Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Holy: Understanding it Better Through Overcoming Barriers to Understanding

For my post-graduate studies I am writing on the definition of holy, but as part of that I have to present my method for discovering the meaning of holy in the Bible.   This turns out to be more critical than might be imagined.  Like a car's suspension that effects the outcome in terms of a car's ride, so the method for defining a word can effect the outcome in terms of the definition arrived at by myself or anyone else.  So what is my method?

In discussing methods to use for my thesis, I found that the discussion got very complicated.  It was too complicated for anyone who does not have my educational background.   But it also got too complicated for those who have my level of education.  There simply was not a lot of common ground between different methods and I felt that any choice would limit who would read what I had to say, because of the divisions over the method to use.  So I needed something better.

I think I have found a better method.  I want to first state it, then where I found it and then I will demonstrate some of its usefulness with regard to defining holy in a beginning way.   The method consists of five steps (not necessarily locked into this order): 1) total, 2) translate, 3) teach, 4) train and 5) transfer.   

I found this method in Nehemiah 8.   In Nehemiah 8:1-7, I find the idea of 1) total - "all" the people and "the book" of the law of Moses."  The total of the people who could understand and the total of the book of the Law.  Neither part of the process was less than the total of it.  In Nehemiah 8:8, I find the keys to 2) translating - clarity and meaning.   Something is clear when it is one rather than many.  Many causes confusion.  Imagine many voices saying a differen word in the same room.  Now imagine everyone in unison saying one word.  A one to one correspondence in translating is clearest, if it is possible.  Moving from a dead language, like Hebrew was in Nehemiah, to a livinglanguage like Aramaic gave meaning in translation.  In Nehemiah 8:7, 8:9-12, I find 3) teaching in the idea of  "instruct" which I have understood as teaching to keep a pattern of T's going for memory's sake.  I also think it is important to understand teachers as skilled in recognizing a time of joy and a time of sorrow.  They are wise to time and place.  In Nehemiah 8:13-17, I see 4) training because the people's inability to understand is replaced by their ability to understand.  Understanding is an action, so it requires training.  We see many actions performed by the people in this section that reflect their ability to undrestand.   Finally, in Nehemiah 8:18, I see 5) transfer because they did things in accordance with regulation.  It is important with regulations to transfer the same things rather than different things.  Witness as an example the difficult case of circumcision in the New Testament in relationship to Gentiles. 

So to communicate across barriers effectively, like in this example in Nehemiah, a method needs to involve not just a few or parts of a book, but the total of both.  A method also needs to give clarity through keeping things simple or singular and through using a live language that has meaning.  A method needs through instruction to make a bad situation better like a move from weeping to joy as appropriate for the time.  A method also needs to replace inability to understand with ability through training.  Finally, it must transfer the things in accordance with regulations, not extraneous things nor with things left out. 

Let's look at this method's usefulness when dealing with defining holy.  The implications for defining holy are many, but here I would like to scratch the surface.   

First, I think it is unfortunate that many of the people involved in defining holy are left out of the discussion.  Most writers on the topic do not think it is important to address what the total of God's people think on this word.  They especially don't address the thoughts of many in church history, even though they are people who had the ability to understand.  They do not take seriously those who would disagree with them.  They also limit the contexts from which they define the word.  Actually parallel passages where the word is used and close synonyms are found in separate parts of the Law are significant.  So to limit oneself to just Deuteronomy or just the immediate context can be misleading.

Second, I think it is unfortunate that in the argument among translators and translations over form and meaning, few stopped to take seriously the balanced counsel of Nehemiah 8:8.  We need to consider not just meaningfulness, but also clarity.  Often meaning is greatly enhanced through a meaning to meaning translation, but at the expense of clarity.  I think it is possible to keep a balance.  In the case of holy, clarity has been compromised in the past by the use of many words for what is one word in Hebrew and one word to translate it from Hebrew into Greek.  It is expressed not just through holy or holiness, but also through sancification, sanctify, saint, holy one, hallow, wholly, consecrate and set apart.  It is hardly clear to the average reader that these all express the same basic word in both Hebrew or Greek.  Also holy, if it does mean set apart should be replaced, since it does not carry meaningfulness like set apart.  If on the other hand it means whole, it coud be retained because the close relationship is visible through their respective similar spellings. 

Third, I think it is important to understand that teaching is important in terms of a change of place and time.  Holy was not hard to understand in its own day.  It is a change in time and place that partly explains the possibility of misunderstanding it in our day.  These issues need to be addressed like Nehemiah and the others did, so that the opposite understanding does not occur on this word.  Should we maybe be more joyful than sorrowful when we hear this word?

Fourth, I think it is important to train people in the method of understanding.  We must replace the inability to understand with the ability.  The test of our training is the ease with which someone can perform a task before or after training.  Training does not mean that everything is equally easy.  It does mean that after training, a task should be easier rather than harder.  Nehemiah 8 should be heavily mined for its insights on understanding.  This is only a beginning in what I am writing now. 

Fifth, I think we need to be sure we are transferring the right things.  Each word refers to a referent and while our translation of words is significant, so is the issue of whether the things transferred are the same as the things in the Word of God.  Holy may be the translation, but does it refer to the transfer of wholeness into our lives or does it refer to the separateness of our lives from those who are sinners?  Which fits in accord with God's regulations?  Have we transferred the right things.  One of my professors referred to this as transculturation, something different from just translation. 

These are the tips of the iceberg in terms of implications.  Over time, I will develop each of these separately more in-depth along with showing other angles on the vital topic of what holy means.  I am convinced it must mean one of two things.  Either holy means whole or it means separate.  This method from Nehemiah 8 will help me and you sort this out.  We face barriers to understanding holy, but so did they face barriers to understanding in their time.  These barriers can be overcome through 1) total, 2) translate, 3) teach, 4) train and 5) transfer. 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon