The Gradual Demise of Christian Schools of Higher Education

A nationwide announcement went out recently in search of a Vice President of Academic Affairs at another formerly Christian college. It sent my mind to wandering. How many Christian schools of higher education do not secularize over time? Outside of revival, it is almost impossible to stop the slow grind into secularism.

An Interesting Example

In 1827, Baptist home missionary John Peck founded Rock Springs Seminary on his farm in Rock Spring, Illinois, just east of St. Louis. Its purpose was to train evangelists, pastors, and missionaries to evangelize and plant churches in the expanding West of the United States. In 1837 the college moved to Upper Alton, Illinois, where it was renamed Shurtleff College. Then in 1957, Shurtleff College closed its doors and reopened as the University of Southern Illinois, Edwardsville Campus. In 130 years the secularizing process was complete.

But what happened to Rock Springs Seminary, and then to Shurtleff College, that led to its eventually merger into the Southern Illinois University system? When was the idea of training men for Christian ministry lost? When was the concept of “Christian” removed from its curriculum and administrative principles? While not considering the particular demise of Rock Springs Seminary, this blog will address the gradual, constant, and sad drift of Christian schools of higher education into secularism.

A Sad Reality

There is very little in U.S. Evangelical culture sadder than the constant secularization of Christian schools of higher education. It is like an inevitable treadmill from which no Protestant School is immune. Further, it appears that there is virtually no antidote to this trend, save the occasional God-ordained and God-orchestrated revival.

[Thinking about the recent SBC Conservative Resurgence in theological education, two scenarios can be extrapolated: (1) There was an actual revival and/or Awakening in the 1980-1990s that accompanied the votes for SBC presidents that allowed for the redirection of the SBC seminaries to a theology in conformity with the Baptist Faith and Message; or (2) God withheld the decline of the SBC seminaries and allowed the resurgence without a corresponding revival. The former conclusion seems far more probable than the latter.

[Further, since we are now 15-20 years after the beginning of the SBC Conservative Resurgence, students who benefited from the education they received after the Resurgence are now impacting U.S. Evangelicalism in a positive sense, as can be noted through the popularity of groups such as T4G.]

In fact, it is amazing that this very clear downward cycle does not receive more academic attention, given the number of formerly Christian schools of higher education that have followed this sad trend. The patterns of secularization are very predictable, like steps going down a ladder. The changes in curriculum are equally predictable, as are the reasons for these changes. The Christian school’s financial struggles are also predictable, leading either to its dissolution or to large endowments funding a high-class secular education.

The fact that the changes are incremental and take place over several generations hide them from plain view. Further, each small change, in and of itself, appears wise, calculated, and necessary for the future benefit of the school.

God’s Sovereignty

A first response to this inevitable drift may be to wring one’s hands in despair, complaining to God that He ought not allow this downgrade to happen. Then comes the gentle voice of the Holy Spirit, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers” (Psa 37:1). Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matt 6:34).

It is so easy to fret that one can become completely paralyzed by discontent in the present and in a fear for the future. Yet God is working out His sovereign plan. He knew and cared about all the individuals alive during the cycles of apostasy of which we read in the Book of Judges. God knew and cared about the individuals alive during the cycles of revival and apostasy during the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah.

The fact that Christian colleges are falling into secularism is not a surprise to God. In fact, it must be part of His mysterious sovereign plan.

Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!”

There are some things that we will never understand about God’s sovereign plan, and the gradual demise of virtually every Evangelical school of higher education, given enough time, is one of these anomalies. But, we need not fret—God is in control!

And yet we do not need to succumb to the secularizing tendency and wash our hands of responsibility to “fight the good fight” in our generation. We ought to learn lessons so that we can be faithful, seeking to understand God’s ways, and then working with Him to keep His Word, His gospel, and His glory central in our focus.

Some Lessons from Doctrinal Demise

  1. God knows that schools tend to a downward trend if left to their own designs. The depravity and rebellion of human nature is no surprise to Him (Deut 31:29).
  2. God allows the personality clashes and battles that exist around classes and curriculum among faculty members and administration (1 Cor 11:19).
  3. Jesus calls His people to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16). Dealing with doctrinal drift in schools in particular, and in theological education in general, requires uncanny wisdom and unusual gentleness.
  4. Often, knowing that a spiritual battle exists, and understanding its lines of demarcation, is the beginning of fighting that battle (2 Cor 10:3-5; Eph 6:10-13).
  5. By inference, God encourages the diligent study of the theological demise of individual schools, so that we can understand the issues, the pressures, and the solutions that are available via diligent historical inquiry (Deut 32:7; Mark 8:15; 13:5, 23; 1 Tim 4:16).

