Those who approach the New Testament solely through English translations face a serious linguistic obstacle to apprehending what these writings say about justice. In most English translations, the word “justice” occurs relatively infrequently. It is no surprise, then, that most English-speaking people think the New Testament does not say much about justice; the Bibles they read do not say much about justice. English translations are in this way different from translations into Latin, French, Spanish, German, Dutch — and for all I know, most languages.
The basic issue is well known among translators and commentators. Plato’s Republic, as we all know, is about justice. The Greek noun in Plato’s text that is standardly translated as “justice” is “dikaiosune;” the adjective standardly translated as “just” is “dikaios.” This same dik-stem occurs around three hundred times in the New Testament, in a wide variety of grammatical variants. To the person who comes to English translations of the New Testament fresh from reading and translating classical Greek, it comes as a surprise to discover that though some of those occurrences are translated with grammatical variants on our word “just,” the great bulk of dik-stem words are translated with grammatical variants on our word “right.” The noun, for example, is usually translated as “righteousness,” not as “justice.” In English, we have the word “just” and its grammatical variants coming from the Latin iustitia, and the word “right” and its grammatical variants coming from the Old English recht. Almost all our translators have decided to translate the great bulk of dik-stem words in the New Testament with grammatical variants on the latter — just the opposite of the decision made by most translators of classical Greek.
I will give just two examples of the point. The fourth of the beatitudes of Jesus, as recorded in the fifth chapter of Matthew, reads, in the New Revised Standard Version, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word translated as “righteousness” is “dikaiosune.” And the eighth beatitude, in the same translation, reads “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Greek word translated as “righteousness” is “dikaiosune.” Apparently, the translators were not struck by the oddity of someone being persecuted because he is righteous. My own reading of human affairs is that righteous people are either admired or ignored, not persecuted; people who pursue justice are the ones who get in trouble.
It goes almost without saying that the meaning and connotations of “righteousness” are very different in present-day idiomatic English from those of “justice.” “Righteousness” names primarily if not exclusively a certain trait of personal character. … The word in present-day idiomatic English carries a negative connotation. In everyday speech one seldom any more describes someone as righteous; if one does, the suggestion is that he is self-righteous. “Justice,” by contrast, refers to an interpersonal situation; justice is present when persons are related to each other in a certain way.
… When one takes in hand a list of all the occurrences of dik-stem words in the Greek New Testament, and then opens up almost any English translation of the New Testament and reads in one sitting all the translations of these words, a certain pattern emerges: unless the notion of legal judgment is so prominent in the context as virtually to force a translation in terms of justice, the translators will prefer to speak of righteousness.
Why are they so reluctant to have the New Testament writers speak of primary justice? Why do they prefer that the gospel of Jesus Christ be the good news of the righteousness of God rather than the good news of the justice of God? Why do they prefer that Jesus call his followers to righteousness rather than to justice? I do not know; I will have to leave it to others to answer that question.
But a God who is in the business of meeting us where we are (this is good news) and a Scripture that displays for us this energetic, relentless—and mysterious—interplay of the Spirit of God and ancient cultures…well, I’m not saying I get it. And I do understand this thought may be troubling, to some more than others.
But as C. S. Lewis puts it, the incarnation is after all “an incurably irreverent doctrine.” It’s not comfortable. It’s even a bit unsettling when we think of how God likes to show up.
An incarnational model is not the only or best way to think of the Bible at all times. But when the topic turns to historical matters—the core of our book and heart of the inerrancy debate—it at least gives me theological language by which to talk about what I see in Scripture with respect and awe.
To sum up, inerrancy for me is a model of Scripture that does not describe well what Scripture does. Perhaps in our current moment, God is not calling us to reinvigorate a defense, become entrenched, or formulate more complex and subtle defenses of what we feel the Bible needs to be, but to teach future generations—in the academy, the church, and the world—better ways of meeting God in the Scripture we have.
For me, inerrancy or the Chicago Statement don’t come close to addressing this fundamental hermeneutical challenge for Christian readers of the Bible.
I do continue to think, however, that an incarnational model of Scripture is helpful. It’s not new. I didn’t invent it. Some form of it goes back at the very least to Athanasius. And no one, least of all me, is claiming by this analogy I am claiming a hypostatic union in Scripture (!!).
