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November 22, 2005

A few years ago I was handed a copy of The Purpose Driven Life and told that I really ought to read it. I knew almost nothing of Rick Warren or his Purpose Driven material, so decided I would read this book that, judging by the shelf space it had been given at the Christian bookstore, was “the next big thing” for Evangelicals. It turned out to be a bestseller in a class all its own, selling over twenty five million copies. As I read the book I became increasingly concerned with what I was reading and provided several articles and reviews that expressed this concern. These articles became part of the foundation for this site. In the years and months since then I have become known as one who is staunchly opposed to Warren and his teaching.

It has been quite a while since I have written anything of any real substance about Warren so I thought it would be helpful for me to reassess what I believe about him. This may help clarify my position. I have decided to present to you my three primary concerns with Rick Warren, his ministry and all things Purpose Driven. These concerns are: Warren’s ongoing abuse of Scripture, the all-encompassing nature of the Purpose Driven programs and Warren’s ecumenism.

I do not wish to indicate that these are the only concerns I have with Warren, nor do I wish to indicate that there is nothing beneficial happening because of his ministry. I merely wish to express what I feel are three serious, overarching concerns that Christians should be aware of because of Warren’s increasing profile as America’s pastor and as a leader of the Evangelical church.

Warren’s Ongoing Abuse of Scripture

When I speak to people about The Purpose Driven Life or when I read reviews of this book or any of the Purpose Driven material, a constant theme that emerges is a concern over Rick Warren’s treatment of Scripture. This is, to say the least, a major concern.

Rick Warren claims that he quotes the Bible over 1,200 times in the text of The Purpose Driven Life. To do so, he uses fifteen different translations and paraphrases. Appendix 3 contains his rationale for this and he provides two reasons for the number of translations. The first is that in any single translation “nuances and shades of meaning can be missed, so it is always helpful to compare translations.” The second is “the fact that we often miss the full impact of familiar Bible verses, not because of poor translating, but simply because they have become so familiar” (author’s emphases). He believes this will “help you see God’s truth in new, fresh ways.” (author’s emphasis)

While I agree that some translations are clearly superior to others, even on a verse-by-verse basis, and further agree that it is helpful to compare translations, Warren’s logic is faulty as the two reasons he provides contradict each other. If a translation introduces something in a new and fresh way it will necessarily introduce new nuances and shades of meaning. The way to remove nuances and shades of meaning is to use as literal a translation as possible so that the words are God’s alone and are not interpreted by the translator. The author can then exposit the text, clarifying what might require clarification. This is nothing more than the traditional means of teaching what the Bible says. This is similar to the form Jesus used where He said, “You have heard it said…but I say.” He took what was unclear and made it clear.

Warren is also correct that after a while verses can lose their full impact. I know that this happens to all Christians and it is to our shame. But rather than use poor Scripture translations, a teacher should help the reader focus on the fact that as a Christian he should love the Bible as God gave it to us. As with David, God’s Law is to be our delight day and night and not something we grow tired of. Changing the translation does nothing to remedy this problem if the translation is inaccurate.

I would not be nearly so concerned about the use of multiple translations if Warren was consistently choosing translations that were close in meaning to the original manuscripts. The unavoidable fact is, though, that Warren consistently chooses translations that say what he feels needs to be said, regardless of the real meaning of a verse. A clear example of this is seen in his use of Proverbs 29:18 which, in one of his Ministry Toolbox updates, he provides in the King James translation: “without vision the people perish.” He uses this verse in an attempt to prove his statement that “To accomplish anything you must first have a mission, a goal, a hope, a vision.” Every other translation of Scripture provides a more clear translation such as “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint” (ESV). Warren sought out the one verse that says what he wanted to say even while every other translation rendered the verse more clearly. In doing so he has certainly not clarified any nuance or shade of meaning. Rather, he has introduced one.

There is a serious impact to Warren’s use of so many translations in that it speaks volumes of his view of the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture. While I am sure Warren would affirm the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the reality, as proven by his misuse of Scripture, is that he must not believe that the Bible as God wrote it is sufficient for people today. He must believe that a very loose paraphrase like The Message can impact people in a way that the real translations cannot. He shows that he is not a faithful expositor of the Bible. This introduces a very serious concern with his ministry.

Despite a great volume of criticism about his handling of Scripture, Warren seems to have done nothing to remedy this concern. His recent writings and interviews are filled with the same volume of translations and mistranslations of Scripture.

Beyond the problem introduced by the large number of translations there are some passages where Warren uses the Bible extremely carelessly. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in chapter 10 where he discusses the blessing of surrendering to God. As support he quotes Job 22:21 as saying “Stop quarreling with God. If you agree with him, you will have peace at last, and things will go well for you.” When we look at the larger context of this passage we see that these are the words of Eliphaz, one of Job’s infamous friends. We see that Eliphaz is giving Job poor advice which God later condemns. Warren knows better than this!

A second example is Isaiah 44:2. This is used in the heading of the second chapter and is rendered “I am your Creator. You were in my care even before you were born.” The author chooses to quote only the first part of the verse. The second part, we see, goes directly against what he wants to say. It reads “Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen.” When viewed in the proper context we see that this verse applies only to a specific group (which is, once again, the Israelites). This does not mean that the verse has no relevance to us, but to suggest that it applies directly to the reader of The Purpose Driven Life is clearly wrong.

There are at least fifty similar examples where the author uses Scripture outside of its context or assigns a foreign meaning. When Scripture is not used in the way God intends, this sort of inconsistency is inevitable. Warren’s ongoing abuse of Scripture is my primary concern with his ministry. Just as we would doubt the love of a husband who abuses his wife, so we must wonder at Warren’s love of Scripture if he is so willing to abuse it.

The All-Encompassing Nature of Purpose Driven Programs

Many of the laypeople who began a study of The Purpose Driven Life through a 40 Days of Purpose program had no idea that they were part of a larger effort. It is entirely possible that by the time these people received their book, the church leadership had already begun implementing the Purpose Driven programs and had been doing so for several months. I am aware of several churches where this was done without the knowledge or consent of the congregation. The leadership simply decided to implement the program and went ahead. 40 Days of Purpose was one of the first steps in introducing an entire new paradigm for doing church.

