Biblical Translation and Inspiriation
Q: How does the translation process impact the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible?
A: When I was taking my Biblical language classes, professor after professor reminded us of one important truth: All translation is interpretation. Certainly, good translators try to find the closest possible comparisons to the target language but word equivalents don't always exist.
Hebrew and Greek both have verb tenses that don’t exist in English and a few of the words only occur one time in the entire Bible, so the occasional educated guess is also necessary. Still, when teams of people who genuinely want to combine the closest word for word translation with the smoothest possible sentence structure sit down to do their work, it’s hard to fault their results.
Whenever I start immersing myself in any version of Scripture, I can find something I think isn’t quite the best translation possible. However, few wave enough red flags to make me want to translate large sections of the original languages just to check their work. Areas of disagreement usually involve differences in theological presuppositions.
No matter what the religion — or lack thereof — every person holds certain a priori assumptions by which the rest of life is understood. In matters of faith, these may be expressed as the formal principle and the material principle. A formal principle is the sacred texts or other official sources from which doctrine is drawn and by which it is formed. A material principle is the central tenet or doctrine of that belief system.
The material principle is also the lens through which the faithful study their formal principle. The Bible comprises all or part of the formal principle of all Christianity. The formal principle of many parts of the Church combines Scripture with reason, tradition, direct revelation, or the teachings of the Church fathers.
Lutheranism has the Bible alone as its material principle. We believe that all Biblical doctrines are our doctrines and that all of our doctrines are Biblical doctrines. Our material principle is justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Therefore, when Lutherans read the Bible, we read it with the assumption that its primary purpose is to reveal Jesus Christ as mankind’s Savior. This is congruent with Jesus’ own assertation about His place in Scripture: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me. (John 5:39)” This means that Lutheran translators always favor the interpretation of a passage that bears witness to Jesus Christ.
Both to check and to reinforce my understanding, when I’m lesson planning, writing devotions, or preparing sermons, I usually do at least a bit of in-depth original language work. This helps me verify the translation while also allowing the Lord speak to me in the words He first chose to use.
And what effect does all this have on inspiration and inerrancy? The original word was certainly inspired, as we read from 2 Peter 1:21, “Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The Scriptures provide no such “warranty” for transmission through the same language or translation into new tongues.
However, we know when we compare various original language manuscripts with each other that very few contain significant differences from each other. This testifies to the ongoing veracity of textual transmission. Similarly, when we compare various translations with each other and with the original languages, most are in close agreement.
I wouldn’t say categorically that an English language Bible is either inspired or completely inerrant. I will certainly claim that the full, truthful revelation of Jesus Christ is ours to read. Furthermore, I believe that the Holy Spirit uses these translations to create and sustain faith.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Newspaper column #584:2