make them more comprehensible in the common language of the people. If you buy a KJV Bible today, you will be getting the 1769 version, unless you go out of your way to get a 1611. So the question for KJV loyalists is: which KJV are you loyal to? If you accept the 1769 (which is almost all KJV’s available for sale today), then you are dealing with what was essentially the NEW King James Version of the 18th century. There seems no reason in this case then to reject the New King James Version of the 20th century either.

KJV Only Problem #2: What About Other Languages?

As a missionary in Hungary, I remember times when people would come from America to serve at our youth camp, and they would bring English KJV Bibles to give out to the kids… Hungarian kids, who not only don’t speak English, but who certainly don’t understand Shakespearean English from the 1600’s. I have heard stories of American churches buying boxes of KJV Bibles to send to orphanages in Mexico.

Do people need to learn English, and specifically archaic English, in order to read and understand the Word of God?

Other languages have translations of the Textus Receptus which predate the KJV, including the German Luther Bible (1522) the  the Spanish Reina translation (1569), and the Hungarian Vizsoly Bible (1590).

Furthermore, when the KJV was first introduced in 1611, it was criticized for being too easy to understand, because it was written in the common language of the people at that time. When the Bible is translated for the first time into a new language today, it is translated into the language the cultures speaks today, not the way they spoke 400 years ago.

Thus, it seems unreasonable to be loyal to the KJV itself, rather than the Textus Receptus. Next, let’s look at the Textus Receptus:

Is the Textus Receptus the best manuscript of the New Testament?

Since Erasmus assembled the Textus Receptus in the early 1500’s, many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered which are older and more accurate than the manuscripts in the Textus Receptus. What these manuscripts show is that the later Textus Receptus manuscripts contained several additions to the text, which were not present in the older manuscripts.

It should be noted: none of these “textual variants” have any significance for Christian theology. They were added, it seems, as forms of commentary, or to help bring clarity – but they seem to have been added nonetheless.

Do Newer Translations Remove Verses?

As explained in the section above, the Textus Receptus includes some verses which older manuscripts show us were later additions to the text by zealous scribes who were trying to help, but which were not a part of the original manuscripts.

So, rather than newer translations “removing verses”, what you actually have is that the KJV (or the Textus Receptus, rather) has added verses to the Bible – something which is also forbidden by Revelation 22:18-19.

See: On Those Missing Verses and Why are newer translations of the Bible missing verses?

Both the KJV and more modern translations are upfront about these facts. The KJV indicates words which have been added for clarity by using italics, and newer translations use brackets or footnotes to show places where the Textus Receptus includes text which is not found in the oldest manuscripts.

Landing the Plane

Our loyalties as Christians should be the original texts of the Old and New Testaments, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, not to any particular translation of those words which God inspired. It is often helpful to look at several translations in order to get a full understanding of the meaning of a text.

Further reading: The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White

Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1

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It has been said that the best Bible translation is the one you will read. It’s true: the point is for you to read and understand God’s message to you. The best translation in the world won’t profit you anything if you don’t actually read it.

However, what if you’ve moved past that point – and you are reading the Bible? What are the differences between various translations, and how should you go about choosing the right one?

According to the American Bible Society, since William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English in 1526, about 900 English translations of the Bible have been published.1 Why so many – and what are the differences between them?

The Bible doesn’t change with time, but language does.

Language is something that is constantly in flux. Language uses sounds and symbols to refer to unchanging realities, but the words we use to refer to those realities do change over time. For example, the word gay has a different meaning in the modern vernacular than it did 100 years ago. The word Awful, in the past meant “awe inspiring” – but in modern English it no longer means that.

Another example is the word Terrible. In the King James Bible, this word is used many times, e.g. Psalm 47:2 – “For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.”
The word Terrible used to have the meaning of our modern Awesome, which is why more modern translations translate this verse: “For the LORD Most High is awesome.” The word Terrible has come to have an expressly negative or pejorative meaning.

One of the reasons for newer translations is not to change the Bible, but because languages change over time. (Further reading: “What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?”)

The Tension of Translation

I am bilingual; I speak Hungarian fluently and occasionally work professionally as a translator and interpreter. Anyone who is bilingual will tell you that there is an inherent tension in translating or interpreting between simply translating the words someone said and conveying the meaning of what they said.

For example, in Hungarian there is a term: Zsákbamacska. It literally means: “a cat in a bag,” but what it means is to trick someone, promising them one thing and then giving them an unwanted surprise. In English, we would call that: “pulling a fast one” – or “a switcheroo.”
Furthermore, in English, we do have a colloquialism about a cat in a bag; we say: “Don’t let the cat out of the bag,” or “she let the cat out of the bag” – which means to reveal something earlier than it was meant to be revealed.

In other words, it is possible to translate that phrase directly, but to do so would actually convey something different than what the original writer or speaker had intended to convey. To actually be accurate, you must translate the meaning of the term, not just its words. However, if you only translate meaning and ideas, some of the power of the language will be lost, because particular words conjure pictures (like a cat in a bag), which are rich with insinuations, allusions and other communicative forces.

The ideal translation of any text or speech from one language to another does both, and it is a very difficult balance to reach.

Remember: every translation is inevitably an interpretation.

Because of the nature of language, it is impossible to translate something in a purely clinical, sterile way without getting your “fingerprints” on it.

For example, if in the source language there is a word for which there are two words in the target language, then the translator must decipher which word best matches the meaning they discern the speaker/writer to intend.

For example, in Greek there is one word: pisteuo – for which we have two words in English: faith or belief. There is a difference between faith and belief in English, but not in Greek. Conversely, in Greek there are four words for love, whereas there is only one in English; so if you tell someone you love them in English, in order to translate that into Greek, the translator must interpret what you meant: Do you love this person as a brother/sister? Do you love them romantically? Do you merely feel an empathetic bond to them?

All translations are inevitably interpretations, which is why it matters who translated your Bible and what their underlying theological beliefs and assumptions were.

Some Comparisons for Consideration

All translations fall on the word-for-word and idea-for-idea continuum.

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I personally use and recommend the ESV and the NASB. After those, I would consider the NKJV and the NIV. I will explain my reservations about the NKJV in part 2 of this post, as well as answering some common assumptions about the NIV – however, both can be avoided by choosing the ESV or NASB 🙂

The reason I prefer these translations is because they are more literal translations – meaning that they attempt to translate word-by-word as much as possible, rather than paraphrasing the basic idea in modern vernacular. For example: the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:4 ESV) is interpreted as “those who do right for the right reasons” in the CEV.

I prefer more literal translations because I believe that the very words, not just the ideas of Scripture were inspired by God and are thus very important. Much of the theological richness of certain words or metaphors inevitably tends to get washed out in a thought-by-thought translation, even if that is not intended.

The ideal translation is one which accurately translates the original text, but yet is readable. This is a difficult balance to strike, which is why there are so many translations out there – and why I choose the ESV, because it does both well.

Here is a comparison from Romans 3:24:

  • (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
  • (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
  • (Message) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

Every translation is an interpretation, but at what point does an interpretation become a commentary?

Notice the word “justified”, which has enormous theological implications, appears in the more literal translations, whereas in the thought-by-thought translations they take the liberty of explaining what the word “justification” means (or at least what they understand it to mean). That explanation may seem nice, but by doing so, they are crossing the line from being translations to being commentaries. The Message in particular, should not be considered a translation, but rather a commentary, as it is focused on explaining ideas and concepts rather than translating the original text into English.

Click here to read Part 2 of this article, where I look at the King James Version specifically.