Welcome back to the podcast on this January 11th. This is always a big day for us. The podcast, Ask Pastor John, turns ten years old today. Episode 1 aired on January 11, 2013. And more importantly, John Piper was born on January 11, 1946. He’s 77 years young today. So Pastor John, when you hear this episode, happy birthday to you, my friend. Thank you for this unforgettable decade on the podcast. And wherever you are today, enjoy that Butterfinger Blizzard to the glory of God!
Well, we are talking Bible reading today. How do we turn our daily Bible reading into daily worship? Early in the new year is a very good time for a refresher on this topic of how to get truth from our heads into our hearts. So, we open to Psalm 77. Last Wednesday, we saw how the psalm teaches us to push past personal discouragement to get God’s truth into our heads. Asaph, its author, tells us to remember, to meditate, and to muse upon the deeds and wonders of God in history. Why? Because “the central biblical strategy” to escape the discouragements of life is through “a conscious effort of the mind.”
Even when life hurts the most, we discipline ourselves to get truth into our minds. And then once it’s there — in our heads — we need to get that truth into our hearts. And today Pastor John is going to explain how he does that by illustrating the practice from his own life, in what I think is a pretty remarkable sermon excerpt, again taken from his New Year’s sermon on Psalm 77, preached back in the early moments of the year 2000. Here’s Pastor John.
I know there are more obstacles to joy than absence of knowledge. I know that there are physical obstacles, I know that there are medical reasons, I know that there are family reasons, and I know that there are hereditary reasons.
In fact, Aaron shared with me a great essay or excerpt from a book by Richard Baxter, who was a great soul doctor three hundred years ago, in which he was dealing with melancholy. (That’s the old-fashioned word for discouragement or, in its worst cases, depression.)
These old Puritans knew two things. They knew their souls, and they knew their Bibles. They knew these souls were connected to bodies, and they knew these bodies were connected to — they didn’t know anything about genes, but they knew about moms and dads and granddads and great-granddads. And they knew the William Cowpers, who tried to kill himself three times, and they knew his parents, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out, “There’s something going on here — physically as well as family dynamics.”
And therefore, the most amazing thing about this essay was that he had practical guidelines for how to eat, how to sleep, how to exercise — even something to do with the way you eat and the posture you’re in when you eat. Can you believe that? Puritans telling people how to sit while they eat in order to avoid melancholy. So please, don’t hear me unfolding this strategy of the Christian life as oblivious of the fact that these matters are more complex than simply knowledge in the head.
But here’s my question — for me, mainly, and I’ll let you listen. When I say, “I have it in my head — this Bible knowledge about God — and it’s not working; I’m feeling low still,” my question to me is, When you say, “I have my head filled with Bible doctrine or Bible knowledge, is that the same as what’s being said here?” “I will remember. Surely I will remember the deeds of old. I will meditate. And surely I will muse.”
And I have a feeling, I have this little suspicion that American evangelicals are a very passive bunch of people when it comes to our emotions. They come on us, and we’re passive, and we’ve been taught to think, “Somebody did this to me,” or “I did it to myself, but it’s happening to me.” And now what? Now what? And there’s this absence of the great old biblical Puritan awareness.
“There’s a war to be fought here. There’s a delight to be struggled for here.”
There’s a strategy of life here. There’s a war to be fought here. There’s a delight to be struggled for here. There’s an intentionality and a purposefulness here. And if you have just a little mustard seed left under the weight of the darkness to do something, there are things that can be done here that might be blessed of God with Psalm 77:13. So, I don’t think — and I’m just talking to myself still here, John Piper — I don’t think when you say, “I know that about you, God, and it’s not helping me,” I don’t think that’s meditation. I don’t think that’s musing. I think that’s coasting.
So what is meditation? What is musing? This is something different from saying, “I’ve got lots of Bible knowledge in my head, and it doesn’t help.” That’s very different from saying, “I will remember something that’s in my head. I’ll pursue it. I’ll dig around in there until I find it.” And then what do you do? “Okay, I found it. I’ve got it.” Or maybe you have to dig in the Bible because your mind’s just not working well enough to remember. You go dig in there, and you dig, and you find it.
Moving into Meditation
Then what do you do with it? Do you do anything with it? What is meditation? What is musing? Well, let me just draw things to a close with an illustration. I’ll just do it out loud for you, okay? We’ll do a little bit of this now. You just watch me do it. I will talk out loud what I would talk inside.
Suppose I come in the year 2000, and I’m feeling absolutely like a failure. Last year was terrible. I hardly ever read my Bible. I hardly ever prayed. I mouthed off over and over again in the wrong circumstances. Lust got all out of hand. Blah, blah, blah. It was one awful year. And I frankly feel worthless and hopeless as I enter the year 2000.
So suppose that’s where you are now. And you hear a sermon like this. You say, “Well, it doesn’t work. Didn’t work last year. Doesn’t work. I grew up in the church for goodness’ sake. My head’s stocked full of Bible knowledge about the exodus. Doesn’t work.”
I will remember the deeds of the Lord. I remember a day 2000 years ago, when on a Roman cross of execution, there was the greatest, most loving, most kind, most gentle, most wise, sinless man that ever was hanging on the cross. I will call this to mind. And he is suffering greatly. His head is thorned, and his face is beat up. His beard is plucked out. His back is lacerated. Nails are through his hands and his feet. He can barely breathe. He has screamed himself hoarse and can no longer scream and is on the brink of death.
And next to him on either side is a thief. They have both railed at him, cursed him. “Get yourself and us down if you’re some big-shot Messiah.” And then I will call to mind that one of those thieves suddenly, inexplicably, awesomely looks over at this Christ and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Moving into Blessing
I will call to mind, “Where’d that come from?” He was cursing the Lord. He was making fun of this bleeding Messiah. Where did that come from? And I will remember the work of grace, the work of sovereign grace in the eleventh hour. Here’s a man who did nothing but wrong all his life — never had one act of obedience, of faith. He deserves hell, and he’s about twenty minutes away from hell. And he presumes to say, “Remember me.”
