Saturday à Machen: The Facts Upon Which Experience Is Based (II)

Machen-and-faculty (2)The great John Gresham Machen succumbed to pneumonia on 1 January 1937 while speaking in Bismark, North Dakota, and so in 2017 we observe the 80th anniversary of his untimely death. To honor his eminent memory, readers will find below the second of four successive installments that will feature, on the last Saturday of each remaining month of 2017, an extended quotation from his book Christianity and Liberalism. These selections will comprise the bulk of his chapter on doctrine, a subject on which he placed the highest importance—and one every bit as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. In many ways, the posts are an expansion and elucidation of the very first Saturday à Machen, which I have come to feel was programmatic for this (now monthly) blog feature.

“But, it will be said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false, and to detect its falsity one does not even need to be a Christian. For to say that ‘Christianity is a life’ is to make an assertion in the sphere of history. … Christianity is an historical phenomenon, … [a]nd as an historical phenomenon it must be investigated on the basis of historical evidence.

“Is it true, then, that Christianity is not a doctrine but a life? The question can be settled only by an examination of the beginnings of Christianity[,] … [which] constitute a fairly definite historical phenomenon. The Christian movement originated a few days after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. … The name originated after the death of Jesus, and the thing itself was also something new. Evidently there was an important new beginning among the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. At that time is to be placed the beginning of the remarkable movement which spread out from Jerusalem into the Gentile world—the movement which is called Christianity.

“About the early stages of this movement definite historical information has been preserved in the Epistles of Paul, which are regarded by all serious historians as genuine products of the first Christian generation. The writer of the Epistles had been in direct communication with those intimate friends of Jesus who had begun the Christian movement in Jerusalem, and in the Epistles he makes it abundantly plain what the fundamental character of the movement was.

But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 19-21.)

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Sundays with Silva: On Translation and Long Apostolic Sentences

In the most recent installment of Mondays with Moisés, we read our Infallible Hero state, in what at first blush might seem like a throwaway comment, that since “the message communicates more clearly” in translations of modern literature which sound “as though they had originally been written in English” (with due allowance for the original context), “one can argue that they are more accurate than literal renderings would be.” Yet the careful reader will immediately note that his use of “one can argue” here practically demands some sort of qualification for this statement. One such qualification, it seems to me, relates to the use of so-called “insider language,” as I suggested in my recent rejoinder to the much-missed Lingamish. Another, as I argued many years ago in another such discussion, is the notion that a literarily sensitive translation “will not be complicated where the original is not, and by the same token, will not be simpler than the original.” Do such added qualifications find any support at all in the Silvanic canon, however? Fortunately for us, the material from the Youngblood Festschrift reworks, with somewhat different emphases, similar material from our Infallible Hero’s earlier publication, God, Language and Scripture. In addition to beautifully nuancing—and rounding out—an admittedly complex discussion, our text today affords us an excellent illustration of a fundamental principle of Moisifical Infallibility: to wit, that Moisés Silva is his own best interpreter.

silva“The task of producing a good translation is exceedingly arduous. Students of the biblical languages do not always have a good appreciation of what is involved. They have learned to produce ‘literal’ translations by consulting the lexicon and so the process seems rather straightforward. In fact, however, a successful translation requires (1) mastery of the source language—certainly a much more sophisticated knowledge than one can acquire over a period of four or five years; (2) superb interpretive skills and breadth of knowledge so as not to miss the nuances of the original; and (3) a very high aptitude for writing in the target language so as to express accurately both the cognitive and the affective elements of the message.

“Even when one has all that equipment, frustration lurks at every turn. If we capture with some precision the propositional content of a statement, we may give up the emotional nuances that form part of the total meaning. If we have a stroke of genius and come up with a turn of phrase that conveys powerfully the message of the original, we may realize that our rendering blurs somewhat its cognitive detail. Not surprisingly, some rabbis used to complain: ‘He who translates a verse literally is a liar, and he who paraphrases is a blasphemer!’ Italians are more concise: traduttore traditore, ‘translators are traitors.’ […]

“We must ever keep in mind that no one translation can possibly convey fully and unambiguously the meaning of the original. Different translators, and even different philosophies of translation, contribute to express various features of the original. […] Moreover, recent advances in linguistics place much emphasis on the context of speech. The admirable desire to produce translations that do not sound like translations and are thus clearer and more accessible to the modern reader must be accompanied by the reminder that the biblical stories took place in the Middle East rather than the Western world, in ancient times rather than in the twentieth century. To the extent that ‘readable’ translations indirectly encourage modern readers to forget such a setting, to that extent they also fail to capture part of the meaning of the text. Besides, one detects a definite tendency to make modern translations much simpler than the original Greek and Hebrew. If the Corinthians had some difficulty understanding Paul’s Greek, it is no disgrace when a modern English reader has to struggle through a long apostolic sentence.

