The Bible in Translation | Part Two: “How we got here”

by Glenn on November 19, 2019

I’ve begun thinking about Bible translations. It began not as a thought, but a particular emotion that is hard to define. Perhaps a sense of loss is the closest. I’m trying to get past the vague feeling to try and make sense of where I am and decide what needs to be done.

The Bible I grew up with was the King James Version. In my part of the Church it was the only game in town. I suppose I might have been vaguely aware of other translations out there somewhere but no one in my world seemed to be paying particular attention to them on a large scale. Other translations (or paraphrases) were used to enhance the study of the KJV or to color a sermon that featured the KJV. I remember references to The Amplified Bible or the Living Bible or to translations by Moffatt or Phillips, but none of those felt widely adopted. For the most part it seemed like the KJV was what most of us owned. It was the Bible in the pews and what was read publicly in church and the text the pastors I knew preached from.

There was a kind of sea change in the 1980’s when the KJV fell out of fashion and was replaced by the New International Version (now known as the NIV 1984 or NIV 84). I don’t remember any great controversy at the time and thought it was received largely as a blessing. I was part of The Salvation Army at the time and, I assume because of its strong command and control, assume a decision was made within that denomination/movement to make the switch (at least in the English-speaking world). I’m certain there must have been some controversy, but that was out of my awareness or interest. All I knew was that the NIV was much easier to read.

(I imagine there are other accounts of a sea change that took place for other believers in other parts of the Church when one Bible translation was introduced to replace another. I assume, though, that in English the KJV had a kind of ubiquity for all “back in the day, ” though you never know if your part of Christendom is idiosyncratic or is representative of other parts.)

The change seemed good because the KJV was tricky. It was full of words which either I didn’t know because they had fallen out of use or only thought I knew because the definitions had changed over time and so they didn’t mean what I thought they meant. These latter are tough to recognize—if you have a KJV, you almost need an edition that highlights them so that you are reminded not to assume a particular word means what you think it means.

The NIV was much easier to read because the words were (more) familiar, even though theology and the world of the Bible was not always easy to understand. Many of the questions raised by the Bible—for example How do you reconcile a good God with this corrupted world?—don’t have easy answers regardless of the translation you are using. And while you can change the word “propitiation”—as in “And he is the propitiation for our sins …” (I John 2:2, KJV)—to “atoning sacrifice,” I’m not sure the concept is any easier to understand. Propitiation seems rather opaque, making it hard to think about, and perhaps “atoning sacrifice” is too easy not to think about because the words sound like they should be familiar. You still need an answer to the question Why did Jesus (have to) die?

But at least I lived in this circle that said the NIV (84) was God’s word. When we “looked to” or read together or memorized God’s word, we were all referencing the same words. Perhaps this was a naïve view of things. But it was the understanding I had of the world I lived in for a long time.

When the revised version of the NIV came out in 2011, early adopters were, of course, quick to go with it. But not everyone rushed to pick up this new version of the NIV. To be fair, there were people still reading the KJV. (There still are.) And there were those whose NIV (84) study Bibles were so full of notes that they weren’t eager to make (and may still not have made) the change. I remember feeling not a little bugged about the development. Some of it related to the fact that I had some things memorized from the NIV (84) and wondered if I needed to start over with the new translation, but I think part of the complexity of my feelings comes out of the fact that changing a translation (and I don’t think you can say this wasn’t a significant change) without changing the name feels a little disingenuous. I don’t want to say that the publisher was sneaky, but the lack of announcement (though, to be honest, I’m not sure how one goes about making this sort of announcement—and perhaps there was an announcement that was outside my awareness) felt like they were pulling a fast one.

The change in the 1980’s was a newer translation that used vocabulary and syntax from our own day supplanted a venerable (archaic?) one. The change in 2011 amounted to a publishing company discontinuing a translation of the Bible and offering a replacement under the same name. This was confusing at the very least. For one, rather than update language to be more comprehensible to our current culture, language was changed to respond to concerns of our current culture. In other words we were getting more interpreting than translating. That was different. It was a big change that we were not calling a change. (Which is not to say that the change was bad. But we needed to talk about and think about it rather than mindlessly adopt this new thing that we said wasn’t new. We needed Toto to pull on the curtain a little bit so we could understand the machinations that were going on.)