“I will linger with that sentence. I will take hold of that sentence and not let it go until it blesses me.”
“Remember you? I’ll remember you. I’ll send you straight to hell. That’s what I do with people like you, thieves all their life long.” I will meditate on the mighty deeds of Christ, who looked over the nail on his right hand and said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And I will not leave that and go off to my pity party and say, “It doesn’t work. I’ve got that knowledge in my head, and it doesn’t change anything.”
I will linger with that sentence. I will stay with that sentence. I will take hold of that sentence and not let it go until it blesses me. And it doesn’t have to be long with that sentence — for me, anyway. “Today, you thief, in the eleventh hour, with nothing to commend yourself to God whatsoever — you don’t even have time to get out and obey and show yourself that you are real — you are going to go straight with me to paradise.” What kind of grace is that that I might be a part of?
You Might also like
By Greg Lanier — 1 year ago
ABSTRACT: What many call “the Septuagint” today was a collection of varied Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament that circulated among Jews and Christians in antiquity. The apostles both read and referenced these Greek translations often, especially as they wrote to Greek-speaking churches throughout the Greek-speaking world. Sometimes, their use of the Septuagint comes across through translations of key words; other times, they quote directly from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew. Their familiarity with the Greek Old Testament also exerts a behind-the-scenes influence on broader New Testament themes. Familiarity with the Septuagint, then, offers a fresh window into the study of the Scriptures, for pastors and engaged laypeople as well as for scholars.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Greg Lanier, Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, to offer an introduction to the Septuagint.
If your personal Bible is the ESV or NIV, you first come across it in a footnote at Genesis 4:8. If you are using the NET, you will spot it even earlier in a translators’ note at Genesis 3:15. But if you cut against the grain and use the CSB, you will see it make a cameo as early as Genesis 2:2. In fact, you will bump into it roughly 96 times in the CSB’s footnotes for Genesis–Deuteronomy.
It is called the Septuagint, or LXX for short: in a nutshell, the Greek form of the Old Testament (OT). Often ignored or misunderstood, it is one of the more important words in your Bible’s footnotes.
Septuagint studies has enjoyed a bit of an academic renaissance in recent decades, but many pastors and laypersons still know little about it. It sounds esoteric, especially with its difficult-to-say title — which scholars do not pronounce uniformly anyhow — and fancy nickname. The aim of this article is to bring it out of the shadows of footnotes and into the light, focusing on clarifying what it is and why it matters to everyday Christians.
What Exactly Is the Septuagint?
Before discussing its relevance, we have to clarify what is meant by Septuagint. But that is part of the problem. The term itself, when paired with the (the Septuagint, or the LXX), and combined with the fact that you can purchase a copy, might give the false impression that “the Septuagint” is a singular book, produced by a single committee, and published in a single place at a single time. But since we are looking back to a time before printing presses, publishers, computers, and online booksellers, little of this impression is accurate. It is better to think of the word Septuagint as a pointer to the process by which the Hebrew Scriptures circulated in the Greek language among Jews and Christians in antiquity. The details are complex, but some key ideas can be sketched.
Clear Starting Point
Most Christians know that their personal copy of the OT is a translation from the ancient Hebrew text, aimed at conveying God’s word to people unfamiliar with Hebrew. Jews in antiquity faced the same issue. After the conquest of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC), much of the Mediterranean world adopted Greek as the functional language. Jews inside and outside Palestine followed suit to varying degrees, and competency in Hebrew began to wane. In the mid-third century BC, a group of Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt (likely Alexandria) undertook translating the Torah (or Pentateuch, Genesis–Deuteronomy) from Hebrew into Greek, not only to give their own people access to Scripture in their daily language for use in worship but also (possibly) to provide a copy of their law code to the Ptolemaic rulers.
The embellished account of this translation (in the Letter of Aristeas, from the second or third century BC) states there were 72 translators, which, over the course of time, became 70 — the Latin of which is septuaginta or LXX. Strictly speaking, then, Septuagint or LXX refers only to this initial endeavor.
The Plot Thickens
The Greek Pentateuch may have been first in the pool, but over the next centuries more swimmers entered, the water itself began changing, lane markers started crisscrossing, and so on. Five overlapping developments are worth mentioning.
First, more books of the traditional OT were translated from Hebrew into Greek, starting perhaps with Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the minor prophets. The precise sequence, location, and timing are unknown, but most, if not all, were completed by the time of the early church. Swimming in this same pool of activity were the writings known as Apocrypha. Their association with the Greek copies of scriptural books greatly influenced how, in due course, they were designated as deuterocanonical books within Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Second, translation strategies evolved over time. Some books were translated in a way similar to today’s NASB (stricter correspondence to the Hebrew) while others were closer to the NLT (less strictness, more paraphrastic). The translations are all adequate as Greek but had different philosophies, needs, and audiences in view.
Third, existing Greek translations were not carved in stone but began to be revised (or even retranslated), often with the goal of bringing them closer to the Hebrew. Some books like Daniel and Esther even branched into two distinct Greek forms. Such activities are traditionally associated with the Kaige movement, Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion, Origen, Lucian of Antioch, and possibly others. One could compare these translations to the different editions of, say, the NIV (1978, 1984, 1996 NIrV, 1999, 2002 TNIV, 2011).
Fourth, manuscripts of the emerging Greek versions of the OT themselves took on a life of their own, as they were copied and passed on by Jewish and, in turn, Christian scribes. No scribe was perfect, and accidental or intentional changes entered the stream over time.
