I want to talk through a super common issue on the internet. I invite your wisdom and input; I also invite your prayer. Because I want and need—desperately need—divine wisdom for whether and how to answer all kinds of internet comments from all kinds of strangers with all kinds of perspectives. I think I’m called to help the church calm down about Bible translations, to help the sheep see the value in the use of multiple good evangelical English Bible translations. And this means lots of interaction with internet strangers who think I am completely out to lunch, back again, and then out to dinner also.
I’m going to give an example from Twitter in which all identifying information is blurred out, because I don’t want to target any individuals. It will be easy enough for someone who wants to to go find this conversation. I can’t stop you. What everyone said is public. I’m asking, though, that you not do this. Leave the poor guy alone. I just felt that what he said was a particularly good example of the kind of thing I face all the time—and the kind of thing you will face if you ever, for some crazy reason, believe it is your calling to persuade strangers on the internet of this or possibly of that.
Here’s the story.
First: an anonymous Tweeter I’ve known for a while made an insightful point I liked very much:
It is fascinating to compare the Scriptures to the older versions (before 1611) with our KJV of today (1769), along with the ESV for good measure. In this case, the ESV went with the Geneva translation, but the avg KJVO person would assume they’d changed the meaning here.
In other words, the KJV translated John 3:36 as saying, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life.” But the Geneva Bible took the Greek word here differently, translating it as “hee that obeyeth not the Sonne.” There is no textual variant here. They’re translating the same Greek word, apeitheo. Most contemporary translations do not use “believeth not” to translate this word; they go with “reject” or with the choice of the Geneva Bible translators: “obeyeth not.” The ESV, for example, says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
This anonymous Tweeter tagged me in this post, because he knew I’d be interested.
Indeed I was. I responded:
This is excellent! KJV readers might assume this is a textual difference, but it's not. How could people without Greek knowledge know that ἀπειθέω can be translated either "disbelieve" or "disobey"? (A note: the KJV translators did here what the Latin Vulgate did.)
You see, if you ask a mainstream KJV-Only brother (not a Ruckmanite extremist), “Where was God’s word before 1611?” he’ll respond that it was in other good translations of the TR, namely the Geneva Bible and Tyndale’s New Testament. But that brother will rarely get into the details. Here’s one of those details: it just so happens that a fair number of the translation decisions made by contemporary versions, decisions behind which KJV-Onlyists usually find dastardly plots to undermine sound doctrine, were decisions made by the translators of the very Bibles which our KJV-Only brothers look to as worthy precursors to the KJV. For example, in Gal 2:13, the KJV translators used “dissimulation.” The ESV used “hypocrisy.” But so did the Geneva Bible, decades before the KJV. In 2 Cor 1:15, the KJV used the word “benefit” where the ESV used “grace” to translate the same Greek word. But this is not an innovation; the Geneva Bible did the same. Check the word “ungodly” in Psalm 1:1 and you’ll see the same pattern—I could go on and on (thanks to a friend for finding these examples for me).
In my vast experience, it is very rare for any convinced advocate of KJV-Onlyism to see any value or validity to even a single translation decision in a contemporary version. Even updating “besom” to “broom” in Isa 14:23, one of my stock examples, gets no praise from them. “We shouldn’t dumb down the Bible!,” they say. They typically don’t trust contemporary translators to do anything right. They’re all dupes, dummies, or devils. Now, graciousness does happen across the KJV aisle! It happened to me yesterday as I write. A kind KJV-Only friend and conversation partner sent me a rendering he liked in the ESV better than the corresponding one in the KJV. But this is, as I say, exceedingly rare in my experience.
My anonymous friend’s Tweet wasn’t a poke in the eye of his KJV-Only brothers, though he did name them. It was a reasonably gentle way of asking those brothers to calm down. Some of the “innovations” that scare them so much are very, very old. Not innovations at all.
But, of course, a KJV-Only brother did respond in defense of the KJV. I’m leaving his name out of this. I felt he was exceptionally courteous, but I still don’t want to single him out by name for criticism. This is what he said:
First, I would like to say that not all KJVO are completely ignorant in the other Bible.
