Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Translating the Bible (or, Why smart people say stupid things)

Mars Hill Church is a large church in the Seattle area, a church that would fit solidly in modern mainstream evangelical Christianity. The pastor, Mark Driscoll, is a smart man, a good communicator (he's written a few books and regularly contributes editorials that get published in local newspapers), and a significant voice in the evangelical community (in the wake of the Ted Haggard scandal, for example, Driscoll's response on his blog was widely discussed).

All that I have known for some time. I was therefore very surprised yesterday to read the most recent statement from Driscoll and his church, regarding a change they are making in what Bible translation they will use. It surprised me not because they are changing Bible translations (I could really care less). It surprised me because the reasons given for the change were so transparently stupid. Pardon my frankness, but the statements presented were laughable, and I can't fathom how an intelligent person such as Driscoll could have possibly signed off on them (or written them).

As a good sample of the silliness presented by Driscoll and his church, consider this statement:

"One of the more popular arguments for thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that people do not understand the theological nomenclature that Scripture uses to express doctrinal concepts. The reasoning follows that words like “justification” and “propitiation,” which the original text of Scripture used, should be replaced with more modern vernacular that people can understand." (emphasis mine)
I'd love to see the "original text of Scripture" that used English words! (Though somehow I think I'd doubt it's authenticity, much like the coin stamped with the date "100 B.C." :) )

I was going to craft a response today, possibly sending it to Driscoll... but I was saved the bother by another blogger, Henry Neufeld, who wrote an excellent critique. I will simply quote a few key points from Henry's analysis.

"If God inspired the very words and details, he did not do so in English. He did so in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek."

"This is simply so naive that I have difficulty believing it was written by someone with Mark Driscoll’s training and writing skills. The word 'justification' is not in the 'words and details' of scripture as inspired by God. There is a Greek word in that verse."

"If they truly believe in 'verbal plenary inspiration' and believe that one must not alter the words and details of scripture in any way, then they must logically begin to use only the texts in the source languages."

Now, this seems obvious to me, so basic that it's self-evident... but if it doesn't seem so obvious to you, please let me know, and I'll back up and we can discuss the nature of language and translation. That's a topic that has interested me for a very long time, and that has a great deal of complexity.

But, I'm also interested in this from a psychological angle. If we conclude that Driscoll is making arguments here that are rationally indefensible... then what is motivating him (and the rest of his church leadership) to make the claims? I don't doubt his sincerity, either, though I have no idea how he will respond rationally to the objections raised. How does someone intelligent and informed end up with a sincere belief in something irrational?

This question interests me because it happens so often. Rational and well-informed people make claims that are only supported by obviously specious rational arguments (such as "the original text of Scripture used" words such as "justification" and "propitiation"). Yet, they are sincere, and often unmoveable. What is it, psychologically, that gives us irrational blind spots? And what can we do, as people that desire to be rational and open to critique, to prevent that psychological infirmity from inflicting us as well?



Douglas said...

While the way it is stated may not be the brightest, isn't their point simply that if you want a more rich translation, then it should be more literal rather than more interpretive. It always bugged me when I would read a paraphrase "Bible" (e.g., Living Bible) and find that the paraphraser had put in his own interpretation of a passage of Scripture, especially when this wasn't necessarily the only way to interpret it. Combined with the tendency of many to look at the Bible literally nearly all the time, it makes for a much less nuanced interpretive framework.


steviepinhead said...

I'm not clear what Doug is saying, so I'm not going to agree or disagree directly.

I do agree with Mark and Henry. The Mars Hill approach is simply naive. There is no such thing as a "literal" translation. That's not to say that there's not a discernible spectrum, or that scholars, linguists, and theologians might not reach considerable consensus on what the sense of the original text was and how it should best--at any given time and place--be translated into another language. But there simply is no one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages.

And particularly not one that's immutable. Even if the original text is time-bound, grounded in the language of a particular time and place, the "receptor" language (as Henry terms it) is a vibrant, living, changing thing.

And I even question whether the original text can be immutably rooted in time and place, since new discoveries, and authoritative reconsiderations, of everything from history to archaeology to linguistics will continue to add to our knowledge of what a particular word, phrase, concept, or "theme" of related concepts or motifs "meant" to the original author.

