One of the assumptions we Christians tend to make is that it is an essential good to make the Bible accessible to people. This conviction goes back to very beginnings of the Christian Church. From the earliest centuries after Jesus’ life on earth, Christians have preached or paraphrased or sought to do more exacting translations of Scripture into other languages. This notion that it is both good and needful to translate Scripture into people’s native languages has persisted, even when translation work was suppressed, through all periods of Church history. Given that fact, I want to explore some aspects of the theological underpinnings of Bible translation.
Great literature from different time periods and civilizations has been translated into European languages in order for people to learn. This should not be surprising as human beings, more or less, have come to value knowledge and thus have valued scholarly efforts to translate “great books” for the benefit of education. I am glad for this as a native English speaker—what extraordinary options I have to learn the perspectives of people from ancient and modern times.
The phenomena of translation of writings considered Scripture has been spurred by different motives. Jews, Christians and Muslims believe an extraordinary notion which sets them apart from most people who have ever lived or live today; namely, that God has spoken specifically to give revelation of his character and will and that the content of that (originally) verbal communication has been written down in Scripture (the Bible). For Jews and Christians the content of God’s communication is in the Hebrew Bible. For Christians, that specific communication continued in the documents of the Greek New Testament. For Muslims, the specific and authoritative verbal communication from God is to be found in the Arabic Qur’an.
The basic conviction of the Church about how the Bible can be affirmed as God’s word was articulated well in the introduction to a Catholic translation of Scripture.
“GOD IS THE AUTHOR of all the books which make up the Bible, in the sense that He caused men to write them. The action of God on the sacred writers is called inspiration. It is different from that action by which the Creator is the primary cause of every human action; inspiration is a supernatural, special action by which He so prompted and moved men to write, and so assisted them in writing, that the result of their activity is ascribed not only to them, as in the case of any action performed with God’s ordinary concurrence, but also to God Who inspires them. He is the principal cause; men are but His instruments.” (The Holy Bible, Douay-Confraternity [P.J. Kenedy & Sons:1950], p.3; capitals in original.)
This is an essential aspect of the theological underpinnings of Bible translation. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings which has a uniquely divine origin and message. They convey the words of God written by specially chosen human authors. Historically in the Church, those authors have been described, in a more general way, as God’s prophets (OT) and apostles (NT). Given that these are such foundational writings for the Church it logically follows that Christians, regardless of their native language, need to have Scripture available to them for study and reading.
When I was growing up this perspective was assumed by those in the churches my family attended but not necessarily stated very often—unless someone who worked for Wycliffe Bible Translators came to visit the church on a Sunday. To me this theological assertion rings true—much as the assertion that the earth needs the rain to produce crops for people to eat. However, like many theological assumptions common to prior generations of Christians, I cannot say with much assurance that self-described Christians today (including “Evangelicals”) appreciate the significance of this aspect of the theological underpinnings of Bible translation.
The Bible for more and more people today remains important but for different reasons than those in prior generations believed. The twentieth-century mainline Protestant perspective regarding the valuation of the Bible continues to take more ground in the intellectual valuations among Christians in general (both Protestant and Catholic). That is, that the Bible is mainly valuable because it contains the word of God along with the reflections of the ancient Hebrews and first-century disciples of Jesus. When the biblical documents are framed in this way it opens the doors to people making value judgments on the categorical teaching, assertions and values which are expressed by the biblical authors. Thus the modern scholar and modern reader is not obliged to take everything taught by the biblical authors as revelation of the character and will of the living God. Arguments presented against the traditional theological formulations about the “inspiration” of Scripture begin and end with this basic premise.
Within the last hundred years, regrettably some Christians have responded by retreating into positions about Scripture’s unique origination that needlessly de-emphasize the role of the human authors. This is both sad and unnecessary because it does not tap into the rich history of reflection on the origin of Scripture in Church Tradition.
Again, as an example, I quote from the introduction to the Douay-Confraternity translation of the Bible.
“The inspired writers were, however, the free agents of God. He did not use them in such a way as to suspend the normal exercises of their will, their intellect, their imagination and other faculties. Their natural powers may have been heightened under the influence of inspiration, but they were not essentially changed. Each book of the Bible has its own special character. And the variety is not merely that which might be found in the writings of one and the same man, resulting from the different surroundings in which he wrote, the different purposes he had in view and the different subject matters with which he had to deal. The Divine Author used His human instruments in such a way that their works reflect their special character, culture, literary ability, research and efforts of composition.” (The Holy Bible, Douay-Confraternity, p.3; emphasis added.)
I think that this is a beautiful statement which captures how the Christian Tradition has generally understood the process that God used to have Scripture written. We were created and fashioned in the Image of God, the eternal Word, the Son of God, and thus he utilized the human authors, in their created uniqueness and abilities to capture in words his divine messages. The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is rooted in the teaching of Scripture regarding humans bearing the Image of God. When one ceases to believe God created us humans in his own image then the notion that he could or did communicate his truth uniquely through selected human authors because quite incredible to believe.
As with philosophical ideas, theological doctrines have a shaping influence upon how people live. The doctrine of Scripture both reflects and in turn shapes other theological convictions within the Christian Tradition. Our understanding of the origin and authorship of Scripture is necessarily tied to our understanding of and recognition of authority. To affirm this core teaching about Scripture requires us to think carefully about what we believe and why we believe it. For the questions of the origins and veracity of Scripture are not merely academic niceties for scholars and professional theologians to split hairs over.