P A S T O R ‘ S   B L O G

In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths. – Proverbs 3:6

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Description and Prescription

There is a big difference between two similar words: description and prescription. When we have a sore back, for example, the doctor, after doing all the necessary tests, describes the problem by saying that an injury from years ago has caused deterioration in one of the disks, and that is what is causing the pain. A description often leads to a prescription: surgery will most probably correct the problem. We have little problem differentiating between description and prescription, especially when it comes to our health.

When it comes to how we use the Bible, however, we seem to have more trouble. When reading the Bible, we have to ask ourselves if what we are reading is description or prescription. For example, we read numerous times that the Israelites went to battle against neighbouring nations, often taking over their territory, confiscating their possessions and making them slaves. Some, when they read these stories, which are entirely description, want to make them prescriptive. During the time of the crusades, about 1000 years ago, these descriptive passages were used by church leaders to rally the people, and thousands joined ragtag armies to go and “liberate” Jerusalem from the “infidels.” Not only were people misled in their quest to Christianize Jerusalem, but on the way, sadly, they also killed many innocent people, causing great harm to the name of Christ and of Christianity in general. This is one example of making biblical description in prescription, and there are many, many more.

The Bible is not only descriptive; it also contains prescriptive passages. The 10 Commandments, for example, are prescriptive. They prescribe a certain kind of behaviour, one that Jesus says is rooted in love for God and neighbour. Paul’s letter, likewise, are full of prescription, calling us to live in a way that is worthy of the calling we have received.

When we read the Bible, there are two pitfalls we must avoid. As was already mentioned, when we confuse description for prescription, we run into serious problems, for we tend toward randomness. One rather common example is the current trend to base diets on food described in the Bible, calling it a biblical diet. This is random, for seldom do we see people using biblical descriptions of transportation or battle armaments as prescriptive. We don’t go to battle with spears and swords or walk or ride donkeys because we say that these are better because they are described in the Bible. Even more dangerous is to take someone’s actions as prescriptive. We may emulate David as he writes and plays music that honours the Lord, but do we follow him as he and his men annihilate entire villages so that no one remains who can say who led the attack? If we make descriptive passages prescriptive, we must do so consistently, and we will find that to be impossible.

A second error which we must avoid is making prescriptive for them prescriptive for us. As an example, the Bible says that the Israelites may not mix two kinds of thread together as they weave cloth for a garment. That is prescriptive for them, but if we make it prescriptive for us, most of us are sinning at this very moment, for almost all of our clothing is made up of a combination of fibres. We end up becoming random in our choice of which prescriptions we will obey because we tend to focus on some and ignore all the rest. Another prescription which we have ignored completely is “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” a command that appears several times in Paul’s letters. I haven’t seen that happen lately, not even in the council room on a Sunday morning, although we do shake hands.

When thinking about a prescriptive passage, we always need to ask the question, “To whom is this addressed, and what is the situation that it is addressing?” Further, we must ask, “Is this prescription meant to be universal or situational?” It is not always easy to find the right answer, although some helpful attempts have been made. For example, many people will say that we can divide the various commands (prescriptions) in the Old Testament into three categories: religious, civil, and moral. They go on to say that religious commands have been fulfilled in Christ (sacrifices, etc.), that civil commands are only for the nation of Israel (boundary stones, etc.) but that moral commands (don’t murder) are still in force. It is convenient to differentiate biblical prescriptions in this way, but it is also artificial, for the Bible does not recognize or practice this.

The best way to determine whether a prescription is still in force is to seek to understand it in its context and determine its force for the people then. For example, greeting one another with a holy kiss is a way of expressing unity, something that we can replace with a handshake. Commands about dress (women wearing head coverings or men having short hair – Jesus probably had short hair) also have some cultural background, and we must make sure that we understand as completely as possible the reason these commands were given in that culture and place before we apply them universally to all people. This does take some hard work and careful research, recognizing that while we can gain insight into most of the prescriptions in the Bible, we cannot into all of them. We simply are too removed from that culture and place.