Let’s not forget Rock Springs Seminary, its demise as a seminary, along with the demise of many of its contemporary institutions.

1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses”

Eight Litmus Tests for Christian Leadership

A number of years ago, a political candidate knocked on the door of my in-laws in Plymouth, Minnesota. She introduced herself as a candidate for political office, so I asked her about her view of abortion. When I did so, she became visibly agitated and angry. She told me that she thought abortion was not a real issue and that it should not be used as a litmus test.

Several years later I exited an interview with a group of Board members. Upon exiting, another prospective employee excitedly questioned me, “What did they ask; tell me, what did they ask you?” He wanted to know the litmus test questions of Board members.

The existence of litmus tests to discern the doctrinal and/or practical stand of politicians or Christian leaders is not negative, but rather a necessary reality. The issue at hand becomes what the litmus tests are, and how they are applied. The following provides eight litmus tests. Their inclusion on this list is merely by way of example, and does not imply an endorsement of the question. The esteemed reader may also think of other questions.

Issues of biblical interpretation

  • Are you a premillennial? Sometimes the hidden issue is biblical interpretation.
  • Do you believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11? Sometimes the hidden concern is adherence to evolution versus creationism.

Doctrinal issues

  • How do you feel about biblical inerrancy? The term inerrancy usually implies adherence to the authority of the Bible, and submission to its all of its words as interpreted literally and contextually. Because there are seven views of inerrancy, an answer to this question can be equivocal in nature.
  • What is your opinion of the Doctrines of Grace? Calvinism and non-Calvinism have become very divisive issues in some circles. Therefore, adherence to Calvinism or a clear disavowal of the same has become a litmus test in this arena.

Evangelism issues

  • What do you think of the Great Commission and its place in the ministry of the local church? The primacy and urgency of evangelism are sometimes litmus tests for church leadership.
  • What do you think of ________? Then is inserted a particular method of evangelism, be it servant evangelism, door-to-door, or apologetic evangelism. In this case, the person asking the question often seeks adherence to or non-negativism towards a particular style of evangelism.

Cooperative/ecumenical issues

  • How do you feel about _______? Then is inserted a denominational program. The questioner may be looking for denominational conviction or perhaps an affirmation of denominational independence.
  • How do you feel about the Catholic Church? Convictional openness to Roman Catholicism, usually tested by secondary questions, appears to have become a new litmus test for those teaching on or writing in church history.

Views on evangelism are a bit faddish. And most Christians have clear views on what they believe is right and not right. However, ecumenism is a different thing. We only find fault with what we experience, know, and study. So ignorance can be a problem in the area of ecumenics. Interestingly, since the 1994 “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (brokered by the now departed Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson), openness to Catholicism appears to have become a new litmus test in Evangelical academia.

That being said, litmus tests do have value. Doctrinal and practical positions in one area often spill over to views in other areas as well. Further, Christian leaders may desire to hide their views on touchy subjects. Thus some litmus tests allow the interviewer to discern other views by use of tangential reasoning.

The danger with any litmus test is that it be taken in a vacuum, not considering context, or other important doctrines and practical concerns. Some, looking for quick and easy answers, may not see the full ramifications or implications of an untried or untested litmus test. Young minds often fall prone to quick judgment, and may easily fall prey to a heavy reliance upon litmus tests—which is not all bad!

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”

The Amazing Three and God’s Sovereign Love

The “Amazing Three,” hunger, thirst, and nudity, have a very interesting biblical usage and application.






Deut 28:47-48 In hunger In thirst In nakedness Curse for lack of thanks; also God’s oversight of these things!
Matt 6:31 “What shall we eat?” “What shall we drink?” “What shall we wear?” Trust God for these things
Rom 8:35 Or famine Or nakedness In list of tribulations that cannot separate us from the love of God
1 Cor 4:11 We both hunger And thirst, and we are poorly clothed List of tribulations of Paul and his team members in the ministry
2 Cor 11:27 In hunger And thirst, … And nakedness List of Paul’s reasons for sarcastic self-exultation in the ministry

This trio is first used as a curse in Deuteronomy 28. If God’s people did not give thanks for all the good things that God provided in life, then He would afflict them with hunger, thirst, and nakedness:

“Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies, whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger, in thirst, in nakedness, and in need of everything; and He will put a yoke of iron on your neck until He has destroyed you” (Deut 28:47-48).

