Friends, I have some tough words to speak today. I fought doing it, but I can’t keep them to myself, and I have to trust that being charitable doesn’t mean hiding from concerns.
I’ve written about translations before. It’s a complicated topic. No translation is perfect. No translation really ever will be. There will always be a need and a benefit to honest, unbiased scholarship. However, in the English-speaking world, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, we’re been exposed by God for hidden motives behind our translations, and the complications have been brewing for several decades.
Some translations will claim to be more “dynamic” or take a “thought-for-thought” philosophy. But this philosophy by itself is vain. This approach allows someone to believe they are less responsible for seeking God behind the text, when in reality it takes more active seeking to pay attention. It allows someone to believe they understand the original cultures of biblical times, when in reality the only culture they may understand is the one the translation chose to reflect. It allows someone to believe they have the intended meaning more often, when in reality they have been subjected to lowered defenses, and as a result take the translators’ opinion (as well-intentioned as it may be) as the intended meaning.
Some translations will claim to be more “literal” or take a “word-for-word” philosophy. This philosophy by itself is also vain. This approach allows someone to believe they possess the actual Word of God in their hands, when the actual Word is Christ Himself. It allows someone to believe they have the actual words of God Himself, when in reality the actual words are in other, ancient languages. It allows someone to believe that thier positions are simply “as God says it,” when in reality they too have been hindered in the natural duty to test the spirits; thus, they take hidden agendas behind the translation as gospel. For example: both the NRSV and NASB claim to be more literal. Yet the NRSV deliberately seeks to eliminate engendered language and in the process yields terminology inconsistent between testaments. Likewise, the NASB deliberately and unnecessarily seeks to limit words to a masculine form wherever possible, and in the process yields terminology that feeds subconscious sexism. Both of these translations are faithful to their intentions — those intentions just don’t safeguard as much as we want. Only God can do that.
See, often times, the translation is not about being “literal” or “dynamic,” but about being socio-politically conservative or liberal, and hence finding a specific “niche” in Church readership. Even those translations that seek to balance the two create the same problems for the same reasons, and the reliance upon these philosophies, indeed the fact that we use them as descriptions instead of the real perceptions we hold about Scripture, can lead to impoverishment. “Don’t worry about the problems with translations: just compare as many as you can.” So instead of being enriched, the believer is burdened with more work, more doubt, more confusion, and more costs. “Don’t worry about the other translation philosophy, just trust us.” And the believer is open to all sorts of influence for any number of unchecked biases, an influence which eventually causes division in the Church along social, political, and economic lines – none of which ought to hold the Church hostage.
What are we to do? This modern English-language Diaspora has revealed much about us as a Church. Firstly, it seems we need to make sure we are not taking any preconceptions about God or the world, and their respective intentions, to the biblical text. Secondly, we need to make sure we are not taking any preconceptions about translation to the text. The only way we do that is seeking God’s Spirit in Christ before seeking Him in the text. God did lead the Church to canonize the bible as it stands, after all. Does God break through the barriers we have to understanding Him? Absolutely. But does God also leave us responsible for our intentions in coming to Him? Just as absolutely.
The bottom line, friends: are we relying on something as if it were God in order to subconsciously stop seeking Him, or are we earnestly trying to listen to God and let Him lead us by and in accordance with His nature? Anyone can read any bible for any reason, and we know it. What differentiates the Church (or should differentiate it) is trusting in His Spirit. We need to continue seeking His Spirit in community, in prayer, in Scripture, and in shared activity. We need to continue trusting that His Spirit has been working in the Church historic, just as much as we need to continue trusting that His Spirit is working in the Church today.