Modern Christian scholarship has this “thing” for the commercialized mosaic that is the bible translation industry. God help us, 2011 has seen two more translations, the NIV 2011 (New International Version for 2011) and the CEV (Common English Translation). For once, we can make a decision and stick with it? The liberal mainline churches are adopting the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) as their standard text across denominational boundaries. If they can do it, why can’t the evangelical churches do it?
Now I am not a “fundamentalist,” in the loosest use of the word, and have no problem with technology and modern conveniences. However, the evangelical church has a humorous tumor that needs chemo. Whereas the liberals have abandoned committed faith for the cause of communism, the evangelical church has sold its soul for the cause of perpetual childhood, vis-à-vis happiness through choice.
The problem is that the plethora of bible translations cannot rightly be called the “Word of God.” When preachers and teachers make the claim that scripture is divinely originated, they make a claim in thin air. Humans, being the creatures of material existence that they are, tend to thrive on concrete examples for abstract concepts. In Christian orthodoxy, the claim of Jesus being the Son of God is an abstract identity verified by the concrete reality of His bodily resurrection. The Christians in the first century church would not have offered their lives solely for an idea or concept. They died for something they believed to be concrete, something they had handled and seen.
A preacher reading from the NIV can say his scripture is the word of God as can a preacher reading from the ESV or the CEV. However, given that the translations, in practical, everyday life, read differently from each other in terms of language, there is nothing of concrete substance to cling to. The “Word of God” ceases to be the written words on the page of the translation and becomes an invisible, intangible “idea” that the translations point to. This is fine for the Christian who lives in the perpetual abstract world of scholarly life, but for the Christian on the street, it is like trying to read invisible words written in the clouds. The translations themselves become disposable means to an end and ultimately lose all value. The Christian reads English bibles to find the word of God, not to actually read the word of God.
Let’s use a concrete example. In Jeremiah 29:11, in the English Standard Version, it reads, For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. The word welfare is footnoted with an alternative translation with the word peace. The NIV reads … plans to prosper you …
Now the words welfare peace and prosper all mean different things. If we are trying to understand what God may be saying to the Christian here and now, was God going to give to the Israelites welfare or peace or prosperity? Some might argue all of the above. Fine. That means, however, that all three translations are themselves not the “Word of God,” but merely point towards an abstract concept that we call the “Word of God.”
What word would we then use to describe a collection of welfare, peace and prosperity? The NLT uses the word good. But then the word good itself becomes added, meaning something different and the search for a new term to describe everything is underway, requiring a new translation to be marketed to the masses.
And on it goes.
In my frustration I return to the King James time and again. It is a 1796 revision of the 1611 text, but a revision is not the same as a whole new translation. The King James remains a fixed and unchanging point in the Christian faith. In Jeremiah 29:11, it reads For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. The word used here is peace. The preacher or teaching may expound on how peace may apply to the lives of Christians, including welfare and good, but the word peace is the “word of God.” Any other word, such as welfare or good is not. There does not need to be a discussion on what other translations are possible because the translation has been done and the word is peace. This provides a concrete source of Christian faith and practice, something tangible to be handled and trusted. Pulpits in various denominations can all say that the word of God says, peace.
Another issue is that with the churches centered on a single translation, the culture then becomes influenced by the words of the Bible, not vice versa. Reading the writings of Christians in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, one can see that their language was influenced by the King James Bible. While the culture did not directly speak the exact language of the text, it was influenced by it.
However, now the fixed point of language and definition is the university and scientific journals, forcing the scripture to adapt to the ever-changing world of secular thought. If the “Word of God” is not authoritative enough to dictate to the culture, and is dictated to, then it is the culture that will be trusted, not the “Word of God.”
For sure, I have a hard time calling the stacks of English Translations the “Word of God” and I would suspect that deep down many Christians harbor the same skepticism caused by a lack of a concrete and tangible text. Simply throwing a new translation on the heap will only add to the confusion. For me the “Word of God” seems like the great unknown, an abstract something that the piles of English translations are trying to point to.
It is not about having a bible handed down directly from God Himself, but rather about having a fixed point of authority that is clear in the minds of Christians. The flood of translations shows that scholars cannot make up their minds and gives the idea that perhaps God has become fickle and unsure of what He wants to say. The church says it trusts the “Word of God,” but is that cheap paperback version of yet another translation what it is talking about?
Until the church decides just what the “Word of God” is in concrete and practical terms by settling on a single and agreed upon translation, I will stick with the King James and trust, by faith, that it is God’s word to a wanting world.
Update: After some consideration, I’m seriously considering adopting and endorsing the ESV as the standard translation for the evangelical church in hopes that the church can stop wasting time and money trying to reinvent the wheel with each new translation. Some stability is needed for the church’s future. Of course, I will have to endure accusations of ESV-Onlyism.