(I’m sorry, but I have to stop right here and tell the family story this makes me think of. When one of my sons was three, right as we were beginning a prayer meeting in our house, he was sitting on the floor looking at a grown-up Bible—which of course he could not read. We called him to come sit with us, and he responded with some frustration, “I’m praying for God in my Bible!” For some reason this has tickled me for years and years. It was what you call a solecism; it didn’t make any sense. Now back to said Tweet…)
I know a few who are KJVO because of other Bibles, but that is because they see the differences and understand how the King James did it best.
Okay, this is throat-clearing. Nothing wrong with that. We all do it. He hasn’t given an argument yet for why the KJV got John 3:36 right. Now he will:
Second, the reason the KJ translators used unbelief rather than disobey is because it has more context than disobey. While yes, rejecting salvation is disobedience. You could apply this to literally sin in general. The sin of unbelief (Unpardonable Sin), however, is the better wording. Just because it can be translated a certain way that does not mean it always should.
Now that last line makes perfect sense and is perfectly true. Just because a given Hebrew or Greek word can be translated a certain way in a given context doesn’t mean it always should be translated that way. There’s an argument, or maybe a prelude to an argument. But does it apply in the case of John 3:36? Our Twitter interlocutor supplies us with one reason to believe that it is: “The KJ translators used ‘unbelief’ rather than ‘disobey’…because [the former] has more context than disobey.”
I earnestly tried, but I just couldn’t make sense of this line. This is not one of those times when someone says something a little bit amiss—a malapropism like “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” instead of suspicious persons—and you quietly correct them in your own mind and act as if they’d said or spelled it right. No, this is a conversation stopper, because this brother just demonstrated that he’s having a different conversation with different rules than the standard, prevailing conversation. He’s having a conversation with himself. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong; maybe it’s the rules of the standard conversation that are wrong. But if you’re ever going to demonstrate such a thing, you’re likely going to have to do it from within the standard conversation, showing first that you can play by its rules before showing that your rules are superior.
In other words… this Twitter comment would not be analogous to someone watching football and saying that what the Denver Broncos need to win the game is more points. That would be inane but true. People would look at this someone and assume he was joking, but they would understand the meaning of his sentence. No, this Twitter comment is like a guy at the auto shop pretending to be a gearhead, listening to the real gearheads talking shop about the driveshaft going into the rear differential, and then piping up and saying, “Well, of course we have to carburete the front shocks.”
The guy successfully used car words. Each of them appears in the Automotive Dictionary. But what he said was meaningless. He simply doesn’t talk the language of gearheads. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If he wants to name parts of the car differently or use idiosyncratic terminology like making “carburetor” into a verb, he’d better demonstrate beyond all doubt that he can fix a car, or no one will listen to him. Even then, they’ll try first to get him to use accepted terms. And till then, till he demonstrates what he can do with a car, they will just know intuitively that there is no point in conversing with someone who is so out of touch. They will look at him like a pretty eighth grade girl looked at me when I, a lowly seventh grader, pulled my chair up to her table at lunch and she literally said to me, “Who invited you?”
“The KJV has more context” means the same thing as “the KJV carburetes the front shocks,” namely nothing. Yes, “context” is a word we use in careful Bible study. But to “have more context” is a phrase you use when someone is filling you in on the background of some complicated issue. It’s meaningless when it comes to the semantic range of apeitheo and its most suitable rendering in the context—that’s how you use the word “context”—of John 3. I just can’t make my mind understand a sentence like “the KJV has more context” when applied to whether apeitheo should be translated “disobey” or “disbelieve.”
Maybe I’m the problem; maybe I’m expecting too much on Twitter, a place where character limits cause frequent miscommunications. If so, prithee find a better blog post by a redheaded Bible nerd; I’m certain they’re out there! I just recognized in this Tweeter a problem I’ve seen over and over and wanted to process for myself and others.
That was a long lead up to my point, my big question of how and even whether I should respond to comments like this. I get them all the time. Kind people who disagree with me but do so by insisting that it’s my front shocks that need to be carbureted, not theirs. Does this happen to you? Do you ever find that, on the internet or in real life, you have to deal with people who disagree with you but demonstrate quickly that, though they want to, though they mean well, they can’t actually have a conversation with you based on terms you both understand?
