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Why do We Learn?

One of the advantages of formal equivalent translations is that they tend to maintain the distinction between dependent and independent constructions. Often the key to understanding an author’s flow of thought is the difference between an indicative or imperative and a participle. And yet sometimes functional equivalent translations maintain the distinction as well.

There is a cycle in Colossians 1:9–12 (NIV). Paul prays that God fill the Colossians “with the knowledge of his will” (πληρωθῆτε τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ).

  • This is going to happen through the work of the Spirit (ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ συνέσει πνευματικῇ).
  • The purpose of this is expressed with an infinitive: “so that you may live a life (περιπατῆσαι) worthy of the Lord.”
  • What it means to be “worthy” is spelled out with a prepositional phrase: “and please him in every way (εἰς πᾶσαν ἀρεσκείαν).”

Then Paul starts with a series of dependent participles, spelling out what it means to be worthy of the Lord.

  • “bearing fruit in every good work” (ἐν παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ καρποφοροῦντες)
  • “growing in the knowledge of God” (αὐξανόμενοι τῇ ἐπιγνώσει τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might” (ἐν πάσῃ δυνάμει δυναμούμενοι κατὰ τὸ κράτος τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ)
  • “giving joyful thanks to the Father” (μετὰ χαρᾶς εὐχαριστοῦντες τῷ πατρί)

I want to make two points.

Paying attention to whether a construction is dependent or independent is important in exegesis.

The NIV translates v 10 as “so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” It sounds like there are two goals of being filled with the knowledge of God, to live a worthy life and to please him. But surely the infinitive περιπατῆσαι is describing the goal of knowing God, and the prepositional phrase εἰς πᾶσαν ἀρεσκείαν is telling us what a worthy life is, or the ultimate goal of living a worthy life.

The ESV is no better: “fully pleasing to him.” It does not translate the preposition, which loses the explicit connection with the previous phrase, and it adds the words “to him.” So much for being “essentially literal.”

Secondly, and more importantly, note Paul’s cycle:

  1. He prays that we are filled with the knowledge of who God is.
  2. The purpose of that knowledge is so that we bear spiritual fruit.
  3. As we bear fruit we cycle back around and continue to grow in our knowledge of God (αὐξανόμενοι).

The problem with the Pharisees, with much of modern education, and the problem in many “Bible preaching” churches, is that there is no cycle. People learn to learn, but it doesn’t change them. We all know people who have sat in good churches or gone to good seminaries, who can cite the Catechism, questions and answers, win the Bible drills, and yet are addicted to pornography and gossip. There is no growth because they see knowledge as an end in and of itself.

Paul’s goal is that God will so work in the lives of the Colossians that they will live lives worthy of God, which means their lives will change, bearing fruit.

So please, when you learn, don’t be content with the head knowledge. Make the long and arduous journey the 18 inches to the heart. Complete the cycle. If you don’t, are you any better than the Pharisees?

Jesus has a word for people who learn but don’t allow the learning to affect their lives: “fool” (Matt 7:26). But those who do complete the cycle, he calls “wise.”

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