Preaching the dictionary.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 November

Nine years ago I visited a family member’s church. The pastor had just started a series about home-based small groups. His primary proof text came from Acts 2, namely the part where Luke described the brand-new Christians in Jerusalem, and how they got religious.

Acts 2.42-47 KWL
42 They were hewing close to the apostles’ teaching, to community, to breaking bread, and to prayers.
43 Reverence came to every soul, and many wonders and signs happened through the apostles.
44 Every believer looked out for one another, and put everything in common use:
45 They sold possessions and property, and divided proceeds among all,
just because some were needy.
46 Those who hewed close unanimously were in temple daily,
breaking bread at home, happily, generously, wholeheartedly sharing food,
47 praising God, showing grace to all people.
The Master added saved people to them daily.

He used the NLT, I believe. Its verse 46 goes like so:

Acts 2.46 NLT
They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity…

“They met in homes,” he pointed out. “The Greek word for ‘home’ is oikos.” (Yep, just like Dannon’s brand of Greek yogurt. See?—knowing Greek comes in handy. Although οἶκος is properly pronounced íkos.) “And according to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, that means ‘a dwelling; by implication, a family.’ So what that verse really means is that they met as families.”

Um… no it doesn’t.

Íkos means house or home. It’s why the NLT rendered it as “homes.” It’s why most bibles render it that way. It’s what anybody who took Greek 101 understands it to mean; íkos is one of the first words we learn, appears in the Greek New Testament 112 times (114 in the Textus Receptus), and it’s a really easy concept. Hence bible translators aren’t being inexact when they render it “house” or “home.” They know what they’re doing. It’s why bible publishers, and bible translation committees, hire ’em.

If “They met as families” were a better translation, you’d see it translated that way in most bibles. If it was a valid alternate translation, you’d see it translated that way in at least one bible. But check out all the different English translations on Bible Gateway, and you’ll find not one translator decided, “Y’know, íkos really means ‘family,’ so let’s go with that.”

So why’d this pastor make this claim? ’Cause he wants the Christians of his church to meet together in one another’s homes, and be family together. Which is a great idea! It’s precisely what church is meant to be. It’s just he was trying to prove it by misusing a Greek dictionary, and wow his congregation by dropping on them a secret, cryptic meaning of íkos which they’d never heard before. Wow, “home” really means “family”!

And yeah, in certain contexts it can mean that. Like Joseph being of David’s house, Lk 1.27, 2.4 or when Paul told his Corinthian guard he and his “whole house” would be saved. Ac 16.31 In these instances it meant family. But all translation depends on context. If it didn’t—if every instance of íkos means family—then let’s talk about Solomon building the LORD a house, Ac 7.47 and do try to not sound ridiculous.

Translators know what they’re doing. Your preacher, not so much.

Whenever a writer or preacher claims the translators of the bible got it wrong, and the words really mean something significantly different (yes, even when I do it, ’cause sometimes I do) this should raise a red flag. A big, bright, flashing, waving, hollering warning sign. With a siren.

I’m not defending any particular translation. I mean any bible. Really every bible. If there’s no translation of the bible in existence which picked the interpretation your preacher’s going with, what’re we supposed to think? That every English-language bible translator, from John Wycliffe on down, managed to miss something which only your preacher noticed? That your preacher’s right, and everyone else is wrong? You do realize this is how cults start. Not saying your preacher’s trying to start a cult; certainly a cult is a worst-case scenario. Still, it’s best to never start dabbling in cultish behavior.

Nor am I claiming bible translators are infallible. If you’ve read TXAB long enough, you know I take issue with lots of translations. I translate the scriptures myself, y’know. It’s part of my research. In so doing I compare them with other translations so I can catch my mistakes. And sometimes I catch their mistakes. I find mistakes in reference books too. But I don‘t claim I’m right and everyone else is wrong; I can always point to other translations and references which don’t make such mistakes.

