Thursday, December 28, 2006

This past week I have significantly re-written and added to my post on "Housebuilding" on the Foundation. Meditating on the topic is an ongoing thing for me, and as I've done so, I've felt the need to make some crisper leaps of logic in certain areas of that post. As I've taken the liberty to re-write and add, I've been adding to the post like a baker adds ingredients to the bread he is kneading. At this point, the post has grown into something that could have easy made for two healthy sized posts.

And so goes the organic process of me working out my various theses out here in cyberspace.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Paul and the covenant of Abraham in Galatians

This is the beginning of my intermittent and ongoing examination of Paul's breakdown of law, faith, obedience and grace.

In Galatians, Paul looks at God’s covenant with Abraham not as something that was ever intended to operate in the literal, common sense understanding as it was presented to Abraham in Genesis but as a covenant that contained encoded elements would be refracted into different applications in the course of redemptive history. In Galatians, Paul makes interpretive leaps in regard to the symbolism covenant of God with Abraham as they apply to the Gospel: Paul works backward from:

A) The nature of justification by faith as taught by and provided by Jesus Christ
B) The way in which the original promise to Abraham was intended to benefit all nations
C) The consistent failure of the Jews to uphold the law that they had been given as a covenant, and the implications of the curse that comes with the failure to do so

The Seed

The common sense understanding of the word "seed" in Genesis 13:15-16 is that it is being used like the word "fish" or "deer", since it is being used its immediate context to be as innumerable as the "dust" and the "stars". I don't know whether anyone would have ever referred to someone as having "seeds" to refer to their having multiple offspring as opposed to having just one offspring, and I don't know if "seed" as synonymous with "offspring" was ever understood to be anything other than a non-count noun.

Nevertheless, in Galatians 3:16 Paul interprets that the singularity of the word "seed", as opposed to "seeds", is due to something that was encoded into God's covenant with Abraham (and possibly, by extension, even encoded into the Hebrew language) that was not to be understood until the time of Christ. To Paul, the use of “seed” in Genesis as a singular word, as opposed to “seeds”, is indicative of the singularity of Christ as a single man.

Having established the importance of the singularity of "seed", Paul deals with the non-count aspect of "seed" as something that refers to all those who are counted as being part of Christ.
It is on the basis of both the singularity aspect and the non-count aspect of "seed" that Paul understands God's covenant with Abraham's "seed" as one in which Christ Jesus is the primary Recipient of the covenant, while Abraham and everyone who operates by faith are the secondary recipients (Galatians 3:29). It is with this understanding, parsing the word "seed" that Paul is able to refract the covenant of Abraham into an understanding of justification through faith in Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus—as the primary recipient of the covenant— lived the covenant perfectly and could thus extend the blessings of the perfectly-followed covenant to all those who had failed. Paul is then also able to deal with how the covenant extends blessings to all nations, as the covenant extends, secondarily, to all those who are connected to Jesus.

Paul advances this idea of how people are connected to Christ/the Seed by interpreting Abraham's biological descendents to be symbolic of those who would have faith as Abraham had faith, and thereby be “children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). Paul further advances this idea with his analysis of Hagar vs. Sarah in Galatians 4:21-28. To Paul, it is Ishmael, who was born of biological means that were not specially assisted by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Hagar, who is representative of those born to Abraham only biologically. To Paul, it is Isaac, who was born by means that were specially assisted by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Sarah and born of a specific promise, who represents all who are born of the Spirit.

In same manner that the blessing extends secondarily to people beyond Jesus, so too does the curse of not following the covenant extend secondarily to people beyond Jesus. It is this curse that Jesus—being the primary Recipient of the covenant—bore for all those people who are secondary recipients of it. It is this that enables people who have faith in Jesus to be free of the curse that they, secondarily, bear.

In regard to the promise that is given to the "seed" in Genesis 17:7-9, to Paul, the “land” of Canaan that is presented to Abraham in literal terms, is for Paul symbolic of the promise of all of God’s blessings that would come through the Seed/Christ and to all who are part of the Seed/Christ. In his analysis of the meaning of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians 4:21-28, Paul talks of the “Jerusalem above” that is the actual blessing of the promise to Abraham as opposed to the “Jerusalem below”.

Based on how Paul organizes the covenant into its primary and secondary recipients, Paul makes a distinction between the aspect of the covenant that extends from God to Abraham and the aspect of the covenant that extends from Abraham back to God. While the latter aspect of the covenant is indicative of the binding covenant that was dealt with by the covenant’s primary Recipient, the former aspect of the covenant is indicative of God’s unending and unbreakable promise to the Recipient and to all the secondary recipients whose covenant failures are covered by the Recipient.