Fifth, running through all these developments is the fact that the Hebrew source text itself — which translators were attempting to capture in Greek — was itself not 100 percent stable at the margins. The Hebrew text was passed on with exceptional accuracy, but there is no guarantee that any given translator was working from an identical copy of the Hebrew. (This is why modern Bibles sometimes mention alternative wording found in certain Hebrew manuscripts like the Dead Sea Scrolls — as, e.g., the ESV at Psalm 22:16.)
We could go further into the weeds, but this suffices to prove the point: there really was no such thing as the Septuagint. Talking about it as such is like asking a churchgoer where to find the Bible. Do you want the ESV? NIV? KJV? RVR (Spanish)? A study Bible? Devotional Bible? Interlinear? App? Audio Bible? Even for those who can read the biblical languages, there are multiple options.
Septuagint, then, is at best a kind of shorthand for the complex but fascinating history by which God’s word in Hebrew made its way throughout the empire in various Greek forms.
Why Is It Relevant to the Study of the NT?
Precisely here — the use of Greek Bible(s) in antiquity — the relevance of the so-called Septuagint for us today becomes evident.
By definition, it is clearly relevant to studying the OT, particularly for reconstructing the authentic OT text (e.g., ESV at 1 Samuel 10:1; 14:41), exploring canon-related issues, and tracing early Jewish interpretation — vital topics that would merit a standalone article.
But it is also of great relevance to studying the New Testament (NT), which is our focus here. Early Christians, like their Jewish predecessors, were immersed in a Greek-speaking world. We see this not only in how some of Jesus’s disciples bore Greek names alongside Semitic ones (Saul/Paul, Levi/Matthew, Simon/Peter) or were from Hellenistic backgrounds (Acts 6), but most clearly in the writing of the entire NT in Greek. It should come as no surprise, then, that the authors sometimes make direct use of the Greek form of the OT in addition to or even in place of the known Hebrew form. Just as a Korean-speaking pastor would naturally quote from a Korean Bible in a sermon to a Korean congregation, so also the Greek-speaking apostolic authors would often default to a Greek Bible when writing to Greek-speaking congregations.
Matthew offers a helpful example to prove the point. On the one hand, he uses the specific Hebrew form of Hosea 11:1 (“I have called my son”) and not the Greek (“I have called my children”) in Matthew 2:15. On the other hand, he draws on the Greek form of Isaiah 40:3, even where it differs from the Hebrew, in Matthew 3:2. Since Matthew was a bilingual tax collector, it makes sense that he would be able to navigate the OT in both Hebrew and Greek.
In short, the Greek tradition of the OT influenced the writing of the NT in various ways alongside the Hebrew tradition, which means that today’s student of the Bible would benefit to know something about it. I will trace three ways we can detect this influence, offering brief implications at each step.
The Greek OT shaped the contours of certain words.
When my church congregation prays the Lord’s Prayer, I self-consciously avoid using thy and thine embedded in memory from the KJV. Your Bible influences your theological vocabulary. Similarly, the Greek of the Septuagint texts shaped to varying degrees the specific ways certain words were used by NT authors.
A marquee example is the use of ekklēsia for “church.” Other options existed, and in secular Greek ekklēsia often carried the sense of a civic assembly. So why did this term get applied immediately (and with no apparent debate) to the spiritual gathering of believers (Matthew 16:18; Galatians 1:2)? The Jewish community had already settled on this word as a suitable way of translating Hebrew terms for the congregation or gathering of the Israelites for religious worship and instruction (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:10; Joshua 8:5). Indeed, ekklēsia is used for the assembly of the Israelites in Acts 7:38 and, only a few breaths later, for the early church in 8:1. Knowing something about the Greek OT, then, is crucial to grasping the identity of today’s church as the people of God.
Another key example is “gospel” or “good news.” Euangelion vocabulary was often used for reports of military victories in antiquity. But in the Greek tradition of the prophets (especially Isaiah), it was applied to spiritual good news related to the saving work of God, doubtless shaping the apostolic authors. For instance, Mark 1:1–3 traces the good news directly to Isaiah 40, and Paul treats the good news as something pre-promised to the prophets as well (Romans 1:1–2).
A final example is the term used in the Greek OT for the “sin offering,” namely, peri hamartias (e.g., Leviticus 5:6). Strictly speaking, this phrase means “concerning sin,” but it became a technical term for the specific Levitical sacrifice (see Hebrews 10:6). Its influence can be felt most vividly in Romans 8:3, where Paul refers to Jesus as peri hamartias; though some English translations take this as “for sin” (KJV, RSV), it is more accurate to render it “sin offering” (CSB, NIV), which concretely captures how Jesus’s blood fulfills the Levitical sacrificial system.
Implication: Students of the NT can benefit from adding the Greek OT to their set of tools for studying the semantic ranges of NT words (from covenant to mercy seat/propitiation and beyond). The Greek OT may not answer every question for every word, but it can be a window on common use in the first century — and sure beats using Merriam-Webster!
The Greek OT was often used in specific quotations.
Additionally, NT authors often use wording from the Greek tradition when directly quoting an OT passage. When studying such reuses of the OT in the NT, it is important to keep four basic patterns in mind.
The wording matches both the Hebrew and the Greek, particularly if the latter is a straightforward rendering of the former (e.g., Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 19:19).
The wording matches the Hebrew more closely, and not the Greek (e.g., Zechariah 12:10 in John 19:37).
The wording matches neither fully but appears to involve apostolic retranslation or interpretation (e.g., Psalm 68:19 in Ephesians 4:8).
The wording matches the Greek more closely, even where it deviates from the Hebrew.
The fourth category is of most interest here, since it demonstrates the vital importance of the Greek translation(s) of the OT to NT study. I will provide a few examples to illustrate the point.
Let us begin with instances where the use of the Greek OT is important Christologically.