“It is also misleading, however, to assume that a rendering that is formally equivalent to the original necessarily conveys the meaning more faithfully. If I translate the Spanish sentence Tengo frío en los pies literally, ‘I have cold in the feet,’ rather than idiomatically, ‘My feet are cold,’ English readers will probably understand the rendering, but they will gain absolutely nothing by its literalness—indeed, they could be misled to think that there is some special nuance they are missing! Literal translations are easier to produce, and the approach can degenerate into an excuse for not doing the hard exegetical and literary work of conveying faithfully the meaning of the ancient text to the modern reader.”

Moisés Silva, “God, Language and Scripture,” in Moisés Silva (ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation: Six Volumes in One (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 273, 275-6.

The Book of the People (of God): A Friendly Rejoinder

One of the pleasures of taking up the blog after so long a time is the chance to revisit, on the one hand, long-forgotten drafts (some nearly finished!) waiting to be published, and on the other, seemingly endless scraps of paper carefully tucked away in my desk drawer, in the hopes that one day I might have occasion to return to them. I had meant to publish a couple of short posts drawn from each of these categories last week, but the toils of life in this fallen world and the infirmities of the flesh prevented me from so doing (though, happily, not from posting altogether). Allow me, then, to resume the program this week, and so bring you a post (and perhaps two others in the near future) that harks back to the golden days of Biblioblogdom. This one happens to have been drafted on the whole in 2008, in response to our good friend Lingamish (a.k.a. David Ker), who has long departed the blogosphere for other (and doubtless more fruitful) fields of endeavor. He is nevertheless sorely missed, not least as a creative force and sparring partner. Here’s to you, Dave. Thanks for all the lingapotami.

linga-hippo-xs-purpleIt appears that our good friend Lingamish is presently distraught because his biblical translation of choice, the Contemporary English Version (CEV), has started to make use of the word “grace” in recent editions. (Previously, he notes, it used exclusively such expressions as “undeserved kindness” and “gift,” depending on the context.) He opines:

“I strongly believe that when a Bible translation uses archaic or insider vocabulary that they are in effect requiring readers to finish the translation for them. This is a half-baked strategy. In essence what the translator is doing is saying, ‘When you read the word grace you shouldn’t understand it as a synonym for elegance like it is used in modern parlance. Instead you should understand it as a deep theological word whose full significance is only accessible to you if you understand my theological framework.’”

This, I should mention, is strongly reminiscent of comments from Barclay Newman in a fascinating interview which we’ve already had occasion to note:

“[T]he word ‘grace,’ of course is absent [from the CEV]. It was brought into the text by John Wycliffe, 1384, when he transliterated the Latin term ‘gratia.’ The problem, of course, the word ‘grace’ today is that it means charm, poise, beauty, loveliness, and you cannot even create a contemporary English sentence using ‘grace’ in the sense that it’s used in the biblical terms, you’re saved by grace. And so we looked at the meaning of the Greek word rather than […] continuing with the […] traditional terminologies.”

Now I realize that this may come as a shock to some, but it bears noting that the Bible, like any other religious text (and more to the point, like any other sacred text), contains a great deal of specialized terminologywhat Lingamish calls “insider vocabulary,” or worse, “Biblish.” This is so because a sacred text both belongs to the community that regards it as sacred and finds its rightful context within it. In turn, the community receives these “insider words” and invests them with expansive meanings that reflect the understanding and experience of the community (i.e., its “theological framework”). Thus we are not dealing merely with shorthand or jargon that can be merrily parsed away by means of circumlocution, but precisely with weighty words whose full significance is indeed only accessible to those connected to the community. Thus, what is needed is not merely for a translation to resolve every conceivable problem in the text, but rather to bring readers into the life of the community. Or, to put it in perfectly traditional Christian “insider words,” what is needed is conversion and catechesis, initiation and mystagogy.

Note that the Christian Bible itself does not take the view that all of its parts are equally clear; II Peter 3:16 explicitly tells us that in St Paul’s epistles, for instance, there are “some things hard to understand.” Nor does Scripture suggest that all of its parts are equally accessible to the general reader apart from the community.1 The episode of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 makes this counterpoint eloquently, particularly in the exchange between St Philip and the Eunuch (vv. 30-31a), which highlights the need for a guide in connection with the act of reading Scripture:

“So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said: ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?'”

Anything to the contrary assumes a view of Scripture which effectively separates it from the life and experience of the community of faith to which it belongs. And indeed, the sort of translation for which our dear friend Lingamish yearns is only possible in a universe where the Bible stands alone, severed from the Church’s reading and use of the Scriptures over two millennia. Not only do I adamantly refuse to be part of such a universe, but I note that it is merely an unattainable mythical creation—not an utopia, even, because there is nothing ideal or desirable about it. Indeed, not even the most fervent biblicist truly believes in such a thing, whatever their protestations. The story is often told of the distinguished Christian preacher convinced that, were Bibles to be dropped in a remote area without previous contact with Western civilization, the people there would necessarily organize Churches of Christ, non-instrumental: that is, that they would replicate exactly (O wonder!) his own community of faith.

