Saturday, February 10, 2018
On the Church and Bible Translations
Mark Ward recently published a significant book on the KJV: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. He draws attention to the problems created by the changes in the English language over the past four centuries, as those problems easily lead to misunderstandings of what the KJV is saying. This is often the case even for highly educated people who think they are invulnerable to such misapprehensions.
For about three and a half centuries, the KJV was the Bible for English readers. It was the pew Bible for churches that had pew Bibles. The phraseology of the KJV was often familiar even to those who had not read the Bible much. It was the Bible not only of English-speaking Christians but the Bible of the English-speaking church. The English Revised Version (1885) and the American Standard Version (1901) were intended as updates and replacements of the KJV, but neither made any significant headway either among individual readers or in churches.
Modern English versions began to appear in the early part of the twentieth century. James Moffatt produced a translation that achieved some popularity among Bible aficionados (C. S. Lewis recommended the New Testament of it somewhere, and it remains in print), but it was never intended to be used as a church Bible. Faculty at the Universities of Chicago and Toronto produced a modern English version about the same time as Moffatt, titled The Complete Bible: An American Translation, but it never received any wide use. To my knowledge, it has not been reprinted since the 1940s. It might have worked well as a church Bible, but never was used as such.
The big change began with the publication of the Revised Standard Version in the 1940s and 1950s. The New Testament appeared in 1946, the Old Testament in 1952, and the Apocrypha in 1957. This translation was done under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. It was widely and quickly adopted by mainline Protestant denominations. The church I grew up in (UPCUSA) had RSV pew Bibles, and we were given RSV Bibles in second-grade Sunday school (in 1971, the church gave its graduating high school seniors copies of Good News for Modern Man). The Hymnbook, a hymnal produced as a joint venture by several Presbyterian denominations in 1955, used the RSV text for the Psalms responsive readings that were printed at the back of the hymnal.
Conservative churches continued to use the KJV until the mid-1970s, when the NIV first appeared. The generally conservative tone of the NIV, its relatively easy readability, and its heavy marketing made it quickly the go-to translation for evangelical churches. In the last twenty years or so, things have changed. Crossway got permission to use the RSV as a base text and a translation committee produced the English Standard Version. About the same time, with funding from Lifeway, a translation committee produced the Holman Christian Standard Bible. This has recently been updated as the Christian Standard Bible. It serves as the base text for Sunday School literature for the Southern Baptist Convention. Five of the mainline denominations put together a translation committee that produced the Common English Bible, which is now used as the base text for their liturgical and Sunday school materials. Independent evangelical churches use generic Sunday School material, most of which is keyed to the NIV.
Most churches no longer have pew Bibles. So, the following situation is found in the American church: mainline churches use the NRSV (the 1989 revision of the RSV) or the Common English Bible. Southern Baptists (and perhaps other Baptist conventions) use the Christian Standard Bible. Conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches likely prefer the ESV. Most evangelical churches use the NIV. There is no longer a single Bible translation used by all English speakers. In any given Protestant/Evangelical congregation, there may be five or six different versions being used by the congregants. At some level, this variety of translations can be helpful, as different translations can bring out different nuances of the original languages. But at another level, it is a real loss to the church. We no longer, as it were, speak the same language.