Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Discipline" - an unhelpful translation?

Here's a passage which I find really unhelpful when you're going through a hard time, but which shouldn't be...

And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:5-11, NIV

So what? We're meant to endure hardship as discipline? Try telling that to the woman whose child has died – that it's God disciplining her! How's that a “word of encouragement”? It's stupid, pastorally insensitive, and just plain wrong. We don't live under the law. We don't believe in a God who gives us petty material rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. Maybe that's the way it worked in Leviticus, but not for the Christian.

There are two problems here. The first is the word “discipline” - most translations seem to use it in Hebrews 12, but I don't think it's warranted.

Discipline: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience.
παιδεια: upbringing, training, instruction.

The Greek word which we translate as “discipline” doesn't quite mean that though. “Training” would be a better translation – it's the idea of an adult training a child. Sometimes that involves punishing disobedience - we suffer because we do things wrong. Sometimes, like with hard physical training, it's difficult and painful when we do it right as well. The word used for "discipline" here carries both ideas - it's the same word translated “training” in 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage isn't saying that all hardship is discipline. It's saying that God uses hardship to train us, like any kind of training can be hard, but we respect it and work with it.

The NIV translators generally did a great job – it's just about the best translation of the Bible into modern English. But they had a shocker when it got to Hebrews 12:7, and most other translations didn't do a lot better...
“Endure hardship as discipline – God is treating you as his children.” (NIV)
“It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.” (ESV)
”Be patient when you are being corrected! This is how God treats his children.” (CEV)
”Endure what you suffer as being a father's punishment; your suffering shows that God is treating you as his children.” (Good News)
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons;” (NJKV)
The NRSV is probably the most helpful of the major translations here, except that it still uses “discipline”; “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children...”
I think Eugene Peterson pretty much nails the sense though in the Message:
God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.
The idea is that we should endure difficulties and hardship because God uses them to train us. God is our Father. He hasn't let go of us; he isn't leaving us to the ravages of chance or punishing us for our own weakness. He knows what he is doing, and he is training us to trust him, even in and through the difficult times. Now that's a comfort, and an encouragement to keep going!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Pet Peeves - Misusing "Quantum"

One thing which annoys me is when people who don't know what they're talking about abuse scientific language. One of the most egregious examples of this is the word "Quantum". It sounds cool, I know, but it really doesn't mean what most people seem to think it means.

This is what "Quantum" means:

Quantum: the smallest possible non-zero amount of something

It was actually quite a revolutionary idea to start with. There is a smallest possible amount of water - you can't take a jug of water and keep pouring half of it away - eventually you will end up with the smallest possible amount of water, and you either pour it all away or keep it all. Or I guess you could try splitting it and if you did it really cleverly you might end up with two beryllium hydride radicals which aren't water at all. Quantum is weird because we're used to the real world, where there are normally so many lumps of stuff that it looks smooth to us.

The same is true of pretty much anything - there's a smallest possible amount of light (one photon), of electric charge, of electricity, whatever. Maybe even of space, which I find quite weird as an idea. This leads to a couple of other common phrases:

Quantum Mechanics: the study of how quantum stuff behaves.

Quantum Leap: a jump between two states with no intermediate stages - i.e. the smallest possible change in something.

Quantum leaps can be big (I guess), just usually they're really small. A legitimate example would be to say that moving from DVD to Blu-Ray is a quantum leap, because there are no intermediate stages. But the fact it's a quantum leap doesn't imply anything about the size or the significance, just that there's no intermediate step. "On the 100-question multiple choice physics exam, Tony went from 35% to 36%. That's a quantum leap.

Misusing the word "quantum" is like claiming that Shakespeare was a great novelist. It's a basic error which just makes people look stupid.


Quantum of the Seas is a boat. Its name means "smallest possible amount of the seas", and it claims to be the smallest possible step forwards from its predecessors. On that basis, I wouldn't bother.

Almost every single use of the word "quantum" in relation to the social sciences or arts subjects I've read has demonstrated major misunderstandings - even C.S. Lewis in Miracles. The big exceptions are when the author themselves has a masters or better in physics - e.g. John Polkinghorne.

Quantum of Solace is a film. I think they actually got the title about right - it's like a crumb of solace only much much smaller as Bond continues the transformation from hard man to killer to utterly ruthless and remorseless suave super-agent.

Quantum Leap can be forgiven just about anything.