So, to summarize, we should never make descriptive passages into prescription for us. That is a blatant misuse of Scripture and can create all sorts of problems. And second, when the Bible prescribes something, we must be careful that we understand fully what the force of scope of the command is before we apply it to our situation. All of this requires serious Bible study, something that we should always be ready to do.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Six Degrees of Separation

The phrase, “six degrees of separation,” was coined in the early part of the last century and is based on the idea that we can socially connect ourselves to any other person in the world through a series of about six relationships. For example, the theory states that any of us might be able to connect ourselves to the Prime Minister of Australia through a series of relatives, friends, neighbours, or colleagues. Each relationship has to be two-way, meaning that both persons have to be able to identify each other. Thus, I cannot use King Charles as a connection because I suspect he doesn’t know who I am. Studies have been done recently that support this theory, saying that it is most probable that a farmer living in a remote area of Southern Alberta can be connected to a Buddhist monk living in a remote region of Tibet through a series of a mere six relationship connections.

Because we are so interconnected, perhaps instead of using the phrase “six degrees of separation” we should replace it with “six degrees of closeness or interconnectedness.” We are closer to each other than we might think.

Perhaps we are even closer to each other today even with our rapidly growing world population than we were 100 years ago when the world population was just a fraction of what it is today. In the last century or so, the migration of people from across vast distances has become quite common. Even in a village like Nobleford we can run into people from several continents, Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, for example, who have immigrated to Canada in recent years. They connect us immediately to their homes, decreasing the number of steps needed to connect ourselves to people in distant lands. So, while we may not know the person in China who built our smart phone or have any idea who the Vietnamese person was who sewed together the parts of the shirt we are wearing, we can be rather certain that somehow we are connected to them with as few as six relationships.

This is interesting information, and for those of us who love finding connections between people, it can even be rather thrilling to think that there is a network of relationships which join every single person in the world to everyone else. But there is another side and that is one that asks what our responsibility is to others. We want our friends to do well. We also hope that the friends of our friends do well as well, even if we don’t know them. If a friend of a friend has financial needs because of an illness, we might contribute a few dollars to support them. It is the right thing to do after all. But what about a friend of a friend of a friend? Do we want them to thrive as well? Where may we stop? Is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of friend of a friend too distant? That is how close the most distant person in the world is to us. Do we feel any sort of responsibility to them? Should we be concerned about their needs? Should we offer to help because we are connected to them?

When Scripture teaches us to love our neighbours, it is easy to limit that love to those who are in close physical proximity to us. In other words, our neighbours are only those who we know personally. Jesus had other ideas. When he was asked who he considered our neighbours to be, he told the story of the Good Samaritan. To fully understand that story, we need to know that not only did the Jews dislike the Samaritans, but that Samaritans had every reason to dislike the Jews. The Jewish people had done much to harm the Samaritans. They surrounded the region of Samaria with Galilee to the north and Judea to the south, thus potentially limiting trade and access to resources. They would not develop friendships with Samaritans, avoiding them whenever possible. And, sadly, Jews would not allow Samaritans to come close to God, excluding them from the temple even when the Samaritans claimed to (and did) worship the same God. When the Samaritans built their own temple a couple of centuries before Jesus walked this earth, the Jews attacked it and tore it down. The Samaritans had every right to dislike the Jews and even desire the worst for them. Yet, as Jesus tells the story, this unknown Samaritan man helped the injured man (most likely a Jew, for this was Jewish territory) by tending to him and paying for his ongoing care. While both Jews and Samaritans worked hard at keeping themselves separate from each other, this Samaritan saw the injured man to be his neighbour, and he did whatever it took to care for him. In telling this story Jesus widened the definition of “neighbour” to include everyone within it even when there is no direct connection. Our interconnectedness serves to reinforce the relationships we have with each other and thus moves us to accept responsibility for each other. Every other person on this planet is our neighbour and therefore we are obligated to show our concern for them.

