TWENTIETH CENTURY EVANGELICALS LOOK AT BIBLE TRANSLATION

STEPHEN W. PAINE, Ph D.
(President, Houghton College)

I. CHRISTIAN REFORMED INITIATIVE

To the men of the Christian Reformed Church goes the principal credit, humanly speaking, for the chain of actions which has finally eventuated in the undertaking of a new translation of the Bible in modern English by scholars of known evangelical commitment. The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has from time to time interested itself in various Bible translations. In 1953 a committee was authorized to make a careful study of the Revised Standard Version. The result was a scholarly paper seventeen pages in length, kindly but critical, presented to Synod the following year.

The Synod of 1956 was overtured by the Seattle Consistory as follows: 'That the Christian Reformed Church endeavor to join other conservative churches in sponsoring or facilitating the early production of a faithful translation of the Scriptures in the common language of the American people." Synod referred this overture to the professors of the Old and New Testament Departments of Calvin Theological Seminary for study and report. The committee immediately contacted other evangelical communions and institutions, asking them the question, "Is your denomination or group prepared to make a concerted effort to convince the people that the production of a Bible translation. . . is an urgent requirement for the effective use of God's Word, and that it must consequently receive the support of all those interested in the use and study of that Word?

Even while waiting for replies, the committee reported to the Synod of 1958, stressing its feeling that a modern version of the Bible constituted a need for the evangelical public.

The Committee on Bible Translation of the Christian Reformed Church was continued by Synod up to its session of 1966, and since that time there has been a committee named to continue work in this area. This Committee on Bible Translation for several years met faith- fully and frequently, and in its annual reports to Synod made some very keen observations as to the factors involved in the undertaking of a new Bible translation.

II. NAE CONCERN

No doubt spurred by the activity and inquiries of the Christian Reformed Committee on Bible Translation, the Commission on Education of the National Association of Evangelicals at its meeting in Buffalo, New York, in April, 1957, appointed a committee of three members "to study the question of NAE's participation in the possible project of a new English translation of the Old and New Testaments." This committee made contact immediately with the secretary of the Christian Reformed Committee, asking suggestions for "a workable combination of evangelical forces for the approaching of a task such as this." Preliminary inquiries were also addressed to some of the more likely publishers, although it was realized that there was nothing very definite about which to talk at that early date.

The Christian Reformed Committee in its report to Synod of June 11, 1958, had recommended that "Synod instruct its committee to approach those bodies that had shown an interest in this project with a view to drawing up of tentative plans." Thus there was even then a desire to work out cooperative arrangements with any who might be interested. It was not until April 11, 1961, however, that an informal meeting of members of the two committees actually occurred. This was at the time of the NAE Convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the meeting was in the Pantlind Hotel.

From the very beginning the NAE Committee was hampered in its activity by the great distances separating its members and by the lack of finances for continuing meetings. In general the Committee had to be satisfied with work sessions at the time of the NAE Conventions, and this meant that when members were unable to attend the NAE Convention the work was further hindered.

III. JOINT INVESTIGATION

On December 22, 1962, there was a joint work meeting of the two committees at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids. Dr. Ralph Stob of the Christian Reformed Committee was named as chairman. The principal attention of the combined meeting was focused upon the objective of calling a gathering of evangelical scholars to consider the question whether a new translation is required and possibly to take initial steps moving toward the production of such a work. It was felt that this undertaking must be broadly based and not limited to the interest of specific denominational or interdenominational groups. Subcommittees were named to consider (1) the issuance of invitations (Dr. Burton Goddard, chairman), (2)the preparation of agenda (Dr. Earl Kalland, chairman), (3) translation policy (Dr. Marten Woudstra, chairman). It was decided to allow these subcommittees time in which to hold separate meetings and test their ideas by discussing them with other scholars.

On December 29, 1964, just prior to the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society at Nyack Missionary College, another meeting of the Joint Committee was held at the Missionary College. Dr. Marten Woudstra was named as chairman. At this meeting the subcommittees made their reports of progress and it was decided to fix upon a definite time in August, 1965, for the proposed meeting of scholars. Chicago was chosen as the place of meeting, and later developments fixed the location at the Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.

IV. THE PALOS HEIGHTS CONFERENCE

The Palos Heights Conference on Bible Translation took place on August 26 and 27, 1965. About thirty scholars were present, representing various denominations and institutions. Papers were read analyzing some of the more recent and well-known Bible translations, in particular the Revised Standard Version, the New English Bible (NT only), and the New American Standard Bible (NT only). Other papers outlined the type of problems to be met in such a large undertaking as that of a new Bible translation. There was a careful discussion of the feasibility of attempting a new Bible translation at this time.

