08 June, 2007

Thinking Out Loud: The Bible in 'Common' Language

The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1, says that the Word of God is to be translated into the 'vulgar language of every nation into which they come'. This causes some difficulty for us that are outside of the camp in regards to textual criticism.

There are two major textual traditions within the church. Some hold to what is called 'the critical text' and others hold to 'the majority text' or the 'received text'. Those of us who hold to the latter have only a few choices to choose from in Bible translations. There is the Geneva Bible of 1599 which was just republished, there is the Authorized Version (King James), and there is the New King James version (as well as a couple of other small and obscure translations).

Those in the critical textual tradition have a huge variety to choose from. There are very poor translations such as the NIV and New Living Translation; but there are some very good and accurate ones as well. The New American Standard is good as well as the English Standard Version. These are both very accurate 'word for word' translations.

Some have said that the textual variations only make up for about 20% of the problems that translations run into. Some are big problems though, such as the ending of the Lord's Prayer being taken out- even though in Confessional churches we swear to that ending in our Confessions.

My congregation uses the Authorized Version which is a very good and accurate translation, but I fear that we do not heed the words of our forefathers who said that the Bible needs to be in the vulgar, or common language. People (I have not heard this from members of my congregation) often say that we need to retain the thees and thous and that people should have to learn how to understand these archaic words. I do not think that this is the correct attitude. The church's job is to provide an accurate and understandable version of the Bible that can be read and studied in homes and churches. I do not think that those with only a high school education should miss out on what the Word actually says because the ministry wants to hold onto language that is not common to today's people.

I mean no disrespect to those who use the AV, I am one of those people. But I do think that being 393 years removed from a version is a problem (especially when it is a translation that was authorized by a man who hated the Reformed faith and was trying to push an Anglo-catholic agenda).

I do not know what the answer is. I have a few ideas and suggestions that could be implemented though:
  • Read the AV, but replace the archaic words with a more common word. This would mean that when you see, "I am the Lord thy God which brought thee out of the land of Egypt" it would be read, "I am the Lord your God which brought you out of the land of Egypt". This would allow for the nuances of the word you in Greek and Hebrew to be kept, as well as break the awkwardness of the reading. (This would be quite difficult at first, but it is possible. This is what I do during family worship quite often.)
  • Use the ESV or the NASB, but double check for any variations in the original language. This would cause some difficulty in public worship, but it could be overcome with a good teacher.It also would be difficult at home, causing some to stumble over the reliability of the Word of God.
  • Call a summit of like-minded denominations who hold to the majority-received text for the writing of a new translation. I know that at our seminary, Dr. Bilkes and Dr. Murray both have a command of the original language to undergo such a task. The problem here is that people often hold traditional 'church' language in a high place and do not want to leave the Authorized Version behind. (Remember that 'church' language in prayer and text is not something that is in the original languages but has become a custom that many require of people in prayer. Since it is custom and extra-biblical, it is not something that we are permitted to bind men's consciences to.)
Those are some of my thoughts on the issue. Today I bought my first ESV and plan on using it along side of my AV and my Greek and Hebrew texts. I feel a bit guilty over the whole thing, because of my love for the AV. What are some of your thoughts on the issue?


Mark said...

Nate, that's gotta be one of your best posts ever. (Awesome pic, too.) I completely agree, there's nothing inherently holy about the thees and thous. It's interesting to note that they were originally the more informal versions of "you", while "you" proper was reserved for more formal usage. Obviously that's changed, but it's generally overlooked.

I think it's easy for us to assume that since we have little to no problem with KJV, it should be easy for others. There's a fair amount of pride, too, in being a KJV-only type. It should be noted that I, like Nate, use the KJV and am a big fan. But the translation itself can become an idol.

On a vaguely related note, this same emphasis should be considered in prayer. We don't say "thee" and "thou" normally, and while I'm all for holy language and don't think using the terms is a sin, a move to the vernacular without compromising Biblical theology is entirely appropriate.

G.M said...

Dear Nathan,

I hold to the Received text and use the A.V. I too believe that there are some - though I would say minor - changes needed to the A.V. However the greatest problem is that people don't like concentration, and so want a Bible that reads like a newspaper. I think we must be careful not to pander to this.

I also believe that the 'thee's and 'thou's need to stay - which of course necessitates the older word structure. I believe this because the singular/plural distinction is theologically important in many texts. Putting (s) and (p) in the text beside 'you's would be an option, but the Word should be memorized, and we would then need to memorize the (p)'s and (s)'s! Especially since our thoughts develop upon the Word memorized and not just the Word read. We also debate from memorized texts.

