The Importance of An Approved Translation Of The Bible
A Vital Matter for The Individual
One of the most significant matters for the individual Christian is the Bible that he reads each day. As well as the standard of truth and duty it is a means of grace for him and it will saturate his prayers, warm his spiritual exercises, shape his thinking and inform his discernment and much more. Since, however, he will almost certainly read a translation - the nature, reality and depth of that reception of the Word of God in his life will be dependent in significant measure upon how accurate that translation is. What is more important than our reception of the Word of God by believing what it says and obeying what it commands? As John Owen puts it: 'we are obliged upon the penalty of eternal damnation . . . to receive them, with that subjection of soul which is due to the word of God' (Works 16 p.307, 1968 rpt).
The individual believer may use a 'translation' that only loosely resembles the original, a 'translation' that significantly alters the meaning and obscures or removes the flavour and nuance of the original. In this case the individual cannot possibly experience Scripture in the same way as those that have an accurate translation. If the translators have also deleted portions of the original because they did not believe them to be truly part of the Word of God or significant, then the individual believer cannot have access to all of God's revealed will.
A Vital Matter for the Church
The same practical issues hold true for the visible Church corporately and for any single denomination. It is necessary for a church to have a position on which translation of the Scriptures is the most accurate. Many people say in our own day that we cannot have one translation of the Scriptures in any given language that can deliver a single authoritative Bible and will also fulfil everyone's requirements. There are now many more than 100 versions of the Bible in the English language; so many that it is becoming increasingly difficult to count them. The potential for the individual Christian to be confused and bewildered as a result is significant. Which Bible is correct and authoritative or can any be regarded as such? Each modern version competes aggressively with its rivals by proclaiming its unique and superior qualities. The reader might well think to themselves that there is always a new, improved and more appealing (partly because it will be new) version which will shortly succeed any promising new translation. Everyone chooses the Bible translation that suits their preferences and taste. This idea, however, undermines the very nature and purpose of the Scriptures.
An Issue of Fundamental Importance
If a church cannot determine for itself the most accurate translation of the Scriptures and recommend such to its people – what questions will it be able to address? Any decisions that it makes must come from Scripture and will the trumpet not give an uncertain sound when there is no agreement on the final authority to which appeal is made? Scripture is 'The supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined' (WCF 1:10). The opening section of the Westminster Confession of Faith emphasises that God has entrusted the Scriptures to the Church, in order to ‘declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world’. The whole purpose of the written word was as the Puritan John Flavel has put it, 'that the church to the end of the world might have a sure, known, standing-rule, to try and judge all things by, and not be left to the uncertainty of traditions, John 5:39'. A sure, known, standing rule requires one, accurate translation. The purpose of God in delivering the Bible to the Church is otherwise utterly undermined by the multiplication of translations in a language. When the Church allows doubt and serious confusion as to what Scripture constitutes and how it is to be rendered, however, it must be driven about by every wind and wave rather than being steadfastly established and strengthened by the unshakeable foundation of the Scriptures. English-speaking churches and believers need an accurate standard translation that they can appeal to and share as the fixed rule of faith of the true religion.
A Precious Deposit to Guard
God has given the Word of God to the Church as the deposit which it is privileged to guard in all generations (I Tim. 6:20; Acts 7:38; Romans 3:2, 9:4). Isaiah 59:21 outlines this promise and privilege: ‘My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth shall not depart out of thy mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed , saith the LORD from henceforth and for ever’. The Westminster Confession reflects this in acknowledging that unto the 'catholick visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world' (WCF 25:3). The Word is a precious deposit to guard and keep, it is the duty of its office-bearers to be ‘holding fast the faithful word’ (Titus 1:9, I Tim. 1:3-5 &18-20, ch.4:7&14, ch.5:21, ch.6:12-14, II Tim. 1:13&14, ch.2:15, ch.3:14-16, ch.4:15). Is the Church truly guarding this precious deposit faithfully if it does not separate the precious from the vile by warning against translations that corrupt the Word of God and commending the most accurate? If a church allows a variety of translations to be used, it is devaluing the gold standard of the Word. Surely nothing can be more destructive to the authority of the Bible than for the opinion to prevail that they cannot have adequate access to the Scriptures because of the wide variety of different versions in use. Matthew 13:52 uses the word 'treasure' that for the Scriptures; the Greek word is 'thesauros', which means a treasury of knowledge. If, however, Scripture is not accurately translated and some parts are omitted, the value of that treasury has been diminished for making the believer 'throughly furnished unto every good work'.
