I began this essay (https://theologicalresonance.com/bible-translations-and-identity-part-1/) with the intention of mainly surveying the historical phenomena of how Christian people’s sense of identity has been closely associated with the language of Scripture they have and how it is utilized. I hope that I demonstrated thus far that bible translations and identity do go together in people’s minds (for good or ill). And I admit that I have, in my own way, followed the same tendencies I described from Church history. I have heard myself thinking and casting judgment before when I noticed certain translations of the Bible used in writing or quoted. Finally, I have been strongly inclined to side with the reading(s) of my favored translation(s)—especially when I was searching to find “proof texts” regarding certain doctrines.
This phenomena in my own mind and its demonstration in Church history should move us to check ourselves. For just as Christians have tended to take on the practice of “proof texting” in order to win theological arguments so too have we utilized our favored Bible translations against others. For do we not view with disfavor certain translations of the Bible?
How many times have the rational for new translations been based upon objections to older versions or to the principles of interpretation employed in the making of a particular translation? Another case in point is when newer translations are ignored and people are discouraged from using them because the rendering of passages are merely different from what church leaders and people hear as normal. Examples of this being done can be elaborated at some length (in regard to ancient and modern versions). The fact that we do this, I suggest, is indicative of our tendency to form our sense of identities around things other than the living God.
What is reflected in the drive to use “proof texting” to justify specific doctrinal or practical perspectives in debating? Is it not a short-cut to doing the hard work of careful reading and interpreting Scripture in context? And is not wielding one’s preferred English translation against others really the same—just using a larger instrument? I assert that this strategy reflects a desire not to seek out and know the truth (whatever that may be) but to make the Bible fit one’s presuppositions.
In order to have a realistic perspective about the Bible requires admitting one’s profound ignorance. And further, to embrace the fact that we are dependent upon others who have done the difficult work of preserving, translating and transmitting the meaning of Scripture. And ultimately, it means that we first must trust that God the Spirit spurred and guided those specially chosen persons (prophets and apostles) to write it and then that the Spirit is capable of explaining its meaning in any language. God’s voice is not imprisoned or limited by human language and his word written was given not so Christians could manage its impact and application.
Historical developments related to the valuation of the Bible in general and specific translations, as I have summarized already, are complex. I do not pretend that this is a simple matter to explain nor do I intend to impute bad motives to people but any actions which inhibit people from having access to God’s word written are noteworthy. And here I am not merely thinking of people burning Bibles or insisting that one Bible translation is the only “true” one people should use. No, I refer to any efforts to discourage the use of Scripture as source of knowledge about God, to discount its veracity or to interpret it in such a way that it is not authoritative. Each of these nuanced actions have been done by leaders of churches and scholars in the past and now in the present.
For how we think about the Bible, how we value it and how we interpret it are intricately connected to our sense of identity. And our use of language also expresses the range of what we understand about reality and what we are willing to believe is true. For example, if a person professing to be a Christian is content with superficial knowledge of Scripture and not motivated to continue to press into learning what Scripture says, what does that demonstrate? I suggest it may show that his or her religious identity is not grounded in Scripture. Or another example, if a person who insists that everyone should only use one English edition of the Bible (because it is the only accurate one, etc.), what does that demonstrate? I would suggest that it may show that his or her religious identity is rooted in the language of a singular version of the Bible and not the God who created and transcends all human language.
Let us admit this truth: Language is closely associated with how we interpret reality and communicate with each other about the most important things in life. Further, we use language to not only articulate and communicate ideas, thoughts, feelings but also in relation to God and people to manipulate and control. Religion has rightly been critiqued as a tool for controlling how people think and behave. And I think that the Bible itself has sometimes been used to control and manipulate people. But even in those cases, those doing it have to be very careful what they allow those they want to keep under control to think about Scripture. And thankfully God is against all who pervert or misuse his holy word.
