It is Never Right to Tamper with the Bible to Make It “More Helpful”
In eternity past, God devised His Bible project. He decided that He would create a group of writings to teach human beings things that they need to know. And then in history He fulfilled this plan by using certain people to bring this literature into existence.
Although humans had some input into the Bible, it is essentially a divine thing. God chose what to put in it, and we should trust that He knew what He was doing.
DISHONESTY FOR A SUPPOSED GOOD REASON
Something that I often come across is dishonest use of Scripture for some supposed good purpose.
The following, or something similar to it, frequently happens:
A truth of the Christian faith comes under attack. A Christian sees this happening and wants to defend against it. They therefore respond by quoting biblical passages. However, they don’t find it easy to make their case. So they try to manufacture extra support for their arguments by dishonestly interpreting parts of the Bible. Honesty in biblical interpretation is sacrificed because an important issue is seen to be at stake.
I am not saying that Christians who misinterpret Scripture in this way are open about what they are doing, even to themselves. It is a more subtle thing. They suppress their consciences, and they presumably find it easy to do this because their goal is to stand up for something that is true.
EXAMPLES OF DISHONEST USE OF SCRIPTURE
Here are a few examples of how Christians seem sometimes to be dishonest with Scripture for the purpose of trying to support some truth or other.
I am not saying that every Christian who uses the Bible in the following ways is guilty of dishonesty. But I am sure that many are not being as honest as they could be.
Peter, the rock
The first example comes from Matthew 16:18. Here Jesus states:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version except where stated.)
In this translation the Greek word underlying “Peter” is petros, which means “rock.”
Jesus is therefore making a play on words:
“. . . you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church . . .”
The best and by far the most natural way of interpreting this saying is to understand Peter as the rock on which the church is to be built. (For more on this, see my article, Identifying the Rock in Matthew 16:18.)
Roman Catholics interpret the verse in this way. However, they also usually claim that this verse supports their doctrine of papal succession, i.e., of popes following each other. They say that Peter was the first pope and that the building of the church on Peter is a reference to the line of popes that would succeed him.
When confronted by Catholic use of this verse, evangelicals rightly want to oppose the mistaken doctrine of papal succession. However, instead of just saying that Catholics are reading far too much out of this verse, most evangelicals claim that Peter is not even the rock that Jesus is referring to! Instead, evangelicals usually interpret the rock that the church is built on as Jesus or as Peter’s confession about Jesus or something similar.
It is understandable that there is concern with Catholic teaching on papal succession. However, that doesn’t make it right to misinterpret the passage. Instead, we should be honest with the text, interpret Peter as the rock, and then confront any difficulties that arise.
As it happens, it is easy to take Peter as the rock in this verse and to reject the idea that papal succession is in view. See my aforementioned article for details.
The deity of the Holy Spirit
Our second example of apparently dishonest use of the Bible for a supposed good cause concerns the deity of the Holy Spirit.
The group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses is well known for denying the deity of the Spirit.
In arguing against Witnesses’ rejection of the deity of the Spirit, Christians often make an argument using the Greek grammar of several verses in John’s Gospel: John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14. I will comment on the first of these, although the same sort of wrong argument is often made using the other verses too.
In John 14:26 Jesus says:
“But the Helper [parakletos], the Holy Spirit [pneuma], whom the Father will send in my name, he [ekeinos] will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
In this translation the Greek word underlying “Spirit” is the neuter noun pneuma. And the word underlying “he” is the masculine pronoun ekeinos.
There are many Christians who claim that the gender of the Greek words in this verse shows that the Holy Spirit is personal and therefore divine. The argument goes in this way:
In Greek it is normal for the gender of a pronoun to be the same as the gender of the noun that the pronoun refers to. In this verse, however, the masculine pronoun ekeinos rather than the neuter pronoun ekeino is used to refer to the neuter noun pneuma. A masculine pronoun was irregularly chosen to agree with pneuma so as to imply the personality of the Spirit.
It is, of course, right to support belief in the personality and divinity of the Spirit. The Bible certainly teaches these things.
However, this argument from the gender of words doesn’t actually work. In this verse the word parakletos, underlying “Helper” in the English translation, is a masculine noun. And the easiest interpretation of the text is that the masculine pronoun ekeinos refers to parakletos, not to pneuma. This means that there is no irregularity of agreement in gender in John 14:26. And the same seems to be true in John 15:26; 16:13, 14.
Interpreting these verses correctly removes one potential argument that can be used against Jehovah’s Witnesses’ theology. However, honesty must always come first. It is never right to misinterpret Scripture, even if we are trying to combat heretical ideas.
The deity of Christ
Another example of apparently dishonest use of the Bible for a supposed good reason concerns the deity of Christ. This time it is a matter of mistranslation rather than misinterpretation.
