A few weeks ago I ruminated on why the idea of a “plain” reading of Scipture might not be as “plain” as we wish it was. You might want to go back and read the post, Why Nothing is as Plain as it Seems, before you jump into today’s post. While, they do not necessarily go hand in hand, it would probably be worth your while to set the stage.
I had not intended this to be a two part post or series, but a recent post by one of my favorite biblical scholars reminded me of another important element to this discussion. Scot McKnight floated the idea in his post, Your Bible and its Tribe, that whatever Bible translation your denomination or community chooses to use often serves as a uniting force within the community. Those translations also reflect theological preferences within the community and can also cause some divisiveness amongst people who prefer differing translations.
At the heart of his post is the basic idea that the various translations of Bibles that are out there are exactly that…translations. The Bibles that we read for study or in a worship service are a careful selection of English words chosen by very intelligent scholars to stand in for the original languages for the benefit of those who are not trained to read ancient Koine Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. I am eternally grateful for such scholars who, even though I have taken some classes in Greek and Hebrew, they know far more about those languages and can actually present intelligible and readable English versions for our benefit.
We, as English speakers and readers, depend on such scholars to actually inform us what they understand the Bible to be saying so that we can have the opportunity to read and understand as well.
But, that does not mean that reading the Bible is as plain as it seems.
Our well meaning Bible studies work thusly. We read a translation of what a well informed scholar understands the original languages to be saying in English. We then form our own understandings from that translation and share with others what we think the scholars have told us they think about what the original languages are saying.
Sorry, that last sentence was a little confusing.
Honestly…I meant it to be confusing.
Here’s what you need to pull out of the confusion. Realize that your interpretations of the Scripture you are reading are informed and based on the interpretations of scholars.
If you need an example, let’s turn to one of the more hotly debated passages and one that would actually inform our theology and belief. Philippians 3:9 is basically translated in one of two ways depending on what version you read. Let’s see what some of the current popular translations do with Philippians 3:9.
- NIV: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
- KJV: “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:”
- NASB: “and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,”
- CEB: “and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.”
- ESV: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith:”
As you can see, the various translators have a bit of a issue here deciding between “faith in Christ” and “faith of Christ.” Is our righteousness before God determined because of OUR faith in Christ or is it determined because of Christ’s faithfulness? Does our faith make the difference, or does Christ’s faithfulness make the difference for us?
Plain and simple, right?
Now, some of you are going to ask a very valid question. That question probably goes something like, “What about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?” Should not that lead us to some agreement or valid interpretation?
I agree that the influence of the Holy Spirit on our lives and reading of Scripture is invaluable. But, realize that the translators are working from a similar understanding. We probably also trust that the translators are also working from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in their translations as much as from our reading.
Yet, we still come up with different translations.
Yet, we still have different interpretations of Scripture.
Let’s all realize that our “plain” reading of Scripture is dependent on a lot more than just reading what is on the page. Our “plain” readings are informed by the reading and translation of a scholar, it is informed by the translation we choose, it is informed by the translation used in our churches, it is informed by the sermons we hear, it is informed by our lives and it is informed by the inspiration Holy Spirit.
Do we need “faith in Christ” or do we need the “faith of Christ”?
Wherever you land on that, as I said in my last post, we would do well to exercise more humility in our reading, discussion and interpretation of Scripture. Things may not be as plain as they seem to us.
Why do you use the Bible translation(s) you use? Do you stick to the translation, traditions and interpretations of your “tribe?” Why or why not? Do you feel differently knowing that your English Bible translation is based on the interpretations of scholars? What do you think about the differing translations of Philippians 3:9?