A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bible Translation Fundamentalism

Some are getting rather worked up one way or another over the decision to discontinue the publication of the TNIV Bible. Scot McKnight has some great thoughts on "translation tribalism" (parts 1 & 2). In one respect I suppose all the emotion is understandable; we are after all talking about the Bible and people want to read a translation they can trust, but, as Scot notes, we tend to divide up into camps and each camp over-states why translations other than their favorites are deficient.

As I traverse the worlds of scholarship and pastoral ministry, I have a dual concern when it comes to Bible translations and reading the Bible in general. As one who works in the biblical languages, I have a concern that Bible study is based on competent versions of the Bible. To say that a Bible is a version or a translation-- and there is a difference; a version is always a translation but a translation is not necessarily a version-- is to affirm that it is rendered from the biblical languages, but translators also have other things in mind as well. What is the reading level being targeted in the translation? Is the translation formally equivalent (word for word, phrase for phrase)? or dynamically equivalent (word or phrase to concept)? What is the theological bent of the translators? (It can in places make a difference.)

One of the things I do with my seminary students and with my parishioners in Bible study is to talk about versions and translations and detail the similarities and the differences between the NRSV or the NIV, for example. I encourage them to use a version for serious Bible study; and I inform them of my preferences and why, but I do not insist that one version is superior to another.

As a pastor I have another concern-- I just want people to read the Bible. I may cringe inside when I see a parishioner bring a paraphrase into Sunday School class, but I have known more than a few parishioners in churches I have served over the years, who began reading the Bible after they purchased or received a paraphrase as a gift. While, at some point, I want them to move into reading a version, I am not about to put a damper on their new-found excitement in reading God's Word now that they have a Bible they can understand. I know some pastors who are NRSV or NIV or KJV fundamentalists. No one in their churches would dare bring anything into a Bible study that is other than what the pastor insists is the only acceptable Bible. And those who are not so crassly honest about it find subtler ways to dig at parishioners who are reading a Bible other than what they have come to deem as the best in the English language.

One more thing-- pastors and scholars can tend to forget that in every church there are adults who have very different levels of reading comprehension. One size does not fit all. Some adults may find the NRSV difficult to get through, but can comprehend TEV more easily. That alone is reason enough to cast off our translation fundamentalism.

I am thankful for the excellent scholars who have given us some wonderful versions and translations of the Bible. At the same time, I just want people to read the Bible. I might prefer someone read the NRSV, but if she or he has connected to the biblical world and deepened their relationship with Jesus Christ in reading The Message, I am not about to discourage them.


Clay Knick said...

Another good one Allan.

Henry Neufeld said...

Good post! I am not happy with Zondervan discontinuing the TNIV, simply because I think it is a good revision of the NIV. Unfortunately, controversy surrounding it has made marketing difficult, so perhaps Zondervan can be forgiven for trying another tactic.

As a side note, on the front cover of my book What's in a Version? I put the slogan "The Best Bible version is the one you read!"

PamBG said...

I'm not a biblical scholar, but I do know a thing or two about translating from one living language to another. And the fact is that sometimes the "best" translation is a paraphrase and sometimes it's word-for-word.

I'm sure many pastors have seen someone latch on to a word or phrase in a bad paraphrase and treat it as if it was God's Word On The Matter Forever And Ever, Amen. So I have some sympathy with version-fundamentalism although one should never underestimate the power of rebellion! ;-)

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good words, Allan.

Country Parson said...

I've never been a fan of the NIV so the controversy pretty much passes me by. The RSV and NRSV are my favorites backed up by the New Jerusalem and NET. But I've also found Peterson to be extremely helpful in unpacking Paul and have often used it as a parallel reading on Sundays. We've got a couple of Greek and Hebrew scholars in our Tuesday morning lectionary group, so translation discussions are often long and deep.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

Allan -

That kind of pastoral sensibility is exactly where ministers need to be in relation to issues of bible translation.

I admit I have fallen into the "bible snob" mentality at times. But that can be cured quickly by realizing what a challenge it is to just get a majority of your congregation to read the Scriptures at all. And that means saving your in-depth conversations about translations for the times you are hanging out with friends from seminary or other pastors is always a good idea.

Thanks for the post -

Grace & peace,

Chris said...

I used the NIV in my Intervarsity days in college, and it remains a sentimental favorite for me. I've never quite adapted to and adopted the NRSV. I see bias against the NIV in mainline circles, and I think it stems from prejudice against evangelicals, at least in part. Thanks for your post.

Reed said...

Great thoughts Allan.

I can tolerate a degree of translation elitism in my seminary classes (grad school is so often about superiority anyway, right?) but I hate it when this attitude leaks into the parish.

Perhaps I hate this attitude so much because I've found myself guilty of it more often than I would like to admit. Even if I don't vocalize my superiority, I often subtly commend myself for my 'linguistic genius' whenever I overhear an untrained Christian dare argue exegesis with a Message version.

Imagine discovering the life of the gospel in a book you've come to love (remarkable if you're a new Christian and always assumed the Bible was quite dull) only to have a much more "mature" and "educated" Christian tell you that your book isn't good enough.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You write, "Imagine discovering the life of the gospel in a book you've come to love (remarkable if you're a new Christian and always assumed the Bible was quite dull) only to have a much more "mature" and "educated" Christian tell you that your book isn't good enough."

Absolutely right! But pastors and scholars do this all too often.