For the secondary recipients, the aspect of the covenant that extends from God to Abraham is an unending promise to Abraham and his heirs that would not be breakable despite any future failures that Abraham's heirs might have. As such, it was a promise that was not bound by whether those secondary recipients unfailingly followed the covenant. As such, the promise could not be supplanted by any future covenant that was based on whether secondary recipients were successful in following that covenant (Galatians 3:17).

It is on this basis that Paul makes a substantive distinction between what is at the core of the covenant of Abraham and the covenant on Mount Sinai. As Paul says in Galatians 3:19-20, it is Christ, who is one with God, whom Paul considers to be the Seed, whom Paul distinguishes from those who received the law on Mount Sinai through a “mediator”, since a mediator mediates between two different parties. Paul does not consider the promise to the Seed as something that could be broken by the Jews' failure to obey the covenant on Mount Sinai because the covenant on Mount Sinai was made directly to the secondary recipients of the covenant of Abraham.


To Paul, the circumcision that was woven into the covenant of Abraham was symbolic of commandments that were to be given 430 years later on Mount Sinai and that would carry the explicit threat that secondary recipients would be abandoned by God if they failed to obey the commandments. Circumcision, in the context of the law, says, “may I be cut off from my descendents if I don’t keep the law”. In this way, the circumcision was a “proto-law” given symbolically 430 years before Mount Sinai that would contain binding language bearing blessings to those who followed it and threats to those who didn't.

Paul says that circumcision was symbolic of the full weight of the law covenant and its threats that the Israelites needed to be 1) presented with and then 2) need to be freed from in regard to their obligations to it as a covenant. The law, though it could never be the basis for a lasting and binding covenant, was presented to the Israelites on Mount Sinai as though it were a binding covenant for a period of time in order to tutor the Israelites to give them enough of an understanding of the law until the “faith should be revealed” (Galatians 3:23-25). When the "faith was revealed", the law would not be destroyed, but its purpose would be re-oriented. The binding language of the law would be directed away from secondary recipients and onto its primary Recipient (who had been the true Recipient all along). At that point, the law would no longer be presented as a binding contract to secondary recipients but would be subservient to the requirements of faith in the lives of secondary recipients.

To Paul, it is in Christ that the true purpose of circumcision was revealed: that circumcision was an indication of the curse that people where bound to when they failed to perfectly follow the covenant of Abraham and the law perfectly. It is circumcision that was intended to operate in primarily as symbolizing the covenant between God and the Recipient. It was this curse that secondary recipients of the covenant were freed from when they accepted the perfection of the primary Recipient as a covering. It is for this reason that Paul, knowing the full revealed meaning of circumcision in the context of Christ, says to the Galatians in 5:2-3, "if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all".

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Thoughts on Borat and the religion of pop-art

A few weeks ago, I followed the hype into the theater and saw Borat.

I care about the idea of decency and decent behavior and I also care about art. I’d like to think that the two can co-exist somehow. Unlike some among the secular avante-garde, I don’t believe that decency is ultimately the enemy of truly great art – even thought the two might rub each other the wrong way sometimes. Art that is worth something contains a refracted bit of truth and/or beauty that has, at least the potential, to be taken captive to make people, ultimately, that much better, more thoughtful, understanding and decent.

Of course, we live a culture where transgressive pop-art is given a great deal of largess to break continually push and break all sorts of social boundaries and conventions. This is a “tradition of the new and shocking” that extends from Dada to spray-can graffiti to George Carlin to gansta rap and more. Each of these art forms have better and worse elements to them and contain bit’s and pieces of valid aesthetic novelty and refracted pieces of truths about life, society.

The thing that separates the good versions of these from the bad is that the shock value was a byproduct of the statement that they were making. Unfortunately, lesser artists have tried to advance the “tradition of the new and shocking” and think that they have made great art if they have succeeded in shocking people. Of course when so much is shocking it is no longer shocking, and second rate avante-garde artists must do ever crazier things to shock people, and shock becomes as much a sport and a business as an “art”.

For reasons that would take another several essays to explain fully, many in our society have made pop-art into a secular religion. It is from this ultimate value placed on art that they have decided that the good transgressive pop-art can’t be had without the bad, and so it is better not to question any of the shocking pop-art that comes along. In the society that has made a secular religion out of pop-art, there is no social boundary valued by civilized people that sacred enough to be free from the potential the intrusions of transgressive art.

Of course Susan Sontag might have said once that it’s philistine to try to explain art. Others have said that only future generations have a right to decide what the good art of our present age is anyway. Since we’re the future to the past, the question of what makes good art good is relevant for those who want a society that is not given over utterly and completely to the largess of transgressive art. As philistine as it may be to some, I still say that it is worthy to try to take the truth and beauty of good art captive to the realm of decent thought and behavior. I say that the only alternative to taking art captive is to operate as a “feeling jellyfish” going from art to art, entertainment to entertainment, hedon to hedon.

