Friday, May 29, 2015

Review of Presbytery Records

Since I have posted a number of things from RPR this week, some have had questions about what we are and what we do. So here goes, in a somewhat idealized fashion.

The PCA is a connectional denomination, which means that churches are mutually responsible to one another. The way that is expressed in Presbyterian government is in church courts (which are not the same as civil or criminal courts). At the lowest level is the session, which is the ruling body of the local church, made up of the minister (Teaching Elder, TE) and Ruling Elders (REs). Over the churches in a particular geographical location is the presbytery, made up of TEs and REs from the sessions of the churches in that region. Above the presbyteries (of which there are 82 in the PCA) is the General Assembly (GA), which is the national body, and which meets annually in a gathering made up of TEs and REs from the churches. Each court above the session is to exercise “review and control” (R&C) over the courts below it. So the presbytery exercises R&C over the local churches, and the GA exercises R&C over the presbyteries. What that means is that the presbytery is to review the actions of the various local sessions every year to make sure that everything is being done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40 is the “life verse” of Presbyterianism). Additionally, every year the GA is to review the actions of the presbyteries, toward the same end.

Presbyteries are responsible for such things as the examination of men for ordination as ministers, taking men training for the ministry under care and oversight, overseeing pastors and their relationships with their churches, and similar matters. Each year, each presbytery is to submit its minutes to the GA for review to make sure that everything that has been done is not only something that should have been done, but also that it has been done in the proper manner. That review is carried out by the Committee for the Review of Presbytery Records. The RPR is made up of one representative from each presbytery. It meets at the denominational headquarters in Atlanta about a month (although this year it was only two weeks) before the annual meeting of the GA. Before that meeting, all of the presbytery records are distributed to the members of the RPR. Usually, each member receives 2-3 sets of minutes to review, and is given guidelines for that review. This is referred to as a first reading. Each set of presbytery records is given two first readings, by RPR members who are not members of that presbytery. These first readings are done before the actually meeting of RPR.

Then, at the meeting of RPR, the minutes are reviewed again by teams of two, looking particularly at matters noted by the first readers (again, no member of RPR may review the work of his own presbytery). In any of these readings, anything improper that has been done (such as approving an inadequately trained man for ordination) is flagged as an “exception of substance.” Anything that has been done in an improper fashion is flagged as an “exception of form.” Once this “second reading” has been done, all the results are compiled in a master list in alphabetical order by presbytery. The RPR then goes through this master list, discussing each exception and evaluating its correctness. The exceptions of substance are compiled into the final report of the committee that goes to GA, where it is discussed and voted on. Exceptions of form are sent back to the presbyteries for their education. Any exceptions of substance that are approved at GA are sent back to the presbyteries for a formal response to the next year’s GA. Those responses are also reviewed by RPR and are flagged as either “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” For the latter, the presbytery must offer a better explanation and defense of what was done.

That is in brief the work of RPR. As someone once said, Catholics go to purgatory; Presbyterians go to RPR. Or, it takes a special kind of crazy to actually enjoy the work of RPR.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Overture 3: Parental Promises in the Baptismal Vow

When parents in the PCA present their children for baptism, they take three vows regarding their children. The first vow recognizes the child’s need of Christ. The second vow recognizes God’s covenant promises to his people and their children. In the third vow, the parents “unreservedly dedicate your child to God….” The language of dedication goes back to the late nineteenth century and earlier Presbyterian books of order. For many, the language of dedication is too much like the practice many Baptists have of a dedication ceremony for their children. (Just as an aside, it has always been curious to Presbyterians that many Baptists will argue against any New Testament basis for infant baptism, while apparently failing to recognize that there is even less evidence for any practice of infant dedication.)

This overture seeks to change the language of that third vow by replacing the clause “Do you now unreservedly dedicate your child to God” with the following: “Do you now acknowledge that God in his providence has placed this child within the covenant family, and entrusted (him/her) to your care….” The vow that follows remains unchanged, spelling out the parents’ responsibility, relying upon divine grace to set before him a godly example, to pray with and for him, to teach him the doctrines of our religion, and to bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