Incidentally, during a recent visit [i.e., in 2008] to the Bible Society in Río Piedras, I picked up an inexpensive copy of the Traducción in Lenguaje Actual (TLA), the Spanish equivalent of the CEV. After a week or so of reading several representative portions of this translation, I have only this to say: so help me if I ever again have to read a banal and basically meaningless adjective like special applied to such a wondrous and weighty subject as God’s choosing of a people for his Name!

ENDNOTE

1 By the same token, neither does the Bible take the view that all of its parts are equally unclear, nor does it suggest that all its parts are equally inaccessible!

Digging for Hidden Treasures in Festschriften

metzger_festschriften

A couple of weeks ago, Eric Smith of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver tweeted, in a bold act of confessio, his considered (but in some quarters quite unpopular) opinion that edited volumes and Festschriften “often contain better, more interesting work than juried articles [and] monographs.” I happen to concur with this eminently sensible judgment, and so replied to express my wholehearted agreement, noting in passing that the late great Bruce Manning Metzger compiled an index (1951, with a supplement in 1955) of articles on the New Testament and the early Church published in Festschriften (pictured above). And in fact, a quick perusal of the works in question reminded me that Professor Metzger himself was in full agreement: he says in the Preface that “the average article in Festschriften is of a higher caliber,” since “every scholar, and particularly a disciple, is quite naturally eager to do honor to his teacher or colleague by producing a contribution of lasting significance.”1

In his memoir Reminiscences of an Octogenarian, to which we have had occasion to refer earlier, Professor Metzger gives a brief account of this bibliographical project. He comments that while “assembling and publishing a Festschrift has been a pleasant way of acknowledging publically the contributions to scholarship made by the person to whom the volume was dedicated,”2 there is a long-acknowledged negative side to such a publication, which he describes with a story from the memoirs of another late great scholar, Frederick Fyvie Bruce:

“Back in my [i.e., Bruce’s] Cambridge days Peter Giles, Master of Emmanuel College, used to tell us that any scholar who wrote an article for a Festschrift might as well dig a hole in his back garden and bury it, for in a year or two it would be forgotten and there would be no convenient means of recording its existence.”3

From this, it is a short distance indeed to R. G. Collingwood’s well-known desideratum that he “may escape otherwise than by death the last humiliation of an aged scholar, when his juniors conspire to print a volume of essays and offer it to him as a sign that they now consider him senile”!4 No wonder that, in addition to being compared a hole in the back garden by Master Giles of Emmanuel, Festschriften have been described as “the graveyard of scholarship”5—both of which endeavors, incidentally, require a fair bit of digging.

Undaunted by these considerations, Professor Metzger relates that, in his “pursuit of fugitive Festschriften” and their hidden treasures, he dug instead “beyond the field of New Testament into such fields as ancient art and archaeology, Byzantine research, the classics, Egyptology, English literature, intertestamental literature, Judaica, the mystery cults, mythology, coins, Oriental languages and literatures, paleography, papyrology, patristics, philology in general, philosophy, and theology in general”6—a broad scope indeed! In the preface to the Supplement, he gives the number of indexed Festschriften as 640, and states that the number of indexed articles “comes to nearly 2350, written in a score of languages.”7 “Not a few of these,” he notes, “are dedicated to scholars whose chief interests were far removed from the New Testament and the Early Church,” so that “many of the Festschriften here recorded contain only a single article germane to the interests of the compiler.”8 He mentions almost in passing visits to European libraries and bookstores in pursuit of the over 1200 volumes actually reviewed for the index, remarking almost wistfully that “the task of ferreting out Festschriften is almost endless, and utmost diligence in ransacking all the ordinary sources is only supplemented by knowledge that comes only by chance.”9

Metzger’s index “attempted to include all pertinent material from the time that the custom of publishing Festschriften began … down to the close of 1950, the half century mark being an appropriate terminus ad quem.”10 He notes in the Supplement that an index of medieval studies published in Festschriften from 1865 to 1946 and prepared by Harry F. Williams appeared serendipitously on the same year as Metzger’s (available online here). As it happens, “the two volumes supplement each other admirably, for [Metzger’s] covers the first five centuries of the Christian era, and [Williams’] begins with the sixth century.”11 To this must be added the still more impressive achievement by Dorothy Rounds, Articles on Antiquity in Festschriften: An Index (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962), which covers the fields of the Ancient Near East, the Old Testament, Greece, Rome, Roman Law, and Byzantium from 1863 to 1954 (available online here).

Now, a question: who will be our Metzger today? Yes, we are fortunate to have resources like the Elenchus of Biblica (to 2011) and New Testament Abstracts (ongoing) at our disposal, yet neither of these quite provides us with what Metzger gave to us (or what Williams, Rounds, and yet others have given to other fields). Even if all Festschriften and edited volumes were always indexed with regard to their specific contents (and they are not), what of those essays in broader collections that might fall outside the scope of the technical publications in the field? Again, Metzger found that there are many of these, with not a few Festschriften featuring a single article relevant to our purposes. Who is searching for those and indexing them? Metzger gave us a thorough index to the end of 1950. It isn’t too far-fetched to conceive of a second index, this time from 1951 to the end of the year 2000 as a new terminus ad quem. Surely there is some budding theological bibliographer out there with an appetite for detective work whose name we can bless for generations.

