The time has come for each congregation to center its life on one version.
Inerrancy is an important issue today, but so far as the Bible and the life of the church are concerned, it is not the foremost issue. Inerrancy has to do with what we think and say about the Bible. The deeper issue is how we use the Bible.
There are reasons to question the kind of use the Bible is put to in churches today. A recent Gallup poll pointed to serious biblical illiteracy even among church members, in spite of the evangelical resurgence in recent years, and Scripture memorization has become a lost art. The plethora of Bible translations into English—approximately 70 of all or parts of the Bible in this century—may only have nourished a spirit of novelty among us, making us samplers rather than searchers.
If a church is to use the Bible systematically, it must center its whole life—preaching, teaching, family, and personal devotions—upon one major version, because repetition aids learning. Moreover, a congregation working from a Bible common to both pulpit and pew receives the message by the eye gate as well as the ear gate, providing another aid to understanding.
At present, it appears the foremost contenders for that one version are the Revised Standard Version, sold widely on this continent for 30 years, and the New International Version, which is already second in volume of sales even though it has been on the market only three years.
With this question of usability in mind, my wife and I read from both versions daily for more than two years, she from the rsv, I from the niv. We tested them for clarity and savored their diction. The niv won hands down. Before telling you why, let me share something of my history so you can judge the evenhandedness of my judgment.
I was a college pastor during the sixties. The social upheaval of that decade affected Christian youth to the point where they found the church irrelevant. With rock music coming on, they said the old hymns were tired, and when they found church prayers archaic, I pinned from my own all the “thee’s” and “thou’s.” When they dismissed the King James Version for its musriness, I began to search for the right replacement.
The RSV seemed most suited, so I switched to it, even though at the time there was widespread resistance to this version among conservative Christians—largely for political reasons. But when I read it from the pulpit, older members of the congregation were arrested by the fresh sounds, though they were still unwilling to give up their KJV’s. The college students, however, began bringing rsv’s to church.
When the niv was published nearly 20 years later, it was represented by some as an “evangelical” Bible. I wondered if any faithful translation needed that label, for it seemed to introduce another unnecessary political note.
Even so, I continued to believe that one version should be at the center of the worship life of a congregation. The stately King James had been that version for more than 300 years, but, despite the loyalty of many readers and its elevated position in the history of English literature, it was no longer qualified to fill that role.
With what must seem like cruelty to its devotees, C. S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock: “The Authorized Version has ceased to be a good (that is, clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamor which has made it (in the superficial sense) so ‘beautiful,’ so ‘sacred,’ so ‘comforting,’ so ‘inspiring,’ has also made it in many places unintelligible.” He penned that opinion nearly 40 years ago.
In reading aloud, my wife and I discovered that the words of C. S. Lewis were somewhat true of the rsv also. We had not expected this. By contrast, the niv, though not elegant, was set down in quality, utilitarian English.
For example, Judges 7:12b reads in the RSV: “and their camels were without number, as the sand which is upon the seashore for multitude.” The niv says: “Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore.” Which would be clearer to a class of today’s high school students?
The Niv also came out ahead in its use of contemporary idioms. The RSV translates Leviticus 12:2a: “If a woman conceives, and bears a male child …” Imagine receiving a birth announcement from friends saying they are the proud parents of a male child! The ntv reads: “a woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son …” The NRV’s forte is clarity, but in places it also ignites the imagination. In the RSV, Jeremiah 2:25 reads: “Keep your feet from going unshod and your throat from thirst. But you said, ‘It is hopeless, for I have loved strangers, and after them I will go.’ ” The NIV says: “Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, ‘It’s no use! I love foreign gods and I must go after them.’ ” Even the exclamation mark adds force.
The New Testament of the niv does not seem to achieve quite the rhythm and flow of the Old Testament. And I am personally bothered, even when reading aloud, by the freedom the niv takes in translating the word sarx (flesh). In one place, “fleshly” is translated “worldly”; in another place, “fleshly” is translated “sinful nature.” Such interpretation should have been left to the preachers. Yet the overall effect, strengthened by the excellence of the publisher’s art, is that the niv tops the rsv handily.
You may not agree, or you may argue that the choice is much wider than I allow. Either way, I hope you agree that the time has come for congregations to form their life around one major version until its great words fix themselves in the minds and hearts of worshipers of all ages.
Bishop Bastian has been a member of the Board of Bishops of the Free Methodist Church of North America since 1974. He lives in Toronto, and is the author of The Mature Church Member and Belonging! Adventures in Church Membership (Light and Life, 1972, 1980).
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