Wednesday, December 15, 2004

On the Use of the Greek

I want to take exception to a point advanced by Paul Owen at the Reformed Catholicism website. In response to a piece written by a “‘Reformed’ apologist” (presumably James White), Owen writes:

In fact, whenever an apologist tries to claim that an argument can be definitively settled by an appeal to the original language, as if one could not be competent in the language and come to another conclusion, that is a sure sign that you are dealing with an exegetical babe. Serious scholars usually have enough sobriety to understand that long-standing arguments are rarely settled simply by reading "the Greek."
The issue in question is whether there is anything in John 3:16 that can translate the word “whoever.” It needs to be noted that I was not able to locate the article by James White regarding this verse, and so I cannot verify what James wrote about it. It appears James has done a lot of writing on Acts 13 in response to Dave Hunt; but if John 3:16 was included in that mix, it seems to have been incidental to a larger point.

In any case, although as a 4.5 Calvinist I would probably agree with Owen regarding the universality of the invitation to salvation (I’ve applied this same principle to 1 John 2:2, as well as 2 Pet 2:1 and 1 Tim 4:10), I cannot agree with him on the quoted portion above. At the very least, it is an exaggeration to say one cannot make an exegetically stronger or more sound point than his opponent, and that the strength of one’s view is not advanced in so doing. Nor is it valid to say that the views held by all segments of Christianity are equally supported by exegesis.

When I use the term “exegesis,” I am not of course referring to the ability of a sophist to make any text say anything he wants it to say. I’m referring instead to the usage of words and phrases as they are customarily used in the writings of that day. Anytime one claims to base a belief on what the New Testament teaches, and that belief contradicts either the plain reading of the text and/or the preponderance of theological statements made on that issue, it is always helpful to look at the Greek and to engage in exegesis to verify the meaning of the text. Always. And no one should attempt to downplay the significance of that practice.

Now I can agree with Owen that the argument is rarely “definitively settled by an appeal to the original language,” so long as what we’re referring to here is concession on the part of the proponent of the exegetically weaker view. The relative “settledness” of an argument will, of course, always finally be decided upon by individuals who are judging that argument through the lens of theological presuppositions. This is not to say, however, that one view is not objectively and exegetically right and the other is not objectively and exegetically wrong. And if this is Owen’s point then I could not disagree more.

The primary goal of exegesis is to provide an a priori foundation for theological conclusions. The problem occurs when one, instead, approaches exegesis as a tool to justify his theological presuppositions. I would estimate the latter approach occurs with 80% of those who attempt to do exegesis, as opposed to the 20% who actually do exegesis and theology in the right order. I also want to point out that even the 20% (those who do it right) have theological presuppositions to deal with; but the reason they are able to do exegesis and theology right (or at least very close to right) is because they have recognized their own presuppositions, and have consciously decided to allow the text to test those presuppositions. There is no clearer evidence that this has occurred than when the exegete ends up revising his own views based on the exegetical conclusions the text has yielded. I have done this countless times in my own exegesis (I would argue that this is precisely the reason I am a 4.5 Calvinist rather than a full five-point Calvinist).

I can hear the critics now: “Oh yeah? Well then when is he going to retract his views about Mary, or just whom he includes in the covenant?” I’m not going to retract them since they are exegetically sound. When someone is able to do exegesis the right way and is willing to change his views based on that exegesis, it doesn’t mean he is going to change all his views, since presumably at least some of his original views were correct to begin with. It just means he’s not afraid to recognize there is a plain reading of the text, and that there is freedom in allowing the exegesis of the text to inform his theology rather than vice versa.