Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Multiple Bible Translations -- part 2: The difficulty of defaulting to a single modern translation

Addressing problem 1: The impossibility for many churches to “default” to a single modern translation.

In my first post, I provided a list of potential problems associated with multiple translations. In this post, I will expand on the first of these “problems.” The listing of this first issue as a problem is perhaps misleading. First, it is not “impossible” to default to a single translation. Many churches have indeed done so, and without fanfare. For many churches, however, defaulting to a single translation is difficult because it demands us to make certain choices are do a lot of extra work. So, having only one translation is not impossible, but for many congregations, such a move can only be done with great difficulty, by significantly narrowing the choice of programs and materials, or by opting for a translation that is not the one preferred. Here are some of the options for those churches who desire to be a single-translation church:

Choose denominational curriculum and materials. Usually, denominational materials are available in a consistent translation. The problem here is that the translation is either outdated (e.g. NKJV or NIV) or is not the one you want (e.g. while the HCSB is a fine translation, some churches might not prefer it over, say, the NLT or ESV). Also, one is limited to those programs and materials provided by their denomination.

Provide the single, preferred, translation along side the one in the curriculum via handouts, powerpoint, etc. While such provision is certainly an option, it is also time-consuming and may be costly. I am not aware of any churches that do this, though I provide it as a possibility – at least hypothetically.

Write your own curriculum and materials. Many churches have opted to develop their own resources for Sunday school, discipleship, evangelism, and other materials. While there are advantages and disadvantages beyond the Bible translation issue, such an approach does allow a church to achieve consistency in Bible translation if that is their desire.

So, to say that it is impossible to be a single modern translation church is not really accurate. Defaulting to a single translation is indeed an option for many churches and can be done with varying degrees of difficulty and accommodation depending on the values and resources of the church.

Another reason this first issue may not be a “problem” is that even if it is possible for a church to default to a single translation, such a practice may not be the best practice anyway. The single-translation problem is only a problem if having a single translation is a desired value of the church.

In many languages, only one translation is available. English speakers, however, have benefited from the availability of numerous Bible translations. Admittedly, the number of translations strikes me a bit as over-kill and is, in part, economically motivated. Granted, also, not all translations are created equal and there is some discernment required in selecting which Bible translations to use. Still, there are more than a few Bible translations that are conservative and trustworthy renderings of the biblical text into our language.

The question concerning limiting Bible use to a single translation is whether or not any one translation can fulfill all the functions of an adequate translation. Ultimately, the question becomes one of readability versus word for word correspondence or, to use translation parlance, between literal and dynamic equivalent translations.

If the Bible, as God’s word is to be useful for “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness,” is there any single translation that accomplishes all of those purposes? Because there are many available translations that are trustworthy, perhaps it is better to enjoy the benefits of multiple translations and work around the problems. Most church members are not proficient in the biblical languages. Church members come in a variety of reading levels, and functional vocabularies. Given these realities, many churches will see the value in the prudent use of multiple translations, accompanied by education concerning how and why they are different. The use of multiple translations, both literal and dynamically equivalent, may in fact ultimately yield a better understanding and obedience to God’s word among God’s people – and isn’t that a primary goal of translation?


R. Mansfield said...

I believe that the greatest factor toward creating a church an environment that at least favors one translation over others is the leadership of the pastor. Even if the pastor is switching to a new translation as a primary preaching text (a change that I don't believe should be done too often), a simply announcement of the change will go a long way toward making church members favor that translation. The next time they go Bible shopping for themselves or especially for their children, most will want to get a copy of whatever the pastor is preaching from so as to make following along a bit easier.

The second step would be to acquire pew Bibles in the same translation. This is a really big step (or at least ought to be thought of as such) because it represents not just an investment of money, but also represents the kind of investment that is not replaced often for many years.

I've visited lots of church that carried a KJV Bible in the pew even though the KJV hasn't been preached from in anyone's recent memory. I can't imagine a worse scenario than a non-Christian visitor to pick up a KJV Bible and try to follow a pastor preaching from the NIV.

Todd, you have a number of good strategies in your post, and you recognize some of the challenges as well. What difference does the curriculum make? We use the Southern Baptist curriculum that incorporates the HCSB. I happen to like the HCSB very much and even recommend it. However, I'm not using the HCSB on a week to week basis with those in my Bible study class even though that's what the curriculum uses. Is this a problem?

It has not ever been for me. I encourage the use of the curriculum as a means of preparation. Most of the 40 or so people in my class on Sunday will have their book with them, but they may not open it, opting instead to simply keep the Bible open. But I also have a lesser number who bring their quarterly and NO Bible!

Thus, for this past Sunday, I was teaching from the NLT, but I also was aware of particular wordings for a few major verses in the HCSB, NIV, and KJV. I had to "correct" the KJV in a number of places, which is probably a passive aggressive attempt to get those still using the KJV to get a more current translation.

But you're right that a church can standardize on a translation as long as its willing to make a few exceptions now and then and also realize that some people will always come with something different.

Another way to help standardize a translation is to give the same translation the pastor is using to new believers as well as prospects when distributing scriptures evangelistically.

These moves go a long way to making a particular translation standard.

James said...


Enjoyed reading the last two posts.

I've always had fairly strong reading and comprehension skills.

With that being said, I have found that the NIV is the easiest for me to read and readily comprehend the intent of the passage I'm reading.

When class materials have utilize HCSB, my recollection is that I've found it cumbersome to read and follow.

Granted this may be a result of unfamiliarity and lack of my use of the HCSB, but I find myself leaning towards the NIV, regardless of what faults scholars may now say exist with it.

Of course, I'm old enough to remember when even children's Sunday School material was in KJV and there are verses and passages that I will always remember in this translation (Luke 2 and Psalm 23 come to mind).

Thanks for continuing to write on topics that make me think, and accepting my uneducated comments.

We miss you, the family and your friendship.

In Christ

Tiffany said...

I'm going to have to go with James on this one. HCSB is very awkward to me. I prefer to use NIV regularly but also used KJV in Awana so it is easier for me to memorize in. But I find it extremely useful to have different versions of the same verse to better understand what is being said. Brian has this awesome "parallel" bible that has 4 versions in it which is great for studying specific passages. But he also has 4 or 5 other versions in seperate Bibles. I like the variety when studying but prefer the regularity of NIV for church and devotionals. I know alot of people will complain about the pastor using a different version than everyone else but with the exception of KJV/NKJV most versions arent so extremely different that you cant follow along with your own version. But thats just my humble opinion! sorry it took so long to get a comment on here!