Use and Misuse of Scripture
(September 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 9)
The truly blessed individual is described in Psalm 1: His delight is in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law he meditates day and night. Godly people delight in the Word of God. They love it; they cherish it; they can’t get enough of it. That is why they meditate on it day and night. It is their joy to contemplate God’s truth. Such lovers of truth take seriously Paul’s injunction to be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth (II Timothy 2:15). Those who desire God’s approval must handle accurately, or literally, “cut straight,” the word of truth. They diligently study the Bible in order to interpret it correctly and then apply it properly. Anything less results in workers who are ashamed – not because they do not mean well, or do not love the Lord, but because they have mishandled the Scriptures and thus, at least to some degree live false lives, leading possibly even to the dishonoring of God. No child of God wants to dishonor their Lord and so the careful study of the Word is serious business. We do not have the option of carelessness or superficiality, much less distortion of the biblical text. So it is the precious privilege of the child of God to, year by year, grow in his understanding of Scripture. Never perfectly, but always earnestly, the believer craves to increasingly know God’s truth more fully. For in doing so we honor Him and live life abundantly (John 10:10).
Of course, those who so love the glorious truths of the Word will also contend earnestly for the faith (the body of truth found in the Word) which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). All of us will fight for the things we treasure. If we treasure our marriage, we will stand against all obstacles that would destroy that marriage. If we value our children, we will protect and guard them from all that would harm them. If we adore the Word of God, how can we do anything less than fight for it against all adversaries? It has always been beyond my comprehension as to how a believer can claim to love God’s Word and yet tolerate teachers who pervert it.
This brings us to the topic of our paper. Satan, of course, has always sought to twist and misrepresent the Scriptures. Over the years he has invented many ways of doing so, but recently he has used several seemingly benign methods that I believe are going undetected by many evangelical Christians. Please consider with me three areas that need careful evaluation.
Hermeneutics is the science that teaches the principles, laws and methods of interpretation. Whenever we attempt to interpret anything, be it the IRS code, the sports page, a novel or the Bible we use certain hermeneutical methods. When we seek to understand almost any literature, besides the Bible, we all tend to use normal, literal hermeneutics. Loosely this means that we take words and sentences at face value, expecting that the author meant what he said and we can understand what he meant. Theologians call this the grammatical-historical approach. But when it comes to the Bible, Christians throughout history have had a hard time using normal hermeneutics. Instead they have tried to infuse into the Word meanings that were never intended. For a fuller understanding of some of the errant approaches of the past, see my book, “I JustWantedMoreLand,” Jabez, or Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Biblical Interpretation. I am more interested at this point in some of the newer approaches that are rapidly becoming popular among the evangelical elite. Some of the new hermeneutics seem to spring from postmodern and deconstruction thought (see TOTT papers on postmodernism). But whether or not this is the case, there is a movement away from the objective grammatical-historical method to a more subjective slant in which the reader’s understanding of the text takes precedence over the original intent of the author (in the case of the Bible, the Holy Spirit). On a popular level this is evident in the many Bible studies in which believers are encouraged to share what a certain passage of Scripture “means to me.” Often no one has actually done any careful study of the text, nor is anyone’s interpretation considered wrong or challenged. The implication is that whatever the text means to you is a proper interpretation, even if it is far from what the author intended it to mean. On the scholarly front the rage is to backpedal from the grammatical-historical approach and develop methods that emphasize the subjective element (i.e., what it means to me). Some scholars effectively neutralize the meaning of the text by bringing a preunderstanding to it. Rather than allowing the text to speak for itself, a preconceived foreign meaning is brought to the passage with the result that the true meaning is lost or distorted. For example, open theists bring to the text of Scripture a preconceived understanding that God cannot know the future with certainty. They then reinterpret any passage which speaks of God’s foreknowledge through the grid of their presuppositions. Others, even in conservative camps, are advocating that a passage of Scripture can have multiple meanings. This is a repudiation of one of the cardinal rules of grammatical-historical hermeneutics, that of one meaning in any given text. This is a vast and concerning subject, far beyond the scope of this paper. I would refer you to Robert Thomas’ excellent book, Evangelical Hermeneutics for more on this matter. The bottom line is that if we desert normal methods of interpretation, if we do not allow the text to speak for itself, if we insist on bringing our own meanings to the passage, we will not be accurately handling the Word of God.
