Logos Live: Vern Poythress

What you’ll see in this Logos Live episode

Dr. Mark Ward interviews Bible scholar, professor, and author Rev. Dr. Vern Poythress about Trinitarian theology and more. Vern Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for forty-four years.

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Books by Vern Poythress

The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God

The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God

Regular price: $44.99

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Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3

Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3

Regular price: $23.99

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Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing

Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing

Regular price: $20.99

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Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events

Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events

Regular price: $18.99

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The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation

The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation

Regular price: $14.99

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Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity

Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity

Regular price: $17.99

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Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions

Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions

Regular price: $17.99

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Interview transcript

This transcript was lightly edited for readability.

Mark Ward (00:00:22):
Welcome to Logos Live. I’ve got a respected friend of mine joining us today, Dr. Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary. I’ve known Dr. Poythress for about a decade because I’m actually his webmaster at frame-poythress.org, a site that collects material that he’s written and material also from John Frame. I don’t know anyone with the stature of Vern Poythress, who has done what he has done. That is he’s worked to make nearly all his articles and books freely available on his website. I myself have put them up. We’re talking about copyrighted books from major publishers. He builds that into his contract. Dr. Poythress is actually paying for hosting space to serve you with free material. Some of it’s been translated too into Chinese and German and Russian and other languages. And you can, of course, still buy Poythress books in Logos. And then you’ll benefit, as I love to do from all the reading and searching tools that we provide. And I personally have at times with my own money bought in Logos, books that I already owned in paper or pdf, because I want those tools really is a delight to have him. I’m gonna talk today with Dr. Poythress about matters surrounding language and Scripture matters dear to my heart. He’s written several books and many articles related to this topic. Again, I’ve put them up on his website. I think this is gonna be really enjoyable for us today. Dr. Poythress, thank you so much for joining me for Logos Live.

Vern Poythress (00:01:47):
Oh, well, I appreciate you asking me. I’m looking forward to our time together.

Mark Ward (00:01:53):
Likewise, Dr. Poythress you wrote a book some years ago called Symphonic Theology that we’ve got in Logos and one chapter in it actually called Words and Precision I assign to my students in a course that I teach at a small online seminary every semester I get papers back from these students, about a dozen or so, and they respond to the chapter and they find it stretching and helpful. I want to ask you a question or two about that little chapter in your free book, which you can also get in Logos. You wrote in that book that some people have imagined that words in the Bible all have a special technical precision and give us automatically fixed rigid categories. These fixed categories are then thought to exclude any kind of flexibility in the use of perspectives. In fact, I believe that the opposite is the case. A close look at the way in which words function in ordinary language and in biblical languages, compliments and reinforces what we have observed in your book regarding the use of perspectives. Nonetheless, this is what I hear all the time. Dr. Poythress: isn’t Greek, you know, New Testament Greek, isn’t it the most precise human language ever invented? I mean, isn’t that why God chose it as a vehicle for the New Testament? How would you respond to that?

Vern Poythress (00:03:05):
Well, I don’t know what sort of criteria people are using when they say something is a precise language. Any human language of the world is capable of expressing very precise meanings if you take the time to do it. So it’s a little puzzling, you know, what exactly are they looking at? Are they looking at the vocabulary? Modern English has a vocabulary of something like a million words, many of which are technical words. So let’s say names of chemical compounds, for instance. Well, that, that, that exceeds anything in ancient languages. But I suspect that isn’t what the person is thinking about when they’re thinking about precision or thinking about, grammatical precision. Well, some languages offer more resources in terms of building sentences of huge length and complexity. But if you string small sentences together, you can produce the same effects. So it’s puzzling to know, you know, exactly what the person is after. And these kinds of claims make me think maybe we need more precision about the claim. Right. And I think we must be careful in the age of the internet, because things can be passed on without asking, do I really know this to be true?

Mark Ward (00:04:40):
Right, right. That’s why I brought up Symphonic Theology and that essay on Words and Precision, you bring up concepts like extension and intention, you know, technical linguistic terminology that you then explain. And I think a way that makes it very accessible to the beginner in a way that has helped my students and you know, years ago, helped me as a student to recognize both the flexibility that New Testament and, and, you know, Hebrew Bible, those two languages have Greek and Hebrew, but also, to find maybe I would say the right level of precision to understand from a given text. You’ve been known for your interest in linguistics, and I just thought you might have some wisdom for us there. How long ago did you write that book? It’s been some time, hasn’t it?

Vern Poythress (00:05:32):
Well, it was published in 1987, so yeah, it’s been a while, but, but I think it’s aged Okay. I still agree with what I wrote—

Mark Ward (00:05:41):
Yeah.

Vern Poythress (00:05:43):
Just as an illustration, right? We’ve got the word dog, which actually can include wild dogs, but mostly in most contexts we’re thinking about domestic dogs. But the reason why you know that is because of context, not because it’s built into the word. And then you have a word like collie or, German shepherd or poodle, or, you know, right. Those are more specialized in terms of intention because it’s particular. But many of the communications in the Bible are designed by God and of course, subordinately by the human author to reach a wide audience and to speak about things which are really important for human living and for our part, our relation to God. But that doesn’t require very precise terms. And actually, you could fail to communicate either because people don’t recognize if I say, “what, the isopropyl butane,” right? That’s, that’s what they’re not everyone is going to know what that means, right? so God is, is, designed the Bible so that communication can communicate effectively to every language and culture in the world. And it’s a marvelous thing that this flexibility element is built into God’s way of communication. And you, I think sometimes we expect, oh, well, he, you know, he’ll be technical like a scientist. Well, right. God could do that if he wished. Right? But that’s not the central core of the purpose of the Bible.

