Sunday, February 27, 2011

2 Corinthians 9:7: Cheerful or Hilarious?

In another post (here), I mentioned the exegetical fallacy of “reverse etymology.” This is where people force the modern meaning of a word onto its original meaning. In that other post, I talked about how some critics attack the Bible because the Hebrew word עוֹף (oph) seems to contradict their understanding of the modern word “bird” (Leviticus 11:13,19). However, the fallacy of reverse etymology isn't practiced only by critics. It is more often used by well meaning Christians – even pastors. One example of this fallacy I've heard from well meaning Christians concerns 2 Corinthians 9:7:

Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

The word translated here as “cheerful” is the Greek word ἱλαρός (hilaros) – used here in the neuter, ἱλαρὸν. You might recognize the word. It is from ἱλαρός that we derive our English word “hilarious” and it is on that fact that I've heard many well intended pastors pounce. They say, for example, that tithing shouldn't just be joyous, it should be “hilarious.” The problem with this view is that English word hilarious, though it may be derived from the Greek, still carries a different meaning to the modern hearer than it did for the original audience.

Strong (word # 2430) defines the word simply as “joyous, cheerful, not grudging.” HELPS Word Studies expounds on this a little: “properly, propitious; disposed because satisfied – describing someone who is cheerfully ready to act because already approving ("already persuaded"). hilarós ("won over, already inclined") is only used in 2 Cor 9:7 where it describes spontaneously non-reluctant giving.”

Tithing is a form of worship. Everything we have is given to us by God (John 1:16). When we tithe, we give back a portion of what God has given to us. We should want to do this. It should be done with a glad heart and not begrudgingly. This is what 2 Corinthians 9:7 is telling us and this is what is meant by the word ἱλαρὸν. That is how the original hearers would have understood it.

Something different is meant by the word hilarious. Hilarious describes something that is extremely funny. Those pastors I've heard use this point try to suggest we should be happy to the point of laughter. It's as though we should be rolling on the floor laughing when the offering plate goes around. Do you really think that is what Paul meant? Tithing is joyous but it's not a joke.

I believe there is great value in studying the original meaning of words. Word Studies are fantastic tools that can give us new insights into familiar passages. However, we need to be careful as we consider these words. Remember that when the Bible was being written, English didn't exist. It's a powerful temptation to project our understanding of a word onto its original meaning. We need to resist that temptation. Do not consider what the word means now; instead, ask yourself what the word meant then.

7 comments:

memama said...

I just heard our local minister use this verse and the word "hilarious" to explain what True Giving was all about. That explanation did not sound correct to me. I am so thankful to find your thoughtful explanation posted here! Being able to find a good resource for further study of God's Word helps us all begin to rightly divide The Word of Truth. Without that The Body of Christ can begin to accept every "new thing" that may enter it's fold. Thanks!

RKBentley said...

Memama,

Thank you for visiting and for your comment. I'm glad I could be a blessing to you.

Before I began studying Greek, it always annoyed me when people talked about the Greek meaning of words in a way that significantly changed the meaning of a verse. I was frustrated then because I didn't know the language and knew it just didn't sound right. After having studied Greek, I become even more annoyed when I hear people do this. I see now how amateurish these arguments usually are.

Your minister is probably well meaning but this is an example of how a little knowledge can be dangerous. Languages are very complex things and translation is not an exact science. That's why there are so many different English versions of the Bible. Seldom will two different languages have equivalent words with exactly the same semantic range of meaning.

Whatever English word a translator assigns to the Greek word, there is an almost irresistible temptation to project the English meaning onto the original meaning. An even more controversial example of this occurs in John 2 where most translations have assigned the English word “wine” to the Greek word “oinos.” “Wine” in English means something very specific. It doesn't have the same range of meaning as the Greek word “oinos.”

You're very wise to exercise healthy skepticism when hearing any one expound on the Word. One might say it's rather Berean of you. I also recommend the practice to anyone reading my blog.

Thanks again for visiting. God bless!!

RKBentley

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of pastors make mistakes with reverse etymology.

But it seems like you are implying that the passage is about tithing. It's about a collection that was being taken up for some poor saints in Judea, not for some modern style local church tithe. Tithing to the local church is not found in scripture, and if it were, that isn't the subject mentioned here.

Donny D. Williams said...

Ty you for these words, you truely can not know how much they have touched me!

RKBentley said...

Donny,

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad I could be a blessing to you! Please keep visiting.

God bless!!
RKBentley

Allen Taylor said...

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. There are many variations and interpretations to hilarious. Don't be too quick to discount this additional meaning to tithing. As a writer, the only person who truly understands the meanings of the words used is the author. To prove using another example, there isn't a word in African languages for faith. A pastor recently on a missions trip to Africa accidently stumbled onto a very good interpretation...which means to recline or put all of one's weight onto. Be careful when discounting "hilarious" as a substitute for cheerful. Let me ask you a question: Can you out give the LORD?

RKBentley said...

Allen,

Thanks for visiting my blog and for your comments.

I agree that we need to consider the meaning intended by the author. When we look at the verse in question, we need to remember that English did not exist as a language when Paul was writing to the Corinthians. Whatever else he may have been thinking, we can be certain he was not thinking of the English word “hilarious” when he discussed giving.

When I began learning Greek, I quickly realized the challenges faced in translating. Very seldom are there two words in different languages that have exactly the same semantic range of meaning. A real problem in translating is that when you assign an English word to a Greek word, the English reader tends to project the entire range of meaning of the English word onto the original word.

A good example of this is the English word, “wine.” In English, wine has a very specific meaning. The Greek word, “oinon” has a much wider range of meaning which includes not only the alcoholic drink but also a thick, sweet drink of grape juice that has been boiled down until it's mostly sugar. We don't have any word in English that means exactly the same thing as the Greek word so most translations used wine as the closest in meaning. Now, when we read passages like John 2, the first impression to English speaking people is that it says Jesus turned water into an alcoholic beverage. We don't know if that's the case.

When translating the passage in Corinthians, we don't have an English word that has exactly the same meaning as “hilaros.” “Cheerful” is probably not even the word I would have chosen. I might have used, “glad.” No translation uses, “hilarious”; It's just simply not appropriate.

Thank you again for visiting. Please come back. God bless!!

RKBentley