In a fascinating way, Jesus used this same trio in Matthew 6 to teach God’s sovereign provision for our earthly needs, when we trust in Him. Therefore, it seems like Jesus applied the control God had in removing these earthly things from our lives with a heavenly point of view.

You can trust in God, for He has ultimate control over what shall you eat, what shall you drink, and what shall you wear!

Further, when Paul described the struggles he encountered in his ministry, he mentioned the same trio in the same order twice (1 Cor 4 and 2 Cor 11). In both instances Paul was defending his apostleship from those who were denigrating the validity of his ministry—perhaps even for these very three things in his life! Paul’s perspective was explained in Romans 8, where, using two of the three, he wrote that the existence of hunger and nakedness in our lives does not imply that we are separated from the love of God.

Merely going through stress and difficulty, no matter how extreme, does not imply that God has forsaken us.
Jesus was forsaken on our behalf on the cross. Paul reaffirmed that even through the greatest physical hardship and struggle that the spiritual battle of life may send our way, we will never be forsaken by God nor by His love.

Let us watch that we not become like Job’s friends. They assumed that hardship in Job’s life revealed unconfessed sin. That is not always the case. Paul in Romans 8 taught God’s sovereign love in the midst of the hard times of hunger and nakedness, and that sovereign love even up to the point of peril and [death by] sword.

So these amazing three, hunger, thirst, and nakedness, are quite a teaching tool after all!

Four Unchangeable Realities in Evangelism

Sometimes involvement in evangelism can be like a roller coaster. There are spiritual highs, and there are discouraging lows. At times it can be difficult to gauge if we are engaged in the proper style of evangelism.

There can be self-doubt, especially at the low times. Even the Apostle Paul had trouble from “false brethren” in his ministry. How can we be sure that our evangelism methodology is correct, especially when we face difficult times, persecution, and even capital punishment?

The New Testament communicates timeless truths to encourage us to persevere in evangelism, even through times of testing. Here are four “Unchangeable Realities” in evangelism, from the Bible:

  • Fear Is Inevitable!

There is no magic bullet to remove fear from evangelism. It is inevitable. Being with other people to evangelize can be helpful. But fear is a nagging emotion which must be overcome in evangelism.

Consider what God told Paul by night:

Acts 18:9-10 (ESV), “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’”

God had many people in the city of Corinth. And He needed Paul to keep on speaking, and not to be silent. Paul, the veteran missionary-evangelist, had fear.

If we have fear, we are in good company. Paul had fear. Peter had fear. It’s not a problem to have fear, it is a problem to let fear rule us—so that we do not speak and so that we are silent. God has many people for you to reach—so press on through the fear!

  • Difficulties Are Inevitable!

True New Testament evangelism draws difficulties and adversaries. Paul had this interesting statement to make about his ministry in Ephesus:

1 Cor 16:8-9, “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”

Here Paul shares the paradoxical interrelationship between effective ministry and adversaries. Rather than effective ministry being proven by no problems or issues, the opposite is true. Effective ministry for Paul included many adversaries.

Again, when we are involved in effective work or effective evangelism, we can expect adversaries to come our way. We don’t look for them. We don’t incite them. But their existence does not mean that our ministry is over or is ineffective.

We must remain “Wise as serpents and gentle as doves” (Matt 10:16), remembering that adversaries may actually be a sign of effective ministry!

  • Antagonism Is Inevitable!

Closely at the heels of difficulties comes antagonism. Paul, in the last letter shared about a certain Alexander the Coppersmith. Listen to the words of Paul:

2 Tim 4:14-15, “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.”

The last word in these verses, “message,” is actually a translation of “logois” or words. Because of the words of Paul, Alexander opposed Paul, resulting in a great deal of harm to Paul.

Many of you who read this will agree that Paul’s ministry was effective and approved of God. And yet, God allowed that this certain Alexander did Paul “great harm.” Perhaps the result was one of Paul “beatings times without number” (2 Cor 11:23).

Truly effective and God-ordained ministry does not exonerate us from antagonism!

  • Persecution Is Inevitable!