Mark Ward (00:07:31):
Yeah. In my Sunday school class, this past Sunday, I brought up the example James versus Paul, in their use of justification terminology. If we insist on a technical sense of justified, and only one that occurs every time the word occurs, then we’re gonna have real trouble putting together James and Paul. In fact, you know, they’re gonna contradict one another. Justification is either by faith or it’s not. It’s by works. But if you can use the flexibility that God has built into language and not just English, and not just Russian and in Spanish, but Greek and Hebrew, then you can see okay, based on context, based on available senses, we don’t have a contradiction here. We have different senses being used. You know, I have a special interest in the archaic language of the King James version. So I took note when you said in that chapter in Symphonic Theology, I’m gonna quote you again.

Each natural language, English, French, Greek, etc., includes a collection of vocabulary items or lexical units, words currently in use, and a good dictionary attempts to list all the words and idioms used in the language at the time. This list, we will call the vocabulary stock of the language. (I’m still quoting you, of course,) you said the dictionary may also include obsolete, obsolete, and archaic terms, representing earlier stages of the language. And there will always be some hard decisions about whether obscure technical terms or ephemeral slang should be included. And here’s the question I wanted to pose to you, given what you’ve just said there that I fully agree with, I hear frequently, I just heard it the other day from King James on Twitter. He said, I’m quote quote directly, there are no archaic words in the King James, based on the very definition, these “archaic words”, are still being printed, read, memorized, preached, taught, and written, written about every single day by millions and millions of people. How would you respond to that as a biblical scholar and linguist?

Vern Poythress (00:09:23):
Yes. Right. Well, I’d like to know a little bit more about what this gentleman means, but I suspect that he’s talking past people who are talking the other way, because it’s true that people are still using the King James version. And in that respect, these words are still being used. But when, when linguists talk about archaisms, they’re thinking of what the man in the street is using, right? What, what people are using in their own conversation, not when they’re reading. You know, you can read from Shakespeare, right? You can read from the Canterbury Tales in old English. So it’s not as if that’s completely gone, but there are things that are hard to understand for the ordinary person who’s not used to the specialization of knowing archaic meaning. So give an example. 1 Timothy 2:9, there’s a command for women to not be showing off with fancy dress, that they’re not, not to have embroidered hair.

Mark Ward (00:10:43):
Yeah.

Vern Poythress (00:10:44):
In the King James, is an archaic term. I will have to look it up. I don’t know what it means. And people are reading King James, I recognize that, but do they know what it means? Yeah. So there are terms like that, but what is even worse, because you could kind of guess it probably means braided right?

Mark Ward (00:11:08):
From context.

Vern Poythress (00:11:09):
Here’s another example from 1 Peter 2:9 where King James has the phrase, A peculiar people. Yeah. And I heard that actually someone did a survey, talking to people who, partly who used the King James version and saying, what do you think this means? And over and over again, their response was, well, there was something odd and Unusual about the people of God. Well, at the time King James was written peculiarly, it actually had a different meaning for us. It means odd or special. Right? But it’s, it’s one’s own possession. And of course, the more modern translations will do that because they realize the word peculiar is not gonna be understood in the sense it could be understood.

Mark Ward (00:12:04):
Right.

Vern Poythress (00:12:05):
Right. When King James was original. So it’s people, I think the ESV has people of God’s possession. Let me make sure a people for his own possession. Yes. Well, that, that gets the sense out into the space that the ordinary reader can understand.

Mark Ward (00:12:25):
Right? Right.

Vern Poythress (00:12:25):
So, one of the concerns is that you can read something and think you understand it, because the word peculiar is not an obsolete word. Right. But it means it has an obsolete sense.

Mark Ward (00:12:37):
Yes.

Vern Poythress (00:12:37):
In that verse—

Mark Ward (00:12:39):
You know, I, I feel just like the rabbits that I’ve been hunting recently. I’m publicly admitting now that I’m hunting cute animals because they’ve been eating my wife’s flowers on her flower farm. So each night I go around the barn property that we don’t own behind us, and I go after rabbits, and sometimes I chase them into the briar patches. And that’s what you have just done for me. Although I invited you to, because this is my world right here. What you just described is what I call a false friend. You know that’s usually used, you know, it’s like a more, what lay friendly way of talking about false things, like embarrassed versus embarassado in Spanish. Embarassado in Spanish means pregnant, not embarrassed. So if you go around saying, you know, you’re gonna confuse people, that’s the way we usually talk about false friends.

But I think that they can, you know, you can use Elizabethan English, although it overlaps a ton with, you know, contemporary English, you can use useful regard it as a separate language. And therefore, when you come across a word that like peculiar, you assume you know what it means, but you actually don’t, not today because it’s not 1611, they had a set of senses that were somewhat different and they had a sense that it was available to them. That’s not available to us. I call that a false friend. Anyway, I didn’t actually come here to talk about the stuff that I’m doing. I kind of snuck that in there, on cheating, talking about, stuff I’m interested in. But I know you’re interested in language and Bible translation to having worked on the ESV committee, which I think is a great life privilege.

So let me shift gears just a little bit. I have a question for you about biblical scholarship. You are a biblical scholar. You’re a humble guy and may or may not want to take on the honorary label, but I’m gonna give it to you. And I myself run a little scholarly confab every year for about 40 to 50 PhD–toting teachers of Bible theology and church history. And we do 17 papers in two days, and we have fun. And I recently got a paper proposal from someone who does not have any formal biblical studies or theology, you know, training or education. And I had to gently turn ’em down and explain. Our committee nearly always requires that presenters have a PhD in biblical studies or theology. And I told them it’s a small group, and the exceptions we make are for people that we know, people who have, demonstrated their skill through other means, like publishing papers or, can think of one case, this is a guy who has decades of experience in Bible translation and reads the Greek and Hebrew like he reads English.

