Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hermeneutics Paper Part 3: Translation and Tradition


Bible translation is big business. Anyone who receives a Christian Book Distributors catalog or walked through a Protestant bookstore cannot help but be struck by the immense number of English translations available. Rick Warren is now famous for his best seller The Purpose Driven Life. In his third Appendix “Why Use So Many Translations?” he gives two reasons. These are 1) each translation has its limitations, and 2) the reader may be too familiar with a translation and so “miss the full impact of familiar Bible verses.” (p. 325) In practical application these reasons may be rightly understood as: 1) no single translation can support what he wants to teach, and 2) what he wants to teach is different than the doctrine easily seen in Scripture.

The availability to and proliferation of these translations to ministerial students and parishoners creates a basic problem. It can be summarized by the statement, “My Bible doesn't say that.”

In addition to the issue of textual base, at the heart of this hermeneutical issue is the academic debate between dynamic equivalence and formal correspondence. Consider the passage from The Message with which Warren opens his book:

Ephesians 1:11 (The Message)

Ephesians 1:11 (New King James)

It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ, ...he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,

A passage that in the Greek and in the NKJV is pure Gospel based on the vicarious atonement is perverted into moralizing law to guide so-called “Christian living.”

Warren's misuse of Bible translations to support his Pelagianism highlights similar problems the seminary student and pastor face when interpreting the Bible; especially if the interpreter does not have a good grasp on the original languages. Very loose translations are often justified by the term “dynamic equivalence” while tighter and mostly more accurate translations tend to be disdained with the labeled “formal equivalence.”

There is a debate going on that is decades old in the pages of Bible Translator, an academic publication of the United Bible Society for Bible translators. The debate actually goes back several centuries to Jerome's Vulgate and Luther's German Bible. The first study on the topic of which I am aware is Martin Luther's 1530 “Open Letter on Translation.” (AE 35:175-202) In this letter Luther explained how he sought to make his translation speak real German that anyone could understand without compromising the literal meaning of the original text.

Regarding the first part of his goal, Luther wrote:

We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German, as these donkeys do [the objectors to Luther's translation]. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.

Regarding the second part of his goal, Luther wrote:

On the other hand I have not just gone ahead and disregarded altogether the exact wording in the original. Rather, with my helpers I have been very careful to see that where everything depends upon a single passage, I have kept to the original quite literally and have not departed lightly from it...But I preferred to do violence to the German language rather than to depart from the word. Ah, translating is not everyone's skill as some mad saints imagine. It requires a right, devout, honest, sincere, God-fearing, Christian, trained, educated, and experienced heart. So I hold that no false Christian or sectarian spirit can be a good translator.

Eugene Nida set the stage for the current academic debate with his 1964 Toward a Science of Translating, in which he took the spectrum from woodenly literal translation to free paraphrase and recast them with the terms “formal equivalence” and “dynamic equivalence.” Nida sought to make Bible translation more objective by creating a taxonomy of processes and couching the process in some new academic terminology. But he had to come back to the central issue of the role of the translator as a creative role. This hearkens back to the last two sentences of the previous Luther quotation.

There is claim in Confessional Lutheran circles “that the interpreter who uses a reliable English translation will not end up with a wrong interpretation.”1 Standing against this claim are the masses of Pentecostals, Calvinists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and others that have depended on the KJV. The problem is not the reliability of the KJV, nor is the problem its nature as a “formally equivalent” translation. The problem stems from the belief system of the interpreter. There is no neutral belief system. While translation can be made more systematic, it still cannot be done successfully by computer. Much less can the Law and Gospel become subject to reason. Bible Translation can never be neutral. The Bible itself is not neutral on this point:

ψυχικος δε ανθρωπος ου δεχεται τα του πνευματος του θεου μωρια γαρ αυτω εστιν και ου δυναται γνωναι οτι πνευματικως ανακρινεται (1 Cor. 2:14)

Translated literally:

and the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for to him they are foolishness, and he is not able to know [them], because spiritually they are discerned

But let us take a version where the translators do not recognize the limits of human reason that Paul describes in this context. Here is The Message:

The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can't receive the gifts of God's Spirit. There's no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit

Traduttore, traditore!” The more a translation is geared toward a “dynamic equivalence” the more it depends upon the translator's own theological beliefs. Readers should note that this translation has defined “spiritual self” and “unspiritual self” in other contexts with regard to how actively a person pursues being Christ-like by his own righteous living. Note also the insertion of the word “gifts” in this context where Paul is speaking explicitly about the ability to believe the Gospel.

This author believes the worst feature of the new translations relates not only to their “dynamic” translation of the text, but to the fact that they are transient. The translation done to “reach a generation” or a specific societal sub-group has a dividing effect on the church of God. God's Word changes from translation to translation, from one group to another. The translation is done to fit specific groups and prevents unity in common expression of the Word of God. Each group's “Word of God” is different from another group's “Word of God.” Liturgically and catechetically this is an abysmal problem. The problem of fractured linguistic groups is not new to the Church. Nor is the demand for unified linguistic expression with respect to Scripture and worship.

“23 In those days I also saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. 24 And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke according to the language of one or the other people.
25 So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves.” (Nehemiah 13:23-25)

Pastors are commissioned by Christ to be interpreters of the Word and instructors in the Word (Mt 28:20). Ministerial students aspire to fulfill this duty of Christ's call. So in general, while it is helpful for them to be aware of these various translations and what their agendas might be—it is of greater help for them to use a more formally equivalent translation that is designed to serve more than one generation or social sub-group. It is better for the whole congregation and wider groups of congregations to be able to have a common language from Scripture.


