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The Influence of the Renaissance and Rationalism on the Church

and Cutting off Arms in Malachi 2:3

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Question #1:  I have been asked to discuss the following topic: “The Renaissance and Rationalism: How have they affected the Church”. Could you please give me your perspective?

Response #1:  As I often have occasion to remark, my area of expertise is exegesis, not apologetics, so that there are many who can give better answers to this sort of question than I. One such person is David F. Wells, and I commend to you the following two books by Dr. Wells:

        No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Eerdmans; Grand Rapids: 1993)

        God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans; Grand Rapids: 1994)

I think it would not be unfair to Dr. Wells and his overall thesis to say that essentially his view, which I and many others share, is that the modern way of thinking ("modern" since the Renaissance and especially since the Enlightenment) is flawed because it is anthropocentric, putting Man in the center of the universe instead of God. Since this is not only a societal, but civilization-wide and in many senses a world-wide phenomenon (and one which in my view really goes back to the days before the flood), there is no question but that the Church is affected to the extent that those of us who make up the Church allow ourselves to be influenced and our way of looking at the world to be dominated by the ubiquitous modernism and growing post-modernism that pulses through our respective cultures.

To put the issue in my own terms, this world is the devil's world, and just about every human "movement" has been deeply influenced by Satan (see the Satanic Rebellion series passim). If we look to the world for our solutions, we are bound to be disappointed and stand to be completely deceived. For as Christians we are not to love the world (Jas.4:4; 1Jn.2:15-17; cf. Matt.16:24-27). We are looking to a better, a "new" world and a new city whose architect and builder is our Lord (Heb.11:10). Clearly then, anything that Man by his own efforts tries to accomplish is bound to be flawed and insufficient, and inevitably influenced by the evil one (like the tower of Babel, for instance). Whether we embrace human reason and human moral instincts as our guide, or whether we despair of objective truth and ultimate purpose, no worldly system or philosophy will ever be able to provide us with the power of the truth that resides in the Bible unlocked through the fire of the Spirit. So I will close with the observation that the true Church is not the church visible to the human eye; that is, the true Body of Christ is unlikely to be affected by the trends of the world since we who genuinely believe cleave to the truth and are dedicated to searching for God through His written Word in the service of the Living Word, our Savior Jesus Christ; whereas the church visible, the institutions that can be seen with the eye, may indeed be (and have indeed been) influenced by the trends of this world, by reason, and rationalism, and scientific inquiry, and cynical skepticism, and subjective psychology. A good deal of what one hears in many "churches" today has much more to do with these worldly points of view and little to do with Jesus Christ and the truth we are called to embrace and spread. That is evident in almost any sermon you are likely to hear out of almost any pulpit these days, where “pop-psychology”, “relevancy” and emotional and entertaining illustrations make up the bulk of the content (oh yes, and a couple of quick quotations from the Bible to give the thing a little panache). You will find more about all this at the following links:

        The problem of science and the Bible (from SR #5)

        Laodicea: The Church Era of Degeneration (from CT 2A)

Hope this is of some help to you. Yours in Him who is the truth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

Question #2: 

In my Oxford Study Bible Malachi 2:3 begins with the line, "I shall cut off your arms." Any help on the meaning of this passage would be greatly appreciated.

Response #2:

The first half of Malachi chapter two is a divine rebuke to the priests of the Lord who are not pursuing the truth of God's Word as they should (cf. v.7 “The lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction - because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty” NIV). But “cutting off the arms” seems a strange punishment. When to Oxford we compare the KJV which has "Behold, I shall corrupt your seed", and the NIV which has "Because of you I will rebuke your offspring", it is understandable that an English reader would be confused about the seemingly boundless possibilities for translating this short Hebrew sentence. The Hebrew verb translated in Oxford “cut off” here, ga'ar usually bears the meaning "to rebuke", while the noun, translated in Oxford “arms”, zera`, means "seed". A "literal translation" would yield something like "Behold, I am going to rebuke your seed", and, although odd-sounding in English, does bear a prima facie acceptable meaning, contextual questions aside. Of course the real question becomes, what does that "literal" translation really mean in context? For this question of meaning is always behind the search for creative translations and textual emendations in order to make the correct sense of what we have in the text (which in turn is at the heart of the difference between the Oxford and other translations).

The Hebrew itself is not as odd as may be thought at first glance. For one thing, Malachi may be a bit more fond of this verb than the average writer (we all have discrete vocabulary tendencies). The verb ga'ar is only used about a dozen times in the entire OT, and two of those uses are his, here, and again at 3:11. That later use is helpful for our purposes here, for it also stretches the idea of "rebuking" beyond what we generally have in mind in English: "I will rebuke the eater (cf. NIV "pests") so that it will not destroy to your disadvantage the fruit of your ground". Other uses of ga'ar bear out this same difference between Hebrew and English rebuking, namely, the Hebrew is in some way also concentrated on the result as well as the act of rebuking (i.e., the effective restraint of said verbal rebuke: Ps.9:5; cf. Ruth 2:16; Is.17:13; 54:9; Jer.29:27; Nah.1:4; Zech.2:2; cf. "a check applied to a person or peoples through strong admonitions or actions" s.v. ga'ar in TWOT, ed. Harris, Archer, Waltke), in contrast to English we usually make no assumption about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the rebuke. Therefore it seems clear to me that translating ga'ar as "restrain" (i.e., an effective rebuke - because God cannot be resisted) is a bit closer to the mark here.