Now, this gentleman that I turned down responded very respectfully, and I just wonder if you could respond to his response as a Bible scholar. This is what he said to me. He said, by you focusing strictly on a small group of highly qualified people, which is very logical, don’t you think that it’s limiting the avenues through which the Holy Spirit can minister to that small group? While I am not a qualified Bible student, he says, but a fervent one. I know that this has always been the trend throughout Bible history from the lives of the great patriarchs and the prophets all the way to the fishermen from Galilee. The highly learned closed their doors to the simple, you know, you, Dr. Poythress and your wife both have advanced degrees, you’ve got many of them from prestigious institutions. I’ve met you both at the Evangelical Theological Society, which basically requires a PhD. How do you respond to that kind of thinking? I would expect you to be as gentle as I always know that you are, but to have some valuable thoughts for us.

Vern Poythress (00:16:07):
Yeah. Well, I think it’s a tricky question because one of the most dangerous sins is pride.

Mark Ward (00:16:19):
Yes.

Vern Poythress (00:16:20):
I think of Proverbs 11:2 that pride comes before disgrace and with a humble, his wisdom. And I think the gentleman who’s answering, you know, it would be nice to talk to him and find what’s really on his mind. Right? Right.

But I’m guessing that one of the things he’s concerned for is that very thing. Yeah. And one of the hazards of academic degrees and teaching positions and positions of honor is this very thing that the people begin to take pride in that, and they shut off any kind of input or challenge from people who have less credentials. And I think that’s a hazard. Sure. But of course, it’s a hazard too, if you don’t have the credentials to try to prove that you’re just as good as those people. And, and the fact is that people with and without credentials are prone to to speak more than they should. Right. I mean, I include myself in the category of saying things that really, you, you’re better off knowing what you don’t know.

Mark Ward (00:17:39):
Right.

Vern Poythress (00:17:40):
And, and so there’s any number of people without credentials who come up with ideas. And sometimes I encounter those things, right? And they’ll come to me with an idea and, I will try to, to listen. But frequently I find, you know, you dunno what you’re talking about . Right. You, you really do. People who are credentialed often in the process of getting those credentials have had the experience of what it means to talk on a very technical level.

Mark Ward (00:18:11):
Right.

Vern Poythress (00:18:12):
And, and, what it means to appreciate very detailed knowledge in some field. So it’s hard for somebody without that experience to understand. It may not be that people are closing the door because of pride, but because they only have a limited amount of time. Right.

Mark Ward (00:18:31):
And resources. Right?

Vern Poythress (00:18:32):
Yeah. Right. So you can’t listen to everybody equally. Right. Now, I should hope that your PhD friends and I and you as participants in the Church of Jesus Christ are interfacing with all kinds of people. We need that. God has made provision for that. But it’s also possible within the variety of the body of Christ to have special groups that accomplish specific tasks. And I think that’s what your earth is. And, and you know, people on both sides of the divide, right. The credentialed people and the uncredentialed people need to be realistic and to listen carefully, you know, to what’s going on, to try to understand as best they can, what’s going on on the other side. but also to know, as this gentleman pointed out, the Holy Spirit can give insights to anybody in the body of Christ. And, and, the people with Right. Great scholarship can be called to task for some obvious sin that they are overlooking . That’s right. So, so I’m, I’m sort of trying to say, yeah, there’s a grain of truth in what he’s saying. Right. And yeah, there’s a need sometimes to have special groups and, and to, for people to understand, look, they’re, they’re doing something that you really won’t be able adequately to participate in. Right. If you don’t have a lot of experience in the area.

Mark Ward (00:20:06):
Right. You know, I think about Proverbs 1813, whoever answers a matter before he hears it, it’s a folly. And shame to him. And I just can’t tell you, I’m sure this has happened to you, you know, especially working on the esv can’t tell you how many times people who can’t read Greek or Hebrew have told me I’m the idiot for some view I put forth on, you know, a Greek or Hebrew word, and I’ve thought, you know, I really may be wrong and I need to be humble enough. Clothe yourselves with humility. The Bible says to listen. And I’m gonna give you an example in a minute where I’ve, I’ve tried to do that, want to try to help have you help me do that. but on the other hand, I got my Bible verse right here telling me it is possible to speak to something that you really shouldn’t be speaking to.

And, if you know, at, at bare minimum someone who, to to whom the Lord has not given the opportunity to learn Greek or Hebrew, ought to come in with a, with a level of humble knowledge of that fact when he is gonna argue with somebody who, has had that opportunity. So actually that’s a good segue here. I, I, I, I’ve realized, looking at my own questions, they’re reflecting a little bit more of my personal interest than normal, in part because I respect you, Dr. Poythress, I’ve known you for a decade now. I’ve watched you be humble and generous to others. I really appreciate that. And so I’m asking you some of the harder questions. Yeah. That’s what you’ve gotten because of your generosity. I’m really sorry about that.

Vern Poythress (00:21:31):
No, you mustn’t apologize for, because , your, your interest and mine do overlap. So—

Mark Ward (00:21:36):
They certainly do. Yeah. I, I just love language and you know, I love, I love popularizing. I love making academic stuff accessible to people as much as possible. And I sense that in you and in Frame, if I see a theme between you two, it actually isn’t necessarily Tri Perspectivalism or even Reformed Theology, although those are obviously, you know, parallels between you and Dr. Frame. But Frame ous.org works in part because you both work toward a very simple and clear prose that most people in the guild, it seems to me, aren’t able to produce or choose not to produce. I don’t know. I just appreciate that. Anyway, the question I have for you, I actually got in hot water online recently for an article that I wrote at the Logos blog, hotter Water than I can ever remember in 200 plus articles for what is now called Word by Word.