I have already seen some discussion of this overture online, and the views have been mixed. Some like the change. Some like the change but wish that the language were more eloquent, and some don’t like the change at all. I remain somewhat at sea with regard to this overture. I admit to being uncomfortable with the “dedicate” language, but I am also not particularly happy with the proposed change. After some thought, and a reconsideration of the vows as a whole, my preference would be as follows. The second vow reads: “Do you claim God’s covenant promises in (his) behalf, and do you look in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ for (his) salvation, as you do for your own?” It seems to me that this vow sets the stage for the third vow, and the proposed change is really a repetition of the second vow. On the other hand, the language of dedication appears to me to be unnecessary, so that the third vow, uttered in the context of the first and second vows (the second vow particularly) should simply eliminate the first clause, and read: “Do you now promise, in humble reliance upon divine grace, that you will endeavor to set before (him) a godly example, that you will pray with and for (him), that you will teach (him) the doctrines of our holy religion, and that you will strive, by all the means of God’s appointment, to bring (him) up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?”

I suspect that many will not like my proposal any better than they like the one in this overture. Some may like it even less. But as I say, I am still somewhat uncertain in my own mind, and I look forward to hearing the debate at General Assembly. Perhaps more clarity will come from an abundance of counselors.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

My Concerns About a “Recreations Clause” Study Committee

A number of years ago, I was in a presbytery meeting in which a young man was being examined for ordination. He was asked if he had any stated differences with the Westminster Standards. He said that he did, and referred to Larger Catechism 109 (dealing with images of God). He thought that the prohibition of images of Jesus, and the prohibition of mental images went beyond the Scriptures. He was asked if he had ever read anything defending the catechism’s position. He said he had not, and that he had no intention of doing so unless the presbytery required him to. He thought the catechism’s position sufficiently wrong on the face of it that he didn’t need to read anything defending it. The presbytery approved his stated difference as an allowable exception and proceeded to ordain him.

Though it deals with a different topic, I think the Sabbath “recreations” clause faces the same problem as the “images of Jesus” material in LC 109. We live in a culture in which the idea of blue laws, particularly dealing with Sunday commerce and recreation, has been under attack for decades. Perhaps most of those now coming for ordination in the PCA have been raised in a culture in which recreation on Sunday has been taken for granted. A quick trip to the store; local restaurant for lunch after church (after all, they offer a 15% discount for those who bring in their church bulletins); napping in front of the television playing the NFL game in the fall and winter. Further, they have grown up in a theological culture which is not much different. Most of evangelicalism in the United States is at best apathetic about the Sabbath. Most evangelicalism has been influenced by dispensationalism, which is more or less anti-Sabbatarian. Further, as far as I can tell, the seminaries training our candidates by and large do not require of their students any careful study of such issues.
So our civil culture and our theological culture alike lean against prohibiting “recreations” on the Sabbath. Then, we are presented the Dickensian bogeyman of the poor children of Sabbatarians, forced to sit in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs all Sunday afternoon, dressed in their Sunday-best, while their grim-faced father reads to them the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles.

In that context, it is difficult for the view of the Westminster standards to get a fair hearing. And given the discussion I have seen about Sabbath observance over the years, those in favor of removing the “recreations” clauses have usually not bothered to consider that maybe “recreations” meant something different four centuries ago than it does today. In other words, insofar as they have studied the issue, they have done so in a historically insensitive fashion. Thus, my fear is that a study committee may well come back with a report and a recommendation more influenced by our current cultural and theological climate than by a serious consideration of the biblical material and its theological implications.

Suppose, though, that the study committee brings back a strong report recommending that we preserve the present language of the standards. My fear is that it will have as much effect on the views and practices of men in the denomination as did the Federal Vision study committee report from a few years ago: that is, almost none.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Overtures 2 and 9: The “Recreations” Clauses. North Texas and Tennessee Valley Presbyteries

At several points in the doctrinal standards of the PCA (the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms) reference is made to prohibiting “recreations” on the Lord’s Day. The specific sections are: WCF 21.8; LC 117, 119, SC 60, 61. In every case the full phrase is “worldly employments and recreations.”

There are many men in the PCA who object to this language, perhaps thinking that it says more on the issue than the Scriptures themselves say, either explicitly or by good and necessary consequence (see final paragraph below). Presbyteries in the PCA have regularly ordained men who hold that some recreations are allowable on the Lord’s Day. These overtures call for the formation of a study committee to determine whether the Westminster doctrine is indeed what Scripture teaches. The overtures seem to presume that it is not, because they provide “corrected” language as an appendix to the overture.

The only difference between the overtures is that Tennessee Valley Presbytery appends a short paper (about 8-10 pp double-spaced) defending the removal of the “recreations” clauses. Here is not the place to go into the various objections that men have with regard to the “recreations.” But based on my own experience in presbytery, many men appear not to have studied the question carefully. They simply object to what they think the Westminster Standards might be saying.