In Jesus’s visit to the Nazareth synagogue, his reading of Isaiah 61:1–2 as recorded in Luke 4:18–19 includes “and recovering of sight to the blind,” found only in Greek Isaiah and not the known Hebrew. This line is important to the Lukan context because it frames Jesus as the Spirit-anointed deliverer who will, indeed, bring healing to both physical and spiritual blindness.
Amid the rapid-fire set of quotations in Hebrews 1:5–14, the author writes, “When he [God] brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’” (Hebrews 1:6). This line is apparently drawn from the Greek tradition of Deuteronomy 32:43 and is absent in the standard Hebrew tradition, providing the author with helpful wording to express the divinity of Jesus. (Note: some English translations incorporate the line into the text of Deuteronomy, effectively blending the Hebrew and Greek.)
Hebrews also reflects the distinct wording of the Greek of Psalm 40:6–8 in order to capture the humanity of Jesus via “A body have you prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5), whereas the Hebrew reads, “You have given me an open ear.”
These are but a few instances where the OT — and the Greek form, at that — is key to articulating the person and work of Christ.
The Greek OT is also missionally important to the NT authors. Occasionally, the ancient Greek translators had already enhanced how a given passage anticipates the inclusion of the nations/Gentiles in the plan of God, allowing the apostolic authors more readily to root the global mission of the church in Scripture.
Matthew draws on the distinctive Greek wording of Isaiah 42:1–3 to plant the seed that Jesus’s ministry is not only for Jews but encompasses Gentiles, too: while the Hebrew reads, “The coastlands await his laws,” the Greek form that is used in Matthew 12:21 reads, “In his name the Gentiles will hope.”
At the Jerusalem council, the decisive evidence in favor of not imposing circumcision on Gentiles comes from Amos 9:11–12. The wording of the quotation in Acts 15:17, “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,” aligns more closely with the clearer Gentile-inclusive wording of the Greek of Amos rather than the Hebrew.
Among Paul’s string of OT quotations about the Gentile-embracing work of Jesus is another use of the unique Greek form of Deuteronomy 32:43 (see above), “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” (Romans 15:10), which is not found in the Hebrew.
No doubt other Hebrew Scriptures would suffice to make the same points, but the apostolic authors apparently opted to draw on Greek translations that were already ripe for use.
Lastly, knowledge of the NT authors’ use of the Greek OT is also helpful apologetically for today’s readers. On occasion, an OT quotation in the NT seems at first glance to contradict what one finds when looking it up in the English Bible (which, recall, uses the Hebrew). In such cases, the Greek OT can sometimes shed light.
Luke references a figure named “Cainan” in Jesus’s genealogy (Luke 3:36) as well as “seventy-five persons” emigrating to Egypt (Acts 7:14). The former figure is not found in the Hebrew genealogies, and the latter is presented as “seventy” in the Hebrew of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5. In both cases, however, Luke is seemingly drawing on the Greek tradition, which mentions “Cainan” at Genesis 10:24 and tabulates the descendants (via a different way of counting) as “seventy-five.”
The quotation of Psalm 95:7–8 in Hebrews 3:7–11 reads, in part, “as you did in the rebellion, on the day of testing.” This seems to contradict the Hebrew: “as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah.” But the author is using the Greek form that has translated those place-names.
Hebrews 11:21 states that the dying patriarch Jacob worshiped “over the head of his staff,” pointing to Genesis 47:31. The Hebrew reads “upon the head of his bed,” but the NT author has simply used the Greek form.
In these instances and a few others, any apparent misstep by a NT author is ameliorated by recognizing that he is drawing on a Greek form of the text known to his audience.
Implication: Students of the NT, when encountering an OT quotation, should consider consulting not only the English translation (from the Hebrew) but also the Greek form, to see if any specific nuances in the Greek tradition have influenced the apostolic writer. Those who are unable to read Greek can use a modern translation, specifically LES or NETS.
The Greek OT exerts behind-the-scenes influence on broader concepts/themes.
Finally, we see telltale signs of the formative influence of the Greek OT on the NT exegesis of Scripture beyond word-for-word quotations. In such scenarios, knowledge of the broader context of the specifically Greek form of an OT passage often enhances our understanding of what a given NT author is doing.
A simple example involves the Greek form of Numbers 24:17, picturing a royal star that “will rise” (anatelei) from Jacob (versus Hebrew “walk”). The Greek verb provides a clue as to why the magi seek a new Jewish king when they see a star “in its rising” (anatolē, Matthew 2:2).
A more potent example appears in John 12:41, where the evangelist comments that Isaiah “said these things” — referring to two quotations of Isaiah in 12:38, 40 — because he “saw his glory and spoke of him.” The “him” here is Jesus, and the key connection is “glory” (doxa). The quoted passages are from Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10, respectively, and the quoted wording is not otherwise notable. But if one reads each passage in Greek, light bulbs start turning on. In the Greek of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the “servant” is “glorified,” but his “glory” is rejected (versus Hebrew “lifted up” and “form”); and in the Greek of Isaiah 6:1, the Lord’s “glory” fills heaven (versus Hebrew “train of his robe”). John taps into both “glory” connections in Greek to express what Isaiah “saw” in each scene: namely, the suffering-doxa and heavenly-doxa of the Son of God.
Sticking with Isaiah, another intriguing example is Isaiah 65:17–22, the grand vision for the new heavens and new earth. When the heavenly Jerusalem comes, death will be defeated and God’s people will rest secure. The Greek tradition includes a reference to the “tree of life” (65:22) — a rare mention of this Edenic plant — where the Hebrew reads only “tree.” This detail may to some degree influence the appearance of this same “tree of life” in Revelation 21:1–22:5 (specifically 22:2), where the author is capturing vividly the fulfillment of Isaiah 65.
