Discerning the Messenger

Western thought frequently examines messages independently of their messengers (even insisting on the inherent value of such an “objective” approach). But in the spiritual life, discerning the identity of the Messenger is of utmost importance, regardless of any abstract merits of the message itself.

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things build up.1

I’m frequently guilty of this when interpreting Scripture. Having been trained in the methodology and tools of historical criticism, I turn to my own reason and the interpretations of the academic guild before seeking the voice of God and listening to the Church Fathers.

Humanity’s interpretative choice

This is an ancient problem that precedes East and West. It goes back to the foundations of humanity:

And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, “You shall eat for food of every tree that is in the orchard, but of the tree for knowing good and evil, of it you shall not eat; on the day that you eat of it, you shall die by death….”

And the snake said to the woman, “Why is it that God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree that is in the orchard’?” And the woman said to the snake, “We shall eat of the fruit of the tree of the orchard, but of the fruit that is in the middle of the orchard, God said, ‘You shall not eat of it nor shall you even touch it, lest you die.'” And the snake said to the woman, “You will not die by death, for God knew that on the day you eat of it, your eyes would be opened, and you would be like gods knowing good and evil.” And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasing for the eyes to look at and it was beautiful to contemplate, and when she had taken of its fruits she ate, and she also gave some to her husband with her, and they ate.2

Dr. Mary Ford offers a great perspective on Eve’s decision:

In this account, Eve is faced with two interpretations of reality…. One interpretation of this fruit and why it was forbidden was given by God, Who created Eve and everything else, and another one was given by the serpent, a fellow creature….

Eve, we could say, at this point decides that all that matters is the “text” alone—the two interpretations or statements made—along with how things look on the surface to her own eyes, which is only the superficial, physical reality. Apparently she doesn’t stop to consider who it is giving each interpretation, and what her relationship is with each interpreter. Like many modern-day commentators, she thinks that interpretation can be impersonal, “objective.” “Don’t ask God about this,” the serpent implies; “He is not trustworthy. He doesn’t really love you. He doesn’t really want the best for you.” Then he implies, “And don’t ask Adam, either. Judge for yourself—you don’t need others to help you discern the truth.”

The fruit really is beautiful. It looks good to Eve, and what the serpent says seems reasonable to her “unaided reason,” so she decides to accept the interpretation he offers, and to act on his statement—an action which the serpent implies she can make completely independently. However, Eve doesn’t realize that in choosing the serpent’s interpretation, and in acting with her supposed autonomy, she in fact chooses communion with the serpent over, and instead of, communion with God and her husband.3

Dr. Ford goes on to quote St. Gregory the Theologian:

…[T]he tree of knowledge was not planted originally with any evil intent, nor was it forbidden in a spirit of jealousy. Let not the enemies of God make any such suggestion or think to imitate the serpent. On the contrary, it was good if eaten at the right time; for as I understand it, the fruit was contemplation, which is only safely attempted by those who have attained a more perfect state. But it was not good for those at a lower stage of development, … just as mature food is not profitable for those of tender years who still need milk.4

She then notes:

…[I]t was entirely right for Eve to want to be godlike—that was God’s plan all along. What was wrong was wanting this apart from God, and on her own terms and timetable.5

Humanity chose the creation over the Creator, independently evaluating the interpretation of the snake without considering our relationship with the interpreters.

