Challenges: In What Sense?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

I’ve spoken briefly about the textual and theological consistency of the Bible, but there is another helpful trick I learned when reading and interpreting. It’s pretty simple. When you come to a passage, ask yourself, “In what sense is the author using this ________________ (word, phrase, metaphor, illustration, etc.)?”

Let me give several examples.

1. I remember a time a few years back when I was studying 1 Cor. 9 in the seminary library. I came across Paul’s phrase, “…lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27). This worried me. Other NT uses of the word “disqualified” clearly referred to lost people.

Was Paul saying that he could lose his salvation?

I don’t think so. Throughout chapter 9, Paul explains that he has given up some of his rights as a minister of the gospel with an eye toward eternal rewards. So, in what sense is Paul using the word “disqualified?” I think he knows that he will forfeit at least some of his “imperishable” (v. 25) rewards if his godly character is marred and he is no longer able to fulfill his calling.

2. James and Paul give us another classic example. It’s easy to get tripped up when we hear Paul say in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is “not a result of works,” then turn over to James 2:24 and read, “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Is Paul speaking out against James’ teaching? Are they unintentionally contradicting one another? Or, is something else going on?

In what sense are they using their language?

When you read the context of Ephesians 2 and James 2, you see that each author has a specific purpose in mind. Paul is expounding God’s gracious acts in saving human beings, while James is addressing those who claim to have faith but have not been changed by it.

In other words, each author shows us a crucial facet of saving faith. Paul wants us to know that, if we’ve been saved, God did it. We didn’t work our way into it. But then James jumps in and adds, “And that gracious act of God saving you will change you! You’ll give generously to those in need because you’re now a different person!”

3. The word “salvation” itself carries a variety of meanings in the NT. It does not always mean eternal salvation from sin and death. Sometimes it simply refers to physical healing (e.g. Mark 5:28). Context will reveal the sense intended.

4. In Luke 9:59, a man wants to bury his father before becoming a disciple of Jesus, and the Master replies, “‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead.'” Conversely, Paul tells us in 1 Tim. 5:8, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” We’ve all heard explanations that harmonize these passages, but again I want to ask, “In what sense is Jesus telling one man to leave his father; and in what sense is Paul telling believers to care for their families?”

Jesus demands total allegiance from a half-hearted would-be follower, while Paul reminds those who are already believers to not shirk their responsibility to family. (Actually, Jesus says the same thing in Mark 7:11-13.) The Bible proclaims what each heart needs to hear.

Asking “In what sense does the author say _________________?” does not mean we can interpret a text to mean whatever we want it to mean. There are definite limits to the semantic and contextual ranges of words and phrases. When we ask “In what sense?” we need to acknowledge that context is king. A little work to understand the context of a passage can save us a whole lot confusion and frustration.

Challenges: Can the Bible Be Trusted?

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.

Can I trust the Bible enough to bear the weight of my tough questions? If you know me, you know that I didn’t drop out of seminary or leave the ministry or deny the faith. So, you can guess how I answer that question.

So, my purpose in this post is not to give a full-scale apologetic for the reliability of the New and Old Testaments. There are plenty of great books out there that do a better job at this than I could. To me, the external evidence in favor of the reliability of Scripture was overwhelming; therefore, my questions were: “Is the Bible internally consistent? Does it contradict itself?” and “Can I trust a Bible that contains thousands of textual variants?”

To answer these, I decided that I needed to examine my point of reference (see my last post) in its most pure form I could access. This led me to sign up for as many biblical language and interpretation classes I could squeeze into my schedule. Over time, I began to develop the tools I needed.

Let me just address the textual variant question for now. After personally studying several of the most problematic textual variants – along with a host of other less-troubling ones, I am more amazed than ever by the internal consistency of the Bible.

By and large, Christians didn’t discard manuscripts with variant readings (unlike other religions) so as to present a semblance of divine consistency. Sure, there have been failed attempts in Christian history to claim the primacy of supposedly uniform texts, but the real miracle is that God used incredibly human means – textual variants – to actually preserve for us a trustworthy Bible. We can compare texts from all over the world and throughout early church history and feel quite confident that we hold in our hands what God wanted to communicate to us.

In fact, I have encountered no textual variant which substantial alters the content of Christian doctrine or our understanding of the historical events recounted in the Bible. Even when we are unsure of which manuscript reading to go with, the basic content often remains unaltered. To quote Dan Wallace, one the world’s leading New Testament text critics, “For more than two centuries, most biblical scholars have declared that no essential affirmation has been affected by the variants.”1

I’d also like to quote Greg Gilbert at length, because his words may help someone:

“First…the vast majority of the textual variants in the manuscript copies we have are just utterly uninteresting and undramatic. They have to do with plural versus singular pronouns, inverted word order, subjunctive versus indicative mood, aorist versus perfect tense, and on and on…Second, Christian scholars have been exceedingly careful to document…the most significant variants along with an analysis of each one…But the point is that…there’s no conspiracy to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes…we believe that those variants…can help us determine to a remarkably high degree of probability what the original documents of the New Testament actually said. Finally…it turns out that not a single doctrine of orthodox Christianity depends solely on a questioned portion of the biblical text. Either the questioned portions don’t involved anything truly interesting, or if they do, the very same doctrines expressed in those locations are taught elsewhere in unquestioned portions of the Bible” (Why Trust the Bible, 56-57, bold mine).

I am grateful for scholars who have devoted their lives to the study of these issues, but when I embarked on my investigation, I wasn’t willing to simply take their word for it. I wanted to see things for myself. And what I discovered through personal experience was that Wallace’s and Gilbert’s claims are true. We need not doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible because of the presence of textual variants. 

If you want to read a little more about this issue, see this article.
If you wanna get really nerdy with textual variants, check out this debate between Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace or the website of the CSNTM.

  • Have you had an experience similar to mine? Please share in the comments!
  • Is there a textual variant that you’ve wrestled with or have a question about? Share your story or ask your question in the comments!
  • Are there any books that you would add to my Amazon list on the reliability of the Bible? Please share these with me in the comments!