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
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
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
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
(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
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
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 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
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
(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
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