An Issue of Unity
There is nothing more central to the life of the Church than the Scriptures. One minister in a denomination preaches from one verse in the Bible which another in the same denomination could never preach from since it is not in his Bible at all. Let us suppose also that the congregation to which the first minister preaches use a version which omits his text – something that can only create serious confusion and seriously diminish the reception of God's Word. Even if it is simply a difference in wording – the disparity creates confusion and doubt. Thus it is plain that unity on so basic a principle does not properly exist within that denomination. If we cannot agree about what Scripture says and how Scripture should be translated how can we have agreement in doctrine and the practical application of the scriptures? If an open question can be permitted on so crucial a matter how many more fundamental issues will likewise be 'fudged'?
Once the highest court of a Church has approved the best translation for use within its bounds, however, the disputes that can arise at congregational level are avoided. It is necessary 'that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment' (1 Cor. 1:10). The biblical principle of church unity is 'Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing' (Phil. 3:16). The word 'rule' is the Greek word 'kanon' which means an instrument of measurement; it is the same word that came to be used of the totality of Scripture. It is the only rule of faith and practice; the rule must be the same or the Church cannot walk in unity.
Uniformity in Worship
When the Church gathers for worship it expresses that unity. A single translation creates a uniformity in worship which is one part of communion. Particular churches in different locations cannot gather together at all times but they can express their unity by having a uniformity of worship. The apostle Paul in his epistles to the Corinthians seeks frequently to restore them to uniformity with the rest of the Church in their worship especially in I Corinthians chapters 11-14. This is because 'God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints', therefore, 'Let all things be done decently, and in order' (1 Corinthians 14:33 and 40). Uniformity in worship is especially desirable, as the generation of the Westminster Assembly well understood in covenanting to bring the Churches of the British Isles into the nearest conjunction and uniformity' in 'doctrine, worship, discipline and government'.
The Westminster Confession states that the Scriptures 'are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation into which they come, that the word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the scriptures, may have hope'. Worship which is conducted decently and in order and in an acceptable manner will be worship where there is unity. Since everything that is done in worship must be drawn from and according to Scripture, it is very necessary to establish one translation to be used in order to attain to uniformity in anything else. As Thomas McCrie wrote, pluriformity rather than uniformity in religion is 'utterly eversive of a religion founded on the unity of the divine nature and will, and on a revelation which teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty he requires of us'.
The Duty of Testifying to the Scriptures
The Westminster Confession of Faith asserts that 'The authority of the holy scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, (who is truth itself,) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God' (WCF 1:4). It also, however, maintains that in a secondary way, 'We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverend esteem of the holy scripture' (WCF 1:4). It is the Church's role and duty to testify to the Scriptures: 'the church of the living God' is 'the pillar and ground of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15). The Church's Commission from her only Head and Lord requires 'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations...teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you' (Matt.28:19-20). Christ's appointed messengers must teach all nations to observe all things whatsoever he has commanded, that is to say the whole revealed will of God. Identifying and approving the best translation of the Scriptures in a language is one clear way of making this testimony.
At the present time, this role of the Church is undermined by large publishing houses who profit from marketing the Scriptures like any other commodity. Publishers have everything to gain by commissioning a new English translation of the Bible. It is their royal road to getting a slice of the market for ‘the world’s best seller’ and their only real way of cornering the market through a copyright monopoly on one particular version.
Individuals have also taken to themselves the initiative to translate the Bible on their own, whereas the Church ought to lead in this area. There are so many new translations because there are so many varying ideas about what a translation should include. When the Authorised Version (or King James Version) was being prepared, Bishop Bancroft of London (appointed by the king to oversee the translation work) remarked that 'If every man's humour should be followed, there would be no end of translating.'
The Authorised Version has had explicit and implicit Church sanction over many hundreds of years in various countries. It was the version used to support the documents of the Westminster Assembly both in their wording and in their proof texts, and so Presbyterian Churches claiming to hold to these standards ought to acknowledge the Authorised Version appropriately. It is significant that the Geneva Bible was last printed in 1644, at the time of the Westminster Assembly, and even before that time it was not printed very often. Any new translation has the problem of competing with this heritage and with achieving general acceptance throughout the English-speaking world. There is too much disunity and lack of agreement amongst churches to be able to produce a universally accepted Bible version. It is also a time of declension and therefore not the best time for achieving such a high goal. The Authorised Version is one unique link that holds together millions of Christians in various churches throughout the world today. It would be foolish to endanger this.