I’m an editor there now. And I, what I, what happened was I wrote a book, a blog post, in which I argued that most explicit mentions of Hebrew and Greek in sermons are unnecessary, kind of at best. And, you know, wrong, erroneous at worst. And I, I tried to be generous, and I said about 80% I would say that I hear, you know, it probably just doesn’t need to be mentioned, and it’s not actively harmful, but it’s not helping. And then 20%, I’m sitting there thinking, you know, I actually know the Greek and Hebrew words here. That’s not actually right. You know, you’re committing the etymological fallacy, for example. DESE means dynamite power for something like that. And, I got a lot of pushback there, and I tried to listen. I really did. I do think they saw some oversights in my piece, for example. I didn’t talk about textual criticism and when it might be helpful to mention that, but how do you view the explicit mention of Hebrew and Greek in the pulpit versus its role in the study? And this is a very hot topic when it comes to our readership and our viewership for Logos Bible software. I’d love to get your wisdom.

Vern Poythress (00:23:40):
Yes. Well, the Bible software is a great thing in terms of enabling people who have a lower facility in the original languages to, to find, to explore, find out things. but the teachers of Greek and Hebrews say, and I would say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Yeah. Because if you, you know, you get, you plow into some of the information that the software would give you and, and you think you understand it, but you don’t have a context for understanding the language as a whole and how the language works. And each language has, to some extent, its own genius. Greek has cases, and Hebrew has, has a verb states construct case, but it’s very different, very different, and, and both of ’em are different from English. And, and understanding that, and also understanding the function of words, this business of words and precision.

People are looking for a word in Hebrew or Greek and then think, oh, I’ve got it. It must be really, really precise now. Now it’s like, the word in, in your own native language. And most of us are not conscious of that, but we have things that are even double meaning spring and spring, right? Spring is a season of the year, and spring is a mechanism right, of that, that springs in a, in a car or in a, in a machine. So, so it, language is a really complicated thing. And, he ruined Greek. I believe God is completely sovereign. Sovereign is completely sovereign over every last inch of the territory of what happens in those languages. But, but, he’s pleased to, to, to structure languages with this complexity and with this flexibility. And, people don’t understand that people’s instincts vary a lot.

They don’t understand that they can come up with half baked things. But, let me give you a story as a follow up with that, because every year in hermeneutics I talk about the use of deck lexicons. And that was even before the software became a big thing. Just, you know, a lexicon printed lexicon, and the hazards of doing that and understanding flexibilities of meaning, all those things. And, then one year, and the difference between a word and a concept, the word being flexible and concept being the idea in somebody’s mind. Well, I found out that one bright student had taken this to heart and decided he was gonna test it out in his church. So for a whole year, whenever the pastor said, now there, there’s this, or Hebrew, whenever the pastor said that he was, his ears pricked up and he would take notes massively until the explanation was over. And then he would go home and he would check it out with his own technical tools. In the course of a whole year, there were something like 20 times that there was mention of a great car Hebrew term. That’s not too bad. It is once every other week or less. if it’s more than that, it’s probably excess. So he checked out each of these thoroughly, and he found that the score in terms of accuracy, of, of analyzing the meaning was zero, absolutely zero.

Mark Ward (00:27:28):
Oh, no.

Vern Poythress (00:27:29):
And this was in a church that was influenced by the seminary. So it wasn’t—yeah, it wasn’t just general evangelicalism. It was, you think these pastors are, are, are fairly highly trained and, the score of zero is, is pretty pretty depressing. The thing is, I tell people who come to me, ordinary people who say, oh, they find out, I know Hebrew from Greek and say, oh, you must be able to get so much more out of the Bible. Right. And I know what’s going through their heads.

Mark Ward (00:28:03):
Right.

Vern Poythress (00:28:04):
And it is true that, that there are nuances you can get, and it’s true that it can head you off from—

Mark Ward (00:28:11):
Bad, bad interpretations, right.

Vern Poythress (00:28:13):
Of the English. Right. But what I tell them is actually, the English is pretty clear , right? You’re reading something very close to the original meeting, and it’s when people don’t realize that, they don’t realize how good the translations are, right. That they try to bring in extra meaning. And if it’s a lot of extra meaning, it’s probably not there. If it’s not there in the translation, it’s probably not there in the original .

Mark Ward (00:28:43):
Yeah, I’m totally with you.

Vern Poythress (00:28:44):
That, but they’re, but it’s more, much more common that you’ll have preachers trying to load up a word—

Mark Ward (00:28:53):
Right.

Vern Poythress (00:28:53):
Things that are actually products of the context. Right.

Mark Ward (00:28:57):
Or of other context, illegitimate totality transfer as James Barr called it. Right? Yeah.

Yeah. That’s so helpful and so necessary, and you do deliver it as gently as possible. But you know, this harks back to our little previous discussion here. I mean, how can you say that without sounding snooty? I mean, people put a lot of time and effort and then buy Logos. You know, this is a very live issue for me because I don’t work at Logos because of the nice salary that I get, or perks, you know? It’s all nice. I’m very grateful for what I get. I get, I work here because I care about the church and I care about good Bible teaching, and I’m concerned that I want to, I want part of my ministry here to be. And that’s one of the reasons I’m talking to you and talking about this. One of the aspects of my ministry to the church at Logos is to say, okay, we give you these powerful tools.