Thankfully, many Christians have shown a deep concern for our neighbours. One of the biggest problems facing the vast majority of people who struggle is the lack of opportunity. Large western corporations pretend to bring opportunity to the developing world by moving their manufacturing facilities there, but the opportunities they provide often involve long hours, low pay, and poor and unsafe working conditions and tend to profit the corporation and not the worker. On the other hand, Christians have found ways to provide opportunities which have a lasting impact and profound impact on others. For example, I know someone who was involved with an organization called “Farmer to Farmer,” in which farmers from the West shared some of their expertise with struggling farmers, often providing them with small operating loans so that they could improve their buildings and buy equipment. As the loan was repaid, that money, in turn, was loaned to other farmers. Unlike some “helping” which is nothing more than a handout, Farmer to Farmer helped by giving opportunities, and over time, the farmers began to thrive. These efforts often take a lot of time to bear fruit, but when they do it is generally fruit that will last.

The beautiful thing about becoming involved in the lives of others is that the six degrees of separation becomes a personal connection as the farmers came to know each other through personal interaction. Not all of us can develop a personal connection with someone who is six degrees away, but we can certainly support those who do. Even one degree of separation is better than six. The positive side to loving our neighbours is that the separation between us and our six-degree separated neighbour is closed, and we become a close community. For me, as a person who loves finding connections, being able to cut down the six degrees of separation to one or two degrees of closeness is a foretaste of heaven. Being able to do that by loving our neighbour, no matter how distant, is not only a obligation and calling; it is a pleasure and privilege.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Bible Translations

Recently someone asked me what version of the Bible is the best translation. We have the New International Version in our church pews and on the overhead, but the translation we use is not the latest NIV. The one we use was published in 1984 while the most current version of the NIV was published in 2011, for it was felt that an update in the translation was needed. In addition to the NIV, we have multiple translations available to us that are all different from each other. How can we know which one we should use? There are several things we should consider when choosing a translation.

First, we must consider the text of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek). Since the original manuscripts have not survived, all we are left with are copies (and often copies of copies of copies). Thankfully, we have many copies from various places allowing scholars to compare the variety of variant readings and make very careful decisions about which readings are the most likely to have been the original. Variant readings do not often change the core meaning of the text, but it is important to get as close as possible to the words that the biblical authors used. Thankfully, because of centuries of good scholarly work, we can be confident that the texts we now use in the original languages are reliable. Nevertheless, some versions of the Bible rely on older, less reliable manuscripts. (The King James Version is one of those versions, having been produced in 1611 at a time when access to the best original language texts was not yet available, but even that text is reliable enough to give us no reason for concern.)

The work of ensuring that we have an accurate original language text continues and while we can anticipate some minor change, we can be assured that what we have is faithful to the original. That being said, translators have to make sure that they understand the original language and make themselves aware of the different meanings and nuances of a word. Some Hebrew and Greek words have different meanings, depending on the context. English is the same, for the sentence, “That man is gay,” means something very different depending on whether we are reading a sentence written in 1953 or 2023. Translators must be certain that they understand the meaning of the words they are translating. While the text of the original language remains stable, there is often discussion about the exact meaning of a particular word. (The word that is translated in Romans 3:25 as “sacrifice of atonement” is one of the words that evokes much discussion.) Again, we can be thankful that scholars generally agree on the meaning and usage of most of the Hebrew and Greek words. Even at that, we recognize that all translation is interpretive, meaning that the translators have begun the process of interpreting the Bible for us.

Translators not only have to be versant in the original language, but they must also be aware of nuances and meanings of words in English. As we are well aware, the English language changes over time (Shakespeare is difficult to read for most of us), and our language has regional differences (cars in England have boots and bonnets). This poses a challenge, for translators must choose language that their contemporaries will understand. This is one of the reasons that there are many translations available to us, and some of them have been updated more than once. What translators want to do is ensure that when we read our English translations, we understand the meaning as it was meant to be understood.

