The Theology of Bible Translations
Born-again believers often feel the call to travel and live among foreign people to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them for the first time. They leave home, family and friends, and live in foreign lands, with the sincere desire to translate the Bible into the native language so that people may hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved by the power of God. As they prepare to leave for the foreign field, they often attend translation training programs. At this point in their lives, they may have already been trained at a Bible college or seminary. Yet, the translation training often inculcates a new theology that undermines the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible. The students in language training often do not recognize or appreciate the theology of bible of translations and how it will affect all the work they will do in translating the Bible into a new language. The devil works early to stifle the life-work of many Bible translators. Four main errors predominate in the work of many foreign and domestic Bible translators and every believer should be concerned about the spread of theological errors at home and abroad attacking the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Fellowship with God and other believers rests upon the doctrine taught by the apostles and prophets of the New and Old Testaments, as contained in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Departure from the theology of the Bible results in problems with fellowship with God and other believers.
Departure from Verbal, Plenary Inspiration
The New Testament writer John described the basis for fellowship among believers and with God as fidelity to the doctrines communicated by God’s Word. In 1 John 1:1-4, the way we have fellowship with the Father and with other believers centers upon fidelity to the apostles’ testimony to the Person and work of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has just one body of believers, united in fellowship with Him, and filled with His joy, when they follow His teachings communicated by His apostles. When anyone departs from His teachings, then a problem with fellowship with Christ and His church follows. One very important doctrine taught by Christ concerned verbal inspiration. Verbal inspiration of Scripture means that the words written by the authors in their original autographs were totally and perfectly inspired by God to communicate His truth.
The Word of God contains many passages that emphasize the verbal inspiration of Scripture. Please consider the following passages.
- Matthew 5:18. “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Jesus emphasized that even the smallest parts of the written Hebrew language were inspired by God and constituted a part of the inspired text. Words, even parts of words, counted with the Lord Jesus Christ. He used specially chosen words to communicate His truths.
- Mark 12:36. David himself said in the Holy Spirit, ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND, UNTIL I PUT YOUR ENEMIES BENEATH YOUR FEET.”‘
In quoting the exact words of the Old Testament, Jesus did two important things here. First, He emphasized, again, the verbal nature of the revelation of God: the exact words count. God did not communicate just thoughts, but He chose precise words to communicate His thoughts. While all words are symbols, not all words communicate the same symbols. Therefore, the words matter and God chose His words with great care. Second, Jesus distinguishes “LORD” (“יְהוָה”) from “MY LORD” (“לַאדֹנִי”). The different Hebrew words for Lord and My Lord indicate, in this context, two persons of the Trinity (Father and Son); plus, in the same verse, He also mentions the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Notice, however, that the word “MY” plays a very important role, and in the Hebrew Old Testament text quoted here, it is just one small letter (yod) comprising a suffix of one word in the original text of Scripture.
Many other texts in the Old and New Testaments show that the very words of the original text of Scripture matter because God chose just those words to communicate His thoughts. Roger Nicole provided a list of New Testament verses that depend upon a single word in the Old Testament: Matthew 2:15; 4:10; 13:35; 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 4:8; 20:42, 43; John 8:17; 10:34; 19:37; Acts 23:5; Romans 4:3, 9, 23: 15:9-12; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Galatians 3:8, 10,13, 16; Hebrews 1:7; 2:12; 3:13; 4:7; 12:26 (New Testament Use of the Old Testament, in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1958), 139. The thoughts flow from the words God chose to be written down. He used individual writers to communicate those words in their own style and vocabulary, but God superintended the entire process so that the autographs (the finished product of each writer as it left the pen) were without error and totally and completely communicated God’s message by the Holy Spirit as He moved the men to speak for God (2 Peter 1:20-21; compare 2 Timothy 3:16 for the totality of the words being inspired).
Examples of Departure from Verbal, Plenary Inspiration
Below I will discuss some of the problems with people departing from the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration. I am chiefly concerned that many translators reject in practice the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. With that in mind, I will discuss the first problem.
Problem One. Translators who change the words of the original text of Scripture to capture the meaning of Scripture deny both the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scripture.