Now do righteousness with these tools. Right? You know, don’t commit exegetical fallacies. And most of the time, you know, I think the Lord has enabled me to say this in a way that’s humble enough that people aren’t put off. I think I had a little snootiness, frankly, in the first iteration of this article that I wrote, and I don’t think that helped. So I’m gonna, I’m gonna push a little harder on this because you’ve got decades of wisdom. I went and looked at your history, and I just thought, you know, my entire life, and I’m 42, you’ve been doing this sort of thing. Surely you can help us out here. What positively and constructively can we say to the average MDiv-toting pastor from a good evangelical seminary whose Greek and Hebrew is not awesome, but he did what he was required to do and, you know, put his heart into it. How, how can something like Logos and, and really any Greek or Hebrew tool, how can he use those tools? And let’s talk about women too. We’ve got biblical counselors out there and women who use our software as well. How can, you know, people leading any sort of teaching ministry positively, constructively use the Greek and Hebrew well, with the tools that are available?

Vern Poythress (00:31:04):
Right? Well, they can speed up the process at certain points, right? If you’re dealing with Hebrew and Greek text, and there’s an unusual word that you don’t recognize at all, you just, you know, click and, you got, you got it right there. But if you’re, if you’re going to do an exposition of a text, you don’t want to rely on that click. You want to actually look up the whole article in the advanced lexicons. And so that’s Brown-Driver-Briggs for the Old Testament. And it’s BDAG—Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich. So with subsequent contributions in the New Testament, those are, those are the scholarly lexicons. There’s no substitute for those things. And, and when you read a whole article, that’s when you find out there’s more than one meaning, and that some meaning,

Mark Ward (00:31:59):
Right? Multiple senses.

Vern Poythress (00:32:01):
Yeah. Right? And that some meanings are associated with certain constructions grammatically, if you know how to use those lexicons. But that’s a learning process in itself because there’s these, right, it’s obscure abbreviations and Right, but, but that’s how you figure out what’s the meaning appropriate to context. And that, that actually, and then besides that, there’s times when I try to teach people how to use advanced grammars, well, that’s even more difficult because the grammars are not organized. They can’t be organized alphabetically. so, but that aim enables a person, even a person, without a lot of extra tools to reach some degree of independent judgment. And then you go to the commentaries and you see, what you see is that some commentaries are better than others. , there are some people who may know a lot, but their judgment, their ability to understand what’s going on in Hebrew, Greek is just flawed.

And that that can be true of name brand commentaries. So that step of looking at the original languages yourself can be an aid. Now, for the ordinary person who hasn’t more than a smattering of Hebrew and Greek, what I’d say is realize your limitations. Sure. and, and understand that you’re in the, in the A translation, you are getting the best judgment of top scholars, right? ESV, for instance, I know we are, we, selected, scholars for each book of the Bible who had either done scholarly commentaries or were who in the process of doing ’em, who knew what, what the book, let’s say the book of Micah or the book of Matthew, right? They knew it backwards and forwards in the original languages. Right. Historical background, all that. We had that kind of person go through and make suggestions about translational alternatives.

Nobody can duplicate that , just in the study all by himself. So actually the translations, and it’s not the ESV alone, although, you know, I was on the committee, so I’m prejudiced, right? But, responsible translations had done a huge amount of work. And what you have in English is a good representation of the meaning in the original, the difficulty comes because sometimes actually you can misunderstand the English or overload the English with more meaning than what is actually there. And then just checking out the original language can say, oh, no, no, I’m just, my imagination is getting overworked. I can see that I’m imposing a meaning that’s not appropriate. So there’s checks, I think, for the ordinary person and the, and yeah, I know your Logos package, you include the possibility of purchasing commentaries, right? And some, I think a few of them are free , right? So people can look just as balanced. Now, you know, they’ve gotta retain their sanity. They’ve gotta understand no commentary, no translation is absolutely infallible, right? But excellent. Their aids that can keep you within reasonable bounds, , right. And remind you of the limitations of your own personal scales.

Mark Ward (00:35:37):
Yeah. You know, I’m thinking about resources to recommend to people. And, like the Lexham Methods Series that we’ve got, and there’s one textual criticism by some of my favorite female biblical scholars, Amy Anderson and Wendy Widder that’s not so tied to linguistics, but we also have a linguistics and biblical exegesis volume by my friend Doug Mangum and Josh Westbury, both of whom worked at Faithlife with me. And then there’s a volume on social and historical approaches to the Bible. But what I found, and I just kinda wanted to bounce this off of you, is that, you know, I was just in India. I was ministering to a group of pastors there, and a number of them had Logos, and they wanted me to give some talks about it. And that was totally fine. I was very happy to do that.

Unfortunately, the electricity kept going out, so it made it a little more difficult for me to show my screen on the presenting device. We had the projector thing. but then I also got a request from somebody who wanted to learn Greek. And this is somebody who’s been in the ministry for a long time, who I already saw has a lot of wisdom, and frankly, godliness, integrity, dignity, like Titus 2 talks about. And, I found myself struggling to know what to say, because I almost wanted to discourage him from going down that road, but I didn’t. I gave him some resources. And I have a little booklet I even wrote for Logos a couple years ago on this, you know, what kind of goal should you set out for yourself? But one thing I found myself saying, and this is what I wanted to bounce off of you, and, and it’s an opportunity for you to promote some of your own resources.

I would really love for you to do that, is I, I’ve told people, okay, if you’re gonna study any Greek in order to inoculate yourself against the problem that you just described, Dr. Poythress of, you know, a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, then also do some reading in linguistics. And doesn’t have to be super complicated. We’ve got books that are well written and pretty accessible. I like Moises Silva’s book, Biblical Words in Their Meaning a Great Deal. Carson’s book, Exegetical Fallacies, is a little gem. Your book, Symphonic Theology, and that chapter, Words in Precision is something that I’ve, you know, assigned to my students. Like I said, what else would you recommend? And do you like that general, that general piece of advice?