It was one thing when transgressive art was the province of thinking bohemians who discussed amongst each other what they were doing and the changes in society that they wanted to make. Now, several decades later, there is great money to be made shocking people, and there are so many people willing to buy what is shocking, or at least mildly shocking, to be cool. Back in the day, the bohemians and beatniks had something to rebel against. These days, the shock infrastructure has become so big that it is part of new establishment. The shock establishment and its cousin, the “push the envelop” establishment spans all manner of music and movies. Meanwhile, as epitomized by Starbucks, the coffee house where bohos once examined life has become a commodified and hollowed out shell of its former existence – a hedon central where one can sip a latte, check one’s bank account on one’s laptop and hear Bob Dylan pumped in via satellite radio.

Back in the day long before Starbucks, bohemians might actually sit down and discuss what they were doing and why. In the sixties, and it was the transgressive surrealist agit- prop and pop-art that coincided with a zeitgeist were people questioned and largely abandoned the very idea thoughtful dialogue.

And yet the transgressive art apologists want to defend Borat on the idea that it will “get us to think” and spur discussion” about our social mores and our latent evils. They say this in the midst of a social and economic infrastructure in 2006 that is not oriented around dialogue or around the act of thinking, but is rather oriented around a continuous supply of low-grade shock entertainment.

To respond to this charge, the transgressive art apologists—the same one’s who defended Eminem as he slandered his own mother—have a nigh religious mystical belief in the all encompassing power of art to tweak our consciousness. To them, all we need to do is to allow ourselves to be subjected to the art and go about our lives and pursue our bliss as best we can and let it be. To them, the truth that is contained in the good in transgressive art will rise up in our consciousness like bubbles from the bottom of a lake, and enlighten us even despite the ubiquity of all that is bad and quite apart from our making any effort at a sense of mastery over those passé ideas of truth, decency and beauty. To them, we should just sit back, go along for the ride, sip our lattes and let the art-produced hedons light up our pleasure centers and let the shock do what it must to our nervous systems.

Of course, humor in particular is a complex thing that is connected to our pre-articulate selves. Even so, it is like any other art that can be taken captive. George Carlin, for example, does not believe that anything words are sacred and takes his belief to a logical conclusion wherein he does not recognize the difference between harmful pretenses and those that negotiate any sense of innocence or sacred space. Nevertheless, there is a point that any decent people can take from his famous rant on “post traumatic stress disorder” vs “shell shock”. Like George Carlins rant about “post traumatic stress disorder”, there is all manner of humor that has the edge that it has because it unleashes a catharsis of something that we hadn’t examined and that we should.

In regard to Borat, I’ve read commentators that he is making a point about latent anti-bigotry and anti-semitism in the heartland of America. When I saw the movie, what I actually saw were many people who were just ignoring his remarks and/or humoring him. It’s hard to know precisely how where their humoring of him ends and where their latent bigotry, if any begins. As Dennis Prager said, there is real and virulent anti-semitism to be found elsewhere in the world. I suppose that there is something to be discussed on that particular point in regard to the nature of courage, and whether one’s silence in the face of bigotry of any kind is tantamount to agreement. Then again, I wonder how much anyone can be expected to confront a big, strange, loud, clueless and possibly crazy man like Borat when they are caught by surprise.

Aside from the oblique questions about the latent bigotry, the question that kept popping into my mind as I watched Borat is this: what human cost, in the way of hurt feelings and humiliation of others is worth the price of trying to be funny? There is the transgressive tradition of Any Kaufman/Clifton and Doug Hendrie who make humor mocking their unwitting audience. At that least in their comedy no one was unwittingly and permanently plastered to a screen for all to see, and for the comedian to profit from. There is also the tradition of confrontational and humor laden documentaries a la Michael Moore, who wears his social commentary on his sleave. I suppose the best one can hope for in regard to transgressive artists such as these is that they are held to finding a balance between minimal human cost for maximum social commentary to make their point. In this regard, people were right to criticize Michael Moore for bothering an Alzheimer ridden Charleton Heston to make “Bowling for Columbine”.

So I’ve asked myself, is Borat the thinking man’s “Jackass”? Is there a deeper social commentary to Borat? And what is the point of making transgressive art if it is not to spur change or to unveil something in our society that which needs unveiling? Is it to make fun of civilized people?

As for the USC frat boys in Borat, I went to USC and knew the beer blathered set of frat boys. Watching them commiserate with Borat’s bigotry and sexism was more sad than funny.

As for the Romanian townspeople who were duped into getting paid next to nothing and felt humiliated for being made to look like debased and wretched Kasahkstanis – is that funny? Does the funny factor justify it?

Was it funny that Borat was taking a crap in public space in New York, jacking off in front of a mannequin? Sure it was funny for anyone who already likes “Jackass”, and at the end of the day civilized people still won’t do those things, nor even consider them.