Insofar as a study committee is concerned, I have no objection to the idea. In fact, if the study committee does its job properly it would at least clarify the issue at the heart of this discussion. That issue is, “What do the Standards mean by ‘recreations’”? Most people probably think that the Standards mean the same thing we do by “recreations.” But that strikes me as very unlikely. Language changes over time and historical contexts change over time. Thus we need to read old literature with careful attention to the meaning that words had at the time the document was written. “Prevent” in the KJV does not mean the same thing as “prevent” in the NASB. Even a single term, used in different contexts, can have very different meanings. I remember a lifetime ago filing a complaint against a particular action of the session of the church I was attending. A number of people in the congregation were offended because I dared to complain about the session. They understood “complaint” in its ordinary colloquial sense. But I used it in its technical legal sense. The failure to understand the difference caused offense.

The main problem that I have with these overtures is not the proposal of a study committee, but rather the way the overtures already weigh the results of the study committee in favor of the removal of the clauses.

I will come back and visit this again in another post.

(“Good and necessary consequence” is a phrase commonly used in theological discussion which means that the particular doctrine may not be explicitly stated in the Bible, but nonetheless is taught by the Bible based on fair and right conclusions from what the Bible does explicitly state. So, for example, the church holds the doctrine of the Trinity, though there is no verse in the Bible that says that God is triune. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed by good and necessary consequence from a comparison of Scripture with Scripture.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Overture 1: Pacific Northwest Presbytery

In Presbyterian government, there are two possible subsets of the particular court of the church (session, presbytery, General Assembly). The first is a committee. The committee can “examine, consider, and report” to the court on any issue assigned to it. But the committee cannot make any judgment on the matter. That judgment is left to the court. The second subset is a commission. “A commission is authorized to deliberate upon and conclude the business referred to it” (BCO 15-1). In other words, the commission acts in place of the court. The one exception to this rule is the judicial commission. A judicial commission can be assigned a case (if the court doesn't want to deal with it directly). When the judicial commission completes its work, it submits its record of the case and its judgment to the court. At this point, the court can either approve or disapprove the judgment of the commission.

In the overture from PNWP, they propose a third option, which would allow the commission the final say. The presbytery would assign the case to the commission with the understanding that the judgment of the case rendered by the commission will be the judgment of the presbytery. So in judicial cases, there would be three options: 1) the presbytery could try the case with the presbytery as a whole; 2) the presbytery could assign the case to a commission, with presbytery rendering the final approval on the judgment; or 3) the presbytery could allow the commission the final say from the beginning, without any final approval by the presbytery as a whole.

The rationale for this third option is that the presbytery as a whole might not have sufficient knowledge of the case to vote intelligently in approving or disapproving the judgment of the commission. It would also provide for a quicker decision on the case, since the judgment would not have to wait until the next meeting of presbytery to go into effect.

This revision of the BCO was first proposed by another presbytery last year, but it was sent back for further perfection. There is admittedly a certain attractiveness to the overture, particularly in the desire to streamline the process. It also recognizes that the presbytery often votes to approve the judgment of the commission on the basis of the presbytery simply trusting that the commission did its work properly.

However, this strikes me as being essentially the same rationale that provided the PCA with its current Standing Judicial Commission of the General Assembly. While that seemed good at the time, there has developed a great deal of discomfort with the way it has worked out in the long run. As a result, my own sense is that such a change is unnecessary. Rather, there ought simply to be an understanding that the requirements that the BCO already puts upon a judicial commission should always be followed. As the BCO currently reads, “a commission shall keep a full record of its proceedings, which shall be submitted to the court appointing it” (emphasis added). That record should then be made available to the presbytery as a whole in a timely manner, so that presbyters have sufficient time to review the record of the case. That way, the presbytery will be able to vote approve/disapprove in an intelligent fashion.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Overtures to the 2015 PCA General Assembly

First, a quick explanation for those who don’t know anything about the government of the PCA. The PCA is a connectional denomination, which means that the various churches that make up the denomination are considered to be connected to one another; not separate and distinct entities. The denomination has three levels of government: 1) the session, which is the governing body of the local church, made up of ruling elders (REs) and teaching elders (TEs, that is, pastors); 2) the presbytery, which is the governing body of a region of churches, made up of REs and TEs from the churches within the regional bounds of the presbytery; 3) the General Assembly, made up of REs and TEs from the churches of the denomination.