Staying in Revelation, the initial vision of the “son of man” (Jesus) in Revelation 1:13–14 is intriguing because his attributes (e.g., hair as white as snow/wool) match those of the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7:9–14, where “son of man” first appears. In Revelation, the identity of the son of man seems almost to merge with the Ancient of Days, though in Daniel 7 they are distinct. Intriguingly, this close identification of the two figures already occurs in the older Greek tradition of Daniel 7:13, which has the “son of man” coming “as” the “Ancient of Days” (versus “to” or “before the presence of” in Aramaic). Perhaps such an exegetical tradition had taken root before John’s writing of the Apocalypse.
More examples could be mentioned, but the key point is this: in such cases, the influence of the Greek OT is felt not so much onstage (the wording of a given quotation) but more behind-the-scenes, reflecting the NT authors’ rich and multifaceted engagement with God’s word.
Implication: Students of the NT should strive to be sensitive to how the particular Greek form of the OT could shape an NT author’s argument or narrative at the conceptual level. One way to do this is simply to read the Greek OT (even in translation) regularly when studying OT passages that are instrumental to NT theology.
Septuagint and Scripture
Much more could be said, but the hope is that this brief survey has whetted the reader’s appetite to explore the texts of the Septuagint further (see here or here). It offers an exciting gateway to studying both OT and NT afresh, not only for scholars but for ministers and laypersons too.
Many Christians often ask at this point, “If the apostles sometimes used the Septuagint, does that make it inspired?” A common answer is that a NT quotation of the Greek OT does sanction its wording, even when it deviates from the Hebrew. This answer hits the rocks, however, when NT authors do not always use identical wording for the same OT quotations (e.g., Isaiah 6:9–10 in Matthew 13:14–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39–40; Acts 28:25–27), making it hard to say which wording is “sanctioned.”
A better answer is this: the Jewish community and early Christians clearly privileged the Hebrew text as the locus of inspiration. However, there were no efforts (then or now) at linguistic Judaizing, whereby new converts would be forced to learn Hebrew to access Scripture. The Greek OT in its varied forms was seen as more than adequate as a translation of the word of God to reach a Greek-speaking world, and the apostles used it accordingly. Does this mean that apostolic use of the Greek OT where it appears to deviate from the Hebrew is an exercise in building theology off a faulty translation? Not at all — it simply means the NT writers felt that the Greek “pew Bible” (in modern terminology) familiar to their readers faithfully captured the theological intent of God-given words, so they used it accordingly.
Studying the Septuagint, if nothing else, is an illuminating exercise in tracing God’s faithfulness in using his word to motivate and sustain the early church in proclaiming Christ from the Scriptures to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:44–47).
By Matt Crutchmer — 7 months ago
ABSTRACT: Reason and imagination are partners in the task of theology. If reason helps us speak precisely, distinguish carefully, and penetrate reality down to its principles, imagination embodies reason’s abstract formulations in order to press reality into our bones. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion is one such story that images theological concepts in stunningly fresh modes. As readers escape to Middle-earth, they encounter the distinction between God and creatures, the nature of evil, and the glory of God’s providence and grace in ways that complement the exactness of theological prose and make familiar truths feel new again.
For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Matt Crutchmer, assistant professor of theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to explain what J.R.R. Tolkien can teach students about theology.
Teaching undergraduates Christian doctrine is a joy. It is a joy because I get to spend time, year after year, thinking on and discussing our God, his gospel, and his world with his children — my brothers and sisters. It is also a joy because I get to be a witness to their fresh discovery of the truth, goodness, and beauty of this or that doctrine. This discovery is often rediscovery, or seeing the familiar anew. Many of my students were raised in Christian families and likely could pass an exam covering the basics of Christian theology. But knowing an answer to a test question is one thing; knowing reality down in one’s bones — joyfully resting in it — is quite another. For students to come to that sort of fresh knowledge, they often need to see familiar reality from a different angle. As C.S. Lewis knew so well, deep joy shows up by surprise, and I’ve learned that joy and its attendant surprise and delight aid one in learning Christian doctrine in this latter, deeper way.1
“Knowing an answer to a test question is one thing; knowing reality down in one’s bones is quite another.”
Those moments of real discovery, even if infrequent, occur by God’s grace as he instructs his people. One of the means God has often used in our courses to do that teaching has been reading outside the genre of theological prose. Specifically, I have for years assigned first semester students a section of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in the course of our study of the doctrines of God and creation.
What’s my rationale here? My overall answer is that it is my job to teach students how to read. Primarily, this means teaching how to read well the Bible, specifically with an eye toward its theological logic, concepts, and coherence. It also means teaching how to read well a human life in light of what God says in Scripture. Accomplishing this requires, I have found, a combination of delight and embodiment.
First, I attempt this mode of teaching theology because it pleases me. Of course, this is simply another instance of the truth that unless the teacher enjoys what he teaches, his students will not enjoy it either. The world of Middle-earth feels like another home to me (I know its maps and geography almost as well as my native Oklahoma). Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, and Eowyn are my friends and counselors and heroes with whom I wish I could sit at table. The longings and failures of the elves, dwarves, and men across the ages of Arda are ones I have felt keenly here. When the Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, when Samwise hears the minstrels begin telling his own tale, when Aragorn is crowned king and Frodo sails away into the Undying Lands, I experience in my mind and heart the delight of that “sudden, joyous turn” that Tolkien labeled eucatastrophe.2 Reading Tolkien is reading the best of humanity’s fairy-stories, a genre Tolkien described like this:
It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [“gospel”], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.3
In a story such as The Lord of the Rings, I receive this sort of joy because in it I experience a story so much like the Christian gospel, the “true Myth.”4 Tolkien’s stories are often said to be tales readers wish were really true. For Tolkien, that simply echoes our longing — our hope — that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true as well: “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true” than that of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son.5 So by reading Tolkien as a class, I and my students are delighted, and then by investigation come to see that our delight in it is actually delight for the True Myth that it reflects so imaginatively.
