Bible Translations in the “Mere Christian” Hallway

mere christianity bible translations

For several weeks I’ve been trying to End Bible Translation Tribalism. I’m urging Christians not to make our good Bible translations into rallying points or battle flags for internecine warfare. Instead, we members of Christ’s body should recognize our (good) Bible translations for what they are: useful and complementary tools for listening to Christ, our head.

Obscure redheaded bloggers near the Canadian border can only do so much about Bible translation tribalism. Suspicions about other “Christian” tribes’ bad “Bible” “translations” will continue no matter how hard I try to stop them. Just recently at a conference a dean at a Christian college told me that a certain major Greek-English lexicon was secretly altered as part of a conspiracy to promote the NIV. I was dumbfounded.

But I understand such suspicions. I do. I’ve got a Christian tribe, too, with our own predilections. To borrow from C.S. Lewis’ famous ecclesiological analogy in Mere Christianity, I work in the “mere Christian” hallway all day, but my true home is in one of the denominational, theologically specific rooms off to its side.

I like my room. I like my tribe. I prefer its views—I even prefer its problems—to those of other tribes in other rooms. I’m willing to insist on certain divisions from my brothers and sisters in Christ when I believe the Bible tells me to (2 Thess. 3:6, 14). And in another venue, we can discuss (in Christian love) the reasons I might choose to do so.

But I still believe that recognizing the existence of the hallway—acknowledging the genuine good in other tribes—is an important thing to do. God has his 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal, and they’re not all in your tribe. (You may not have always been there either!)

One of the important corollaries of my belief in the hallway is this: if Christians’ suspicions about other Christian tribes keep them from profiting from our many good Bible translations, those suspicions have gone too far. Such Christians are being unhelpfully tribal. And the people they are most unhelping are themselves.

Translating in the Hallway

No translation is perfect, because they are made by fallen humans. Even respected, well-trained Bible translators feel the subtle tug of tribal bias. As Charles Simeon once said with regard to two Christian tribes,

There is not a decided Calvinist or Arminian in the world, who equally approves of the whole of Scripture…., who, if he had been in the company of St. Paul, whilst he was writing his different Epistles, would not have recommended him to alter one or other of his expressions. (xxiii)

The best and most respected translations have achieved that status in part because the translators who produced them recognized their own fallenness. How did they counteract their own tendency to wrench the Bible in their own tribe’s direction? They set up their work tables in the hallway.

Just as the founding fathers of the United States purposefully set up checks and balances among the various branches of government, so the broad coalition of Christian tribes who worked on the NIV—including Anabaptist, Anglican, Baptist, Bible, Brethren, Christian Reformed, Church of North India, Dispensationalist, Evangelical Covenant, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian scholars—helped keep that translation from subtly favoring one (Protestant evangelical) tribe over another.

And lest you think I’m an every-translation-is-a-good-translation, it’s-all-one-big-happy-party-come-on-in-it’s-fun-you’ll-like-it kind of person when it comes to Bible translations, notice that in all my posts about the topic, I’ve consistently claimed that only the “good” translations are worth checking. I, too, avoid certain translations and even feel a bit suspicious toward certain others.

What would make someone who is so publicly thankful for multiple translations suspicious? One of the main answers is this: if a translation is the product of precisely one Christian tribe and no others, I’m suspicious. I actually want Christians I disagree with on lesser matters to be involved in producing the Bible translations I read and study. Even the HCSB, which is closely identified with the Southern Baptist Convention, included Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others on its translation team. For all my love for my tribe, and for all my desire for others to join it, I recognize that other Christian tribes have theological strengths mine doesn’t have. Certain tribes grasped the redemptive historical character of Scripture many decades before my tribe did, for example.

If I think my tribe sees some scriptural truths others miss, I nonetheless recognize that the Bible is not my tribe’s book, but rather rules over and belongs to all truly Christian tribes. If Christians have to retreat to separate rooms off the hallway each Sunday—and we do, because certain doctrinal differences make ecclesiastical community almost impossible—then at least it’s healthy for us to be carrying the same Bible translations into those rooms with us.

The Best Bible Translations

And which ones should we carry? What exactly are the best Bible translations? How can you know which ones count as “good”?

I suggest you look again to the Christian hallway.

Just yesterday one of our number crunchers at Faithlife sent me a spreadsheet detailing Bible translation usage across our user base. I think there is wisdom in the aggregate opinion of actual Christians, real Bible students. Among them the top translations are just what I’d expect from my own long-term use of multiple translations: the ESV, NASB, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, HCSB, KJV, NET, LEB, Message, etc.

Most, though certainly not all, Logos users hail from evangelical tribes, and that’s reflected in the list. But I’m glad to see non-evangelical translations in the top 25 as well; I often encourage evangelicals to check translations from outside evangelicalism.

Conclusion

I don’t think the way to end Bible translation tribalism is to anoint one translation as the successor to the KJV in English-speaking lands. I actually hope we’ll continue to have multiple, regularly updated translations available along the spectrum from literal to dynamic. But I still resonate with the spirit of these comments from Doug Moo, chair of the Committee for Bible Translation, which is responsible for the NIV:

The NIV is one of the few English Bibles that is produced by an independent and widely representative group of evangelical Biblical scholars. Our work is not influenced by a publisher or any other organization. CBT is wholly independent; only we can make changes in the text of the NIV. In a day when evangelical Christianity seems to be dividing up into more and more factions, the vision of a translation “owned” by the evangelical movement as a whole—with no particular denominational or theological bias—is worth recapturing.

The truth is that what Moo said can be said of all the major modern evangelical Bible translations, even the ESV, which is most closely associated with the neo-Reformed tribe. And I hope that all of those translations will serve as glue keeping Christians together in the hallway—under the divine authority of the words of the living God.

Other posts in this series:

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

 

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Comments

  1. Dave Thawley says:

    Great set of blogs Mark. Very interesting and informative. They made me think so thanks.

    • Thanks for reading.

      • Hamilton says:

        God bless:

        I really enjoy what you are trying to convey in the related posts about ending Bible tribalism.

        Like you have communicated, each translation may have something to offer.

        We are to check all and retain what is good.

        My only request is to see if you can step up the plot:

        If I understood well, interlinears are better than most plain non original language Bibles.

        How about dedicating a few articles to the world of interlinears. What manuscripts are liked best by scholars, different traditions, etc. and why.

        What are your favorite interlinears, how you use them, etc.

        What you would recommend for non experts to be able to get more into the correct evaluation and use of interlinears, etc.

        Many have said that nothing beats original language reading and understanding.

        With so many tools, now non expert can start to get into original language exploration, and interlinears (reverse), are sure good tools to do that.

        I am sure that your input will be of much benefit to us non experts.

        Thanks ahead of time, and thanks for your input.

        Blessings.

  2. Jaime Lopez Ortega says:

    I can see that this type of opinionating can get you into some serious trouble with the tribes as you call them.. especially those with zero to none of the tradition of serious, long and deep study of scripture.. I have been teaching the same basic message long enough to know that too often too much is lost in translation.. By translation I do not mean from the original to the current languages and their nuance. I simply say this to say that in my experience I am still in awe of how many people who all speak “American” (tongue in cheek, please), can still hear emphasized the parts of speech designed to ease the human problem of doctrinal based hostility, (read; “HERESY” in some ears) which has the effect of voiding anything said about the importance of knowing what sin is as well as how to approach the problem of dealing with it, while preserving the bedrock message of love for whoever.. sadly people are trained to hear selectively by our educators.. I have seen this.. So then, balanced view is, “lost in translation”, if you will.. Good luck.. You will need plenty of it… along with as much prayer… Peace to you and yours…

  3. Peter Junor says:

    I appreciated this blog, thank you Mark! – it captures something I have observed & embraced myself for some time.
    Jesus reminded his followers, that it is the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth. We can hear His voice, in the pages of the various translations we pick up, and perceive His working -even in the scholarly hands of many different Translation committees- to enrich what I discern.
    I am encouraged to be pondering truth & meaning “between the typefaces” in the range of translations I have the privilege of having access too.
    This is a good time to be alive!

    • The proof of this pudding is in the eating, and I hope to show some of that in future installments. Comparing translations is only worthwhile if it adds insight, and I know it does. I want to show that it does in those future articles.

  4. Craig Giddens says:

    “I actually hope we’ll continue to have multiple, regularly updated translations available along the spectrum from literal to dynamic”

    So where is the word of God?