The General Assembly (GA) meets annually. This year it is meeting in Chattanooga, TN. Each year, various proposals, called overtures, come from presbyteries for the GA to consider and act on. Since the denomination is connectional, the decisions made by the GA are binding on the presbyteries and the churches. Some years, many overtures come before the GA. This year there are ten overtures, plus one that was submitted last year, but was returned for further study.

Three of the ten overtures have to do with what I call “housekeeping.” Palmetto Presbytery (the second-largest presbytery in the denomination) is proposing to divide into three smaller presbyteries. Southwest Florida and Sun Coast Florida are proposing to redraw the boundaries of the presbyteries, so that some churches will move from one presbytery to another. I don’t expect any opposition to these changes.

A fourth overture is seeking to memorialize the work of John Wayne King, who spent much of his career doing Bible translation in Malaysia. Mr. King died last year. I don’t expect any opposition to this overture either, though it does not appear to be something that is done frequently.

The other overtures are more substantive. I will summarize them here, then deal with them in more detailed fashion in coming posts. North Texas Presbytery and Tennessee Valley Presbyteries have overtured the GA to establish a study committee to change the language in the Westminster Confession and catechisms in regard to the idea of recreation on the Sabbath. I will have more to say about this, but I would not be surprised if the GA approved the study committee.

Pacific Northwest Presbytery is seeking some changes in the PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) with regard to how presbyteries may deal with a judicial case. Gulf Coast Presbytery is seeking to change the language in the vows that parents take when they present their children for baptism, since the language in one of the vows seems more Baptistic than Presbyterian. Tidewater Presbytery is seeking to change the language in the BCO regarding ministers and other church officers who are currently without call (that is, a minister who is currently not serving in any ministerial capacity). This one strikes me as interesting due to the way the overture is structured. The session of New Hope PCA in Fairfax, VA has presented an overture that seeks to require an accused church officer to testify in a judicial case. This is a case in which church law would differ from civil law. This is also an interesting overture, and I’ll be back to review it. Finally, the overture from last year from Potomac Presbytery proposes that a provisional presbytery be created for Paraguay, with a view toward establishing a Presbyterian denomination in that country.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The State of the PCA

A post with this title by Bryan Chapell ( appeared earlier this week. A response a couple of day later appeared from Rick Phillips ( So I figured I’d add my two cents worth.

First, where I’m coming from. I have served the entirety of my ministry in the PCA in Calvary Presbytery, which is probably notorious as one of the more conservative presbyteries in the denomination. I am not widely traveled in PCA circles, unlike both Bryan and Rick. I teach at Greenville Presbyterian Seminary, which at least some folks in the PCA have never heard of, and some wish they hadn't. I attend GA sporadically, though I have served three years on the Review of Presbytery Records Committee. So my perspective is parochial, but informed by a certain level of awareness of what’s going on the denomination at large.

First, I think Rick got a lot right in his response to Bryan. I would fall into the “traditionalist” group that Dr. Chapell identified, but I don’t recognize myself in his description. In fact, I was shocked by how far off his description was. I thought he knew his denomination better than that. His statement identifying Colson, Falwell, Robertson, and other such as being the heroes of the over-50 crowd couldn't be wider of the mark. There are no doubt those in the denomination who looked to those men as Christian leaders thirty years ago, but even then, they would not necessarily have considered them heroes or even good guides on how best the church should function. I appreciate some of the things that Al Mohler and Russell Moore have to say, and I’m thankful to God for their work, but I wouldn't want either one of them in my presbytery.

Further, his characterization of the progressive churches as the ones that are growing, and the churches of the others (traditionalists and neutrals) as not is unkind as well as inaccurate. Certainly there are churches in all three groups that are growing, and there are churches in all three groups that are not. There are also many PCA churches that are located in rural areas with small populations where much growth will not happen, no matter how “progressive” the church might be.

