Why the TNIV’s demise makes me happy…

Well, it doesn’t really; I mean, not in any “real” way.  As I said before, I never liked the TNIV and don’t care for the NIV either for that matter.    Part of this is frankly because I tend to prefer “word for word” translation over “dynamic equivalence” that the NIV and TNIV employs.  The other reason is because, as I said in my comments on the preceding post, I believe the publication of the TNIV as well as it’s withdrawal has more to do with profits than anything else.  But allow me to lay out a bit more my larger issue with English language Bible translation.

1) Arguments over Bible translations (whether NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc.) provide cover for Christian intellectual elitism

Christianity is a translated religion.  Unlike Islam, we do not hold to any particular language being the revealed language of God and scripture.  Therefore the words of Jesus (perhaps spoken in Aramaic) were translated into Greek without losing their potency.  Reading the Bible in French or English or Twi or Russian does not represent a deficiency, but the heart of the missionary impulse.  However the way debates over translation occurs communicates that unless one is fluent in the so-called “original languages” one cannot really know what God is saying. This is inherently elitist as the vast majority of Christians in the world who have ever lived and who currently do live may not even be literate, much less experts in ancient Greek.  Is their understanding of God, ethical practice, and Christian maturity therefore inevitably compromised?

This is not to say that translation with great care is unimportant.  It is very important, but if we communicate, however unintentionally, that you “really need to read it in the Greek to understand” we inevitably establish a hierarchy to which only an elite and privileged few have access.

2) The proliferation of English translations in the last 100 years has done NOTHING to advance Christian maturity or knowledge.

Faithful translation is important as I have said, and that has ostensibly been the motive for updating translations, in addition to keeping pace with new or better source documents that have come to light.  But is hardly evident that these multiple versions have done anything to increase the amount of scripture knowledge or biblical practice.  Indeed I would venture to guess (anecdotally to be sure) that those Christian “neanderthals” who hold onto the KJV probably have  more extensive Biblical knowledge than many others.

3) The proliferation of English translation is driven by profit and is evidence of an exceedingly materialistic self referential culture.

Many translations are copyrighted.  Book publishers make lots of money selling Bibles.  There is great incentive to come out with a “NEW & IMPROVED” version every few years.  We buy them because we can, and because we want a version that “fits” us.  This is related to my last point.

4) (Not the last point but related to the previous one) The English language has not changed so much in the last hundred years and certainly last fifty years to justify the new translations.

The 400 year dominance (and continued strength) of the KJV meant that much of the language was indeed very different than contemporary English and quite opaque to some (though not so much as to be unintelligible. After all it is still a leading version and in some ways superior; KJV English conveys continuing present tense better than contemporary English) and therefore made some sense to update.  Since then… not so much.

5) The proliferation of translations is in some ways a capitulation to the Christian disengagement with shaping culture.

The chief justification for many modern versions is to faithful translate the scripture into “today’s English.”  Well this is fine as far as it goes. BUT, none of these many translations, partially due to their abundance and partially due to their linguistic poverty, actually affect the culture into which they are cast.

The KJV, for all its flaws (and they are many) was written in a language that though long “obsolete” retains a poetry and magnificence that remains unsurpassed, much like the language of Shakespeare (written in the same era).  Many contemporary versions, though technically superior, frankly lack any beauty and therefore are less powerful in their effect in shaping culture, both within and outside of the church.

Now it can be argued that aesthetic value is less important than accuracy, but I disagree.  Aesthetics have a truth value all their own and while “though I walk through the darkest valley” may be a more technically accurate translation, it does not speak in the same way as “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and is therefore lest likely to be memorized, or to shape our worldview.  Bad writing cannot be covered up by saying “the translation is technically accurate.”

Additionally the multitude of translations means that Christians have lost something very important: a common language, which is important in creating and reinforcing and yea verily, shaping our common dialogue and culture.

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2 thoughts on “Why the TNIV’s demise makes me happy…

  1. The need to understand greek in order to understand the bible has nothing to do with elitism or not. If its true that you do need to understand greek in order to really understand the bible, then its true on its own merits.

    The question should be, do we need to understand greek in order to really understand the bible. The question should not be, does it create an elite class if we need to understand greek in order to understand the bible.

    1. You make a good point, and I agree. However, I believe there is an unintentional way in which knowledge of Greek begins to functionally become a mark of elite status, thus bifurcating the Christian community into haves and havenots (or knows and knownots). I contend though that the suggestion that the knowledge of Greek is necessary to understand the Bible is firstly untrue (in any practical sense) and secondly inherently elitist, which is itself antithetical to the missionary impulse of the Bible.

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