A short story

     Faysal had never experienced a vision from God, but he believed such things were possible. He found it perplexing that his friend Roya claimed to have had one. She seemed so confident the vision was from God, but Faysal wondered if she was mentally ill or otherwise being deceived. His pastor had never dealt with this before, but encouraged Faysal to practice discernment by comparing the message of the vision to the Bible. But the message seemed so personal and didn’t really conflict with any Bible verses Faysal could find.
     He knew of an old hermit at a local monastery who daily sought God in prayer and decided to ask him for help the following morning. Perhaps he might have some guidance, Faysal hoped.
     The next morning, Faysal went to visit the hermit, and asked how he could discern whether his friend’s vision was from God or not. He explained how he had looked up various Bible verses related to the message of the vision but wasn’t sure if any of it applied. After patiently listening to Faysal’s concerns, the hermit asked him, “Does Roya know God?”
     “Well sure, she’s gone to church her whole life,” Faysal replied.
     The hermit smiled and said, “It seems you’ve been focusing solely on the contents of the vision, rather than on the identity of the messenger. If the vision is from God, then there is no reason for concern.”
     Faysal objected, “Well, surely some messages would clearly conflict with God’s Word and be evidence of deception.”
     The hermit paused for a moment. Then he asked, “Do you have any children, Faysal?”
     “Yes, a son,” he answered.
     “If God spoke to you in a vision, and in that vision told you to murder your son, would you say that vision is not from God?”
     Faysal shot back, “Of course that vision wouldn’t be from from God! It violates God’s commandment not to murder!”
     “And yet,” the hermit replied gently, “Abraham obeyed God’s voice when given this very message as a test, and God blessed him because of his faith and obedience.” He continued, “Wouldn’t you agree that the messenger, and the recipient’s relationship with him, is of utmost importance?”6

Footnotes

1 1 Corinthians 10:23.

2 Genesis 2:16–17; 3:1b–6, NETS (LXX).

3 Mary S. Ford, The Soul’s Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2015), 50–51.

4 Oration 45:8 on Easter; excerpt given by Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 204; as quoted in Ford, 51.

5 Ford, 51.

6 This story was inspired by Ford, especially the above-quoted paragraphs and pp. 53–55. Full disclosure: I don’t write fiction. I apologize for the wooden dialogue.

Irrational residue

For St. Basil, not the divine essence alone but also created essences could not be expressed in concepts. In contemplating any object we analyse its properties: it is this which enables us to form concepts. But this analysis can in no case exhaust the content of the object of perception. There will always remain an ‘irrational residue’ which escapes analysis and which cannot be expressed in concepts; it is the unknowable depth of things, that which constitutes their true, indefinable essence. In regard to the names which we apply to God, these reveal his energies which descend towards us yet do not draw us closer to his essence, which is inaccessible.

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 33.

Hermeneutic of love

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived….

Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.

For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him. “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Now faith will totter if the authority of Scripture begin to shake. And then, if faith totter, love itself will grow cold. For if a man has fallen from faith, he must necessarily also fall from love; for he cannot love what he does not believe to exist. But if he both believes and loves, then through good works, and through diligent attention to the precepts of morality, he comes to hope also that he shall attain the object of his love. And so these are the three things to which all knowledge and all prophecy are subservient: faith, hope, love….

And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. So that in their case, I think, the saying is already fulfilled: “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Yet by means of these instruments (as they may be called), so great an edifice of faith and love has been built up in them, that, holding to what is perfect, they do not seek for what is only in part perfect—of course, I mean, so far as is possible in this life; for, in comparison with the future life, the life of no just and holy man is perfect here. Therefore the apostle says: “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity:” because, when a man shall have reached the eternal world, while the other two graces will fail, love will remain greater and more assured.

Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine,” in St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), Book I, Chapters 36-9, pp. 533-4.

You can read this work beginning at Book I, chapter 36, for free on CCEL by clicking here.

Strong’s Concordance is a great resource, but it’s not a lexicon

Strong’s Concordance is a helpful tool that lists every Hebrew and Greek lemma (root word) present in the King James Bible (and it has been edited to conform to other translations as well, albeit usually with the original numbering system). Along with listing these, the tool also generally gives a ‘gloss’ for each word (some tools actually link Strong’s Concordance to lexicons such as Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon). The tool is popular because it is free on many Bible-related websites. With that said, I’d like to give some advice (and caution) to anyone who relies on this tool for original languages research in the biblical texts.

