Monday, June 22, 2009

On Sharing Christianity

I'm too busy to blog most days. This is the main season for most of the field work I do, and I'm burning the candle at both ends to keep up. Add to that the fact that I have to get it all done before heading to Romania for three weeks in July. And then there's the little matter of preparing for the speaking engagements for which I'm slated once in Romania...

I'm scheduled to preach, speak, or hold a Q & A session a total of 22 times in Romania. That includes being the keynote speaker at an Apologetics Conference and the main speaker at a week-long evangelism camp for youth. I also have one engagement with the science faculty at a Romanian university--I'm looking forward to that one!

Much of the goal will be to strengthen the faith of Romanians who already follow Christ--helping them to realize how reason and evidence combine to make the Christian worldview the uniquely accurate understanding of the universe in which we live. But some of my time (at the university and the youth camp) will involve sharing the Christian message with those who are currently skeptical about it. I'll be "sharing the gospel" or "evangelizing."

Which reminds me of a claim made several years back by an elderly lady friend of mine, someone whose opinions and thoughts on most other subjects I had come to respect...

We were in a small group, and another gal was talking favorably (apparently as a fellow-believer) of some missionary friends who were helping members of a South American tribe leave their superstition and animism and embrace Christianity. My elderly friend remarked,
I would never do that. It's wrong to try to change someone else's religious convictions.
Now, there are several problems with this claim, of which I'll mention just two.

The first is that my friend could only say this because she didn't take Christianity seriously or believe it to be true. If, as the Bible claims, the only hope for human beings--for this life and for eternity--is being made right with their Creator through the work on the Cross of His eternal Son Jesus, then we who know this should be sharing it with those who don't at every opportunity. My friend was not able to fairly enter into the discussion by assuming for the moment that the missionaries' worldview might be true.

But there's a more basic problem with my friend's claim--a logical flaw, an error in thinking. And that is that her claim is....

[At this point, regular readers of my blog ought to be able to supply the hyphenated word that completes my sentence.]

That's right! Her statement is SELF-REFUTING, or self-referentially absurd.

To anyone who truly seeks to follow Christ, the call to share the good news about the reconciliation available only through Him is itself one of the most fundamental "religious" convictions. So when she said that it is wrong to seek to change another person's religious convictions, my friend was guilty of trying to do just that. She was sawing off the branch upon which she was sitting, disqualified by her own criterion, run through by her own spear. Her making the statement put her at odds with the content of the proposition she was seeking to convey. And she, of course, didn't realize it.

But you, dear reader, have by now learned to avoid making self-refuting statements yourself (they are, after all, necessarily false) and have finely-tuned your baloney detector to spot such absurdity from a mile off. Keep up the good work!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Variants in the NT

In a few weeks from now, I'll teach a couple of classes (Sunday mornings at Antioch) on New Testament textual criticism, the science that allows us to ascertain what the original New Testament writings said. As I began to think about that issue, I thought it might be a good idea to post a bit of what I'll cover.

I'll begin by asserting that there is overwhelming reason to conclude that the New Testament was reliably transmitted from the original writings to the copies (the Greek manuscripts) that still exist. I will be quick to acknowledge, however, that the thousands of manuscripts available to us do contain variants, places where they disagree with one another. Indeed, there are literally tens of thousands of such variants among these copies. That being the case, isn't the charge of tainted transmission a valid one?

No, not at all. For one thing, the vast majority of these variants are completely insignificant. They amount to nothing more than an alternate spelling or the fact that a single place or person was known by two different names. So the issue of the reliability of the copying comes down to approximately 2,000 places where variant readings that are not insignificant can be found among the manuscripts. Most of these will be identified (by footnotes or marginal notes) in any good study Bible.