In translation work, translators must decide on a philosophy of translation, and their philosophy normally falls somewhere on a scale. On one of the scale we have more literal translations and on the other we have what some call a dynamic equivalent translation. In a more literal translation (no translation is fully literal), the original languages are translated word for word. Thus, in the King James Version, for example, we find the expression “bowels of mercy,” which is a literal rendering of the Greek. However, that makes very little sense to any of us, and we might miss the meaning of what was originally written. Thus, someone who is interested in getting the meaning across might decide to abandon literalism and substitute an equivalent idea and in the NIV, we find the word, “compassion.” That word we understand, although it might not get quite to the heart of the Greek word. In either a literal (word for word) translation or a dynamic equivalent (idea for idea) translation, there is always going to be a lack of precision in the translations, simply because we speak a different language. A literal translation can easily be misunderstood (and often is), but a dynamic translation can be a little looser than we might desire. Translations on both ends of the scale have benefits, but they also have their drawbacks.

It is important that when we choose a translation, we understand the intentions of the translators. If the translators tend toward literalism, we must not complain that their language is hard to understand and often difficult to read. On the other hand, when a translator intends to translate idea by idea, we ought not complain that their choices don’t necessarily reflect the depth or breadth of what was originally written. We must allow the translations to do what they were intended to do and appreciate them for that.

So, what do we do? There are several options. The first is to learn the original languages. I have studied both Hebrew and Greek, and I have a basic proficiency in them. However, I am far from fluent in either language, and must rely heavily on the work of others both in the meaning of the original word and way I should translate it. On my bookshelf is a 10-volume dictionary containing a discussion about the meaning of most of the Greek words used in the Bible. When I turn to these books, I must still decide which meaning and nuance is the best way for us to understand the word. Again, to do that well, I must rely heavily on scholars who are far more fluent in these languages.

The second option is to read several different translations. Most of us won’t learn the original languages, but most of also have access to different translations. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do some reading about the intentions of the translators so that we can best understand what to expect as we use their translation. When choosing several translations, it is best to pick one which is quite literal (e.g. New King James Version), one that tends toward dynamic equivalency (e.g. New Living Translation), and one that is somewhere in the middle (e.g. New International Version). If you can understand another modern language, reading a Bible in that language can also be helpful.

Sometimes we hear people say that they will read only one translation of the Bible to the rejection of all the rest. For them, all the rest aren’t good enough. That is probably a short-sighted decision, for those who read only one version are not getting the whole picture. While all of us have a preferred translation, it is helpful to appreciate other translations, for by reading them in parallel, we will gain a better understanding of what the original authors intended. While we may become confused by all the translations available to us, we also should be thankful for them. I grew up having only the KJV available to me, and while the words and phrases became familiar, my Bible was about as easy to understand as Shakespeare, and for good reason, for Shakespeare’s plays were produced at about the same time as the KJV. Today, access to many translations gives us a better understanding of God’s revelation, and that really is our goal. Let’s use the tools God has given us and be thankful for those who made them available to us.

~ Pastor Gary ~

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Attrition versus Contrition

Sometimes, when a public figure is caught in wrongdoing, they acknowledge what they did and they express sorrow or repentance. We can be cynical about their apology because we might believe that they would never have “repented” if they had not been caught. We wonder if they truly are sorry for their wrongdoing. We also wonder if their repentance is a result of their wanting to maintain their office, and “repenting” of wrongdoing is a way to gain support of those who put them in their office (usually voters).

Contrast this to someone who has wronged another and has not yet been found out and probably would get away with what they did. Perhaps it’s a contractor who has mistakenly overcharged his client for materials and when he discovers the error he can’t sleep at night. He goes to this client with a cheque, seeking to right the wrong.

There are two similar words that are used to describe these scenarios. The first is attrition. Attrition is sorrow for sin merely out of fear of punishment or a sense of shame. The public figure wants to avoid the fallout of denying his wrongdoing by lying, so he admits to being guilty, hoping to avoid further harm to himself. This is attrition. The word used to identify what the contractor did is not attrition, but, rather, contrition. Contrition is a brokenness of spirit or sorrow for sin with the intent of not sinning again. We might say that contrition is the result of internal struggle while attrition describes situations created by external circumstances.

Let’s consider these two words in relationship to the gospel. Both attrition and contrition result in faith in Jesus Christ, but one is more believable than the other.