Allow me in closing to illustrate the need for such an undertaking by making reference to the work of some distinguished scholar, picked entirely at random: say, Moisés Silva. Now I happen to know that Professor Silva has contributed to at least 7 Festschriften: Bruce (1980), Greenlee (1992), Louw (1992), Gundry (1994, which he co-edited), Metzger (1995), O’Brien (2001), and Youngblood (2003).12 Unless you happen to be actively engaged in the work of acquiring the Silvanic opera omnia, as one does, then you would be hard-pressed to learn that, e.g., the 1994 volume features an exceedingly important article on eschatological structures in Galatians, whereas the 1992 volume carries an illuminating discussion of the text of Galatians in early manuscripts, and the 2001 volume gives an solid account of Paul’s mission according to Galatians.13 It is precisely this sort of blind spot, which only impoverishes the breadth and quality of research, that a full and thematic index helps of us to resolve.

ENDNOTES

1 Bruce M. Metzger, Index of Articles on the New Testament and the Early Church Published in Festschriften, Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 5 (Philadelphia, PA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1951), vii.

2 Bruce Manning Metzger, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 152.

3 As quoted in Metzger, ibid. It bears noting that Professor Bruce was himself honored not by one, but two Festschriften, both of which I happily possess. The second of these, published (like Professor Bruce’s memoir) in 1980, happens to contain a little-known article by his only infallible doctoral advisee.

4 Cf. R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 113. Perhaps it should be noted that he did escape, but alas, not otherwise than by death. He did not escape, however, the indignity of having his invaluable unpublished work edited posthumously by a junior colleague.

5 Cf. a compilation of the more notorious epithets in the literature, all duly footnoted and serially dismissed, in Robert Pick, “Some thoughts on Festschriften and a projected subject index,” German Life and Letters 12, no. 3 (1959): 204-210.

6 Ibid., 153; cf. also Index, viii, from which this section is taken verbatim.

7 Bruce M. Metzger, Supplement to Index of Articles on the New Testament and the Early Church Published in Festschriften, Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series Supplement to 5 (Philadelphia, PA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1955), iii.

8 Ibid., iv.

9 Even the “second-hand book catalogue”! Cf. Metzger, Index, xi.

10 Metzger, Supplement, ibid. For an historical account of Festschriften, cf. the still unsurpassed article by Dorothy Rounds and Dow Sterling, “Festschriften,” Harvard Library Bulletin VIII, no. 3 (Autumn 1954): 283-298 (available online here).

11 Metzger, ibid.

12 To the best of my knowledge, that is! If the reader happens to be aware of some other Festschrift to which Professor Silva has contributed, and could forward the bibliographical information to me, this would be most sincerely appreciated.

13 This is also the only publication of which I am aware that gives a middle initial for Professor Silva: “D.” A middle name is not recorded even with the Library of Congress. Inquiring minds, &c.!

 

Mondays with Moisés: Learning Greek and Translating Greek

As we all know, there simply aren’t enough months, weeks, or days to praise the excellencies of our Infallible Hero. Because of this, and in spite of my desire to not overwhelm you, my gentle snowflakes, with feature posts, I have felt compelled on this week leading up to Bible Translation Day & International Translation Day to share with one and all the following selections from Moisés Silva’s contribution to the 2003 Festschrift for the late great biblical scholar and translator, Ronald F. Youngblood (d. 2014). While I trust that the combined selections below convey the main thrust of Silva’s argument in this spellbinding essay, please be advised that in the full version they frame multiple and fascinating examples that are worth your time and consideration. Please note the bibliographic information at the end of the post, and make a point of reading this essay—and this remarkable Festschrift—in its entirety.

silva“College and seminary courses in the biblical languages consist primarily of guiding the student in translating word-for-word. If the resulting rendering violates English syntax or makes no sense at all, changes may be introduced, but as a rule these translations are stilted (sometimes barely intelligible to a layperson) and rarely express the thought of the original in the most natural way that the rich resources of the English language make available. Most of us have thus been led to believe that if we manage to represent the Greek and Hebrew words in as close a one-to-one correspondence as possible, we have succeeded in the task of translation. But who would consider successful a Spanish-to-English translation that had such renderings as “I have cold in the feet” (instead of “My feet are cold”) or “He has ten years” (instead of “He is ten years old”)—even though these sentences conform to English syntax and their meaning can be figured out? […]

“All successful translations of literature (for example, contemporary German novels) sound natural, as though they had originally been written in English (while also preserving a feel for the original cultural setting). Therefore, they are more easily read and understood than if they reflected the foreign syntax and word usage. (Incidentally, since the message communicates more clearly, one can argue that they are more accurate than literal renderings would be.) […] Because most New Testament books (as well as Old Testament Hebrew narrative) are characterized by a fairly straightforward syntax, many of whose features can be paralleled in English syntax, we are lulled into thinking that literal renderings of the Greek text “work.” But just because a certain Greek syntactical pattern can be reproduced in English, that hardly means it should, as though such reproduction were the best or most faithful representation of the original. […]

