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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

An Inerrant Bible

The debate about King James Version Only (KJVO) rages on despite all the time spent in the debate thus far. The complaints are many. Those evil translators of the NIV are trying to deceive us by removing the Trinity (evidence 1 John 5:8, missing in the NIV). They've moved stuff around (as in Rom. 8:1 where the phrase "who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" is now only found in verse 4). Their wording is offensive (such as "May it never be!" in Rom. 6:2 rather than "God forbid!" or "your spiritual act of worship" rather than "your reasonable service" in Rom. 12:1). Those blasphemers! They're out to destroy biblical theology!

In the words of my dear mother-in-law ... oh, piffle! The debate only tells us that we've run into a snag in the original concept of the inerrancy of Scripture and people are arguing a point they don't actually understand. Let's see if we can look at some of the pertinent issues here.

There are basically three types of Bibles out there: 1) Paraphrases, 2) translations, and 3) original manuscripts.

The paraphrase is someone's idea of what the text says. Typically, a paraphrase comes from the translations available in the language (as opposed to coming from the original manuscripts). The easiest form of paraphrase is what most of us do all the time. "The Bible says _____. That means _____." When we explain what it means, we have paraphrased it. A Bible paraphrase, then, is someone taking the time to reword the entire Bible in their own terms. The goal is to make it more readable, more applicable, more pertinent. Two obvious examples here are The Living Bible and The Message. The advantage of a paraphrase is obvious. Someone has made it more readable, more applicable, more pertinent. The disadvantage should be equally obvious. No one is 100% accurate in their understanding of Scripture, so no paraphrase will be inerrant. To use a paraphrase to illustrate a point because it says it well is acceptable. To argue a doctrinal issue from a paraphrase alone is unwise. Paraphrased Bibles are not inerrant.

Translations are another issue. These are supposed to be a direct conversion from the original texts to the language of the reader. There are two basic types: Dynamic Equivalence and Word-for-word. The dynamic equivalent presupposes that language has meaning in phrases, not just words. Thus, the translation would have to take into account the entire phrase rather than simply the words. It attempts to make a translation that is more fluent, more idiomatic. The NIV is a dynamic equivalent translation. The word-for-word translation, on the other hand, simply translates the words as they come, producing a pure equivalent in the reader's language. The advantage of the dynamic equivalent is that it can often take into account phrases and their meanings that the word-for-word version won't. The disadvantage is that a dynamic equivalent is fed by the translators understanding and, as such, may be subject to error. A dynamic equivalent is not as readable as a paraphrase, but is more accurate. A word-for-word is more accurate still, but less likely to be as readable. The most accurate is the word-for-word (literal equivalent). This one may not be as readable as the others, but it will simply substitute the reader's equivalent word for the original text's word.

A difficulty with all translations, however, is more subtle than we realize. The truth is converting from one language to another is problematic at the surface. There are certain words and/or phrases that have meaning in the original language that has little or no equivalent in the target language. One of the most obvious examples in the case of Bible is the term "only begotten". The Greek is monogenes. "Mono" refers to one, and genes is our root for "genus", meaning "type". "Monogenes", most accurately, would be translated something like "one of a kind, unique, the only one of its type." But that is stilted language, so the translators stick with the King James's "only begotten". You can see, then, that there is a problem with translations. They are limited by 1) the ability to transfer the original text to the target language, and 2) by the ability of the translator(s) to understand the words in the first place. As such, translations are much more reliable than paraphrases, but not inerrant.

