Monthly Archives: May 2015

“Inconceivable” Fallacies in Biblical Interpretation

You may have heard sermons that distinguish between the three types of love: eros, for physical, sensual love; phileo, for friendly or brotherly love; and agape, for divine, unconditional love. As a young Christian, I learned the idea that agape is really special and better than the other kinds of love. To think otherwise would have been “inconceivable.”

A classic case in sermons where this sometimes becomes a big deal is in John 21:15-17. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Jesus with agape love, but both times, Peter answers that he loves with phileo love. As the sermon unfolds, you hear that Peter is being a bit of a smuck by only responding with phileo love towards Jesus instead of the spiritually superior agape. So the third time, Jesus lowers the bar and simply asks if Peter will love Him with phileo love, whereby Peter still responds with phileo love. A variety of applications are usually given here, one being that in his divine agape love, Jesus graciously condescends towards us by acknowledging our inability to love God back unconditionally, or some other such idea.

Well, I am embarrassed to say it, but I must confess it. I have used this teaching myself with other people without thinking much about it. However, the problem is that the illustration here is well-meaning but most probably unwarranted. It is a common example where sometimes fallacies in Biblical interpretation, such as “word studies,” can lead people astray.

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The Power of Context

Why is understanding the context so important when it comes to interpreting the Bible? Because it is very easy to think the Bible is saying something that is completely alien to what the original author had in mind. Here is a short but sweet video (less than 4 minutes) by Alan Shlemon at Stand to Reason ministries that helps to explain context.

Here are the Bible verses that Alan is talking about from John 14:  John 14:16 and John 14:26. For more detail regarding why Muslims see Muhammad as being predicted by the Bible, look here. Interpreting the Bible is all about understanding the basic concepts of hermeneutics, which is a fancy word that simply refers to the study of the interpretation of texts.

If you are not sure what the big deal is regarding context, see this earlier Veracity post on Taking the Bible “Literally.

HT: Josh Shoemaker at

Navigating the ESV vs. NIV 2011 Debate

Does your church have a “pew Bible?” Through a generous gift years ago, an anonymous donor in our church gave hundreds of copies of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible so that everyone who comes to our church would be able to read from the Bible where they sit each and every Sunday morning for worship. What a great gift it is to have a copy of God’s Word at your fingertips!

The problem is that we use the 1984 edition of the NIV…. and the version’s publisher, Zondervan, is no longer printing copies of the 1984 NIV. So what is a church like ours to do if you want to get a new pew Bible?

Ah, so we enter into the world of contemporary Bible translation controversy. The controversy, though a bit nerdy for many in some respects, is important because lovers of Jesus are also lovers of Holy Scripture. We want to make sure we get God’s Word right!

Part of the philosophy behind the translators of the NIV is that the version should be re-evaluated over time to account for changes in the English language in order to make God’s Word more accessible to more and more people. Unfortunately, the English language has undergone some significant changes in recent years, and some efforts by newer versions in the NIV tradition have been met with resistance from some of the classic NIV 1984 original supporters.  The current version of the NIV, completed in 2011, has now found growing competition from other newcomers to the English Bible translation field, such as the New Living Translation (2013, most recently), but primarily from the English Standard Version (2011, most recently). What is the story behind the controversy?

And In One Corner, Weighing 1.6 Pounds…..

A little history is in order. For many centuries, the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible ruled the roost when it came to English Bible translations.  However, changes in the English language and the discovery of older manuscripts in the 19th century prompted efforts to revise the veritable KJV. After some early attempts at a new translation, in the United States in the 1950s, the National Council of Churches produced a major revision of the KJV, introducing the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. But while the RSV was well received among mainline Christian churches, many conservative churches resisted some of the changes that came along with the RSV.

The New International Version was birthed in this effort to provide a more evangelical alternative to the RSV that nevertheless would capture an interdenominational spirit behind the new translation. The NIV would also be a more flexible translation, having a more thought-for-thought approach to the text than a more literal word-for-word approach, yet without going as far as the rather free paraphrase versions of the Bible. Hundreds of conservative Bible scholars from a wide variety of churches and denominations spent years in developing the NIV. The first completed version of the NIV came out in 1978, with the last major revision in the 20th century coming in 1984. The NIV became a huge success, outselling all other contemporary English versions.

Nevertheless, there was another crowd that still liked the more literal tradition of the KJV and RSV, but they still thought that the RSV needed some tweaking to make sure that evangelical doctrine was being clearly upheld. In the 1990s, Crossway Publishers eventually gained permission rights from the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 edition of the RSV to serve as a base for a new English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV operates with a different translation philosophy from the NIV.