“The first time I taught extrabiblical Hellenistic Greek, I had a small group of advanced college students who had shown strong competence in two years of New Testament Greek. One of them was an unusually gifted student who, nevertheless, felt quite frustrated and discouraged because of the difficulties she was experiencing. How was it possible that she could do so well understanding and translating the Greek of the New Testament and yet feel so lost working with Epictetus? Almost all students I’ve taught since then have had a comparable reaction, even though the language of Epictetus is in fact relatively simple. How does one explain this phenomenon?

“Part of the answer is that biblical students are dependent—to a much greater degree than they realize—on their familiarity with the contents of the New Testament. There is no shame in this. The main reason we understand Time magazine well is that we are very familiar with the historical context in which American English is spoken. The further removed we are from the context of a document (e.g., in time—say, Shakespeare—or in subject matter—legal documents), the greater our difficulties in making sense of it. A student’s basic familiarity with the biblical subject matter and form of expression, over against an unfamiliarity with the concerns and phraseology of Hellenistic philosophers, has much to do with the frustrations he or she will experience moving from one to the other.

“But that explanation does not get to the heart of the linguistic problem. As already suggested, an exclusive (or nearly exclusive) acquaintance with the simple narrative of the Gospels or with the unassuming discourse of the Pauline letters, combined with the instinctive tendency (confirmed and encouraged by the instructor) to represent the text by means of one-to-one English correspondences whenever possible, creates a conception of the workings of the Greek language that is derived from an alien structure. On the other hand, intensive training translating clauses and sentences that cannot be rendered word-for-word and thus require restructuring would give students an entrée into the genius (i.e., the authentic character) of the foreign tongue. It would also help them see much more clearly that such restructuring could be the preferable method of rendering even when it may not appear “necessary.” The point here is that a nonliteral translation, precisely because it may give expression to the genius of the target language (in this case English), can do greater justice to that of the source language (Greek).”

Moisés Silva, “Are Translators Traitors? Some Personal Reflections,” in Glen G. Scorgie et al. (eds.), The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 38, 39, 40, 42-43.

Of Pelikan, Pelicans, and the Love of Books

Today I received, at long last, a copy of a book which I had inexplicably neglected to acquire before now: Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Reformation of the Bible / The Bible of the Reformation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996). He describes the context and character of the volume as follows (Preface, ix):

“It was a touching personal tribute, but also a unique scholarly opportunity, when my friend and student Valerie Hotchkiss, librarian of the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, invited me, in observance of my impending retirement in June 1996 after 50 years of teaching, to serve as guest curator for the exhibition ‘The Reformation of the Bible / The Bible of the Reformation,’ and to compose these four essays, which are intended to round out the Catalog of the exhibition but also to stand on their own as a small monograph about this large subject.”

The four essays in question address the following topics:

  1. Sacred Philology (3-21)
  2. Exegesis and Hermeneutics (23-39)
  3. Bibles for the People (41-62)
  4. The Bible and the Arts (63-78)

My perusal of the essays earlier this afternoon confirmed, of course, that they are nothing but exquisite specimens of Pelikan’s magnificently learned prose, and I eagerly look forward to reading them in detail. I noted the arrival of the book on Twitter by posting a picture of it with the attached hashtag, #piepelicanejesudomine. Beyond the obvious connection with Pelikan’s last name, there is an important reason for this: as it happens, Pelikan’s custom book plate features this well-known verse from St Thomas Aquinas’ hymn Adoro te devote under the image of a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its own blood—a mythical behavior widely attributed to pelicans in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and taken as a symbol of the Lord’s Passion and the Eucharist,  by which and in which he feeds us with his own Body and Blood. My friend Fr Daniel Greeson, currently a deacon and a student at St Vladimir’s Seminary of Yonkers in New York, took a picture of this book plate at the seminary library, which by his kind permission I share here for your edification:

pelikan_book_plate

Note, in addition to the pelican motif and the related verse, the two medallions: the one on the left featuring Luther’s seal, and the one of the right featuring the Slovak coat of arms, to honor the Slovak Lutheran heritage of the Pelikan family. (Readers will recall that, after a lifetime as a Lutheran, first in the LCMS and eventually in the ELCA, Jaroslav Pelikan was received into the communion of the Orthodox Church on 25 March 1998.) Finally, note that his name is given as “Jary,” the nickname by which his friends knew him.

One more note on Pelikan: thanks to the wonders of the Internet Archive, you may still read his fascinating autobiographical essay, “A Personal Memoir: Fragments of a Scholar’s Autobiography,” originally published in Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry (eds.), Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006).