Fear, difficulties, antagonism, and now persecution: this is a tough list. But it is reality therapy for the true minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds Timothy of the difficulties of the second missionary journey that they experienced together. Then he makes this statement:

2 Tim 3:12, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”

He broadens the scope of persecution beyond mere evangelizing or ministry, and generalizes to living godly in Christ Jesus. All who want to live godly lives under the lordship of Christ will suffer persecution.

While these four inevitable or unchangeable realities are more convicting than they are comforting, nevertheless, they are biblical and real. They match up with real life.

Be gone the idea that evangelism is always fun and easy. That is not always the case. We quite often “sow with tears” (Psalm 126:5). If we understand in advance that there will be hardships, we do not need to be scandalized “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word” (Mark 4:17).

Top Ten Mardi Gras Comments

Last Friday and Saturday, eight of us from Midwestern Baptist College and Theological Seminary traveled to New Orleans to share the Gospel at the Mardi Gras festivities.

Mardi Gras, literally “Fat Tuesday,” is a celebration named for the last day prior to the period of “Lent” celebrated by liturgical churches. On Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, the faithful are to receive ashes on their foreheads, hence “Ash Wednesday.” Liturgical churches seek to emphasize fasting from something during the approximate six-week period of Lent.

So, to make a long story short, the weekend before the “fasting” begins is for some a good time for celebration—which celebration finds a focal point in the French Quarter of New Orleans on Bourbon Street.

So the eight of us teamed up with David Cobb Ministries and set out to Bourbon Street with three 15-foot high crosses. Immediately upon setting up those crosses at three intersections of Bourbon Street, where the crowds were thick, we began to hear rebukes and jeers from the revelers. By the way, we had smiley face “Jesus Loves You” t-shirts on, and were giving away small gospel pamphlets with smiley face “Jesus Loves You” on the cover.

Here are some of the sanitized “Top Ten” comments we heard:

(10) “What does Jesus specifically say about homosexuality?”
(9) “Why is the preacher down the street saying _____?”
(8) “Are you getting paid to do this?”
(7) “Jesus doesn’t love me; I’m going to hell!”
(6) “I’ll ask for forgiveness tomorrow!”
(5) “Why do you hate _____?”
(4) “Leave us alone, we’re just having a good time!”
(3) “Your cross is upside down!”
(2) “You need to leave!”
(1) “Why are you here?”

At times it was a bedlam of spiritual warfare. The hostility to the crosses was quite alarming. If anything the hostility to the cross, in and of itself, was reaffirming that we were doing the right thing.

Jesus did not say, “Go in to all the world, except Bourbon Street.” He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

By the grace of God, along with the less pleasant conversations, some people were receptive and open to the gospel. It was amazing and humbling to see and feel the spiritual battle around this liturgical holiday!

[By the grace of God, our team was privileged to hand out a total of 12,000 tracts and pray with 4 people for salvation this past weekend!]

Redistribution of Wealth, Giving, and Work

A link is forged between private property and the ability to give from one’s own resources in Deuteronomy 24:19

Deut 24:19, “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands”

Several thoughts emanate from this verse:

  • In order for someone to display honest generosity, he needs to be generous with his own private property.
  • The focus of the generosity of private citizens is people in real need. In the case of this verse, they are listed as strangers, orphans, and widows.
  • According to this verse, God will bless the work of a person’s hands, given that this person is generous with his own private property.

However, further thoughts also stem from this verse:

  • The redistribution of wealth greatly reduces a person’s ability to be generous, allocating that decision to government policies.
  • The removal of private property, such as in communism, completely removes the possibility of the type of generosity listed in the verse, as no one has ownership of any particular land.
  • When the personal incentive to generosity is reduced, God’s promised blessing is reduced in like measure.
  • When the individual’s mandate to be generous to the stranger, orphan, and widow is conferred on governmental authority, there is no individual responsibility for giving, nor is there individual accountability for the recipient’s proper use of the funds.
  • If individual generosity is bequeathed to the government through redistribution, then an individual’s opportunity to give to others is forced upon him; the willingness to obey God’s command is removed and replaced by the mandate of a government agency requiring all to give, whether they are willing or not; cheerful generosity is squeezed from a culture, as is God’s promised blessing.

Further, it is clear from Deuteronomy 24:19 that God does not mandate communism. Rather, God mandates private property, while urging obedience to individual generosity.