What about Borat mocking the bathroom conventions and hospitality to strangers? Was it funny to anyone beyond the “Jackass” set, and is there a deeper point that wiser, future generations will see that I missed?

Was it funny running around naked and wrestling naked in a hotel convention to anyone beyond the “Jackass” fans? After they get over their shock, civilized people will still not be running naked in a hotel, or even consider it.

Was it funny watching Borat ruin $200 worth of antiques in an antique shop? At the end of the day, civilized people will still not wontonly ruin antiques.

Was it funny that kids were scared by a bear after running up to get ice cream? At the end of the day, kids will still be scared of bears and civilized people won’t subject kids to it.

Unfortunately, it is also part of the religion of pop-art to hold to the idea that our uncivilized selves are a more real, true and authentic expression of ourselves than our civilized selves. I think that Sasha Cohen belongs to that religion and is an evangelist for it. And as for him making fun of the “thin veneer of civilization” in Borat, what could be more primal and authentic than his need to promote himself by any means necessary? At the end of the day, each of the social conventions that he mocked that are upheld by civilized people will swallow up around Borat’s outrageous behavior like a tree that grows around and envelopes a rusty nail punched into it. This is because these social conventions have a claim to truth, while Borat’s behavior only has a claim to shock.

At the end of the day, few if any of us will be very much more enlightened. And Sasha Cohen will be richer, cooler and more notorious while those that he used to get there will be more humiliated.

Ha Ha.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The confusion over 2 Peter 1:20-21

I wanted to examine this passage with the help of my friend and ancient Greek aficionado, Steve Blackwelder.

Here is the New American Standard Version (NASB) translation of 2 Peter 1:16-18, which sets the backdrop for verse 19-21. The NASB is a pretty close literal translation, and the meaning of verse 16-18 is not disputed in any Bible translation:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, "This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased"--

18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.

Now here is the literal Greek, Romanized translation of verses 19 through 21 (Greek details: circumflex “e” for eta, circumflex “o” for omega, “y” for upsilon by itself, punctuation according to NA27 and GNT4, English semicolon for the Greek raised dot which means the English semicolon),

19 Kai echomen bebaioteron ton prophêtikon logon, hô kalôs poieite prosechontes hôs lychnô phainonti en auchmêrô topô, heôs hou hêmera diaugasê kai phôsphoros anateilê en tais kardiais hymôn,

20 touto prôton ginôskontes hoti pasa prophêteia graphês idias epilyseôs ou ginetai;

21 ou gar thelêmati anthrôpou ênechthê prophêteia pote, alla hypo pneumatos hagiou pheromenoi elalêsan apo theou anthrôpoi.

Here is Steve Blackwelder’s English word for word translation:

19 And we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts,

20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of / comes from private interpretation;

21 for not by human will was any prophecy brought, but, being brought along by the Holy Spirit, people spoke.

With help from the Greek New Testament editions NA27 and GNT4, and from the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker (BAGD) 1979 lexicon, here are some very important translation points:

The text marked as verses 19 through 21 is one very complicated Greek sentence, separated by the equivalent of an English semicolon between 20 and 21. This is extremely awkward style in English, so most translations start a new sentence at verse 20. Nevertheless, verse 20 is not a sentence but is merely a participial phrase; the participle “knowing” is plural, referring back to the plural “you” in 19. Therefore, 20 belongs more with 19 than with 21.

Now let’s look at some individual words.

According to BAGD, all the meanings of the adjective idias (v. 20) translate as “private,” as in “private property,” not as in, “not in the company of others.”

The verb ginetai (v. 20) has many meanings in Greek, mostly translated as something close to either “become/happen” or “is” in English.

In verse 21, the verb ênechthê and the participle pheromenoi are both from the verb pherô (irregular just as go-went-gone is irregular in English), which is translated by forms of “bring,” “bear,” or “carry.” In 21, ênechthê refers to the act of human will, and pheromenoi refers to the act of the Holy Spirit. No form of ginetai occurs in 21.

Now to examine the confusion over 2 Peter 1:20-21 and why these seemingly technical details of ancient Greek matter for understanding the text:

Having established that “private” is referring to ownership, what is the ownership being contrasted to? The one acting privately is clearly contrasted with prophets who were led by the Spirit of God. Using this contrast to understand the meaning of “private”, one could understand 2 Peter 1:20 such that “private” means, “apart from the ownership of God”. Here, the idea of being “brought along by God” is being made equal to the idea that whatever is being brought along is owned by God.

While this understanding of “private” is a correct understanding of the passage, it is a jarring use of the word “private”, since “private” in English means “apart from the presence of other people”. It is on this basis that certain English translations that use the English word “private” have been interpreted by various groups to mean that people should not operate to interpret prophecy or Scripture apart from the community of others, i.e. others in the Church. Here are some translations that lend themselves to this interpretation by using either directly using the English word “private” or something similar that conveys the idea of “apart from other people”.