Second, I attempt this mode of theological instruction because our theology is by necessity, to use an unexpected term, embodied. This is the more important of the two rationales.
“Stories can concretely embody or enact the realities of God and his rule in ways theological prose often cannot.”
We read works of fiction in these doctrine courses not because they aim to teach us theology just as a book of dogmatics does. We do so because certain stories can concretely embody or enact the realities of God and his rule in ways theological prose often cannot. Note carefully the verbs embody and enact; I did not say explain. Since systematic theology has earned a bad reputation with some for its use of concepts — some of which are very abstract and seem quite different from or even contrary to the way the Bible speaks about God’s actions for us in time — it serves us when literature can make some of those concepts concrete and particular.
One of reason’s capacities is to penetrate the surface of things in the world and discover their natures and thus their causes (or “principles”).6 For example, when we read the story of the life of Jesus, doing so with good reading skills within the canon of Scripture, we come to understand that he is not simply human but is simultaneously, somehow, God the uncreated and infinite. We then find ways of describing this. We borrow the term “nature,” which has been used to describe the metaphysical reality of what makes a particular thing that kind of thing, and we say that in Jesus there are “two natures.” A nature or essence is an abstract concept, a bit removed from the seeable, hearable, touchable, smellable world in which Jesus lived and walked. We theologians then say that in the singular “person” of Jesus these two natures — the divine nature and our human nature — are “hypostatically united.”7 We claim that the principle of this Word becoming flesh is in God alone; we call it a “divine mission.” We then give this whole complex of claims a new Latinate name and say it is the “incarnation.” Every step toward precision seems to take another step away from the real world, from the concrete lives that we and our Lord Jesus have led.
Good theologians know that this “reduction to” or “analysis by” principles is not the goal. To summarize a claim from Oliver O’Donovan, reduction is meant to give us knowledge of natures and principles, but then we are to return to the concrete world with this knowledge and know the thing afresh.8 Theology’s concepts are there so that we can return to the world of things and know them better. In literature, Reason’s partner Imagination can then “body forth” in vivid characters, plot, settings, and narration those things that we strive to describe with our theological concepts and doctrinal statements.
The above explanation is part of a growing conviction I have about the practice of theology. I have a strong hunch that one generally cannot be intellectually affected — that is, grow in mind and heart — by a descriptive theological statement until one imagines a human person being concretely implicated in its truth. In other words, the movement from exegesis of Scripture can indeed yield true theological claims — a conceptual description of the resurrection at Christ’s second coming, say. Yet I believe that Christians who read that abstract, conceptual theological description will be moved to faith and worship by it only if they can picture themselves, their mothers, their children, their friends having a share in that bodily resurrection. Likewise for the precious, true, revealed abstract concepts like justification and sanctification. The abstractions and the living things are not in competition: they are complementary for us who are living things with complementary human capacities, reason and imagination.
Literature, whether Jesus’s parables, Nathan the prophet’s tale, or a modern fantasy novel like Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, presents us with an occasion for this sort of discovery of truth and meaning. Our efforts at reading (not reading into) the “theology” embedded in the author’s fictional world demand that we interpret a life lived, asking, for example, “What is the case in Frodo Baggins’s or Hannah Coulter’s or Ivan Ilych’s life? What is good there? How do we see God’s hand in how they make their ways through the days they are given?” This exercise then gives us as readers more skills in asking the same questions of our own lives: we learn to see how God is actually working in our lives, what are the real goods he has placed around us, what is really the case about our world — all tasks that good theology aids. Our personal lives do not have a prose explanation given with them, there legible on the surface of our daily events. Maturity and wisdom include growing in one’s ability to interpret life well, and the reading of literature can develop that maturity.
Theology in Middle-earth
I offer the following examples from Middle-earth with this qualification or caution: in reading Tolkien’s works this way, we must respect his own basic convictions about them. These were not allegorical or didactic stories, written expressly to “teach a lesson” or direct one’s attention to the primary thing that is outside the story itself.9 These works are “fairy-stories” in Tolkien’s robust sense of the term, and so meant not to teach a heavy-handed moral lesson, but to delight, draw in, and offer a way of “escape.”10
“Tolkien’s stories have a sympathetic resonance with, or have a family resemblance to, the gospel story.”
Nevertheless, they do indeed teach; they are indeed “about something” that good readers can come to see.11 Tolkien’s tales are the best of what he called “sub-creation,” a work of human hands that imitates our Lord as best as one can, imaging God in the delightful creation of a coherent, persuasive, compelling “other” world. In multiple letters, Tolkien makes clear that The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are religious works despite religion’s near-total exclusion from them.12 He knew that we are to see the world in which we live through the lens of the grace of God in Christ, learning about God its Maker and Redeemer through it. His stories have a sympathetic resonance with, or have a family resemblance to, the gospel story. When we read them, our imagination works to connect the two worlds, but this is exactly the activity by which we come to find meaning in things (more generally?). That sort of discovery, with that work entailed, is sweeter and deeper than many other types of learning. By reading his stories in a theology course, we aim to experience just this.
God & Creatures
In The Silmarillion’s first two chapters, we are presented with a story about the creation of Middle-earth. While our minds are usually drawn first to the “music of the Ainur,” it is important to attend to their Maker. Here, we see that the Ainur — angelic beings — “were the offspring of his thought” and are “kindled . . . with the flame Imperishable.”13 These beings come to realize that they are singing a world into form. Though they do this, they themselves have their being from the thought of “Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar.”14 Following some of the most exquisite and even moving writing from the twentieth century, in which the Ainur’s song is lovingly described — a music in which they begin actually to see a vision of a world and its history — Ilúvatar fulfills the Ainur’s desires and speaks the cosmos into existence: “Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be!”15 Eä is the Quenya word (one of the languages of the Elves in Tolkien’s mythology) for both “the entire universe that is” and the verb “to be.” With this word, the world comes to exist.
