2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV) All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
It seems that in the last 100 years or so, Bible Translators have radically changed their approach and philosophy concerning this revered and all too often under valued work, Bible Translation. We have moved from the all too common, word for word or essentially literal translation approach to Bible Translation, to what is currently referred to as the “functional equivalency (FE) or dynamic equivalency (DE)” approach. Another description for this latter approach is “thought for thought” or “meaning for meaning” translation philosophy.
In general, dynamic equivalency claims that it isn’t the original words that we need to capture in translation but the thoughts or ideas of the original writers, what they meant by what they said. It is also believed that what is needed is for the translator to recapture the impact for today’s reader that was intended by the original writer’s words, ideas, or thoughts, as they impacted their original audiences. This has only increased in scope and breadth until we have bibles such as the Message being promoted as a translation when in truth it most certainly is not.
This change from the Word of God revered, every word and every dot of every i or the cross of every t, being breathed out by the Lord God Almighty, has come to where there is now a clear visible evidence that we can, not only fail to translate all of the words of the original languages, but we can also now add words, thoughts and images that are not in the original languages as well. DE translators continue to increasingly take liberties that are, in spirit and truth, not theirs to take, concerning the written and inspired Word of God. All of this is done under the guise of conveying images and thoughts or ideas that we think might have been in the original writers minds as they wrote; what they meant to say but evidently couldn’t and therefore need our help to get it across more clearly to the masses.
So free form is this dynamic equivalency approach, that there are essentially no real rules to govern this translation process, to keep this translation process in line and under restraint. Since there are no generally agreed upon rules amongst dynamic equivalency translators to keep them from abusing this new found freedom in their translation of God’s Holy Word, our only hope is their own integrity before the Lord. Yet in all honesty, as we look at the increasing liberties that are being taken with God’s Holy Word, I have come to sincerely question this integrity as being any kind of real hope at all. It is like once we crossed over this invisible line from essentially literal to a much more free form of translation, we no longer have any clear boundaries or points of restraint. The result of this is simply that they just keep pushing the envelope further and further out there.
If you would just compare a few verses from a variety of new translations that used this DE/FE approach you would notice that they vary a lot in their rendition of what should be the meanings, images and or thoughts of the original writers. Their purpose often is to interpret the text for us and then place their interpretation in words that we can understand, because we are too ignorant to get it on our own. However all too often and I do mean often, they do not agree as to what the image or interpretation should be. The result is that we end up with a broad discrepancy as to the meaning, image or thought that they believe was the original writer’s intent. We also end up with a reductionism view of the Scriptures.
Let me give you just one example of the license or extreme liberty that is being sold to us as good Bible translation work. This is from the Message Bible. It is John 14:23 and it reads in the Message Bible as follows:
“Because a loveless world,” said Jesus, “is a sightless world. If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him—we’ll move right into the neighborhood!
Now compare this with the same passage in an essentially literal translation such as the English Standard Version:
John 14:23 (ESV) Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
Notice how different the two are. While there is much more that should be said about this form of work, let me keep my comments to the very obvious points. The Message adds two images that do not even exist in the original language. One has to do with a supposed quote of the Lord Jesus and the other has to do with God’s moving into our neighborhood and not our very lives. It also takes I believe extreme liberty in attributing words to Jesus that we have no record of his ever saying, anywhere, most certainly not in the original languages. Notice below:
Because a loveless world,” said Jesus, “is a sightless world. Jesus never said these words anywhere in the Gospels at all. Yet, there is the complete liberty to not only add to the text words that are not there in the Greek but to attribute words to Christ Jesus, that he did not say, conveying a thought that he did not convey and declaring then, by their being included in the text as inspired words, that Jesus said this. This is not the exception; there are many more occurrences with this kind of liberties being taken with the Word of God, not only by the Message but sadly with other modern translations as well.
The Message has come out with a number edition just recently. On the promotional material that comes with this version it is now being identified by its publishers as a translation. This Bible has met with such success that the publishers have become so embolden as to call this commentary or at the very most a paraphrase, a translation. So what is to come next? I shudder to think.
Whatever happened to the Word of God being authentically the Word of God and as such, being revered, not worshiped but honored with a holy and righteous fear of God, as the very words of the living God, breathed out to mankind through his chosen vessels?
Admittedly the Message is on the extreme edge of the dynamic equivalency continuum yet nonetheless the same theory and or philosophy of translation that shaped this work has been used in most of the other translations of the last century. The Word of God is to be added to only when doing so is absolutely essential to simply make it readable in English. These occasions where we need to add to the word of God to make it actually readable in English are very, very few indeed. These new translations add to the text or take away from the text with such liberty that one becomes truly unsure that what one is reading is any longer the actual Word of God.
