The Problem of Dull Swords

I awoke this morning startled. My mind was thinking of a former student preparing to go to the mission field. I thought to myself, it’s good that he doesn’t need to translate the Scriptures before he gets there. He can build on the work of those that have gone before him. Evangelical missionaries have been translating the Scriptures since the eight translations made by William Carey in India at the beginning of the Great Century of Protestant Missions.

But then I thought about the Scriptures that are now available. Who controls the armament? And this woke me up with a start. Have Evangelicals turned over control of the armament to those who would dull the blade? To better understand the context of this question that woke me up with a start, a brief explanation is needed.

The Bible of the Protestant Reformation

Possibly or likely the greatest gift given by Martin Luther to the Protestant Reformation was a return to the text and authority of Holy Scriptures. The reader may ask, “What was the authority in the Western State Church prior to the Protestant Reformation?” It was:

  • Scripture + Tradition, or in actuality,
  • Tradition + Scripture.

Before the Protestant Reformation the Scriptures available to church leaders was only the Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate, dated back to when Damasus, Bishop of Rome, commissioned Jerome to compile an authorized translation of the Bible into Latin in A.D. 383. An example of the doctrinal bias in this translation was his use of the verb “to do” + the noun “penance” to translate the Greek verb “to repent.” The blade of the New Testament was intentionally dulled for doctrinal or catechetical purposes.

The translation of this verb and many others were rectified by the Reformation Bibles translated directly from the Greek. Hence, Tyndale’s translated the verb μετανοέω differently to what was found in the Latin Vulgate:

  • Matthew 3:2 (Douai-Rheims), “And saying: Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
  • Matthew 3:3 (Tyndale), “saynge; Repet the kyngdome of heue is at honde.”
  • Matthew 4:17 (Douai-Rheims), “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
  • Matthew 4:17 (Tyndale), “From that tyme Iesus begane to preache and to saye: repet for ye kigdome of heven is at honed”

The 1899 Douai-Rheims was faithfully translated from the text of the Latin Vulgate. It has 69 uses of the word “penance” often with various forms of the verb “to do,” such as “did penance,” “do penance,” “had/have done penance,” etc.

For almost a thousand years the Western church was required to use only the Latin Vulgate in its readings in church, in its studies in schools, and in its development of Christian doctrine. The blade had been dulled. The clarity of “repentance” (for example) had been replaced with the need for the act of “doing penance”— entering the Confessional Booth is the beginning of the Sacrament of Penance to receive absolution from a sin and receive the required penance to complete atonement for that sin.

Fortunately, Luther and his Protestant contemporaries returned the Word of God to its original sharpness on the issue of repentance. The greatest gift of the Protestant Reformation was a sharpened Bible, honed through direct translation from the Greek and Hebrew, as well as loosed from the confusion of the apocryphal books. Since the Protestant Reformation Four Centuries of Protestant scholars have found their highest authority in the words of Bible’s translated from the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Enter 19th Century Secular Biblical Scholarship

In the late 19th Century the flames of secularism were fanned in academic circles. These flames burned in every area of theological studies. Two of the most crucial areas impacted, as far as biblical scholarship, were (1) approaching the Bible as a human book and (2) the question of original language texts.

In considering the Bible to be human, like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, biblical scholars raised their own intellectual abilities above those of the divine author. They reveled in their intellectual abilities to deconstruct the Bible and exhume its mythical elements. These scholars chipped away at the authority of the Bible from the inside out.

Meanwhile a more subtle secularism took hold of biblical scholarship. This renewed field of study deconstructed the original language text of the Bible. Conveniently ignoring that there was a culture of people who always spoke Greek and who had a Church more ancient in succession than was found in any Western Church region, Western Church scholars and their Protestant counterparts became viral to reconstruct a better original language text.

I once asked a New Testament scholar why Erasmus did not leave Bale and travel to Greece to find a full Greek text of the Book of Revelation. Apparently, Erasmus back-translated the Latin text into Greek to fill in gaps when he had no Greek text available to him. The New Testament scholar had no answer for me. Sure, the trip from Basel, Switzerland, to Athens, Greece, is 1,500 miles on today’s roads. But would not that trip be worth it to avoid back-translating from Latin into Greek, especially when establishing a new paradigm for the original language text? Textual criticism chips away at authority from the outside in.