As these happy bibliophilic thoughts occupied my mind for most of the afternoon and evening, I was reminded that we are at the head of the week preceding the feast of another consummate bibliophile, our venerable father Jerome of Stridon, sacred philologist and translator par excellence, who reposed in the Lord on 30 September 420. In honor of his memory, that day has long been observed as Bible Translation Day by many Bible societies and translation agencies, and as International Translation Day since 1953 by the International Federation of Translators. To celebrate, I have a couple of posts on Bible translation lined up for this week that hark back to the old days of biblioblogdom. But also, since St Jerome was both a priest and a bibliophile, here is a timely reminder: 30 September 2017 will the 2nd Annual #BuyAPriestABookDay! Kindly remember that, as I have observed elsewhere, “Buy a Priest a Book Day” is superior to the so-called “Buy a Priest a Beer Day” in every way: not all priests like beer, but every priest should like books. And of course, there will be another post on Saturday for this most joyful celebration.

Saturday à Machen: The Facts Upon Which Experience Is Based (I)

Machen-and-faculty (2)

The great John Gresham Machen succumbed to pneumonia on 1 January 1937 while speaking in Bismark, North Dakota, and so in 2017 we observe the 80th anniversary of his untimely death. To honor his eminent memory, readers will find below the first of four successive installments that will feature, on the last Saturday of each remaining month of 2017, an extended quotation from his book Christianity and Liberalism. These selections will comprise the bulk of his chapter on doctrine, a subject on which he placed the highest importanceand one every bit as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago. In many ways, the posts are an expansion and elucidation of the very first Saturday à Machen, which I have come to feel was programmatic for this (now monthly) blog feature.

“What . . .  is the real meaning of the present revolt against the fundamentals of the Christian faith? What, in brief, are the teachings of modern liberalism as over against the teachings of Christianity?

“At the outset, we are met with an objection. ‘Teachings,’ it is said, ‘are unimportant; the exposition of the teachings of liberalism and the teachings of Christianity, therefore, can arouse no interest at the present day; creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience, and provided only they express that experience they are all equally good. The teachings of liberalism, therefore, might be as far removed as possible from the teachings of historic Christianity, and yet the two might be at bottom the same.’

“Such is the way in which expression is often given to the modern hostility to ‘doctrine.’ But is it really doctrine as such that is objected to, and not rather one particular doctrine in the interests of another? Undoubtedly, in many forms of liberalism it is the latter alternative which fits the case. There are doctrines of modern liberalism, just as tenaciously and intolerantly upheld as any doctrines that find a place in the historic creeds. Such for example are the liberal doctrines of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. These doctrines are, as we shall see, contrary to the doctrines of the Christian religion. But doctrines they are all the same, and as such they require intellectual defense. In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another. And the desired immunity from theological controversy has not yet been attained.

“Sometimes, however, the modern objection to doctrine is more seriously meant. And whether the objection be well-founded or not, the real meaning of it should at least be faced.

“That meaning is perfectly plain. The objection involves an out-and-out skepticism. If all creeds are equally true, then since they are contradictory to one another, they are all equally false, or at least equally uncertain. We are indulging, therefore, in a mere juggling with words. To say that all creeds are equally true, and that they are based upon experience, is merely to fall back upon that agnosticism which fifty years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the Church. The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp. Very different is the Christian conception of a creed. According to the Christian conception, a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.”

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism [1923; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], pages 18-19.)

On Storms, Helpers, and God

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I

As I began to write this in bits and pieces a week ago today, Hurricane Irma had begun to approach my native Puerto Rico. My family there braced for the worst; the sense of expectation and fear was very real. It was the strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, the news said; the island had not seen anything quite like this come through since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, the memory of whose nearly total devastation remains alive and well in our collective memory a few generations later. To be honest, that Irma could be on this scale, or perhaps even worse, was a bit difficult to grasp: the great hurricane of my lifetime (thus far, at any rate) was the fearsome and formidable Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which came to us shortly after my 11th birthday. The winds caused some structural damage to my grandparents’ house, where we were all hunkered down, and we were without water or electricity for weeks. For my part, I remember being disappointed that I could not use a small amplifier for my guitar that my grandfather had ordered from the Sears catalog and duly picked up at the Santa Rosa Mall store for my birthday. But all of us were well, our homes were basically intact, and after clean up we were able to resume our lives in short order. Hundreds of thousand of others couldn’t say the same. In fact, too many could no longer say anything at all.

II

If you’ve been keeping track of the storm, you know that Hurricane Irma veered to the north in the nick of time, and that Puerto Rico was thus spared from the very worst. Yes, the ancient and fragile power grid in the island collapsed, and many (including my family) are still without power, but water service remained mostly uninterrupted, and other damage has been comparatively minimal (except in the small island of Culebra, the easternmost point of the Puerto Rican archipelago). I have no doubt that, soon after clean up and the eventual restoration of electric service, life will go on as usual. Many have expressed their relief in religious (and nationalistic) terms: ¡Dios bendijo a Puerto Rico! God blessed Puerto Rico! And, as in the past, that grotesque depiction of a Giant Hand blocking the path of the storm just east of the island has been making the rounds. (I remember it most vividly on the front page of a local newspaper some years ago.) But, of course, the Lesser Antilles were not thus spared; neither was Cuba, nor the Bahamas, nor indeed Florida. One shudders to think of the implications. Did the grotesque Giant Hand not protect them? Worse still, if they were not blessed, were they cursed? And whose Giant Hand is that, anyway—that of the God of the Bible, or the hand of Guabancex, who visits her fury in the winds of juracán?

