It’s all Greek to me!

I took Greek 101 during my junior year of college at NDSU, the bastion of theological education. 🙂 NDSU, known mostly for its Ag-related and engineering curriculum, also had a religion department. It was actually a pretty decent religion department. One of the best courses I ever took was The Teachings of Jesus at NDSU.

Back to Greek 101. I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to Greek – I still have the course book (see below). I learned that a plethora of our English words have Greek origins. (Example: The Greek word for horse is hippo; for river – potamos; combined – hippopotamus). My NDSU introduction to Greek whet my appetite for further discovery – discovery that has subsequently impacted my theology and faith.

One of the things I learned in Greek 101 is that the ancient Greek of the New Testament was an exacting language. A Greek word had one meaning and one meaning only. There were few, if any, exceptions to the rules. On the other hand, English is one of the weaker languages, containing words with multiple meanings and many exceptions to the rules. So, how does one translate an exacting language into a weak language? It’s difficult at best. That’s why I often access biblical passages online, looking at multiple translations simultaneously (example). It’s also why I like using the Amplified Bible (AMP). As we’ve discussed previously, it expands the English to better align with the richness and exactness of the original Greek. The Wuest New Testament does a similar treatment.

Greek 101, as well as the Amplified Bible, compelled me to learn some key biblical Greek words that have shaped my theology and faith. One of the first words I discovered is pisteuō (pist-yoo’-o), most often translated throughout the New Testament as believe. An example is the famous John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life). The Greek word translated as believe is pisteuō. Belief implies a cognitive acceptance of something as true. In this case, its an acceptance of Jesus as God’s son, leading to eternal life.

Pisteuō is a stronger and richer word than believe. Pisteuō suggests a trust in, reliance on, and an adherence to Jesus – a much more powerful concept. When I help young people understand the significance of pisteuō versus believe, I ask them what percentage of students at their school might say they believe in God. They typically agree on a high percentage – say 60 to 70%. After explaining that pisteuō means “trusting in, relying on, and adhering to” God, they lower their estimation significantly, usually under 25%.

When we rely simply on the English version of believe, our faith can become transactional. Pisteuō is not a transactional term. It smacks of following (i.e., adhere to). Jesus didn’t invite people into a transaction. He invited people to follow him. Transactions tend to be clean and clear-cut. Following is messy (ask the original disciples!). Transactions are not relational. Following is highly relational. In my observation, western Christianity tends to lean transactional. I suspect it’s not what God intended.

Next time you read scripture, I encourage you to substitute “trust in, rely on, adhere to” each time you come across the word believe. It will bring your scripture reading to life. And likely your faith!

The Opposite of Eisegesis…

Old habits are hard to break. After living in Red Wing, MN, for seven years we moved to Memphis, TN, at my company’s urging (meaning, my job moved to the corporate headquarters in Memphis). After moving, I still needed to return to Red Wing periodically for factory visits. It was a bit odd staying at the local Best Western located a mile from our old home.

During one visit, after a long day at the factory, I headed to the hotel in my rental car. I drove right past the Best Western to our old house, unaware of the mistake until I drove down the street and saw unfamiliar cars in the driveway. Old habits are hard to break.

Last week I introduced the term eisegesis (ˌī-sə-ˈjē-səs), which is the reading of a text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” meaning we speak into the text our preconceptions. The opposite? Exegesis (ek-sə-ˈjē-səs). The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of,” meaning the reader allows the intent the text to “come out,” informing his or her beliefs.

I suspect we have been in the habit of reading scripture though the lens of our preconceptions for so long that we drive right by exegesis and end up at eisegesis. The Good Samaritan parable might be adequate proof of that reality. We have been flying upside down a long time as Dallas Willard would remind us. So, how do we get right-side up? First, we recognize we are at the wrong house, change our mind, and head the other direction (this is the definition of repent). Then we rethink how we approach Scripture. Here are a few simple questions to ask as we invite Scripture to speak into our lives:

  • What stands out to me? How might God be trying to grab my attention?
  • What is being said in this passage?*
  • What is NOT being said? (This is a biggie)*
  • What does this passage tell me about who God is?
  • What does this passage tell me about who I am?
  • So what? What am I to do with these thoughts? How might God be asking me to change my mind?

There are plenty of other questions we could address, but this is a good start. It takes practice. Anyone that has played a sport knows of what I speak. Changing a swing, serve, stroke, or stride takes time, effort, and thought until it becomes second nature. Same with the shift from eisegetical to exegetical Scripture reading. But when it does become second nature, Scripture comes to life, transforming our lives! (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Romans 12:2)

* Case is point: Several years ago I was meeting weekly with a group of college-age young people. We were working our way through the Gospel of John. When we arrived at the well-known John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life), I asked them to close their Bibles (or Bible Apps) and paraphrase the verse. They collectively thought the verse was about them going to heaven. None of them saw the word world. None! (And they were also a bit surprised to discover that heaven is not the same thing as eternal life, but we’ll save that topic for another time.)