Rick Warren feels that his program is so wholly biblical that he wants to tell you what programs you church should begin, what programs should be stopped and what programs should be put on-hold, at least during the 40 Days programs. The programs extend to every area of church life. Here is what the 40 Days of Community program involves:

  1. The 40 Days of Community Kick-Off Event. This is a message preached by Warren which will be broadcast live via satellite, though churches without satellite capabilities can obtain it on DVD or VHS.
  2. Seven weekend messages and worship plans. The messages were originally preached by Warren in his home church of Saddleback Community Church. Participating pastors are to preach his messages and employ his worship plans which direct which songs to sing. The messages are based on the book of Philippians and Warren indicates they are expository in nature. (Please note that Warren’s interpretation of what constitutes expository preaching is not consistent with what historically has been considered expository. For more, see this article).
  3. The “What on Earth Are We Here For” devotional book with 40 days of daily devotional readings and journaling pages. This book also includes study guides for weekly small group study.
  4. Six small group or Sunday school lessons. These include a video which gives teaching that is then discussed by small group members.
  5. Six weekly scripture memory verses.
  6. Multiple church-wide events which will deepen the commitment of church members are make them active in their church and local communities..

Here are some underlying principles and some prerequisites for completing this particular program. Through the 40 Days of Purpose Program, Warren discovered five principles that he says will guarantee success in the upcoming Community program. Conversely, cutting out any one of these principles will necessarily damage a campaign, curtailing the results. The principles are:

  1. Unified Prayer – everyone in the church must pray for the campaign beginning months ahead of time, for there is power in unified prayer.
  2. Concentrated Focus – The church must focus on just this one program. Multiple focuses will dilute the program and reduce its effectiveness. Each ministry and each program must carry the message of the 40 Days program.
  3. Multiple Reinforcements – The program depends on many reinforcements throughout the week - church services, small groups, daily quiet times and a weekly memory verse.
  4. Behavioral Teaching – Each aspect of the program helps people become “doers” and not mere listeners. After each section there is a homework assignment, activity or event.
  5. Exponential Thinking – Exponential thinking is thinking that stretches faith. It forces leaders to look beyond what God has done before and focus instead on believing God for greater growth, greater giving and so on.

To summarize, 40 Days of Community is a comprehensive program that impacts every area of the church’s ministry for the duration of the program and very possibly beyond. Warren warns that many other programs and activities will need to be placed on hold or even cancelled if they are not part of 40 Days of Community. He advises leadership to begin to address this in advance with those ministry leaders whose areas of ministry will be affected. The program extends not just to the corporate gatherings but also to individual quiet times. In short, if a church is to be successful in implementing the 40 Days of Community Program (and the same is true of 40 Days of Purpose), the leadership is expected and encouraged to include programs that extend to every area of the church’s life. For 40 days the pastor will preach Warren’s messages or perhaps even simply show a DVD of Warren delivering the messages. Programs that are deemed unfitting for Purpose Driven philosophy will be postponed or cancelled. Small groups will study Purpose Driven material and individuals will even be expected to study Warren’s material during their daily quiet times. Even the required Scripture verses will be memorized in the translation of Warren’s choosing.

I believe 40 Days of Purpose and 40 Days of Community are unique in the long history of the church. I cannot think of any other programs that asked a church to turn itself over completely to another pastor for the duration of a program. Warren believes the Purpose Driven principles are so important and so unique, that he asks pastors to hand them his church – programs, messages, worship and even private devotions - for 40 days. At the end of that time he promises that the principles God has revealed to him will have transformed your church. It will be bigger (growth in numbers), be bringing in more money (growth in giving) and stronger (growth in small groups). He asks members of these churches to listen to his messages, his interpretation of Scripture, sing the songs he has chosen and study the topics he has outlined. Warren casts his vision for your church and then attempts to deliver that vision to you. The program is designed to infiltrate every important area of the church and remove those areas that are not deemed important. It is all-encompassing.

Rick Warren’s Ecumenism

The third great concern I have with Rick Warren and his programs involves ecumenism and a general downplaying of the importance of theology and doctrinal distinctives. By “distinctives” I refer not to doctrines that we hold to that serve only to keep us apart, but to the essential doctrines which keep us faithful to the Scriptures.

In The Purpose Driven Life Warren writes, “God warns us over and over not to criticize, compare, or judge each other… Whenever I judge another believer, four things instantly happen: I lose fellowship with God, I expose my own pride, I set myself to be judged by God, and I harm the fellowship of the church.” As we have come to expect from Evangelicals, the “judge not” admonition is given without distinction between judging a person in matters of essential doctrine or in matters of personal preference. There is a great difference between the two - a difference Warren chooses to overlook. Instead he downplays the importance of important theological disagreements and distinctions. Earlier in the book he writes, “God won’t ask about your religious background or doctrinal views. The only thing that will matter is, did you accept what Jesus did for you and did you learn to love and trust him?” While I am sure God will not ask what denomination I was part of when I died, we certainly should not downplay doctrinal views. Our doctrine is integral to who we are and how we live for Him! But, as we see, downplaying theology is necessary for his grandiose plans to succeed.

Within The Purpose Driven Life Warren quotes Roman Catholic figures such as Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Brother Lawrence, John Main, St. John of the Cross and Madame Guyon. Nowhere does he warn that these people teach and believe much that is directly opposed to the clear teaching of the Scripture.

Beyond the downplaying of theology, Warren also advocates closer ties with apostate denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church. The following is an excerpt from an article summarizing Warren’s speech at a conference hosted by the Anglican Communion Network. “He urged the churches to join a ‘new reformation’ to spread the Christian faith and use the resources of ‘the universal, worldwide church of Jesus Christ in all of its local expressions’ to help the poorest of the poor. He predicted that the meeting, which brought affluent Americans together with archbishops from some of the poorest nations on earth, would be viewed by history as a turning point. ‘Now I don’t agree with everything in everybody’s denomination, including my own. I don’t agree with everything that Catholics do or Pentecostals do, but what binds us together is so much stronger than what divides us,’ he said.” He went on to say, “I really do feel that these people are brothers and sisters in God’s family. I am looking to build bridges with the Orthodox Church, looking to build bridges with the Catholic Church, with the Anglican church, and say ‘What can we do together that we have been unable to do by ourselves?’” (link). In one short sentence, “what binds us together is so much stronger than what divides us” he equates the differences between Baptists and Pentecostals or Baptists and Reformed Christians with the differences between Baptists and Roman Catholics.

