Publication: Pastoral Letter, May 2002
Dear Friend in Christ:
I pray this letter finds you and yours doing well. In my last letter to you, I described how the fear of offending has affected the way in which we tell, or do not tell the truth. That politically correct mindset has affected the Church, and muted its prophetic voice. I contrasted that approach with Jesus’ approach, as He often deliberately gave “hard sayings” in order to test the insincere.
There is one issue even more serious than how the Church handles its fear of offense; it is how we handle the Word of God, which is the foundation of Kingdom culture. Have we reached a point where the process of “editing God” is occurring? It happens on two fronts: One is editing by selective teaching which ignores unpopular truth; the other is actually tampering with the Bible translation to suit an agenda.
When I was in seminary in the 1960s, there was serious controversy among liberals and conservatives over the Revised Standard Version published by Thomas Nelson (New Testament in 1946, and Old Testament in 1952) under the auspices of the National Council of Churches. Conservatives argued that the RSV weakened the original meaning.
One of my professors was Dr. Kyle Yates; he was a fine Hebrew scholar and Christian gentleman. He taught my wife, Carolyn, and I in a course on the book of Isaiah. He believed the Bible to be inspired. It so happened that Dr. Yates was also on the Old Testament committee that translated the RSV.
In one of Dr. Yates’ lectures that included the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, he stated that when the Old Testament RSV was completed, though he was on the committee that translated it, he could not endorse it. The reason was that the RSV weakened the original text. He said that when given a choice of interpretations, the overall committee chose the weaker one.
Dr. Yates gave an example of this practice in their translation of Isaiah 7:14. The King James Version says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” The RSV says “Behold a young woman shall conceive.” It is true that the original Hebrew word could be used both ways_though in those days a young woman was expected to be a virgin. But why use a weaker word which lowered that standard concerning the Virgin Birth of Christ? The answer I believe is that it fit the liberal agenda_to generally assault the vital doctrine of the Virgin Birth.
Jesus was serious about the unchanging nature of the Word of God. He said, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of one letter to fail” (see Luke 16:17).
Psalm 119 gives us 176 verses, each one about the Word of God. Verse 89 says, “Thy word is forever settled in heaven” (or “stands firm” in the New American Standard Version). Verse 161 says, “My heart stands in awe of Thy words.”
Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), and Revelation 22:18-19 warns us against adding to or taking from the words of that Book. Jesus Himself is called the “Word of God” and is the “Word made flesh.”
The connection between Jesus the Eternal Word, and the written Word, is too deep a mystery for me to expound upon. However, I know enough to be reverent in my approach to the written Word and worshipful in my approach to the Eternal Word of God made flesh. My approach to one most powerfully affects my approach to the other. Would I edit the Word of God?
In recent decades, theologians and translators have felt more free to “modernize” the Holy Scriptures. We have had a plethora of paraphrases and translations. These efforts seem to make the Bible more accessible to our Western culture. And there have been some real benefits. Some have read the Bible who would not have. Does that mean that modern translations have had a greater impact on our churches and culture? I don’t think so.
Translating is a most difficult task. Sometimes it is impossible because two languages will not share the same concepts. There might be no English word for a specific word, like the Hebrew word “chesed.” There is not even an agreed upon spelling of the word. However, one can admire the efforts of a devoted scholar who attempts to bring the riches of biblical inspiration into another language and culture. The results will be profoundly positive.
But what about the translator who tries to keep up with a shifting language such as American English, and the shifting agendas of American political movements such as feminism? What about the task of including vulgarities and slang? Will pandering add to biblical power? Accommodation to culture takes us a long way from the eternal unchanging Word of the Sovereign God.
The New International Version is the most popular version among Evangelicals. I used the NIV for several years until a close friend and scholar challenged me concerning its accuracy. After realizing that I had preached a series of messages based upon an inaccurate rendering of a particular text_because I had not compared it to others, I quit using it for my pulpit purposes. I did so with regret because it was so easy to read.
Now the International Bible Society and Zondervan are giving us Today’s New International Version. The original NIV is not that old. Why a new one? The primary issue seems to be a move toward “gender neutrality” as well as readability.
The brochure for TNIV says, “more than 70% of the changes were not related to gender.” In other words nearly 30% of the changes are related to gender.
The brochure goes on to say, “The English language is always changing. As a result we must continue the work of translation to guarantee that the Bible is accurately communicated in the language of today. We firmly believe that everyone should have access to the transforming power of God’s Word in language they can understand and relate to” (Dr. Ronald Youngblood).
Perhaps the last phrase “relate to” explains the motive. The TNIV is an effort to relate to today’s language and reader. In the TNIV, “he” became “they” or “them”. Male specific words are translated gender neutral.
In 1997, the International Bible Society agreed to abandon all plans for gender-related changes in future editions of the NIV. It appears that they have broken that agreement. And one rightfully wonders how many more changes await us in future efforts to relate to changing American culture.
A long list of prominent biblical scholars issued a statement of non-endorsement of the TNIV and cited over 100 errors in translation. Many of the errors were unrelated to gender neutrality. My guess is that many other leaders will applaud the TNIV, especially those who have already determined to accommodate the feminist agenda. The Church is moving toward feminization. And, when it comes to being involved in the Church these days, the overwhelming majority of young men just don’t go and don’t care.
The primary issue is not our posture on gender issues or cultural relevance. The primary issue is what is our posture on the Word of God. The posture of Jesus seems clear. He could not be accused of accommodating the culture that crucified Him. There is no doubt that He loved the world, but loving the world never meant accommodating it. His message was the kingdom of God, not the “kingdom of man”_whoops, “kingdom of them.”
I have often had to rethink my classification as regards to a group, denomination, or label. I am not comfortable with labels, though not critical of those who wear them proudly. My posture is simple. I believe that the Bible is the Word of God and Guide to faith and practice_whatever that makes me.
Many Evangelicals and Charismatics are soft on classical theology and practice. In my view, they yield to the shifting winds of Western culture. I am not a believer in spiritual gifts because it is popular, but because it is biblical. I am not a believer in God’s Sovereignty and Christ’s Divinity because it is culturally acceptable, but because it is biblical.
I do not even view my experience as the arbiter of truth. I am capable of being deceived at some point. I view the “forever settled Word of God” as the final and faithful arbiter of truth.
Tradition can be useful as a counselor but we have no tradition which can unfold the future to us. But the Word of God can, as we search the Scriptures in the light of the Holy Spirit.
I have written this monthly ministry letter to my friends for many years. Seldom have I used these occasions to point out a flaw in the efforts of my Christian brothers. Others have done so to me, and I understand the sting of criticism.
I write this in the spirit of love and concern for my fellow servants. However, I have an even deeper concern that we not “prejudice the compass,” or give occasion to those who might yield to the temptation to accommodate a theology or ecclesiology which would distort the Church, and turn it into a reflection of our distorted Western culture.
Please continue to make all of this a matter of prayer, as I will. And, our prayers are also for you in these days, as you seek to do the will of God in your life. Thanks for your friendship to this ministry, and we sincerely ask that you would continue to keep us in your prayers and in your giving. May the Lord bless you and yours today and always!
Scripture Reference: Isaiah, Luke, Psalms, 2 Timothy
Charles Simpson is an internationally-known author, Bible teacher, and pastor, serving in ministry since 1955. He is also Editor-in-Chief of One-to-One Magazine and ministers extensively throughout the United States and the nations.