When people seek to convey the meaning of Scripture, and they feel liberty, or even compelled, to change the words of Scripture to convey the meaning of Scripture, clearly that translator has departed from the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture.
A translator once told me that a good translator would change the words of the Bible to make a better translation. For example, a translator said he would rewrite Ephesians 1:2-14. He meant that in Ephesians 2:8, the English word “which” should be changed. The translator acknowledged that the New American Standard Bible (1995) translation using the English word “which” in Ephesians 1:8 accurately translated the Greek text. But, the translators then said he would not translate the verse that way because he could substitute in the noun for the pronoun. The translator attempted to convey the meaning the translator took from the original text by changing the words of the original text. The translator made the change even though the English word “which” accurately reflected the original text. The translator said that he could convey the meaning better by changing the words. Although this change may seem to some people a small change, it illustrates Problem One.
Furthermore, many translators employ the practices and follow the theology of Eugene Nida, a pioneer in Bible translation, but a man who apparently rejected the verbal inspiration of Scripture. Many translators laboring in foreign and domestic fields use Nida’s works every day in their translation work. Based upon the quotation below, Nida apparently had no regard for verbal inspiration, i.e., that the words of the original autographs of Scripture were breathed by God through human instruments moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 1:11 with context; 2 Peter 1:19-21). Instead of verbal inspiration, Nida believed in inspired thoughts, not necessarily inspired words. Translators should reject following Nida’s anti-Scriptural theology that influences so much of his translational theory and practice. Nida wrote:
“Greek and Hebrew are just “languages,” with all the excellencies and liabilities that every language tends to have. They are neither the languages of heaven nor the speech of the Holy Spirit.” (Eugene Nida and Charles Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003; first published 1969), p. 6.
Nida’s point appears to be that the Holy Spirit did not speak through the Greek and Hebrew languages. In the alternative, he may have meant only that those languages are not special apart from God’s revelation through them. Yet, the Bible was written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. With this sentence, he apparently denies the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible. Nida devoted his life to translation work and provided many helpful works on the subject, and a great new methodology in some respects. But his basic departure from verbal inspiration must cause Christians to use his works only after careful reflection upon his bias against verbal inspiration. Adopting Nida’s methods without sifting out his theological errors endangers the translator’s spiritual life and works.
Some students graduate from seminary, and later learn the theories of dynamic equivalents, embrace them, and then conclude (erroneously) that their seminary professors did not deal with real-world translation issues, but lived in academic ivory towers. Part of seminary includes learning to evaluate from Scripture the different things that people teach and practice. People have already exposed some of the problems with Nida’s dynamic equivalents in translations. See http://www.crossway.org/product/1581347553/browse/19#browse and http://sharperiron.org/showthread.php?t=8781. Interestingly, the Evangelical Theological Society adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 2006 (see http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html for a description of the statement). The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy rests upon the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. I do not understand how a person who follows Nida’s theology and employs functional equivalents as a primary method of translation (as Nida urged) could agree with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, or call himself an evangelical under that definition (see the bibliography of mixed conservative and non-conservative works presented at http://www.bible-researcher.com/versbib11.html.
Nida preached against the “worship of the word” when believers should be worshiping God. Nida has championed the use of dynamic equivalents in translation work, translating the Bible “thought-by-thought.” Instead of focusing upon the words of Scripture to convey the meaning of Scripture, the translator following Nida’s theology attempts to grasp the meaning of Scripture by capturing thoughts. Practically, Nida teaches a three-step approach to take those thoughts from the Bible into the culture of the receptor language, in a way meaningful to the recipient. No one, myself included, advocates worship of the word. We worship only one God in three divine Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All other worship amounts to idolatry. While Nida apparently throws the charge of idolatry towards all who hold to verbal inspiration, serious problems abound with Nida’s approach to translation.
The second problem relates directly to the first problem.
Problem Two. Translators who ignore some words of the original text of Scripture to convey the meaning of Scripture deny both the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scripture.
