How much does the Church impact your choice of Bible translations?

We (I) talk a lot about choosing the “right” Bible translation. We talk in terms of formal equivalence, of respecting the words and structure of original languages. We talk in terms of dynamic equivalence, of finding and expressing the thought behind the words of the original texts. We blog about our personal choices, our personalities, our individual preferences and biases for reading the Word of God.

But very few of us talk about how much weight we give in choosing a translation to what our Church uses, officially or informally. Kevin Sam started to touch on it in his post on denominations and translations; Gary Zimmerli has blogged on it, most recently with his “An NASB Man in a NRSV Church” post, the latest in his continuing search for a reason to leave behind his trusty NASB (so far he’s explored and put aside the HCSB, TNIV and ESV… Gary, I share your frustration!).

Certainly there are a lot of people who don’t give a second thought to choosing a translation. They see what their church is using or recommends, find an edition that they like and never look back. Witness the perpetual top sellers of the NIV and (N)KJV translations. Sometimes I wish I had that innocence back!

Does “being a Berean” mean questioning the mode of the text? or just the teaching itself? Should we put our individual preferences ahead of a corporate recommendation? Does that undermine the unity of the body? Is a denomination like the United Methodist Church right or wrong to use the NRSV exclusively to the point that one of its pastors can say the following two thoughts in the same breath:

“[The] NRSV […] gives us one standard version to read together in worship and study [and] removes the barriers multiple translations might create.

“I yearn for the day when United Methodist Christians are biblically literate enough to move beyond one version. I’m not sure that I will see that in my lifetime, though.

Does your primary Bible translation match what your Church uses in the pews? Was that a conscious choice or coincidence? Or do you have a “church Bible”, but use something different for the other 167 hours of the week? Do you sit quietly in your pew during the sermon, mentally switching between the text being spoken and the text you’re reading? Do our individual preferences for translation language and style help unify or fragment the corporate worship of the Church? Can a Church effectively use multiple translations or is it best served by its individual members speaking the same language?

Would I be willing to switch to the NIV for the sake of corporate unity with my church?!?

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  1. Posted December 3, 2007 at 10:32 AM | Permalink

    As much as I enjoy comparing different English versions, I find it difficult to use a different version while sitting in the pew from the version which is being read from the pulpit. My brain just doesn’t handle that very well, and I tend to stop listening to the sermon itself. So I prefer to concentrate on the sermon and do my personal Bible study and version comparisons at home.

  2. Posted December 3, 2007 at 11:28 AM | Permalink

    Sometimes I read the church’s version, sometimes I don’t. The church I’m going to now uses (suprise) the NIV. I usually have another version with me, but there’s no set rule about when I read.

    I think it’s just fine for Gary to say the two comments that he did. Having one church bible is great for public reading, for the very reason Wayne mentions. Having to convert from one translation to another distract some from the sermon. But it’s also good to have some familiarity with several translations, especially for personal study. I assume that by “study” in the first quote, he means public study, in teaching or preaching. Also, I don’t think someone who goes to a church should be locked into one version if they are comfortable following along with their favorite translation.

  3. Posted December 3, 2007 at 12:27 PM | Permalink

    Thanks to both of you for the comments! I recognize that there are many benefits to being familiar with and using different translation styles, and I have many on my shelf at home. However, the angle I’m particularly interested in is whether we, as individual Christians, ought to feel any corporate responsibility to use a common Bible as members in a Church, in the interest of the benefits that Gary’s pastor stated in the first quote, as well as promoting mental engagement during the teaching, as Wayne noted.

    I ran into this last point on Sunday. Our text was from Genesis 45 (we’ve been working through the story of Joseph); in 45:3, the text says that Joseph’s brothers were bahal at seeing him. The NIV translates this as “terrified”, while the REB I was reading translates it as “dumbfounded”. Our pastor went on to explain that this was the same word used to describe an army trembling under attack. At that point I went into a mental tailspin regarding the relative correctness of “dumbfounded” in my text and missed whatever pastor’s next point was. I was not engaged in listening, but in comparing translations. If I had been using an NIV (or even a TNIV), I would have been nonplussed by the explanation and fully engaged with the sermon.

  4. Posted December 3, 2007 at 1:51 PM | Permalink

    Ah, sorry, I didn’t quite catch the angle you were going for. I don’t think we have a responsibility to follow along in a common translation as individuals, though I think that it would make sense because of all the obvious benefits. At the same time if your church has an established translation, and say you are called upon to do some public reading for whatever reason, it should be from the translation that the church uses.

    For example, if you were asked to do a scripture reading as a call to worship, and your Church uses the NIV, then by all means, read from the NIV. When you are sitting in the congregation, following along as the pastor is going through the text, then use whatever translation you want. Of course, using the NIV in this case has obvious benefits. Basically, I think that it would be best for most people to follow along in the same translation, I don’t think there is a responsibility to do so.

    As for your anecdote from this past Sunday, I have certainly been in the same situation. What I try and do (knowing that I get easily distracted) is make a note of it and come back to it after the service for contemplation, so that it won’t detract from the next point. However, it doesn’t always help because I get distracted by…ooh look! something shiny!

  5. Posted December 5, 2007 at 7:27 AM | Permalink

    I appreciate your sympathy, ElShaddai.

    Just a quick comment: One problem I ran into several months ago when I was using the pew Bibles at church was the passage for that Sunday, and I can’t remember what it was since it was so long ago, had what I considered an unusual reading in the NRSV. I immediately started thinking about what that wording meant and how I remembered the reading from other translations. I don’t think I heard the sermon after that. When I got home I immediately took out several other versions to compare them with the NRSV. Now I bring one of my own Bibles to church (UMs are notorious for not bringing their Bibles to church), usually the NASB, and in such a situation I can quickly check to see the difference.

    Innocence? Yes, but I don’t like being tied into a translation I have never really trusted. I think it’s a good thing to have quite a number of translations in the church, just like in our own personal study.

    (Oh, and thanks for pointing out that it was my pastor who made those comments, and not me.)

  6. Posted December 5, 2007 at 8:23 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the additional thoughts, Gary. Obviously I’ve been rolling around with the issue of individual vs. corporate Church life based on my last few posts… if we, individually, can decide that we do or don’t trust a specific translation, I think there’s a real slippery slope there on saying one translation is the truth while another is false witness.

    For example, I often see posts from NASB users that reflect a belief that the NASB is the literal word of God, that because it’s generally accepted as the “most literal” translation, that means it is the same as the originals. It’s not. It, like every other English version, is a translation. We need to either say that all well-intentioned translations contain the truth of the thought and meaning of God’s word, or say that all translations are *not* God’s word and cannot be accepted as authoritative.

    There’s a parallel here to worship styles – if you don’t like contemporary music, do you find another church/service time or do you accept the differences? If you can’t accept the translation that your corporate church is using, what do you do? Moreover, how can you accept that church’s Biblical teaching as authoritative? Do you find a church that accepts “your” translation or accept the differences?

    Does the church have authority over the individual members? or is it just a framework in which individual Christians come together?

    Sorry about the ramble, it’s not aimed at anyone or any comment in particular… just some mid-week thoughts.

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