Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Martin Luther's Fingerprints on Your Bible--or--An Exegetical Look at John 1:17

You've heard the analogies of how ingredients for your favorite dish, standing by themselves make absolutely nothing beautiful; but put them together and voila, a nectareous fare presents itself to you, standing on display, showing its accouterments in robust form via aromatic spices, a perfect, golden brown crust, and all the goods inside that invite deep satisfaction to the palate, the belly, and the soul.

This right combination of the right ingredients made in the right conditions is as true for food as it is for Christian theology. Different ingredients like grace, law, sin, redemption, resurrection, and many more words found in the Scriptures all fit together for a full course meal. The Bible is written, in large part, as a story. It is a story of God's creation of the world, and his activity in saving it through various peoples in various places. The story has many ingredients to it, and offers a cornucopia upon which to wine and dine while seated at this grand table. God's story is expressed in God's faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham to bless the world through Abraham's family (Genesis 15). After Abraham, we have Moses, who gives the law to Israel. After Israel's long story of conquest, settlement, exile and return, we have Jesus. There are two ingredients, grace and law, which are part of the grand whole. John summarizes the story of God's saving activity in John 1:17 when he says, "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (New King James Version).

Notice how this verse seems to draw a deep contrast in God's story of saving the world. It seems like "law" and "grace and truth" are polar opposites. For Martin Luther--they were. "For Martin Luther, Moses was regularly cast as the bad guy, the one who gave the wicked law that did nothing but condemn" (N.T. Wright, Justification 71-72). For John Calvin, however, the law was seen as something that was given to a people who were already redeemed. Yes, the law of Moses convicted of sin, but it also showed an already redeemed people how to live.

Regarding John 1:17, is this apparent Lutheran contrast valid? Are law and grace opposed to each other, like oil and water? An exegesis of John 1:17 won't solve this problem, or even resolve it. So why bother? Well, that's because the contrastive idea in this verse found in so many translations of the Bible seems to be translated that way because of preconceived Lutheran ideas about law and grace. Remember that Luther thought the law was only fit to condemn people, while Calvin taught that the law was a good guide for God's people in daily living. And the issue goes deeper than "how to live the spiritual life." The issue reaches into the depths of the ongoing discussion of what Paul the apostle was talking about when he said we are justified (declared to be in the right) by faith and not by "works of the law" (Romans 3:28). Were the Jews of Jesus' day hell-bent on "works righteousness"? Were they boastful about how they kept the 10 Commandments, while having not a smidgen of actual faith or dependence on God to grant the forgiveness of sins apart from these "works"? In other words, did they think--as many people conceive today--that "as long as we (Jews) 'keep the law' God will welcome us to the pearly gates, regardless of some alleged problem of sin and its 'just and deserved punishment' (to borrow from Lutheran liturgy)"?

This is a popular notion, and has been for centuries--that Judaism was a "religion of works." While not the impetus of our discussion here, it goes to show that this preconceived notion of Judaism in Jesus' day (Second Temple Judaism) from a Lutheran perspective affects the way scholars translate the Greek text into our many English Bibles of today. I'm going to argue here that John 1:17 does not in fact, show a "polar opposite" contrast between the Law of Moses on the one hand, and the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, on the other. Rather, the text shows a flow between the two. In other words, a translation of this text from the original Greek should reveal God's one, unified story to save the world, and he does this through Abraham, Moses, the law and Israel, and through Jesus--and it's one story, not two (or more). Let's look at some of more popular translations..

King James version: For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

New King James version: For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

New International Version: For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

English Standard Version: For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

New American Standard Bible: For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.

Holman Christian Standard Bible: For although the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

The Message:
We got the basics from Moses,
and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding—
all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.

The Interlinear NASB-NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English:
"Because the law through Moses was given, the grace and the truth through Jesus Christ became."

And lastly, the Greek text: οτι ο νομος δια μωυσεως εδοθη η χαρις και η αληθεια δια ιησου χριστου εγενετο.

Notice that in every translation (except The Message and the Interlinear), the verse starts with "For," and in KJV and NKJV, the second clause begins with the contrastive conjunction "but." The word "but" is used in contrast, as in "I'd love to go to the movies--but--I have neither the money nor the time. That is to say, there is a positive and also a negative. In the other translations (NIV, ESV, NASB, HCB), scholars have inserted a semicolon to introduce a second clause in the thought that John the Apostle portrays. Even with the semicolon, there is a subtle (if not deep) contrast between law and grace that is put forth. For a clause after a semicolon is an independent clause, and stands by itself: it can therefore be understood on its own. When you read "For the law was given through Moses," it is easy to expect a contrast in the proceeding clause--especially if it is marked as "independent" by a semicolon.

Now of course, there were no semicolons in Greek, or periods, or quotation marks or anything else other than mere letters. (Many of the markings we have in our Greek Testaments were added later for clarification). So, why add them? Especially when the original text is just as the Interlinear has it: "Because the law was given through Moses, the grace and the truth through Jesus Christ became." You can see the correlation here--there is a flow from one part of God's story to the next. There is also a causal connection as well, that the law was given as a tutor to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24 [KJV, the law is a schoolmaster; NIV, it's put in charge, ESV, it's a guardian]). In John 1:17, there isn't a strange dichotomy or contrast in the verse that alludes to any preconceived notions of Lutheran abhorrence for the law of Moses.

The word translated as "For" by so many versions of our English Bibles is the word
hoti, and it means, "since" "that" and "because." Sure, in some rare instances it can mean "for" among other things. But if John the Apostle wanted to draw a contrast between the law of Moses and the grace and truth that came by Jesus Christ, why didn't he simply use the Greek word for "for" which is gar? On the other hand, consider the Interlinear translation: "Because the law was given through Moses..."

