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Volume 10, Issue 1: Thema

Hearers of the Word

Douglas Wilson

We are certainly accustomed to the phenomenon. Specialty Bibles, and specialty translations are a modern evangelical . . . specialty. Some older Christians can dimly remember the time when the entire Protestant world basically used one translation of the Bible, but those days have gone the way of the flivver. Today we have a chaos of translations vying for the customer's attention, and the only people who still consistently use the King James Version are members of isolated fundamentalist groups. This means that virtually the only defense one is likely to encounter for the KJV is a defense which appeals to the usage of Moses and Paul, who both spoke Elizabethan English (a little-known miracle), or the indisputable fever-swamp-fact that the translators of the NIV also belong to the Council of Foreign Relations, which in its turn is plotting to place all nations under a one-world government. Thus, non-KJV translations are seen by some for what they really are—nefarious preparation for THE BEAST.

Are these the only choices? Do we have to choose between the Bible belonging to the fundamentalists of the fevered brow on the one hand, and the Bible for the Skateboarding Youth of Today on the other? The answer is, well . . . yes, we do. However, the way we come to this Hobson's choice is important, and the background is equally important.
Of course we first need to resolve the issue of names—the most common name for the translation I would like to defend here is the King James Version, or KJV. Another name for it, and a far better one, is the Authorized Version, or AV. One of the great ironies of history is how King James I, a blasphemous sodomite, managed to get his name attached to the most widely-used English version of the Bible, and the sooner we get his name off of there, the better I like it. So throughout this discussion I will be referring to the AV and not the KJV.
But the names are the easy part. Substantively, three central issues are involved. The first has to do with manuscript tradition, the second with translation philosophy, and the third with ecclesiology. Before any translation is acclaimed as "just what we need," we should want it to be translated from the right manuscript tradition, it should be translated well, and the whole endeavor should be conducted under the auspices of the Church.
First, manuscript tradition. Almost all modern translations are taken from an eclectic Critical Text (CT). One common form of this text for the New Testament is that published by the United Bible Societies. The text is accompanied with an apparatus which enables the student to compare all the variant readings of the manuscripts. Another popular form of the CT is the Nestle Aland text. Virtually all modern translations of the Bible come from some form of the CT. There is no set form of this text, by definition, and so each translation will accept now this manuscript as reliable, and now another. The cornerstone of the CT, called by the NIV translators the "two most reliable manuscripts," are Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. These two manuscripts are Alexandrian in origin and when compared to the thousands of later Greek manuscripts (belonging to the Byzantine family) are in a distinct minority.
Another option is the result of scholars who have accepted the task of a scholarly reconstruction of the text, but believe that the widespread acceptance of the minority readings is misguided. They have produced what is called the Majority Text, or MT. A modern translation which refers to the MT in its marginal notes is the New King James Version (NKJV). In other words, they have come up with a traditional answer but with a suspect, modern method.
The third textual option is to use what is called the textus receptus or Received Text. The TR is a collation of readings taken from the majority Byzantine texts, which readings were gathered in the transition between manuscripts and printing. The early collators were men like Erasmus, Beza, Stephens, and in the last century, Scrivener. Variations exist between these texts, but they are a mere handful compared to the thousands of variants in the CT. The Authorized Version is based upon the TR, and consequently the TR remains the true "majority" text—although the plethora of modern translations has challenged that position within the last generation.
The earliest complete manuscripts belong to a different manuscript family than do the thousands of later manuscripts which are scattered around the ancient world in multitudes, and which were in common use down to the invention of the printing press. But when we consider the facts carefully, nothing is more apparent than that this is actually a battle of the paradigms. In some respects, this is very much like the reconstruction of the evolutionary fossil tree, 98 percent of which is missing. When we consider all the manuscripts we possess, we must still compare them to the number of all the manuscripts ever written—which we do not have. This is a scholarly task outside the competence of science, and any attempt to submit the task to scientific canons will only result in increasing confusion. A process of scholarly reconstruction here makes sense only when undergirded with faith in the living God who controls the flow of all historical events. If, in order to be "scientific," we eliminate this God from our considerations, the end of the road will be no text at all, or radical confusion about the text. The autonomous text critic is someone who believes that this problem of the original text is one which admits of a scientific solution. But the real solution to this problem is faith in God, and in His providential care for His Word.
Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are held up as the closest exemplars of what the NT autographs supposedly contained. But they differ between themselves over 3,000 times. To applaud them therefore as the "most reliable" really means that reliability is now an elastic term. This means scholars are not really submitting to the authority of these Alexandrian texts, but are actually using them to overthrow any idea of a settled textual authority. The problem for the scientist is not the Received Text, but is really the idea of any received text.
Translation issues are next. The phrases we use today to discuss our differences over translation philosophy are formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. The way we cast the debate, the formal equivalence school wants to reflect the original languages in English as closely as as can be done. The dynamic equivalence school is content to render the idea of the passage in the contemporary idiom. In short, the difference is between a strict approach to translation, and a loose one. Obviously these two phrases represent two poles, between which we find a continuum, with a distinct translation at every point. A paraphrase is on the far end of dynamic equivalence. A strict translation sticks as close to the original as it can, and when forced to insert words in order to make good English sense, those words are italicized to mark them for the English reader.
We are not the first to discuss these issues, and the more refined terminology coming out of the Reformation era can be a great help. On this question, we have to distinguish material and verbal authority. A phrase to remember here is authoritas divina duplex, which means "twofold divine authority." We must come to see the authority of Scripture in two senses. The first is authoritas rerum—the authority of the "things" of Scripture, the substance of the text. This authority pertains to the text of Scripture in the original languages, and also to accurate translations of that original.
As Christians, we also believe in verbal inspiration, which means we must hold to authoritas verborum, the authority of the words of Scripture. But this authority belongs only to the text in its original form, in the original languages. The authoritas verborum is an external and "accidental" authority which always falls away necessarily in the process of translation. No translation is capable of preserving this authority. The historic Protestant position is that a good translation of the Scripture preserved the authority of Scripture with regard to the substance of the text (quoad res). The same cannot be said with regard to the words of the text itself (quoad verba).
This means that the words of an English translation, even a good one, do not carry inspired verbal authority. But if the English translation is poorly done, it does begin to adversely affect the material authority. For example, the English word world in John 3:16, has material authority, but not verbal authority. In order to grasp the verbal authority, we have to see and understanad the Greek word kosmos. If the word kosmos were translated into English poorly, say, as shopping mall, the translation would lose its material authority as well.
All these distinctions are necessary in order to remember that a strict formal equivalence translation is not an attempt to acquire strict verbal authority for a translation (which cannot be done), but rather to preserve material authority for that translation. This is because material authority can be forfeited or greatly diminished whenever the translation is done poorly. Given the nature of language, material authority could be lost in one fell swoop (e.g. translating kosmos as toaster oven), or could be lost by gradations (e.g. translating kosmos as land).
Our acceptance of English translations does not mean that verbal authority is unimportant to us. On the contrary, this is why the historic Protestant position held that the ministers of churches were to be skilled in the original languages. No church should be without access to the verbal authority of the Word of God.
When we take this criterion and apply it to various translations, we get a mixed bag. Versions like the Living Bible and the NIV have not lost material authority, but have significantly damaged it.
Now a good translation also has to go successfully into the receiving language. This is one place where the AV does require some continued revision. The AV was revised regularly up until 1769, and that process should continue. He speaketh does not represent the original any more successfully than he speaks, and for many contemporary readers, it does take away from its accessibility—and accessibility which is faithful to the original is the point of translation. In a good translation no good reason exists for keeping that language. The much reviled thee's and thou's, however, do reflect the original better. Greek has a distinction between the singular and plural forms of you, which contemporary English does not have. Thee is not a special form for talking to God; thou and thee are the singular form, and ye is the plural. Readers of the AV have access to the original at this point which readers of other translations do not have.
Different revisions of the AV are available. Sovereign Grace Publishers has a Modern King James Version, and Deuel Enterprises in Gary, South Dakota has published the 21st Century King James Version. Unfortunately, the difficulty with these translations leads to the last point, which is the role the Church ought to have in the whole process (see Presbyterion, this issue). The Church is entrusted, as the Jews were with the Old Testament, with the very oracles of God. The Church, not diligent entrepeneurs, is the pillar and ground of the truth. As much as we may applaud the individual efforts which have made such versions available, we still need to pray and work for the time when such translations are received and approved by the Church for use in the churches, and we have a New Authorized Version.

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