I could go on in this vein, but Dr. Phillips has already dealt with much of it. Instead I want to focus on one statement that Dr. Chapell made, and one point that neither he nor Dr. Phillips addressed. Dr. Chapell made the comment early on that the progressives “are increasingly concerned that the church cannot move forward without controversy.” It may come as a surprise to Dr. Chapell and the “progressives,” but the church has never moved forward without controversy. There were the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the early church. There was the iconoclastic controversy of the medieval church. There were generations of controversy leading up to the big controversy of the Reformation. There was the Synod of Dordt. There was the Westminster Assembly. There were the Old Side-New Side and Old School-New School controversies. Why should we think that in our church in our generation the church should move forward without controversy? I don’t like controversy. I fear those who do. But iron sharpens iron, and that means disagreement. If those in the PCA are unwilling to engage with those in the denomination with whom they disagree, there is no hope for the long-term viability of the denomination. But if we’re going to disagree with one another, we need to know those with whom we disagree better than Dr. Chapell seems to.

Finally, there is an issue that neither Dr. Chapell nor Dr. Phillips addressed. That is the ministry and outreach of the PCA to minorities. Now I know that some of my African-American and Hispanic brothers think that there is too little of this going on. I understand their concern, and I sympathize with them. But I would also like to encourage them. It may not seem like much now, but given where the PCA started, and the fact that the PCA has only been round for a little over forty years, the PCA has actually made significant progress in these areas. Yes, it needs to make more. But that will only come by patient sowing and watering. There are increasing numbers of church plants and outreaches by PCA ministers and churches to minority communities. My generation (I am 61) will not see much fruit from these works. There is too much baggage that needs to be cleared out. But the next generation will see more, and hopefully the following generation even more. But we do well to remember Paul’s admonition, "And let us not grow weary of doing good. for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up" (Gal 6:9)

In short, the PCA can have a bright future, but it will take more getting to know one another, and what others really think and are committed to, and willingness to engage in some controversy when necessary.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Sin of Ham

This comes initially from one of those pointless Facebook debates that I almost got into a few months ago, from which I was delivered at the last moment by remembering that it was not my circus, and they were not my monkeys. A friend of a friend was aghast that I thought Augustine was a true Christian. His rationale was that Augustine held to a number of aberrant doctrines that would certainly have kept him from being approved by any PCA presbytery. In spite of that, I continue to believe that Augustine was a truly converted man.

How, then, do I get from Augustine to the sin of Ham? First, I want my redemptive-historical brothers to know that I am aware of all the “Noah as the new Adam” material in Genesis 9. I am also aware that Christ is the true Noah, who gives us rest from the works of our hands (Gen 5:29). But if that’s all you see in the passage, you need to look closer. The passage is one of those cryptic passages that occur often in the Old Testament. A consulting of any commentary will show a number of different views of what transpired following Noah’s drunkenness. I won’t review them here, simply because I think the sin of Ham is fairly obvious, and that there is a real lesson for us here. Ham’s sin was in his humiliation of his father by calling unnecessary attention to his father’s sin, in fact mocking his father. The contrast in Gen 9:20-24 is between the behavior of Ham and that of his brothers. Unlike Ham, Shem and Japheth covered their father’s nakedness, covering his sin, as it were.

I think there is in this a lesson for us in how we are to treat our fathers; not only our biological fathers, but our fathers in the faith. It is significant that after Genesis 9, Noah’s transgression is never again mentioned. In fact, in the seven subsequent references to Noah in the Bible, one is simply his part in the genealogy of 1 Chronicles (1:4), three refer to the judgment of the flood (Is 54:9; 1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5); and three refer to Noah as an example of faith (Ezek 14:14, 20; Heb 11:7). The Bible does not hide Noah’s sin, but neither does it elevate that sin over his faith. David is treated similarly. Yes, his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah is dealt with in 2 Sam 11-12, and the consequences of that sin color the remainder of David’s life. But later references to David emphasize his faith, and he became the standard to which later kings of Israel were compared.

We are faced with two temptations in dealing with our fathers, whether our biological fathers or our fathers in the faith. Particularly regarding our fathers in the faith, the one temptation is hagiography, treating them as if they were perfect and had no sin. The other is to focus in their sin alone, as if those shortcomings defined the man. I've been guilty of both of these, and no doubt those temptations are constant.

But in some quarters, I see a great deal of the attitude of Ham. Our fathers failed in some particular area. Our fathers committed, regularly and often, and apparently without pangs of conscience, sins that seem great and heinous to us. They were insensitive to things that we are exquisitely sensitive to. So we deride them, we mock them, and we hold them up for ridicule. They can be safely ignored, because of their great sins. We can toss Augustine onto the ash heap of history because of his aberrant doctrines. He obviously has nothing to teach us.