Vern Poythress (00:37:48):
Yeah, I think that’s good. It’s getting to be the case that seminaries are producing online versions of Greek and Hebrew learning courses. Westminster Seminary now has our sequence online but, you know, here’s the thing: It’s nine course units of Greek, three semesters worth and nine course units, three semesters worth of Hebrew. You’re not talking about you know, I’ll just put this away in a couple of weeks. Right? it’s a major, major task, and I would recommend people learning it in a context of a learning environment like that. Agreed. Because, you need a mentor. Most people get stuck and, and off the trails if they just try to learn a language that is totally independent. So that’s one thing. But let me tell you another story: years ago, I had a pastor who we just hit it off with one another.

And, you know, he knew that, I was, I was either a seminary teacher already, or, or, you know, already advanced with Hebrew and Greek. And he says, I don’t have any Hebrew and Greek. ” He got into the pastor another way, but he said, you know, God has given me a gift in discipling men. Boy, how neat is that? Right, , I was, I was really glad to hear that, and that he’s aware that God has given him this gift. And he says, what do you think of my learning in Greek? Well, the man was maybe 45 years old, and, and he was, you know, head over heels in ministry, right. With his special emphasis on discipling them. I actually told him, no. Now it’s true that at that time, not all the tools existed that we have now.

But I told him no because I said, I know a little more about him. I think, you know, your limitations, he would use commentaries, he would use resources by people who were able to access Hebrew and Greek competently. Right. Not just use a software tool and think that you’ve seen something. So, he was willing to use those, and he was willing to admit his own limitations. And he was not gonna say in the pulpit, but “now the Greek says … ” and fake something that was beyond his competence. I thought, you know, that’s the kind of person we need. Right. Who knows his limitations, but God has gifted him and given him, his, being of an age where he thought it’s more important at his age that he fulfilled the ministry and the gifts that God has given him.

And if he learns Greek, he’ll probably only learn it halfway. Right. You know, and I thought, you’re doing fine. Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t say that to everybody. If a young man comes to me who’s 25, yes. Right? Then I’d say, come to Westminster, , take the full sequence, go through the, the, the slogging and the mud. Right. For, because many people do not find language learning easy. Some do, but if you don’t, it’s still worth it for you, you’re building a whole career and you need to be able to access what other people are saying who are Hebrew and Greek. Right. You know, for the professional, for the pastor, or at times even a biblical counselor. the more training you have, the better you know if it’s gonna be a whole career ahead of you. And I’d say just immerse yourself and learn, you know, just pile on the learning. Right. Billy Graham, a mid-career was actually asked, what would you do differently? You had to do it all over again. He said I would spend more time in preparation. He was thinking of this very thing. Mm.

Mark Ward (00:42:04):
That’s wonderful. Yeah. I had a friend of mine who actually was more mature than I was in undergrad, and therefore, when he was done with undergrad, went straight into pastoral ministry mm-hmm. . And he came back actually to school where I was still in grad school and talked to me. He was taking a group of students to the school, and he just lamented to me. He said, Mark, I was such a fool, I stopped and I didn’t have to stop my education, and I rented all my textbooks. So I didn’t even, I don’t even come outta school with textbooks, and I just know I need more. I certainly felt that way. Yeah. I wanna be super sensitive to the problem of sounding snooty sounding arrogant that we’ve talked about here. Because let me, let me try to add a little footnote to something you said, and you tell me if you agree or not.

When I hear you say something like, here’s a man who’s, you know, very gifted in disciplining men, and how wonderful that is. You, a cynic, someone who is really touchy about this maybe might say, well, yeah, but you still regard yourself as superior. You know, knowing Greek is better than, you know, discipling men. And I would say, no, it isn’t like knowing Greek is better if you’re gonna be a Bible translator or teach Greek in school, but discipling men is a gift that, you know, is wonderful, and I don’t have the gifts that everybody else in the body has. If we all clothe ourselves with humility, then the people who have Greek and Hebrew knowledge can give their contribution. And the people who have all kinds of other amazing, wonderful gifts that I don’t have, they can also give those gifts. Am I adding an accurate footnote to what you’ve said?

Vern Poythress (00:43:48):
Yes, yes. I agree. Although I would add another story that I know. I became friends with a man who had been in pastoral ministry for, I don’t know, something like five years. And after completing college degree, and, and then he resigned and he came to Westminster as a student. And his story was, I discovered I need more if I’m gonna be a pastor, he discovered in ministry. Yeah. That he needed additional preparation. So, you know, that’s, that’s one example. And then building on what you say, I wanna say, look, there are heretics who know Greek, right.

Mark Ward (00:44:36):
Right.

Vern Poythress (00:44:37):
That day. It’s a tool, but that doesn’t even make you orthodox, let alone Right. A value to the church.

Mark Ward (00:44:44):
Yeah, absolutely. Okay. I think you’ve explored that topic really well. I really appreciate your wisdom, your graciousness there. And I’m gonna turn my head and look at some of the comments that we’ve gotten. Okay. I know our tech guy, Jason, our social media coordinator, has been handling some of these comments and I, I’ve gotten, oh, it’s really great to see people viewing from all over the place. You know, here’s a question for you that I’ve actually been writing an article about, but I’m gonna let you answer. When it comes to Greek and Hebrew, I stick with the Strong’s concordance. Is that safe? However, briefly, or, you know, at length? You want to answer that question, Dr. Poythress, I wonder if you’d be willing to weigh in.