New American Bible (NAB)

20 Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,

New King James

20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation,

America Standard Version (ASV)

20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation.

The idea that the passage is referring to “private” as “apart from other people” is an incorrect interpretation of the passage, and it is for this reason that most English Bible translations translate “private interpretation” as “one’s own interpretation”, which brings an English speaker closer to the true meaning of the text.

Now here is the next major source of confusion on this passage. The Greek verb ginetai can either be interpreted “is” or “comes from”. How one translates ginetai will decide whether A) the passage is talking about interpretation as part and parcel with the very same act of generating a prophecy or B) whether the passage is talking about generating an interpretation of a prophecy, as something that is done to a prophecy that is a separate act from originally uttering the prophecy.

If the Greek verb ginetai for this passage is taken to mean “comes from” as meaning “is generated from”, 2 Peter 1:20 would then be discussing the act of generating prophecy through the very act of interpreting something.

The English Standard Version (ESV) tries to convey this idea

20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.

21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

First, here’s the strength of this line of understanding 2 Peter 1:20-21. There is a clear parallel that Peter is making with “private interpretation” in verse 20 and “the will of man” in verse 21. One thing is linked strongly to the other with the word "for" that starts verse 21, and it is plain that Peter intends the reader to understand verse 20 with what is provided in verse 21. Here in these verses, both "private interpretation" and "the will of man" are contrasted with the manner in which the men were led by the Spirit of God. At first glance, the text lends itself to the possibility that the act of applying one’s own private interpretation to prophecy is synonymous with the act of applying one’s human will to make a prophecy come about.

Now here is the problem with this line of understanding the passage. As mentioned earlier, the verb ginetai that is used in verse 19 is not the same as the verbs that are used in verse 20 to mean “brought about”. Peter could have said that no prophecy is “brought about” by private interpretation if he wanted to convey the idea that prophecy originated from interpretation.

If one interprets the passage to mean that no true prophecy “comes from” one’s own interpretation, does the true prophecy therefore come some sort of God-ordained interpretation? To examine the question further, if the passage is saying that prophecy does not come from one’s own interpretation, the passage is implying either one of two things: A) there is, in fact, a God-owned and God-assisted form of interpretation that a prophet is endowed with to produce a prophecy or B) that trying interpret something—whatever it is (current events, the future, God’s will, etc…)— merely a false and inappropriate way for one to try to begin to generate a prophecy.

In regard to A), this seems very unlikely, since the idea of being “brought along” by God does not leave any room for an act of interpretation by the prophet under the auspices of God. In other words, to create a prophecy, a prophet is not engaging in an act of interpretation (except perhaps in the case of Joseph) but is hearing something first hand from God. This does not exclude the possibility that someone might be brought along later by God to interpret an already existing prophecy.

In regard to B), while it is true that many in the pagan world at the time of Peter did try to “interpret” various things to try to know the future, this is specifically an act of “divination”. There is a separate Greek word mantike for “divination” that Peter could have used. The idea of B) is also jarring because “interpretation” is an act that looks backwards, and is done to something that already exists or has already happened. One interprets the meaning of something that is already available to be interpreted. Having eliminated the possibility of “divination”, it is unlikely that there is any point of reference in the ancient world whereby Peter’s readers would have understood what someone could possibly try to interpret in order to create a prophecy.

Now here is another weakness if one understands 2 Peter 1:20 to mean “no prophecy comes from one’s own interpretation. If one translates the passage using “comes from”, the passage would hypothetically suppose that the “prophecies of Scripture” could still come about. The use of the present tense would imply that “prophecy of Scripture” would mean “prophecy whether past, present or future that is worthy to be included in Scripture”. Here, one could argue that Peter affirms Paul’s writing as Scripture later in 2 Peter 3:16, and that perhaps, Peter is open to the idea that Scripture-writing prophecy might be a continuing phenomenon.

The problem with applying this idea to 2 Peter 1:20, is that the context that immediately precedes in verse 19 is about past prophecies, wherein “the word of the prophets”/or “the prophetic word” is presented as a single, past unit. Furthermore, as Steve Blackwelder pointed out at the beginning, verse 20 is a continuation of the Greek sentence that began in verse 19. It is for this reason that the thing that one is to understand about “prophecy of Scripture” is to apply directly to the “word of the prophets”.

In addition to what immediately precedes verse 20, in verse 21 Peter says “for not by human will was any prophecy brought, but, being brought along by the Holy Spirit, people spoke”. If Peter wanted to indicate the possibility that prophecies of Scripture could still come about, he could have used the present tense to say “for no prophecy ever comes about by human will, but men of God have been carried along by the Spirit”.