I appeal to Scripture for a number of ways to respond to someone who, though he certainly has other redeeming qualities, doesn’t know biblical studies the way it is currently practiced. There are mainly three Bible passages that I think of all the time that guide me. (These are not the only passages that guide my speech, but they are the ones that I think of when I decide whether and how, in general, to answer a given commenter.)
Option 1. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him.
If I try to answer someone who clearly just cannot have a conversation, I’m the one who looks like a fool. I recall all the time a Flannery O’Connor story in which a university professor gets bested by his simple barber in political debate precisely because he let himself get embroiled in a debate with a man who can’t debate. He made himself a fool, and the image of him running through the streets at the end, fuming, with his face half-shaved—that image has saved me from many a foolish engagement. I know of no better short story from a 20th century Southern Gothic writer to illustrate “Answer not a fool, lest thou be like unto him.” There’s also 2 Tim 2:23, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” I think the very definition of a foolish, ignorant controversy is one in which you know Greek, your opponents don’t, and yet they want to argue about it. As one might imagine, this is a situation I find myself in on most Thursdays.
Option 2. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceits.
This is a second valid strategy; God says so. And wisdom will tell you when to use it. Wisdom suggests to me not to use it very often, because it’s usually some version of snarky.
I could pretend that “the KJV rendering has more context” makes sense, and I could respond, “No, actually, the ESV has 72% more context here.” I could say, “Are you sure your Bible software is carbureted properly, because I could be off by a few percentage points, but I’m pretty sure it’s 72% more context for the ESV.” I occasionally indulge in this kind of talk, especially when someone tries biblical numerology on me, like counting up the value of certain letters in Psalm 119 till they reach 1611—or something else that is simply and totally so far beyond the hermeneutical pale that it is in itself morally culpable, a sin and a dodge. I’ll say, “No, actually, I did the math, and if you find the letter at ¼, 2/4, and ¾ of the way through the KJV, you get N, I, and V. So actually God was predicting the coming of his true version.”
But I wouldn’t do this with the guy on Twitter. He isn’t diving into frankly crazy hermeneutical methods, it seems to me; he’s just using the accepted ones hamhandedly. He said the word “context.” That’s a start. I’m certainly not going to respond with a joke that he won’t get but that will give him the sense that he’s being talked down to. He spoke courteously, and that weighs a ton with me.
This brings me to option 3, the one I choose most often.
Option 3. In meekness instruct those that oppose themselves.
This is the response I attempt most often. My mind continually goes back to those key statements in 2 Timothy:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
Jesus against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Elijah against the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18, Isaiah mocking idol worshipers, Paul wishing the Judaizers would emasculate themselves—they were not using gentleness. Paul cannot mean here that kindness and patience and gentleness are required in literally every circumstance. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly. Some who are leading others to hell need to be resolutely withstood, to their faces. But the default posture for the pastor when dealing with other Christians is, I think, what Paul describes here.
Some people—apparently Christian people, because this is one of the pastoral epistles—need God to grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Some Christians can get caught in snares set by the devil. I say very soberly that I have seen this among my KJV-Only brothers. Some of them, people who post nice Bible verses on their Facebook walls, who even pastor churches, can turn right around and revile me with incredible bile for saying that we should update “besom” in Isa 14:23 to “broom,” because the former is no longer used in contemporary English.
But when you truly believe that repentance is something God grants, your attitude changes. It makes you humble; it makes me humble… Are there areas of my life or my theology in which I need to be granted repentance? It makes me able to patiently endure evil, because I’m not dealing with wolves, or hardly ever; I’m dealing with sheep who have been caught in a trap. As I reach down to free them, they nip at my arms—just as I would do in their circumstance. My attitude toward my KJV-Only brothers is pity and sorrow, not anger. They can’t hurt me. And if they manage it anyway, the pain is worth it as I hear from so, so many who have been freed in their consciences to read the Bible in their own English. I prayed for a hundred when I wrote Authorized. I’d guess I’m easily at ten times that. I save screenshots of their messages to me in a folder so I can go back and get some encouragement when the nips to my arms start to smart.