During an earlier appearence at the Pew Forum, Warren said, “The first Reformation actually split Christianity into dozens and then hundreds of different segments. I think this one is actually going to bring them together. Now, you’re never going to get Christians, of all their stripes and varieties, to agree on all of the different doctrinal disputes and things like that, but what I am seeing them agree on are the purposes of the church. … Last week I spoke to 4,000 pastors at my church who came from over 100 denominations in over 50 countries. Now, that’s wide spread. We had Catholic priests, we had Pentecostal ministers, we had Lutheran bishops, we had Anglican bishops, we had Baptist preachers. They’re all there together and you know what? I’d never get them to agree on communion or baptism or a bunch of stuff like that, but I could get them to agree on what the church should be doing in the world.” During the same appearance he said, “ ‘I’m not a politician, I’m a pastor,’ he asserted, and then noted that if evangelical Protestants teamed up with American Catholics, ‘that’s called a majority.’” Once more Warren has chosen to overlook theology in order to building bridges between all denominations, regardless of their beliefs.

Warren is willing to overlook critical theological differences that strike to the very heart of the gospel in order to press forward toward his goals. When a person is willing to overlook the differences between Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology, I have to wonder what he truly believes. What does he understand of justification if he is willing to push away such distinctives as being of lesser concern than what is shared between Protestants and Catholics? Warren shows that he is willing to let go of the gospel.

November 22, 2005

This week’s King for a Week award goes to Rebecca who posts her Everyday Musings at Rebecca Writes. A year or two ago I said of Rebecca’s site, “…if I could recommend one, and only one, blog to people that would edify them the most, I would have a difficult time choosing any other than Rebecca’s.” I think that is still true. The quality of what she posts continues to amaze me. I always benefit from reading her site and commend it to you. For the next week the last five headlines from Rebecca’s site will be posted in the left sidebar of my site. I trust you will enjoy read her articles as much as I have.

I am now accepting nominations for King of the Week. If you have a site you would like to nominate, feel free to do so by clicking on the “suggest” button below the King of the Week box.

November 15, 2005

This week’s King of the Week honor goes to a newcomer to my blogroll. I actually met Marc, proud proprieter of Purgatorio when I was at the Desiring God conference last month but did not realize at the time that Purgatorio was his project (I’m a bit dense that way). With tens of thousands of new blogs beginning every day, it is rare that one comes along that is very different from the rest. Purgatorio is different. Very different. Short on text but long on photo essays, this site is a fascinating glimpse into the trends and fads within Evangelicalism (and occasionally beyond). Marc must spend hours scouring Google images to find all of these pictures.

Here is Marc’s introduction to the site:

“The topics posted on PURGATORIO are simply things that are present in Christian culture or a sub-culture. They are not something I necessarily agree or disagree with (although my biases and opinions will most likely show). Some of them will be more controversial, some silly, some sad and some just plain stupid. Some topics will be hot buttons, or pet peeves, or things close to your heart. So please comment! Humorous takes, serious takes, biblical takes, judgmental takes, can’t we all just get along takes, pontificating know-it-all takes, angry bile-filled vitriolic takes… but please no naughty words or blue humor.”

So for the next week, the last 6 headlines from Purgatorio will be available in the left sidebar of this site. I trust you will enjoy getting to know Marc and will be both amused and disgusted by his studies of contemporary Evangelicalism.

November 15, 2005

This morning I began to read the book of 1 Kings. Earler this year I had read through the Old Testament up to the end of 2 Samuel and, after spending some time in the New Testament, I decided to pick up where I had left off. As you know if you read this site on a regular basis, the topic of Bible translating has been much on my mind of late. As I read through the first three chapters of 1 Kings I found myself continually struck by the beauty of the language as it is translated in the English Standard Version. While I do not know how to read Hebrew, I often hear people speak of the poetic nature of the language which leads even the prose to have poetic qualities. It seems to me that the ESV does an admirable job of capturing that.

I have come to love those little literary devices, the metaphors and phrases used by the ancient writers and feel that they add so much to the reading of the text. Without a translation that accurately rendered these sayings we would lose so much of the flow and meaning of the text. I love language and the English language in particular. While I have always enjoyed using words and studying language, I found that my love of English was forged during the time I spent studying other languages, primarily those from which English is derived - Latin, Greek, and to some extent, French. I also studied linguistics and, of course, the English language itself. I came to love understanding how people use words to craft ideas. There is a good reason that people continue to study Shakespeare in high school despite increasingly antiquated language. Shakespeare was a master of the language, a master word crafter, and it benefits anyone to learn from his example. The same is true of Dickens or any other number of authors. What I learned is that words are important. Who would want to read a modern translation of Shakespeare? We would be left with nothing but a second-rate story. And author’s words are important. That may come as no great surprise and may even seem obvious, but the translators of dynamic equivalent translations would have to disagree, at least somewhat, as their translation philosophy proves that they feel ideas are more important than words.

As I read three chapters this morning I was struck by how much beauty there is in the prose of the Old Testament and I found myself profoundly thankful to have access to a translation that accurately renders the metaphors and phrases used by the original authors. Let me provide you with a few examples. I am going to use the ESV as my standard essentially-literal translation. I do this not necessary to indicate that it is superior to the others within the category, but simply because it is the translation I use for my devotional and study work.

Let’s begin with 1 Kings 2:2 where King David gives his final wishes to his son Solomon. The ESV renders this “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, and show yourself a man.” The other essentially literal translations agree with this translation as the NASB, KJV and NKJV are all very similar. There are two constructs here that I feel are essential to the text. “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” and “show yourself a man.” Let’s see how several other common translations render this particular verse:

  • “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, show yourself a man.” (NIV)
  • “I am going where everyone on earth must someday go. Take courage and be a man.” (NLT)
  • “My son, I will soon die, as everyone must. But I want you to be strong and brave.” (CEV)
  • “I’m about to go the way of all the earth, but you—be strong; show what you’re made of!” (Message)

As we see, the NIV renders the verse in a way that is consistent with the original text. The NLT deviates a little bit, expanding the meaning of “the way of all the earth” to “where everyone on earth must someday go.” It also says, “be a man” rather than “show yourself a man.” The CEV further interprets the verse, removing any sort of literary device in both parts. The Message does a little better, maintaining the first half of the verse but removing the “show yourself a man.”