To return to (what I'll now imagine to be) Doug's suggestion that--such high-falutin' theoretical considerations aside--we should still strive to err on the side of the "literal," rather than the "interpretive," my rejoinder would be that that's fine, heh, in theory, but that it comes freighted with a load of practical problems which the Mars Hill fellow cheerfully elides.

Had this minister instead treated us to some sort of arguably-sound exegesis on what the original Greek word translated (in the ESV and, I gather the KJV) as justify was, what it is deemed by competent scholar/theologians to have meant, what the options for translation into English were, what the pros and cons of the different choices are, and constructed, after all of that, a careful case for retaining "justify" rather than [insert alternative "interpretive" phraseology], then we'd have some marrow to wrangle with.

And perhaps much more interesting fodder for sermons.

But the approach critiqued here is not simply naive, but dismissively and almost-disingenuously naive.

I'm left almost with the taste of, "Well, I wasn't expecting to fool anybody who actually knows anything about this with this 'explanation,' but it's plenty good enough to get past my congregants."

Mark Congdon said...


You are probably right that their point was that a translation should be "literal rather than interpretive". I don't think, though, that they were referring to a "more one way than the other" approach, trying to find a balance on a spectrum.

To respond to your comment, let me suggest a brief simplistic range of biblical translations. The New American Standard was always the "word-for-word" gold standard when I was growing up. The New International Version sticks close to a word-for-word translation, but is more willing to clarify a point where the language or stylistic differences are more significant. The New Living Translation is basically a thought-for-thought translation, less concerned about matching up specific words. The Message is a translation working to preserve not just the ideas of the original but the literary style and idiomatic qualities (meaning that it uses many highly idiomatic constructs and takes great liberties with the actual words used).

For a more exhaustive list of translations, generally grouped by how they fall on the spectrum, see this site.

Mars Hill Church was previously using the NIV translation, which falls in the Moderately Literal grouping on the above site, more word-for-word than thought-for-thought. Yet, they felt compelled to move from the NIV to the ESV, a highly literal translation. The idiomatic translations don't even apply to the change made at Mars Hill Church; they've just moved a bit farther along the literalist spectrum.

And, they've given exactly no rational justification for the move. I would be fascinated to see a detailed evaluation of the differences between the NIV and the ESV, pointing out where the NIV's thought-for-thought translation methodology resulted in less-accurate translations. It's possible that such an argument could be made. But Mars Hill didn't even attempt it.

That said, I agree with you in general that idiomatic translations or paraphrases are more heavily dependent on the translator's interpretive framework than more literal translations. On the other hand, more idiomatic translations often do a better job of communicating the emotion and emphasis of the original writing, going beyond the clinical details.

Personally, I use both kinds of translations. I have a few idiomatic translations that I use for reading, and I have a few more-literal translations that I use for studying.


Amy said...

Quite frankly, any translation from one language to another, one culture to another, one person to another requires interpretation. Just ask anyone who is married how often they have said one thing, quite clearly and articulately in thier minds, only to have their spouse hear something eniterly different.

The problem is only compunded when the original sources are not on hand to chat about what their world looked like, precisely, and why they may have chosen a particular turn of phrase which doesn't mean much to the modern American reader.

Personally, I was a NASBer growing up. I thought word-for-word was the way to go. The more I learned about languages (I speak and read two and can stumble through a third) the more I recognized that language translation by it's very nature requires text to be understood and, yes, reinterpreted for the reading or listening pleasure of those who cannot access the original.

Now days, I'm just as likely to pick up The Message as anything else. Maybe it's because I heard and read words like "propitiation" and "justification" from such a young age that they ceased to have any meaning for me. Or maybe it's just that hearing and reading God's promises and the stories of His followers in language that I use and see every day speaks to my heart in a way that the formal language of academia simply doesn't.

Wycliffe calls it the "heart language." A man or woman who has read the Bible for years in a language they speak fluently will get tears in their eyes upon reading a passage newly translated into the language they speak in their heart.

Dave said...

Stevie and Mark, your thoughts are very insightful and helpful. Amy you hit the nail on the head, in my opinion, that any translation requires interpretation. This is a key point that many, like Driscoll, miss or refuse to acknowledge.

Mark, before I read Driscoll's aritcle I thought you might be coming down too hard on him. After reading his article, I couldn't agree with you more.

Quite frankly the reasoning he states to switch to the ESV sounds just like the nonsense that I usually hear the KJV-only crowd use to support their view.

