Thursday, October 08, 2009

Controlling the Words -- Sightings

Wouldn't you know it, the day after I posted about the ideologically driven "Conservative Bible," the posting for Sightings deals with translation issues. James Evans, pastor of First Baptist Church of Auburn, Alabama, considers the debates underway about the upcoming revisions of the NIV -- the most popular translation today. He notes the battles over language -- especially gender related language. But, then, as he points out that has been a central point of contention for a very long time.

I do think he's "spot on," to borrow a phrase from our British friends!


Sightings 10/8/09

Controlling the Words
-- James L. Evans

One of the most popular biblical translations among evangelical conservatives is the New International Version. Introduced in 1978, and immediately endorsed by Billy Graham, the NIV has sold over 300 million copies. As of 2011 the NIV is scheduled for an update. Editors argue that as language changes, biblical translations need to change in order to reflect current usage. Some of the proposed changes, however, are creating a controversy among the conservative faithful.

For instance, instead of referring to God as Father, there is some consideration to using the more generic "parent." And instead of the male weighted "brethren" as a reference for the gathered church, there is a preference for the more inclusive "family members" or "brothers and sisters." Critics are accusing editors of bowing to political correctness. In 2002 messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution contending that the British version of the NIV had "gone beyond acceptable translation standards." Their particular concern was the rendering of God as "Parent."

Throughout the history of Christianity, the practice of translating Scripture from one language to another has been controversial. Even in the third century before the birth of Jesus, some among the Hebrew faithful were disputing the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. Incidentally, it was this Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was favored by the early church. In time Christians would argue over the translation of the Greek Bible into Latin, and the Latin Bible into German, Slavonic, French and ultimately English. In fact, there were many who lost their lives or spent time in prison for trying to translate the Bible from a preferred language to another.

Translation battles continued even after English was established as the primary language of Christianity. The King James Version, produced in 1611, dominated for several centuries. The King James Bible was not just a book of faith; it was also the lexicon of Western literature and culture. Consequently, we should not be surprised to learn that in 1810, an effort to update the King James translation was met with strong resistance. And in 1901, when the American Standard Version was introduced, it was demonized by devotees of the King James as a work of the devil. That same sort of reaction greeted the Revised Standard Version in 1949 and the New Revised Standard Version in 1989. Most of this resistance was not from mainline Christian churches or from biblical scholars, but from segments of evangelical Christianity.

It's amazing to notice how many of the translation disputes of the past have centered on issues of gender equality. For instance, the King James Version identifies a woman named Phoebe as a "servant." The same Greek word is translated elsewhere as "deacon." But since women were not allowed to be deacons in King James' church, the more generic translation was adopted. The Greek word can certainly mean servant, but in the context of the New Testament it was also used to designate a particular office. In the current NIV translation, Phoebe is a servant, not a deacon.

And at the end of the day that is what it is all about – controlling the words. Whoever controls the words that are used in translation ultimately controls how we are able to think about theological issues. The words open or close doors for our understanding of God. And ultimately, the words determine who has status in the church, and who does not. Just ask Phoebe.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Alabama.

In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Andre C. Willis of Yale Divinity School explores recent work by three major thinkers who both find inspiration in the pragmatic tradition and take religion seriously in their investigations of democracy—Jeffrey Stout, Roberto Unger, and Cornel West. He seeks to develop a conceptual grounding for his own move toward a pragmatism, rooted in social practice, which also bears a theological sensibility suitable for addressing those contingencies that are, in fact, the existential consequences of political realities. With invited responses from Eddie Glaude (Princeton University), Corey D. B. Walker (Brown University), and others.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Steve said...

Although I endorse wholly Evan's notion that, "at the end of the day that is what it is all about – controlling the words. Whoever controls the words that are used in translation ultimately controls how we are able to think about theological issues", the translations of the Bible should not enter into this fray. Why? Because in the virtuous effort to rescue the Bible from harm caused by leaving the original intention intact (it is, after all, a highly patriarchal work), we miss the great opportunity to confront the Bible as NOT helpful in a variety of settings, including gender issues. The effort to spin the Bible into any political or theological perspective is to destroy it altogether. We should leave the Bible's pimples intact and apply the Clearasil of relief through good exegesis and theology. I really do want to know what the Bible says, not what I wish it said.

