The words of the LORD are pure words. —Psalm 12:6a

Our Beliefs: Translation

This is the fourth in a series of posts detailing each of our beliefs about the Bible expressed on the Our Beliefs page.

[We believe that] the words of the LORD are pure, and that these pure words are contained in the Received Text, including faithful translations.

In the first three parts of this series, we’ve considered how God originally inspired the scriptures, and how he has preserved those inspired words in purity to the present day in the Received Text. The many ancient copies of the scriptures that exist to testify to this preservation are naturally in ancient languages, which for the most part are no longer spoken by the peoples of the world. This leads us to ask how we can proclaim God’s pure words to the world today. The natural answer is translation, but can translations truly convey God’s inspired words in purity?

Copying vs Translation #

We’ve already considered in part 1 how God commanded his words to be copied, and how this is necessary for both distribution and preservation. Translation serves the same purposes, allowing for God’s words to be distributed to the peoples of the world, and preserving it to each generation as older languages die.

In the most fundamental sense, a translation actually is just a copy, albeit in a different language. If the translation is verbally equivalent, then it says exactly the same thing as the original. Just like a faithful copy, a faithful translation preserves the very same words that God originally inspired, just in a different language.

Of course, many would argue that even granted this theoretical possibility of perfectly verbally equivalent translation, it would not be achievable in practice. During translation meaning can be lost, or mistranslations can occur, especially if the translators don’t have a good grasp of both languages. There is also the real danger of bias creeping in during the translation process, resulting in corrupted renderings. This means that in practice faithful translation would seem less straightforward than faithful copying.

Is Translation Inspired? #

With God though, all things are possible. No believer can doubt that God could produce a perfectly faithful translation of his words, if he chose. His Spirit could certainly guide the translators, helping them to choose the right words.

However, most people simply believe that translation is not inspired, and that that is the end of the matter. But is that really the question?

We are not suggesting that God must entirely re-inspire his words from scratch. Rather, his word is already inspired. All that is needed is for his Spirit to guide the translators as necessary to ensure that a faithful translation is produced. This does not require that the translators be inspired to write each word, since they will already produce a 99% verbally equivalent translation anyway. It only means that God must so guide them so as to achieve 100% perfect verbal equivalency.

The question is not whether translation is inspired, but whether God insures that his inspired words are faithfully translated into new languages. In much the same way, the copying of the scriptures does not have to be inspired in order for a copy to contain the inspired words of God. God has already inspired his words, and the job of a copyist is to faithfully transmit those words from one manuscript to another. God does not need to inspire a copyist in order for the copy to contain his inspired words; it already will if it contains the same words which he originally inspired. There is, of course, the element of human frailty, which suggests that we will not always copy the scriptures perfectly. However, since God has promised to preserve his inspired words, we can trust that he will, through his divine intervention, insure that our imperfections do not result in their corruption.

Likewise, it is unnecessary for God to inspire the translators (in the same sense that he inspired the authors) in order to convey his pure words to each language. His word is already inspired, all that is required is for it to be translated faithfully, so that perfect verbal equivalency is attained. Again, our human frailty might make us doubt the probability of achieving this goal at all times, but we can trust in God’s intervention on our behalf, that his inspired words might be translated in purity from one language to the next.

Those who reject the inspiration of translation may find themselves seeking to dismiss the perfect translation of inspiration as well. But is translation really only the work of men? The Bible teaches that God has placed his Spirit within each believer, to guide us and work through us throughout our lives. Do we suggest then that the Spirit of God will suddenly cease to guide us, only that it might not aid in the translation of the scriptures? Shall we doubt that his Spirit is at work when his people come before him to seek his pure words? Who is there that will argue that the Spirit of God is indifferent to such an action?

Isaiah 59:21 As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.

Ironically, many people seem more ready to believe that the Spirit can reveal truth to them through impure translations, than they are to believe that it can work in the translators to make a pure one. If the Spirit can work in each man on earth to correct an impure text, could it not much more easily work in the hearts of the translators to produce a pure text in the first place? Why must the understanding of the scriptures be through the Spirit, but the translation of them not be? Is not this folly?

What Does The Bible Say About Translation? #

For those who are unconvinced, let us see what else the Bible has to say on this subject. The obvious place to begin is by looking up the term “translate”:

2 Samuel 3:9-10 So do God to Abner, and more also, except, as the LORD hath sworn to David, even so I do to him; To translate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beersheba.

Colossians 1:13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

Hebrews 11:5 By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.

So we see that this term is used 5 times in scripture, though in none of these cases is it in reference to scripture, or even language.

Nonetheless, let us consider the way in which it is used. We observe first that it is used five times, which is the number of divine appointment in scripture. This is not at all surprising, because each time it is used, the translation is by divine appointment: God appointed David to be king instead of Saul; God translates us into Christ’s kingdom; and God translated Enoch.

Note also that the act of translation is in each case bringing the thing translated into a better state. The kingdom of Israel was translated out of the hands of rebellious Saul, to David, the man after God’s own heart; we are translated from the power of darkness into the kingdom of Christ; and Enoch was translated from this earth into heaven.

Does this imply something about the Bible’s translation?

Is God’s Word Accessible to His People? #

To find the answer, let’s dig a little deeper. Consider it this way: does the Bible teach that scripture is accessible to all, or limited to a specific language?

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

In other words, the word of God is accessible.

We know that God has promised to preserve his words to all generations, and we can understand the necessity of this, since it is through his pure words that he preserves the saints. But how can we truly partake of God’s words if they are not pure in our own language? What good is it for God to preserve his words if they are across the sea, or in a language we cannot understand?

But this verse sets the precedent that God does make his word accessible to his people. It is near them, in their mouth (a language they speak), and in their heart (a language they understand). Wherever the saints of God are, he makes his word accessible to them.

Indeed, Paul quotes this very passage to the Gentile church in his epistle to the Romans:

Romans 10:5-9 For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

We see then that Paul proclaimed the word of God to be in the mouth and heart of his people. Yet he is writing this to the Gentiles, to whom the Old Testament was not given in their own language.

We might then tell those who reject the authority of any translations, “Say not in thine heart, ‘Who shall ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring God’s word down from above:) Or, ‘Who shall go across the sea?’ (that is, to resurrect God’s word from a lost manuscript in a dead language.) The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart.”

I quote again Isaiah 59:21:

Isaiah 59:21 As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.

God’s promise was not just to preserve his written words, but his spoken words in the mouth of his people. This requires that God translate his words into the languages spoken by his saints. Without translation, there is no preservation.

And lest some argue that this promise was made only to the Jews, consider that no Jew today speaks Koine Greek, the language claimed as original for most of the New Testament, including the book of Hebrews. Have the words of God then departed out of their mouth with the death of this language? Has God’s promise to his people been broken? In no wise, for God has provided to the church faithful translations of his words, that they may remain in the mouth of Jew and Gentile alike.

Purification by Translation #

Consider again Psalm 12:

Psalms 12:6-7 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

Silver is one of the basic elements. But it is usually found along with trace contamination from other elements, like tin. To purify it, it is heated until it melts. This causes it to completely dissolve from its previous shape, allowing the dross to be removed. Then it hardens again, into another shape. This process may be repeated several times.

What does this have to do with the Bible? If God’s words are like silver, then they are like a basic element. A substance which has properties that cannot be altered. He may form it into different shapes, but the basic substance is still the same, just as silver is still silver after it has been through the furnace. This is a purifying process that results in God’s words being purer in the latter form.

I submit unto you that this process is not unlike translation. When the Bible is translated, it is broken down to its basic, inspired substance. Impurities are removed, and it is formed again in a new shape, a new language. Therefore, far from being a break in the chain of inspiration, translation purifies the words of God, removing man’s words so that all that is left is the inspired substance. This is not to say that all original-language manuscripts are corrupted and must be purified, but that only those which are pure will be chosen for the production of a pure translation. Thus those who have only the translation are given a purer water than if they were to drink from the mixed stream of Greek manuscripts, some of which have been corrupted by the words of men.