What do we know about the King James Bible? The King James is a literal equivalent, word-for-word translation. It is, in this way, more reliable than paraphrases and more accurate than a dynamic equivalent. It was translated from the Textus Receptus. Now, many people think that the Textus Receptus was the original Greek text, but this isn't quite accurate. The Textus Receptus was a Greek manuscript put together by Erasmus. Erasmus used as many Greek manuscripts as he could find for this version, but the Church at the time didn't have manuscripts for all the Bible. Consequently, Erasmus filled in the gaps by translating Latin texts into Greek where Greek manuscripts were not available. Already, then, we have an introduction of a problem -- a translation. The other problem is that the existing Greek manuscripts were, in many cases, quite new, relatively speaking. They were copies of copies of copies. The originals were long gone. Therefore, there was another problem -- potential copy errors. The King James Version is an excellent translation, but it is a translation of existing Greek manuscripts plus translated Latin manuscripts. That, added to the necessary lack of knowledge regarding Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew, means that the King James Version is a very good translation ... but not inerrant.

Other translations we have today enjoy new manuscript data. Older manuscripts were found. Comparisons were made to find out where possible copy errors could have occurred. Gaps in Erasmus's text were filled with actual manuscripts rather than translated Latin. According to those who know about such things, we can be quite confident that the manuscripts we have today reflect the original manuscripts better than 99% of the time. Our modern translations still suffer from the ability of translators to understand the original words. Some of the words in the Hebrew portion, for instance, aren't known at all. No one is quite sure what the Hebrew word for livyathan means. Many translate it "leviathan". Others think it means "alligator". The Hebrew for behemowth is equally elusive. Some translate it "behemoth", while others think it is "hippopotamus". Exodus 28:15-20 lists a series of stones for the priests' breastplate, but no one is absolutely sure what all those stones actually mean. So while today's translation enjoy the luxury of better information, it still cannot be said that today's translations are inerrant.

What, then, are we saying when we argue for an inerrant Bible? The Church has always held that the Word of God is inerrant and infallible. But the Church has always held that with a caveat: "In the original texts." The position has always been that when God inspired them and the authors wrote them, they were inerrant and infallible. The Church has never held that the copies or the translations were equally inerrant. This is a new concept, surfacing recently in the battle between the KJVO and all other English translations.

What can we conclude then? Are we to say that we don't have a reliable Bible? Not at all! (Or, "God forbid!" for the KJVO types or "May it never be!" for the rest.) The translations we have available to us today are closer to the original manuscripts than ever before. The level of confidence that the texts from which they were translated are equivalent to the originals has never been higher. And the level of scholarship of the translators is ever improving with new finds and studies of ancient Greek and Hebrew languages. There is little doubt that the Bibles we read today contain the same information that the original manuscripts intended. And where there are variations from the original for whatever reason, they are never in the realm of any significant issue. It might be that scholars will some day determine that the "jasper" mentioned Exo. 28:20 is actually a different precious stone, but that doesn't change the intent of the passage. Perhaps, if we are clear enough on the real issue -- that the Bible is inerrant and infallible in the original manuscripts -- we can begin to set aside our petty squabbling over King-James-Only-type things and settle into reading what it actually intended us to read.

1 comment:

Scott Arnold said...

Great post Stan.

Over the past year and a half I have really fallen in love with the NASB. Prior to that, I had read primarily the NIV for years. As you know, I recently got the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible - and although I love the study notes, I find myself with my NASB open to the same Scripture so I can read a more "word-for-word" translation along with the great notes.

I was in a Bible study group with a "new" Christian last year, and she had just purchased the "Message". Obviously, The Message is a paraphrase (or perhaps a paraparaphrase!?) You know what, it's not for me - even when I was an immature Christian (I know, I know) it would not have sufficed for me. But I watched her grow over a period of our 36 week study while she read through that entire Bible. I listened to her share fantastic perspectives and applications for today that I just miss in my own study. She has recently bought an NIV Life Application Study Bible, so has moved from paraphrase to dynamic equivelant - and she always wants to know what the NASB text says when we discuss passages. She's maturing as a Christian through the use of these various translations!

I'm not sure what the motivation(s) of the KJVO folks are, but I'm certain it's not healthy. Any translation that brings others to Christ is fine with me - and if all we had was the KJV, my guess is their would be far fewer Christians in the world.