Several vulnerabilities are built into worldwide evangelicalism from a human point of view. One of them is a lack of sustained hierarchy by which decisions are made and mandates are passed down, especially when an initiative takes generations to accomplish.
The second vulnerability in evangelicalism is a lack of hierarchy to determine what is or what is not an orthodox message of the gospel. Statements of faith and various creeds provide a certain level of guidance. Leaders, schools, professors, and pastors may expound on ideas or concepts upon which individuals may choose to agree or disagree. But for the most part, there is a lack of hierarchy to determine what is or what is not acceptable which is built into the congregational system of church government.
We are left with only one foundation, the Bible. And it is truly in and through the Scriptures that Christ actually governs His church. Moreover, the Bible comes to each of us by way a mother tongue, translated by men from the original language texts also passed down by men.
So where may the vulnerabilities lie?
- Disagreements and shifting consensus as to original language texts;
- Increased drift in verbal inspiration as applied to philosophies and theories of translation;
- Increased centralized control of Bible translations (an informal hierarchy by proxy); and
- The recent shift to digitized Bibles (a sole source for available Bible translations).
In the sovereign game of chess, which is church history and in which all of humanity is “in play,” most will agree that the Protestant Reformation inaugurated a worldwide revolution in Bible study, Bible knowledge, and biblically based churches. In subsequent revival movements the Reformation’s emphasis on sola Scriptura found renewed energy. Such was the case for both the First Great Awakening (c. 1740) and the Second Great Awakening (c. 1800).
The Second Great Awakening gathered and propagated a number of simultaneous streams, including being the fountainhead of the Great Century of Protestant Missions. A parallel stream was the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) in 1803.
By 1820 the BFBS could report: “The Auxiliaries of the Society itself amount to 265, and the Branch Societies to 364; forming together a total as of last year, of 629.” Their model of unity was a “federal model.” E. Stanley Jones described the “federal model” in this way: “In a federation, the two entities uniting each retain its own identity. …their purpose of uniting is to achieve some mutually agreeable common purpose.” As long as they agreed on a mutual purpose, two entities in a “federal model” could cooperate by way of comity agreements. Numerous complex webs of written and unwritten comity agreements became the framework for the worldwide Protestant missionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Early in the founding of the Bible Societies, their common text was the King James Bible, and their common original language text of the New Testament was the “Majority Text.” Although King James had made revisions to the English Geneva to suit his kingly biases, the resulting Authorized Translation was viewed as a Protestant text. Pius IX, the reigning pontiff during the early growth of the Bible Societies, harshly criticized the Bible Societies and condemned both their translations as well as their Bible colporteurs (door-to-door distributors).
The unity of the Bible Society Movement centered around its English origins and its use of the Majority Text of the New Testament Greek. So when Samuel Tregelles, a Plymouth Brethren, found deficiencies in the Majority Text of the Book of Revelation in 1844, the science of “textual criticism” found a conservative Protestant advocate. Tregelles studied an old Greek manuscript in Rome, perhaps the same one later published by Constantin von Tischendorff, and the battle began.
With the availability of conflicting original language texts, significant infighting began among Protestants. Some accepted only the text behind the King James Bible, while others accepted one or another of the critical edition texts. Yet on the mission fields of the world, the King James Bible and its original language remained the primary text used for worldwide Bible translation.
About 100 years later serious translation question were raised by Eugene Nida. Nida was the Executive Secretary of Translations for the American Bible Society (ABS) for 35 years, beginning in 1946. His insider view of evangelicalism and his marketing savvy was exemplified by the translation theory used and marketing approach behind the New International Version.
Nida was in a position to move worldwide Bible translators away from using the King James Bible and Majority Text as the basis for their Bible translation. And he effectively did so. His lexicon was deemed preferable to Strong’s Concordance, and his dynamic equivalence theory of translation moved translators away from a word-for-word translation theory and toward a thought-for-thought approach. These were important steps if Protestant dominated translations of doctrinal concepts were to be replaced with more vanilla-fied terms.
Soon evangelical Bible translators were convinced that word-for-word translations were obsolete and a hindrance to properly communicating God’s intent.
For example, verbs like “justify” in the Book of Romans were considered “borrowed” from the Latin or English, and therefore ought to be replaced with phrases like “declare righteous.” Anyone familiar with the Protestant Reformation should know that “justification by faith” was very important for Martin Luther. Yet the recent “emergent church” adherence to “declarative righteousness” as an alternative to “imputed righteousness” ought to sufficiently show the deficiencies of using “declare righteous” to translate the Greek verb behind “justify” in Romans.
Simultaneously, centralized control of the Bible Society movement began in 1946 with the founding of the United Bible Society (UBS). At that time six Bible societies joined to found the UBS, the BFBS, the ABS, the National Bible Society of Scotland, the Netherlands Bible Society, and two other Bible societies.
With the founding of the UBS, a movement was initiated away from the “federal model” of unity and toward the “organic union model” of unity. Weisenbeck described the “organic union model” in this way: “The parts or members of the organism receive their identities from the principal entity, and their identities have no meaning except in reference to the principal.” No longer are groups united by common purpose, but they are united by common identity. A hierarchy was being put into place.
Along with this centralized model of unity, a cooperative agreement was signed by the UBS with the Roman Catholic Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (SPCU) in 1968. This agreement included provisions for Roman Catholic participation on every translation team of the Bible overseen by the UBS. Then, in its 1987 revision, Rome was made primary over every UBS translation team, thwarting any remaining resistance among various constituencies.
Centralization began in 1946, and its influence has only grown into the era of digitization.
In the 21st Century, Christians moved from the printed page to digitized Bibles. Likewise, evangelists worldwide are now being provided with audio Bibles to use for evangelizing in remote areas. While digitized Bibles can be changed with the click of a mouse, audio Bible translations cannot be easily studied or analyzed by scholars and pastors.
It appears that a very interesting play and counter-play has been going on since 2010. And it is very difficult to judge the future impact of these changes:
- One centralized hub for all digitized Bibles worldwide (the ETEN [Every Tribe Every Nation] DBL [Digital Bible Database], controlled by the UBS) using proprietary software (Paratext, jointly developed by the UBS and SIL [Summer Institute of Linguistics]); and
- The use of audio Bibles instead of printed Bibles (or even those in digitized forms).
The changes are in fact astounding. This author remembers a time when Evangelical Christians would look at the publisher of hymnals to be sure that Atonement language in familiar hymns had not been altered, modified, or removed by modernist publishers.
It is this author’s feeling that centralization and digitization provide possible vulnerabilities for the future of worldwide evangelicalism. The pastor and the theologian both use available mother tongue translations to formulate their preaching and theology. And it appears Christ has used and will continue to use the Bible in the mother tongue to rule over His church.
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For the chart by which I began the conceptualization of these thoughts, please see: http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/documents/plays-and-counterplays-in-history-of-english-bible-translation.pdf.
Or for further reading, consider my paper “Virtualized Biblical Authority: A 50-Year Megashift from Biblical Inerrancy to Automated Translation Work” @ http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/documents/virtualized-biblical-authority.pdf.