A frequent prayer of mine, for I don’t know how many years, is, “Lord, make me so I worship you in spirit and truth, whatever that might mean.” I know from John 4:24 that God wants that. If I don’t know what the prepositional phrase means, I want to know what it means in my life even more than I want to know what it means in my head. I want God to know that, too. And I know that God knows the meaning of the phrase. And, whether I understand the phrase or not, I know I’m still deeply dependent on his help to weave that meaning into my life, even into who I am. Still, I’ve wrestled with the meaning for a very long time.
I started out with Worship in spirit and truth–John 4:24 (part I) and I’m heading to this result:
The worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.
How do I get there?
A.T. Robertson, in his BIG grammar says:
[Prepositions were originally adverbs]. This is now so well recognized that it seems strange to read in Winer that “prepositions e.g.often assume the nature of adverbs, and vice versa,” Giles puts the matter simply and clearly when he says: “Between adverbs and prepositions no distinct line can be drawn.”…Brugmann …adds that we cannot draw a sharp line between the use as adverb and the use as pre-verb or preposition. [pg 554]
Essentially, a preposition connects the phrase to something in the sentence adverbially—that is, it modifies it. The intent of using prepositions was to speak and write more clearly, to hone away any misunderstanding. Interestingly, even though he is speaking about Greek prepositions, Robertson points out that the Emperor Augustus was noted for his extensive use of Latin prepositions to increase clarity. He points out that one must first consider the grammatical case, then the preposition, then the context. The order is important. He says the preposition was used to clarify the case meaning.
It’s when we transfer the result of that process over into English that we get into trouble. We tend to think we have to “do it with a preposition.” If the result is adverbial in nature, we have some leeway on our voyage to accuracy.
Generally, grammars convey that this adverbial function carried by the preposition is geometric. Many of us, I’m sure, have seen Machen’s diagram. Therefore, we very easily seek an analysis of ἐν which is always locative. Robertson’s discussion even supports this mindset. So, when considering the John 4:24 clause, we try to make worship occur in spirit and in truth. Therefore we go through extensive mental gymnastics to make sense of that. For me, that has never worked. I’ve tried.
Let’s look at some other examples (English text is from the NASB).
Matthew 11:21: πάλαι ἂν ἐν σάκκῳ καὶ σποδῷ μετενόησαν (“they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”). Does this repentance occur in the location of sackcloth and in ashes? Not really. The sackcloth and ashes are viewed as highly related to the repentance. This is the dative idea which the preposition strengthens and makes more clear. Compare Mat. 11:21 with the meaning of “repent in a car and the front seat” and you should see what I mean. This later is obviously speaking of location alone. Now, does that mean that the repentant person was not viewed as having put on the sackcloth? No, he or she was viewed that way—even though they might not have actually put on the sackcloth. The emphasis is not on the actual location; it’s on modifying the conceptual implications of the verb.
Luke 4:36: ὅτι ἐν ἐξουσίᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ἐπιτάσσει (“with authority and power he commands”). Is the power and authority in the commanding? Obviously not. The people were stunned by who this Jesus was. The power and authority are highly related to the commanding, but they did not exist in it; they existed in Jesus. Again, this is the dative idea strengthened by the preposition. There’s an adverbial relationship between the objects of the preposition and the verb. In this case, the translators captured this by using ‘with’.
Luke 21:34: μήποτε βαρηθῶσιν ὑμῶν αἱ καρδίαι ἐν κραιπάλῃ καὶ μέθῃ καὶ μερίμναις βιωτικαῖς (“your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life”). Is the burdensome difficulty located in the drunken behavior and anxiety? Again, no. Though with some mental gymnastics you can make that work. It’s better to think of these occurrences in instrumental terms and not locative terms. I think it would be appropriate to translate this clause using ‘by’ instead of ‘with’.
To get a little closer to the words used in John 4, we can consider Luke 1:17: αὐτὸς προελεύσεται ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ δυνάμει Ἠλίου (“he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah”). This can be easily rendered as, “He will go…with the same spirit and power as Elijah.” If you think very carefully about what you mean when you say, “going in the spirit of” you can see that using the phrase ‘with the same’ means essentially the same thing.
How does one say worship with one’s spirit in English? One can say just that. However, one can say the exact same thing by saying worship spiritually or one can say, the worship must be spiritual. The adverbial nature of the relationship is more clear without the preposition.