It seems awkward, not because it actually is, but only because English readers of the Bible are so used to the standard reading, given by the King James translators almost 500 years ago. Yes, 500 years ago (1611). More importantly however is the word "but" inserted into our English readings by the King James and New King James. Funny thing about the word "but," in the KJV and NKJV: it's not in the Greek text. "But" was thrown in. Why? My guess is that preconceived Lutheran notions of the bad Moses giving the "wicked law" to Israel were at the helm in this translation. The shackles were not entirely thrown off in the other translations we've seen, however. There should not be a contrastive conjunction "but" in the text, but rather a congruence between the two clauses, and thus a congruence between the law of Moses and the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. For Calvin, there was one, single plan of God and one people of God. For subsequent theologians who carried the Lutheran idea to an extreme, there was God's Plan A, where he gives his law to people to see if they can obey it, and Plan B where there's justification by faith (Wright 73).

The implications for this understanding are many, from our conception of the purpose of the law of Moses in our lives, and in the lives of those being introduced to the Christian message, to our understanding of justification (justified by faith and not by "works of the law"), to understanding "self-righteous Pharisaism" (did they really have a "law-based" religion as opposed to Paul's message of "grace"?) and even "how it's all gonna end (eschatology)." With Calvin, it is best to view the Scriptures as a unified whole, with one people under one plan of salvation, with one, unified story beginning with God's covenant with Abraham, moving through his people Israel, and culminating in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. The rendering of "Because the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" enables us to help erase this false dichotomy between law and grace.


Jonathan Erdman said...

I have a few thoughts.

First, I can't see any really strong Pauline support for Calvin's position. I just don't see Paul reserving a place for law in the life of the believer. In both Romans and Galatians, Paul directly states that we are no longer "under law" (hupo nomos). Galatians 5, in my humble opinion, goes to the heart of the issue: live in freedom walking with the s/Spirit. The "spirit walk" replaces the nomos. Paul is clear that the law was not evil but rather good.

So, my question to Calvin would be primarily textual: what evidence from Paul is there to suggest that Paul's vision for the Christian life was to use the law as a guide? I've done some study on this, and honestly Christ, I just don't see the textual evidence. That is, I don't see Paul ever really suggesting that believers use the law as a behavioral guide. I'm certainly still open on this one, though.

Next point: the Christ era seems to be a different era. At least, that's what I get from Paul, that there really is a break from the life under law and the life under the spirit. Maybe Luther overstated the break. That's possible. I'm no Lutheran, but I think Luther and the disspensationalists are closer to getting it than Calvin....though I don't know if I 100% agree with either....I see Paul's theology as Jewish, based on Jusaism and the Tanach. But the Christ event meant a new era of Spirit living. So, Paul seems to kind of be the first one to really articulate how to bridge life under law to life as lived by the spirit.

Jonathan Erdman said...

To sum up....even though I don't think that there was a Plan A (law) and Plan B (grace), I do think that Pauline theology demonstrates a radical shift. It isn't a grace-is-better type of posture, but it is certainly a new era.

chris van allsburg said...


Thanks for commenting on vanallsblog; you are one of the very few!

You are correct that we are indeed in a new era, for the Mosaic system has passed away (Hebrews says it "is passing" away, and I believe this passing was brought to fruition in A.D. 70).

I know this discussion involves much more than the one verse we looked at, which is why I said an exegesis on John 1:17 doesn't prove much in this debate. Rather, it very clearly reveals (in my opinion) the Lutheran idea of the law being forced upon the text, even in our translation of Scripture. Do you think the Interlinear translation is better? "Because" instead of "for" with the "hoti" clause? I like the congruence of the Message. And the NASB captures the flow of the law of Moses into the transition of Christ quite well: grace and truth were "realized" through Jesus.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, I agree with your comments on translating the Johannine passage. Yes, yes. Definitely a Luther bias!

I will keep that in mind in the future as I read the verse.

Is there a "Boycott the NIV" facebook group?

chris van allsburg said...


chris van allsburg said...

It's funny you should say that about the NIV, cuz N.T. Wright writes that he wholeheartedly supported the NIV when it came out (1980 I think I read, but seem to remember it being earlier that). But after preaching through some books of the Bible, he saw some glaring mistakes and no longer endorses it. Funny.

chris van allsburg said...

And yes, also I think you are correct in noting that there is a real contrast between the old era and the new era and Paul seems especially fervent in describing the difference as denoting a contrast between law and grace and flesh and spirit. A lot of it depends on how we understand such phrases as "works of the law" (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16).

Jonathan Erdman said...

How do you understand "works of the law"?

chris van allsburg said...

No, how do YOU understand it? Just kidding. :)

That's the rub, isn't it? And this is why the word "heretic" has been thrown around so fashionably at scholars like N.T. Wright and my good friend Norman Shepherd (who was ousted from Westminster in Philly in 1980-1981).

My understanding of "works of the law" is evolving, but I'd say my understanding of it is much less than the traditional understanding of "outward, heartless obedience" to the 10 Commandments (which I find rather oxymoronic if not impossible--how can one have a heartless, outward obedience to the law?), but more so toward the idea that "works of the law" means something to the tune of "Nationalist, Jewish pride in being a member of God's household based upon ethnicity." Shepherd thinks this is true, but extends "works of the law" to mean "life under the whole, Mosaic system." So, my understanding of the phrase is shifting between these two ideas.

How do you understand it?