12 January 2015

What about Bible Translations?

The issue of Bible translations has proven to be a very confusing one. Christians are rightly concerned for the text of Scripture and there are legitimate reasons to be wary of most modern Bible translations.

First there's the issue of the text itself. Primarily we're speaking of the Greek New Testament authored in the first century by the Apostles. As the Church grew copies were made and eventually several manuscript traditions developed... small variations depending on the region where they were produced. Despite these differences and the arguments of modern day critics these texts have always been more or less in agreement. The differences are miniscule and usually don't involve much more than spelling, word order and occasionally the placement of a paragraph.

In fact there are some who legitimately question the whole school of Textual Criticism, the method it employs and the presuppositions which drive its criteria. In some cases they are delineating 'families' which may not in fact exist and are rooted in speculative historical argument.

There are thousands of texts comprised of one or more of the books of the New Testament. These texts collectively have been called the Byzantine or sometimes the Majority or Traditional text. These terms are used in slightly different ways depending on who you're talking to. To keep things simple we will restrict ourselves to speaking generally.

One sub-grouping of this larger body of texts is known as the Textus Receptus which became the basis for our English Bibles at the time of the Reformation. The Textus Receptus (TR) has a few problems and is missing a few parts that had to be dealt with. The TR was used in the making of the King James Bible and represents historical continuity with the main body of texts that have been used by The Church (broadly speaking) throughout history.

In the late 1800's some newer texts were discovered that many people believed to be older than the thousands of surviving Byzantine Texts we still possess. These new texts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus) incorporated with other papyri and fragments discovered here and there became the basis for the Alexandrian Text or as it is sometimes called by those who oppose it... the Critical Text. They represent a very small number of manuscripts compared to the Byzantine of which we have thousands.

Sometimes the Critical Text refers to what is called an Eclectic Text, which simply means the scholars pick and choose which readings they think are the oldest and most true to the original. The Byzantine Texts are out of favour and thus the Alexandrian Text has more or less become the equivalent of the Critical. Or to put it differently an Eclectic Text whether labeled Critical or not will inevitably be based on the Alexandrian. No matter how you frame it, the Alexandrian Text has won the day.

This 'new' or as is argued 'older' text became the basis of almost all subsequent Bible translations. Though there are very few of these newly discovered texts, because they're deemed older, they are viewed as superior and thus for many scholars the Byzantine families of texts have been effectively consigned to the waste bin. We could say a textual coup took place and suddenly in the late 1800's the Church wanted to use a different text from what it had historically been using.

We join with those who are critical of the claims put forward by the defenders of the Alexandrian or Critical Text. We don't accept that the manuscripts are older nor do we accept that they should supplant the traditional text that the Church had been using for centuries. We believe that even if the Alexandrian Texts are older they represent an aberration, a minority group of texts that were rejected and not used by the Church throughout its history. We don't have to resort to conspiracy theories about Origen, Alexandria or other such notions put forward by people like Riplinger and Ruckman to reject the Critical Text.

The modern Textual Critic attempts to approach these ancient manuscripts as a sceptical scientist and on a certain level that is understandable and even helpful.

But theologically if we believe in Canon, if we believe in Scripture and also its Sufficiency and Authority we must also believe in the doctrine of Providential Preservation. We must believe that God through Providence protects and perpetuates His Word to the Church throughout history. He would not give His Word only to have it fail to be preserved. We do not believe the Church gave us the Scriptures, nor do we believe Church tradition or a living apostleship divinely interpret the Scriptures for us today. Even those who claim these prerogatives depend on Scripture. Without the Scripture we have nothing to stand on. We believe it was inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved by Providence. It is through the written word that we hear the testimony of the Apostles and are taught the oracles and mysteries of the Kingdom of God. It is through the Scriptures that we learn of Christ and His work. Without the Apostolic testimony of the New Testament we would be left blind.

Interestingly some of the older Puritan authors when writing about this issue raised the question... what if other texts were found in the future that differed from what The Church already possessed? They called the acceptance of such texts akin to Atheism.

Why such a strong denunciation? Because in embracing new texts, regardless of arguments about age, it implied the Church has for centuries not possessed the correct Scripture. The lack of Providential Preservation was all but a denial of the Living God.

Defenders of the Alexandrian or Critical text will argue that no fundamental doctrines are changed and the Scriptures missing in the Alexandrian text... a few passages and many words and clauses... affect no doctrine. These 'critics' believe the 'additional' words and phrases found in the Byzantine Texts were later additions and thus not inspired. And thus whether meaning harm or not they are implying the Church has (for centuries) read these words and mistakenly thought they were Scripture. According to the defenders of the Critical Text we were wrong in thinking the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 7.53-8.11) was Scripture. They would say it has no place in the Bible.

Modern Conservative Protestantism has fallen into a trap. Seeking academic respectability and a more robust and demonstrable defense for the text the conservative academy has allowed the secularists and critics to establish the boundaries of the argument and playing field. Conservatives have fallen into the trap of seeking the Autographs, trying through Textual Criticism and reconstruction to locate the 'true text'.

This switch to the language of 'inerrancy' came about in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Inerrancy refers not to the text we now possess but to the Autographs, the original actual documents penned by the Apostles but lost to time. I don't think many people realize that those who embrace the Critical Text don't believe the Bible they hold in their hands is inerrant. They believe that only insofar that the text reflects the Autograph is it inerrant.