The rule of thumb is the general consensus of bible translations have the right idea. Usually the majority has it right; sometimes the minority does. Either way, if Christians are generally listening to the Holy Spirit, a number of us should have the right information, and if you wanna make an out-of-the-ordinary claim, you should be able to back it up with other reputable Christians. By and large, bible translators know what they’re doing.

But there are two kinds of Christians who dabble in biblical languages. There are those like me, who wanna see the nuts and bolts of the process. We wanna see all the nuance in the original text—the stuff which English translations sadly lack. We wanna contribute to the process of bible interpretation, and help our fellow scholars double-check one another. Iron sharpening iron, y’know.

Then there are those who don’t trust anyone. Don’t trust the translators. Don’t trust the translations. Suspect there’s some sort of deep, hidden knowledge being denied them. They don’t take language classes so they can learn from them, but so they can learn just enough to be able to defend their preexisting views. They don’t care to submit to the consensus, but to go their own way. They wanna be right, and can’t accept the fact we’re wrong.

So many Christians have been burned by this second group of crackpots. And I can understand why such Christians get leery of anyone who tries to translate bible. They hassle me about daring to translate it myself—because they don’t know me, don’t realize my motives, and worry I’m yet another one of the cranks who are trying to slip corrupt ideas into their bible interpretations. I get it.

My self-defense is pretty simple: Go ahead and compare my translations with any other bible. Go ahead and read their translations instead of mine. Hopefully my interpretations stand up on their own. If not, okay: I must’ve made a mistake. It happens. I’m fallible. Sorry.

When done right, the dictionary’s a good thing.

There is a valid form of preaching the dictionary. When Paul and Sosthenes describe love in 1 Corinthians by saying it has patience, behaves kindly, doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion, doesn’t draw attention to how great it is, doesn’t exaggerate, and so forth, 1Co 13.4 there’s nothing wrong with cracking open a Greek dictionary to look up what their verbs mean. (Especially since too many English translations turn ’em into adjectives, which they’re not. The apostles were describing what love does, less so what love is. Big difference.)

Sometimes you’re gonna hear a sermon where someone does a rundown of the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians, and what each of these words mean. There’ll be a whole lot of Greek dictionary in there. That’s fine. Well, assuming the preacher reads the whole of the Greek dictionary’s article, and doesn’t just leap to the definition which suits them best.

See, that’s when preachers go awry. They’re not looking up the definitions so they can better understand the scriptures. They’re looking for definitions they like. That pastor I mentioned in the beginning: He went to the Strong’s Dictionary, skipped the usual definition of íkos (“house” or “home,” which you’ll find in most instances in the bible, ’cause it’s the proper interpretation) and picked the least likely definition. The one which proved his point.

They’re not defining the words. They’re redefining them.

Most of the reason they do this is to be different. It’s to make the listeners say wow. “I never heard that before! This preacher is so smart!” Makes ’em sound like a wise, insightful biblical scholar. Makes it sound like the bible has all kinds of deep, mysterious, secret wisdom which nobody but wise scholars can unlock. (Well, scholars with a Strong’s Dictionary, anyway.) It’s all about getting the preacher authority and honor. Undeserved, of course.

In some cases—no foolin’—preachers aren’t above inventing a definition. My bible software includes several widely respected biblical language dictionaries. Strongs of course. Plus the Brown/Driver/Briggs Hebrew lexicon, the Liddell/Scott Greek lexicon, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament—to name a few. The software lets me access ’em fast. And from time to time I find none of their definitions match the definition some preacher claims for a word. The dictionaries are really good at matching one another. But when they don’t match the preacher, it means either the preacher’s using some obscure dictionary, or we have a case of straight-up fabrication. Or, to be less polite, lies.

I experienced a lot of dictionary-preaching growing up. My preachers “corrected” the bible so often, I came to believe you couldn’t trust any translation; I’d have to learn Hebrew and Greek in order find out what a bible really said. And after three years of ancient languages, what I eventually discovered is this: Bible translators aren’t anywhere near that sloppy. Preachers, however, are.

