Thursday, December 02, 2010

Paul Helm on Athens and Jerusalem Revisited

Last Thursday I headed off to the Land of my Fathers for a Pastors' Forum meeting. The speaker was my good friend Paul Helm. The key theme that spanned all three of his talks was the relationship between nature and grace. Here are some notes on what he had to say.

Talk 1 - Athens and Jerusalem Revisited

A whistle stop tour of ancient Carthage, Jerusalem, Athens and Hippo.


Carthage, 200AD. Tertullian posed the question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" He opposed a hybrid of Christianity and philosophy. Does this make him an irrationalist, fideist? No. He was not against reason, saying that Christianity is  believable because it is rationally impossible. He warned against the hybridisation of the faith, not the use of reason per se. He recognised that at some points there was concord between faith and philosophy. 


Is is possible to translate the faith into other thought forms?

To answer this question, Helm took us to the heart of our faith, the cross of Jesus. Pilate had an inscription placed on the cross, reading, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews", in Latin, Greek and Aramaic, John 19:19. The basic idea of Jesus  being the King of the Jews was accurately conveyed in all three languages.

 Language is at heart of the Christian faith, as is translation. Jesus' words as recorded in the Gospels were originally spoken in Aramaic, not Greek, but the New Testament gives us an accurate record of his speech. The gospel message, "This is the King of the Jews" is translatable because Christianity is an international faith. Abrahamic covenant, Genesis 12. Great Commission, Matthew 28. Pentecost, Acts 2.

Translation is problematic - John 19:19. Some meaning is lost as the words are translated into Latin, Greek and Aramaic. But NT Greek is adequate to give us access to Jesus' words, even though in translation nuances of meaning are lost and gained. Speakers of Latin, Greek and Aramaic may have had different ideas of kingship, but the basic the idea that Jesus was crucified as the King of the Jews was conveyed  to all three language groups by Pilate's inscription. Whatever fine nuances may have been lost in translation did not matter.

Cognitive meaning is conveyed in translation. Content test - "King of the Jews" means the same when translated into French and English. In translation the words are true in either language, because Jesus is the King of the Jews. The truth of gospel is true in other languages.

Postmodern obsession with context is a gross exaggeration. People of all all languages will cry, "Worthy is the Lamb". Is cultural context important? Yes and no. Cultural sensitivity is needed, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, yet as in John 19:19, the truth is essentially the same in any language and culture.

What of a culture that has no word for king? Translate, "Jesus is the CEO of the Jews"? Retain "king" in translation and  explain what it means. Or appropriate a word that approximates "king" and extend its meaning. But this does not mean that Helm favours a "dynamic equivalence" approach to Bible translation. It is one thing for Christian apologists to attempt to translate the faith into the language and thought forms of a culture, but in Bible translation, the aim should always be an accurate as possible rendering of the original. This applies even if there is no equivalent concept in the language into which Scripture is being translated. If a people have no idea of snow (Isaiah 1:18), then it is the task of Christian teachers to explain that it is very white, cold stuff that falls from the sky.

From Jerusalem to Athens:  Acts 17

A case of "natural theology". At Mars Hill Paul quoted pagan authors. In the pagan poets, what is true of God was misapplied to false gods. Since we are God's offspring, how can God be an idol, Acts 17:28-29? Paul's address involves a conceptual translation of Genesis 1, using the language of pagan poets. "Let us make man in our image", Genesis 1:26. "We are also his offspring", Acts 17:28. But the gospel is not translated, as Jesus' resurrection (Acts 17:31) had no counterpart in pagan thought.


In Book 7 of his Confessions Augustine describes how he was delivered from Manichaeism by reading "certain books of the Platonists". By their writings he was  freed from seeing God in physical, embodied terms. The Platonists, by which he  probably meant Plotinus, taught him that God is an immortal Spirit. Augustine begain to understand the creature-creator distinction more clearly and now saw sin a defect, rather than in the dualist terms of the Manichees. This did not make him a Christian, but he became convinced of the existence of the true God through the Platonists. Plotinus even helped Augustine in his reading of Scripture. The philosopher wrote of  the One producing a second hypostasis as the sun produces light. Augustine saw John 1:1-5 as the biblical counterpart of Plotinus' writings. In fact the philosopher was trying to defend Platonism against Christianity, but Augustine was willing to "spoil the Egyptians" by using the insights on the philosophers in the service of faith seeking understanding. However, the theologian was not carried away by all this. He knew of both convergences and divergences between Christianity and philosophy. Plotinus knew nothing of the Son being of the same essence of the Father who had begotten him, Word becoming flesh, or of Jesus saving sinners by his death on the cross. God has hidden these things from the wise and the prudent (Matthew 11:25), who, professing themselves to be wise, became fools, (Romans 1:22).  I suppose that in a similar way, a modern day sceptic might be delivered from his atheism by reading a scientific critique of Darwinism. He might then come to believe in the existence of a Creator, but he would still need to hear and respond in faith to the gospel in order to become a Christian believer.


The gospel can be communicated in different cultural contexts. It is permissible to translate faith into a culture when there are cognitive equivalents, but no further. Liberal theology eliminates the  historical singularities of the faith; the incarnation, atoning death and bodily resurrection of Christ, in an attempt to make Christianity culturally acceptable. This is not an option if we wish to be faithful to the biblical gospel. However, "natural theology" may provide common ground between the Christian and the non-believer and so give us a point of entry for the gospel.


Anonymous said...

Guy, I'm sorry I missed this. Unfortunately, illness got the better of me that week. All better now!

Guy Davies said...

I wondered if you might be there. Glad to hear you are now feeling better. It was a good day. I hope post some more notes in the next few days.