As I've gotten older, I think I have developed a greater sympathy for the sins and shortcomings of my fathers in the faith. I hope that I have moved from the sin of Ham to the mercy and kindness of Shem and Japheth. We don’t want to pretend that our fathers had no sin. But we should recall that their sin was not the defining element of their lives. Rather, it is their faith and their godliness, however frail, that still speak to us. I hope that our children, our successors in the faith, will treat us more kindly than we have sometimes treated our predecessors: that they might focus on our faith and not on the sin that will seem so obvious to them, but to which we are, apparently, blind.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Context and Structure of Psalm 90

The title tells us that the psalm is a prayer of Moses, making it probably the oldest psalm in the book. But it gives us no direct evidence of when in the life of Moses it was written. But the content itself and the structure of the psalm can lead us to some consideration of a good possibility for the context. This in turn can assist us in our reflections on the psalm, and its application for us.

The psalm breaks down into three sections: 1-2, 3-11, and 12-17. The first section proclaims God and his eternality. The second section portrays man in his brevity. The third section is a prayer that springs from the first two sections, emphasizing a desire for God himself to establish our work.

A further consideration of the second section is perhaps the key to the entire psalm. It focuses on God’s wrath against our sin as the cause for the brevity of our lives. We see this especially in vss 7-9. Verse 7 is particularly acute here, as it is a little self-contained chiasm (an X-structure). In this case, the English translations enable the reader to see the chiasm that is in the original.
For we are brought to an enda by your anger;b
And by your wrathb1 we are dismayed.a1
The center of the chiasm is the wrath/anger of God, and the following verse emphasizes our sins as the cause of the wrath. The section ends with a restatement of the incomprehensible wrath of God.

In reflecting particularly on this center section, it appears to me likely that this prayer came out of the final months of Moses’ life. He has watched an entire generation of God’s people be swept away in his wrath due to their rebellion, and refusal to enter the land of promise. Given the count of the two censuses in Numbers (chs 1 and 26), it is likely that Moses oversaw the death of some one to two million people during that forty years. On average that would be seventy to one hundred forty people dying per day; day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. No wonder Moses speaks in terms of them being swept away like a flood (vs 5: the word that the ESV translates as “sweep them away” occurs only here in the Old Testament, so the meaning is not precisely clear; it may mean simply “to bring to an end”).

That image of an entire generation brought to an end by the wrath of God anchors the psalm. It is from that context that Moses’ plea comes as the psalm ends. It is not just the generation lost in the wilderness, but every generation of God’s people that comes on the scene, and then just as quickly is swept away. Thus we are to number our days, to count them carefully, to take the brevity of our lives seriously, and pray that God would establish the work of our hands. Again here, I imagine Moses on the plains of Moab now thinking about the generation to come, not the generation gone. His plea is that the days of affliction and evil might not continue in the next generation, but rather that they might be days of gladness; that God might so work among his people that the labor of their years would stand. May that be our prayer as well.

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3, Part 2

First, a note on the translation of the Septuagint. The last word in the verse, translated as “faithfulness” in many translations, is ‘emunah. It is possible that the Septuagint translator was reading a text that read hamonah, which would be translated as “wealth” or “riches.” The two Hebrew words would sound very much alike. Hence, if a scribe was copying a text being read to him, he might write hamonah instead of ‘emunah. That is simply a guess, as we have no Hebrew manuscripts that read hamonah in this place. But that would explain the unusual translation.

As for the English versions, a number of possibilities exist. Most translations take the final word as the object of the verb, hence the translations “cultivate faithfulness,” “feed on faithfulness,” etc. Other translations take the final noun as functioning as an adverb, hence the translations “live securely” or the KJV “verily thou shalt be fed.”

The adverbial view, while possible, strikes me as unlikely for two main reasons. First, the noun itself is only used adverbially in one case: Psalm 119:75, which says, “in faithfulness you have afflicted me” (ESV) or “you have afflicted me fairly” (CSB). In all other cases, it functions as an ordinary noun. Thus it seems to me to be stretching a point to render the noun as an adverb here in Psalm 37:3.
The other reason for rejecting the adverbial use is the structure of the verse itself. In the verse, there are four imperatives, each followed by a noun. In the first three cases, the noun is clearly the object of the verb: “trust in the Lord,” “and do good,” “dwell in the land.” As a result, it seems most likely that the final clause is also an imperative followed by a direct object: “shepherd/graze/befriend faithfulness.”