These two fingers of secularism simmered within mainstream Protestant academic circles for about 100 years. Then they finally filtered down into Evangelical academia. It was English-language Evangelicalism that largely controlled (1) the worldwide Bible Society movement and (2) the 19th Century world missionary efforts.

Control of the Armament

The Bible societies had prospered on getting Bible’s into the hands of the common folk through Bible distribution and supporting missionaries who translated the Bible into the languages of the people where they ministered. In the early 20th Century a new kind of missionary emerged. These new ministers were the Wycliffe Bible Translators. They were energized by the Summer Institute of Linguistics. This was a new brand of Bible translators, founded by Cameron Townsend in 1942. They were non-denominational and non-theological. Their translators were “educators” not “missionaries.” They approached Bible translation from a purely secular linguistic approach, and intentionally avoided doctrinal controversies—if that were possible when translating the Bible.

One of the graduates of the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Chicago was Eugene Nida. He would end up of playing a significant role in Bible translation on multiple fronts. Nida, and ordained Northern Baptist, joined the American Bible Society in 1943 and became its Executive Secretary for Translations in 1946, a post that he retained for 35 years.

In May 1946 Nida attended the smeeting in Elfinsward, England, when the United Bible Society was formed by joint agreement of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the American Bible Society, the National Bible Society of Scotland, and the Netherlands Bible Society.

In November 1964 was perhaps the most important meetings of Nida. It included Olivier Béguin of the United Bible Society and Augustin Cardinal Bea of Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute and met at Crêt-Bérard, Lausanne, Switzerland. It was at this meeting that Nida sketched out the preliminary form of what became the 1968 “Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible.”

Briefly, these principles guided the United Bible Society’s efforts from 1968 to 1987, deeding oversight of all their original language texts and all their translations as follows:

“C. ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE

“For the most adequate development of a translation program, there is need for three groups: 1. a Working Committee, 2. a Review Committee, and 3. a Consultative Group.

“a. Working Committee Consisting of 4 to 6 persons equally divided between Protestant and Roman Catholic constituencies and possessing four essential characteristics:

  1. equal standing,
  2. complementary abilities,
  3. mutual respect, and
  4. capacity to work together.”

The 1968 “Guiding Principles” were revised in 1987 as “Guidelines for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible the New Revised Edition Rome.” The same section as above was revised to read:

“2.3. ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE 

“For the most adequate development of a translation program, there is need for three groups: 1. a translation team, 2. a review panel, and 3. a consultative group.

“2.3.1. Translation team Consisting of not more than six persons of high competence from the Roman Catholic and other Christian constituencies and possessing four essential characteristics:

  1. comparable qualifications,
  2. complementary abilities,
  3. mutual respect, and
  4. capacity to work together.”

The reader will note the changes in the composition of the Translation Teams according to this document. This author will allow the reader to discern who may now control the weapons cache held by the United Bible Society since 1987.

It may be no surprise that many of the most important “readings” in the UBS Greek text now correspond to those of the Latin Vulgate.

Sharpening the Sword

It almost sounds sacrilegious from an Evangelical point-of-view to consider the need for sharpening the sword of the Word of God. Is not the inherent sharpness of God’s sword self-evident? According to Hebrews 4:12-13 the sword of the Word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts to the bone and marrow. It judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart:

“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
Hebrews 4:12-13.

And yet, although this Word is quick and lively, whether it be the Thomas Jefferson Bible, the Jehovah’s Witness “New World Translation,” or the Douai-Rheims Bible, there are Bibles that have been intentionally dulled. And whereas we in the English-speaking world are insulated from the battles of Bible translation in the many languages of the world, we would do well to be aware of what is happening in these many languages and cultures.

So, this morning, as I woke up with a startle, thinking of my former student going out as a missionary, my prayer for him is—that he would be “Wise as a serpent and gentle as dove” (Matthew 10:16). May the Lord lead him to use the best Bible available to reach the hearts of those to whom he will be sent!

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