Inerrancy is a quest constantly informed by new discoveries and textual insights. It can never end. The Bible teacher has to work through hosts of textual variants (discrepancies between manuscripts) and scholarly considerations in seeking the 'true text'.

If you believe in Providential Preservation you don't need to rest on scientific scholarly hunts for the inerrant autographs. Instead we have a preserved Infallible Text that The Church (broadly speaking) has possessed throughout history. Again that's a generalization and we have to speak of how to assemble this text from the various manuscripts. However, the Textus Receptus is a fair representation of this Providentially Preserved Infallible Text.

Infallibility as it is being used here also incorporates the idea of inerrancy without restricting itself by being limited to the Autographs. At this point not everyone will agree with how these terms are being used and many believe inerrancy represents a stronger and more detailed explanation of infallibility. We do not mean to suggest that historic and scientific details don't matter. Our purpose is to emphasize the nature of the text we possess and the confidence we can have in it. We believe the quest for inerrancy and finding the solution in the Autographs rather than the preserved Ecclesiastical Text has sent the Church down a wayward path. It seeks a text it will never find and academic respectability it will never earn.

In embracing this model and seeking mainstream credibility modern Protestant Evangelicalism has already entered a death-spin. The Word of God is not a sure foundation, but something subject to dissection and constant reinterpretation.

As a reaction to this many not fully understanding the issues have clung tenaciously to the King James translation as representing safe ground. Granted you are safe with the King James, but you must be careful not to fall into another error and one just as bad as the foundational arguments of the Critical Text.

Some have mistakenly believed the King James translation is inspired, that the Holy Spirit miraculously intervened in the year 1611 and that the King James serves as the new Autograph. All appeals to Greek or Hebrew texts they would argue are now unnecessary. This is unacceptable and without Biblical warrant and often represents a peculiarly American way of looking at some of these issues.

There's another position that has nothing to do with the King James per se, one that holds to the older Text Type coupled with the idea of a Providential or Ecclesiastical text. Keeping with that Byzantine Text will allow for new translations to be made... as long as they follow good and God-honouring practice in their translation.

There aren't many of these translations as almost all scholars have embraced the Critical Text. There's very little interest in pursuing translations of what are viewed as thousands of obsolete discredited Byzantine manuscripts.

We believe the New King James represents a translation faithful to the historical text and yet in many ways superior to the older King James. It corrects some translational mistakes and presents the language in a way more faithful to the Koine Greek of the time. By this we mean the tone and posturing of the verbiage. The King James (which was revised numerous times after 1611) deliberately employed a 'high' tone and the language is not that of the common people. We speak of Elizabethan English, but the King James Bible was deliberately crafted to sound extra-lofty and majestic in manner... quite different from how the Greek would have sounded to ancient ears. The motives are understandable but misplaced.

We wish the New King James publishers would have dispensed with the unfortunate association of King James I/VI of England and Scotland. He was a wicked man and undeserving of having his name on the spine. Besides the NKJV has nothing to do with him, but I'm sure the publishers utilized the name to identify with the textual tradition. Riplinger and others are convinced of conspiracy due to copyright issues etc... Such matters may be cause for concern but do not touch the fundamental issues at stake.

Finally, the issue of translation must be addressed. The KJV, NKJV and Critical Text Bibles like the NASB and ESV adhere to Formal Equivalence. They are attempting as much as is possible to translate word for word. If you've ever studied a foreign language you'll immediately know that word-for-word translation is difficult and often impossible. There are words that don't match, tenses that don't have equivalents, colloquialisms and word play. Translations adhering to Formal Equivalence are willing to sacrifice style and flow in order to stay faithful to the text. The reader will have to be more attentive and the exegete will need to do his homework but the translated text stays close to the original in terms of the technical language.

Dynamic Equivalence represents a more fluid form of translation and to its critics a less serious attempt to stay faithful to the idea that the actual 'Words' of the text are inspired. It seeks to communicate the ideas, the broad semantics without worrying as much about the literal details. Some of these translations stray into what can only be called paraphrase. Not only are they not faithfully following the text, and rightly revering it as some would say, but the reader is subject to the bias of the translator. Serious exegetical work is all but impossible.

Most modern Bibles not only employ the Critical Text but also translate it Dynamically. The NIV, the NLT and many more represent this school of thought.

We will grant the NASB and the ESV (both revisions of the RV/ASV project) are good translations. They just use the wrong text.

We are not suggesting those who use these corrupted Bibles are not Christians. These faulty Bibles still contain the Gospel and we'll grant that on a practical day-to-day level of Bible reading the differences are not that significant.

But, the underlying issues are profound and this compromise on the Bible has undermined and will continue to undermine the Church of Jesus Christ.

Though our acceptance of and even preference for the NKJV will upset some, we hope they will understand the larger issue. Practically speaking the NKJV and KJV are so close that even reading them publically in concert is not an issue. No one will have any trouble following along.

The Critical Text needs to be rejected and yet the answer is not to fall into another extreme of falsely believing in a 17th century miracle that is without warrant. Those that just prefer the KJV because of its historical place, that position is certainly both acceptable and respectable... but not unassailable. There are other claimants to the historic Protestant mantle such as the Geneva Bible, but they too have their problems.