III

“At that time, some people came and reported to [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And he responded to them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all the other Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well. Or those eighteen that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed—do you think they were more sinful than all the other people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.’” (St Luke 13:1-5, CSB)

IV

There is, to my mind, no clearer illustration of the maddening capriciousness of storms than the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Antigua and Barbuda. Two islands, a single nation, merely 30 miles apart. Antigua made it through with nary a scratch. Barbuda was literally flattened. But even that is not all: Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy erupted into social chaos after the storm. Multiple places across the Caribbean and Florida are flooded, destroyed, or both. And then, a week before that, Hurricane Harvey put the Houston metropolitan area under water.

V

The late Rev’d Mr Fred McFeely Rogers (after whom the first-year Biblical Studies Prize at his alma mater, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is named) would tell children and their parents that, in scary times, he liked to remember what his mother said to him when he was little: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And realizing that there were always so many helpers, he said, would bring him a great deal of comfort. In like manner also, in this time of storms, I have found great comfort in observing faith working by love. This has been nowhere more obvious to me than in our friend Mike Skinner and his congregation, Sweetwater Christian Church in Sugar Land, Texas. There I saw a pastor who no sooner than he was out of the water (literally!) set about the business of claiming his sheep. I saw a local congregation determined to account for each in every one given to them, without exception. And, with everyone claimed and accounted for, I saw this small but tireless Christian community turn out to the streets, immediately and nearly unprompted, in a rush to embrace and assist their neighbors. Blessed are you, Mike Skinner. Blessed are you, Sweetwater Christian Church. You are the helpers. May many others, as many as are able, help you in helping others.

VI

Did God bless Puerto Rico? Did God curse Barbuda, and Jost Van Dyke, and Houston, and…? I cannot countenance those questions, and much less the tone-deaf platitudes that give rise to them. But here is what I know: after the fury of the storm, if anyone survives at all, it isn’t so that they may boast. It must be—it must—so that, with their own hands, they may glorify God by their deeds in the care of others.

+++

Some books that have helped me to think about this over the years: Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994); David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005); Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010); and of course, Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism.

Mondays with Moisés: International Moisés Silva Day 2017

This is a great and wondrous day. Rejoice, my gentle snowflakes! For our Infallible Hero, the great Moisés Silva, was born on September 4, 1945, and so we mark on this day his 72nd birthday—a number which is most appropriately Septuagintal.

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As is well known, the Chief Burden of this blog during the past decade has been to spread the knowledge of the infallibility of Moisés Silva throughout the land. Therefore it occurred to me back in 2010 that his dies natalis should be one of the preeminent observances in this blog’s yearly calendar. As a result, I duly proclaimed September 4 as International Moisés Silva Day, to be celebrated thereon in perpetuity.

That solemn and universal proclamation in 2010 attracted some attention from a number of denizens of Litchfield, Michigan, nearly all of whom were, apparently, Our Infallible Hero’s fellow congregants. One teaches Sunday School with him. Another has, I assume, tea and biscuits with him. Yet another tells of his penchant for sampling the fair dining evidently to be had in the area. And still another is his grandniece! Every one of these individuals is blessed beyond measure, and I am delighted that I was able to open their eyes to this glorious truth. I regret to note, however, that the civil authorities in Litchfield have been slower in embracing International Moisés Silva Day, as witnesses the fact that nothing is said about it in the city’s Community Calendar. I realize, of course, that governments are often slow to embrace new holidays, yet one would certainly expect an exception in this case. But I digress.

I myself have never met our Infallible Hero, though a couple of years ago I found myself a mere 10 minutes down the road from Litchfield while visiting some friends in nearby Hillsdale, the closest geographic proximity to which I have yet attained (assuming he was home that day). However, I did once have a small Silvophany, 20 years ago this past spring.

At the time I was a college freshman and had only been introduced to the writings of our Infallible Hero a few months earlier. I did not yet know that he was infallible, but even then I could tell that he was one of the greats. Thanks to the wonders of the internet (also new to me that academic year), I quickly discovered that he had just moved from Westminster Theological Seminary to become the Mary French Rockefeller Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I promptly sent for an academic catalog, hoping, perhaps, to study with him one day. While browsing the seminary webpage, however, I stumbled upon a precious and irresistible piece of information: his institutional email address.