Vern Poythress (00:45:24):
Well, yeah, I’d have to know a lot more about what this person is doing with Strong’s concordance. Strong’s Concordance gives you information about the underlying Greek and Hebrew words, but it’s very minimal information. Right. And, and actually there’s, there’s better ways of getting at it. There’s a thing called the Englishman’s Concordance, which organizes its concordance directly under the Greek or Hebrew words. So if you wanna see every occurrence of a particular Hebrew word without knowing Hebrew, that’s the way to do it.

Mark Ward (00:46:01):
And both of those things can be done in Logos. Yes. We have all kinds of tools for doing just that sort of thing. I think when people talk about Strong’s Concordance, they actually typically mean the dictionary in the back, the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries.

Vern Poythress (00:46:15):
No, it’s not, it’s just a start. And again, I’m saying that’s why I stressed using the advanced lexicon, because that’s the only thing that’s gonna give you full information about the, the, the way this word fits into constructions, the range of meaning, whether it has several senses. You can’t do that adequately with a beginner’s approach. And I know there are other tools that, you know, you just look up because you don’t know the word. Right. Well, okay, but that’s minimal. If you’re going to do, more information as you would in preparing, it to, in analyzing a text and preparing to speak on it, then no

Mark Ward (00:47:01):
Yeah. That, that’s what I would say too. You know, if I might, if I’m on a desert island and all I’ve got is strong concordance and my Bible, I’ll be very happy that those are the two things that washed up with me. but hopefully my laptop was sealed in a nice, you know, waterproof container and a solar power generator with me, so I can have all my resources and logos on the desert island. That’s what I would refer to. You know, you, you talked about some linguistic concepts. A few minutes ago you distinguish between word and concept, and you talk about that in your book In Worldview. You said, I’m gonna quote you again. We can distinguish between words and concepts. A word is what we find in a normal dictionary. A concept is the larger rich set of associations that a particular person may attach to the word, particularly if the word occurs within a loaded or a technical context. I wanted to ask you, here’s, here’s a fairly standard, you know, set of linguistic concepts that is word and concepts. I think about the Ogden/Richards Triangle that I learned about in grad school. And I read about in Moiśes Silva’s book, how does that, how, how do those two concepts and their contradistinction, how do they help us interpret the Bible?

Vern Poythress (00:48:16):
Right. Well, you earlier used the example of the, the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone and, and the relationship between what Paul says in passages and Galatians in Romans, and what James says in James chapter 2. And that, that’s a very good illustration of the fact, do you actually need this distinction? Because on the surface, James and Paul appear to contradict one another. And that’s not a matter of translation. It’s there in the Greek as well. They’re using simple, the same word, same Greek words. And, already, John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion has a long discussion of this. He knows he has to discuss it because it’s a central key doctrine of the Bible. And it’s something that the Roman Catholic tradition was confused, if not worse, misrepresenting. And so he has a long discussion, but he says, the obvious thing to me, what the obvious thing of saying is James uses this word, the justify, or the Greek word dikaiosis. He does not mean what Paul means in the appropriate passages that Paul means to, to be pronounced righteous by God. James means to be vindicated, to be shown, to be righteous. I’m simplifying, but basically he’s saying there’s two different senses. And then they don’t mean the same thing by faith either, because Paul is talking about faith as personal trust in Christ that involves the commitment of the whole person.

And James is talking about believing certain propositions. The devils believe, right. They believe there’s one God, so they don’t mean the same thing. So the words are the same words in Greek, the concepts, right. Saving faith in Paul versus belief in the truth of a proposition in James, the concepts are different. That’s a really important case. But this kind of thing comes up all over the Bible, because the words of the Hebrew and Greek language have this flexibility, which is natural to any language that God has ordained throughout the world. And so sometimes some verses are going to represent distinct concepts, but other verses using the same word, it’s not gonna be the same concept. So you just, you have to be aware of that as particularly professional interpreters. I think the ordinary person reading English probably has less problem because he’s reading whole passages, and he gets to the point, oh, James is talking about, you know, if he’s careful and he’s looking at what James is saying, James is talking about something different.

This doesn’t contradict what Paul said, and that, of course, that’s what John Calvin did, although Calvin, he did know Hebrew and Greek. So he was able to check that out at a more precise level. But, it’s there in English. And so in one sense, this is an obvious thing, and we just, we’re using it every day, but without necessarily thinking about it. And when I say for instance, he has a big ego, ego, everyone understands what that means. But ego is also a technical term in Freudian psychology. Right. For one of three pieces of, you know, Freud has this weird theory with some

Mark Ward (00:52:09):
Ego I and super ego. Yeah—

Vern Poythress (00:52:11):
Yeah. Well, if I say he has a big ego, I’m not committing myself to Freudian theory of psychology. Right. It’s not that technical use. So we can actually do the same thing, though. It’s absurd when we, you know, have it right before us. We can do the same thing with technical terms in theology, read them back into the Bible where actually the Bible is using terms in a more ordinary way.

Mark Ward (00:52:38):
And I think that is a relief to the English Bible reader, because I think they often feel as if Hebrew and Greek, especially Greek have, you know, are universally just full of this technical level of meaning that they can’t really access. And I found myself telling my Sunday school class, we have a leadership class at our church, everybody’s gotta take it if they want to be in any sort of leadership. And so we’ve got men and women in there, you know, are gonna be teaching small groups and kids and teenagers and, you know, the senior Sunday school class. And this is coming up and I’m wanting to encourage them. No, actually you, you can, oh, you can fully obey God and not actually understand that supposed level of technical meaning. And actually, most of the time I see people appeal to that level of technical meaning they go astray.