In Colossians 1:15 Paul states:
“He [God’s Son] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
This translation of the verse in the ESV is a good one.
At first sight Paul might seem to be saying that Jesus was created. “The firstborn of all creation” sounds as if He was either the first created entity or the most important entity that was created.
Of course, it is true that the human part of Jesus, the God-Man, was created. But the divine part of Him was certainly not created. When the whole Bible is taken into account, we should have no hesitation in saying that Jesus is the divine Son of God.
Perhaps a technically imprecise phrase is being used in this verse to stress how closely Jesus is related to creation. Or perhaps “firstborn” is being used in the sense of “heir.” Or just possibly Paul is referring to Christ’s human part as the most important created entity. Or maybe there is another solution.
Whatever the correct interpretation is, however, this verse is certainly awkward for orthodox, i.e., non-heretical, Christian belief. It has the potential to be misunderstood.
Because of this awkwardness, it is not uncommon to find the verse translated in ways that remove the difficulty.
For example, the New International Version translates using the word “over” in place of “of”:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.”
No reader of this translation would suppose that Paul is saying that Jesus was created.
The problem with translating in this way, however, is quite simply that it is not what the Greek says. The Greek preposition epano meant “over,” and if Paul had wanted to use this word, he could easily have done so. But he clearly chose not to.
The inspired text of this verse states that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation,” and it is wrong to mistranslate to make the passage fit more obviously with orthodox Christian beliefs. The difficulty in this verse needs to be faced honestly and dealt with as best we are able.
Jesus as only-begotten
Another likely example of dishonesty in Bible translation for a supposed good cause comes from the 4th century, from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. This example also concerns the deity of Jesus.
The Vulgate was composed by a church leader and scholar called Jerome. When Jerome was writing it, he and other Christians were involved in a vigorous dispute with a sect known as the Arians. Unlike Christians, who believe that Jesus was begotten by God the Father, the Arians believed that He was fully created by God the Father.
Jerome was, of course, absolutely right to oppose Arian teaching. However, there are four verses in John’s Gospel, where it seems probable that he dishonestly translated from Greek into Latin, so that he could help make his case against the Arians. These verses are John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18. I will comment on the first of them, although the same point applies to the other three verses as well.
In the ESV translation of John 1:14 we read:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only [monogenes] Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Greek word that underlies “only” in the ESV translation is the adjective monogenes. This word means “only,” “unique,” “one and only.” The ESV translation of this verse is a good one.
In most of the places in the New Testament where monogenes is used, Jerome correctly translated it into the Latin unicus, meaning “only.”
However, in John 1:14 (and in John 1:18; 3:16, 18), where monogenes refers to Jesus, Jerome translated it into Latin as unigenitus, meaning “only-begotten.”
The result was that Jerome’s Latin translation of these four verses explicitly contradicted Arian theology, which denied that Jesus was begotten. Jerome’s translation has influenced English translations that have “only begotten” in these verses.
As it happens, however, monogenes does not mean “only begotten” in these passages (or anywhere else, for that matter). If that had been the intended sense, the Greek word we would expect to have been used is monogennetos.
Although I am hesitant to claim that Jerome was dishonest when I don’t know all the facts, it seems likely that he did exactly what I am criticizing in this article. It seems that he knowingly mistranslated the Bible in an attempt to make certain passages more explicitly anti-Arian. If so, he should have been content to confront the Arians using Scripture as God inspired it, even if that made his task more difficult.
PROBLEMS WITH USING THE BIBLE DISHONESTLY
Whenever someone is dishonest in how they use the Bible, they are committing a sin. And in God’s sight the gravity of sin is enormous. It is a kind of infinite insult to Him.
Even if a Christian’s motive is to support something true, that doesn’t excuse knowingly misinterpreting or mistranslating Scripture. Honesty must take precedence over everything else. So we should fight as hard as possible to be as honest as possible about every passage.
Furthermore, when someone tries to doctor the Bible to make it “more helpful,” they are actually revealing a lack of faith. If we trust God that He knew what He was doing when He inspired Scripture, we will be content not to force it to say something that it doesn’t. If that means that we have to wrestle with a text or that it causes us some difficulty, then so be it.
It is bad enough for Christians to be dishonest with the Bible when they are trying to support something that is true. But it is even worse when they are trying to support something that they only mistakenly think is true.
There is a huge amount of Christian writing, on the internet and in other places too, where not only does the author seem to be the using the biblical text dishonestly, but what they are teaching is completely wrong as well.
However, on the Day of Judgment we will all have to give an account to God for every word we have spoken or written (Matthew 12:36). That prospect alone should make us take great care in what we say.
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