Lost in Translation

Get over your fear of a weird language in exchange for a more robust faith.

BY BEN STEVENS GOD / CHURCH June 23, 2007

A common thread found among many Christian traditions is a belief in the sole authority of their interpretation of the Bible, based upon what another may see as an inerrant view of scripture. And it is from these lofty platforms that Christians look down their noses at other Christians and divide the body of Christ. My goal is not to deconstruct people’s faith by challenging the validity of scripture. Scripture is trustworthy. My goal is to offer a pliable view of scripture and thereby make the Church more tolerant of differing interpretations. I want to propagate Christian unity by having a clearer understanding of the book we all love and love to beat each other up with. Perhaps we need to honor God enough to understand how He reveals Himself through the text, rather than how we wish He did.

Truth be told, there are many conservatives in the Church that believe current translations of the Bible have errors in it. Most of these people believe that the original autographs were perfect in every respect but have been misinterpreted in places through translation. These widely recognized textual inconsistencies mostly have to do with grammar, dates and names, but there are some problems in the text that challenge doctrine and Christian ethics. Take for example Exodus 21:20-21: “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property” (TNIV). Now in concert with that text someone could tie in Titus 2:9-10 (”Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything”) or Colossians 3:22 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything”) or 1 Timothy 6:1-2 (“All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect”). Not too long ago in America, citing such scriptures, Christian slave owners would tell their slaves that it was a sin to escape or to question the institution of slavery. This was oppression and abuse sanctioned by a chorus of scriptures. I dare say none of us would believe today that these texts accurately demonstrate the heart and will of God.

What about some of the books of wisdom and the problems they introduce? In Ecclesiastes we find the writer, who is called “The Teacher,” unrepentantly experimenting with sex and alcohol as a way of finding satisfaction and meaning in life. “The Teacher” also doubts the existence of an afterlife and makes a case against it (Eccl 3:18-21). Here “The Teacher” also agrees with evolutionists by describing human beings as merely animals. In another book of wisdom the writer declares that getting drunk is OK if you are feeling down and out (Proverbs 31:6-7).

Jesus even adds to the controversy. In Mark 10, Jesus countermanded the Torah by saying the only excuse for divorce is adultery. The Pharisees pointed out to Jesus that Deuteronomy 24 says that a man may divorce his wife if he simply finds something objectionable about her. Jesus countered that Moses (not God) allowed arbitrary reasons for divorce because the people were belligerent. So the question becomes, was Deuteronomy 24 God’s or Moses’ word? Jesus was inferring that Moses did not communicate the ideal will of God in this matter. All this begs another question: If some of the scriptures are not the clearly expressed will of God, then how are they authoritative? And if not, what are they, and how do we make these kinds of distinctions today? Is it possible that Paul, like Moses, missed God’s ideal will for us sometimes? For example, maybe Paul’s instructions about women’s roles are based more on his views than God’s? I can picture Jesus saying, “Paul did not allow women to teach men because men’s hearts were hard, but I say there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in the Kingdom of God. A woman can be just as gifted as a man to teach.” I am mixing scripture with my own thoughts here but I hope my point is evident. Where does historical context come in, and when is it important to examine the culture atmosphere from when the text was written?

Another issue that impacts doctrine is the contradiction of 1 Chronicles 21:1 (“Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel”) and 2 Samuel 24:1 (“Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah”). There are two problems here. First, the texts contradict each other. Was it God or Satan who enticed David to sin? Second, the text in 2 Samuel is in serious trouble with James 1:13, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” The implications here for Church doctrine are huge! The classic excuse made for this dilemma is that God sent Satan to entice David or God allowed Satan to entice David. Therefore, God is not responsible. This is a good example of the intellectual gymnastics required to maintain an inerrant view of some scripture translation. But this argument still doesn’t change the language of the text that is supposed to be authoritative! How do we reconcile issues like these?

Clarifying and Applying

I do not believe that God is evil, unfair or cruel. These are human words for which we all carry different definitions. But God is not tied down to our languages and the propositions of what we believe about Him. The Bible must use human language to communicate what ultimately must be spiritually discerned. To declare all current texts as completely clear and thereby infer the point that somehow human language is always perfectly clear and never contradicts itself is, at times, a tough claim. Such claims enhance divisions in the Church and can breakdown community more than build it up.

So many people try and define what the Bible is, including me. But where does the Bible talk about itself and clearly define for us what it is? In 2 Timothy 3:16 it says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (NASB). That word, “inspiration,” is pivotal. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Bible is without contradiction and error. I personally believe that we find the voice of God and human beings in scripture. I believe the key is discerning which is which. John Calvin and other Reformers believed that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is the key in discerning the Word of God.

You may ask how one can make the current translations of Bible less than perfect and yet then believe some of its claims? The answer is simple. Faith. By the way, we all do the same thing. How can you select scriptures and interpretations that support your position on a subject while interpretively explaining away other scriptures that challenge your position? I am talking about scriptures that impact positions like: gifts of the Holy Spirit, women’s roles, sex, tithing, doctrine of the Trinity, baptism, end times, predestination, free will, alcohol consumption, child discipline, musical instruments in church, environmentalism, politics, racism, etc. There is no end of topics we can divide over and have divided over. It is so ironic that we divide over the Bible when the Bible was made to unite us. And I believe this is conclusive to our misunderstanding of scripture’s place within our traditions. Scripture is not relative, but it is elastic; its truths fit all cultures and all people. God by His Spirit uses the Bible to guide and direct us and reveal His love and purposes, but ultimately it is God’s people that must discern what God is saying today from the text just as Jesus did in His day.

Jesus was well known for His “bad” interpretation of the scriptures. Many religious leaders hated Jesus because He violated their interpretation of scripture. Jesus worked on the Sabbath, approached women, drank with sinners and blasphemed by offering forgiveness of sins to anybody. Jesus challenged the religious status quo’s exclusive, rigid and judgmental theology taught from their interpretation of scripture. Notice, the opposition Jesus encountered was not from the secular world but from the religious leaders of His church. The Roman government was ready to set Him free, but the religious leaders demanded His execution because Jesus violated their traditions and reading of scripture.

Many current forms of the Bible are not free of inconsistent texts or controversial ideas. But God is at work redeeming us in spite of our failures and shortcomings. The unity of the Church is pivotal to the health of the Church. Seeing scripture for what it is creates an atmosphere of unity. The missionaries at the 1910 Edinburgh Conference reported being told this by non-Christians overseas: “You preach about a God of reconciliation but you are not reconciled even among yourselves. Until this happens we do not want to hear from you.”

Let’s remember Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me” (NASB).

What do you think of Aaron’s idea of scripture and inerrancy? Do you agree or disagree? We want to hear from you. Let us know on the comment board.

Ben Stevens

BEN STEVENS

Ben Stevens (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is the author of Why God Created the World: A Jonathan Edwards Adaptation (Navpress, 2014). He lives in Berlin, Germany. Keep up with him on Twitter.

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