Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gennao: Just What Does It Mean?

Several months ago, we published a post titled Word Games demonstrating how COGWA, an Armstrongist splinter of the Worldwide Church of God, twisted Greek words to support their problematic doctrines. But please don't think we were picking on COGWA alone. The leadership of COGWA, LCG, UCG and other WCG splinters all learned from the master how to spin Greek definitions at Herbert W Armstrong's Ambassador College.

This is nowhere more evident than in HWA's writings about the Greek word gennao, with regards to his teachings on "born again". Today, we'll consider the use of this word as we continue our look at the COG's traditional teachings on "born again. (Click here for parts one and two of the series).

The crux of Armstrong's teachings on "born again" hinged upon the interpretation of gennao. The word truly can be translated both as "begotten" (as in siring or impregnation) and "born." But HWA claimed that Catholic, and later, Protestant doctrines influenced translators to render the English word incorrectly in order to to support their "false teachings" on regeneration.
"This led to translating gennao into the English term born in many instances where it rightly should be translated begotten," 
"They simply chose the English term which conformed to their erroneous belief."
-Herbert Armstrong, Just What Do You Mean Born Again, p 35-36.
This is sad news for the "King James Version Only" crowd. According to Herbert Armstrong, who preferred the RSV, your KJV Bible is sorely mistranslated.

Before we go any further, let's look at what Spiros Zodhiates' Complete World Study of the New Testament has to say about the definition. We assume the COGs find this resource trustworthy since UCG references the book in its "born again" study paper, as well as many COG Ministers throughout the splinter-sphere use it as a reference.

Gennao can mean "to beget," as in men begetting children, "to be born," as in women conceiving, and sometimes delivering children. It can be used allegorically and metaphorically. And it can refer to the impartation of spiritual life. (p. 891)

So, according to Zohiates, gennao definitely can mean born. Armstrong does not say that born is an invalid translation. He tentatively admits that it is valid. He simply asserts that the mainstream translators make a contextual error. So that is precisely where we will focus: context. Does the context better support the idea of "begotten" or "born?"

(In case you aren't super familiar with the rather dated word "begotten," Merriam-Webster defines it as to procreate as the father, to sire, or to produce as an effect.)

Armstrong insisted that in nearly every instance where gennao referred to Christians who had received the Holy Spirit, the word should be translated as "begotten" (Just What Do You Mean, Born Again, 36), and that when the word was used in a present tense, it referred to a fetal state (ibid, 34). The exception is the future. Armstrong agreed that the key gennao in John 3 was correctly interpreted as "born again" because he believed that John 3 looks to a future time when Christians literally will be born again with spirit bodies at Jesus' return. But in general, he asserted that other scriptures were mistranslated.

Since we grew up in Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God, we've heard this gennao issue tossed around for decades. It has been a contentious issue in some of our extended families. To tell the truth, looking at the issue was a little intimidating. After all, HWA must have had SOME good reason, some leg to stand on. It's a major pillar of his teachings on salvation.

In short, he didn't. It would seem that he did exactly what he accused translators of doing - he chose an English term that supported his erroneous belief.

We claim his was the erroneous choice. Can we support that claim? Yes.

For example, let's consider 1 John 2:29, which reads: "If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him." According to HWA's logic, the verse should read "everyone who practices righteousness is begotten of Him," with the implication that they will be born later.

Does this translation fit in the context of what John wrote? Not at all. Just look at the verse that immediately precedes it.

(1 JOHN 2: 28) And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.

Why would John mix metaphors? John referred to the readers as children just one sentence earlier. It is clear even in Armstrongist interpretation that John was not writing to literal little children, but he was speaking metaphorically. These are spiritual little children; John's disciples. Jesus is to come later, but we are little children now. The Greek word translated "little children" literally means infants. The context supports "born" as the proper translation.

Let's turn a few pages ahead to 1 John 5:1-2:

(1 JOHN 5: 1-2) 1 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves Him who is begotten of Him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments.

Verse 1 actually does use the word "begotten" for gennao. Let's keep in mind that gennao does mean "to father," but does not refer exclusively to the gestation period. According to Armstrong, gennao should refer exclusively to the gestation period.

When we take a look at verse 2, we can see that John is exhorting us to show love to the born children of God, not the fetuses of God.

(As an aside, the scope of this study does not encompass the exposition of the term "commandments" in verse 2. See our FAQ for more on that detail. We also have several articles on this topic, such as "If You Love Me, Keep My Commandments". A list of these can be found in the Categories page.)

We will explore 1 John 5:18 and 1 John 3:9 in more depth later in this study. Suffice it to say we have found that Armstrong's statements about these verses are neither consistent with the Bible nor his own teachings about what gennao must mean in this context.