The Word of God is also then stripped of many meaningful words, nuances, images, poetry, mysteries, ambiguities, and other literary forms all breathed out by God for us all. This stripping the Word of God from its wide and many varied forms reduces the Scriptures down in such a way that all too often its beauty, splendor, grandeur, along with the sacredness of the text and the theological language are also stripped away leaving us with simply a shell of what the Word of God once was. We’re dumbing down the very Word of God, reducing it, rewriting it and doing it all over again and again. We simply add a new idea or image or thought here and there that we think belongs there, or at the very least we think should have been placed there to begin with. We are reducing passages or texts with multiple possible meanings down to the one of our choosing and not always to its best or even most likely, leaving no hint that there really was more, often much, much more wrapped up in the meaning of this passage. What manner of pride and arrogance is this?
We think people are so inept that they cannot learn to understand the language of such an ancient and sacred text as the Bible (The Scriptures are between two and three thousand years old). It seems that we have set a new standard for God’s Word and that is that people are what is most important, not the Holy Words of God. Therefore let us give people what we think they need and in a way we think they will like it, regardless of what we have to do to the original text in the process. Who cares if we strip the Scriptures of their life, power, wisdom, truth, recognizable virtue and Spirit? Let’s do what we think is best, all for the people and or our market piece of the pie.
There is increasingly a reality that all too much of the Bible’s theology is being so watered down that it ceases to be recognizable for what in truth it is. In fact one Theologian has expressed himself in such a way that he says he can not even use these newer forms of Bible translation to teach theology to his college classes. In part this is because the theological language has been removed from the text and replaced with terms that no longer accurately capture the original words and their meanings or depth, clearly or recognizably. It would take a book to describe all of this in detail and I will recommend a couple of books at the end of this article.
All of this has taken place right under our noses, right in front of our eyes and yet we have not only accepted it as right and good but have so openly embraced this new translation philosophy that publishers can actually be so bold as to call a work like the Message, a translation. I was as guilty of this as anyone else, but no more. My eyes are open and I pray they remain open.
The Good news is that there are still those translators and publishers who still honor the Word of God as the Holy Word of God. They continue to translate God’s Holy Word in a manner that reveres and honors it as it is, God’s breathed out Holy Scriptures. Some of the translations that have continued in the tradition of the Tyndale Bible and Geneva Bible, are the King James Version, American Standard Version, New King James Version, English Standard Version. These are those who are essentially literal approaches to Bible Translation. These are those who continue to believe that every Word breathed out by God is God’s very Word and is intended by Him for us to have as He breathed it out originally, regardless of its form or difficulty.
I deeply desire the whole of God’s Word, with none of it missing, no matter how hard it may be for me to read, understand or get a handle on, simply because I believe God’s Word is that important and I need it. I deeply desire to not have a Bible that its translators have decided for me what I can and cannot handle, taking out things that they think on their own are not all that important for me to have. I deeply desire to have a Bible that is a challenge and requires more of me than I always have in place. Most of all I deeply desire to have a Bible that I can trust, completely, and I do not have to be worried that I am not getting all there is. I deeply desire a Bible that has all of the richness, depth, challenge and difficulty that was originally intended for us to have. We can learn to use and understand the Scriptures accurately and faithfully. It does take a lot of work, practice, study, struggle, patience, faithful prayer and earnest seeking of the Lord God Almighty and leaning upon the powerful work of God the Holy Spirit, but we can do it. The Lord calls us to it, to the high road, to the holy road, to His road of growing and learning the Scriptures He has breathed out for us.
So, we need translators who will actually translate the original language texts for us accurately. We do not need translators to interpret them or so simplify them that they no longer reflect in Spirit and Truth what was actually breathed out and written as intended by the Lord God for us to have. We do not need translators who do all of this simply because they believe we are too ignorant, lazy or whatever, to learn how to use and study the Scriptures for ourselves. The Word of God is rich in its literary expressions, its variety of forms and fullness of truth. I do not want a translation that thinks so little of God’s Holy Word and of me that they take it upon themselves to weed out what they think is too difficult for me to get or understand. I believe this is one reason we have been given the Holy Spirit to open up the Word of God to and for us, to teach, reveal, illuminate and even help us to recall God’s Word. This is the Work of God the Holy Spirit, not man. I believe He, God the Holy Spirit, is up to the task. We need only lean upon and call upon him to aid us in this adventure and studious task.
While there are no perfect translations there are most certainly better ones. Essentially Literal translations are not only the way to go, but as far I am concerned, they are the only way to go for the Church of any day and any age. I used the NIV for over 25 years. I changed over to the ESV. I am so glad I have. The more I use it the more thankful and appreciative I am. It was like coming home after a very long absence. It was like reading the Bible again for the first time. If you do not have an essentially literal translation let me strongly encourage you to go right out and buy one. However, regardless of which Bible you finally chose, please let it be one that its translators were governed by a deeply held fear of the Lord, a deeply held reverence for God’s Word as being every single Word and nuance being breathed out by the Lord God Almighty, and thus is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
Recommended reading: The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken and Translating Truth by Wayne Grudem, Leland Ryken, C. John Collins, Vern S. Poythress, Bruce Winter