If at all possible an interpreter should be able not only to discern the many levels of tradition that affect his own hermeneutical judgment. But he should also be able to communicate clearly and instruct others as to how these levels of tradition come to bear on the interpretation of Scripture. This includes real traditions that the interpreter and his audience have inherited. This also includes competing traditions, whether they are actually inherited or whether they are new ideas dressed in the guise of venerable tradition.

This author believes that lack of discernment in this area is one of the chief problems facing theological discourse in Confessional Lutheranism today. The Christian faith rests on one authority: Scripture.

Here is where all engaged in biblical interpretation and instruction would do well to read and understand Martin Chemnitz' listing of eight types of tradition and the nature of their authorities as he has laid them out in the Second Topic of his Examination of the Council of Trent.2 This is not the place for a restatement of Chemnitz, as worthwhile as that would be. Here the author would wish to focus on one of the major problems to interpretation that is caused by holding on to tradition.

The problem is the taking of offense. What is meant is not the giving of offense: i.e., leading someone to fall into sin by an act of Christian freedom done without consideration to the weaker brother. What is meant is someone's sense of honor, pride, propriety is violated. Someone gets plain old ticked off at another and may refuse to listen to any further discussion.

This is an important distinction to make. The one who has truly offended in the sense Paul describes in I Cor. 8 is not crying out “I'm offended!” Nor is he making the claim, “You've caused offense!” On the contrary, he has, by his own weak conscience and mis-perception of another's act of Christian freedom, been led to believe that what is sin is permissible.

Confessional Lutheran pastors are familiar with these situations within their own parishes when presenting proper interpretations on the topic of closed communion, women's suffrage, and the like. The problem is like a mine field. The pastor does not know there is even an issue to deal with until he hears the“click.” But most often he does not hear this warning but is left to sort through the leftovers of an explosion that ripped up some part of his congregation without the pastor knowing why.

The problem is usually human traditions that have been accepted by individuals as being legitimate interpretations of Scripture.3

These traditions can be household, congregational, regional, synodical, or simple personal idiosyncrasies. Sometimes they can be traced back to an individual who spoke something that the hearer believed was spoken with Divine authority as the teaching of God's Word. Whether it was meant as such is irrelevant, the hearer believes in the tradition as if it is God's Word.4

Self-effacement goes a long way in a congregation when one has stepped accidentally on a mine that deals with a personal or family tradition. In some cases it may be well nigh to impossible to lead the individuals into a correct interpretation of God's Word. But most often patient, gentle, and persistent teaching of God's Word accomplishes a great wonders.

The interpreter must be wary of taking offense. If someone claims the interpreter's arguments are poor and fallacious, the interpreter should take this criticism to heart. This does not mean the interpreter should develop a feeling of persecution, sadness or anger, it means that the interpreter should be able to ask himself the hard questions about how much of his own interpretation depends on tradition and how much on the Scripture itself. Where did the interpreter learn this particular interpretation or that particular interpretation? Can the interpreter show the verses and contexts of Scripture that are the basis for his teaching? Does the interpreter understand the relationship between the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and how this limits what the interpreter may claim about the authority of his own parochial traditions? All who claim to teach in the name of Christ must base their claim on an appeal the true authority: God's Word.

1Kuske 14f.

2Chemnitz 217-307.

3The author was asked for an example or two of this in the Q&A after the paper was delivered;
Above was mentioned αγαπαω/φιλεω, and the “Headship Principle” as justification for submission of women in the Secular Estate.
There is Gn 9:24-5; 10:6-20 as a justification for the enslavement of Africans (Stöckhardt 1900:15;Rupprecht 1947:36, and Kretzmann ) Berndt and Rathman offered a mild correction (2003:32 note 1), Franzmann offered a good correction (1980:85).
Another type of example comes from traditional interpretations based on the Root Fallacy (Carson 1984:26ff); and others derived from Etymological Fallacies (Barr 1961, 1987).
Another interpretational tradition is the use of the Thief on the Cross as an example of someone who went to heaven without the sacrament of Baptism. Is it possible that he was not baptized? Yes. Do we know he was not baptized? No. Therefore, any exposition on the necessity of Baptism using the Thief on the Cross as an example of faith without baptism is only conjectural.
Another example is the actions of the Publicans. Zacchaeus and Levi are primary examples because they are names. Often it is assumed that the tax collectors extorted money above what the law actually allowed them to take. This assumption fits with the view of our own sinful nature and its view of the IRS in the United States. But the assumption of corruption in duty cannot form a basis for interpretation of the actions of Zacchaeus, Levi, or any other tax collector. The 8th Commandment applies to the interpreter of the Bible as well as much as anyone else. Perhaps Zacchaeus was sincere in his claim. Perhaps he had not defrauded anyone. While preaching on the sinful nature and how it probably would affect Publicans may be biblical, any stereotype forced on an individual Publican in the New Testament is not legitimate.

4Imagine, if you will, the possibility that a congregation could give as one reason for removing their divinely called pastor the fact that he chanted in worship, an act that in their traditional interpretation is too Roman Catholic. It is not only possible, it has happened.

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