It’s an analogy—explaining one thing by means of another. The main purpose of this analogy is to present a vision of Scripture where historical context ceases being such a huge doctrinal hurdle, a problem to be solved, and becomes yet another picture of how God willingly and lovingly participates in the human drama.
It provides theological language for why the Bible acts so…ancient, why we see the use of mythic language and concepts in the Old Testament—a heavenly boardroom scene—or why Israel’s God is portrayed as a tribal warrior for whom mass killings seem to be his preferred method of conflict resolution.
I don’t think inerrancy is the right category for wrapping my arms around Scripture’s complex dynamic.
Acknowledging this diverse portrait of God, especially when getting to the New Testament, is simply an aspect of grappling with “Bible in context” and the canonical complexity of the problem of continuity and discontinuity between the testaments.
And doing so is simply to participate in the Christian theological project that has been part of the church’s consciousness since Paul and the Gospel writers–what do we do with the story of Israel in light of the Christ event? This isn’t anything new.
I apply this same sort of thinking to the three issues discussed in our book, especially two of them—the historicity of the fall of Jericho and God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites.
To understand both I appeal to (1) the gospel movement away from tribal thinking about God, and (2) to archaeological and literary data from Israel’s cultural context.
This is why I draw the rather common, almost mundane, conclusion (and you have to read my essay in the book to get the details) that the stories of Jericho and Canaanite extermination are (1) not “historical” in any sense that we normally use the word, nor do they (2) provide a binding, permanent, absolute picture of God.
I can certainly understand and respect why ancient Israelites would speak this way. But, like the issue of many gods in the Old Testament, this doesn’t mean that the Jericho and Canaanite extermination episodes are the final word historically or theologically.
I do not believe I am dismissing the Old Testament, nor is this (for heaven’s sake!) dualistic Marcionism, which says the Gods of the Old Testament are two different Gods. I am not saying there are two gods; one God is the God of Scripture. But God is portrayed differently by the biblical writers at different times and places.
Within the Old Testament God is already portrayed in diverse ways. In the Gospel, Christians believe, the fuller gaze on God is provided through the Gospel.
I don’t think the gods of the ancient Near East exist, nor did our God ever preside over a heavenly board meeting, nor was he ever under the authority Elyon.
I do believe, however, that the ancient Israelites believed that, but that does not mean that their belief at this moment in redemptive history represents absolute “spiritual reality” so to speak.
Now why do I say that? It’s not because I disrespect the Bible. I have two reasons.
One reason is the New Testament. A canonical view leads us further along the biblical plot line, so to speak, and so I believe that there is one God not many (a view that is already echoed in other portions of the Old Testament).
Scripture is varied and on the move, and so for inner-biblical reasons alone, I don’t expect every part of Scripture—even those parts that talk about God—to provide absolute, unerring, truth.
The second reason is what we know through historical and archaeological work about the ancient tribal environment in which the ancient Israelites participated. Understanding something about the world of the Bible can help us here.
The way God is described in Job or the Psalms, etc., makes perfect sense in that cultural context. But the opening assertion of the Chicago Statement, that God “who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only” –that seems off topic to me, words not designed to address what we are seeing here.
I understand that inerrancy, as it is commonly defended, only pertains to what the Bible teaches or affirms (as some of my co-authors repeat)—but I see a lot of teaching or at least affirming going on here in these verses.
If these texts that tell us about God aren’t at least “affirming” something, I’m not sure what the word means.
I also realize these descriptions of God aren’t everywhere in the Old Testament, but does that really matter? Are we free to “pick and choose” what we want to believe?
These statement are so…clear…God is speaking clearly….if we don’t follow his plain word here, what reason would we have to follow his word anywhere? The next thing we’ll be doing in denying the resurrection.
Forgive the rhetoric. I’m just trying to make a point, and I hope it is not too subtle.
Or consider Deuteronomy 32:8, where the high god Elyon—known to us also from Ugaritic religion—apportions the nations to the lesser gods, one of whom is Yahweh, whose “portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share”—and so Kemosh gets Moab, Baal gets the Canaanites, and so forth.
(You’ll need to consult a good commentary or study Bible to see this. Early Jewish scribes changed the text to conform to strict monotheistic standards. English Bibles reflect this later “corrected” reading, but without seeing it in translation notes you’d never know it.)