What is lost in the NLT and the CEV is the metaphor “the way of all the earth.” It is an important term, beautifully poetic, and surely one that is worth some time in meditation. There is a depth of meaning to that phrase that is clearly missing in words like “I will soon die, as everyone must.” Readers of the NLT and CEV have no access to this phrase and miss out on the wonderful opportunity to meditate upon it and learn from it.

Another example comes only one verse later. 1 Kings 2:3 continues David’s instruction to his son. David exhorts Solomon to follow God and “walk in His ways.” The ESV translates the verse as “…and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.” Let’s see how other translations render “walking in his ways.”

  • …and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, (NIV)
  • Observe the requirements of the LORD your God and follow all his ways. Keep each of the laws, commands, regulations, and stipulations written in the law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. (NLT)
  • Do what the LORD your God commands and follow his teachings. Obey everything written in the Law of Moses. Then you will be a success, no matter what you do or where you go. (CEV)
  • Do what GOD tells you. Walk in the paths he shows you: Follow the life-map absolutely, keep an eye out for the signposts, his course for life set out in the revelation to Moses; then you’ll get on well in whatever you do and wherever you go. (Message)
  • The term “Walking in his ways” is a wonderful metaphor for living a life that honors God. We seek to emulate Him by following carefully in the footsteps of God. I am reminded of a song by the Smalltown Poets, “Call me Christian,” where they sing, “As a boy I’d put my steps / In my brother’s bigger tracks / To match his stride / And just like that I follow Jesus / Jesus is my guide.” That type of imagery is absent from the New Living Translation as well as the CEV. The Message is quite close and the NIV is, once again, accurate.

    Moving along we come to 1 Kings 2:9. David asks Solomon to exact revenge against Shimei, a man who had cursed David. “Now therefore do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man. You will know what you ought to do to him, and you shall bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” The metaphorical phrase here is “bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” Again, this is a wonderfully descriptive phrase that has more meaning than simply “kill.” Yet several translations provide only this meaning.

    • But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.” (NIV)
    • But that oath does not make him innocent. You are a wise man, and you will know how to arrange a bloody death for him.” (NLT)
    • Now you must punish him. He’s an old man, but you’re wise enough to know that you must have him killed. (CEV)
    • But neither should you treat him as if nothing ever happened. You’re wise, you know how to handle these things. You’ll know what to do to make him pay before he dies.” (Message)

    The NIV does a good job, only changing Sheol to grave. The NLT writes about a bloody death. This seems to miss the point for the verse is not primarily concerned with the mode of death, but with the reason for the death. The Message misses the mark altogether. Neither the NLT, the CEV or the Message see fit to render the word “grey” or “hoary” (as the King James renders it). Is that not a word God placed in the text? Is it not an important word? I do not understand why they would knowingly remove a word God saw fit to include.

    One of the most beautiful and oft-repeated phrases in the Old Testament is found in 1 Kings 2:10. “Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.” Several essentially literal translations render “slept” as “rested” but the meaning remains the same. The Bible Knowledge Commentary says of this verse, “The picturesque phrase rested with his fathers beautifully describes David’s death and suggests that his activity did not cease forever. Indeed, the bodies of all believers who die simply ‘rest’ until they are resurrected to live with God and serve Him eternally.” David entered a temporary rest as he, along with the rest of Creation, awaits the final consumation. Here is how other translations render that verse:

    • Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David. (NIV)
    • Then David died and was buried in the City of David. (NLT)
    • David was king of Israel forty years. He ruled seven years from Hebron and thirty-three years from Jerusalem. Then he died and was buried in Jerusalem. (CEV - combines verses 10-11)
    • Then David joined his ancestors. He was buried in the City of David. (Message)

    The NIV remains consistent with the text. The NLT and CEV say simply that David died. The Message extends the verse by saying that David joined his ancestors, something that is a bit of a stretch but at least somewhat true to the meaning of the verse. The NLT and CEV do not allow their readers to see the beauty of “resting with his fathers.” Instead, David simply died. What a tragic loss! Readers of these translations will not see any hope beyond the grave. They will not know that David has gone to be with his fathers and that he is merely resting. Once more, are these not words that God deliberately placed in the text? Should readers not have access to them?

    In 1 Kings 2:12 Solomon has assumed his father’s throne. In fact, according to an essentially literal translation, “Solomon sat on the throne of David his father, and his kingdom was firmly established.” While the meaning of the phrase “sat on the throne of David his father” is clear, meaning that Solomon succeeded his father as ruler, there is an interesting sense of continuity in the original words. Doing more than simply replacing his father, Solomon actually assumed his throne. This may seem a small distinction, but I feel it is important nevertheless. It is similar to verse 3 (above) where David exhorted solomon to walk in God’s ways. Now Solomon is sitting on his father’s throne. Let’s see how other translations have rendered this verse:

    • So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David, and his rule was firmly established. (NIV)
    • Solomon succeeded him as king, replacing his father, David, and he was firmly established on the throne. (NLT)
    • His son Solomon became king and took control of David’s kingdom. (CEV)
    • Solomon took over on the throne of his father David; he had a firm grip on the kingdom. (Message)

    Once more the translations are varied with the NIV being most literal and the CEV straying furthest from the text. The NLT, CEV and Message see fit to explain the verse while the NIV, along with the essentially literal translations, leave the words as they are. Through reading a literal translation we can picture Solomon ascending his father’s throne and taking over his responsibilities. This imagery is foreign to the dynamic equivalent translations.


    As I indicated earlier, I was grateful this morning that I have access to such a solid translation of Scripture. While I do not know Hebrew, I still have access to an accurate translation of the author’s original words, complete with the phrases, words and metaphors that set one author apart from another. I have access to the full meaning, or as close as I can come without access to the original language, of what was written so long ago. I simply can’t understand how anyone would be satisfied with anything less.

    November 14, 2005

    The Passion of the Christ was a major marketing success. But it was more than that. It was an astounding, shocking success that few people felt was possible. It was, after all, a movie filmed in a dead language focusing on a dead man whom most people in the world hate. It was overtly Christian in both theme and content and pulled no punches in expressing the deeply-held, politically incorrect religious views of one man. Yet it made an enormous amount of money and will go down in history as one of the greatest marketing and financial success stories in Hollywood history.

    So how was it that this movie came to be such a success? While there are certainly many factors involved, the primary factor was, quite simply, marketing. Astute marketers came to the realization that the Evangelical world was dry tinder just waiting for a spark.