There’s still a question of what worshipping spiritually refers to in the real world. I’ll address that in a moment. But, at least we now have a clause that is starting to look like English.
As an aside, I’ve wondered whether Matthew 11:21 should be “ash permeated sackcloth”, Luke 4:36 should be “powerful authority”, Luke 21:34 should be “anxiety filled drunken behavior” (recall a primary driver to drunkenness is depression), and Luke 1:17 should be “powerful spirit”. That is, the two joined objects of the preposition should be thought of as a single concept. But, I’m getting off track. I just bring it up here since it rather surprises me how often it seems to work quite well.
Let’s move on to ἀλήθεια (“truth”). I’ll not spend as much effort here. As I’ve been mentioning, we have to connect the concepts to the real world. This intentionally considers the Pragmatic features of the text (that is, it considers the words as they relate to the communication context). We have to work through the Pragmatics of the original as well as the Pragmatics of the destination.
Conceptually, truth, authenticity, and integrity are related. Truth is thought of as more theoretical, more ethereal, more abstract. Don’t misread me; it can be relied on and in my epistemology, must be. However it is cognitive; it can’t have flesh and bones, it can’t be seen unless embodied in something. However, integrity and authenticity are truth practiced. When truth becomes embodied, it becomes integrity. Integrity and authenticity refer to the pragmatic (ie. practical, not Pragmatic) side of truth. These are when we see truth.
In our language it is more natural to talk about truth in doctrine or to talk of an axiom or thought that is true. However, when we talk about an action or a person, we talk in terms of authentic behavior or having integrity. Even in Bible translation topics, when we talk about an authentic translation, we’re referring not to the doctrine contained in the text. We’re talking about how faithfully the translation has reproduced the original content in our real textual world, the one we hold in our hands.
Here’s an example of these two types of “truth”. In their world the two types can be referred to with one word. In our world, they are different words.
John 8:44: ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ οὐκ ἔστηκεν ὅτι οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλήθεια ἐν αὐτῷ (“[The devil] does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”). Notice the two different phrases. One is “person in the truth.” The other is “truth in the person.” What does it mean to stand in the truth? And what does it mean to have truth in you?
Let me ever so slightly change the wording of the NLT in John 8:42-47 so you can get your mind around a larger context (a conceptual metaphor) within which these phrases are used. My change is underlined:
Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has no authenticity, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.”
The whole argument here revolves around who is authentic—Jesus or the Jewish leadership. The leadership said they were the authentic children of God. Jesus answers by saying the devil isn’t authentic because he’s a liar, and since the leadership can’t even understand Jesus (who speaks and lives only the truth), that makes them liars, too. Therefore, they can’t be authentic children.
This argument rests on the difference between two expressions: the person who is in the truth and the truth that is in the person. The later refers to one’s understanding of what is true. The former refers to how the person lives out what is true. In our words, the later refers to truth, the former refers to authenticity.
Dealing with such a difficult to translate text deserves a much more thorough explanation. Certainly, it needs more proof. My intent here is to give people some linguistic meat to chew on. We won’t solve all the issues here. I certainly haven’t. However, I think it’s very important to notice a translation which doesn’t communicate. If a translation doesn’t communicate, then any argument that it is accurate falls to the side—how can it be accurate when no-one knows what the translation means? Or, how can it be accurate when it can mean so many different things to different people?
Well, more needs to be done. However, for now I’ve arrived at: the worship of God by his worshippers must be spiritual and authentic.
Ok, I had asked above what it was in the real world that worshipping spiritually referred to. So, you’re probably wondering, what’s the real world referent of πνεύματι?
To clarify that is the preacher’s job.
Tell you what, I’ll address that in another, very short, installment. It will be short since I’m going to simply express my own view. The reality of it, however, is that spirituality is a big topic. And the disjunction between modern psychology and anthropology and the same of 2,000 years ago is quite substantial. There is simply no way to capture the reorientation via a single word (or two) in John 4:24. Many Christians disagree what spirituality means (which is why the posting will be short )
Lastly, consider what I’ve said above by comparing it to Peterson’s translation in The Message. Personally, I find it rather satisfying since I hadn’t seen this before I started writing these posts.
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.” [verses 23-24]