Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The pastoral implications of translational choice and philosophy

In preparing sermons, the preacher's goal is to exegete the meaning of the text in the original languages, communicate the sense to the congregation, and apply the text for the edification of the congregation. The choice of the Bible translation to use is thus very important for the task of preaching.

Since the goal is to exegete and expound the text, using a good translation of the Bible in the vernacular is very important. Practically speaking, does anyone wants to read the Bible text in, let's say English, and then correct it later in his sermon by saying, "Actually, a better translation would be ....," and then change the English text? Such would erode the confidence the people in the pew have over their Bibles. The impression given is that the Bibles they use do not actually convey the true sense of God's Word since the pastor is frequently correcting it. Therefore, what the Bible actually says is not available to them since most lay people don't know Greek and Hebrew.

But must the preacher change the English text? Since we are to proclaim God's Word, how can we not do so when something that the Bible teaches cannot be seen if one uses a non-literal translation of the Bible? Must we then omit teaching a truth of the Bible if it cannot be seen in a translation of the Bible that the people happen to be using? I hope not.

An alternative method promoted by the proponents of the Dynamic-Equivalent translation methodology is to use many versions and commentaries. Such would allow a person to get a much fuller sense of what a certain verse actually teaches. To this we ask: Is this even feasible in the context of preaching a sermon? Is doing a Rick Warren, in using multiple "translations" of the Bible, actually a good thing?

Utilizing many translations of the Bible in a sermon sound great initially. When one wants to teach a certain truth, one just finds the Bible translation that best teaches that truth. One therefore will not be seen to be correcting the Bible in order to expound the teaching of the biblical text.

Such reasoning however is flawed. First of all, not all Bible "translations" actually states what God's Word says. How can one know whether the pastor is choosing a particular translation because it happens to teach what he wants to say, which is not actually found in the Scriptures? Rick Warren uses "translations" such as the Message to give his teaching legitimacy, although the Bible does not actually teach what the Message claims it teaches. So how can the normal lay person in the pew actually discern if the pastor is using a particular version because that version actually expresses the sense of Scripture, or if the pastor is using that version because that version actually says what the pastor wants to teach regardless of whether the Scriptures actually teach it? To be able to discern, the lay person needs to know the original languages, and so we are back to ground zero.

The second flaw in such reasoning is this: How can one know which translation for which verse expresses the sense that is most accurate to that in the original text? Perhaps for one verse the NASB expresses the sense best, while for the next verse the NLT best expresses the sense, but how can the average layperson decide? In a sermon, presumably one can trust the pastor's choice of translation for a passage or verse. But not having any knowledge of the original languages, how can a normal person discern when he studies the Bible for himself? Use a commentary? So which commentary is the lay person supposed to treat as his personal magisterium to tell him what the Scripture teaches?

The fact of the matter is that the translational philosophy and methodology of Dynamic or "Functional" Equivalence actually erodes the confidence believers have in Scripture. It practically destroys the idea that Scripture is perspicuous, and creates new magisteria for the individual believer. Of course, the choice of a good translation utilizes the wisdom of scholars and theologians. But the role of scholars and theologians is to be an instrument to hand the lay people the Word of God so they can read it on their own for their own understanding. It is not the role of scholars and theologians to hand the lay people many "translations" and then tell them they have to return to them in order to understand what the Word of God actually teaches, since these "translations" are sometimes very diverse in what they claim the Word of God teaches. Scholars and theologians mediate the Word of God by preparing the Word of God in the language of the common people, and then the Word of God is to do its work! They are not to usurp the authority of the Spirit of God in making themselves the magisteria and the ones who will guide you through the maze of translations they have themselves created.

That is why it is very important to choose a good literal translation. The whole objection by the progressive "Functional Equivalence" promoters that all translation is interpretation totally misses the point! It misses the difference between lexical interpretation, which seeks to preserve as much of the original words as possible, and no-holds-barred interpretation, where whole phrases are interpreted according to what one *thinks* the Bible is actually teaching. It is the difference between holding that the Scriptures are above us and we should not presume to fully understand all the Scripture is saying, therefore preserving the text as much as possible, and between thinking that one has already fully comprehended the words of the text and thus is able to alter the words to make the meaning explicit. The former understands that our manner of knowing of God's truth is analogical. The latter thinks that our manner of knowing God's truth (not the content of God's truth itself) is univocal.

If we desire to expound God's truth while keeping the confidence of lay people in the Bible translation that they have, we should use an accurate translation of the Bible so that we do not have to change the wording every so often. True, some nuances cannot be seen because of the nature of translation, but it is one thing to explicate a nuance, and another thing to change the wording of a translation altogether.

Such therefore is the crux of the difference in translational philosophy and methodology. It is for the love of Christ's church that I stand for essential literal translations such as the ESV. We do not want any magisterium of scholars to stand between God's people and God's Word. True, God's people need guidance to understand God's Word, but guidance (through Bible study, tradition and their pastor) is not the same as being the foundation! We guide them by showing them how Scripture teaches what it teaches, and through the instrument of guidance the Spirit of God reveals the truths taught by the Word of God. Instrument is not grounds. Scholars, theologians, pastors are all instruments for the communicating of God's truth, not the grounds for its communication.

The Church must therefore seriously consider the Bible translation they are to use. Seriously consider the issue, so that scholars, theologians and pastors continue to be instruments for communicating the truth of God's Word, and God's people continue to be confident in their ability to read and understand the Scriptures.


Greg said...

In light of this post, how do you recommend handling text critical issues? Let's use an example from two essentially literal translations. Deut 32:8 in the NAS reads, “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.” The ESV is essentially the same except for the latter part of the verse which reads, “according to the number of the sons of God.”

The NAS follows the MT. The ESV follows the LXX and the DSS and is almost certainly the correct reading. How do you recommend a pastor handle this when he is teaching from Deuteronomy 32 and both Bible versions are present in his congregation?

PuritanReformed said...


First of all, be convinced which is the correct rendering. If not, lay the two options out for the congregation. Suggest and show also for your example that the essential meaning of the text does not change regardless of which reading is correct.

Textual variant issues must certainly be dealt with in a sermon if the variant is significant enough to raise questions in the members of the congregation. That requires knowledge of the congregation and where they are at. Your example for example will not merit discussion in a congregation of yong believers in the faith, who will probably find such discussion a splitting of hairs.

That does not mean that every significant variant must be addressed immediately. For example, the Johannine Commma does not need to be mentioned in a sermon if the congregation does not use the KJV. It should be mentioned in Sunday school, but since the sermon is not the same as teaching, discussion of textual issues should be kept to a minimum.