Grammar Can Change Theology

This is how the Greek of the New Testament was written--no spaces or punctuation and all upper case letters.

This is how the Greek of the New Testament was written–no spaces or punctuation and all upper case letters.

My wife homeschools our children, and this week they were being introduced to subordinate clauses (cue the elf jokes).  For those who don’t remember English grammar lessons, a subordinate clause is a phrase that cannot stand alone as a sentence.  There is a very interesting case in the New Testament concerning a subordinate clause.

Before I get to that, though, it needs to be pointed out that when the New Testament was written in the first century, and in Greek, there were no spaces between words and no punctuation marks at all (and there were no lower case letters, either).  Those hadn’t been introduced into writing yet, so all of the divisions of words and phrases and the punctuation marks are all the product of translators.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Take this line of letters: GODISNOWHERE.  Now, that could be God is now here, and it could also be God is nowhere.  Two radically different meanings from the same source.

Now we are ready to see the biblical issue that has been translated differently for radically different theological implications.

In 1 Corinthians 14:33 there is a subordinate clause, “as in all churches of the saints.”  By virtue of being a subordinate clause, this is not a sentence in and of itself, and it needs to be connected to a complete sentence to make sense.  Here is where it gets interesting.  Some translations connect this phrase to the sentence before it, and some connect it to the sentence after it.  The New International Version translates this as:

 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.  Women should remain silent in the churches.

This says that the idea Paul is communicating is that all the known churches, all the “congregations of the Lord’s people,” share the characteristic of being orderly, as this is the summary sentence of order in worship.  The next sentence is a new idea and specific for the congregations in Corinth because of specific problems there.

The English Standard Version translates this as:

 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.  As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.

This says the idea Paul is communicating is that all the known churches, all the “churches of the saints,” share the characteristic of women being silent.  That is a big difference in meaning from the two translations.

Just a cursory look at popular translations shows the NIV translation is shared with the King James Version and the New Living Translation, the Common English Bible, the Geneva Bible, New American Standard Bible, and Young’s Literal Translation.

The ESV translation is shared with the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version, the Contemporary English Version, the Good News Translation, and the Holman Christian Study Bible.

What I find most interesting is that the NIV was the translation of choice for most evangelical Christians for years and years.  After the translation was updated in 2011, many evangelical groups saw this as a corruption of the translation and have switched to the ESV for their translation of choice.  This means that for many evangelicals the meaning of a significant passage of Scripture has just changed because of where the translators chose to put a single subordinate clause.

Of course, really, do people pay that close attention to their Bibles?  In fact, I would wager that most Christians already know what they believe before they even read the texts and read everything through those filters.  After all, most very conservative Christians would use the NIV and forbid women in ministry based on biblical principles, and most mainline Protestant denominations used the NRSV and ordained women.

So the real question is: do we actually use the Bible as the basis of our theology, or do we use something else?

2 thoughts on “Grammar Can Change Theology

  1. Steve,

    Good post – one that makes us think. Your closing statement, “So the real question is: do we actually use the Bible as the basis of our theology, or do we use something else?” reminds me of many of my online students. Quite often our discussions online involve reading a text and then discussing what it means. When the text under discussion is biblical passage, too often students will give it cursory reading and then begin their comments with, “Well, I think that…”, introducing a thought that is in complete contradiction to the text at hand. And they will write this while affirming that the Bible is their authority in doctrine and practice. I try to help them see that they are affirming a position and then denying it in practice in the same paragraph, but often to no avail. They follow Derrida without even knowing it. Hey! There is a text in this class.

    We pastors can be guilty of this, too. How often have pastors been in a discussion circle wrestling with some discussion topic, and no one wants to debate the interpretation of a biblical text that speaks directly to the topic? We should be pressing each other to push past assumptions and filters that prevent us from seeing the text afresh.


    • Too true! I know I have been in discussions before where I thought I was completely in the right until someone, in a very loving manner, called out my own assumptions. We assume so many things about what Scripture says without actually looking at what it does say. I have had several conversations recently over whether Matthew 24:36-42 is talking about rapture or something else. It is very interesting to see how people “read” Scripture.


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