Even granting the possibility that Peter recognized his contemporary, Paul, as writing Scripture and that Peter recognized a contemporary “gift of prophecy”, Peter’s clear use of the past tense in the immediate context surrounding verse 20 seems to indicate that, for the purpose of making his point in verse 20, he is referring to acts of prophesying that lie squarely in the past and that have been recorded in Scripture, and not ones that could hypothetically occur in the present and/or future.

If one concludes that it is a stronger idea that “prophecy of Scripture” in verse 20 is referring to the already-recorded prophecies in what where already commonly regarded at the time as “Scripture”, then one must work backwards from this conclusion to say that generating an interpretation of a prophecy—an act spoken of in the present tense— is a separate act from generating the prophecy. Based on this, one must interpret the Greek word ginetai in the direction of “is of”.

Now here is the New International Version (NIV),

20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.

21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Here is where the NIV tries to split the difference. The NIV translators recognized that “prophecy of Scripture” is referring squarely to the past. At the same time, the NIV translators didn’t want to translate ginetai as “is of”. Straddling these interests, the NIV translators took ginetai out of its original the present tense and translated it into past tense, “came about”, thereby implying the idea that the prophets in the past were not guilty of a bad form of interpretation when they spoke their prophecies.

If 2 Peter 1:20 is translated with ginetai as “is of” as opposed to “comes from”, then 2 Peter 1:20 is discussing the act of interpreting a prophecy as an act of claiming some sort of dominion over a prophecy that already exists and not an act of trying to create a prophecy. In this understanding, the text would be best understood as “no prophecy belongs to one’s own interpretation”.

If one goes with this line of understanding, it begs the question, what would it mean to for a prophecy to “belong to” someone’s interpretation? The closest meaning for the idea that a prophecy is under someone’s “interpretive dominion”, would be that someone would have the authority or dominion to declare the definitive meaning of/ and or fulfillment of a prophecy. If this is true, saying “no prophecy of Scripture is of one’s own private interpretation” to communicate this idea is an annoying and vague way to do it. Leaving open the possibility that Peter’s readers might have understood what he meant, saying “no prophecy is of one’s own private interpretation” to mean “no prophecy belongs to/is under the dominion of one’s own interpretation” is jarring to 21st century ears. The confusion over this passage is further compounded by the fact that Peter could have used other Greek words to more clearly convey this idea, had he meant to.

That is why most Bible translations of 2 Peter 1:20 translate the passage with “is a matter of” to make the idea of “interpretive dominion” a possible interpretation without totally committing to the idea. In English “is a matter of” is used to imply the idea of jurisdiction over something and/or creation of something in a vague way. For example, if an issue “is a matter of jurisprudence”, it conveys the idea that jurisprudence is involved in an authoritative way on the issue without clearly stating how that authority is exercised.

As Steve Blackwelder points out, it's important to note that ginetai is a form of ginomai; In the entry for ginomai, BAGD supports “is a matter of” specifically for verse 20 in ginomai II 2 a, page 160, left column, bottom. Here is a sampling of other Bible translations that translate ginetai as “is a matter of”


20 Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,

21 for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.


20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,

21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

If we operate on an understanding of ginetai as meaning “is a matter of”, implying the idea of “interpretive dominion”, the best way to understand 2 Peter 1:20 in the context of verse 21 would be this: the act of attempting to claim “interpretive dominion” over a prophecy apart from God’s leading, would be akin to – but not exactly the same as— attempting to generate a prophecy from human will. In other words, both would be applications of human will oriented toward related but different acts.

In other words, Peter would be saying that there is a bad way to interpret a prophecy whereby one tries to operate on one’s own authority to apply one’s human will to produce an interpretation. If we understand, verse 20 in this way, what is said negative can be inverted into something good – that there is a good way to interpret a prophecy, whereby one’s interpretation is being brought along by God. If verse 20 is inverted into something positive, Peter would then be making a parallel between A) the possibility that one could be brought along by God in the present day to interpret a prophecy and B) the past acts of the prophets who where brought along by God to originally speak the prophecy.

Having explored the ramifications of translating the 2 Peter 1:20 use of ginetai as either “comes from” or “is of”, and given that there are annoying elements to interpreting the Greek verb either way, one must look to the immediate context of the rest of the passage to see which is favored.

Again, the central thrust of the passage is Peter refuting the idea that he and the other apostles had cleverly fabricated the Gospel. Peter is not addressing a lack of confidence that exists on the part of his readers in regard to the validity of the prophets of old. If there were any question of that, there wouldn't be a consensus among his readers as to what the Scriptures even were. Rather, Peter is seeking to buttress the readers confidence in him as an eyewitness among other eyewitnesses to the voice of God proclaiming Jesus to be the Son of God.