Are we–according to inerrantist logic–bound by Scripture and the truth-telling God who speaks therein to say, therefore, that Israel’s God, like the other gods, is ethnically and geographically bound and answers to a higher authority?
The language of the Chicago Statement is not helpful to me in these instances. What does it mean to speak of these sorts of things as “truth” from God and therefore “inerrant”?
Dowlut has also helped fulfill Carter’s vision of reshaping Second Amendment jurisprudence from outside the courtroom. In the late 1970s, a small cadre of law professors and lawyers began arguing that most judges—including generations of Supreme Court justices—had gotten gun rights all wrong. In its first 200 years, the Supreme Court had considered just four Second Amendment cases; it had never affirmed an individual right to bear arms beyond the context of militia service. The only 20th-century case was in 1939, when the justices unanimously ruled against two men who claimed the federal prohibition on transporting unregistered sawed-off shotguns violated their Second Amendment rights. The new wave of pro-gun scholarship by Dowlut and his allies declared that this legal consensus was not only wrong but dangerous: The Second Amendment needed to be rescued from gun-hating judges, politicians, and activists.
The main problem faced by the American poor is not that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the safety net. It’s that they lack the employment and earnings opportunities necessary to work their way out of poverty.
Political brinksmanship. The conduct of the GOP during the Obama administration has been a nihilist disgrace. In 2009, Obama inherited crises on every front: an economy in terrifying free-fall, a bankrupted Treasury, an even more morally bankrupt foreign policy, and two failed wars. He deserved some measure of cooperation in that hour of extreme national peril and need. He got none. From the get-go, they were clearly prepared to destroy the country if it also meant they could destroy him.
In fact, from that first stimulus vote on, Obama faced a unanimous and relentless nullification Congress. If he favored something, they opposed it. Despite Obama’s exemplary family life, public grace and composure, and willingness to compromise, they decided to cast him as a tyrant, a radical, a traitor and an incompetent. Their demonization of a decent, pragmatic man simply disgusts me to the core. And, sorry, if you do not smell any whiff of racism in all of this, you’re a better person than I am.
As for U.S. wars abroad, D’Souza supposes the torture of a Vietnam POW in the Hanoi Hilton made the whole thing even, and glosses over Iraq and Afghanistan in a couple of slick asides: we gave them democracy! His discussion of American capitalism is even stranger and more schizophrenic, dashing between clips of Michael Moore and Occupy and alighting briefly upon a black woman who used to be on welfare but then got off it because her friends told her it was ungodly. She then muses that she didn’t even know there were churches while she was on welfare. Just didn’t even know the Christian religion had institutional meeting places, no idea what all those buildings with crosses on top were, and D’Souza nods gravely along: this is what welfare does, the viewer intimates.
The argumentation itself is bad, laughably bad. Native Americans were bad treaty-keepers who were already killing each other, the brutes, a claim D’Souza curiously follows up with the assertion that they all died of disease anyway – just naturally, just like that, out of nowhere. As for African slaves, D’Souza is content to point out that some whites were indentured servants and some blacks owned slaves themselves; in the wacky world of Dinesh, racism has no legacy, only a distant past. Were Mexican territories conquered? Yeah, D’Souza submits, but then he gets a Mexican-American to say that’s cool with him, and Ted Cruz shambles briefly on to bemoan the status of Texans under Mexican rule, which I guess coalesces into a weird unspoken just war theory. Watching “America” in an empty theater in Dallas (literally empty, only my husband and I on a Friday night) I couldn’t help but recall Ted’s stint as Texas solicitor general, a job he’d honored by trying to secure schools’ right to force the pledge of allegiance on kids, and wonder if I would’ve preferred Santa Anna instead.
A generous assessment would be that what follows is more heat than light. In reality there is neither heat nor light, because D’Souza styles himself as an inquisitive but unbiased neocon Sherlock on a quest for the truth rather than a bullshit-busting insult comic a la libertarian superheroes Penn & Teller. He dissembles and equivocates, sure, but in a mealy-mouthed monosyllabic way that must appeal to conservatives too dumb for Douthat. There’s something a little limp and depressing about propaganda that can’t even pump you up; “America” falls into that category of squishy grease-soaked hype that’s spent too long under the heat lamp.