I found his examples using quotes of Scripture to be laughable, although sad that he would be more concerned about one English translated word over a few different English translated words that mean exactly the same thing.

With you, I'm now very curious why he has suddenly made such a big stink about switching from NIV to ESV.

Douglas said...


I guess I'm interpreting Mr. Driscolls work much in the same way the NLT translates the Biblical texts. Realizing that my commentary may be wrong, I beg your forgiveness in advance for those instances.

Moving on...
You said, "...The idiomatic translations don't even apply to the change made at Mars Hill Church; they've just moved a bit farther along the literalist spectrum.

And, they've given exactly no rational justification for the move...."

I think Mr. Driscoll eludes to those reasons when he says that he preached out of the ESV for a particular series he did on the concept of propitiation. He then links to those tape series so we can get a background for the reasoning, but I didn't go there. From what I've read, I don't think that Mr. Driscoll is arguing the NIV is a bad translation as much as that it doesn't suit his preaching style as well as a more literal translation. Perhaps that is a generous interpretation of his motives. If I'm wrong and he thinks the ESV is inherrently superior to the NIV in all circumstances for public and private reading, then I don't mind retracting that statement. I do think my generous interpretation is born out by his mentioning only three translations as being unfit for use as the Bible, and all were paraphrases that deviated a ton from the words Scripture uses and relied heavily on particular interpretive frameworks or just plain left out much of what the Scripture was communicating. Even then, he says those paraphrases are probably OK for use as commentary. To that, I say Bull Honky. At least the New Living Translation is a highly Protestantized interpretation of Romans 3:24 as unfit to be called Scripture as the Gospel of Thomas.

More fundamentally, Mr. Driscoll seems to be arguing for a more intellectual kind of Biblical study style to become predominant: one that necessitates people learning the history and idioms of the Bible.

Of course, I could be wrong. He might be arguing that the ESV is the only really good Bible. My interpretation is ironically very interpretive and not nearly so literal as others on this blog. If I were to be literal, I would have to conclude that he is a twit. Of course, I may have already concluded that...

When he goes into discourse on which Bible translation is the better one, he misses much bigger points such as...
* The evangelical WASP interpretive framework which he brings to his preaching.
* The fact that his ESV Bible is missing whole sections of Scripture that existed in all Bibles printed until the Protestant Reformation and only disappeared completely from Protestant Bibles in the last 100 years.

As I see it, it's kind of like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. Of course, as you point out, even the gnat may be imaginary.


Douglas said...

Boy that came out bad. That's what I get for not proofreading in word before posting. I'll just clarify one of the more egregious misstatements on my part.

I wrote, "My interpretation is ironically very interpretive and not nearly so literal as others on this blog. If I were to be literal, I would have to conclude that he is a twit. Of course, I may have already concluded that..."

That didn't come out right. I meant that my reading of Driscoll is derived not as much from the literal words he uses as much as from the gist of what I think he is saying, much in the same way Romans 3:24 is interpreted by the NLT "translators". If I was simply basing my interpretation of his essay on words of the essay itself and not using my understanding of people with strong preferences for more literal translations to bring out the less obvious meaning behind his somewhat obscure points, then I would have to conclude that he is a twit. Of course, I may have already concluded that...

Still poorly worded (and maybe just a bad idea), but I gotta run, so that'll have to do.

Jim Swindle said...

I'm a member of an ESV-preferred Southern Baptist church. I like the translation, but realize that no one translation is great for everyone. I like the ESV for the following reasons:
--Its language flows much better than the NASB; somewhat better than the NKJV, in my opinion.
--It's more literal than the NIV, but not hard for me to read.
--It reminds me of the RSV that I heard as a child.

In addition to the actual quality of any translation, there is also the matter of its reputation. Conservative, reformed churches like the ESV. Liberal churches like the NRSV or the CEV. Some Southern Baptists prefer the HCSB (after all, we hold the copyright). Many middle-of-the-road evangelical churches like the NIV. Sometimes we like a translation because those whom we respect like it.

I do believe in the full inspiration (inerrancy) of the scripture as originally written, and that the Lord has providentially protected it in its transmission and translation so that we can be confident that in it we have all we need for life and godliness. No translation is perfect; almost any honest translation is sufficient for coming to know the Lord.

Dave said...