The Requirements of the Westminster Standards
The attitude of the Westminster Assembly to this point is made clear in the Directory for Public Worship where they require that the Scriptures ‘shall be publicly read in the vulgar tongue, out of the best allowed translation’. A Church ought therefore to identify which is the best translation and to give that its sanction and approval (which is what the Directory means by an 'allowed' translation). A translation in the English language is quite simply, what the Westminster Divines intended in the Westminster Confession of Faith when it states that ‘because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto and interest in the scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation into which they come’. Contrary to the mistaken meaning that some have put upon it, the term ‘vulgar’ does not denote popular, common or low-standard: it is used in the common sense of national languages rather than Latin or other classical languages, national vernaculars were generally known as 'vulgar tongues'. There is no need therefore to depart from the Authorised Version in favour of modern versions that purport to reflect contemporary English idiom. Any Presbyterian Church that professes to take the Westminster Standards as their doctrinal constitution without reserve or qualification is also required by the principles outlined in the Standards to approving a particular translation.
As we have noted, the first section of the first chapter of the Confession of Faith teaches that God has one revealed will which has been committed to writing. It is the Church’s duty to acknowledge this by approving the best translation in a particular language. The Westminster Confession also asserts that 'the authority of the holy Scripture' is that 'for which it ought be believed upon and obeyed'. To undermine the authority of the Scriptures is therefore a very solemn matter. That authority may be undermined not simply by multiplying translations of it but by clouding the internal marks of its authority. Scripture evidences itself to be the word of God by various characteristics which it possesses. The Westminster Confession lists these as 'the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, (which is to give all glory to God,) the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof'.
These intrinsic marks of authority must not be obscured in translation. If a translation obscures the majesty of the style of the original and debases its sacred character by paraphrasing it in altogether different wording, there are serious consequences. John Calvin wrote: 'we ought to know that whatever power, majesty, and glory there is in God, so shines forth in his word, that he does not appear as God, except his word remains safe and uncorrupted' (John Calvin commentary on Jer 20:7). Calvin, favoured essentially preserving the word order in order to convey the majesty of the Scriptures (T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Grand Rapids, 1971, p.102). He was convinced that, ‘the force of the truth of Sacred Scripture is manifestly too powerful to need the art of words’ (Institutes, I.viii.1).
The doctrine of verbal inspiration requires faithful translation of all the words of every book of Scripture: 'all which are given by inspiration of God' (WCF 1:2). Indeed the Confession uses the phrase 'immediately inspired by God', which means that the words were received directly from the Holy Spirit. One of the Westminster divines Samuel Rutherford speaks of the biblical writers writing under the 'immediate action, impulsion, and inspiration of the Holy Spirit'. Every word was received from the Holy Spirit. Yet many modern versions leave certain words untranslated because they believe them unnecessary even though the Holy Spirit deemed them essential. This is true even of modern versions that profess to be more literal such as the NKJV and the ESV. Other versions such as the NIV use a mode of translating which does not seek to translate word for word from the original but rather 'thought for thought'. This approach is inconsistent with the fact that every word of the original and not simply the thoughts has been inspired.
There is also a large amount of interpretation required on the part of the translator in order to determine what was the original thought behind the words of Scripture. In this case one possible interpretation is often translated in such a way as to make it the only possible interpretation for the reader. This approach therefore undermines the clarity of perspicuity of Scripture: 'those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them' (WCF 1:7). The thought for thought approach to translation treats Scripture as essentially unclear to the general reader and proceeds to rewrite it for them. It assumes that God could not have delivered the Scriptures in such a way that they can be understood sufficiently by all cultures and generations through 'a due use of the ordinary means'.
The method of rewriting the Scriptures that has been adopted in modern versions also endangers the sufficiency of the Scriptures. 'The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life' is set down in Scripture either expressly or in principles (WCF 1:6). Not every truth is repeated in numerous passages throughout the Bible; this is particularly true of truths that have a practical importance. It only takes mistranslation to occur in a single passage and the truth can be confused, distorted or removed entirely. In 1 Thessalonians 4:12 rather than 'that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without' (AV) the NIV renders 'that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders'. It should be clear to anyone that this is a step removed from accurate translation. It is also possible, however, to win respect without walking honestly and so the thrust of the requirement has really been removed. The word 'sodomite' is consistently translated 'perverted one' in many modern versions including the NKJV. This confuses and obscures what would otherwise be a clear reference to homosexual practice. The Scriptures should not be translated in a way that weakens the harmony of the whole counsel of God.