Do not misunderstand. Every word in the original text of Scripture does not need to be rendered in the receptor language with an exact word, so that the word count in both the original text of Scripture corresponds with the word count in the translation. I know of no one advocating that position. Yet, every word in the original text of Scripture should be accounted for in the translation in some manner. Looking at the same issue from another perspective, “thought-for-thought” translators have a propensity to use a modern or colloquial expression to convey the thought of the original writer of Scripture, and to communicate that original thought in a culturally relevant way to the audience receiving the message. Again, the translator’s take on the meaning of the text takes priority, and the goal becomes to convey the translator’s meaning to the target audience. So, if words from the Scripture help to communicate that meaning, then the translator uses them. If not, the translator finds words that will communicate that meaning. The problem is that the translator’s meaning takes priority over the Scripture so that some words of Scripture no longer matter. In a larger sense, the translator’s concern for the perspective and understanding of the reader (with shades of existentialism, neo-orthodox, and rhema word theology) takes precedence over the truth of Scripture. All the truth of the original text (communicated completely through the words in the original text) of Scripture must be taught to the readers, but the translator worries that not all truths of the original text can be translated completely and accurately into the words of the receptor language. Sometimes, teaching must follow translation. When the translator believes that he can simultaneously do the job of both translator and teacher, he may be doing neither very well. In fact, the translator may be unintentionally denying the verbal inspiration of Scripture.
Some translators have a lip-service concern for the words of Scripture, but as in section one above, the translator does not feel an obligation to translate every word or to account for every word in the original text of Scripture. The translator perceives an obligation to convey “thought-by-thought” the meaning of Scripture, without necessarily taking into account every word of Scripture. In fact, the translator believes that some words need to be changed or deleted from the text to make the meaning more clear to the audience, particularly if that audience “lacks the background” necessary to understand the passage. Every translator must remain faithful to every word of the original text, without changing or deleting words in the original text in favor of “better” translations or “more understandable” translations. I recognize that a good English translation may not translate word for word every particle of the original text of Scripture, but the translation should be careful to account for every particle in some way without deleting them so that their meaning in the original text of Scripture will not be lost. Details matter. While everyone should seek the most readable and most understandable translation, using culturally appropriate language and ideas, it should not be done at the expense of fidelity to the truth of the original text. All attempts to edit the original text deny the verbal and plenary inspiration of the text of Scripture. Simply put, humans cannot improve upon the original text of Scripture.
The third problem involves additions and subtractions to the original text of Scripture.
Problem Three. Translators who add or subtract any material to the original text of Scripture to promote the translator’s meaning of the Scripture deny the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scripture.
God revealed important theological concepts using some very important theological words. For an example, consider the word “redemption.” The native language of the audience may not have a word to convey the Scriptural idea of redemption. At that point, the translator must make choices. Some translators feel compelled to convey the idea of Biblical redemption found in Ephesians 1:8 without using the Biblical meaning of “redemption.” Some translators recognize that the intended audience had no understanding of the idea of Biblical redemption, and, therefore, using the word “redemption” would only confuse them by translating a word using concepts unfamiliar to them. Some translators mistakenly believe that a different concept may be substituted. This type of deletion of critical terms like “redemption,” with all of its important theological implications for the believer, highlights the problem of subtracting from the original text, and in so doing, the translator, in practice, denies verbal, plenary inspiration at this point.
No one doubts that translators must make many very difficult decisions with many passages in Scripture. Even then, to some degree, every translation will contain some interpretation. Furthermore, many languages do not contain words for key Biblical concepts. The choices regarding how to communicate the words of the original text, and so convey the original meaning of the original text of Scripture, will often require the translator to seek special help according to God’s grace and power to translate that passage. But exactly at this point methods really matters. If the translator in theory or practice denies the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration of the original text, then the translator will not focus upon the words of the original text, but rather upon the ideas of the original text. Thus, method and doctrine influence the way the translator makes choices in communications.
The fourth problem focuses upon the translator’s view of paraphrases.
Problem Four. Translators who primarily and routinely paraphrase the original text of Scripture, but yet claim to produce translations of the original text of Scripture, deny the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scripture.