In the Middle Ages, it was quite common for the church to preach a gospel based on attrition. Hell was a very popular subject, and much of what we think we know about hell comes from the imaginations of writers and artists and not from Scripture. Dante’s Inferno, for example is a 14th century poem which describes in great detail 10 levels of hell and/or purgatory, the most severe being the level reserved for the devil and his demons. The church used images such as these to scare people to the point that they would profess faith in Jesus Christ and commitment to the church. This kind of teaching was used as a means to encourage people to put their faith in Jesus Christ centuries ago, and it has not lost its attractiveness today. Sometimes we hear Christians saying to those who do not believe in Jesus: you don’t want to spend eternity in hell do you? Belief in Jesus becomes a means for one to escape punishment. It is a gospel of attrition, a gospel which uses the motivation of escaping hell as a way to get people to believe.

A gospel of contrition appears to be quite different. Instead of showing people a vision of what hell could be and offering them a means of escape, a gospel of contrition reveals to people a holy, powerful, just, loving and gracious God who we have offended with our sin. Instead of emphasizing the consequences of remaining steeped in sin (a one-way ticket to hell), the presenter of the gospel talks about God’s love and grace for this world, love and grace shown to us in spite of our sin, and it calls people to repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ who came to this world to die for us (the ultimate act of grace) so that we could be restored to God.

Which method of evangelism is better? We might be pragmatic and say that it doesn’t matter too much, as long as people put their faith in Jesus Christ. There is some truth to that. But just as we might be a little skeptical about someone’s repentance when they are sorrowful only when caught, so we might be skeptical about whether someone truly believes in Jesus or if they are merely trying to avoid eternity in hell or gain a life of bliss in heaven. While we shouldn’t question anyone’s profession of Jesus, regardless of why they professed, it is harder to believe that a faith based on attrition is real. It sounds too much like they could have faith only because they are looking after themselves and their own eternal wellbeing.

On the other hand, when someone comes to faith because of who God is and responds to his grace and love, their faith seems much more credible. As a way of comparison, we might know a beautiful young woman who married a rather ugly guy who happened to be very rich, and we would question her motives. On the other hand, we can believe it is true love when a beautiful young woman marries an ugly poor guy. Why else would she want to spend the rest of her life with him? In the same way, when someone puts their faith in Jesus Christ because of who he is even without fully knowing the benefits we receive from him, we can believe that they believe because they truly love Jesus.

This may be reflected in our motivations for how we behave as well. If we obey God’s commands because we are afraid of what might happen to us, we are obeying out of fear. If, on the other hand, we live obedient lives because we know God and his grace and love for us, we are obeying out of love. Being fearful of God and loving God might result in the very same behaviour, but the reasons behind that behaviour are vastly different.

Several times in the last years people have commented to me that pastors don’t often speak of hell from the pulpit. There may be good reason for that, for we want to avoid a gospel of attrition wherein we scare people into believing and, instead, preach a gospel of contrition where people come to know their sin and see it in the light of God’s grace and love, and fall before him in faith because of who he is and what he has done. The gospel of contrition tends to last while the gospel of attrition needs to be reinforced. To continue to mention hell as a punishment (or heaven as a reward) is to rely on a gospel of attrition. To preach Christ crucified is to bring people to Christ because of who Christ is. It is quite likely that someone who comes to faith because of contrition would believe even if there was no such thing as hell or heaven. They would believe simply because of who God is, with no regard for their own wellbeing.

True, pastors may need to mention hell more often. We cannot avoid this biblical topic. But should hell (or heaven) be mentioned as a way to motivate people to correct behaviour and move them to faith? There may be a place for that, but it does seem that the gospel of contrition is more effective and perhaps even more biblical.

Attrition versus Contrition: In attrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of fear for our fate: eternal loss of God is, obviously, existential failure, while eternal Beatitude is existential fulfillment. In contrition, we regret sin and seek God primarily from a perspective of love for God: sin is ingratitude to God, whom one “should (and wants to) love above all things.”

~ Pastor Gary ~

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