Trust Your Translation

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One of the most common questions I get asked about any given passage of Scripture is “what does it really say in the Greek/Hebrew?” 99.995% of the time my answer is “just what it says in your translation.”  It is very, very, very, unlikely that your pastor will make a linguistic discovery in the text of the Bible that millennia of scholars, pastors and theologians have missed. And there is no dark conspiracy among translation committees (of major translations) to obscure the text of Scripture. The best advice I can give you is the advice always give those who ask me what the text really says. Trust your translation!

Recently I witnessed an online discussion (that was admirably civil, a rare thing) among a group of people discussing the Trinity, in particular what are the best analogies for the Trinity and the best texts to defend the Trinity.  When it comes to analogies for the Trinity, I don’t think there are any good ones, in fact I have never heard an analogy for the Trinity that isn’t that isn’t actually an illustration of a heretical view of the Trinity.

But when it comes to texts to defend the Trinity there are plenty.  But the thing is that there is no verse that says “the Godhead is made up of 3 persons.”  The best approach is to lay out the texts that affirm the unity of God (Deut 6:4 and James 2:19 immediately come to mind) next to the texts that affirm the divinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The fact is, the Trinity is a revealed truth to be believed, not an equation to be solved. Quite frankly, it is beyond human ability to understand the Trinity in the same way we understand that if 4X = 12 then X = 3.

And there was some good discussion until someone made the claim that the Hebrew word Elohim, the word translated “God” throughout the Old Testament is actually plural, and that the trinity was conceptually revealed 1000s of time in the Old Testament.  And once this claim was made, there was much oohing and ahhing, and those who clung to this claim could not be dissuaded. It was bordering on comical how ardently some, who had never studied Hebrew, defended this “truth.” I could only shake my head and smile.

Every seminary graduate I know has had the same experience in the first couple of weeks in their first Hebrew grammar class. After the class learns the plural endings for Hebrew nouns, some classmate raises his hand and gives voice to what the entire class is thinking. That they, often within a week of learning the Hebrew alphabet, have made a profound theological discovery that has eluded theologians and scholars for 2000 years. That because “Elohim” the word translated as “God” in the Old Testament has a plural ending in fact the Trinity is revealed in the Old Testament.  And then the professor takes the opportunity to blow everyone’s mind and teach them a very basic linguistic concept, the plural of majesty and specifically in Hebrew the majestic ending.  And if the professor is as witty as mine was, he might even say “that’ll preach…but it is wrong,” a phrase we came to hear often in that first semester.

The truth is that we live in a time when linguistic data is widely available, via the internet and Bible software. But being able to find out that a verb is a first person plural hithpiel cohortative is different than knowing what that means, and it is certainly a far cry from knowing Hebrew. Rather than viewing English translations with skepticism, my advice to you is to trust your translation.  And to help you, let me give some further advice.

Read the Preface

We have all wondered why some translations treat certain verses differently.  Almost always it comes down to translation philosophy.  Some translations (like the NASB) place a premium on retaining word order while others (like the ESV) place a higher value on readability. Some (like the NKJV) take a word for word approach (called formal equivalency) while others (like the NIV) take a thought for thought approach (called dynamic equivalency).  All of the information is contained in the preface, it tells you what the guiding principles of the translation committee were.

Trust Your Church

Most churches have a translation they use for everything, for Scripture reading, for preaching, when they observe the Lord’s Table etc. And in most cases (and in every good church) this decision has not been made lightly. Your pastors and elders, who care for your soul and who will give an account to the Lord for their spiritual care of you (Hebrews 13:17) and who desire the best for you, have wrestled through the issues and chosen a Bible translation they believe is best for the people God has entrusted to them.  Whenever someone asks me “what translation should I use” my answer is “the one used in your church’s pulpit.”

Compare Translations

I think that your primary Bible should be a hard copy (I know, but it is beyond the scope of this discussion) of the translation your church uses in the pulpit, but there is tremendous value in comparing how several different translations treat any given verse. And comparison is easy these days, there are plenty of websites like biblehub.com that make it easy (and its free). Whatever nuance is in the Greek is sure to have been brought out one or more of the translations, and taking in the various translations is an effective and safe way to get a richer understanding of the text.

And to be blunt, if every translation since Tyndale has been in basic agreement on a text, that new translational insight you just heard, or read, or thought of yourself is wrong.

Trust the Translators (committees)

Major translations are produced by translation committees, that is groups of men and in some cases women who are bona fide experts in the languages. And while an individual section of Scripture will be initially translated by a single scholar, his (or her) work will then be reviewed by the committee. The committee system ensures that many competent eyes and hands are bent to the work.

And by competent, I mean super competent. I have had the opportunity to meet a few scholars who are translation committee regulars. Every time I met and interacted with one of these men (and the ones I met were all men) I walked away with the feeling, “that must have been the smartest person I ever met.” And I write that as someone who is married to a woman who was formerly a very successful lawyer, whose sister is an ivy league PhD in a hard science and who counted the man who invented the bar code and bar code reader as a friend and professional mentor. That’s not to say that translation committees are infallible by any stretch of the imagination, but they are made up of the best and brightest and they work together to come to a consensus on any translation question.

We, as Christians, all want to understand Scripture more deeply. And there is an exhilaration that comes when a truth of Scripture is suddenly understood in a new or deeper way. But when that exhilaration of discovery is rooted in a new or novel translational insight, no matter the source, alarm bells should be going off. Our default setting ought to be to be skeptical of novelty and to trust our English translation.

 

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.