Again, the A.V. is easily memorized - this was intentional on the part of the translators - and has a Majestic 'sound'. It would be a crying shame to lose this with too much change.

Then also uniformity would be lost by various churches liking the new translation and others not liking it. Is now the best time for such a change, I mean is the Church in the best spiritual state for such a change? Perhaps if the T.B.S. was involved it could work???

By the way I would question your statement, "The New American Standard is good as well as the English Standard Version. These are both very accurate 'word for word' translations." but I do not wish to get into that.

If it could be done I would like to see an updated A.V. with the older pronouns in, but a few very archaic words changed – the word ‘let’ for example which in the older language means ‘hinder’ and so the opposite to its usage today.

Anyway these are my thoughts on the matter.


P.S. Those who want to read the A.V. but are put off by the older pronouns here is a simple way to remember their meaning: all the ones beginning with ‘t’ are singular – thee, thou, thine – while those beginning with ‘y’ are plural – ye, you, your. Personally the first book I read from cover to cover was the A.V.; it was from it that I essentially learned to read. The ‘eth’s are not really difficult either, they just seem odd to start with – ‘He cometh’ simply means He is coming!


I don't want to let go of the AV. I upfront admit we don't talk that way, at the same time the translation is ...um..."THEE" most recognised translation, and most commonly held version of the Bible. I have recently been getting exceptionally dirtied by the KJV, in that all the commentaries I use have the AV as their base text. I grew up a bit with KJV language around what little church I got as a child and I don’t exactly find it to be insurmountable to understand it.

Grammatically speaking, my understanding of 'you' and 'thee' was a matter of 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural. Now in usage especially in prayer, 'thee' has picked up a sense of a removed and revered 'you', especially pertaining to God. One person espousing a pro AV retention put the matter to me as being in the vein of how we would treat monarchs in removed language. Far be it from me to ascribe something to a person when it is not the case, however I wonder if this is derived from a Biblical perspective that accounts for all of Scripture’s doctrine.

We maintain that God is not His creation, and is not to be confused with it. The Lord is above the creation, far above it. He rules over the creation mightily and judges it. All that comes to pass was ordained by Him, and all does as He has decreed it to be so. Yet especially dealing within a covenantal context, that is, His people praying to Him and how He has revealed Himself, God has revealed Himself in intimate terms. I am the God of Isaac, Jacob, not being afraid to be called their God, etc. I don’t exactly know what to label this sanitized (?) view of God in prayer. I must admit, even if it sounds foolish, that Monty Python’s Holy Grail somehow has an element of truth of it in the seen where God is talking to Arthur King of the Britons (King of the who?) .God chastises Arthur for all this ‘I’m not worthy’ talk. Ps. 136 is an excellent description in summary form of how God deals and reveals Himself to us.

Regarding textual criticism, I have been under the impression that it has to do with the original language’s body behind the text (which textual corpus/ tradition is it?). Translation criticism would be another issue. What text you translate assuredly will effect what you will have in front of you in the end.

Now dealing with ‘–eth’s, ‘-est’s, ‘ye’s and ‘thee’s, we just don’t speak that way anymore. One asserts “Well …just change the word a bit, and it’s good to go.” That position gets to the heart of the matter and betrays itself on grounds that it is demanding subservience to an archaism, not the COMMON VULGAR TONGUE. “Vulgarity”, is painted by its historical proximity to the speaker and listener. We are in the 21st century, thus we don’t speak as 17th century Englishmen. One may try to argue on lines of maintaining a static standard of language. Well, English before 1611 had been ever changing too. In choking down a little Chaucer or Beowulf the point should be fairly clear.

Regarding the making of another translation, when will we be satisfied with how many English translations we have? Will we ever settle on one as being the standard? That text in Ecclesiastes that talks about ‘in the making of books there is no end,’ I really don’t think was trying to set up a mission statement for all the Bible publishers to keep cranking out new translations (nor new group specific Study Bibles).

Dealing will memorization, the KJV on account of its peculiarity to the modern ear, tends to be easy to memorize. That which is odd is easily remembered.

We are well warned in these discussions concerning translations and textual traditions, there are those people who wish to turn it to evil, using it to brow beat others or take on some sort of man-praising intellectual air.

karl said...

well i would comment, but im' busy reading the Message...