Sunday, November 09, 2008

You Don't Understand the Bible Makes Me A Heretic?

I attended a debate Friday evening between LDS apologist Martin Tanner and Pastor Jason Wallace, a vocal critic of the LDS Church. It was interesting and respectful, but did not really stay focused on the topic of "The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon".

Afterward, a young man, I think his name was Matt, went up to the podium and engaged a few Mormons in his attempt to show LDS views of salvation and Christ are not Biblical. He was talking with Van Hale, whom I respect as one of the most knowledgable and considerate defenders of the LDS faith anywhere, and I chimed in with my own thoughts. As the conversation moved to the idea of salvation meaning exaltation, John 1:1 was brought up by Matt as proof of there being a single essence of God shared by the Father and Son.

I tried to explain the grammar, but he clung to an erroneous understanding (following a misunderstanding of Colwell's rule on the use of the definite article) of the phrase "...and the word was god" to identify Jesus being the same as "god" in the previous clause, "and the word was with god...". This of course creates the heresy of Sabellianism or a form of modalism. Beyond that, it is simply bad grammar.

So I happen to have a copy of pages 8-9 of "A Translators Handbook to the Gospel of John", published by the United Bible Societies, the same non-LDS group sponsoring translations into dozens of languages around the world. It specifically explains that in the phrase "the word was god", 'god' is to be understood as an adjective, and the phrase connotes similarity, not identity. The word has a nature which is like God's, he is not THE God. It specifically cites Moffatt's translation that "the word was divine" as coming very close to being the best translation in the fewest words, though "the word was the same as god" is adequate as well. They go on to explain that the phrase in its use is like a phrase about teaching: ...and Mr. Green was with the teacher, and Mr. Green was a teacher.

Mr. Green belongs to a class of individuals, teachers. Not all teachers are Mr. Green.

I directed him to look up Daniel Wallace's lengthy treatment in "Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics", where he points out the same things, noting that the use of "god" in the phrase "the word was god" is a qualitative meaning, i.e., it describes a quality of the word, not his identity.

He insisted I did not have it right, and said he didn't believe me, to which I said I wouldn't expect him to believe me. This led to the question of the Word creating all things ex nihilo, which I responded by citing the verse John 1:1 is paralleling being Genesis 1:1-2, which states in clear terms in the Hebrew that 'In the beginning, when god began to create, he did so out of the existing, chaotic watery mass, and created heaven and earth'. I told him this was a paraphrase, but was very reflective of what Genesis was teaching. Again, he said he did not believe me, and I think it was his Dad who was standing there with him (they looked alike, but I could be wrong), who was adament that this concept of creation was crazy and deminished God, so I told him to look up "Creation" in "Baker's Evangelical Dictionary" or the foot notes to the Net Bible's Genesis 1:1 . I also told him I had had a wonderful, 3 hour conversation with a Jewish Rabbi about this exact topic, in the presence of 4 anti-Mormon friends of mine who had brought him, and he acknowledged that this verse does not carry the meaning that absolute creation of matter is described here.

Matt was thoroughly shocked that his understanding of these issues had a legitimate, scholarly meaning which could support the LDS position. He actually thought I was making it up as I went along, until the debate moderator, who is not LDS, came over and said "Yes, I think I remember reading that", or words to that effect.

Matt has been taught a false tradition by his spiritual fathers, which then leads him to conclude the LDS are heretics. Even after I showed him the scholarly evidence from the photo copies I carry with me of some of these items, he still could not accept his understanding could be flawed. Which is why spiritual conversion by those who seek truth rather than simply to defend their position is predicated on humility. I am not the most humble guy in the world, but I recognize I still can learn from many, many sources, LDS and otherwise. My world is not threatend when I learn new things, because my world view is that of Joseph Smith: Let the truth from all sources lead you where it may.

Any faith which requires a limited understanding of its doctrines to remain faithful is probably a faith with bloggers attacking the LDS faith.