HWA insisted gennao should be translated "begotten," as in a fetal state, in scriptures where Christians had received the Holy Spirit. But I'd like to visit some other New Testament scriptures that use gennao to give you an idea just how out-of-step Armstrong's claims were.

Matthew 1:2-16 - the "begats" includes a long list of paternal lineage. This passage does not indicate a fetal state. All of these men were born and sired another generation.
Matthew 26:24 - "it would have been good for that man if he had not been born." Clearly he was born, given the context.
Luke 1:22 - "and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son..." This is clearly a future tense, as Zodhiates indicates.
Luke 23:29 - "blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore..." This passage refers to a time of trouble, when it would be a blessing not to have children to worry about or provide for. Barrenness was considered a curse in that day, so this statement would have gotten attention. And must refer to pregnancies that resulted in a live birth, or else there would be no child to worry about in this time of trouble.
John 1:12-13 - "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name; who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." If we are only begotten according to Armstrong's theory, we do not have the right to become children. We have a possibility if all goes well, but not a right.
John 8:41 - "We were not born of fornication; we have one Father - God." This verse technically would still make sense if it were interpreted "begotten," but that is clearly not the implication in context.
John 9:2 - "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Blindness does not directly have anything to do with how someone was sired. True, something likely went wrong with the man's eyes during his gestation, but this was not known until birth anyway in that day. Nor does the context indicate this was what anyone meant.
John 16:21 - "but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish..." Clearly indicates delivery, not gestation.
John 18:37 - "for this cause I was born." Yes, Jesus technically was conceived for the same cause, but gestation alone would not achieve the cause.
Acts 7:8 - "Abraham begot Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day." Though interpreted "begot," no one can circumcise a fetus. Birth is clearly insinuated. In this verse being sired and the act of birth are both in mind. It must refer to the complete process.
Acts 22:3 - "born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city..." Paul technically could have been conceived in Tarsus, but the language here indicates he is contrasting his birthplace with the city in which he was raised.
Romans 9:11 - "for the children not yet being born..." Yes, this passage does refer to unborn fetuses as children but gennao clearly is in reference to the act of birth. If they had yet to be sired, there would be no children, no fetuses, no nothing of which to write.

Even the United Church of God uses the term "unfortunate" to describe the belief that "beget" can only mean "conceived," not "born."

Gennao has different connotations when it describes men's and women's roles in producing children, but the word did not have two different definitions, according to UCG's 2002 study paper on Born Again. This study paper clearly tries to play both sides - appealing to those who realize HWA's theory was flawed while trying to calm the anxiety of Armstrong loyalists who feared UCG was changing doctrine. While the paper loudly shouted it wasn't changing anything, it also whispered the conclusion that gennao cannot be dissected into stages of the reproductive process - it refers to the completed process. So, they aren't changing anything; they're just changing everything.
"Gennao relates to the completed process in both cases and the definitions bear this out," according to the paper (UCG, page 10).
John Ritenbaugh, founder of the Church of the Great God, also agrees that the weight of scripture heavily indicates gennao means "born", not "begotten", even in contexts far removed from the John 3 controversy.

John 3
Since Ritenbaugh brought it up, we probably should turn to John 3. It's really the whole point of the discussion anyway.

(JOHN 3: 1-4) 1 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him." 3 Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4 Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"

In spite of what I JUST quoted, about what UCG wrote concerning gennao, the 2002 study paper criticizes those who translate the word's John 3:3 occurrence as born, "Probably because the term born again is so deeply entrenched in mainstream Christianity." (UCG, page 10). Wait, I thought we couldn't parse the process? So I repeat, they play both sides.

Ritenbaugh sides with the Bible translators that "born again" is the correct translation for John 3. Ritenbaugh indicates that birth, not conception, is how other passages should be properly translated in English as well. The term is most correctly translated "born again," not "begotten again," especially when combined with anothen, as it is in both John 3 and in Titus 3:5.

We need not parse words. Let's ask the audience what they understood. Ritenbaugh points out that Nicodemus gleaned "birth," not "begotten" from the conversation.
"This is why Nicodemus responds by saying in verse 4, 'How . . . can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born [also in the passive voice]?' He does not say, 'How can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be begotten?'"
-John Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten? (Part One),
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if this is to be rendered 'begotten again,' then it isn't the mother one would re-enter, but rather the father.

Ironically, HWA too believed that "born again" was the correct translation here, because according to his view it spoke of a future time when believers would be given spirit bodies. But the grammar doesn't support that idea. The word is correctly translated "cannot," combining the Greek dunamis (to have the ability, permission or power to do something) with ou (which indicates the absolute negative of the previous word). It is in the present indicative tense. It is not future-looking. To reiterate, Armstrong's "born again in the distant future" claim is not supportable by the Greek here. The Greek does not support the future, but the present. Nicodemus' present, to be precise.

