Friday Rant: Contra Strongnosticism
I'll never forget the first time I was exposed to a Strong's Exhaustive Concordance. I was at a high school Bible study in which the Bible study leader decided it would be a good idea to teach us how to use a concordance. First he showed us how to look up a word in the concordance to find all its occurrences, and then he showed us the little numbers to the right of each occurrence. These, he explained, represented the original Greek or Hebrew word being translated. To find out more about that word, you simply turned to the back and looked up the number in the included Greek or Hebrew dictionary. He illustrated the usefulness of this practice with a few standard examples: the alternating use of agapao and phileo in John 21, the wordplay between adam (man, human) and adamah (earth, ground) in Genesis 2, and the semantic range of ruach, which can be translated as "spirit," "breath," or "wind."
At the time, this process of study seemed almost magical. What was I to conclude from all this but that if you knew the Greek and Hebrew, you could unlock a whole new level of meaning and know what the Bible "really says"? Fortunately, I didn't go out and buy a $50 Strong's Concordance and begin looking for secret knowledge. Instead, I invested in a $10 NIV and benefited from reading an English translation I could easily understand.
Today, I help develop software that makes it incredibly easy for those who don't know Greek and Hebrew to examine the original words behind their English translation, and I'm proud of that. The more people are equipped to examine the text of Scripture for themselves, the less susceptible they will be to the influences of the latest theological fads. But there are also dangers inherent in giving people powerful tools without also training them in how to use them.
That's why I cringe whenever I see Bible programs advertise that they will let you "unlock" the Greek and Hebrew without actually "knowing" the languages. For example, I once saw a demo of a Bible program in which the demonstrator (a college-age student who clearly had no seminary training) made much of the fact that in Matthew 28:19, the word usually translated "Go" is not actually an imperative, but a participle. The only imperative in that verse is "make disciples." Now, while that's certainly an interesting grammatical point to consider, this young man went so far as to say, "See, we've been translating and preaching this verse wrong all these years!"
I couldn't help but marvel at the hubris. By making much of a relatively minor grammatical distinction, this young man was willing to dismiss about a gazillion English translations which understand the participle in question to have imperatival force. Apparently this young man didn't realize that participles can sometimes function as imperatives.
Therein lies the problem with the promise that Bible software—any Bible software, including Accordance—will enable you to unlock the Greek and Hebrew without actually knowing it. I call this effort to find secret knowledge through the use of Strong's numbers Strongnosticism. I hope in upcoming posts to combat Strongnosticism by showing how you can effectively use Strong's numbered Bibles in Accordance to gain important insights, and by discussing how far such insights should be taken.
For now, I'll leave you with the number one way to avoid slipping into Strongnosticism:
Realize that Greek and Hebrew are merely languages, and think about how you use language every day.
To see how this works, ask yourself whether you "parse" most of the things people say to you. Do you ask yourself why they used this word and not that word? Do you ponder the verb tense they chose or puzzle over why they used a participle or infinitive? What if they break some grammatical rule like splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition? Do you ponder what they meant by that, or do you just chalk it up to colloquial expression? When someone says something confusing or unclear, we do sometimes resort to this kind of parsing, but most of the time, we know what they are trying to get at and we don't get bogged down in the grammatical details. I'm convinced that if most interpreters kept that simple reality in mind, their interpretation of Scripture would be vastly improved, and they would avoid the temptation toward Strongnosticism.