Flowing directly from the stream of modern hermeneutics are modern translations. I have explored some of the issues surrounding translations, including the King James controversies and the manuscripts debate, in previous TOTT papers, so I will not replow that ground. At this point I am more interested in the philosophy behind the numerous translations of Scripture available today. Most translations in the past have been attempts to render into another language (my comments will be limited to English) as closely as possible the Hebrew and Greek words in which the Bible was originally written. While no translation has ever been infallible (only the original autographs are), and while all translations involve a certain amount of interpretation – since it is impossible to literally render word for word Hebrew and Greek into English – most translations attempted to stay as close as possible to the biblical languages. The King James Version is a case in point. The translators endeavored to produce a translation of Scripture that was as literal as possible and still be readable. That they did a remarkable job can be attested by the longevity of the KJV, first published in 1611 and still being read today (with some modifications) by millions. Other works such as the American Standard Version (ASV), The New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New King James (NKJV) and now the English Standard Version (ESV), have all had this same philosophy and all, I believe, are excellent attempts at translations.
But hand in glove with the rise of subjective hermeneutics has been the popularity of translations that do not attempt a word-for-word, literal translation, but a thought for thought rendering. These freer translations aim at dynamic equivalence: producing the same effect on today’s reader that the original text produced on the original reader. In such versions far more interpretation on the part of the translators go into the work as they attempt to explain what the authors meant rather than rendering what they said and allowing the reader to interpret the words for themselves. To some degree this is true of any translation, but the freer the translation the more interpretation is taking place by the translators. Easily the best known translation in this field is the New International Version, which has become the best selling English Bible of our times. Recently the Today’s New International Version has been published. It attempts a gender-neutral translation – replacing masculine pronouns and sometimes nouns in an effort to make the Bible less offensive to certain segments of society. Also popular is the New Living Translation.
Then there are the paraphrases such as The Living Bible and more recently, The Message, which make no attempt to translate words at all but amount to running commentaries on the Bible. Understood as mere commentaries, paraphrases may have their place. Unfortunately, as we will see, many misconstrue them to be translations leading to a plethora of problems.
The bottom line is that the further a translation moves from the literal, the more interpretation is taking place, and the less accurate to the original text are the words found in the translation. Let me give you a typical example. Observe the translation of the Greek word sarx in a number of translations. It is important to note that sarx literally means “flesh” and can refer to physical flesh or something spiritual, depending on the context. Compare five versions’ rendering of sarx in Romans 8:9a.
KJV: “But you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
NASB: “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
NIV: “You, however, are controlled not by your sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.”
LB: “But you are not like that. You are controlled by your new nature if you have the Spirit of God living in you.”
Message: “But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourselves than of him.”
Note that the first two translations – both literal in philosophy – translate the word sarx as “flesh,” leaving the interpretation of the word up to the reader. Also, the literal rendering of the sentence produces the sense that if the Holy Spirit dwells in an individual, then they are not in the flesh. In other words, a person cannot be a believer and still be in the flesh. The Christian’s position in Christ is that they are no longer in the flesh. But the NIV translates sarx as “controlled not by your sinful nature.” Not only is one Greek word translated by a phrase, but that phrase changes the meaning of the text. The NIV interpretation would lead us to believe that the issue is one of control, not one of position. It is not, according to the NIV, that we have been set free from the flesh (i.e., we are no longer in the flesh) but that we are not controlled by our sinful nature. A massive amount of interpretation has taken place, and the interpretation actually changes the meaning of the verse from Paul’s intent. The Living Bible rendering goes further, completely removing any idea of the flesh at all. Now we are controlled by our new nature – a concept foreign to the passage. What The Message is doing is anyone’s guess, and quite typical of this paraphrase. The Message’s message is a complete distortion of the text. It is amazing the accolades that this paraphrase has received in the Christian community when it consistently changes the meaning of the Scriptures.
The point is this – the further a translation moves from the philosophy of literalness the less the work is a translation and the more it is an interpretation, and the more untrustworthy it becomes. Dynamic-equivalent versions are usually easier to read and therefore may be helpful to the young Christian and children. They also may prove useful as reference tools and general reading, but for serious Bible study a literal translation is indispensable.
The following chart by Robert Thomas will help us in our selection of translations. It measures the relative deviations of translations from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, i. e., how close are the translations to the original. For Bible study I believe that only the literal translations should be used.
The Church of the Closed Bible
This is the most subtle and insidious of the three areas of concern, and will be the topic of our next paper.
 Robert L. Thomas, How to Choose A Bible Version (Great Britain,: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), p. 96