Using a concordance as a lexicon is problematic

It’s like trying to hammer a nail in using a screwdriver—it’s simply the wrong tool for the job.

A lexicon gives an inventory of all of the lexemes in a given language; Strong’s Concordance is based only on a specific English translation (the KJV). Lexicons also function as dictionaries in that they define lexemes from the original language using English words that best capture their meaning, explaining any relevant grammatical features that impact their translation.

While Strong’s Concordance gives a gloss for each lemma, this is not the main purpose of this tool and as such should not be used as a lexicon nor as a dictionary (a collection of glosses is rightly called a ‘glossary’). Here are a few reasons why it is problematic to use Strong’s Concordance as a lexicon:

  • Lexical ambiguity: Consider the following sentence: “She is looking for a match.” Is the subject trying to light a candle or find a romantic partner? The ‘gloss’ definition here is ambiguous and gives us no help disambiguating the meaning in this context. Grammatical features should also be examined, which Strong’s Concordance offers no help with.1
  • Nuances of meaning: Sometimes there is more than one meaning listed for a term (this is often the case for prepositions, but there are also verbs that change meaning depending on their voice and other grammatical features). Strong’s Concordance offers no help when determining which (if any) gloss is most appropriate in context. Often knowledge of the original languages is required to determine what grammatical and contextual features are present in order to determine the correct gloss (if any). Also, authors can use the same word differently in various contexts.

The meaning of a lexeme is that intended by the author using it. Strong’s Concordance often sheds little light on what this meaning is in context. Therefore, providing the meaning of a specific word in a given context on the basis of the Strong’s Concordance is not a reliable claim, nor is challenging an existing English translation solely on the basis of a gloss from Strong’s Concordance.

Etymological fallacies

I often see folks try to determine the meaning of words in specific contexts using their root lemmata. The problem here is that etymology and the later meaning of a word are often orthogonal concepts. Here are some examples:

Etymology is not the primary tool for understanding the meaning of a word in a specific context, and it is often meaningless when making such a determination.

What if Strong’s Concordance is linked to a lexicon?

Several free online tools have linked Strong’s Concordance entries to lexicon entries. Unfortunately, most of them use either Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon or Smith’s Bible Dictionary for definitions, both of which were published prior to 1895. These resources are now considered to be obsolete by scholars (and contain much inaccurate information):

“…in 1895, Adolf Deissmann published his Bibelstudien – an innocently titled work that was to revolutionize the study of the NT. In this work (later translated into English under the title Bible Studies) Deissmann showed that the Greek of the NT was not a language invented by the Holy Spirit (Hermann Cremer had called it “Holy Ghost Greek,” largely because 10 percent of its vocabulary had no secular parallels). Rather, Deissmann demonstrated that the bulk of NT vocabulary was to be found in the papyri.

The pragmatic effect of Deissmann’s work was to render obsolete virtually all lexica and lexical commentaries written before the turn of the century. (Thayer’s lexicon, published in 1886, was outdated shortly after it came off the press – yet, ironically, it is still relied on today by many NT students.)”2

Smith’s Bible Dictionary was last updated in 1893 and is therefore subject to the same limitations as Thayer’s lexicon.

These are so popular because their copyright expired and so they are generally free to use, but unfortunately they are now largely obsolete.

How to properly use Strong’s Concordance

Strong’s Concordance can be used effectively as an index of the occurrences of a lemma in the original languages of the biblical texts (at least in those manuscripts used by the King James Bible, which is a limitation of this tool, although some later revisions of it have addressed this to some extent). It’s a great tool for identifying other occurrences of a lemma by using it’s number (as this does not require that you can actually read the alphabet of the original language). This makes an original languages concordance accessible to those who cannot read those languages.