    And now the secret is out. Evangelicals are dry tinder just waiting for the strike of a match. Evangelicals are primed and ready to play a role in marketing efforts. Following on the heels of The Passion of the Christ comes The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In my mind, and in the minds of many conservative Christians, there is a considerable difference between these two movies. The Passion of the Christ was offensive to me for several reasons but two stand above the rest. The first was in the physical depiction of Jesus. I, and many other Christians, struggle with the depiction of Jesus in film. The second reason the movie was offensive was in the profoundly Roman Catholic beliefs expressed through the film. In fact, one can make a good argument that the movie was a visual representation of the Catholic mass. There were constant references to theology that would be affirmed by Roman Catholics but that is antithetical to Protestantism. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is different in these two respects as it presents only an allegorical representation of Jesus and the theology is generally consistent with biblical Protestantism.

    It seems to me that a greater number of Protestants will be eager and willing to see this movie. This is something the marketers know only too well. Quoted in an article in The Christian Post is Abram Brook, editorial writer for Leadership Magazine. “[T]hey’re using all the tactics that made ‘The Passion of the Christ’ a blockbuster,” he says. “But…we have to wonder: ‘Is the church being used?’ or more precisely, ‘How crassly is the church being used?’” Just a few days ago I was speaking to a pastor who was marvelling that a company was willing to hand him all sorts of door-hangers and posters for the movie. But of course they were willing to do this! If the pastor distributes these, he is doing valuable, target marketing for the movie! It would seem the church is being used quite crassly.

    The marketing that made The Passion of the Christ such a success is being used to promote The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In fact, the producers of the film hired the very same marketing firm that promoted The Passion of the Christ. Only a brief look at the shelves of a Christian bookstore will show many ways this marketing is being manifested. The article in The Christian Post says, “It’s in magazines, radio airwaves, television specials, churches, music concerts, Christian Web sites, and on scores of family-friendly books. The promotions do not scream for attention like the iPod campaign, but Disney has integrated Narnia into the cultural fabric of Evangelicals.” Narnia figures will be given away with McDonalds’ Happy Meals and there is even an action video game based on the books set to be released.

    Other marketing efforts include “ ‘Narnia Sneak Peek’ events in churches across America integrated the movie into the local church. At the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., members of the 20,000-plus congregation viewed exclusive clips, received free gift bags full of outreach material, and were treated to a special live performance by Steven Curtis Chapman. In addition, C.S. Lewis’ stepson and co-producer of the film, Doug Gresham; Walden Media President and film’s visionary Michael Flaherty; and other Narnia filmmakers discussed the making of the movie.”

    Brooks provides a valuable warning. “Whether the film is overtly Christian, as in The Passion, has Christian themes, or merely upholds values that Christians support, church leaders must be careful about endorsing Hollywood productions and the degree to which their support is expressed in their local congregations… There is, after all, considerable difference between referencing a current movie in a sermon and supplying the congregation with mass-produced study guides and small group materials.” Are there pastors who would hand the people in their churches mass-produced study guides originating from within a marketing machine? I’m sure there are. If The Passion taught us anything it is that pastors and church leaders are willing to be in the forefront of this type of marketing effort.

    It is more than a little bit ironic that the film is being released by Walt Disney Pictures. Walt Disney has certainly been no great friend of Christians and Christianity in general over the past decades. Their recent films are filled with themes that contradict the Bible. Yet it is clear that in this case they have taken an interest in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, simply because of the revenue it represents. This irony is not lost on the London Telegraph:

    The move is particularly remarkable because for the past decade Disney has been the subject of a religious boycott imposed by Christian organisations, who accused the company of betraying its family-values legacy by providing employee health benefits to same-sex partners, allowing gay days at its theme parks and producing what they considered to be controversial films, books and television programmes through Disney subsidiaries.

    Now the wooing of evangelicals, combined with the departure of Disney chief executive Michael Eisner - described by some religious leaders as “anti-Christian” - signals the implicit end of the boycott and the beginning of a possible money-spinning franchise for the studio, which is desperately seeking a blockbuster hit that can deliver sequels, along the lines of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films. (source)

    The article in The Christian Post concludes by stating that “Brook appreciates that the opportunity exists for the church to influence the types of films that the culture’s dominant media produces, but warns that ‘such influence comes at a price.’ He is also wondering where the next Hollywood collaboration will take the Church.” These are both valid concerns. This influence does come at a price. The price for The Passion of the Christ was monetary, in the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, but also spiritual, in subjecting people to a movie that was so filled with Catholic theology and imagery as to boggle the mind of this Protestant. We can also only sit and wait and wonder where Hollywood collaboration will take the church. We can be sure that marketing companies are not standing idly by, but are seeing in Evangelical churches a vast network of marketing fodder.

    “Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, suggests an even more cautionary approach. “Every social group should worry about being taken advantage of by Hollywood,” Schultze said. “Moviemakers generally are more interested in getting various groups to buy and rent films than they are in serving those groups. Christians might be more gullible in the sense that they tend to believe various religious leaders who champion or criticize the latest movies even if the leaders have not seen the films and do not have a very good ability to interpret and evaluate them. “Factor in the Christian bandwagon effect, and one can see how Christians can be taken advantage of, even as they seek to do what is right,” Schultze said.” (Leadership Journal).

    I sincerely hope this movie is used by God to draw people to Himself. While I have little hope that people will turn to God within the movie theatres (the gospel is, after all, not going to be clearly presented in the movie) I do hope that the strong Christian imagery and parallelism within the film will allow Christians to spark conversation with their unsaved friends. There is much to discuss. At the same time I hope that Christians approach this movie with discernment, being aware that it is being produced largely by unbelievers who care little for the Christian themes except for their usefulness in drawing a Christian audience to the theatres. I hope Christians think twice before consuming mass-produced marketing material under the guise of study guides and Bible studies. Above all I hope that Christians remember that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while a fabulous story is just that, a story. And to many, including those who are going to try to hand you posters, door hangers are action figures, it is just another product. There are marketers out there seeking to use you to promote this product. The question is, how crassly are you being used?

    November 13, 2005

    Before church began this morning I was thinking about exegetical fallacies. I’m not sure why this topic was on my mind but I was trying to think back to which of these fallacies I have written about on this site. I came up with three and promptly forgot one of them. I thought I’d collect the other two here for your reading pleasure.