After the various discussions had been concluded, Dr. Burton L. Goddard was elected temporary chairman of the meeting and a regular business session was held. As a starting point the following statement was adopted: "It is the sense of this assembly that the preparation of a contemporary English translation of the Bible should be undertaken as a collegiate endeavor of evangelical scholars."

Realizing that there would be need for a continuing committee to implement this purpose and that fairly careful consideration should be given to the selection of this group, the meeting by resolution named the ten members of the Joint Committee as a constitutive group to establish a continuing committee of fifteen, of which at least five of the members of the appointing committee were to be a part.

V. COMMITTEE OF FIFTEEN

This "committee of fifteen" was given a threefold mandate as follows:

    (1) To prepare a digest of the Palos Heights Conference for distribution to leaders of evangelical denominations and schools and to other responsible parties, soliciting their response.

    (2) To explore ways of establishing communication with the committee of the RSV with a view to making suggestions for revision.

    (3) To set up preliminary ground rules for the work of translation and preliminary principles of such translation work.

Immediately following the adjournment of the conference, the members of the Joint Committee met to set up the continuing Committee of Fifteen and to provide for a few alternates in case of inability to serve. Plans were also made to call the initial meeting of this new committee immediately following the Convention of the Evangelical Theological Society in Nashville, Tennessee, the following December. Satisfied that by now the objectives of the Joint Committee had, to all appearances, been discharged and accomplished, the Joint Committee now provided for its own termination.

The new Committee of Fifteen met at the Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville on December 29, 1965. It was convened by Dr. E. Leslie Carlson, and Dr. Marten Woudstra was elected as chairman. All but three of the original appointees were present.

The Committee proceeded to give consideration to the various parts of its mandate from the Palos Heights Conference on Bible Translation, realizing full well that this Conference which had provided for its existence was not a continuing body to which a report could be made, and feeling that the Committee itself must therefore be given a certain amount of discretion in fulfilling its responsibility.

The first and principal item of the mandate seemed to be contained in the Palos Heights decision "that the preparation of a contemporary English translation of the Bible should be undertaken as a collegiate endeavor of evangelical scholars." To implement this it was decided to proceed at once to call a general conference on Bible translation for the following purposes:

    (1) To involve at the earliest possible moment representatives of Christian denominations and other organizations having a high view of Scripture and involved in a major way in the use of Bibles in the English language.

    (2) To bring the program to the attention of potential Bible publishers.

    (3) To consummate a full organization for the program.

    (4) To publicize the venture.

A subcommittee with Dr. Goddard as chairman was set up to implement this decision, and a Bible Translation Conference was held at the Moody Memorial Church in Chicago on August 26 and 27, 1966, just a year after the Palos Heights meeting of Bible scholars. I shall refer again to this Chicago conference.

VI. RELATIONSHIP TO REVISED STANDARD VERSION

A somewhat difficult part of the Committee's assignment was the charge to explore "ways of establishing communication with the committee of the RSV with a view to making suggestions for revision." The Committee realized at once that the primary decision to proceed with a new translation, which had already been made at Palos Heights and with which the Committee was in agreement, had the inescapable effect of making any such overtures to the RSV committee a mere transfer of information, rather than an earnest solicitation for amendment of unscholarly translations, with the implication that if the objections were satisfied the new venture would be abandoned. This kind of approach had already been discussed at Palos Heights in the light of the experience of a committee of the Missouri Synod Lutherans.

The Committee of Fifteen therefore provided that with reference to this mandate regarding the RSV, "this Committee for the time being discharges its responsibility by requesting its editorial committee in process of translation, to build up a list of RSV and NEB passages to which objection is felt, for the purpose of making these available to the RSV and NEB committees at a proper time."

The Committee of Fifteen also took cognizance of the suggestion of the Palos Heights Conference that "they set up preliminary ground rules for the work of translation and preliminary principles of such translation work." A three-member subcommittee under the chairmanship of Dr. Ro Laird Harris was established to be the interim editorial committee,

VII. THEOLOGICAL BASE FOR THE TRANSLATION PROJECT

Prior to the Chicago conference of 1966 the committee adopted the simple name "Committee on Bible Translation." Although recognizing that we are not striving for an "evangelical translation" of the Bible, but only for a good and a fair translation which will permit the Bible to speak as it wants to speak, the Committee realized that any translation will unavoidably reflect the presuppositions of the translators. Hence it was felt to be quite important to provide that this translation should be the work of scholars who accept the claims of Scripture as to its divine authorship and complete authority. The Committee therefore adopted the following statement of policy:

    In harmony with the expressed objective of the program of the translation it seems desirable that each person engaged in the work of translation should be clearly on record as to his beliefs. Everyone is to subscribe to the following doctrinal statement (or to a similar statement expressing an equally high view of Scripture): "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and is therefore inerrant in the autographs."

