At the end of the morning service we all stood to sing that familiar favourite from the inspired pen of Isaac Watts, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. I like these old hymns as much as anything for the opportunity they give to sing some serious notes and get some air into my lungs. Whether you are a Christian believer or not their majesty, grandeur and the sheer poetry are surely striking. Imagine then my confusion when we got to the third verse which, on the overhead screen, read:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small”
The original reads “That were an offering far too small”. Fortunately most of the congregation knew this and stuck to the original words of a much-loved and familiar hymn. It seems such a small thing but as my wife and I discussed it we realised that this one word change had altered the whole meaning of the line and robbed it of its power and clarity.
Someone has sat in a room somewhere and decided, “I could make this easier to understand”. Now I am not against making the message more accessible but this is a classic example of the dumbing down of the Christian faith. There are two problems with this dreadful trend and the first is perfectly illustrated in this hymn.
Loss of meaning
In their effort to make this hymn accessible and easier to understand whoever has done this thing has achieved the opposite. A “present” is a gift while an offering is a sacrifice. The hymn writer is talking about the sacrifice of all we have and are to the God we worship. It is not a gift that we give to show affection and enrich the life of the recipient but an offering that we make to show our worship and devotion to the God who saved us.
A further example of this inappropriate simplifying of a text is in John 3:16, the most famous summary of the gospel in the Bible. Many modern translations describe Jesus in this verse as:
God’s “only Son” (ESV, GNB, NCB)
God’s “one and only Son” (NIV)
But the Bible actually says that Jesus is God’s “only begotten Son” (gk.monogenēs). All who are born of God, or “born from above” (Jn.3:3) become God’s adopted children (Ro.8:23). Nevertheless, we are none of us sons in the way that Jesus is “the only begotten Son”. The distinction is vital and is best understood by considering the Nicene formula for describing the nature of Jesus in relation to God the Father:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being...
This is not a nice distinction but a fundamental one and it is important to maintain it. We are sons by adoption while Jesus is God’s Son by very nature, “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father”. Not all translations blur the distinction and the KJV refers to Jesus as the “only-begotten Son”, as does the NKJV and the NASB. A better understanding of church history would surely have made this revisionist think twice before changing such a fundamental phrase.
In the earliest days of the church, after the apostles, men worked and sacrificed risking exile and worst to establish and maintain the distinction that today is almost universally understood to identify Jesus as God’s “only begotten Son”. This one definition helped prevent us believing today the heresy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding the nature of the Son.
Then there is the children’s song from which I got the title of this post. In the song Jesus is referred to as “my mate” [thumbs up because it is an action song] and I can’t help but cringe on hearing it. Again, the intention is honest enough, that is to have children realise that in Jesus they have a friend but there is a fine line between friendship and familiarity and, all-too-often these days, young people are encouraged to cross that line as Jesus is portrayed as this perennially indulgent, avuncular character who comes into your life and makes everything better. A sort of “don’t worry, be happy” pal who is always ready to come out to play, fight all your battles and make your life one long journey of good experiences.
But he is God! He is our Creator! He is our Saviour! And one day he will be our Judge! What are we teaching our young people; to stand in awe and wonder or to stand in line for another blessing because after all he’s our mate?
Loss of Learning
Another victim of this process is the loss of learning in the Christian community. Graphic Bibles are commonplace now and recently we saw news of a Manga Bible. I know pastors who routinely use paraphrase Bibles and even try to find alternatives to Bible reading to “communicate” the message of Christianity because “young people don’t read these days”. But how do they get to pass exams, get jobs and make their way in life without hitting the books? Part of the process of communicating the faith is the practice of teaching and educating.
I can see how people might think that any means of bringing souls to a knowledge and experience of Jesus has to be a good thing and that anything that makes the process easier and the message more accessible might be used. This “all things to all men” approach is flawed however because we come to faith through the knowledge of God and once having come to faith we are meant to grow in faith and that means growing in the knowledge of God.
Contrary to what appears to be believed, especially by the extreme charismatic end of the church, knowledge is not always gained by experiences of God’s immanence; visions, pictures, prophecies and epiphanies; that “I know because I know” sort of knowledge. It is gained by faithful reading and seeking after understanding of God’s word in Scripture.
It is not wrong to seek more contemporary ways to express the truth but it is also our responsibility to challenge people to understand the difficult words, the hard sayings and to grasp the more demanding concepts – the meat of the gospel. If we don’t, we will continue to have generations of believers who should be teachers but who still need teaching (Heb.5:12) and I know too many of them. We shouldn’t be spoon feeding them, we should be providing them with reliable tools of exegesis and setting them to the task of having Scripture make them wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim.3:15)
We often hear the complaint that the world is dumbing down. If the world is dumbing down then we need to teach our young people to wise up!