    Proverbs 29:18

    The first of them is Proverbs 29:18 which you may have heard translated as “without vision the people perish.” A quick survey of my bookshelf turned up references to this verse in several books. The example I used in an article last year was taken from one of Rick Warren’s Ministry Toolbox updates:

    MY IMAGINATION INFLUENCES MY ASPIRATION. In other words, your dreams determine your destiny. To accomplish anything you must first have a mission, a goal, a hope, a vision. “Without a vision the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18. I compared this verse to several other translations:

    NIV - Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
    NLT - When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild
    CEV - Without guidance from God law and order disappear
    NKJV - Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint
    HCSB - Without revelation people run wild
    ESV - Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint
    AMP - Where there is no vision [no redemptive revelation of God], the people perish

    My conclusion was that, “It is possible that a brief, careless reading of one translation of the Bible could lead to confusion as to this verse’s meaning. But for anyone who rightly handles the Word of God, paying attention to the sense of the text and to the meaning of the specific words used, the meaning of this verse is obvious. This verse says nothing of the importance of having a church that is led by vision or a visionary. Ironically, this verse should underscore the importance of honoring God’s revelation, and warn those who would water it down by sloppy or deliberate misuse.”

    You can read this article here.

    Matthew 18:19-20

    The second exegetic fallacy concerns Matthew 18 and in particular, the words, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

    My conclusions about this verse were as follows: “Where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there. What this means is that Jesus is present spiritually to validate the decision that has just been made. Jesus will help guide the church officials and give them peace that the decision they were forced to make was the right one. I see no reason to expand this verse to mean that whenever two Christians are in the same geographic location, Jesus is somehow more present there than when they are apart.”

    Read the article here.

    As I remember other similar articles I have written I will append them to this list.

    November 08, 2005

    As you have probably noticed, I’ve added a King of the Week section to this site. This section allows me to highlight the contributions of other bloggers and to pay tribute to people who have blessed (or even just amused) me through their efforts. Doug from Coffeeswirls was there by default from the beginning of the site, but I am now going to begin a regular rotation of adding a new site each Tuesday.

    So the very first King for a Week is none other than Centuri0n, aka Frank Turk, who blogs at …And His Ministers A Flame of Fire. Frank and I have had a couple of good-humored wars of words, but I have come to respect his writing a lot. It is clear that he is a James White devotee, as he seems to enjoy fighting point-by-point battles with Reformed Catholics. His site is an eclectic mixture of deep theology and inside humor. I enjoy reading it and am glad to make him King for a Week.

    November 04, 2005

    Yesterday I wrote about Bible translations, hoping to stir people to at least investigate the issues surrounding what has become a hot topic in the church. I believe that an influx of poor translations is beginning to erode the confidence Christians have in their Bibles, and unfortunately, this erosion of confidence happens with good reason. Yesterday evening I was reading Translating Truth, a book that is due for publication in the next couple of weeks. The third chapter, written by C. John Collins, provided an interesting example of translation gone awry and I thought I would share that today.

    Philosophy of Translation

    Collins quotes A.J. Krailsheimer, a teacher of French at Oxford, who translated Pascal’s Pensees into English. Here is how Krailsheimer explained his goal in this translation:

    The purpose of any translation is to enable those who have little or no knowledge of the original language to read with reasonable confidence works which would otherwise have been inaccessible to them. It does not help if the translator introduces variants of his own, instead of following as faithfully as possible the chosen original, ultimate criterion of accuracy and authenticity.

    This goal is little more than we would expect in any translation. He seeks to faithfully reproduce what would otherwise be inaccessible to the reader. He attempts to be as faithful as he can to the original, unwilling to sacrifice accuracy or authenticity by adding his own variants.

    It is interesting to contrast this philosophy of translation with Eugene Nida, the father of dynamic equivalence. Nida writes:

    To translate is to try to stimulate in the new reader in the new language the same reaction to the text as the original author wished to stimulate in his first and immediate readers.

    Note the difference between these two philosophies. The first seeks a faithful translation of the words used by the original author while the second focuses primarily on the reader and his reaction to the author’s underlying intent. What can be lost in this method of translation is what Anthony Nichols refers to as “exegetical potential.”

    This would mean in practice that a good translation of the NT will preserve a sense of historical and cultural distance…It will take the modern reader back into the alien milieu of first century Judaism where the Christian movement began. It will show him how the gospel of Jesus appeared to a Jew, and not how that Jew would have thought had he been an Australian or an American.

    A Metaphor

    Collins teaches Latin to his children and a few years ago his sister gave him a Latin Daily Phrase and Culture Calendar. In this calendar, most days have a Latin phrase accompanied by a suggested translation. There is also sometimes a literal translation given. What he found in these translations provides an interesting metaphor for the translation of Scripture.

    My Latin has gotten a little bit rusty through the years, so forgive me if my attempts at translation are not perfectly accurate!

    mutatis mutandis
    After making the necessary changes
    (lit.: Things having been changed that had to be changed).

    The literal version, which renders the Latin with fair precision, makes some sense but translates to very difficult English. A slightly better rendering might be the necessary changes having been changed or the necessary changes having been made. From there it is not difficult to smooth the translation to After making the necessary changes. We can consider this a good, essentially literal translation of the original words.

    Ubi leges valent, ibi populus potest valere
    Where the laws are good, there the people are flourishing
    (lit.: Where laws are healthy, there the people are able to be healthy).

    This translation is somewhat true to the author’s words, but does not capture the author’s intended repetition of “valere.” A better translation, capturing this literary device, would be Where laws are healthy, the people can be healthy. This example shows, then, a decent but still flawed translation. At the very least it could have been better as it was quite simple to improve the translation to still be readable while maintaining the literary device.

    Quod cibus est aliis, aliis est venenum.
    One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
    (lit.: That which is food to some is poison to others).

    Collins points out something I noticed immediately when reading this translation. The literal translation is not quite literal enough because it misses the chiasmus, or parallel between the two parts of the sentence. A better translation would be What is food to some, to others is poison. This maintains the aliis, aliis construct. So again, we have a translation that keeps most of the words intact, but ignores a literary device.

    Pares cum paribus facillime congregantur.
    Birds of a feather flock together.
    (lit.: Equals most easily congregate with equals).

    In this case the literal translation bears resemblance in meaning to the original but very little similarity in the words (which literally translate to something like Equals with equals most easily congregate). The translator has seen fit to interpret and contextualize this phrase, rendering it with a modern aphorism. Returning to Nichols’ quote, we see that this translation may capture the author’s intended meaning, but it maintains none of its exegetical potential.