Preaching the English dictionary.

In churches who worship prefer the King James Version, you won’t find a lot of ’em using Greek or Hebrew dictionaries. That’s because their teachers told ’em not to. I delved into their fears of Greek in my article on Jack T. Chick’s KJV-only beliefs.

They’re afraid this is gonna happen. Jack T. Chick, The Attack 19

Instead of “In the original language, this word means…” they won’t even touch original languages. The original’s not authoritative; the KJV is. You don’t use some foreign-language dictionary. You use Webster’s. (Preferably one of the old Webster’s, which defines what words used to mean back when the KJV was translated, and not what they mean today.

Hence you get a preacher sharing this:

“The bible says in Psalm 4.4 to ‘stand in awe and sin not.’ And according to Webster’s, awe means ‘a mixed feeling of reverence, fear, and wonder, caused by something sublime.’ So today I’m gonna preach on the three attitudes we oughta have towards the sublime God: Reverence, fear, and wonder.”

Thank you Webster’s; you’ve provided that preacher the three points he wanted for his sermon. Never mind the fact רִגְז֗וּ/rigzú, which the KJV renders “stand in awe,” really means “tremble,” and refers to any strong emotion which might lead us to lose our cool and sin. Maybe a proper sermon on this verse would be about keeping one’s head. But I digress.

Part of the problem is the fact the KJV was translated 500 years ago. The words of our English language have evolved just a tad since. (Particularly after we Americans got ahold of them.) So some of our words mean the same as they did 500 years ago. But some don’t at all.

Back then, awe meant “terror.” It doesn’t now. Christians who believe in a loving God, occasionally have a hard time teaching we should be terrified of God. So they reinterpreted “awe” to mean terror-due-to-reverence. It didn’t take 500 years for that to happen, either; it took less than a century. In Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (the first English dictionary which was any good, published 144 years after the KJV) he defined awe as “reverential fear; reverence.” Johnson’s proof-quotes didn’t come from bible, either. They were all from then-contemporary books.

So to define the KJV’s words, we need a 500-year-old dictionary. Or an Oxford English Dictionary, which in the full multi-volume unabridged version will tell us what words used to mean. But your average dictionary-preacher doesn’t use the Oxford dictionary. He uses Webster’s. (Not sure which Webster’s, ’cause the name isn’t copyrighted, so any publisher can use it. But still.)

When someone preaches the English dictionary, they assume people aren’t gonna double-check with a different bible translation. But other translations are our best defense against such people. In the NKJV and ESV, “Stand and awe and sin not” has become, in the NKJV and ESV, “Be angry and do not sin.” It’s likely the verse Paul had in mind when he quoted it. Ep 4.26 Others go with the more literal “Tremble and do not sin,” (NET, NASB, NIV) because they’re not gonna assume what David meant by rigzú, but leave it up to the reader. Could mean trembling in anger, like Paul suggested. But you’re not gonna deduce that from the KJV and a modern English dictionary.

Now, KJV fans aren’t the only people who do this. I’ve seen preachers quote Webster’s with the NIV. Never even occurred to them to use Strong’s. And they’ll do just as a misbegotten Strong’s-quoter will: They’ll pick the most unique definition and try to preach it. “Tremble” can refer to an unsteady or hesitant voice, so their sermon becomes about how we should always be hesitant to commit sin. True, but it’s still not at all what David meant.

Best case, you’re just gonna get a sermon full of nice-sounding, true-enough, but useless platitudes. Worst case, you’re gonna get heresy. Which people won’t notice, ’cause they like the false message. It resonates so much with their flesh, they’ll even respond, “I can feel in my spirit it’s true!” That ain’t your spirit, chum.

So let’s pay close attention when people try to preach from the dictionary. Double-check them on your phone. Find out if Strong’s really does say what they claim it does. Don’t fall for the whole secret-knowledge vibe they’re trying to evoke. God’s revealed his secrets. We’ve got them. Let no one, including me, tell you different.

Bible study.