Patiently enduring evil, correcting with gentleness—that’s option 3. And I use it every single day. By God’s grace, I work very hard, harder than they all, though it is not I but the grace of God within me, to answer confused Christian commenters with gentleness and respect. And one of the most rewarding experiences of my life has been to see many, many of them change their initial tune and respond in kind. Praise God.
Option 4. My response
So which of these three options did I actually choose in this case? Well, there’s sort of a secret option 4 that I decided to try. I’d actually written up much of this article and was even thinking of shooting it as a video—but then I thought I’d really better ask this brother for clarification. Maybe just maybe maybe maybe he mistyped his response or had a clear idea but chose poor terminology to express it. I would look foolish and be a jerk at the same time if I discovered that he actually had a serious argument and I missed it.
So I responded:
My friend, I'm trying to understand: what does it mean to say that "believeth not," the KJV rendering, "has more context" than the alternative rendering, "does not obey"? I can't make sense of what you're saying in "has more context."
And I actually got more courtesy from this brother! He said,
I apologize that my wording was not clear.
This is what makes me never give up on my KJV-Only brothers. If all you know is Ruckman and Riplinger and their followers, you’ll despair. You may come to conclude that a lot of KJV-Onlyists aren’t even Christians, they’re so hateful. But I don’t encounter this kind of talk very often. The vast majority of what I get is sincere Christians who love the Lord and distrust the modern versions but can’t effectively articulate why.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t his wording that was unclear. It was his thinking. And his final Tweet confirmed this for me:
With "does not obey" it is lacks extensive detail unlike with "believeth not." "Believeth not" has more detail because it tells us that both faith and obedience is required in salvation. If it is just obey it lacks the detail of faith whether or not it may be implied does not matter because everyone might not see it, and with "believeth not" the word believe screams faith. So, it really seems essential.
By the rules of the biblical studies game as practiced by those who know Hebrew and Greek and who exist within the Reformation Protestant tradition of biblical hermeneutics, the proper appeals here are to the usage of the word apeitheo in other contexts and the available sense most likely intended in the context of John 3:36. Tools you will therefore turn to include standard Greek-English lexicons (dictionaries) like BDAG or to direct analysis of the usage of the Greek word—plus perhaps a few commentaries. “Has more context” and “lacks extensive detail” don’t mean anything in that tradition.
And in my tradition of Bible study, one translation option doesn’t win out over another because of all the theological implications one might plausibly connect to that decision. Theology is important to translation, but it’s generally considered to be step two. Step one is linguistic exploration: semantics, pragmatics, syntax. This brother skipped step one and acted as if it was irrelevant, presumably because he simply does not know Greek.
So sure, “not obeying the truth” sounds a little funny; it’s what you’d call an odd collocation—truth is usually something you believe, not something you obey. But BDAG, the top New Testament Greek-English lexicon, doesn’t even give “disbelieve” as an option among the senses of apeitheo. It says that “In a number of pass. NRSV and REB, among others, with less probability render apeitheo with ‘disbelieve’ or an equivalent.” It cites the usage of this word in multiple places in and outside the New Testament, such as 1 Peter 4:17, in which even the KJV translators render apeitheo as “obey not.”
The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17 KJV)
Other major lexicons, such as Louw-Nida, give a little more room for something like “disbelieve” as a sense for apeitheo. They give two senses:
unwillingness or refusal to comply with the demands of some authority—‘to disobey, disobedience.’
to refuse to believe the Christian message—‘to refuse to be a believer, to reject the Christian message, to refuse to believe.’
This is different from saying “disbelieve.” It’s “refuse to believe.” This is why, I think, some contemporary translations of John 3:36 use the word “reject” to translate apeitheo. It’s a reason why I don’t think the KJV translators were “wrong.” Jerome used the equivalent of “disbelieve” in the Vulgate. You can see it, even if you don’t know Latin:
Qui credit in Filium [the one who believes in the Son], habet vitam æternam [has eternal life]; qui autem incredulus est Filio [but the one who is an unbeliever in the Son—you can see incredulus right there: “unbeliever”], non videbit vitam [will not see life], sed ira Dei manet super eum [but the wrath of God remains upon him].