Yes, I am a heretic, because you don't really understand the Bible.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do you ignore the larger context of passages such as Colossians 2:9, Philippians 2, Isaiah 43-45,John 14:9, etc.? The Bible is clear that there is only one God, and that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, yet the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Spirit, nor the Spirit the Father. Do you agree with Van Hale that Matthew, Mark and Luke DENIED the divinity of Jesus?

Matt said...

Sir,

I was pointed to your blog by a friend who found your site after searching in google for the Tanner/Wallace debate. My name is Matt, and I am the individual whom you are referring to in this post. I thought I would take a quick moment to offer some of my thoughts on your post.

In regards to your recollection of the first part of our conversation, pertaining to the relationship between "the God" and "the Word" in John 1, you stated in your blog post:

"It specifically explains that in the phrase "the word was god", 'god' is to be understood as an adjective, and the phrase connotes similarity, not identity. The word has a nature which is like God's, he is not THE God. It specifically cites Moffatt's translation that "the word was divine" as coming very close to being the best translation in the fewest words, though "the word was the same as god" is adequate as well. They go on to explain that the phrase in its use is like a phrase about teaching: ...and Mr. Green was with the teacher, and Mr. Green was a teacher."

I agree with every word here written. Contra the modalists, John 1 is not teaching that "the God" and "the Word" are one and the same in every sense. Perhaps I could have been clearer about this during our brief discussion. The first clause distinguishes between "the God" and "the Word". The second clause, in which Theos is the predicate nominative, indicates that "the Word" has the same quality as "the God". This said, how are we to understand this verse? Judaism and Christianity have been unequivocally monotheistic since their inception. One would be making a mockery of rabbinic tradition and the Old Testament itself (cf. Deut 4:35 and 39, 6:4; Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 44:8, 45:5, 45:14, 45:18, 45:21, 46:9, for just a few examples) to suggest that perhaps Judaism is amenable to a polytheistic interpretation.

This being the case, when John 1:1 ascribes the quality of "God" to "the Word" (a quality that only God can have because there is only one God) yet distinguishes between "the God" and "the Word", we can only conclude that there are two persons in one essence. To say that we have one person playing two roles is contrary to New Testament teaching on the separation between the Father and the Son. To say that we have two separate persons in two separate god essences is to fall into the error of polytheism. Neither of these possibilities is rationally acceptable from a biblical perspective. The historic formulation of the Trinity is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to deal with the issue. The Trinity does not come from Greek philosophy or bad grammar, but common sense.

In regards to the issue of creation ex nihilo, you state:

"...I responded by citing the verse John 1:1 is paralleling being Genesis 1:1-2, which states in clear terms in the Hebrew that 'In the beginning, when god began to create, he did so out of the existing, chaotic watery mass, and created heaven and earth'."

Actually, Genesis 1 does not say that God created by using a pre-existing matter in order to form the cosmos. I am well aware of the fact that there are many theologically liberal Protestant and Jewish scholars who see Genesis as nothing more than an expansion of ancient near east creation myths (i.e. the Atrahasis text or the Enuma Elish), myths which explicitly teach that a god conquered a the pre-existing chaos in order to create the present world. I don't believe Genesis is merely an embellished Babylonian myth, and therefore don't read those ideas into the text. It’s one thing to say that certain “scholars” or dictionaries attest to such an interpretation (I agree with you that they do). It’s another thing to ascertain whether such interpretations are valid (I disagree with you that they are). Genesis 1:1-2 actually says:

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters."

While we could argue about the relation of Genesis 1:1 to 1:2 (whether 1:1 is initial creation followed by subsequent ordering, or whether 1:1 is merely an introductory statement which sums up only the ordering that took place on days 1-6), elsewhere in the scriptures we do get a picture of God creating all of the existing universe. I find it hard to read these following verses to say that God ordered a few things in an already existing universe.

Col 1:16-17:
For by him 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.

Heb 11:3:
By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

You state:

“Again, he said he did not believe me, and I think it was his Dad who was standing there with him (they looked alike, but I could be wrong), who was adament that this concept of creation was crazy and deminished God..."