    Mundus vult decipi.
    There’s a sucker born every minute.
    (lit.: the world wants to be deceived).

    This is another case where the translator has done far more than translate, but has ignored the actual words and instead translated what he feels is the author’s intent. As Collins says, “Few lay people would call these last two “accurate” translations, because the words of the original have exercised no control over the renderings.” The exegetical potential is gone and the reader is forced to accept the author’s interpretation of both the words and his understanding of intended meaning.


    I found this quite a helpful metaphor in understanding the differences between translation philosophies. The first example might equate to an essentially literal translation of the Bible like the ESV, KJV, NKJV or NASB. The second and third examples might be similar to a dynamic equivalent translation like the NIV or even the NLT. The final two examples strike me as being similar to The Message or the CEV.

    And so we return to where we were yesterday. When reading your Bible, do you have confidence that you are reading the words of God? Do you have confidence that the translator has done his utmost to faithfully reproduce the author’s words, or has he also interjected his understanding of the words? Has he maintained the exegetical potential of the Scriptures, or has he done the exegesis on your behalf?

    November 03, 2005

    Imagine, for a moment, that you woke up one morning to find the front door of your house wide open, the brisk morning air blowing into the room. Your first thought, of course, is for your family. You race upstairs and throw open the door of your son’s room. He is lying peacefully asleep. Breathing a prayer of thanks you cross the hall, opening the door to your daughter’s room. Her blankets are in a heap beside the bed, her nightlight on, but she is nowhere to be seen. Frantically you search the house, calling for her, begging her to answer you. But she is gone.

    Before you can pick up the phone to dial 911, it rings. You answer it immediately and are shocked to hear that it is a reporter from a local newspaper. He awoke this morning to find a strange package on his front doorstep. Opening it, he found that it contained a warning that someone had taken your daughter. A letter detailed several steps that he and you would have to take in order to have her returned to you safely.

    Now let me ask you, when you talked to this reporter, would you ask him for a summary of the letter, or would you ask him to read it word-for-word? Would you ask him to provide his understanding of the kidnapper’s demands, or would you want to hear those demands in the very words used by the kidnapper? It seems obvious to me that you would want to not only hear every word from the letter but that you would strive to see it for yourself. You would want to know, study, understand and follow every detail of that letter. The fact is that words are important. This applies not only to series of words, but to individual words. We see the importance of words all the time in legal documents, recipes, love letters, interviews and quotations.

    Think of a courtroom. Even if you have never been involved in a court case, you may have seen cases tried on some of the court shows like People’s Court or Judge Judy. Maybe you took time off work to watch the O.J. Simpson trial. When a lawyer or judge asks a person to recount the details of a case, does he allow the person to provide a summary, or does he dig deeper and demand the exact words and phrases that were used? It is not enough for a person to testify that “the defendant threatened my life.” The judge will demand to know the exact words the defendant used. Did he say, “Give me your purse or I’ll kill you?” or did he say, “Give me your purse or else…?” In either case there was a threat, but only one can be accurately shown to be a threat against the person’s life. The other was merely interpreted to be so. In this instance it may or may not be the case.

    Whether following instructions to find one’s daughter or standing before a court in an attempt to put an assailant in prison, individual words play an important and even crucial role.

    If we place such importance on individual words in so many areas of life, why is it that we are so willing to read translations of the Bible that, in many ways, are mere summaries of the actual words? If we agree, and I’m sure most of us do, that there are no words more important than those written in Scripture, why do we read versions of it that make a mockery of the words that were breathed out by God?

    Consider just a couple of examples. Romans 13:4 discusses the role of civil government. The authorities, says Paul, have the right to “bear the sword.”

    “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (ESV) The word translated as “sword” is machaira and means “sword.”

    But consider this passage in some less-literal translations:

    “But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong.” (NLT)

    “If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.” (CEV)

    “But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it.” (The Message)

    Noticeably absent from these three translations is the word “sword.” The translators have seen fit to provide what they feel is the main idea of the passage, that the civil authorities have the right to punish those who do wrong. But this is a verse that has long been used to discuss the Christian view on capital punishment. It is an important verse in this context and in others. But in these three translations there is nothing to discuss, for the “sword” has been removed and punishment, which may be imprisonment, fines or community service, among other things, has been substituted. This same word is used in Acts 12:2 where we read of the murder of James the brother of John. In this passage the NLT speaks explicitly of a sword, while the CEV suggests one with the words “cut his head off” and The Message speaks of “murder.” In either case, the translators have, in this second passage, translated a word in a way that is inconsistent with how they have translated it in another passage. They have done so in order to interpret and not to make a more clear translation.

    Let’s look at a second example. A standard translation of Psalm 32:1 might read as follows: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (ESV) This translation is not a transliteration, or direct translation of word position, punctuation, and so on, but is a readable translation that attempts to translate each word that is in the original language. Now let’s look at a few translations from less-literal versions of the Bible.

    Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. (The Message)

    Oh, what joy for those whose rebellion is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! (NLT)

    Our God, you bless everyone whose sins you forgive and wipe away. (CEV)

    What has become of the word “covered?” It has been replaced by “wiped clean,” “put out of site,” or “wipe away.” But is “covered” not one of the words God breathed out and wrote in His book? Should we, as the reader, not have access to that word? Conversely, “fresh start” is foreign to the text and is provided as an addition to the passage without alerting the reader that these are not God’s words, but the translator’s.

    Consider even the words of Solomon, written to his lover, describing her unsurpassed beauty. “Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.” (ESV) The Message renders this, “…like a flock of goats in the distance streaming down a hillside in the sunshine.” Note that addition of “sunshine.” The author may claim poetic license, but the fact is that he has added a word that is foreign to the text. The New Living Translation adds a small amount of interpretation, suggesting that her hair falls in waves. “Your hair falls in waves, like a flock of goats frisking down the slopes of Gilead.” If I were to write a love letter to my wife, do you think she would want it word-for-word, or does she merely desire access to the content of my thoughts? Again, translators have interpreted rather than translated.