Again, as to work:

  • The farmer is not told to harvest his field a second time, and give all of that harvest to the poor through a food bank of some type (although I am not against food banks)
  • Rather, the crop is left in the field for the poor to harvest it themselves, requiring them to work for their food.

Several months back, when listening to the radio, I heard a commercial urging listeners to give to a charitable organization. I thought to myself, “Why have government programs not done away with the need for charitable organizations?” In fact, it appears that just the opposite has happened. In a counter-intuitive way, the more government subscribes to the “redistribution of wealth,” in like measure, the more charitable organizations are in fact needed!

Six Tremendous Truths in Evangelism

When we are involved in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, it can sometimes be discouraging. During difficult times, we must arm ourselves with the promises of God.

Here are six tremendous truths in evangelism from the Word of God that have been a special blessing to me.

  • God desires the salvation of all men!

If your desire is the salvation of all men in general or a person in particular, know that this is also the heart of God.

2 Pet 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

  • God is always present!

You are not alone when you are seeking to share the gospel with someone else. God is with you. And in fact, as in this next verse, Christ is with you!

Matt 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make [win] disciples of all nations … and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

  • God’s Word is always effective!

If we sometimes feel that our sharing is to no avail, God reminds us of the efficacy of His Word—it is always effective to accomplish His will!

Isa 55:11, “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

  • The harvest is always white!

Even before we have begun our labor, God has been at work preparing the harvest. Jesus said that the harvest is “already white” for harvest!

John 4:35, 38 (NKJ), “Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! … I sent you to reap for that which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.”

  • There is always a need for workers!

If you have a burden to win souls, know that this is the Holy Spirit prompting you into this necessary work. Jesus was very clear sharing a timeless truth that the laborers are few!

Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

  • Victory is sure!

When Christ leads you in evangelism, He always leads you into His victory. Don’t be discouraged. Stay the course.

2 Cor 2:14, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”

So next time you are tempted to be discouraged after seeking to share the gospel with someone, remember these six tremendous truths—tender promises from the Word of God!

Nine great questions to start spiritual conversations

Sometimes starting spiritual conversations can be a daunting task. Because the first words used in transitioning a conversation to a spiritual topic can be complicated, here are some ideas for questions that help you with that transition:

  • “Are you a praying man (or woman)?”
  • “Has the Lord given you a church to attend?”
  • “How would you say your life is going spiritually?”

If the person shows little or no interest at this point, another question can be used to probe their receptivity to further conversation. It is usually best not to push too hard if you get clear resistance. The Bible says that although there were other women gathered at the place of prayer, Lydia was apparently the only one listening. Ears that are willing to listen are a necessity if we want to share the gospel with someone.

In some contexts a comment about a person’s name (on a badge), a piece of jewelry, or a tattoo can provide an interesting start to a conversation. For example:

  • “Joshua. That’s a great name. Did you know that it’s from the Bible? Do you know what Joshua means?” [The Lord saves]
  • “That’s a massive cross you have around your neck. Do you know what happened on the cross?”
  • “Hey, that’s a really cool Tattoo. What does it mean to you?”

Once a conversation is started, you may then get the opportunity to transition into the gospel message. Here are some more in depth questions:

  • “What do you think of Jesus?”
  • “Does your pastor/priest ever speak about being born again?”
  • “At what point are you in your spiritual pilgrimage?”

Any of these questions can allow you to seamlessly transition into a gospel presentation.
Starting spiritual conversations can be threatening. But having some questions in your mind before you start the conversation can be very helpful. I trust that you will be able to use some of these ideas!

Five Paradigm Shifts in Bible Translation, Part One

Several weeks ago, as I was considering the history of Bible translation into English, a new chart came to mind. It seems like viewing history in this way allows for a revised viewpoint.

Could not this approach be called “Viewing History as a Game of Chess”?

In seeking to look at the history of English Bible translation chronologically, several major paradigm shifts became evident. Some of the older shifts may appear obvious. However, several of the more recent shifts may be less obvious

This chart that there are five distinct paradigm shifts that have occurred and are occurring in eight centuries of English Bible translation. In this, my first blog on this subject, I will cover the first two paradigm shifts

(1) A Bible in English: Wycliffe 1st and 2nd editions (1382, 1388)
The first major shift in English Bible translation was the transition from no available English Bibles to the translation of the entire Bible into English. All approved Bibles in England prior to that time were in Latin, a language the common people did not understand.