Then we add anothen, the word that follows gennao. Zodhiates explains that anothen can mean "again," "anew" or "from above." It is derived from ano, which means "upward."

Not surprisingly, UCG favors the rendering "from above." Either way, they conclude Jesus appears to be focused on the divine source of the child, not on a literal delivery. (UCG, p 12).

We're actually fine with UCG's rendering. It makes sense, especially when you consider gennao is a variation of the Greek word genos, which has overtones related to country, generation or national stock. In fact, it's far more descriptive - our new identity, our heritage, our nationality comes from above, from God. But the fact that UCG gets anothen right doesn't change the fact that we are talking about a birth that takes place now, not the far future.

Additionally, they admit that John 3 and other verses use gennao metaphorically "to refer to the divine origin of our new life in Christ. This new beginning is also referred to as a 'new creation' in 2 Corinthians 5:17, but is not a new birth in a bodily sense." (UCG, p 11). Ok, well, what if mainstream Christians agree that this new birth is not bodily?

HWA or Peter: Who do You Believe?
Need further evidence that HWA tried to cram his belief into the Bible wherever he could? Let's turn to the book of 1 Peter. Written to a troubled, scattered church, this book is intended to remind Christians that their present sufferings are nothing compared to their heritage in Christ. In 1 Peter 1:23, the author reminds believers that they have been born again of incorruptible seed. The word used here is anagennao. Adding ana to gennao indicates repetition of gennao.

Just a few verses later, the author continues the metaphor he began in verse 23:

(1 PETER 2: 1-3) 1 Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and evil speaking, 2 as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.

This passage gives us a word picture of infants newly born, eagerly seeking milk to sustain and grow them. If indeed, they have tasted that the Lord is good - if, in fact, they have been born again, been fathered from above, however you would like to translate it.

No matter how you word it, the timing is now.

HWA explains away this passage by claiming Peter refers to the gestation process having started within us with the incorruptible spirit of God. Peter shows that the God has imparted the presence of eternal life within us, Armstrong claims, not that we are already born again. Quite a feat of linguistic acrobatics!

Further, HWA would have us believe Peter chose to use a newborn instead of a fetus in his comparison simply because it would be awkward to compare it to a physical embryo or fetus.
"He is not saying we are already born babes in God's Kingdom - but as - or like newborn human babes,"
-Herbert Armstrong, Just What Do you mean Born Again, p 27).
But this is not merely a preferential translation of Peter on Armstrong's part, it's a complete rewrite. This isn't a simple reading from the Bible. Armstrong is changing the Bible to put information into it. As if to say, "It doesn't matter what Peter did say. This is what Peter should have said."

Then he goes on to remind us that Peter's example is an analogy, which he notes Webster's Dictionary explains as a comparison between two things, "consisting in the resemblance not of the things themselves, but of two or more attributes, circumstances or effects."

Oh wait. You mean that an analogy is only a comparison? It doesn't mean the two things being compared are literal counterparts? So HWA would have us believe Peter's scriptural passage is just an analogy, while HWA's preferred explanation is factual? Peter's scriptural example is deemed an analogy, to be taken figuratively, because it's awkward jutxaposted with Armstrong's extra-biblical description of reality? What's wrong with this picture?

The only thing that's awkward here is Armstrong's interpretation, according to Ritenbaugh's analysis.
"The apostle makes quite clear in 1 Peter 2:1-2 that he considers those he is writing to as already born, rather than unborn and within a womb. Only a child already born would feed on milk, or Peter's metaphor would be totally wrong."
-John Ritenbaugh, Born Again or Begotten? (Part Three),
Hebrews 5:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 both chide brethren for still needing milk when they should have been able to handle solid food, spiritually speaking. As a mother, I can assure you that the "solid food" stage comes after, not before, a child is born.

We have seen that Herbert Armstrong had no leg to stand on and no good reason for his insistence on "begotten" over "born." We have shown that the UCG and CGG splinters both understand this. Not only that, but we have established that Nicodemus understood matters in this way as well. In fact, in order for John 3: 4 to be translated as "begotten," Nicodemus would have to ask Jesus how a man can re-enter his father to be begotten again. We have amply demonstrated that it was in fact Herbert Armstrong who was practicing preferential reinterpretation of the Bible, while pointing the finger at Bible translators and accusing them of bias.

Why is this so? Why do so many of Armstrong's doctrines absolutely depend upon rewriting the Bible? A little snip here. A little edit there. How many people have to be wrong for Armstrongism to be right? Nicodemus is wrong. Peter is wrong. John is wrong. Bible translators are wrong. Bible commentators are wrong. You and I are wrong. Who are you going to believe, Armstrong or your lyin' eyes?

After exploring the word gennao, we have to conclude the only reason Armstrong would read "gestation" into scripture is because of misunderstandings about who Jesus was and what He did. We will consider those next time.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

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