Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Preservation of God's Word in English

I have long been familiar with the fact that copies of extant Greek Biblical manuscripts far exceed those of secular Greek works from comparable time periods. So, for example, while we have over 5000 manuscripts from the Greek New Testament, we only have 643 for Homer’s Iliad and far fewer for other important works ( It turns out that this same phenomenon occurs with copies of handwritten English Bibles as well.

Consider the number of extant copies of the Wycliffe Bible. These handwritten Bibles, translated from the Latin Vulgate in the 1380’s, were systematically destroyed beginning in the early 1400’s. Nevertheless, over 250 manuscripts still exist, in whole or in part. This number is remarkable when compared to other important medieval works. Nobody was trying to eradicate all of Chaucer’s works and yet the famous Canterbury Tales exists in only 64 remaining copies.

The inescapable conclusion is that God has providentially preserved His word in both Greek and English, but that is not the full story.

It turns out that there is not just one version of the Wycliffe Bible. Like all hand-copied texts, differences exist between the extant manuscripts. But not all of these variations are due to copyist mistakes. When these manuscripts are studied, it becomes apparent that some retranslation and revision has occurred. In fact, scholars have been able to identify at least two distinct “families” of Wycliffe Bible texts. According to David Daniell, one version is more literal, while the other more idiomatic – perhaps similar in some ways to the difference between the KJV and the NIV.

This is fascinating to me because this means that even back in the 1380’s, you had various versions of the English Bible available. Professor Daniell even claims, based on the number of surviving copies, that one version must have been more popular than the other. The point, though, is that the providential preservation of God’s Word in English never meant perfect preservation. Even at the very beginning, there was never one definitive English translation.

Source: David Daniell. The Bible in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Image: First page of John's Gospel in the Wycliffe Bible

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Bible as Oratorio

Here is another interesting quote, this time by Kevin Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine :
The canonical presentation of the gospel takes several forms, most notably kerygma (proclamation), marturia (witness), and didaskalia (teaching). These three forms comprise a canonical oratorio: the first, kerygma, serves as a recitative of God’s saving work; the second, as the chorus that gives the participants’ perspective on the action; and the third, as a profound aria that deepens our appreciation of the drama’s highlights. (p. 147)
Thus the “canon … shows us how to go on following Jesus Christ primarily by telling, showing, and teaching us who he is and what he has done.” (p. 149) In addition to reflecting on how the Bible incorporates those three elements, it is intriguing to think about how the church has performed those same functions in a corporate setting by creeds/doctrinal statements (proclamation/telling), singing (witness/showing), and preaching (teaching). To the second point, in addition to singing, we could add the idea of living out the gospel in our daily lives, or to use Elizabethan terminology that fits very well in this context, our conversation.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

No reason to be ashamed

I’ve been privileged this Christmas season to get a copy of George Whitefield’s journals. A year or so ago I read Arnold Dallimore’s two-volume biography of this remarkable man and have wanted to read his journals ever since. So, now is my opportunity.

The journal entries pick up in December, 1737, as Whitefield is preparing to sail across the Atlantic to minister in Savannah, Georgia. The three ships that will be making the voyage are anchored off the port city of Deal and Whitefield spends much of December and January traveling between his ship and shore as the sailors make their final preparations for the journey. I found the entry for January 10th, where he recounts one of those trips ashore, to be somewhat amusing and convicting:

After evening prayers and visiting the sick, went ashore with Mr. Habersham to Deal, and were so delighted with a prospect of the Downs, that we expressed our thankfulness in signing of psalms all the way. The boatmen, I believe, wondered at it at first; but they were not ashamed to blaspheme, and I thought I had no reason to be ashamed to praise God. I had the satisfaction before we got to Deal, to hear one of them join seriously with us; and perceived a surprising alteration in their behavior always after. Blessed be God!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Mark of a Great Teacher

Yesterday, I was listening to an interview between Mark Dever and RC Sproul, when Dr. Sproul made a statement that really hit on the essence of great teaching. He said,

"The great theologians of history are ones who were able to take their message into the culture, into the street. To simplify without distortion is the highest task of a scholar."

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Standing Firm in Christ

Standing Firm in Christ is the subtitle to the commentary on Hebrews that Daphne gave me for Christmas. She bought it for me because I have been teaching through Hebrews in our adult SS class at church. Unfortunately, I finished the series on December 31 and so I only got to use the commentary for one day of class! It's too bad because I think Richard Phillips' new commentary in the Reformed Expository Commentary series would have been quite helpful. As it was, the only thing I got from it in time for my last lesson was his pithy theme statement for the book. I like it because it deftly combines the subject of the book’s primary exhortation (standing firm, faithfully enduring) with the basis for those exhortations (person and work of Christ).

Hebrews is well-known as a difficult book. There are five major warning passages that create theological conundrums for some in the area of eternal security. There are many references to the Old Testament and its priestly, ceremonial system of sacrifices. Those portions of our Bible tend to be a neglected and mysterious place for us and that makes understanding Hebrews all the more complicated. Add to that, if we are “dull of hearing,” the author himself says it will be hard to communicate his message properly (Heb 5:11). But hard, complicated, and difficult is not the same thing as impossible and I found the study of the Letter to the Hebrews to be fascinating, rewarding, and quite helpful.

I began the first Sunday in April and finished 34 lessons later on the last day in December. Normally, I prepare 7-10 pages of notes for each lesson and teach for about 45 minutes, or about 15 minutes less than I need to cover everything I have prepared. :) Sometimes I rush through my notes so that I can squeeze everything in; other times I just cover selected points in less detail. In any event, I try hard to finish a complete lesson in a single session, though, because I like to think of each lesson as a complete and independent message.

It was amazing how these lessons would come together each week. On Mondays, I would usually take the day off from doing any preparation, other than perhaps reading the next week’s passage in my devotions. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I would continue to read the passage and decide on what constitutes the next “unit” in the text. My goal was to work through a chapter in 2 to 3 weeks. That became more difficult as I went along because the chapters in Hebrews get longer towards the end of the book. During this time, I would take preliminary notes concerning the passage and identify key terms and phrases for later study. On Thursday and Friday I would do word studies on the terms identified earlier (with BibleWorks and other helps) and read in my commentaries. The most helpful commentaries on Hebrews for me were William Lane (Word) and Philip Hughes. John Brown (Geneva), although less technical, often had helpful discussions but not always. Ellingworth (NIGTC) was very technical but rarely helpful, albeit with some occasional gems. I found Bruce (NICNT) and Newell to be of very little assistance. Saturday mornings I would try to pull everything together into a detailed outline. On Sunday mornings I would get up early and read through my entire lesson, marking important points, adding additional clarifications, and praying that the Lord would be with me when I teach the material. My Monday through Saturday routine did not always go as planned, but I ALWAYS made sure to take time on Sunday mornings to pray through my lesson.

I now get to enjoy a much needed break as I hand the adult SS teaching duties off to another man for the next few months.