(2) The New Testament from the Greek: Tyndale and Geneva Bible (1534-1560)
The next major paradigm shift in English Bible translation took place when William Tyndale translated the New Testament from the Greek text, rather than from the Latin text. He published his work in 1534. Tyndale’s translation removed a lot of the Catholic biases found in the Latin Vulgate. He was publicly burned alive for his audacity in setting out to translate the Bible in 1536.

It must be remembered that Martin Luther had published his German New Testament in 1522, also published from Erasmus’ Greek text. Pierre Robert Olivétan published a French version of the Bible in 1534, a version funded by the Alpine Waldenses—only to die mysteriously on a trip to Rome in 1538. Olivétan’s version that became the basis for the French Geneva of 1560, also influencing the 1560 English Geneva translation.

Each of the aforementioned translations yielded a radical impact within the language group where these Bibles were disseminated. In each society people came to believe in Christ as a result of the Bible translations. Furthermore, because these Bibles led towns and cities to distance themselves from Catholicism, the revivals that took place were considered “Peasant Revolts” and led to military crusades to squelch their impact.

What can be learned from these first two stages?
A first and foremost lesson relates to the power of Word of God put into print in the common language of the people. God’s Word is living and active, and does its supernatural work through the language known to its recipients. A second lesson regards the need for a good original from which to translate. While the Wycliffe English Bible was definitely better than having no Bible in English. It was through the use of a Greek original during the Protestant Reformation that the Bible brought about dynamic societal change in many countries in Europe.

Recent Patterns in Bible Translation?

Several years ago I was shocked by a Bible translation when sharing the gospel in Marseilles, France. I had misplaced the French Bible I normally use (1979 Nouvelle Edition de Genève) in the reception area of a hotel. When I looked for it the next day it was nowhere to be found. So I used one of the giveaway Bibles that my fellow evangelist had brought from the U.S., the 2000 Le Semeur (The Sower).

That afternoon, when sharing the gospel in the old port area of Marseilles, I read Romans 3:23 to the North African man whom I had engaged in conversation. The verse and its translation are as follows:

  • Rom 3:23 (Le Semeur), “Tous ont péché, en effet, et sont privés de la glorieuse présence de Dieu.”
  • Rom 3:23 (my translation), “All have sinned, in fact, and are deprived of the glorious presence of God.”

When I saw the word “presence”, I was flustered, never having encountered the word presence in that text before. It seemed to pull the rug out from under my entire gospel presentation. The additional word had changed the meaning of the text—from teaching sin as a deprivation of God’s glory to teaching sin as physical separation from God.

My Marseille experience with the Le Semeur remained etched on my heart as I returned to teach evangelism in Kansas City. In fact, it was that experience that led me to consider: (1) the importance of Bible translation for personal evangelism; and (2) the fact that some translations sound an unclear tone as regards the message of the gospel.

Translations of the Bible are not merely words on a page they are living organisms of potentiality—carrying with them doctrinal significance and spiritual impact!

Since that mission trip to Marseille, the study of various Bible translations has become of great interest to me. I have found that there appears to be discernible patterns of unusual translations being inserted into contemporary English Bibles, much like the one I encountered in the French Bible in Marseille. For example, please note the following unusual translations:

  • Rom 3:23, “everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence” (American Bible Society’s 1993 Good News Translation—GNT);
  • Rom 1:16 (GNT), “I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe, first the Jews and also the Gentiles”;
  • Rom 1:16, “I am proud of the good news! It is God’s powerful way of saving all people who have faith, whether they are Jews or Gentiles” (American Bible Society’s 1992 Contemporary English Version).

The insertion of “presence” into Romans 3:23 in the GNT matches what I encountered in the 2000 French Le Semeur. The addition of “presence” in this text forces a relational view of the atonement, hindering the use of this verse for communicating the substitutionary atonement.

The removal of the negative “not ashamed” Romans 1:16 has important ramifications to the power that text. The concept of not being ashamed of the gospel is mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy 1:8, as it also is in the Servant Song of Isaiah 50. Further, removing the active verb construct “who believe” to the equivocal “have faith” removes active belief as the only requirement for saving faith as communicated in Acts 16:31.

  • Acts 16:31 (ESV), “And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’”

“Having faith” can mean a lot of different things, including some whose religious experience resides in reciting a creed to “declare their faith.”

The ramifications of these two changes, as a small example, should use bring pause as we consider contemporary Bible translation work.