Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the Title of This Blog

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 edition).
The phrase "when faith and culture collide" might seem a bit odd. Isn't faith part of culture? Webster defines culture this way:
"the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time."

According to Webster (which is reflecting common usage), the parameters of culture encompass "religious" groups as well as social ones.
Culture often shapes faith, but that doesn't mean it should. We have influences all around us, and it's always tempting for us to let the world dictate our theology to us. We might find the Bible to be a bit uncomfortable in some of what it says to us, so we sometimes treat it like Play-Doh and mold it to conform to what the world expects of us.
If you've been following this blog, you may have wondered what the Hebrew in the title (וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה) is all about. It's from Habakkuk 2:4, a verse quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11.
After Habakkuk complains to God about His people's wickedness and God's subsequent decision to raise up a wicked people to punish them, God gives him this answer (the English translation of וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה is set in bold):
"Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4).
Paul doesn't translate the 3ms pronominal suffix ḥolem vav (the וֹ ["his"] in בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ ["by his faith"]). If he had, you would have expected to read the Greek translation as follows: Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως αὐτοῦ ζήσεται ("but the righteous one by his faith will live").
Intriguingly, Paul leaves out the αὐτοῦ ("his"), which would otherwise translate the וֹ at the end of בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ. Instead, Paul simply renders the verse this way: Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται ("but the righteous one by faith will live"—no "his").
Also, get this: Paul would often use the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament done by Jews before the time of Jesus) to quote from the Old Testament, as would most Jews of Paul's day. After all, most people (Jew or Gentile) in the time of Paul spoke Greek. Think of the Septuagint as the "NIV" of its time. The New Testament in general often uses the Septuagint.
But in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, Paul doesn't use the Septuagint. The Septuagint (LXX for short) curiously offers a different rendering even from our oldest available Hebrew manuscripts: Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ
πίστεως μου ζήσεται ("but the righteous by my faith will live").

I can't prove this, but I think Paul—having been trained as a Pharisee—knew the original Hebrew of this passage, and he was offering his own translation. Of course, it's possible that the Septuagint's translation actually reflects older Hebrew manuscripts now lost to us. But we have no way of knowing this unless older manuscripts end up popping up. So my best guess is that Paul is just rejecting the LXX's μου ("my") and deciding to leave out αὐτοῦ ("his") in his own translation.
But to make matters worse, the mysterious author of Hebrews quotes from this passage as well and places the μου after δίκαιος (thus making it read "my righteous one will live by faith"). (See Hebrews 10:38.)
So which one's right? Maybe it's not so much a matter of which one (the author of Hebrews or Paul) is right, but what did each intend to say by referring to this Scripture? Maybe another post can tackle the Hebrews 10:38 usage of Habakkuk 2:4. But for now, let's focus on what Paul meant by his translation:
Habakkuk complains to God about the problem of human evil, and God gives a powerful response: "The righteous shall live by his faith." In Romans, Paul is using this Scripture with reference to the "good news" of Jesus the Messiah.
Perhaps Paul thought that if he put an αὐτοῦ ("his") in the text, that would distract the recipients of his letter from the intended message of Habakkuk 2:4. That is, just as maybe the LXX was giving an interpretive rendering ("by my faith" meaning "by God's faith/faithfulness a righteous one will live"), Paul was also giving an interpretive rendering ( "by faith a righteous one will live"). "So Habakkuk meant," Paul says, "that a person is justified by faith…period—I don't even need to say 'his faith' because I just want you to know that it is by faith that the justified one lives."
In Galatians 3:11, Paul uses this verse to say that no one is justified by the works of the Law. It is instead "by faith." It may not have hurt for Paul to include a "his" (and if it weren't for the fact that his culture was patriarchal, why not a "her"?) but again his point was to focus on one word…faith. We aren't justified before God by our own keeping of the works of the Law. That does nothing for us. It is by faith.
None of this is our own doing. It is all God's doing. We have faith (or believe) in the one whom He has sent, and it is only by His grace that we can be saved from the wrath our sin makes us deserve. That's the gospel.
So what does all this have to do with the phrase "when faith and culture collide"? When we have faith in/believe in Jesus, that inevitably causes culture collisions. People develop customary ways of doing things—a culture. And sometimes that culture rubs up against our faith in a hostile way. (Example: "What? Saved by grace? That's not how we do things in America! We earn good things here!") But other times when culture collides with our faith, it is more receptive to what it finds.
Webster's definition of culture (by including "religion" in the umbrella of any given "culture") reflects the popular notion that Christianity is simply part of Western culture. And in the Webster's dictionary sense, it is. But the deep truths of Christianity cannot be confined to Western culture. In fact, they often bump against much of what makes us "Western." After all, the faith we get from the New Testament's proclamation originated from a non-Western source. But that doesn't mean that Christianity is confined to non-Western cultures either. If Christianity is true, it bumps against aspects of all cultures, while finding friendly reception in other aspects of every culture.
That's why, on Mars Hill, some sneered at Paul when he told them about Jesus and the resurrection, but others wanted to know more.
Let's just not make the mistake of editing our faith to conform to the culture. Instead, our faith is to transform the culture.

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