Peter is claiming that what he has witnessed is buttressed by the “word of the prophets”, thereby making himself distinct from the prophets, as a group. At the same time, Peter is also claiming the authority as a messenger/apostle to proclaim that he has witnessed the fulfillment of prophecy, and that the prophecies of Scripture are the backdrop to what he has witnessed. In sum, Peter is making his authority to proclaim revelation of God that is co-equal to that of the prophets, without necessarily making his title as an apostle/messenger co-equal to the title of being a prophet.

While the word “prophet” is used throughout Scripture to have a broader meaning than simply “foreteller of the future”, it is “foreteller of the future” that is central to the meaning of “prophet” in 2 Peter. While the prophets had the unique role of speaking of the future, Peter is speaking of an event that is the fulfillment of what had been spoken by them.

It is with this understanding that one can deal with 2 Peter 1:20-21 as a principle that Peter offers to buttress his authority and counter the charge that he has fabricated a clever story. Being that Peter has declared the fulfillment of prophecy under the title of eyewitness, Peter is exercising a sort of “interpretive dominion” over the prophecies of the past. In other words, the prophecy of Scripture is of Peter’s interpretation in the sense that it is a matter that Peter is worthy to authoritatively address. Of course, it is not of Peter’s interpretation on Peter’s own authority, but it is of Peter’s interpretation on the authority of God and what Peter directly witnessed from God.

Peter, operating not “privately” but via the direction of God, is not taking interpretive dominion over the prophecy as an act of his human will apart from God. It is the sense of being an eyewitness to the miraculous fulfillment of prophecy that Peter has been lead by the God in a manner akin to the prophets. In other words, as the prophets were led by the Spirit to speak the prophecy, so too is Peter being led by God to be an eyewitness of the fulfillment of the prophecy.

To sum it up, Peter’s logic in 2 Peter 1:16-21, re-worked by me, is as follows:

A) I, Peter, have witnessed God declaring Jesus as His Son
B) the prophets foretold that this would happen
C) the prophets were led by the Spirit of God, and did not dream up these prophecies on their own steam.
D) in like manner that the prophets didn’t generate the prophecies on their own steam in the past, neither can people in the present day properly interpret these prophecies of Scripture on their own steam apart from the leading of God.
D) Unlike people who would try to interpret these prophecies apart from the leading of God, I, Peter have been led by God to be a reliable witness to the fulfillment of the prophets’ prophecies in like manner that those prophets were led by God to utter their prophecies.
E) Therefore, I, Peter, am not making up cleverly invented stories.

I'm not saying that this is the definitive answer to the meaning of 2 Peter 2:19-20, but it's my best crack at it.

Post Script

Here is a sampling of the many translations that are “all over the map” on this passage:


New King James

20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation,

21 for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God[
c] spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.

America Standard Version

20 knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation.

21 For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit



20 Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,

21 for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.
20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,
21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
Contemporary English Version

20 But you need to realize that no one alone can understand any of the prophecies in the Scriptures.

21 The prophets did not think these things up on their own, but they were guided by the Spirit of God.



20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation.

21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.


20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.
21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Here is a sampling of other attempts to exegete 2 Peter 1:20-21. You’ll see that they’re all over the map too.

This commentator The commentator argues that the prophets of did not try to interpret the current events of their day to predict the future.

This commentator says that Catholics understand 2 Peter 1:20-21 as indicating that they should use the Catholic Church to properly understand Scripture. He then goes on to say that verse 20 is talking about the origin of prophecy and therefore is not talking about its interpretation.

This commentator says that a believer should be careful and humble about how he approaches trying to interpret a prophecy, since he may very well be wrong.

This commentator uses 2 Peter 1:20-21 to make a point about the God-authorship of all of Scripture.

This commentator says that it requires the community of faith to interpret prophecy.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

to judge or not to judge

Continuing on in 1 Corinthians 3:16-22 and 4:1-7,

In this passage we are confronted with a frequent hallmark of Paul’s writing. As is true throughout Romans with the word “law”, throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the same word “judge” to mean different things in different areas of the text, either good or bad. In the following passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul is clearly talking about a bad form of judging. To grasp the nature of this bad form of judging, one must look carefully at the immediate context.

16 Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

Paul is talking about anyone who operates destructively in the lives and faith of the collective body of believers. In the context, Paul is talking about the ways in which the Corinthians are promoting strife and divisions amongst each other. It is this act of destroying the church that is antithetical the “house building” that will build the church (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-15).

18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: "He catches the wise in their craftiness"; 20 and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." 21 So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

“All things are yours”. In other words, all truth, eternity and goodness belong to the Corinthians through Christ and Christ alone. Therefore, a Corinthian need not try to treat truth, eternity and goodness as though they were only to found in his allegiance to one earthly leader verses his allegiance to another. Each Corinthian who was loyal to one earthly leader over another was operating out of the selfishness of trying to “corner the market” on all truth and goodness by ascribing all goodness and truth as belonging exclusively to his chosen leader. As a Corinthian operated this way, he was also vicariously elevating himself above those other Corinthians who were not following that leader. It is this clever concealed self-aggrandizing that Paul is criticizing as the “wisdom of the world”.