The Bible Does Not Deny the Authority of Translations #

The above notwithstanding, there are those who would still argue that the Bible does not say in so many words that translation is inspired, and that therefore no translation has equal authority with the “originals”. But that is at best an argument from silence. In fact, there was ample opportunity to address this issue, particularly to the early church, when so many people of so many languages were coming to Christ. There were translations in many languages; indeed it is possible that the general epistles were originally sent out in multiple languages. This would have been a good time to address the non-authority of translations, if indeed they are not authoritative; and yet we find no such doctrine in scripture.

Let us grant for a moment that translation is not inspired. We now have a simple rule which may be applied to determine whether a manuscript could contain God’s inspired words. If it is not in the original language in which the passage was given, it cannot be inspired. Thus we cannot assert that any text for a passage is inspired until we can determine the original language of that passage. The only way in which we can be absolutely certain of the original language of a passage is if the Bible tells us this information. And the Bible seldom tells us what language passages were originally inspired in.

We could, of course, try to logically deduce the original language of each book. And indeed, for many books this is no difficult task. For others, however, we really must make an educated guess. Think of the book of Hebrews. Was it written in Greek, or Hebrew, or something else? People “go back to the original Greek” for this book, but how do they know that the original was Greek? As I said above, it should be no surprise if many of the general epistles were sent in multiple languages. Consider the writing above Jesus’s cross: it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (Luke 23:28). So we know that at that time, when one was writing something for a wide audience, one put  it in these three languages. (Indeed, there are more ancient Latin Bible manuscripts than there are Greek, although most of them have not been studied due to scholars’ focus on the latter.) Thus it is probable that for some of the New Testament books there was no single “original language”. And the translations must have been equally authoritative, otherwise their inferiority would have been made clear.

We have considered before the importance of inspiration, for it is through his pure words that God preserves and purifies his people. If only the original languages are inspired, everyone must learn those languages to partake of the necessary benefits of inspired scripture. Thus, every Christian must learn at least two languages to read the inspired words of God (ancient Hebrew, and Koine Greek). Yet nowhere does scripture admonish us to do this. And the absence of such an admonition is rather conspicuous, considering that the Old Testament was (at least mostly) originally written in Hebrew, and yet the Gentile church would have spoken only Latin or Greek or other languages. Yet they are not told to learn Hebrew so that they can understand the true words of God. In light of the importance of having pure, inspired scripture, the lack of such an admonition is a very strong argument for the translation of inspiration.

The Translatability of Scripture #

It is often argued that translating scripture naturally causes some of the meaning to be lost. Sometimes one language doesn’t have words with the same precision of meaning as another, for example.

This argument overlooks something: Scripture is inherently translatable. There are many literary devices used in scripture that are naturally translatable, when alternatives would not be.

For example, when the Bible wants to add emphasis to a word, it repeats it. For instance, Christ says “verily, verily” on many occasions. As another example, seraphim are recorded as saying “holy, holy, holy”. Repeating a word in this way naturally draws attention to it in any language, even if that language doesn’t otherwise use such a literary device.

Another example of the translatability of scripture is the poetry which it uses. It is not poetry of sound, but rather of thought. It doesn’t have to rhyme or follow a meter. It is beautiful because of the construction of the thoughts, not just the construction of the words. We all recognize the beauty of the Psalms in English—their poetry was fully translated.

The Bible is also generally redundant. It often repeats a thought with different words. Because of this, one is sure to catch the true meaning, even in a poor translation. If one phrase is poorly rendered, the other will likely be better.

The Bible also repeats many of the phrases which it uses. So if one cannot understand the meaning of a phrase in one location, he can find the meaning from its use elsewhere.

It is as if the Bible was made to be translated.

Indeed, why should we expect the living word of God to be confined to a dead language, like ancient Greek? Figures of speech aside, the relegation of God’s words to a language no longer spoken is contrary to everything the Bible says about itself:

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

God’s word is presented as being quick (lively) and powerful. That is hardly congruous with the idea that it can only be found in an unspoken tongue, out of reach of his people, where it cannot pierce their hearts.

1 Peter 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

God’s word has not perished with an ancient language. It is alive!

In a future series we will consider the available translations in modern languages, in order to determine which are pure, and which are not.




Leave a Reply