So, I would be for maintaining such phrases as “brethren” as opposed to “brothers and sisters” and the like, because Paul (I am convinced) was speaking to men, not men and women, mostly. We need to know this, as to make Paul say something he didn’t mean is to omit the hard work necessary to demonstrate that even though “the Bible says,” we may ignore its present day application due to the inherent patriarchalism that informs it, not the canon of love. If we can't trust a translation of the Bible to reflect its authors’ original intentions, warts and all, then we lose all contact with it as a companion in conversation. We simply would be speaking with ourselves.

John said...


You are prepared to do the exegetical work to arrive at a helpful understanding which takes account of context, then and now and derives a teaching which speaks truthfilled messages to a contemporary audience. For you the pimples are important, and they are not an impediment to understanding but a further building block in the process of interpretation.

The problem is (and I don't know that careful editing solves it) that many, if not most are not prepared to do the work. The untrained and the poorly trained accept the word as it is written (in English) and presume they have all the interpretive tools needed to understand the TRUTH which is contained in the text.

For the untrained and poorly trained who will not look at context, perhaps it is useful not to send them down the wrong interpretational path by using words that are too dangerous for the unprepared?

The work of translation is the laden with such choices. It comes down to how the translator understand their repsonsibility.


Mystical Seeker said...

I think Steve is onto something. It behooves us not to paper over the flaws in the Bible. Instead, we should confront them head on, admit they are flaws, and see how we can learn from them. To try to make the Bible more palatable so that we can swallow it whole is based on an assumption that we have to somehow swallow the Bible whole in the first place.

Steve said...

John, your very insightful response worries me to this extent: You assume that the translation you prefer is "the TRUTH." It may be the truth, but it is not translation; it is closer to legislation. Rather than have the translator's opinion of the truth, I would rather have the proper translation.

Both of us may be consoled/irritated by the reality that anyone can prove anything with the Bible regardless of how it's translated! Since this is true, let's at least begin with an interpretive neutral translation. (I know this is virtually impossible, but let's not throw in the towel before we begin the effort.) I think the untrained and poorly trained need at least that much of our respect.

roy said...

it is a theological statement that we have translations at all. Most, maybe all, other religions do not. Their scriptures are only scripture when read/spoken in the language of the founder. For example, if a Muslim wants to really read the Koran, it must be in Arabic. They recognize that language reflects a paradigm of reality and to translate to another language, by definition, involves moving to a new paradigm.

In allowing for translations, we are saying that the Bible is a living document that must be changed (translated) to speak in different contexts.

All that said, I think you are correct Steve, that we need to allow the text to speak for itself, reflecting it's context and paradigm as much as is possible. All the while, though, we must realize the impossibility of that task. Then, we apply interpretation that allows it to speak to our context.

John said...


Perhaps I was unclear, I think proper interpretation can point in the direction of truth, but TRUTH is only arrived at by presumption.

Inspired and informed interpretation can suggest truthfilled lessons, but I believe the TRUTH is simply unattainable for humans. To claim to possess TRUTH is at best naive at worst evil, and all too often it invites adherents to violence.


Anonymous said...

The Bible is so much a history book. What's wrong with seeing the past as it was? In another 100 years they'll have Jesus dying by lethal injection because they can't fathom crucifixion (well, it's hard for me too).

Are we to rewrite the holocaust too? David Mc

Anonymous said...

Anyway, we are at a critical point in history. Don't get caught looking backward so much.

David Mc

Steve said...


I couldn't agree with you more. How can the finite hold the infinite? That's my quarrel with the Fundamentalists who try to make their relative truths ultimate for all. This is part of the evil I think you refer to. Thanks for the clarification; I really didn’t believe you went fundie all of a sudden!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I just found this inspiring, speaks to the trinity (if we want to believe this, why stop at three?) and Pharisees (too self centered?), so I’m not sure where to post it.

This gives voice to why I returned to the church. “Religion's role in the 21st century: Will its dogmas divide us? Or will it unite us for common good?” I want to be part of an organized solution at last. David Mc