But ever since the efforts to seriously update the NIV began in the 1990s, opinions were split among evangelical Christians.  Some have appreciated the NIV attempts to capitalize on newer scholarship and a better understanding of how the English language has changed over the recent years. Supporters of the newer NIV revisions consider the changes to be clearer and more accurate to the 21st century audience. On the other side, supporters of the ESV have thought that the NIV changes ironically have taken away from the accuracy of earlier NIV 1984. These supporters of the ESV have sensed that modern changes in language have become intertwined with ideological biases that threaten the integrity of Christian doctrine, thus undermining the intended efforts of the NIV 2011. In particular, the most controversial issue is over the claim that the NIV 2011 succumbs to a “gender inclusive” approach to language that tacitly approves of a feminist bias that is contrary to fundamental Christian belief.

Learning From the Debate

So, how does one evaluate the different positions regarding the ESV and NIV 2011 discussion among many Christians today?

In a clear and cogent fashion, it helps to hear the different sides of the debate regarding the various benefits and disadvantages of using the ESV vs. the NIV 2011. Along the way, you can learn about the philosophies behind different translations in general, not just the ESV and the NIV 2011.

Below are two excellent presentations that describe the issues very well. The first presentation is by Wayne Grudem, a theology professor at Phoenix Seminary, who is a scholar on the ESV translation team. He argues for the benefit of using more word-for-word translations, like the ESV, for use as a pew Bible and for personal study.

The second presentation is by David Whiting, lead pastor at Northridge Church in Connecticut, explaining why his church recently decided to use the NIV 2011 as a pew Bible instead of the ESV. Both presentations last about 50 minutes each.

For me, I like both translations, the ESV and the NIV 2011. People should read from a variety of translations whenever possible so that you do not get stuck in one particular approach, even if you find certain elements of another translation as being less appealing. Nevertheless, it can get cumbersome lugging around stacks of different translations to your small group Bible study! (Of course, you could just download multiple copies of different translations to your phone, tablet or laptop!)

Furthermore, having more than one pew Bible in your church can get pretty expensive. Picking a pew Bible is really important, so it is really valuable to take the time to hear both sides of the debate. After watching the presentations, I made a preliminary conclusion based on what I heard and took some notes that you might find helpful.

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The Reformation Study Bible 2015: A Brief Review

I have been waiting for this one for years. The Reformation Study Bible (2015) has recently been released.

There are dozens of really good study Bibles available in English today. But I always advise people to consider reading in different translations if at all possible to get various perspectives. The problem, of course, is that Bibles can get expensive, especially study Bibles.

However, these days one of the benefits of Internet technology is the access to great online resources, such as is where you can read passages of Scripture in multiple translations.  Not only that, but has a few helpful commentaries. But the big news this week is that has added many of the study notes for the Reformation Study Bible (2015) to its online access. Essentially, you get the notes from this study Bible for free online! But you might want to consider the paper version as it has more material in it.

The story behind the Reformation Study Bible is that it is the product of a team of scholars led by Bible teacher R.C. Sproul, the leader of Ligonier Ministries and the Renewing Your Mind radio program.  R.C. Sproul was first inspired by the original 1560 Geneva Biblewhich was essentially the great English translation that mentored multiple generations of English Puritans in transforming 16th and 17th century Britain and the American Colonies, only to be eclipsed by the famous King James Version of the Bible. What set the Geneva Bible apart from other Bibles is that it had copious notes explaining the Bible text for the non-Bible scholar reader. The Reformation Study Bible carries on with that tradition for contemporary English readers.

The Reformation Study Bible was originally done with the New International Version (NIV) in 1988, but when the English Standard Version (ESV) became available, a slimmed down version of the Reformation Study Bible came out for the ESV in 2005. The 2015 is a greatly expanded resource with tons more material than the 2005 version.

Nevertheless, there are some things to keep in mind with the Reformation Study Bible. Because of its decidedly “classical” Reformed theological bent, readers who hold to more Arminian and Wesleyan perspectives might be put off by some of the theological biases. Furthermore, when it comes to issues dealing with the “End Times” and the question of the relationship between Israel and the church, the Reformation Study Bible will prove to be a challenge to readers from more dispensationalist backgrounds. However, when I reviewed the notes for some of the more controversial passages of the Bible, I was pleased that the editors showed a fairly generous view towards different theological positions while clearly stating their own.

Here is a short one-minute video promo:


Are Jesus’ Words Really in “Red Letters?”

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Many Christians like reading from so-called “Red Letter” Bibles because they are told that the words spoken by Jesus are written in red ink. It can be helpful for some readers, since in the King James Version, there are no quotation marks used to identify when someone is speaking.

The idea of “Red Letter” Bibles goes back to 1899, when the editor of the Christian Herald magazine, Louis Klopsch, was inspired by reading Luke 22:30: ” Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (KJV)” Klopsch was passionate about getting God’s Word out to people, and so he envisioned a new Bible where the words of Jesus could be represented by the color of His blood.

However, the use of a “Red Letter” Bible can be misleading, as it may give some people the impression that the words of Jesus are somehow more important than the other words in the Bible. But theologically, this is wrong-headed since everything in the Bible is inspired by God, according to 2 Timothy 3:16. In that sense, every word in the Bible should be printed in red!

Reading from a “Red Letter” Bible might set you up to have some skewed expectations about Scripture. What are the appropriate expectations we should then have?
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