The constitution, referring to the creedal requirements of members of the Committee on Bible Translation mentions specifically the statements on Scripture found in the Westminster or Belgic or New Hampshire Confessions or the creedal basis of the NAE as being satisfactory doctrinal criteria.

VIII. ENTER THE NEW YORK BIBLE SOCIETY

Present at the Chicago convention were representatives of the New York Bible Society, the oldest such corporation in the United States, thoroughly evangelical in its sympathies and doctrinal position. The Rev. Youngve Kindberg, Executive Secretary of the NYBS, and Mr. James W. Straub, one of its Directors, were impressed with the timeliness of this translation project and its possible importance for all voluntary agencies for the dissemination of the Bible in whole and in portions.

These men also, though realizing the probable great cost of the project, began to think in terms of financial sponsorship. and they intimated to the members of the Committee that they would be praying about the matter and conferring with the Directors of NYBS. During the ensuing months there were various consultations on this matter,

The Directors of NYBS first agreed to finance the travel and meeting expenses of the Committee while considering the larger venture, and finally in the spring of 1968 voted to assume the responsibility of raising the funds for the entire venture. This was a great step of faith, since the project is estimated to go to $850,000. Though the translation is to be made available to missionary agencies, yet there will be opportunity through regular marketing channels to recoup some-perhaps much--of this expense.

The NYBS was desirous that the Committee produce first the Gospel of John for separate publication, then the full New Testament, and finally the Old Testament.

IX. POSITION PAPER

At a meeting in Grand Rapids, on July 11, 1967, the Committee adopted a position paper setting forth briefly its view of the need for a new English translation by evangelical scholars and its specific aims in undertaking to meet this need. The need was summarized as follows:

    Only with one version in common use in our churches will Bible memorization flourish, will those in the pew follow in their own Bibles the reading of Scripture and comments on individual Scriptures from the pulpit, will unison readings be possible, will Bible Teachers be able to interpret with maximum success the Biblical text word by word and phrase by phrase to their students, and will the Word be implanted indelibly upon the minds of Christians as they hear and read again and again the words of the Bible in the same phraseology. We acknowledge freely that there are benefits to be derived by the individual as he refers to other translations in his study of the Bible, but this could still be done in situations in which a common Bible was in genera I use.

    Without pointing out individually the deficiencies of the various existing translations, it may be said that no one of them gives promise of acceptance as a standard version among the churches which have a high view of Scripture. For many years those who do hold such a view of the Bible have failed to put forth an all-out effort to give to English readers a translation of the Bible which represents the best documented text, the most accurate translation, and the best literary style for effective communication. It is the aim of the Committee on Bible Translation to work for these results.

In meeting this need the Committee adopted the following nine guidelines:

(1) At every point the translation shall be faithful to the Word of God as represented by the most accurate text of the original languages of Scripture.

(2) The work shall not be a revision of another version but a fresh translation from the Hebrew, Aramic, and Greek.

(3) The translation shall reflect clearly the unity and harmony of the Spirit-inspired writings.

(4) The aim shall be to make the translation represent as clearly as possible only what the original says, and not to inject additional elements by unwarranted paraphrasing.

(5) The translation shall be designed to communicate the truth of God's revelation as effectively as possible to English readers in the language of the people. In this respect, the Committee's goal is that of doing for our own time that which the King James Version did for its day.

(6) Every effort shall be made to achieve good English style.

(7) The finished product shall be suitable for use in public worship, in the study of the Word, and in devotional reading.

(8) The project shall be a representative cooperative endeavor so that the finest scholarship may be applied, so that the version may be as free as possible from the individual theological biases of the translators, so that constructive criticism from many and varied quarters may be brought to bear on the work in its formative stages, and so that the churches may be prepared adequately to receive and use the new translation when it becomes available.

(9) Those engaged in the work of translation shall not only possess the necessary requirements of scholarship, but they shall also look upon their labor as a sacred trust, honoring the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

The Committee after considerable consultation selected for its work the title "The Holy Bible - A Contemporary Translation." Certainly Holy Bible should continue to be the name of the book, it was felt, and the subtitle is descriptive, non-flamboyant, and yields a convenient acronym--ACT.