Let me share two examples of significant variants, one accidental and one likely intentional. In Romans 5:1, the Greek word εχομεν or εχωμεν appears in the different ancient copies. The difference is the third letter--did the original contain an omega or an omicron (the two different Greek 'o's)? In English, the verse reads
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Is Paul telling us that peace is an accomplished fact or something that we should be striving to appropriate? In this case we have a very minor alteration that leads to a rather significant difference in meaning. The incorrect insertion of the wrong 'o' would have been an easy mistake to make, especially if the scribe were listening to someone else dictate the letter.

There's an example of an intentional error in the second verse of Mark's gospel. Some copies read, "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet..." This is followed by an Old Testament quote, a quote which can be found not only in Isaiah but also in Malachi. So other copies read, "As it is written in the prophets..." It would seem that some first or second century scribe, in copying Mark's written account of the events of Jesus' life, decided that Mark hadn't been on his game when he wrote "in Isaiah the prophet." The scribe 'improved' the text by changing it to "the prophets." Both variants, of course, are correct, but the first is likely what Mark actually wrote.

There is, therefore, an entire field of scholarship called New Testament textual criticism that seeks to recover the autographs by careful scrutiny of the wealth of copies in existence. Scholars in this field examine external evidence (including the dates and locations of the variants in the Greek manuscripts, in the early Latin, Coptic, and Syriac translations, and in the citations from the early church fathers) and internal evidence (such as 'which variant best explains how the other arose?'). The result is a level of certainty about the originals that exceeds 99% accuracy.

It is important to note that no Christian doctrine is undermined by any of the variant readings. If we were to ignore all of the passages in which variants are found--and use only those passages in which all the relevant copies agree completely--what would be the result? We would have the very same picture of Jesus--a miracle-working, divine Son of God who died by crucifixion and three days later was raised in a glorified physical body.

The existence of errors in copying--some of them significant--should cause us no concern with regard to the reliability of the New Testament. We do need to recognize, though, that the referent of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (and of the implied doctrine of inerrancy) is not a particular set of copies--much less a particular English translation--but the autographs. These we don't have, but--through the reasoned application of New Testament textual criticism--we have a great deal of certainty about what these originals contained.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

High Intrigue

Last week, there was high intrigue in a little commune near our house. Indeed, what occurred was the culmination of days and weeks of mutinous plotting, the carrying out of a betrayal that left a kingdom (queendom, actually) divided.

It seems that some of the ladies-in-waiting, the monarch's most trusted and loyal subjects, grew tired of her ladyship or of the size of the castle (or whatever, I hadn't the chance to ask any of them). At any rate, they elected, secreted away, and groomed a replacement. Then one day last week, they revolted, openly declaring their change of allegiance.

Fortunately, it was all very non-violent. No blood was shed; in fact, the reigning queen was allowed to keep not only her life and wealth (mostly gold) but also her castle. Her only loss was half of her former subjects and army, as they chose to flee the castle altogether. The mutineers with their new queen were discovered (as pictured below) by our next-door neighbor. I called a friend who agreed to offer them amnesty, and toward nightfall we installed them in a new castle and drove them across town to his place.

It was undoubtedly a traumatic event for all concerned, but by nightfall peace reigned in both castles and everyone could look back on a good day's work.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Nate in Mexico

Our oldest son, Nathan, is in Mexico, playing in soccer tournaments with the Southern California Seahorses. The Seahorses are a Christian ministry that uses sport--specifically the "beautiful game"--as a vehicle for sharing Christ. Nate's giftedness in and passion for soccer will be put to good use, and he's also to lead worship (they realized at the last minute--and after he'd flown to L.A. without his--that he was the only one on the team who plays guitar).

Their tournaments are in fairly remote villages; as a consequence, he's been totally incommunicado since he left LAX.

It's not an apologetics mission per se, but it is an opportunity to share the central reality about the world in which we live... that God loves us and has provided reconciliation for us through His eternal Son, Jesus Christ. If a guy has to go to warmer climes to score a few goals or get kicked in the shins a couple of times to earn the right to share that wonderful truth, well then, Nate's the guy that's willing to do it. Pray for him if you have a moment.