Being young and not yet knowing that I shouldn’t waste the time of my betters, I dashed off to him a note in Spanish telling him about the things I was learning, and thanking him for the books of his that I was then reading. Within a few hours,  as I recall, I received a short reply from the eminent scholar, likewise in Spanish, saying that he appreciated my enthusiasm and expressing his best wishes for my studies. Sadly I cannot produce the text of the note, as it perished together with other important artifacts of my electronic past in one of those tragic server outages for which Hotmail became justly (in)famous, but 20 years later I remain grateful to him for taking the time to write a warm and encouraging reply to what was, I am quite sure, a piece of incoherent fan mail.

I regret that I never got the chance to study formally with Professor Silva, but I have sought to make him my teacher in other ways over the years: by reading his books and articles, by listening to his lectures and sermons, and above all, by striving to allow his exceptional scholarship to form my learning. To him I say, then, together with all those fortunate enough to have sat under his instruction in various places:

Ad multos annos, Magister!

On Beginnings and Changes

John 1

I have been thinking about beginnings quite a bit of late. Earlier this summer it occurred to me that the first post on The Voice of Stefan (which, as readers will recall, is the erstwhile name of Bouncing into Graceland) was published on 13 July 2007, now just over a decade ago. This blog was an attempt to communicate and interact with others, both professionals and amateurs, who I had found were blogging prolifically about the Bible and theology—a possibility which, given my relative geographical and academic isolation at the time, was enormously compelling to me. By my birthday on 29 August following I was actively engaged in the sorts of stimulating conversations that were characteristic of the “golden age” of Biblioblogdom, then in full swing. The much lamented Google Reader, an invaluable tool since obtusely terminated by its witless curators, made it possible to keep track of multiple conversations across dozens of independent blogs the world over, and enabled the creation of academic partnerships and warm personal friendships that, in many cases (and certainly in mine), continue even to this day. If I may be permitted an overwrought nostalgic musing, thinking back on those heady days brings to mind Wordsworth’s oft-quoted lines: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!”

At the other end of the decade mark, much has changed. Biblioblogdom, as it once was, has ceased to exist. Which isn’t to say that no one is blogging about the Bible and theology—far from it! (Witness the monthly Biblical Studies Carnival, ongoing since 2006, and hosted this month by our old friend Jason Gardner.) But the community, with its vigorous exchanges across all levels so often chronicled in “round-ups,” seems to have disintegrated in favor of a more autonomous approach. While this is doubtless a cause for regret, there is also a certain freedom in it: it is frankly impossible to keep up with 200 or more posts a day, let alone to participate meaningfully in that many conversations, and less still to produce contributions that will keep the entire community engaged. The conventional wisdom these days is that, in the age of Twitter, no one reads blogs any more. I’m not sure that’s quite true, but perhaps this perception signals that the conditions are right to venture out once again, even if only occasionally.

On a more personal note, my life is also fundamentally different than it was in 2007. I am now 39 years old, and have lived in Michigan for 9 out of the past 10 years. More significantly, I have become a husband and a father (of one, with another on the way!). Moreover, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I have managed to acquire a graduate degree in theology along the way; after that, I was ordained a deacon and then a presbyter in the Orthodox Church. All of these changes have necessarily reshaped, or perhaps refocused, my interests: I still spend a great deal of my time thinking about the Bible, its translation and interpretation, and its patristic and liturgical reception, but I also think a lot more about liturgy as such, pastoral theology, and homiletics these days. I hope that means that whatever I post here will be broadened, but not impoverished.

This blog has never been strictly academic, and it has never been an “Orthodox blog” (for, as I have noted in the past, I have never seen a blog being baptized, chrismated, or communed). It certainly will never be an “ecclesiastical blog.” What it ever was, and I hope it will remain, is a means for conversation with others about matters of lively mutual interest. Come, then, and let us sit awhile from time to time.

In closing, kindly allow me to note two things, one pertaining to things that change and the other to things that are ever the same.

As the more observant among you, my gentle snowflakes, will have noticed, yesterday’s fervorino (a word, incidentally, that a total of 17 people knew or used before the accession of the Pope of Rome Mr Francis to his See) for the Beginning of the Indiction was posted according to the New (i.e., “Revised Julian”) Calendar. Our friend Macrina Walker stated, in shock, that surely my blog had been “hacked by some Papist-loving, climate-change believing, Phanarotist new calendarist.” But no, alas: after having spent nearly the entirety of my adult life on the Old (i.e., “Ecclesiastical Julian”) Calendar, my family and I officially went to the New Calendar on 15 November 2013. That means that, as of 2 September 2017, we have been on the New Calendar for 1,388 days. For more on this, see the Twitter hashtag #thenewcalendarislikeabaddreamthatneverends. Here I will only echo the sentiments of my dear friend, the admirably learned deacon Fr Aaron Taylor, who in response to a most interesting article telling the story of the epicenter of the Gregorian calendar reform, exclaimed in a fit of ardent zeal: “Tear it down! Down with the pope and his atheist astronomers!”

With that said, and in spite of the notice of such disconcerting changes, I would like to make something abundantly clear to one and all: it remains the solemn Chief Burden of this blog to spread the knowledge of the infallibility of the great Moisés Silva throughout the land.