Thoughts on Bible Translations

R. Scott Clark

Associate Professor of Church History

Westminster Theological Seminary in California

(c) R. S. Clark, 2001.

We live in an uncertain age. One German sociologist characterizes our time as defined by liquidity. This is a term we might associate with financial matters, but it applies to vocation and to virtually every other sphere of life. There was a time when it was not uncommon for a man to work for the same company all his life. My grandfather worked for IBM for 30 years. My father-in-law worked for the railroad for 40 years. Today, it is not uncommon for one to change jobs even professions every few years. Indeed its important for success to be flexible. If you can adapt to the changing work environment, you will likely prosper. Not only are our funds (we invest in stocks not savings accounts) and employment liquid, but our values and virtues. Practices of all sorts which were once unmentionable in polite society are featured on radio and television talk shows. The chief consequence of this liquidity is uncertainty.

Socially, some have reacted to uncertainty by trying to go back to some perceived golden age. In the church there has also been a retrenching, a reconsideration of the viability and acceptability of positions which were relatively non-controversial only a decade ago. One of those areas is Bible translation. In the last 25 years there has been an amazing number of English Bible versions, some of them well-done and some not so well-done. The boom in English translations has caused some to question to whole business of contemporary translations. These critics favor returning to the Authorized Version (AV) or the King James Version of 1611. Others call for the return to a form of textual criticism of the original texts which was practiced before the late 19th century. These critics favor the so-called Majority Text and sometimes the English translation based upon that text tradition known as the New King James Version.

These two groups are often highly critical of the most popular and well-marketed of the contemporary translations, the New International Version (NIV). To be sure there are many legitimate criticisms which one might make of the NIV. Some of the criticisms, however, create more problems than they solve.

Some, for example, have complained that the NIV is partly a translation and partly an interpretation, i.e., there are places where the NIV gets the sense of the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) into English accurately, and other places where the translation appears to be too interpretive. This is a difficulty, but at least it is not a new problem.

There has never been a Bible translation which has not been an interpretation. This was true of the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Scripture which became the "Authorized Version" of the medieval church. It was true of the
early English (e.g., Tyndale) translations, of the AV and all subsequent translations.

This is because interpretation is necessarily a part of the translation process. Some seem to think that translation is like a vending machine, one puts in a word from the original language and out comes a guaranteed correct English translation. Of course, in the nature of things, translation does not and never has worked that way, not even in our day of electronic translators. If you have used a Web-based translation program, you have seen the sometimes amusing results. Why? Because context affects the meaning of words. We experience this in speech daily. If I ask, "Would you carry that for me?" If the hearer is a skilled English speaker, he will likely guess that I'm not addressing him as "Wood." How does he know? Experience and context. The same phenomena occur in written speech. These sorts of nuances are things one cannot teach a computer, at least not yet.

Rather, at every turn the translator must choose a word or phrase or clause or sentence which best expresses what he understands the original to be saying. He must make judgments about the intent and message of the original language as well as the nature and usage of the receptor language.This process of deciding what the original text and receptor tongues are saying is the science and art of interpretation. Those who have done the great work of pioneering a the work of translation, e.g., Martin Luther, have been very honest about the difficulties faced by a translator.

No successful English Bible translation, with the possible exception of the 1888 Revised Version (RV) or the 1901 American Standard Version (ASV), has ever attempted to use a one-for-one correspondence of the same English word
for the same Greek/Hebrew word, because it doesn't work very well. As any competent translator will admit, translating is as much art as it is science. There have been those which have attempted to overcome these necessary judgments but these, as I say, have failed. It is as impossible to ignore the demands of the receptor language as it is to ignore the demands of the source (original) language.

Some have criticized the principle of dynamic equivalence (i.e., the practice of not repeating the exact words of the original text but using an equivalent word or phrase in the receptor language) as the methodological culprit which leads to conflating translation and interpretation. Certainly DE is open to abuse and perhaps there is a better way, but again, this problem is not new. The Vulgate contains numerous examples of DE. Even the translators of the AV were influenced by this principle.Thus they chose "Easter" for "pascha" in Acts 12:4. Why? Because they thought it would communicate more clearly to their readers whom they expected to understand the prayer book and the church calendar better than the OT calendar. Few would charge the translators of the AV of liberalism or corrupting God's Word in their translation. [Though its not often noted that part of the motivation for the AV was to produce a competitor to the Geneva Bible since James I/VI did not care for the anti-tyrannical rhetoric of some of the marginalia in the GB.]

There are more conservative ways of translating, e.g., using "propitiation" instead of atonement. When the translator makes such a choice, he is calling for the education of the reader. I agree that the NIV should have chosen "propitiation" instead of atonement, since the latter is too vague and misses some important aspects of Biblical teaching contained in the original
language. There are many other examples in the NIV where they should have been more conservative and allowed elders and ministers to do their work.