1 Corinthians 4

1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.

Here, “us” would include Paul, Apollos or Cephas (Peter). The Corinthians were to treat the apostles merely as agents of Christ’s truth and goodness and not as sources of Christ’s truth and goodness. While the context for the Corinthians is specifically referring to the apostles, the principle could apply to any other spiritual man or mature believer who was operating with the “wisdom of the mature”. It is the “wisdom the mature” that is the “secret” that has been hitherto withheld (see 1 Corinthians 2:7).

2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. 3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. 4 My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

While it is true the Paul has been given a special “trust” as an apostle, the principle that “those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” applies to anyone. It is on the basis of the “trust” that each has been given, whether great or small, that all will be judged (See Luke 12:48). The question of whether one has been faithful to the “trust” that he has been given from God will be answered by only by God. At the “appointed time”, “when the Lord comes”, each person will given a judgment on how he has executed the trust that God has given him. When this judgment is made, all hidden things and hidden motives will be revealed and people will be given a final judgment in regard to their status before God and in regard to the relation to one another before God.

In the context of this passage, each Corinthian's act of elevating one leader above another was an improper act of “judging for finality”. As a Corinthian was determining the status of one leader over another in his mind in order to debate and quarrel about it, he was determining the status of one leader over another as though it were something that could be determined in a fixed and final way. In this way, a Corinthian was guilty of arguing over each leader’s ultimate status before God in relation to the other leaders. By doing so, a Corinthian was trespassing in judgment by usurping the timing and authority of God to “judge for finality” in regard to the "trust" that had been given any particular leader.

To confront this improper act judging among the Corinthians, Paul thoroughly dismisses any assessment of status or worth that any particular Corinthian has assigned to him, as he would reject any assessment of him that had been arrived at by a “human court”.

So what does it mean to “judge nothing”? It is on the basis of carefully analyzing the context that “judge nothing” in this passage means, “judge nothing whose judgment is reserved for the final day of judgment”. In other words a believer should not bring the judgment that will be rendered at the end of time back into the present pre-maturely. To mince it into something even more specific, “judge nothing”, means, “judge nothing about people for the particular purpose of making final judgments about them and how they have executed the trust that God has given each of them”.

This narrow interpretation may seem jarring due to Paul’s use of neuter “do not judge anything” is neutered in Greek, and “anything” is an awfully broad category. However, the immediate context of this passage, this interpretation is demanded by the context of Paul’s other writings that affirm other forms of temporally administered judgment by believers.

In the category of acceptable forms of judging, there are forms of judgement that Paul affirms that are not
A) tantamount to evaluating people’s ultimate standing before God
B) operating out of self-aggrandizing impulses and
C) not causing un-necessary strife and divisions in the church.

Earlier in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul has affirmed the spiritual man who is instructed by the “mind of Christ” and makes “judgments in all things”. As I elaborated on in my explanation of “house building” regarding 1 Corinthians 3:1-15, the act of building on the “foundation” involves the act of making careful judgments. Later in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Paul discusses judging those in the church who are passing themselves off as brothers while at the same time being openly unrepentant of their immorality. Paul affirms the practice of believers judging these men for the explicit purpose of avoiding them and expelling them from the church.

The common denominator of these acts of judgment that are affirmed by Paul is that they are applications of the truth of the Gospel wherein the Gospel being used as the plumb line to evaluate a person or situation or to understand something for the express benefit of building up and/or protecting the church.

6 Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, "Do not go beyond what is written." Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

Here “what is written” would refer most centrally, though not exclusively, to the Old Testament Scripture. For the purpose of application “what is written” can refer to any Old or New Testament Scripture, including what Paul “has written” to the Corinthians.

“Do not go beyond what is written” means “do not go beyond the boundaries of man’s true nature and the reality of his neediness and dependence on God and his ultimate judgment before God as these things are outlined in Scripture”. It is upon this understanding derived from “what is written” that God, and not any particular man, is the source of goodness. It is by using this truth that is contained in Scripture as the plumb line to evaluate men in this way that the Corinthians will understand that men are not sources of goodness, but are, rather, at best, only agents of God’s goodness who exist to serve God.

It is upon this understanding, derived from “what is written” (particularly what Paul has plainly written in 1 Corinthians) that the Corinthians will know the source of what they have “received” and will not boast about their allegiance to any particular man. By avoiding the false understanding that a particular leader is the source of goodness, a Corinthian will avoid the error of esteeming his own ability to make a judgment of that leader in that regard. By avoiding this error, a Corinthian will avoid living vicariously through that leader to self-aggrandize and will avoid the error of making himself, secondarily, into the source of goodness.