Let me give you one more example here. Now, Dr. Poythress, you’ve been so generous with your time and I did send you these questions in advance, but not very far in advance. And, I’ve added a couple things that you’ve flexed with. Well, I’m gonna add one more and you can answer as briefly as you want to. We’re coming toward the end of our time. My own pastor, who is an excellent preacher, trained very well in a standard seminary everybody would know. And I’m very appreciative. I just get fed the Bible at my own church and I’m super grateful for that. He asked me recently, and he told me he would ask, he would explain later why he asked, I don’t know why. He said, is it accurate to say Abba means daddy? So Abba gets typically used in, it appears three times in the New Testament, as I recall.

You know, Abba father, Romans 8, and then Jesus cries out Abba Father. And I went and I searched in Logos and I have access to literally every single book that we produce. So I searched for Abba near Daddy and I got hundreds of results over a thousand. And the great majority of them are evangelical protestants. Probably the great majority. And I did not read every single one. I’m guessing like 90% of them are saying, yes, Abba means daddy. But I thought, I’m gonna check the more linguistically oriented folks, and here’s what happened. And I just wanted to kind of bounce this off of you. I saw that most of them were cautioning and they were pointing to a James Barr article from the sixties, and didn’t get to read the whole thing because it’s not in Logos. And I didn’t wanna pay the money at JStor and I don’t have access anymore through my academic institution to JStor.

But, the title was “Abba Does Not Mean Daddy.” Then I thought, you know, I’m gonna check Silva in the NIDNTT, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, and next to Jesus. So he revised the NIDNTT and he said yes, but then he gave some other actual reasons to consider that. Yeah. Abba still was, if not perhaps equivalent to daddy, it still wasn’t a term of intimate address that children would use with their parents. So I’m still kind of processing this. I’m not boiling this down to a very good question. I’ve talked too long. But what I wonder is, if hundreds of otherwise good sounds, you know, evangelical Bible teachers at all kinds of levels are saying Abba equals daddy. Are they wrong? You know, if they’re technically wrong, what, what bad effects can come from it? I’ve just unloaded all my thinking onto you and not asked a very good question. I’m just gonna let you take it from there.

Vern Poythress (00:56:07):
Yeah. So, well, it’s a good question, if I may pick up temporarily on the previous question. Sure. I had one question, sent to me, from, from another faculty institution saying we have a student who is blind, who is wanting to apply, wondering whether they ought to use Hebrew and Greek. Well, that’s a good question. And, there are resources for the blind, but much of the value of Hebrew, Greek is in using technical material that’s not gonna be available. Right. So I took a deep breath and I said no. Hmm. I would advise this person to memorize large amounts of the Bible. Hmm. I really think that is one of the best things anybody can do. And it’s, knowing the Bible in your own native language is not to be underestimated. Amen. And I think you’re saying the same thing with people who are feeling, oh, I get, I’m missing out on stuff right now. You read your Bible memorize. Okay, now back to your final question, Abba and Daddy, well, I, I myself would have to look—

Mark Ward (00:57:26):
Sure.

Vern Poythress (00:57:27):
—look up the answer, because it is a technical answer. but one of the things is, I mean, we are all aware of social contagion nowadays.

Mark Ward (00:57:39):
Yeah.

Vern Poythress (00:57:40):
But, social contagion can have a sort of analog in the scholarly world.

Mark Ward (00:57:45):
Right. Memes—

Vern Poythress (00:57:46):
You know, and, and, and if something is really, really attractive to scholars and or preachers, they can so much want it to be true. Yeah. That they fool themselves. Right.

Vern Poythress (00:58:02):
So,, you know, I would just put in that caution, you know, anytime you’ve got this something that is very widespread in the popular circles and is a very convenient preaching point. Well, you used one—

Mark Ward (00:58:19):
Agape love.

Vern Poythress (00:58:21):
Yeah. It’s so nice. Right. An illustration. Right. But, but it’s, it’s not really the case .

Mark Ward (00:58:29):
That’s right.

Vern Poythress (00:58:30):
So, we gotta be realistic about human nature and, and, but also, you know, to understand ourselves enough to know that there are temptations of an intellectual sort, temptations to do shortcuts. Right. To use illustration because it’s so striking rather than because it’s accurate.

Mark Ward (00:58:52):
Right. Right. Yeah.

Vern Poythress (00:58:53):
So that, you know, that’s across the board. And I, as I say, I can’t give you the answer with respect to Abba in particular without looking it up myself.

Mark Ward (00:59:01):
Yeah. I put you on this spot, but I—

Vern Poythress (00:59:02):
I would use the resources of starting with the advanced lexicons. I mean, that’s, that’s where you go, yeah, to look at this.

Mark Ward (00:59:12):
And, actually Logos was a big help to me there because so many people cited that resource by James Barr. I would definitely pay the money to have Jay Stewart, you know, open up that article to me. Mm-hmm. , I’d wanna see the best of, you know, one of our, one of, well, one of the linguists that’s most helped, you know, biblical studies. That would be James Barr. Well, Dr. Poythress, this conversation has been so enjoyable for me. The last time we talked together in an interview format, as I recall, was I was in Westminster and we talked about Agape Love and that video has actually not yet been released for various reasons. Lord willing, it’ll go up at some point and I’ll share it on the Frame-Poythress blog that I’m the webmaster of. Such a delight to talk to you again. Can you just go ahead and tell everybody where they can follow your writing ministry? A real softball question for you there.

Vern Poythress (01:00:06):
Yeah. Well, John Frame and I share a website that’s managed, that’s a webmaster is Dr. Ward, and it’s frame-poythress.org.

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Jason Stone

Jason Stone is the Sr. Community Manager at Faithlife. He has a master’s in biblical exegesis from Wheaton College Graduate School and over a decade of experience with digital marketing, church communications, and ministry.

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