If one accepts the idea of restraint as being preeminent in this context, then God "rebuking" the agricultural productivity of these rebels, so as to diminish it, falls well within Hebrew OT usage and fits the context as well. The Lord "rebuked" the sea so that it dried up for Israel to escape the Egyptians (Ps.106:9; Nah.1:4). The same poetic figure would seem to be in play here, with God "rebuking" the sown seed so that it does not produce. That is the essence of the first part of the curse - the withholding of divine blessing in the main place wherein an agricultural economy could be blessed or cursed, namely, the productivity of their crops. This is indeed the place where we would expect a general curse first and foremost. More than that, in Malachi 3:8-12, the other place we find ga'ar in use in this book, it is also a question of agricultural prosperity being withheld "as a curse" and promised as a blessing once the nation returns to its proper support of the Levites. With that background, the slightly expanded translation "Behold, I am going to rebuke your seed [so as to restrain it from producing]" seems to fit the context perfectly.

Failure to understand the basic meaning of the passage in the context of the book as a whole has led to a variety of other attempts to explain it dating from antiquity. There is no alternative Hebrew textual evidence for this verse as is most often the case. It is true that Qumram yielded a large part of Isaiah and some parts of Samuel, but these scrolls, while interesting, represent in the eyes of some scholars a "popular" and "mass-produced" tradition inferior to the Masoretic text (and I have also held this opinion for many years). But we don't even have that witness here. What we do have is the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and modern conjecture.

The Vulgate has "proiciam vobis bracchium" ("I will extend My Arm against you"), a clear attempt in my view to understand a difficult passage. The reasoning behind the choice of bracchium (“arm”) is clear enough since the word for seed (zera`) and the word for arm (zeroa`) are very close in Hebrew as the transliteration shows. One would still have to posit the dropping out of a waw in the text (i.e., an actual consonant would have to have been lost - it is not just a question of changing the later Masoretic vocalizations). Since this is one of the most common pairs of words that might be misconstrued one for the other, my sense in reading the Hebrew Bible is that they are in fact very uncommonly misconstrued one for another, even by new readers - it is such an obvious potential problem that everyone is on guard against it, even in places where it might be tempting to switch words (as here). On the other hand, a translator who needs to make sense of a passage is forced into making choices that he/she would never make in the normal course of reading. Everyone who has done any serious translating knows this, and the pressure increases with the audience size and expectation.

Jerome was probably following the Septuagint, and that was his wont. In fact, it is so predictably often the case for the Vulgate to follow the LXX that I personally have wondered how often Jerome really did look at the Hebrew. He probably knew the Greek version pretty much by heart in any case, so that it undoubtedly influenced his translation, especially in tricky places like this. Here, however, one has to give him some credit at least in the sense of improving on the Septuagint. The LXX has here aphorizo hymin ton omon, "I will separate your shoulder" which is Septuagint-ese for either 1) "I will restrain your shoulder/arm" or 2) "I will turn my shoulder/back against you". In other words, it is pretty ambiguous in the LXX, but Jerome seems to have done his best to make the LXX translation into something quite sensible in Latin. He saw that the LXX took zera` as zeroa`, and, accepting this change in the text, added an appropriate verb to match the context.

This brings us to the last stage of the journey. Once one has essentially thrown out the Hebrew text (and there is no good reason for it, as I hope I have been able to show above), then one is free to engage in of all sorts of clever textual emendations. In addition to exchanging “seed” of the text for “arm”, The Oxford rendering also changes the verb ga'ar to gada' , not as radical a surgery as might be supposed. This emendation requires modifying the rhesh into a daleth. Since the Hebrew "r" and "d" are very close in form, this mistaking of one for the other is another extremely common form of textual error. The verb gada' means to "hew down or off", so Oxford has gone Jerome one better, accepting "arm" instead of "seed" and then finding a plausible verb to go with the noun. This emendation seems to have its genesis in Oxford's famous "BDB" lexicon which explains restraint of the priests' collective “arm” as follows: "that they may not extend it to bless" (172a).

What we are left with in Oxford's emendation seems to me too clever by half. The “restraint of seed” actually read in the Hebrew original fits the context and the text, whereas the “cutting off of the arm to restrain priestly blessing” not only rings a false note (does God need to do this to prevent blessing?) doesn't seem to me to fit either text or context: a curse has a tangible negative side as implied in chapter 3, not just a withholding of a prior positive.

If I felt strongly enough about the difficulty of ga'ar, I would be more inclined to switch the ayin and the rhesh to get the word gara', a verb that means to "diminish" or "restrain" without the complication of a verbal rebuke (cf. Ex.21:10 where food is the object) - this would not require any change of the noun or loss of letters in the verb. The transposition of letters by readers and writers is one of the most common textual difficulties generally, and Hebrew with its large collection of quite similar triliteral roots is especially vulnerable to such mistakes (as anyone who reads the OT in Hebrew is all too well aware). And I see that the Biblia Hebraica editor of Malachi, K. Elliger, interprets the LXX's verb aphorizo as a translation of just this more common Hebrew verb (although he also wants to read gada', “cut off”).

The bottom line in all this is that the Hebrew text we have is quite good, and in much better shape than most classical texts. Hebrew does possess its own unique idiom, linguistically, poetically, and theologically, and in my experience it is always better to take a second and a third look at the Vorlage, as the Germans call the original text, before wandering off into the land of textual criticism, no matter how brilliant one may feel one's ideas to be.

Hope this helps!

In our Lord,

Bob L.


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