X. MODUS OPERANDI

The Committee was desirous of organizing its work to insure a maximum of conference and criticism. The initial basic translation teams number five: a principal and an associate translator who are to produce the first draft. This in turn is to be reviewed by two other scholars conversant with the language, and finally an English stylist will criticize its literary qualities. After editing by the co-translators, the product goes to the NT or the OT Intermediate Editorial Committee, composed of the principal translators of the basic teams. From here it goes to a General Editorial Committee of twelve to fifteen persons. The Committee on Bible Translation itself makes any necessary final decisions.

XI. FIRST THE GOSPEL OF JOHN

Even before the final decision of the NYBS to sponsor the project, a translation team led by Dr. Ramsey Michaels of Gordon Divinity School was busy on the Gospel of John. Dr. Michaels' specialty is the Johannine literature. By summer several chapters were ready for the NT Intermediate Editorial Committee, which met at Wheaton College The OT Committee was also at work in Denver.

It became evident at once that the real task of the summer would be to settle upon a style level for the new translation. Already quite a few basic decisions had to be made. Also there had been much discussion of the relative desirability of a fairly word-for-word style, such as the ASV and the RSV, as compared with a so-called "equivalent-idea" style as seen in Phillips in the New English Bible

The material as it came in from Dr. Michaels and his team was very spirited, keen, and definitely of the equivalent-idea style, although exhibiting a very high degree of deference for the words of the Greek text. Oft-repeated connectives like (kai) and (ouv) were often translated by varying English connectives ("and", "so", "now", "then", "accordingly", and so on). Sometimes, where they appeared over tedious for good English style, they were dropped--a liberty taken by the KJ and many other good translations. But aside from this almost every individual word in the Greek was reflected by some word, intimation, or nuance in the translation.

The successive editorial work of the Intermediate and General Editorial Committees and of the Committee on Bible Translation had the effect of making the style more conservative and word-for-word, but it did not, in our opinion, obliterate the freshness and vividness of the basic translators. It still awaits evaluation by trained stylists and by representatives of various reader publics.

XII. A FEW SAMPLES

Although all work remains tentative and not for publication, I take the liberty of citing sample treatments from the fourth Gospel. The text of John 1:11, 12 illustrates a couple of principles followed by the translators. The passage reads:

    He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.

    Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

The translators have contrived to show the difference between the neuter ("What was his own") and the masculine ("his own people") substantive adjectives. In the verbs "accept" and "received" they have tried to preserve the delicate shading between (parelabon) and (elabon). They have altered the Greek order slightly by bringing the closing phrase of verse 12 into immediate apposition with its parallel phrase, "to all who received him."

Verse 14 includes three words which made the committee study. Here is the verse:

    The Word became man and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

First came the word (sarx),flesh, which was a word used for humanity in general: "all flesh shall see it." The committee decided to use the word for specific humanity: "man". Next the word(skenoo) to tent, called for attention. The circumlocution "lived for a while" seemed the most natural solution. Then that word (monogenestheos), only begotten. The committee with great reluctance conceded that we do not today use the word "begotten" in the English language. And "Only Son" is certainly the full logical, if not linguistic, equivalent.

In verse 18, where the best text now reads monogenestheos, and then mentions Jesus as being "in the bosom of the Father," the translators have tried to be faithful to the text by saying,

    No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, ever at the Father's side--he has made him known.

As has no doubt been noticed, the Greek aorist is sometimes translated as a perfect, as this was felt often to be more faithful to the original thought. Imperfects are translated participially when this is necessary in order to make clear their linear quality. But where the context itself makes the type of action clear we have not laboriously used the participle and copulative in every case as have some translations.

Nor has the Committee abandoned the use of the historical present as have some. We have not felt bound to translate all the Greek historical presents just so, but at times the action nicely uses an exact transfer, as in verse 15:

    John bears him witness. He cries out saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me, because he existed before me.'"

Against the misgivings of several of us, the Committee opted for quotation marks, with the interpretative burden involved. The discourse of Jesus in John 3 is carried through verse 21 instead of stop ping with verse 15, as some have done. John 3:16 is purposely kept close to its familiar format, and reads:

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

Such then is the tremendous task in which the Committee is engaged, and such have been the providences by which God, we believe, has led us to it. Our humble desire is that these labors shall serve the Word of God and the people of God. Only as God himself works through us can this high design be realized.

Edited by Nick Nettles

 
 
 
 
 
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