The beauty of this brief narrative arrests the reader, drawing one’s attention to this New World as if it’s the most intricate miniature one could hope to find. Notice what has been built into this world, though: there is a Cause and Source for everything that is, except for one. Eru/Ilúvatar is simply there, without beginning or cause; everything else that exists (the powerful Ainu Melkor included) has been made, and made by him. They are creatures. His making of things — the Ainur or the world — seems effortless and immediate, having no raw material at hand for things to be. This is akin to what Christian theology has long confessed about God: that he is simple, eternal, causeless, whose life is well described as a se, meaning that it is “of or from himself.” Christian theology has also confessed that God would be himself even if he had not made the creation. Similarly, these characteristics, when set beside those of created beings, show us that one of the most fundamental realities of our existence is the Creator-creature distinction: God is qualitatively different from everything else.16 These unique characteristics of divinity play a role in much of the rest of this first part of The Silmarillion.
Nature of Evil
Immediately, Tolkien’s myth of creation turns to the rebellion of some of the creatures, portrayed luminously as one particular angelic being sings his own melody that breaks the harmony of the whole music of creation:
But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. . . . Some of these [selfish] thoughts he now wove into his music, and straightway discord arose about him, and many that sang nigh him grew despondent.17
Tolkien’s language soars here, giving us readers a vivid picture of a crashing storm of sound, a braying cacophony that tries “in an endless wrath”18 to overpower the most beautiful polyphonic motet one could imagine. In about three pages, Tolkien portrays the nature of evil with more subtlety and insight than many theological writers have in hundreds.
What is evil? Evil is a departure from or perversion of the good of being as God has created it to be, in all its ordered justice. It is here not the freedom of agency and creativity per se that is evil, but using that capacity to act in a way that is “not in accord with the theme.”19 One expansive definition of sin as seen in Scripture is that of “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).20 Melkor’s music is evil because it is contrary to or a perversion of the “law” of the music of the creation from Ilúvatar. It misses the mark of what the music is supposed to be.
Further, evil can include isolation, impatience, and sloth:
Melkor had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Being alone, he had begun to conceive thoughts of his own unlike those of his brethren.21
Notice two parts to Melkor’s evil: he isolated himself and he was impatient. He did not think the other creatures were essential to his life, nor that he had to trust the wise timing of God. Evil always isolates: Gollum lives alone for five hundred years; Sauron brooks no rivals; Frodo is tempted toward leaving Sam behind. The converse is important: for a creature to act in harmony with the world God has created, the creature must be and act in relation to other creatures as well. The Ten Commandments contain two tables: the vertical by which we are to obey the law related to God; the horizontal by which we are to obey the law related to others. Such is the biblical nature of justice.
Further, Melkor wanted no span of time and output of effort to exist between his thoughts and their accomplishment: he wanted instantaneous and effortless results. The One Ring of the later tales is one more instance of this creaturely lust to have no gap, no loss, between a thought and its perfect effect in the real world. But such power is only God’s; only God is thus sovereign, because only God is thus perfect, simple Being. For Tolkien, magic and modern machinery are man’s attempt to wield this sort of power in an un-creaturely way in order to satisfy man’s sinful hastiness. By portraying a wicked power casting about for God’s own secret power, or the forging of a Ring that seeks to give Godlike power (invisibility, domination of the wills of others by one’s mere thoughts), these vivid tales help our imaginations to see not only biblical truth embodied in stunningly fresh modes, but also the meaning of our own desires, actions, and techniques.
Providence & Grace
Finally, this story teaches us about God’s providence and eternal plan for salvation. See how Ilúvatar responds to this cacophonous discord:
Ilúvatar arose, . . . and a third theme grew amid the confusion and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched and it took to itself power and profundity. . . . [It was) deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. . . . Melkor’s music tried to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken in by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.22
The history of the world that God sovereignly ordained “takes in” the imaginations of evil and weaves them into its own music. The plan for history is not defeated by evil’s attempts to thwart it, but evil actually defeats itself. Note how Ilúvatar’s response at this point is a music that is as delicate as the skin of a newborn child, but one that grows and wins the victory not by sheer strength but through “immeasurable sorrow.” Few descriptions of the eternal plan for the gospel of Jesus Christ do more to move our hearts.
Finally, Ilúvatar explains the interplay like this:
Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. . . . And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.23
What an insightful and powerful description of divine providence. Surely, the devil fooled himself into thinking that he could cause things that God does not foresee and intend, as if he were omniscient. Tolkien here masterfully contrasts the infinite wisdom, goodness, and power of God with the quite limited knowledge, desires, and power of even the mightiest of creatures.
Making sense of this scene in Tolkien’s masterpiece demands that readers think theologically, of course. But having briefly visited the beginnings of Arda or the road from Hobbiton to Mount Doom, the big payoff is in students’ ability to imagine God’s sovereignty, omniscience, providence, or even the nature of evil, however variably they might be manifested, in their own world. For this world itself was indeed spoken into existence to the delight of its Maker, and itself is the place where that Maker trod in human feet.
By John Piper — 1 week ago
After you write a book, and the book gets published, what follows is a season of travel. You get asked to speak at churches and conferences on the topic of your new book. That’s generally how it works. I wrote a little book on life inside our media culture. It’s called Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age. And once that book was out, I got asked to speak on the topic, to explain what it means to live out the Christian life inside this age of viral video, addictive gaming, blockbuster movies, and endless feeds of new social media.