The question then becomes, what does that final clause mean? My sense is that it closely parallels the clause “and do good.” The command concerns our action. As we are to make goodness our aim, so we are also to make faithfulness our aim. The verse begins and ends with trust/faithfulness. Trust in the Lord … shepherd faithfulness. It is not a general faithfulness that we are to shepherd/cultivate/befriend, that is, faithfulness to our fellow man (though that is certainly not out of the picture), but rather faithfulness to God. If we look at the next verse, we read “take delight in the Lord.” This helps to clarify the sense of the last clause of verse 3. As difficult as a comparison of English versions may make the verse appear, it is really not too difficult, once the interpreter looks more closely at the context.

As I frequently tell my Hebrew students: Pay attention to the context. The meaning comes not from single words considered in isolation, but in their larger connections in the context.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Curious Case of Psalm 37:3

Last Sunday morning in Sunday school, one of the verses we looked at was Psalm 37:3. I had a copy of the ESV, and my wife had a copy of the NASB. She noted that the second half of the verse said, “Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.” I looked at the ESV, which says, “Dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” Since the two translations are very different, she asked me what explained the difference. Off the top of my head, I suggested that there are two verbs in Hebrew, spelled exactly alike, but with very different meanings. Checking it that afternoon, I discovered that my hunch was correct. Ordinarily, the context will be sufficient to determine which of the two verbs is intended. But in Psalm 37:3, the context is sufficiently vague that it is not clear at first which verb might be intended.

The NASB translators chose one verb, which ordinarily means to tend, shepherd, or graze. Hence, the NASB translators took an extended sense of that verb and rendered it “cultivate.” This is the rendering also suggested by the nineteenth century German scholar Franz Delitzsch. The ESV translators chose the other verb, which means to have dealings with, thus the somewhat extended sense of “befriend.”

Then I got curious and looked at other translations. What I found is that there is no consensus on the translation of the passage. Usually in this kind of case, there will be a certain unity among translations, so that one choice will be a clear favorite. No so with Psalm 37:3. The following are the various translations that I have pulled up in my Bible study software (in addition to the ESV and NASB):

Common English Bible: Live in the land and farm faithfulness.
Christian Standard Bible: Dwell in the land and live securely.
God’s Word to the Nations: Live in the land, and practice being faithful.
KJV: So shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
NIV: Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
New Jerusalem Bible: Make your home in the land and live secure.
NKJV: Dwell in the land and feed on his faithfulness.
New Living Translation: Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
New RSV: So you will live in the land, and enjoy security.

Then, just out of further curiosity, I looked at the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). It says, “And inhabit the land, and you shall shepherd its riches.”

All of these versions, except the Septuagint, can be defended as acceptable translations of the Hebrew text. But, as you might suspect, some are better than others. It is the better ones that point to the meaning of this apparently simple verse that hides a real complexity beneath its surface.
I’ll deal with that discussion in the next post.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Song of Songs and the Matter of Context

Let us suppose that the Song of Songs was never included in Scripture, that there were only 65 books in the canon. Let us further suppose that a discovery was made in modern Jordan in the early 1950s, in which a number of scrolls were found. Among them was a collection, or what appeared to be a collection, of occasionally erotic poetry. We could tell from the language that it was written in, and from some of the names used, that it was of late Israelite or early Jewish origin. 

We would then begin to compare it to other ancient literature, because that is what we would have; simply ancient literature. But the essential question would be, to what do we compare it? We might compare it to collections of Syrian wedding festival songs, just because of location, and the occasionally erotic character of the poems. But there is nothing specific about the material that says wedding. Or we might compare it to Akkadian hymns to Tammuz, though there is nothing in the collection that particularly says a hymn to a god. Or we might compare it to collections of ancient Egyptian love poetry, because the content of the collection we've found is very close to the content of some of those Egyptian poems. But we would do those comparisons because the collection we found would not come with a particular context, and if we were to rightly understand it, we would need to find the proper context for interpreting it.

But the situation with the Song of Songs is completely different from that of our hypothetical find. The Song of Songs comes to us with a known and certain context. It is part of the collection of sacred scripture. Thus, it is sacred scripture itself that should provide the context for our interpretation of the Song. We don’t know what connection, if any, the Song might have to Syrian wedding festivals. We don’t know what connection, if any, the Song might have to Akkadian hymns to Tammuz or Egyptian love poetry. In fact, what we do know is that to compare the Song to those literatures is to take the Song out of the context which has been provided for it and put it in a new and alien context. To take the Song away from the context of the larger body of scripture and to put it in the context of the literature of some other nation from some other time is almost to guarantee that we will misinterpret the Song, because we will have removed the Song from its proper interpretive context.