    What I mean to show in these examples is that anything other than an essentially literal translation of the Bible works to undermine the Christian’s confidence in the Scriptures. This is a topic that I cannot adequately cover in only a small article so I will not attempt to do so. But on the basis of these examples I would urge you to consider this matter on your own. As Christians, people of the Book, we need to have confidence in our text. What basis do we have for our faith if we cannot have confidence in the Bible? We cannot overestimate the importance of ensuring that what we study is the clearest, best, most accurate translation of God’s Words that we can possibly find.

    I have written more about translating in the past and would direct you to this article as well as two books by Leland Ryken, one big and one small.

    November 01, 2005
    “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined” (David Hume).

    That quote, taken from David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and historian, would summarize what the average person believes about miracles. Miracles are impossible because they violate laws of nature, and the very nature of these laws dictates that they are inviolable. Certainly in discussing the Christian faith with unbelievers the Christian evangelist often encounters this roadblock where a person is willing to believe in God and in the person of Jesus Christ, but he is unwilling to believe in miracles. But it is not only philosophers and unbelievers (two terms that I assure you are not entirely synonymous!) that struggle with this concept of miracles. Many Christians have an improper understanding of God’s providence which in turn leads them to misunderstand what exactly a miracle is. Many Christians believe that miracles are an intervention of God whereby He violates one or more of the laws of nature. The Christian might state his belief that since God created the laws of nature he is able to violate them when and if he sees fit. In this way we see that what Christians and nonChristians believe about miracles may be remarkably similar.

    Here are a few definitions of miracle:

    • According to many religions, a miracle is an intervention by God in the universe.
    • An event in the natural world, but out of its established order, possible only by the intervention of divine power.
    • An event that cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is therefore attributed to a supernatural or divine power.
    • A marvellous event manifesting a supernatural act of God.
    • An event in the external world brought about by the immediate agency or the simple volition of God, operating without the use of means capable of being…It shows the intervention of a power that is not limited by the laws either of matter or of mind, a power interrupting the fixed laws which govern their movements, a supernatural power.
    • Miracle is a 2004 concept album credited to singer Celine Dion and photographer Anne Geddes.

    Consistent in all of these definitions (or five of six of them, at least) is the understanding, either implicit or explicit, that a miracle requires an intervention of God in which he interrupts the fixed laws of nature to accomplish His will. I would like to show today, however briefly, that this understanding is not entirely correct for it presupposes fixed, inviolable, laws of nature.

    A biblical understanding of God’s providence requires us to understand that God upholds the world from moment-to-moment. God’s creative activity did not end His involvement with the world; rather, God has been sustaining the world since the very moment He called it into existence. God is as fully involved in the world today as He was during the initial act of Creation. Said otherwise, God’s act of creation continues even today. Conservation and creation are near synonymous terms when we examine God’s involvement with our world.

    God tends to govern the world in a way that is predictable. We often refer to the predictability of nature by discussing “laws of nature.” We saw this clearly in the definitions of the world “miracle.” But is it right for Christians to understand that there are laws of nature? I believe that there is a sense in which we can, for nature is clearly governed in predictable ways. If I were to reach my arm out and drop my can of Diet Coke from the window beside me it would fall and land on the head of my dog, two floors below. If I were to repeat this experiment tomorrow, I have every reason to believe that gravity will play the same role and will once again pull the can of Coke towards my dog’s head. There is a consistency in our world. But is this consistency based on laws?

    It seems to me that Christians would do better to understand the laws of nature in terms of regularities rather than laws. When we speak of laws, we understand something that is inviolable. We might even think that God Himself cannot violate these laws, once again, because they are by their very nature inviolable. With this understanding a miracle is a violation of a law - a violation of the inviolable. When Moses, through the power of God, parted the Red Sea, he must have violated any number of laws. God intervened with the law of gravity and violated it, holding back water and piling it in a great wall.

    The danger of this view is that we may come to believe (in practice if not in theory) that God’s involvement in the world and in our lives is sporadic rather than consistent; exceptional rather than normative. We may feel that it is the laws of nature that keep the world running while God watches over it all, allowing the world to work like a machine. And we may feel that a miracle is an activity of God’s intervention in our lives, after which he retreats once more into being a bystander or member of a cosmic, divine audience.

    The alternative, I believe, is to understand “the laws of nature” as regularities rather than laws. In this way a miracle is no longer a violation of the laws of nature but an exception or an anomaly. A miracle is merely a break from or exception to divine routine. In this sense God did not violate laws of nature when He used Moses to hold back the waters of the Red Sea. Instead, God governed that part of His Creation just a little bit differently for just a little while. As an exception to the routine, God allowed waters to part and allowed water to defy gravity by rising into a wall on either side of a channel.

    There is a very real sense, then, in which a miracle differs from what we consider normal only because it is an exception to the routine. In either way God is upholding and governing. We would do well not to see miracles as a greater display of God’s power or involvement than the routine, for doing something exceptional is no more difficult to the Creator and Sustainer of the universe than maintaining regularity. In fact, we may do well to see divine routine as being more impressive than the performance of miracles, if for no other reason than the fact that while a miracle benefits only a small number of people, the consistency of God’s providence benefits all men all the time.

    Of course, as flawed human beings, we are more easily impressed by the exception than the rule. It is here that I would like to quote James Spiegel from his book The Benefits of Divine Providence. “Ironically, because the majority of people take for granted God’s faithful governance, his occasional deviations from cosmic routine are necessary to shake them out of their doldrums. Miracles, then, are uniquely impressive to us more because of the peculiarities of human psychology than because of any additional divine power they display (which is objectively no greater than when things run as usual). We are wowed by the miraculous only because we have been spoiled by God’s awesome regular providence (which, I should add, is our fault, not his).”

    What difference does it make when we have a proper view of God’s providence? Spiegel answers as follows. “God is always working directly in the world in the most fundamental metaphysical sense, actively sustaining it, in the sense of constant creation, from moment to moment. Therefore, a miracle claim does not disturb belief about the underlying cause of nature’s uniformity. God is no more or less at work in the world when turning water into wine than when grapes ferment during the normal process of making wine. What makes the former sorts of events special and deserving the term miracle is, of course, the absence of certain secondary causes. But the supernatural cause behind it all remains constant…and consequently the strain to believe is significantly less than in [a low view of providence].”

    So what we come to understand is that concepts like “miracle” and “laws of nature” are really just means we use to describe the metaphysics of the actual phenomenology of God’s providence, which is to say, the difference between how it appears that God works to us and how He actually works. A biblical understanding in this matter can have a profound impact on both life and faith.