The gloss definition given by the concordance (or even a definition given by an outdated lexicon) can be helpful here in giving a general understanding of the lemma’s meaning, but this should not be used as the sole source to justify the meaning or definition of the word in a specific textual context. However, it can help you see how the word has been translated in its other occurrences, which can give you a broader understanding of its semantic range and how it is generally interpreted in similar contexts (using multiple English Bible translations will help catch differences and nuances of meaning, which can lead to good questions about the meaning of lemmata in specific contexts, where someone versed in the original language can assist you in better understanding the passage). Pay close attention to differences in grammar, author, audience, genre, and historical setting as these can all influence the meaning of a lemma in a specific context.

Concluding warnings and encouragement

Strong’s Concordance is an index of occurrences of a lemma in the original language of the biblical texts, it is not a lexicon/dictionary (and thus is not a reliable source for the meaning of a lexeme in a specific context). However, this tool is a great resource for those who wish to better understand how a lemma has been understood by English Bible translators in its other occurrences, and biblical study conducted using Strong’s Concordance can provide the impetus for many good questions about the biblical texts where someone trained in the original language(s) can assist you further with understanding the meaning of a lexeme in a specific text of interest (perhaps your interest in these questions will even drive you to study the original languages for yourself!).


Notes

This article has been adapted from one of my posts on the Biblical Hermeneutics Meta Stack Exchange site. Stack Exchange user contributions are licensed under cc by-sa 3.0 with attribution required.

This article was heavily influenced by a series of blog posts that address this superbly on the Armchair Theology site.

Footnotes

1 I took a course on the Bible during my undergraduate program where a classmate argued that the woman in Luke 8:43-44 had a sexually transmitted disease (STD) on the basis of the King James Version translation and corresponding Strong’s Concordance gloss. The relevant text in the KJV translation reads, “And a woman having an issue of blood twelve years … Came behind him, and touched the border of his garment: and immediately her issue of blood stanched.” She understood ‘issue’ to refer to a ‘problem in‘ the woman’s blood, rather than as (the correct understanding of the Greek text which is) ‘the flowing or coming out‘ of blood from the woman’s body, i.e. hemorrhaging (likely a medical condition related to menstruation).

2 Daniel B. Wallace. The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar. Zondervan, 2000, p. 21.

Tradition vs. Traditionalism

Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.

The paradigm is the problem

The economic paradigm of human organization doesn’t care. About life. Yours, mine, our grandkids, our planet’s. In any of it’s three aspects: not it’s potential, nor it’s possibility, nor it’s reality—life a beautiful and universal quest for self-realization. It’s sole end is maximizing immediate income. It doesn’t care if you’re happy or miserable, if you’re fulfilled or hollow, if you’re humane and gentle and wise or cruel and brutish and spiteful, if you flourish or wither as a human being, if the oceans dry up and die or teem joyously, if the skies turn to ash, if if you, me, our grandkids, or the planet, dies young or old, or if any of us live or die at all, in fact. It just doesn’t care. It wasn’t designed to. Thus, all that possibility, all that potential, is never realized: it’s used up to maximize immediate income. More and more, maximizing immediate income minimizes life’s potential….

Climate change happens when the planet’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Stagnation happens when people’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Inequality happens when a society’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. And extremism is a result of all that ripping yesterday’s stable and prosperous social contracts to shreds. Today’s great global problems are just surface manifestations of the same underlying breakdown — a badly, fatally, irreparably broken paradigm of human organization.

The paradigm is the problem. A solely, paradigmatically, one-dimensional economic approach to human organization. That old, rusting, busted, industrial-age, economic paradigm is what’s created the Massive Existential Threats the world faces today. The single-minded pursuit of maximizing short-term income (versus, for example, optimizing long-run well-being) is what’s ignited inequality, stagnation, climate change, and extremism—and the later problems that are likely to stem from them.

And so—it’s no coincidence—here we are. Desperately clutching the controls in a nose dive of human possibility. But the controls don’t seem to work anymore, do they?

Umair Haque, “The Story: Life, the World, Now, You, and Me” (Eudaimonia & Co. blog, Sep. 14, 2017), retrieved from https://eand.co/the-story-eea04d97062b.