I tend to assume that translators who lived as close to the period of the New Testament as Jerome did and who were as smart as Jerome had good reasons for the renderings they chose. And it may seem a little odd to contrast those who “believe” the Son with those who “disobey” him. You sort of expect the contrast to be “believe” vs. “disbelieve.”
But with BDAG saying that the rendering “disbelieve” is only “possible” and the newest lexicon out there, BrillDAG, saying that that sense only came along “later” (which might explain Jerome’s use of it), and with the Lexham Analytical Lexicon of the Septuagint showing that apeitheo gets used in the Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament to render words focusing on refusal, rebellion, and rejection, not unbelief—with all of that standing against “disbelieve,” I’d tend to go with the Geneva Bible here.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36 ESV)
And in this odd collocation that the New Testament uses multiple times I see an interesting truth. It is possible that rather than believing the Son, one might “disobey the Son.” It is possible—indeed actual—that countless people do and will “disobey the gospel.” According to 1 Cor 11, the gospel is a message about Jesus’ death for our sins, his burial, his resurrection, and his physical appearance to people. This is a message that the Bible say you must believe. Jesus said it: “Repent and believe the gospel.”
But the gospel is also a summons, an imperative, a law. “God commands all men everywhere to repent,” Paul said. We must “obey the gospel of God,” Peter says. We must not “disobey the word,” Peter also says. There will come a day when “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus,” and he will do this, Paul says, “according to my gospel.” He will hold people up to the standard of the law embedded in that gospel, and those who have rejected the summons, who have disobeyed the gospel, will be condemned. The Bible speaks, then, both of “believing” the gospel and of “obeying” it—and of “disbelieving” it and of “disobeying” it. And I say: repent and obey the gospel!
Ultimately, then, in this Twitter conversation I reached back for option 1: Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him. Please don’t hear me calling this man a fool; I don’t know that and, frankly, I don’t think that. Fools vent their spleens, which this man did not do. But he did express in this instance what I consider to be folly. He lacked good sense for how to have a conversation about the proper translation of Greek words into English with someone who knows both languages. He showed next to no knowledge of the tools and concepts agreed to be valuable by all knowledgeable people in the Protestant hermeneutical tradition.
I couldn’t, finally, shoot this article as a video. I just find that it does me no good to lean, even lightly, on my learning among laypeople. But after this, my ten thousandth experience being told I’m wrong by someone who is engaged in folly, something, uh, snapped. It was an article. And here it is.
If my friend from Twitter were to read this article, I would pray that God would grant him humility to simply acknowledge his folly. He doesn’t even have to admit he was wrong about John 3:36; I’m not certain he was. He just needs to admit that he entered into an argument about the proper translation of Hebrew and Greek despite knowing none. This is folly, dear friends, because it is the very definition of answering a matter before one hears it. It is not elitism that makes me avoid engagement in such a conversation; no, it is the avoidance of folly—just as it is the avoidance of folly for me not to pick fights with PhD-level biologists over the finer details of cell biology, about which I am entirely ignorant, even though, on entirely other grounds (namely Gen 1–11), I am not persuaded by their overall view of evolution. But cell biology is not my field; I must remain content with their superior knowledge even though I maintain faith in God’s word—because of his superior knowledge. But when it comes to a field in which I really do know something, like English Bible translation, it would only make me look foolish to engage someone who is willing to leap into argument from an unstable platform of ignorance. I’ve got to try a different tack if I continue a conversation with this brother on Twitter at all. Today I will not. It’s frustrating to watch people use and be persuaded by arguments that are transparently wrong or weak or irrelevant. But this I leave in the hands of God every single day of my life.
If I encounter this brother again, I will remember his genuine courtesy and I will happily keep a conversation going—as long as it’s down a trail he can understand. That’s what patience and meekness require. We will hop into my 2004 Yukon together and drive down that trail of understanding. We will go fast, because I just had the camshaft ball joints torqued near the top of the chassis between the catalytic and the converter. Differential.