Serious problems arise when a particular interpretation of the original is imposed upon the text in translation without acknowledging the alternative possibilities. This is much more of a problem when the interpretation imposed on the text contradicts the clear teaching of Scriptures as a whole. 'The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly' (WCF 1:9). In Revelation 19:8 all modern versions, including the ESV and NKJV speak of 'righteous deeds' or 'acts' rather than 'righteousness' (AV). It is clear, however, from the rest of Scripture that at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb the Church will not be clothed in her own righteousness but the imputed and imparted righteousness of Christ. Hence the verse says 'to her was granted' to wear this righteousness. The NKJV, like other modern versions, also renders James 5:16 'Confess your trespasses to one another' – the word trespasses should be translated 'faults' as with the AV. The idea of confessing sins is not only unfounded from the Greek but also lends support to the Roman Catholic practice of confession to a priest. The modern tendency is to narrow the range of possibilities in interpretation, for instance the NKJV uses the word 'prunes' rather than 'purgeth' in John 15:2. The latter is much closer to the original and also allows several possible means of purging. In the Song of Solomon, the New King James discourages Christological interpretation with its headings that divide the text; these also impose a rigid structure as to who is speaking the different words. There can also be a danger from interpretive page headings introduced by the translators to summarise the chapters. For instance the NKJV has 'Free from indwelling sin' above Romans 7 and 8 which makes it seem as though the believer should expect sinless perfection.
The Larger Catechism outlines the extreme carefulness that we should adopt with respect to Scripture in relation to the Third Commandment. This commandment requires that 'the name of God, his titles, attributes, ordinances, the word . . . his works, and whatsoever else there is whereby he makes himself known, be holily and reverently used'. It forbids 'any way perverting the word, or any part of it' (Questions 113-14). This requires carefulness with not only the word of God but also His name and titles and anything whereby He makes Himself known. Strict accuracy to the original inspired text demands the use of thee and thou to distinguish references to the singular from the plural. This helps to interpret the Word aright. There is also a theological principle at stake here, however. God is always revealed as one God in Scripture, the second person singular 'thou', 'thee', 'thy' or 'thine' is only ever used in reference to Him and through careful reverence and faithful accuracy we must respect this. When the plural form you is used there is a lack of reverential faithfulness in relation to God's name and self-revelation and a confusion. It is entirely inappropriate. This closes in a Church that professes the Westminster Standards to the only translation that uses 'thee' and 'thou' to distinguish from 'you'.
The Westminster Confession emphasises that the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture have been specially preserved by God's providence. 'The Old Testament in Hebrew, (which was the native language of the people of God of old,) and the New Testament in Greek, (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations,) being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them'.
Note how the Confession emphasises 'in all ages'. The claim of biblical criticism is that manuscripts discovered over the past 150 years which were not used or available to the Church in the preceeding 1500 years are more authentic than the standard text (often called the Received Text) which form the vast majority of available manuscripts which the Westminster Assembly spoke of as having been kept pure in all ages. This text is witnessed to by the general consensus of the Church in each generation. God has preserved the Scriptures down through the ages for the salvation of men and the edification and comfort of His church, not buried away secretly but publicly in the usage of His Church. It is significant that Isaiah 59:21 speaks of the Church's continuous possession of the Word, this verse is, as John Owen, put it, 'the great charter of the Church's preservation of truth'. Any close consideration of the following verses will show that the providential preservation taught in relation to the Word of God extends beyond its doctrines to all of its words. Every word of the Scriptures as originally given was fully inspired of God and in the same way every word preserved by God is also fully inspired (See Matt. 5:18; Matt. 24:35; Matt 28:20; Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17; Luke 21:33; 1 Cor 11:23; 1 Pet 1:25; Rev 22:18-19).
Any Church that holds fully to the teaching of the Westminster Confession must recognise that the Bible teaches the full of providential preservation of the text of Scripture . Not least because various parts of the wording and teaching of the Westminster Standards depend on verses that are only in the Received Text and have therefore been omitted in most modern versions (e.g. Matt. 6:13, 1 John 5:7). They can only therefore allow and approve the use of a translation which is based on the providentially preserved text. Only the Authorised Version follows the divinely preserved text completely however. Even the New King James Version, which claims to be based upon the same text as the AV, departs from the Received Text in over 1200 places. It also undermines the true text by printing all the textual variants in its margin giving as its reason that the reader can now select the 'true' reading for themselves. This is only likely to create serious confusion and doubt – on what basis should such selection be made and with what resources can the individual reader judge for themselves? Only the AV is a safe guide and faithful to the deposit of truth received of God.
The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
In view of these requirements, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland believes that it is important to assert, maintain and defend the best translation available in the English language. In 1961 the Synod passed a resolution which continues to express the Church's position. The Synod 'states its firm conviction that the Authorised Version is the best and most faithful translation of the Word of God to be found in the English language'. This then is the only English translation that is used in the public worship of the Church and recommended by the Church for family and private use.