    • I’m not sure I know what you’re asking, but the word of God is where it always was: in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And it’s where the KJV translators said it is: in all good translations. Here’s what they said:

      We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession…containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere. [direct Logos link]

      • Wayne Baker says:

        Great Post. My view about the different Christian denominations, tribes and translations is that God is so big and so great, he allows us the freedom to worship him in a manner that is comfortable to each of us. As Paul said, we may have to adapt some to not cause offense to the infants in the faith. Sometimes there are issues that may have to be denounced and cause us to reject a translation, but that is because the translation is clearly corrupted. Where the translation is true to God, His Character and person, we should be willing to accept it. Your argument here is one I find great.

        • Thanks so much, but I do have to ask: what about Dathan and Abiram?

          • Wayne Baker says:

            I am uncertain of the reference you are making: ” Thanks so much, but I do have to ask: what about Dathan and Abiram?” However Leviticus ten is about Judgement against two who died since they were making an impure sacrifice.
            I guess this means you are asking concerning worship that is different than mine. If that is the case, there is those who worship God, to His Glory, but worship in manners different than how I am comfortable and there are those who are comfortable worshiping as I worship. However should one’s worship be for show, that is for one to impress others with their position, prestige or whatever, and not for the paise of God’s Glory, one has problems.
            As to your comments about some translations, you have the translation never finished that in Genesis 50:28, I believe it is, prophesy’s about one to come “Joseph the son of Joseph”, my bibles all end Genesis at Genesis 50:26. There are many who try to justify themselves, and one way of doing so is by doing their own translation. In addition, translation is an art. Seldom in one language will there be exact equivalents to another language, especially in the areas of action, time, and ideas. Nouns concerning specific objects will likely have exact translations, but even there the controversy concerning dinosaurs may come down to this problem in translation. I wonder how many know what the problem may be concerning dinosaurs?

          • Sorry to be so terse—I had a toddler with me and probably should not have been replying to blog comments in the first place… =)

            Yes, you caught my drift. And I do think you are right that the heart is most important. But modes of worship are not utterly immaterial; that’s all I’m suggesting.

            Thank you for some thoughtful comments.

      • Craig Giddens says:

        Then why not translate it into one version? Why the need for multiple versions?

        • Because I want to understand God’s words.

          Because I want to understand Ps 16:6.

          Because I want to understand 1 Kings 18:21.

          Because I want to understand Col 3:5.

          Because I want to understand Rom 1:18.

          Because I want to understand 1 Cor 15:31.

          Because I want to understand Heb 2:18, Col 2:23, and Ps 37:8.

          Because I want to understand Prov 4:23.

          Because I want to understand Hab 2:18.

          Because I want to understand Rom 12:10.

          Because I want to understand Josh 17:18.

          Because I want to understand Eph. 5:3-4.

          And I’m not the only one who wants (or needs!) to understand the Bible. We need multiple translations because…

          Because an inattentive preacher misread John 2:3.

          Because an attentive high school girl wanted to understand Psalm 83:3.

          Because we all fall into silly accidental misunderstandings.

          • Craig Giddens says:

            Why not have one translation that addresses all of those issues? This should not be a problem since the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are available and there are textual scholars who should be able to translate God’s word into one English version, one German version, one Chinese version …etc. Multiple English versions is not a sign of diversity, but division and confusion.

          • Craig, thank you for writing in, and for asking respectfully even though you’re concerned that I’m unwittingly abetting division.

            I really think the proof of the pudding is in the eating in this case. Did you get a chance to look at any of the posts I linked to in that long comment? You won’t see any value in multiple translations until you actually do the work of comparing them.

          • Wayne Baker says:

            in regards to this post
            “Why not have one translation that addresses all of those issues? This should not be a problem since the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are available and there are textual scholars who should be able to translate God’s word into one English version, one German version, one Chinese version …etc. Multiple English versions is not a sign of diversity, but division and confusion.” the value of several translations fall into a couple categories. First the manuscripts do not have spaces between words, so one had trouble sometimes know what the words are. A second problem is the fact that often there are not clear precise meanings. Buying a good lexicon will tell you that often one word may have several different nuances and translation than becomes a challenge. The different translations than may offer one insights that were mised if he used only one. This also leaves problems as there are concepts from one culture that do not translate well into another culture. For example in a desert community where they have never experienced temperatures even close to freezing how do you translate “ice” to them. The ancient writings are also permeated with their culture and has a time and presence we are unfamiliar with. This leaves challenges in translating what is meant by the writers. I am not saying translation cannot be done, but it does leave open some ways of expressing the concepts found in the original manuscripts.