Still, for those who have had to do the work of translation, these are difficult choices. When the NIV was published, many complained that it was too difficult. Though aware of it, the NIV was not my first choice as a young Christian. Not having been raised a Christian, thus not knowing the Christian vocabular, having come to faith as a young man through the ministry of a non-Reformed sect, I found my father's RSV absolutely baffling and was grateful when I was given a copy of the Living Bible. My children (8 and 10), have been raised in a covenant home with the NIV and are mostly able to understand it, but such is not the case for everyone. Of course, difficult cases make bad law, but the Bible is for everyone, not just for the well-educated.

As for the textual history underlying the various translations, the historical truth is that God has marvelously preserved the autographa sometimes in pots in caves, sometimes in deserts and sometimes in monasteries. Whatever text one favors (TR or MT or UBS/NA) there is no avoiding the exercise of judgment about which text is superior in a given reading. There are at least two decisions to be made in every case: (1) What are the external probabilities, i.e., which reading has the strongest, most
ancient textual history; (2) What are the internal probabilities, i.e., which word/phrase did the author most likely use? On this both the advocates of the eclectic text (e.g., Metzger) and the majority text (e.g., Sturz) agree.

In the Reformed tradition we have consistently affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture in the autographa. We have always known that there are no perfect translations. Therefore, as it is the minister's sacred duty to study God's Word in the original language as he prepares to stand in the pulpit and proclaim the Law and the Gospel, so it is his solemn duty to learn the history and practice of textual criticism so as to be able to determine the autographa in any particular case.

Finally, it just as it is the minister's responsibility to teach God's people about the true meaning of kaphar/hilasmos etc., it is also his duty to explain the basics of translations and even to explain, at least, that we do the work of text criticism. There is no reason not to tell our people about the questions surrounding Jn 7:53-8:11, Mark 16:9-20 or 1 John 5:7. Ignorance about these issues does not advance their understanding of the faith or their piety. In none of these cases or in any of the others, are any Christian doctrines jeopardized by textual critical questions.

Therefore one should not dismiss the NIV too hastily. It has its problems to be sure, but as a reader of God's Word in the original languages, I find the NIV to be about as accurate as any of the other reputable translations (e.g., NAS, NKJV) and quite readable.

One solution to the dilemma of which translation is to use different translations for different tasks. The NIV is perhaps better for public reading and the NASB (especially the updated version) is perhaps better for private study, especially for those who do not have access to the original languages.

I have found the NKJV to do an excellent job as a translation in some passages and a disappointment in others. My chief concern, however, is the textual theory behind the NKJV. Certainly we are free to use it, but I would chafe at being bound to the majority text and even more to being bound to the textus receptus.

Nor is it the job of an English Bible translation to inculcate readers into the history of the English language. This latter task is an important one which I take seriously, but the chief function of a Bible translation is to communicate the sense of the original as faithfully as possible in English. That said, I am quite in favor of educating the reader and quite opposed to "dumbing down" translations, hence the Living and the New Living and the New Revised Standard -- which not only did not fix the earlier error the translation of Rom 9:5 but compounded it! -- are probably not the best choices for public use in confessional Reformed churches.

We should also be cautious about elevating one translation or another as the official or quasi-official translation of our churches. After all, Synod has not spoken on this matter has it. There are some denominations which have spent a considerable amount of energy arguing about this issue. Some want to make the AV the official translation. Others want to make the NKJV the official translation. Some even wanted to bind us to a particular theory of text criticism. Some wanted us to be obligated to use only the textus receptus and others argued for the majority text. Certainly we ought not repeat those mistakes. In our search for certainty about and accuracy in the text and translation of God's Word let us not rush hastily into premature pronouncements about this or that translation.

Having spoken in favor of the NIV (or better a plurality of translations), I am not partisan and would be happy for better alternative. There is another promising translation in the pipeline called the English Standard Version which is a revision of the Revised Standard Version. I have seen several sections of the new translation and it is sound.

Below is a list of some interesting works on Bible translation and textual criticism (advocating different positions on the various issues) in chronological order:

Luther, M. "An Open Letter on Translating",
Warfield, B. B. Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Thomas Whittaker, 1887)
Schaff, Phillip. Comparison of the American Revision and the Greek (Harper, 1892)
Allis, OT, Revision or Translation? (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948)
Metzger, B.M., The Text of New Testament (Oxford, 1968).
Akroyd, Evans., ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3 vol., (Cambridge,
Kubo, S., So Many Versions? (Grand Rapids, 1975)
Bruce, F. F., The History of the Bible in English (Oxford, 1978)
Van Bruggen, Jakob The Future of Bible (Nashville, 1978)
Sturz, Harry A., The Byzantine Text-Type and New Testament Textual Criticism
(Nelson, 1984)
Louw, J.P., (Editor) Lexicography and Translation (Bible Society of South
Africa, 1985)
Barker, Kenneth L., The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation (Grand Rapids,
Wenham, John., Redating Matthew Mark and Luke (London, 1991).
Comfort, P. W. The Quest for the Original Text of the NT (Grand Rapids, 1992)
---- The Origin of the Bible (Wheaton, 1992)
---- Early Manuscripts & Modern Translations of the New Testament (Grand Rapids,
---- The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, 1999)