I also wonder if and how this relates to other changes we have been seeing in the Church over the last couple of decades. This change in the NIV wasn’t in isolation. Our culture has become more casual and, accordingly, worship in church has as well. For example, you are now as likely to see the pastor in jeans as in a coat and tie. We attend church services less than we used to and churches have fewer services (especially no Sunday evening services). We’ve largely removed the organ and piano as accompaniments of worship and introduced the guitar-led band. The choir has been replaced by a worship leader/team. We are very much aware of churches that are backward in their worship. And while I have no data to support any of this, I feel like there has been a change within churches to no longer identify publicly with a particular denomination. For example, Smalltown Baptist Church is now often known as Smalltown Church. (This may be a west coast phenomenon. I know there are parts of the country where Smalltown First Baptist—or whatever denomination—can be the going concern in town.) When we move to a new town, our first consideration may not be to find “our” denomination, but to find a church that we like, which likely will not be identified with a denominational label. (Alternatively, when we move, even if we want to find a particular tribe, we may have trouble doing so because it no longer wants to be identified as a tribe.) Does this mean the Church has and by extension church members have more of a consumer mindset.

Perhaps none of this is connected to Bible translations, but the change in 2011 was not simply within the church, but within a church that had changed dramatically. It does seem to me that there is a kind of informalizing of things in the church that renders the KJV even less popular today and encourages translations that sound like common speech, though this may actually be a good thing. And while denominations seem to be less important today, cultural issues have become elevated. In fact, denominations are splitting over these cultural issues.

When the NIV 2011 was introduced to (foisted upon?) us, it was no longer the primary option to the KJV. The English Standard Version had been introduced and was adopted by many. I knew people who liked The New Living Translation. Today, if you search for a Bible, there is a bewildering choice of versions and multiple editions within those versions. And while our churches may not always want to be identified with a particular tribe, we seem to be looking for a Bible that makes sense with our tribe. (For example, a complementarian group may like a translation that uses the word “man” or “men” or “brothers” even when the word being translated likely includes “woman” or “women” or “sisters” in the meaning. It’s likely the more literal translation. The egalitarian church may want a translation that refers to “a person” or “people” or “brothers and sisters.” And there are those options out there.

One of the things I’ve grown to understand is that more choices is not always better. For example, while one brand of spaghetti sauce in the supermarket isn’t enough (strictly speaking, that isn’t even a choice), the decision among a dozen or more isn’t helpful.

As the pastor of a small church, I am searching for a translation that is faithful to the original languages which I can read in public and the language of which I can incorporate into my life. And I’m not sure what that is. What should be my primary study Bible? Go back to my old NIV (84)? Adopt the ESV? Try the mainline NRSV? Get nerdy with the NET Bible?

In the past, the choice (again, in my circle) of which Bible to use was relatively straightfoward—use the King James Version if you are traditional, use the NIV (84) if you are trying to be more contemporary. But today it doesn’t seem like there’s any clear line of authority for making the decision of which Bible to use. It all feels very individual and personal—in the same way that we now feel like we should dress how we like and enjoy music that we like.

My understanding is that there are some groups who have attached themselves to a particular translation. I’ve heard the Holman Christian Study Bible is enjoyed by some Baptist churches. There is a King James Only movement that tells us there really is no other choice. I’ve heard some pastors make a recommendation for the New American Standard or ESV. The New Revised Standard Version is nearly the only option (along with the KJV) for those who want to follow the reading plan in the Book of Common Prayer, which includes the Apocrypha.

What I don’t hear (at least not yet) is a lot of acclaim for the NIV (2011), perhaps because we haven’t had a good conversation about what the implications of those changes are.

The present situation feels like a buffet line without a carving station for the main course at the end.

 

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