      • Craig Giddens says:

        Then why not translate it into one version? I don’t understand the advantage of one translation?

  5. Jaime Lopez Ortega says:

    Craig Giddens says:
    June 7, 2016 at 7:20 pm.. Yes Mr. Giddens that is my take also.. the word of God is to be studied.. If we need to study it to understand it then one good accurate translation suffices… besides that any good Pastor Teacher will be able to teach the original languages to his congregants.. If he / she cannot then it is time to move on down the road.. The crisis is for good teachers and not multiple translations.. This is leading God’s people into many errors.. not the least of which these translations have people asking just how much of this word do we need to take to heart.. or could we be wrong about what it says..“

    • Which errors? Can you list a few?

      In many, many years in Christian settings I’ve never met anyone who has looked at multiple Bible translations and concluded that he or she didn’t need to take any of them to heart. Sadly, my experience is that people don’t bother to look at multiple translations in the first place. But when they do, or when the good ones do, this is what happens.

      And any pastor who can’t teach Greek and Hebrew to his people should move on? =) Uh-oh!

  6. Karen Baillie says:

    I love my Jerusalem Bible. I’ve had it for years. I know it is a British Catholic version and the study notes reflect that view. But the clarity of the message is the best I’ve ever seen. I am a big advocate of viewing several translations to grasp the meaning of a difficult passage, and I would like to purchase an interlinear version some day.

  7. Craig Giddens says:

    Doesn’t multiple translations mean multiple authorities? Have we gotten to the place where truth is a matter of “my favorite translation says this” so that’s the truth for me and whatever your favorite translation says is the truth for you? Can we truly say that with the advent of multiple translations that American church members have become more knowledgeable of Biblical doctrine? Is the church really stronger in its grasp of scriptural truths now than it was 50 years ago?

    • On multiple authorities: a fair question. But I think the answer is that multiple authorities aren’t necessarily bad if they’re all serving the same ultimate Authority. My children have parental authorities and educational and ecclesiastical authorities. If all of those authorities are serving God and his word, then there should be little to no problem. Multiple Bible translations are all trying to serve the same Authority.

      And as to whether people are more knowledgeable of biblical doctrine now than they were fifty years ago, not only is that a difficult-to-impossible question to answer (though fascinating), correlation doesn’t equal causation. If Barna proved tomorrow that we don’t know the Bible better than we did, everybody would take to social media to proclaim that it’s because of the church’s failure to support their cause celebre.

      All I have is my perspective. I know that I know the Bible better because of multiple Bible translations. And I can point (I did) to multiple examples of times that has happened. I also find it instructive that, to my knowledge, no evangelical Christian denominations are divided by Bible translations. That is, they’re not saying, “My Bible says this” and “Well, my Bible says this!”

    • And in all fairness, did you read any of the articles I linked to in my long comment?

      • Wayne Donald Baker says:

        Mark, I will have to look at those references. However, one advantage of the multiple translations is not that there are many authorities, but how the many translations agree. They do help to give some indications of where there may be difficulties in understanding some meanings. I do however also caution, as in an earlier post of mine, that there can be some idioms or colloquialisms that we are unaware of. The multiple translations are in part caused by choosing the slight variations in the meanings or emphasis of meanng. The point is, except where there is deliberate direction to meet one’s theological meaning, the different translations support each other. Another issue, is language changes as time marches on. People use some terms as slang. Slang becomes accepted. Words may take on new meanings through this, or new words are created, in the 1840’s to 860’s the word dinosaur was created. No translation has yet included that word in the translation, but it fits behemoth in Job. How many find the King James kind of funny English? Well I understand it was stilted even in the 1600’s. The fact is some of the language of the RSV, American Standard is already showing signs of being archaic. The youth of today is changing our language yet some more. Translations then help by modernizing the bible. That is a good new translation will not change the meanings of the scripture, but will accept the changes that are occurring to prevent misinterpretation.