I find this to be quite an interesting generalization:

"In addition to the actual quality of any translation, there is also the matter of its reputation. Conservative, reformed churches like the ESV. Liberal churches like the NRSV or the CEV. Some Southern Baptists prefer the HCSB (after all, we hold the copyright). Many middle-of-the-road evangelical churches like the NIV. Sometimes we like a translation because those whom we respect like it."

I'm curious how you came to your conclusion about the equation between "liberal churches" and the CEV, and "middle-of-the-road evangelical churches" and the NIV.

How do you define "liberal churches" and "middle-of-the-road evangelical churches" as you have used those terms here?

Could you further expand your theory and the rationale you used in forming it?


MarkC said...


I've never been part of what Jim is probably considering a "liberal church", so I can't speak from that angle. I've been in both conservative churches and "middle-of-the-road evangelical" churches, though, I expect. My conservative church experience, however, stuck to the King James Version... the ESV would have been a bit too progressive for their taste. :)

Overall I think I agree with Jim. My preference in Bible translation was generally set by the version that my Christian high school standardized on, the NIV. Because we did all our reading and memorizing out of that translation in school, I became familiar and comfortable with it, and I've stuck with it ever since. I've evaluated it since, and can explain its strengths and weaknesses in relation to other translations, and I use other translations as well, but the NIV remains my primary translation because I am familiar with it, and because people that I respected used and recommended it.

So, what Jim says along those lines certainly makes sense to me.


Dave said...


"At least the New Living Translation is a highly Protestantized interpretation of Romans 3:24 as unfit to be called Scripture as the Gospel of Thomas."

What is the specific translation error you see in the NLT in regard to Romans 3:24?


MarkC said...


Doug is taking a break from posting for Lent, so he won't be able to answer you for a while. In the meantime, I'll take a stab at it.

Here is Romans 3:24, in a few translations (from most word-for-word literal to most interpretive):

ESV: "justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus"

NASB: "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus"

NIV: "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus"

New Living: "God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins."

All of the stricter translations (even the more interpretive NIV) use the word "justified". The New Living expands that idea into the phrase "declares that we are righteous".

That word in the Greek is dikaioo. You can see all the times the Greek word is used in the New Testament, some definitions, and other word study helps at the Crosswalk Bible study tools site. Of particular interest is the use of the word in the same letter, or by the same author. In this case, the Greek word is used repeatedly by Paul in the letter to the Romans, and we can see a breakdown of those usages here.

One possible meaning of dikaioo is to "declare" to be just. Another possible meaning is to actually make something just, changing its character or nature.

The Catholic Church holds that justification is a true change in character or nature. Many branches of Protestantism hold that justification is a declaration of justice, apart from any substantive change in the justified one (though most would also hold to a process of making one just that happens after the initial act of justification).

The New Living translation appears to have gone out of its way to expand that word "justification" so as to codify the Protestant interpretation of the word, and the passage, based on Protestant theology. There is no textual basis for interpreting the word that way. I'd say, from browsing the list of word usages in Romans, that Paul probably intended the word to mean a more substantive change, though what affect that would have on my overall theology I'm not certain about. In any case, inserting the phrase "declares that we are" codifies one possible interpretation into the New Living translation, and people that use only that translation would be led to believe that the Protestant interpretation was the only one supported by the original text of the Bible. They would be wrong.

So, in the New Living Translation there is clearly a skewed interpretive translation, codifying one possible interpretation because of a theological position, not because of anything in the text itself that would lead the interpretation that way. The other translations left the word ambiguous, leaving the interpretation up to the reader based on the context of the passage.

I think the comparison to the Gospel of Thomas is a stretch. I also don't think that interpretive translation of Romans 3:24 is necessarily "unfit to be called Scripture". That's the difficulty of translation. Nobody uses the word "justification" any more. The New Living translators wanted to use words that people were familiar with, because Paul seems to have been using words that were familiar to his readers at the time. That's a noble goal, in my opinion. But what words do they use? There's no way for them to preserve the ambiguity of the original word, without using a word that is ambiguous simply because of its unfamiliarity. To translate the word into familiar English, when no perfect corollary word exists, requires an interpretive lens.

So, I wouldn't say that the New Living translation of Romans 3:24 is unfit to be called Scripture... but it, like every translation, is unfit to be used exclusively as one's only interaction with Scripture.

I'm thankful we live in a society that has the resources to produce a wide variety of translations, with ample resources for research and commentary and evaluation (even for untrained laypeople like myself), so that we can get that little bit closer to the original, even if we can't speak the original language.