Some translators prefer paraphrases of all Scripture. Any translator that says a believer would be better watching a television program about the Bible than actually reading the Bible illustrates the problem of paraphrases. In 1 John 2:27, we know from Scripture that every believer has an anointing from God that teaches the believer all things, and is true and is not a lie. Many translators tend to ignore the anointing from God in their translation work. For example, when a translator says that believers would be better off watching a secular television program than spending time studying the New American Standard Bible, then they undermine confidence in the Scriptures and ignore verbal inspiration and the anointing from God. When a translator says that believers lack sufficient background to understand the Scripture, then that translator undermines the sufficiency and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures. Of course believers benefit from studies of the background of Scripture, but the lack of background knowledge does not demand that believer close his Bible until the believer gains such background knowledge.
Some translators teach from the New Living Translation or similar paraphrases of the Bible. Although some people will argue that the New Living Translation is a translation, the translators of the New Living Translation routinely paraphrase the words of the Bible. The New Living Translation employs the thought for thought scheme of translation and depends heavily upon dynamic equivalent theology. Some people, however, have pointed out many serious problems with the New Living Translation. For example, the New Living Translation deletes important words in the original text of Scripture: Romans 13:4 deletes the word “sword”; Romans 13:4 deletes the word “wrath”; Mark 6:2 deletes the word “hands”. Likewise, The New Living Translation deleted the words “soul” and “spirit” from statements of Mary found in Luke 1:46-47. The deletions often change the meaning of the passage in favor of the translator’s interpretation of the passage. At other times, as with the Mary example, the New Living Translation completely loses the details of important concepts such as “soul” and “spirit” as they apply to human beings and God. English certainly has words to convey the meaning of the examples cited above, but the translator seeking to convey the translator’s meaning paraphrases the original text of Scripture. The claim that the product of the translator routinely paraphrasing the original text of Scripture produces an accurate and complete translation of the text of Scripture cannot stand. In making such a claim, the translator has changed the original text of Scripture and so denied in practice the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration.
Clearly, the New American Standard Bible (1995) is not the only acceptable English translation. The translators of the New American Standard Bible paid some attention to the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible. Some translators routinely paraphrase the words of the Bible. Their translations paraphrase at the high cost of losing fidelity to the words of the original text of Scripture and result in a denial of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. Words and details communicated by God through His messengers using His chosen words remain the best guides to understanding the truths of Scripture. The original text of Scripture must not be subject to additions, deletions, or other changes at the prerogative of human translators. Consider a reverse translation test. If a native speaker of the receptor language read it in English (but had never learned to read Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic), how close would the English translation be to the truth of the original text of Scripture? That answer would depend upon many factors, but one of them would be how well the first translator communicated the original text.
Some translators work for years translating a native language for the first time into written words. They then translate the Bible into that native language. At times, some translators become convinced that their new, native language translation is superior to all English versions. Some translators become so in love with their new translation that they conclude that all the English versions had not gone far enough in using dynamic equivalents or conveying personal views of the original text of Scripture. The translator exposes personal devotion to paraphrases and dynamic equivalence theology. The devotion to translating thoughts trumps all attempts to provide essentially literal translations, and, for that matter, all other English translations that follow the dynamic equivalents method. In fact, some translators claim that the tribal people “would not need a teacher” because they had a the translation founded upon dynamic equivalence theology. Following this theological approach, some translators apparently feel that they provide English translations of the Bible that would alleviate the need for teachers in American churches. Again, this view of translation imposes the translator’s views of Scripture upon the original text of Scripture so that the new translation is no translation at all, but merely a hybrid of the translator’s personal commentary mixed with the translator’s personal interpretation and some translation. In doing so, the translator denies the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, which stands on its own in communicating truth to all the world. Within the Scripture, Christ gave the gift of teaching to edify the church and equip the saints for the work of service (Ephesians 4:7-14). No translation will remove the need for the gift of teaching within the Body of Christ.
The theology of Bible translation should never be ignored. Rejecting verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible leads to paraphrases of the Bible. God chose the words of the Bible, and they communicate the precise revelations of God. All translators must carefully review their own theology and understand how their theology influences their translations. I pray that God will draw all people to Jesus Christ as Savior. He said that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. God moved men to speak for Him, and God told them not to omit a single word (Jeremiah 26:2). May all translations of Scripture accurately reflect the words God chose to reveal His great love for the world and His desire for every believer to grow up to full maturity in Christ Jesus.