Ships Passing in the Night: Bible Translation and the Evangelical Church

Basil Grafas
Wednesday, May 1st 2019
May/Jun 2019

When it comes to Western Protestantism, there are usually a lot of plates spinning. If Zygmunt Bauman is correct (and I think he is), we are living in a “liquid-modern” rather than “postmodern” age. Rapid change is Western society’s only real constant. Despite postmodernist boasts to the contrary, we are still in the grip of modernism—but of a modernism that moves much faster, seeking freedom from anything that slows it down. It is the age of fads, of the star for a day.

That background plays a tremendous role in how evangelicalism continues to change. As many have noted, evangelicalism is not a monolith, a coherent whole, or a thing. It sometimes resembles a loose collection of overlapping identities and interests. As modernism accelerates, the most structured and well-defined outposts of Christian modernism, such as denominations, lose ground to faster-moving Christian entities that are less encumbered by highly defined doctrine, polity, or tradition. The leadership of parachurch bodies in the advance of liquid-modern Christianity is no accident.

We have several problems, however, associated with liquid-modern Christianity. At one end of evangelicalism, we have a progressive embrace of academic disciplines that were themselves children of modernism. Sociology, psychology, history, and linguistics represent four fields that emerged from the modern age. In each case, premodern people, particularly Christians, attempted to answer the same questions addressed by each of these new disciplines, but in different ways. Our problem is not that premodern ways of understanding the Bible and our faith have given way, wholesale, to modern approaches. Our problem is that contemporary Protestants divide over how we approach the Bible and our faith. Modernism becomes another form of Lessing’s “ugly broad ditch” that divides Christianity. Lessing meant to demonstrate the unbridgeable divide between eternal truths and empirical history. Reason, therefore, exists on one side and our beliefs on the other. My point is that Christianity, to include the evangelical Protestant world, divides over whether it follows the lead of modernism or not. This conflict reaches into every aspect of Christian life to include missions.

Contemporary Protestantism, particularly the versions of it that emerged right after World War II, embraced new ways of thinking. Some of these responded to the call of the social sciences. I do not mean that only part of Protestantism accepted the presence of sociology, anthropology, ethnographic studies, and so on. These are now universal disciplines used in every aspect of Christian ministry. What I mean, rather, is that for many, these new disciplines entirely rewrote ministry. Today, for example, it is virtually impossible to distinguish between missiology and anthropology. Just as significantly, the ministry of Bible translation has become an increasingly technical discipline that is dominated by modernist ideas about language, speech pragmatics, semiotics, contextual frames of reference, relevance, and so forth. Bible translators are at home with the ideas of Noam Chomsky, Eugene Nida, C. R. Taber, and E. A. Gutt. The average Christian knows nothing about any of these concepts or people; they are almost entirely foreign to the visible church.

While this may not apply to all translators, it is fair to say that translation in support of missions is fundamentally a modernist enterprise. Modernism pervades every aspect of the translation process. While conservative scholars and church members increasingly attempt to connect what they think and do today with the practices of the historic church, translation agencies and other missions organizations drill down into the tools created in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. That movement determines the hermeneutics used by translators/missionaries and the linguistic theories that drive how words and texts are understood linguistically.

Let’s briefly examine each area. How do missionary translators and missiologists interpret the Bible? First, here is a general observation (I will allow myself that, because subsequent articles will investigate our points more thoroughly and carefully). It is virtually impossible to ascertain a coherent hermeneutic in the vast majority of missiological literature being published today. Much of what passes for biblical rationale amounts to proof-texting, so that it is hard to locate a metanarrative in the text. In other words, the meaning of words or small literary units often appears to cater to cultural, contextual concerns of the reading community at the time, rather than provide bridges that connect these local interpretations to the canonical text, or even simply to what comes immediately before or after the words being translated. Scholars once leaned hard on historical-critical, modernist, secular interpretations of texts. Today, historical criticism is joined by a host of postmodernist readings that often appear to ignore God as the author of Scripture. I will address, as a layman, some of the more technical aspects of translation theory and practice in a future article. Suffice it to say now that missions agencies and missionary translation are firmly entrenched in modernist approaches.

Other Christians, however, are profoundly unsettled by modernism. These are not Luddites who despise science and technology. Many are concerned that as the Western church drifts with the modernist tide, it leaves its roots behind. We can see this in the relatively recent phenomena of evangelical Protestants rejoining Rome or taking the big plunge into Eastern Orthodoxy. For them, the rush into the frenetic world of liquid modernity simply moves them farther and farther away from authentic Christianity.

So, we have one group of Christians reaching forward to a better future with liquid modernity and another group (or groups) seeking to find a way forward by rediscovering their past. To make things more urgent, those who choose the latter are every bit as sophisticated as their translation equivalents. To be more accurate, many of these theological interpreters are persuaded by the practices of the historical church because it, in fact, had a highly sophisticated, nuanced approach to interpretation. In other words, the idea that modernism introduced precision and accuracy into the examination of the Bible is false.

At this point, you might be tempted to think that we are addressing two separate fields: translation and hermeneutics. Many of the translators I know think this is entirely appropriate; so do many of the church leaders and seminarians engaged in biblical studies or theology. In fact, all are wrong if that is what they think. Translators attempt to create translations that speak accurately to people who do not speak Koine Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic as living languages. The criteria for accuracy, however, do not entirely rest on reader responses. Asking whether or not this text has meaning to me here and now is not the only basis for determining the success of a translation. Accurate translation depends on an accurate understanding of what the Bible is actually saying when it speaks.

That invariably forces one to embrace some kind of hermeneutic or abandon it altogether for the modernist regimen of modernist linguists. These generally believe that you read the Bible as you would any other book, and they have their own microscopically precise approach to sounds, parts of words, collections of words, and so on, in order to interpret it. To say the least, this approach has its limits. There is really no way in which translators can avoid discovering meaning without some sort of theological grid that shapes their hermeneutic. The point I am making is that this theological reflection is not built into the toolkit of the average contemporary translator, nor is it part of the normal assessment of a translation’s effectiveness.

The other group of Christians sees the Bible as a coherent whole that is read within the church itself as a theological metanarrative. All of the advocates for an interpretation of the Bible that harmonizes with the practices of the premodern church do not reach the same conclusions as to the Bible’s meaning from text to text. What they do largely agree on, however, is how the book is to be read and thus understood. It involves a way of seeing how the whole informs the parts, how the new informs the old in the light of the resurrection, and how meaning itself may be complex and multifaceted. The Bible, therefore, tells a covenantal story that starts somewhere and moves somewhere. Everything along the way harmonizes with that story and design.

On the other hand, if you read the Bible as being exclusively human, then the parts do not have to fit together, let alone lead somewhere. The problem you may be able to see now is that so many of the liquid-modernist tools that translation utilizes assume just that. This has always been the problem that missionaries and other Christians in the modern world face. We want to take our timeless faith and enhance it with the knowledge and tools we gain along the way. We should ask, however, whether the tools and approaches we glean from modernism are all compatible with the faith given to the saints—or if some contradict or distort it.

Basil Grafas is the pen name for an American missionary working overseas.

Wednesday, May 1st 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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