The Danger of Loyalty to One Bible Translation

Hihglighted-BibleWe all have a favorite Bible.  It may be that one you’ve had since college that has so many highlighter marks, underlines, and notes that you can hardly read the verse numbers any longer.  It may be that study Bible that is your go-to when you come across tough passages.  Whatever the case, we all have a Bible–and most likely a translation–that we prefer.

Here’s why that’s a good thing: having a preferred physical copy of God’s Word aids in scripture memory.  When you are trying to memorize verses, every connection helps, and being able to visualize the text on the page of your favorite Bible will help you remember it.  If you are in the habit of using several translations each week, it can make it difficult for poignant verses to stick in your mind.  Memorization requires reading or hearing the same words over and over again, and reading from a different translation every day can make that difficult.

Additionally, reading from a favorite Bible regularly can aid in quick referencing.  When I am trying to remember a specific passage, I am often able to find it just from a vague memory of the general section of my Bible it may have come from and which side of the page it was on.  A Bible App cannot provide this kind of visual reference.  Verses are constantly scrolling, giving no context or visual frame of reference.  I use Bible technology every week, but I’m still amazed at how much quicker my fingers can be with a physical Bible than the search bar.

The Danger of Translation Loyalty.

Ever heard of the Vulgate?  It’s the Latin translation of the Bible–the only approved translation of the Bible in the Catholic Church for over a thousand years.  Hundreds of years after Latin fell out of common usage, the Vulgate was being used and read in a language completely unintelligible to the people.  For example, during the mass a priest would say in Latin “hoc est corpus” (“This is my body”) which the people heard as “hocus pocus.”  Thinking the bread and wine had magical powers, they would sneak it home and put the eucharist in their gardens in hopes it would make it more fruitful.  Christians in the Middle Ages commiserated with Chris Martin: “Well, I feel like they’re talking in a language I don’t speak, and they’re talkin’ it to me.” For centuries, people were born, lived, and died without ever hearing the Word of God in a language they could comprehend.

The King James Version is increasingly becoming the Latin Vulgate of our day.  Christians and churches who are loyal to this singular translation are less and less able to understand it.  Publications of KJV/NIV interlinear Bibles and KJV editions with a dictionary in the back show that people are struggling to understand.  At our church, we recently changed our pew Bibles from the KJV to the English Standard Version.  Several people made this heartbreaking statement: “For the first time I actually understand what you are reading from the pulpit!”  It’s not that the KJV is a bad translation–it’s just that the English language has changed a lot since 1611!

The Reformers saw that Christians had an intense hunger for a Bible translated into their own language.  Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, John Huss, William Tyndale and others all worked passionately to put the Bible into the words of the common believer.  Several of these men were martyred for their efforts.  However, through their faithful efforts, God brought about a true priesthood of all believers and fresh wind of the Spirit in the Church.  These men refused to allow translation loyalty to put a wall of separation between believers and the words of their God.

Translational Theology.

Translation loyalty can also lead to gross misinterpretation of Scripture.  The Catholic understanding of penance arose from a poor translation of Greek word metanoia. Because there were no alternate translations, penance became the only understanding of metanoia–a kind of atoning or paying for your sins through good works.  At the time of the Reformation, men like Martin Luther realized that metanoia actually meant repentance–not personal atonement, but an attitude of the heart and mind that turns away from sin and turns toward Christ for atonement.  Translation loyalty adversely affected centuries of Christian belief.  Men and women were being taught that they must pay for their own sins.  Only once other translations appeared were Christians freed from this bondage.

Today, translations are a dime a dozen, but the same potential danger lurks.  Translations that are freer with their renderings can write their own interpretations and theology into the Bibles they are trying to produce–both accidentally and intentionally.  Is it wrong to read translations like The Voice, The Message, or the NLT which take more liberty with the original Greek and Hebrew in order to pack the text with more contemporary punch?  Of course not.  However, loyalty to any of these translations can create the same problems that formed around the Vulgate.  No translation is perfect.

One last comment: If your understanding of a certain passage or verse hangs on one translationyou are probably wrong.  The Bible is clear and plain in its message, themes, and history.  All good English translations will agree on all of the essentials of the Bible and most of the non-essentials.  If you are reading a translation that seems at every turn to disagree with every other translation that has ever existed, chances are it’s a bad translation.  The only thing worse than translation loyalty is translation loyalty to a bad translation.  If a familiar text sounds completely unfamiliar in a new translation, that ought to be cause for concern.

Of course, you could leave this whole discussion behind and just learn Greek and Hebrew for yourself…

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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