I agree with the other gentleman (not my father) that it is diminishing to God, because it denies any semblance of a real picture of an infinite, eternal God. The god that you present is bounded by time and space. He is not transcendent, just another piece of the known spatio-temporal universe. This is more akin to atheism than theism as any real question about the beginning of the known universe remains unanswered. Where does the initial chaos come from, and how does this god exist in a coherent manner along side of it? There must be a more basic, simple, unified, and transcendent answer. Your view of creation also runs into logical contradictions as it assumes that it is possible to have an infinite regression of time.

You state:

“Yes, I am a heretic, because you don't really understand the Bible.”

I beg to differ in regards to my understanding of God’s word and would be happy to discuss it further.

Bob the Anti-Anti said...

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate the effort you put to respond to me. I must point out that you make an assumption for which you have no proof, which in fact is now largely believed to be untrue by most scholars except those conservative ones which have a specific agenda and theological interest in the position:

"Judaism and Christianity have been unequivocally monotheistic since their inception. One would be making a mockery of rabbinic tradition and the Old Testament itself (cf. Deut 4:35 and 39, 6:4; Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 44:8, 45:5, 45:14, 45:18, 45:21, 46:9, for just a few examples) to suggest that perhaps Judaism is amenable to a polytheistic interpretation."

With all due respect, this is simply not true. I have written at length in this blog about the false teaching this involves. Rabbinic teaching is largely apostate in its interpretation of the Biblical message. Not that they meant to deceive, but the changes made to the Biblical text (Such as Deut 32:8-9, compare NRSV and KJV), as well as the interpretive changes of OT passages such as Ps 82 make it clear that monotheism, as you believe, is a POST-Biblical doctrine.

As for Genesis 1:1-2, I again refer you to Baker's Theological Dictionary, which is available online, and is certainly NOT liberal in its interpretive position. And to the Net Bible, also on line, to the comments in the footnote by Dr. Daniel Wallace, of Dallas Theological Seminary, who is also certainly not liberal in his point of view. Both sources go into depth into the underlying Hebrew. Both are traditional in their views of Creation, yet both acknowledge Gen 1 does NOT support creation out of nothing.

I need to run, I will try to get more on this out next week. Again, I thank you so much for responding.

Peace.

Bob the Anti-Anti said...

I want to follow-up on Matt for a brief moment in the context of the statement "the word was divine/god".

Matt acknowledges that the statement denotes there is a difference between "the Word" and "the God". But he cannot bring himself to acknowledge what this explicitly means: There are two gods.

His theology and traditions, and not the text, prevents his accepting the literal teaching of the text. The text says, and numerous translators so render it, to say the Word was "a" god. I have a list of dozens of non-LDS translators who render it as such. See "www.answeringantimormons.com" and look around, you will find it. I recently ran across an additional translation. Price, in his "The Pre-Nicene New Testament" renders the translation as "the Word was a god". Price seems to be agnostic in his beliefs, and even criticizes Joseph Smith claiming to receive the Book of Mormon, so it cannot be said I am looking for a sympathetic translator. But the text is the text. John is teaching what early Christians already knew: Jesus was a second god.

I return to a question I read years ago on the bgreek board: If one interprets scripture by theology, from whence came one's theology? You cannot tell me you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible when you hedge your beliefs contingent upon making a translation consistent with your theology.

I will create a new post to get into more depth on the concepts around creation out of nothing vs. the Genesis 1 teaching of creation out of already existing matter. Stay tuned, as there is not much controversy on whether this is a Biblical or post-Biblical doctrine. And I will give you a hint: The Mormons have it correct, based on the vast majority of scholarship and all Bible verses, when the supposed ex nihilo passages are read in their context.

Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

I do not understand how you can argue the gramatical correctness of the KJV of John 1:1. The only way any argument for grammar can hold weight is if that is the translation to which both parties accept. But in this case it would not be, due to the translation of Joseph Smith.

JST: In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God.

I believe that to argue a mistranslation to justify a belief is faulty logic.