Handle the Text Carefully

When we preach we explain the meaning of details in a Bible passage. We do more than that too, of course. But here are five quick reminders about handling the text carefully:

1. Remember that the passage was originally written in another language, even though you probably don’t need to mention it. As one of my teachers put it, “Greek is like your underwear, it is important to have it on, but don’t let it show.” I think there is wisdom in both halves of that thought. We should use the languages as best we can in preparation, and generally, there is wisdom in not talking about it when we preach. For people who have never learned Hebrew and Greek, it is important to remember that there is both linguistic and cultural distance between the original text and our translation. It is wise to consult serious commentaries as you are preparing, and it is very wise to not support your presentation by appealing to the original language, especially if you are not comfortable translating the passage for yourself.

2. Be grateful for the English translation you have. While it is good to interact with some heavyweight commentators to help you with the original, be thankful for the translations we have. We don’t need to undermine our listener’s confidence in good translations by how we explain the text.

3. The meaning of words will change over time, so don’t build a point on the origins of a word. I read a few deliberately outrageous examples in a Moises Silva article that reinforce this point. He demonstrated, for instance, how we should not trust ranchers because of the old French etymological connection to our term, deranged. Or the argument that dancing should be forbidden for Christians because the word ballet comes from a Greek term that also shows up as part of the origin of the term translated “devil.” Don’t do that. Words mean what they mean in their context, in their contemporary usage at the time of writing.

4. Don’t read every possible meaning of a word into a specific instance. Let the context identify the meaning of a word. The other possibilities listed in the dictionary or lexicon need not concern you as you preach it. Take the term “chip” in this sentence – “The problem with your computer is a burned-out chip.” It doesn’t matter that the term can be used for a deep-fried potato chunk served hot in England, or a fried slice of potato served cold in America, or a piece of wood flying as the lumberjack chops at a tree trunk, or a useful shot for a golfer stuck in a bunker. Other possible meanings do not matter when the sentence itself clarifies the intended meaning.

5. Context really is king. When it comes to explaining the meaning of a detail in a text, context is always the golden guideline. Don’t get caught up building a point on a nuance of grammar, or a subtlety of vocabulary. Those finer points can usually be left in your study notes, or used to support what you are saying, but if you are going to make a big point about meaning, generally it should be made using context as your primary evidence.

We have to explain the meaning of the text whenever we preach. Let’s keep prayerfully pondering how we can do that in a way that is clear, helpful, instructive and not distracting.

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3 thoughts on “Handle the Text Carefully

  1. “I read a few deliberately outrageous examples in a Moises Silva article. He demonstrated how we should not trust ranchers because of the old French etymological connection to our term, deranged.”

    I’m very, very puzzled by this statement. From what I know of Moises Silva’s writing I would expect him to be arguing the exact opposite, and if he did use that example it would be to demonstrate the Etymological Fallacy (which is the technical linguistic term for this form of argument), not to endorse it. Perhaps the words ‘deliberately outrageous’ hint that this was what he was doing, but then to state ‘He demonstrated how we should not trust …’ implies that the author here thinks that Silva had that as his aim. These two sentences are, to say the least, confusing.

    I wonder if the author here would quote the exact source of the article by Moises Silva which is referred to so that I could check the original context?

    • Thanks for your comment. I apologise, I wrote too briefly and didn’t clarify that Moises Silva was demonstrating the Etymological Fallacy by the examples he gave. He was saying that we can end up saying nonsense by getting into the original root meanings of words. The original article “Using and Abusing Language” is chapter 7 in Roy Zuck’s Rightly Divided: Readings in Biblical Hermeneutics, and was taken from Silva and Kaiser’s introductory text to Hermeneutics.

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