Scripture revision is a heavy burden with many perils

Whenever one hears of translating the Bible, almost inevitably he thinks of strange words, complicated grammars, queer orthographies, unusual symbols, and exotic idioms. All these are, of course, integral aspects of translating the Word of God. Already in the history of Christendom, at least some portions of the Word of God have been rendered into 1,232 languages, with 236 languages having the entire Bible and 289 others the New Testament. In fact, the Scriptures exist in the languages of at least 97 per cent of the world’s population. Yet the task is far from over, for not only are revisions required in many of these languages but the 3 per cent who as yet have nothing of the Bible in their mother tongue represent more than 1,000 significantly different languages and dialects.

Nevertheless, merely translating the Bible into words is not enough. If the Bible is to be truly the Word of life for people, it must be translated into life. The words must speak to life because they come right out of the people’s lives; they must be “living words.”

Some translators have erroneously thought that they could revise a language and make it significant by looking back into its history and exploiting the rich treasures of archaic language. This is precisely what one translator did in South America; after poring over old seventeenth-century dictionaries, he attempted to enrich his translation with what were really nothing but dead words. As a result, people could not understand the message. Other translators in an attempt to “purify” the language have thought that their translations would be more effective if only they could rid the language of so-called corruptions of borrowing. This is what happened with one translation into Swahili in which the translators, with good intent, but with a failure to understand the essence of a living language, thought that they could eliminate all the Arabic borrowings. This would be almost as ridiculous as trying to translate something into English by using only words with good Anglo-Saxon roots. The result would, of course, be a terrible impoverishment of the language, for already more than half the English vocabulary comes from non-Germanic backgrounds.

On the other hand, some translations tend to be so literal that they introduce quite wrong meanings. For instance, in one language in East Africa the line in Psalm 1:5, “The wicked will not stand in the judgment,” actually meant to the people that the wicked would not be judged; “will not stand” meant that they would not be brought to judgment. In a language in the Orient, the expression “those under the law” meant persons who acted illegally, or in certain contexts “the underworld”—a far cry from what Paul was trying to communicate. On the other hand, some literal translations are simply meaningless; if, for instance, one renders “gird up the loins of your mind” in a word-for-word manner, it is likely to mean nothing more than “put a belt around the hips of your thoughts.”

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If the Word of God is going to speak to people in living words, it must avoid obsolescent and archaic terms and misleading literal renderings. Sometimes the Word of God in strictly contemporary speech may seem quite shocking; but this was certainly true of it in its original form. Note, for example, Acts 8:20, where in contrast with such mild translations as that of the New English Bible, “You and your money … may come to a bad end,” Phillips has correctly translated the Greek as, “To hell with you and your money!”

But even a translation into living words is not enough. Once this has been done, one might say that the real process of translation has only begun, for now this message must be translated into life itself. As Paul said, “You are a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3, RSV). Some persons, of course, do not even care to have the Bible translated into living words, for they prefer the mystery of unknown expressions and exotic symbols. It is so much easier to escape the impact of the Word of God if one can rest in the meaninglessness of beautiful-sounding words that make no demands upon one’s soul. Other persons readily accept a translation of the Word into living words but reject any idea of translating it into life, because living a new life is so much more difficult than mouthing old words.

Nevertheless, there are some who have gone the second step and have translated the Bible into life. Here in the power of the Spirit of God, men and women have learned to live out the implications of the living words.

Don Venancio first heard the Gospel from a traveler along the International Highway leading through Ixmiquilpan, a poverty-stricken area about 150 miles north of Mexico City. This message so gripped him that he wanted to live it out; but the problem was how to do so in this desperately poor and fanatical region where there seemed to be no way to convince men of the love of God and the new life possible through Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, Don Venancio began to share his message of the Word of God with his friends. Scarcely had a small group of believers formed when persecution set in. Finally, however, this little band of believers were able to obtain a deserted hill out on the edge of Ixmiquilpan where they immediately set about constructing a Christian community. Despite intensive persecution and the martyrdom of three of their members, the group has now grown to more than 2,500 persons in some twenty congregations stretching through the arid valleys of this almost desert region of Mexico.

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Preacher In The Red


I received a telegram from the church in which I had served as pastor stating that one of the leading men of the church had passed away. That evening I dictated by telephone a night letter to the bereaved family. Included was the comforting thought based on First Thessalonians 4:13, “Though we sorrow, we sorrow not as those who have no hope.” Having completed it, the telegraph agent repeated it as she had written it, “Though we sorrow, we sorrow not as those who have no pope.”—The Rev. WALTER D. FRIESEN, pastor, Community Church of the Brethren, Raisin City, California.

When Don Venancio was once asked how all this had happened, he said humbly, “We simply believe in redemption.” Then he began to explain how first of all this meant “redemption of one’s hands.” Accordingly, this community of believers had set up new kinds of industry and cooperative enterprises. They had purchased a farm together and developed new techniques of weaving and of making rope. They had actually built a road into one of the neglected valleys where a small group of Christians were anxious to improve their way of life. These people have simply performed miracles in the economic life of the community.

When a government official dealing with the economic rehabilitation of this poverty-stricken area was asked what the government had done for this particular group of believers, the reply was, “We don’t need to help them; in fact, we like to hire them to help others.”

These people however, believe not only in the “redemption of the hands” but also in the “redemption of the body,” for they take seriously the fact of divine healing. One can readily understand the importance of this kind of faith in an area where doctors are very expensive and sometimes completely unavailable. God has performed almost incredible miracles for them. Yet this has not kept them from sending off some of their young people to be trained as nurses, nor from installing a proper drainage and sewer system for their town.