And as I labored to summarize my main points into one message, I returned over and over again to what has now become for me the most important verse in the whole Bible on why we have attention. Why did God make us to focus on things? Why do we have an appetite for media? Why are we the only creatures who can be glued to a screen all day long?
The answer is in Hebrews 2:1, a verse that follows right after Hebrews 1, an entire chapter full of the supremacy of Christ. Following that chapter on Christ’s supremacy comes the first verse of chapter 2, which says, “Therefore” — in light of all that Christ is for us in chapter 1 — “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” It’s an incredibly relevant and important text for us inside the “attention economy,” as it’s now called.
Well, my friend Dan here at Desiring God was listening through the John Piper sermon archive, and he recently sent me Pastor John’s sermon on Hebrews 2:1 — a sermon I had not heard until recently. And lo and behold, in his sermon, he connects Hebrews 2:1 to our media diets. Here’s Pastor John.
It’s a remarkable thing to me that in chapter 1 of Hebrews, there’s no command to us; we are not told to do anything in chapter 1. Chapter 1 is all celebration, all declaration, to this effect: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1–2).
And then the rest of the chapter describes the Son. He’s the heir of all things (verse 2). He upholds the universe with the word of his power (verse 3). He created all things (verse 2). He’s the radiance of God’s glory (verse 3). He’s the exact representation of the Father’s nature (verse 3). He made purification for sin (verse 3). He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty (verse 3). He is over all angels, dispatching them to do his bidding among the saints (verses 4, 7, 14). He is worshiped by everything in the universe except his Father (verse 6). He is God (verses 8–12).
That’s chapter 1. No commandments, no duties — just truth. Just glorious, Christ-exalting revelation of God’s final, decisive word, Jesus Christ.
You remember a couple of weeks ago when I called it the final, decisive word — because it says, “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2) — and that the reason it’s the last days is because there’s no third chapter of revelation. You’ve got an Old Testament period of revelation, then you’ve got Christ in the last days, and then eternity and glory. There’s no third era by which God does a new thing besides Jesus in speaking to the world. It does not mean that, subsequent to Jesus, God can’t communicate with us. It means that all of his communication flows from Jesus, points to Jesus, is measured and proved by Jesus, orients around Jesus. Jesus is God’s decisive word to the world. It’s the last word that he has to say.
“All of God’s communication flows from Jesus, points to Jesus, is measured and proved by Jesus, orients around Jesus.”
Do you see the logical connecting link between chapter 1, the revelation of God’s decisive final word in Jesus, and the first commandment of the book, “We must pay much closer attention to [or take heed to, or attend to] what we have heard” (Hebrews 2:1)? And the logical link is “therefore.” All of chapter 1 is designed to buttress the first commandment of chapter 2 — namely, “listen.” Everything he said about Jesus in chapter 1 was meant to say, “Wake up! Listen. Don’t drift — listen. Take heed. Look. Zero in.” That’s why that little connecting phrase is there. “Therefore” — that is, because of all that you’ve seen in chapter 1 — “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard” (Hebrews 2:1).
So if you boil down all of chapter 1 and the first verse of chapter 2 into one simple sentence, it goes like this: “Since God has spoken in these last days by a Son, therefore we must give close heed to what we’ve heard.” The dignity, the majesty, the glory of the word spoken — namely, Jesus — increases the sense of seriousness of the command. Listen to him. Listen to what he has said.
What Are You Listening To?
Now, it may seem strange to you — I don’t know where you are in your listening to Jesus — that so much weight would be put on the simple command, “Give heed to Jesus. Listen to Jesus. Pay close attention to what you’ve heard in this final, decisive word that God spoke in Jesus.” But it isn’t surprising to me because I know my bent not to listen.
Let me ask you this: What are you listening to? Everybody’s listening. Even deaf people listen to something. Everybody’s listening. If you want to listen to a music group, you make provisions: you have a tape deck in the car, and you have a tape. If you want to listen to the news, you make provisions: you have a radio in the kitchen, or you make sure the TV is on at the right time in the evening. You make provisions, you take steps so you can listen to what you want to listen to. If you want to listen to the latest tale told by John Grisham — I think of this because I walked into the Gatwick Airport in London, and in the London Airport bookstore, there were walls of John Grisham novels with a big sign that says, “The most popular author in the world.” So I saw every other person had Rainmaker on the plane (it looked like).
“Listen. Please listen to Jesus. Don’t drift away.”
If you want to listen, you buy, you move, you get, you position yourself, you take steps, you make provisions so that you can listen — if you want to listen. Everybody’s listening to something. And I’m asking you, What are you listening to? If you want to listen to a missionary who’s in a hard place like Liberia or Sierra Leone or Zaire or Congo, you buy a computer and get on email and you download a couple times a day to make sure you don’t miss more than a couple hours’ worth. You take steps. If you want to listen, you take steps and you listen. Everybody’s listening. And I’m asking, What are you listening to? What are you listening to?
Light and Easy Command
The first commandment in the book of Hebrews is “Listen.” Listen. Please listen to Jesus. Don’t drift away. Don’t turn the radio up so loud. Don’t turn the TV on so long. Don’t read the novel so consistently that you don’t tune in over and over and over to see and consider and hear Jesus. That’s what he’s pleading, and that’s what I’m pleading this morning. The whole first chapter is written without any command in order to make the command light and easy. This is not hard, folks. Listening is easy. That’s why we do it all day long. It’s easy. Having the radio off in the car is harder than having it on. Test yourself. Listening is easy.
God is not a meanie. God spent fourteen verses describing the spectacular superiority of his final word, Jesus Christ, over all angels and all television and all radio and all novels and all business and all commerce and all leisure and all education and everything in the universe so that when we get to this easy command, it would feel easy. Only one thing makes it hard: if you don’t want to listen.