I sometimes have read or heard people complain about the many translations of the Bible available today. Certainly there is some legitimate criticism to be made about the profit making motives involved in some efforts to publish new Bible translations! However, one great blessing which comes from having these different translations in English is that it demonstrates the need to appeal to genuine attempts of translators to render into English the meaning of the text from the original languages of the Bible. All such nonsense about the true version being the Latin or the early Aramaic translations or the King James can rightly be set aside.
Also, from the vantage point of history and scholarship, I am grateful for the different translations of Scripture! Too little concern has been shown for establishing the text of the Bible. For example, I am deeply saddened that the Hexapia of Origin (184-254) was lost to history. (Yes, I know he held some heretical ideas but he was a brilliant scholar!) Imagine how this “six-fold” critical edition of the Hebrew Bible could add to our knowledge today of the biblical text! And has not God blessed those believers today by the discovery and use of so many surviving manuscripts of the New Testament (in Greek, Latin and other early translations)? We can be more certain today about the text of the Bible than any other generation of Christians before us.
I am excited about this because I have come to value Scripture and the tools used to study it. If I had the time and resources I would spend as many waking hours as possible simply learning to read Scripture in Hebrew and Greek and Aramaic. However, in life we have God-give responsibilities to other people and the life of the mind cannot be pursued in isolation from relationships. Even those few scholars who can study the original languages of Scripture as part of their jobs are still confronted with the challenge of how to respond to the man or woman who is irritating or insulting. People of great intellectual ability with languages, along with everyone else, are called to learn to navigate loving God and neighbor, emotionally bonding in community and learning to responsibly steward time and resources.
This is basically why, I think, that our Bible translations and identity can become so intertwined with our sense of assurance about doctrine, ethics and morality. For we do not make value judgments about our values, ethics, doctrines or which translation of the Bible is “best” in a vacuum. No one knows enough about anything in life to make judgments independently of the views of others—whether those “others” are knowledgeable and qualified scholars or informed Christian leaders (dead or living) or peers who presume to be knowledgeable but are ignorant. In the end, I have to trust God that he has utilized human beings to preserve and translate Scripture and also not cease to critically evaluate what I am told about it nor neglect to use the tools I have to study and learn from Scripture.
Given that language is so essential to human identity and our capacity to think and interpret reality, I am amazed that there has been so much essential unity among churches and church traditions over the history of the Church. Yes, someone may rightly note that this unity is based on the traditions handed down from those early generation of Church leaders, theologians and scholars. I grant that tradition has been critical in casting the general framework of Christian orthodoxy. (Indeed, I celebrate that fact!) However, as the work of translating the Scriptures into many different languages around the world has expanded is it not amazing that regardless of differences of language people can understand the basics of the biblical message?
One might be inclined to wonder if this kind of continuity of understanding across linguistic and cultural divides was even possible. Would not each people group simply craft the message of the Scripture so as to fit their presuppositions? Would it not be easier to quietly negate aspects of the biblical worldview by quietly ignoring those aspects? Or to mistranslate key elements of the biblical authors affirmations? While a case could be made that this has been done in some cases I am amazed that it has not been done more frequently.
How we read and valuate the text of Scripture is telling about our identity as Christians. A merely outward dedication to the text of Scripture, regardless of what language or translation that is, may reflect a shallow and legalistic view of spirituality. For did not the Lord say of the Pharisees that they were vainly seeking to gain eternal life in the text of Scripture? And that they were entirely blind to the One who was eternal life—the Holy One standing in front of them speaking the truth to them? (John 5:39-40)
The living God created human beings with the capacity for language; this is a gift by which to understand, communicate and speak back to God his truth in love. If we elevate our language, our favored terminology, our favorite translation then I suggest we are trying to tell God what his truth is rather than taking a humble position as the Lord’s students. We cannot escape the profound shaping role of language, culture and religious traditions. However, we can with humility and vigorous exercise of our wills submit to the Holy Spirit, affirming that we lack a full understanding of the truth which Scripture so beautifully unfolds. Further, we can accept that we are dependent upon those faithful witnesses of the Church in prior generations who labored to preserve and accurately teach the meaning of Scripture. Finally, we can intelligently and energetically and reverently question what we are told.