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Redemption also includes the “redemption of the mind,” for adults are taught to read and every member of the church is obligated to teach any other person any skill or trade he might wish to learn. There is an extensive system of apprenticeship, and the church members take pride in their young people who, having gone to school, are now serving the community.

And this redemption also means “redemption of the soul,” that is to say, redemption of the whole man; merely to change occupation and state of health and to develop an intellectual comprehension of the faith is not enough. If the Bible is to be translated into life, as it has been in these churches near Ixmiquilpan, it must include the redemption of the whole of life.

Moreover, if the Word of God is truly to be translated into life, barriers to fellowship must be eliminated. This has been a central theme of a revival that has been going on for some thirty years in East Africa. “Living in the light as He is in the light” has meant “life without ceiling and life without walls”; that is, nothing must separate the individual from God and people from one another. This has meant a kind of transparent living before others, in which people have been willing to admit their sins, make restitution, and find new fellowship through forgiveness.

The real meaning of this revival has been tested time and time again, especially in the periods of severe racial tension that have marked the first few years of life of several new nations in Africa. It is highly significant that in areas where the word of reconciliation has been translated into life, racial tensions have been at a very minimum.

Perhaps the most difficult task any church faces is to evangelize where it is; to translate concern for the world into money donations for missions seems much easier than to translate the command to evangelize into direct meeting with neighbors and friends.

In the Presbyterian Church of southern Taiwan some real attempts have been made to translate the Bible into life. Seminary students are urged to spend the summer in factories where they can evangelize their co-workers. College students in groups of two and three visit nearby villages and towns in programs of saturation evangelism and distribution of the Scriptures. Thriving churches are asked to divide themselves in order to enlarge their witness. This means that some of the best leaders are asked to leave such churches and form nuclei for new churches in unreached communities.

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Perhaps the essential factors in translating the Scriptures into life may be illustrated by the way in which Curipaco Indians dramatically symbolize to their visiting friends from other tribes of southeast Colombia how the Word of God has come to them. While the visiting Indians watch from the edge of the jungle clearing, a former medicine man, dressed in all his regalia and surrounded with his rattles, drums, and fetishes, sings and chants before a huddle of people who watch intently as he “makes magic” over a smoldering fire. Suddenly, an unknown person comes in from the jungle carrying a copy of the Gospel of Mark and reading it as he walks round and round this small group in the center of the clearing. At first, no one pays any attention, but then one after another turns his attention from the medicine man and listens to the words. After a time one man gets up and follows the reader of the Scriptures, and then another, and another. This group of followers break into singing, and soon the medicine man is left alone. Finally, he also gets up and joins those who are following the Word. Then the circle of believers closes in around the fire and as the symbols of the old life are destroyed, the people sing in triumph, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” For some five thousand Curipaco believers, the Word of God has been translated into life.

There is still the need for the highly trained specialist to translate the Bible into words, but an even greater need exists—not only on the mission field but also at home—for common men and women to translate the Bible into life.

Ineffectual Bible Teaching

In the Middle East the results of looking at the Bible from a primarily critical angle are significant. When talking to Muslim and other students in a mission school about Christ or studying the Bible with them to show them the doctrines of sin and grace, I have been asked, “How do you know these verses are true, since our Bible teachers say there are errors in the Bible?” I could go into detail with these students and give them other explanations for these so-called errors. But even though they seem to be seeking God, the “errors” in the Bible give them an excuse to stop. We all cling to our old beliefs as part of our security; these students are no exception.

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The critical presentation of the Bible raises unnecessary problems, and its manner of answering problems already present tends to undermine biblical authority. Therefore, it is detrimental to the goal of extending the Gospel, particularly among Muslims, who hold such a high view of the authority and infallibility of the Koran, or among Jews with their high view of the Old Testament.

One Jewish student was amazed when I told him that the Christian Old Testament was the same as the Torah. He said, “The way it has been taught me, I thought they were two different books.” He admitted being confused about J, E, D, and P, the different Isaiahs, and other material that does not directly inform a non-Christian about the Gospel.

Without arguing about the textual theories mentioned above, I should say that the view of Scripture held by some Bible teachers in Middle Eastern mission schools leads them to present the Scriptures in a highly critical manner that forces emphasis on aspects other than the Gospel. Many of the students are willing to accept the Bible as God’s Word and listen to its message. But the teacher who substitutes critical theories for the inductive quest, which also includes literary and historical scholarship, surprises the students. They interpret this critical teaching as a discrediting of the Christian religion.

According to the testimony of some experienced teachers here, the critical approach to the Bible has not led to a conversion in this school for years. Contrast this with a small Bible class of fifteen students in the same school taught by one who holds the Bible to be truth. Toward the end of the school year, four students volunteered in front of the class (much to the surprise of the teacher) to tell of their new life in Christ. Of course, only time can tell and only God knows their sincerity; but compared to past effects of the formal Bible teaching, this is amazing.

While hearts are seeking for the meaning of life, it is tragic that Bible teaching which should be a witness to future leaders in the Middle East seems so ineffective. It may be too much to say that this ineffective witness is a direct result of the view of inspiration held by the teachers and the critical theories taught by them. Yet the situation seems to show that, until a teacher himself takes the “leap of faith,” accepting the Bible as truth, and until he approaches it as the authoritative Word, he cannot be a fully effective witness to the saving work of Christ.—OTTO HELWEG, Teheran, Iran.

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