Ambiguity and exegesis: confusing English words

My last blogpost highlighted the mistake that early Christians made between ‘soon’ and ‘suddenly’.  It continues to the present hour, even among academia, with serious practical consequences both to the early Christian church 2Th 3:11 and to current Christianity.

There are other examples of ambiguity in English words leading to confusion in exegesis.  Such an example is the word ‘so’.

So can mean ‘therefore’ or ‘thus, in this manner’.  The more colloquial use nowadays is ‘therefore’, and so, therefore, in this manner, many mistakes are made in interpreting Scripture.

One of the most far-reaching mistakes, affecting congregational and ecclesiastical practice about the Lord’s Supper, is ‘let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup’ 1Cor 11:28.

This is commonly misunderstood and preached as ‘and therefore let him eat’, or ‘having done so, let him eat’.  This interpretation teaches that one examines oneself and as a consequence or as a result of having done so, one eats the bread and drinks the cup.

This is not the whole nor even the proper meaning of this text.  The English word ‘so’ is ambiguous.  It translates the Greek word houtos ‘thus, in this manner’.  The meaning is that the communicant is to eat and drink ‘in a self-examining manner’.  Self-examination is continuous.  It is not a completed action, performed a few days before, but it is a present, continuous action at the Lord’s Supper.

This mistake continues to be promoted in modern translations of the Bible.  The NIV translates ‘before they eat of the bread’, and the same idea recurs in the New Living Translation, English Standard Version, Berean Study Bible and others.  However, the Berean Literal Bible translates it correctly as ‘let a man examine himself, and in this manner let him eat of the bread’, as does the New American Standard Bible and some others, which begs the question why teams of academics got it wrong until recently.

It is common in the Scottish Highlands communion seasons, consisting of several days of preparatory services from Thursday to Saturday, followed by thanksgiving services on the following Monday, to set apart the Friday for self-examination.  This is a good practice, but it does not replace self-examination at the Lord’s Supper.

1Cor 11:28 is the biblical basis for the practice of Fencing the Lord’s Table prior to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, in which the officiating minister explains ‘marks of grace’ to help communicants in this exercise of self-examination and to distinguish the godly from the ungodly.  Some churches misapply this concept in a denominational manner, in terms of membership of their or another church, whereas it is a deeply personal and spiritual matter.

This also demonstrates the different requirements for baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which I hope to address in future blogposts.

There are other ambiguities of language, which I will list as time and opportunity permits, God willing.

Update:

14 Jan 2014: Exegetical mistakes

10 Aug 2018: Soon or suddenly?

13 Aug 2018: So – therefore or in this manner?

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