In some sense, it doesn't matter where in the canon of scripture the Song is found. In our English versions, it is part of the poetic books. In Hebrew texts it is part of the collection called the Writings. But regardless of where it is put, the larger context for the interpretation of the Song has already been given us. It is part of the sacred scriptures, and those scriptures give us the framework for interpreting the Song. If we take a statement about bases out of a chemistry textbook, and put it in a baseball book, we will surely misinterpret it. In like manner, if we take the Song out of the context of Scripture and put it in some other ancient literary context, we will surely misinterpret it, because we have put it in the wrong context.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The Song of Songs and Ancient Near Eastern Literature

For historical-grammatical interpretation (HGI) part pf the “historical” aspect is to seek to understand the biblical text in its historical context. That means looking at the biblical material in the larger context of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature. Such an investigation affects most books of the Old Testament, but particularly the Song of Songs. The current consensus about the book, if there is one, is that the Song of Songs has a great deal in common with ancient Egyptian love poetry. Thus a common treatment of the Song today is to deal with it as a collection of Israelite love poetry, similar in vein and in purpose to the love poetry of ancient Egypt. This view is presented, for example, by Michael V. Fox (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox) in his monograph The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs.

But those who have spent some time in the literature about the Song have heard this before. In the 1860s and 1870s, Ernest Renan and J. G. Wetstein, both specialists, in their own way, in Near Eastern literature and culture, proposed (Renan first, in the 1860s, Wetstein a decade or so later) that the Song had a great deal in common with the songs that were used in Syrian culture to celebrate marriage, over the course of a seven-day wedding festival. Thus, in the generation following, many commentators found strong parallels between the Song and these Syrian compositions, attempting to find the seven-day cycle in the arrangement of the Song, for example. But time passed, and the more closely scholars looked at the evidence, the less they were convinced.

In the 1920s, T. J. Meek of the University of Chicago discovered strong similarities between the Song and Akkadian (Akkadian was the language of ancient Assyria and Babylon) hymns composed in praise of the god Tammuz. He proposed that the Song was an adaptation of Akkadian hymnody to Tammuz appropriated for the worship of Yahweh. Again, a number of commentators over the next couple of decades reflect this view. But once again, over time the strength of the evidence waned, and scholars moved away from that view as well.

As noted, the current view is that of Fox, reflected in a number of commentaries. But Fox’s book was published in 1985, and it is now probably approaching its sell-by date. So the reader begins to wonder where the next set of ANE literary connections with the Song will be found.

Meanwhile, some people still hold that the Song is a drama, although there is little agreement on how many characters there are, or how to divide the Song into acts and scenes. In general, there is little agreement as to the outline of the Song. I have before me four current study Bibles. Now the advantage of study Bibles is that they try to present something of a consensus view on all issues. The reader can decide for himself how much agreement there is in these outlines.

NKJV Study Bible
I.                   Three reflections on the wedding day (1:2-2:7)
II.                Three reflections during the courtship days (2:8-3:5)
III.             Two reflections on the wedding day (3:6-5:1)
IV.              Five reflections on adjustment to marriage (5:2-8:4)
V.                 A final reflection: a vacation in the country (8:5-14)

Reformation Study Bible
I.                   The woman’s desire for her lover (1:2-2:7)
II.                The approach of her lover (2:8-3:5)
III.             The loss of her lover (3:6-5:8)
IV.              The reunion of the lovers (5:9-8:4)
V.                 Consummation (8:5-14)

NLT Study Bible
I.                   The Woman’s predicament with Solomon (1:2-14)
II.                Their prenuptial relationship (1:15-3:5)
III.             Their wedding and consummation (3:6-5:1)
IV.              Her nightmare, separation, and searching (5:2-6:3)
V.                 Their stimulating marriage (6:4-8:10)
VI.              Free from debt, free to love (8:11-14)

ESV Study Bible
I.                   The lovers yearn for each other (1:2-2:17)
II.                The shepherdess dreams (3:1-6:3)
III.             The lovers year for each other again (6:4-8:4)
IV.              The lovers join in marriage (8:5-14)

The reader might be forgiven for thinking of the theme verse of the Book of Judges. In any case, it is not clear that a literal reading of the Song, in its ANE context, has any clear benefits over the historical allegorical/symbolic treatment.