The Word of God Is Living and Active (unless your translation philosophy emasculates it)

In Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Peter Leithart writes (3–6),

“It is easy for Christians to blame secularists for ‘letting the Bible go,’ but the church is at least as culpable. As [Clive] James points out, translation is a key symptom of our willingness to emasculate our own Scriptures.
[here Leithart presents two renderings of Psalm 23, first the KJV then the Message, then discusses a few differences between the translations]
The most crucial difference, though, is a difference in authority: which language, which idiom, determines the rendering of the Hebrew into English? For the KJV, the Hebrew text forces itself on the English. ‘Valley of the shadow of death,’ now an English cliche, was introduced by Bible translators, as was ‘my cup runneth over.’ Older translations refreshed the target language (English) by bringing in the Hebrew as much as possible. The KJV enlarged not only the language but also the conceptual apparatus of English speakers, as more or less common words and concepts like table and cup and staff took on the religious aura of the psalm. For The Message, by contrast, contemporary English dictates what the Bible may and may not say.
Leithart continues:
“This example from The Message is far from the most egregious example that could be found. But it does go some way toward justifying Dwight Macdonald’s complaint that modern Bible translators turn down Scripture’s ‘voltage, so it won’t blow any fuses.’
My point is not merely aesthetic, and it is not at all nostalgic. I am not pining to hear the echoing, arching rhythms of the KJV ring from pulpits everywhere. My point is theological, and one of the main themes of this book. For The Message, the crucial thing about the Bible is the substance of what it teaches us, and many readers and interpreters come to the Bible with the same interests. For translators, commentators, preachers, and theologians, the idioms and cadences, the rhetoric and the tropes, the syntax and the vocabulary of the original have been reduced to mere vehicles for communicating that message. If the vehicle fails to reach its destination, we change vehicles. We substitute, add, or subtract words to make the Bible sound normal. We change idioms to be more familiar. We turn God’s names into generic terms of divinity. We fiddle with the Bible’s rhetoric so that it fits our rhetoric, rather than letting the Bible’s rhetoric shape ours. Once we think we have found the spirit of the text, we feel free to mold the letter as we will.
As the comparison of the two translations indicates, students of the Bible have not always treated the Bible this way. Older translators recognized that no translation can completely capture all the features of the original text. But the goal of Reformation and post-Reformation Bible translators was always to carry over as much of the original text as possible into the target text. When Tyndale found no word for a Hebrew concept, he invented one–atonement–which is having a remarkably fruitful career in the English language, not to mention English theology, psychology, anthropology, and political theory. When the KJV translators found the Hebrew redundant, they made the English redundant: ‘dying, you shall die.’ When they found a vulgarity, they (sometimes) kept it in English: a vulgar man is one who ‘pisseth against the wall.’ For most earlier translators, and for commentators, preachers, and Bible scholars, the original Bible set the agenda, while the target language and the target culture were expected to make room for it. They did not believe that the Bible needed to adjust to our prior concepts and institutions.
Scripture once transformed the world precisely because Bible students clung to the letter. Once the letter is reduced to a malleable vehicle, Scripture loses its potency. It no longer shapes our imaginations, our poetry, or our politics, because it is not allowed to say anything we do not already know.

Join the Conversation


  1. Another reason for keeping the literal: The “he that pisseth agaist the wall” comment may actually be referring to someone who had “indoor plumbing,” that is, the rich men (not just profane).

  2. The Bible does not teach eternal punishment. God’s love & mercy endures forever. Does it really endure forever or only in this life? How can it be Good News if it doesn’t translate to the afterlife? God will still judge but He will not punish forever. He’s a better father than we are, right?

    1 Tim 4:10 This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers.

    That’s like saying track is for everyone, especially for those who like to run. Salvation is for everyone, especially those who believe.

    1. Hummm, Jackson Baer–a “high-schooler” teaches how everyone gets it wrong on eternal punishment except for him! Of course, if you buy his book, he will set you straight! I don’t think so, Jackson! A little more theological humilty would go a long way! Just think, Edwards, Warfield, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones, Piper, Sproul, MacArthur, etc, all got it wrong on the doctrine of eternal punishment! But the very young Mr. Baer is prepared to correct them all. Unbelievable!

  3. That’s why hardly nobody could understand the Bible before some of the more readable translations came out and is one of the causes of folk theology and fundamentalism. There were rampant misunderstandings of what Scripture was trying to say because nobody could understand the translation. It wasn’t comprehensible to the average person who didn’t have a PhD and study Greek & Hebrew. This logic is faulty and the validation is absent. The point made is moot. No linguist worth his/her salt makes these types of arguments.

    1. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard Luke. I read a modern translation (NLT) side by side with the Young’s Literal Translation. I do this because modern translation vary on how they translate words. Do you want to seek truth or defend what you’ve been taught as truth? I’ll read the literal words written instead of someone elses interpretation any day. If you don’t want to read what was actually written then keep on being content with modern translations.

      1. Jackson, all translations require “interpretation.” So if you are seeking translations that do not “interpret,” you will never find them.

        1. I’ll take a literal translation over a modern one because at least I’m getting the actual word written instead of scholars interpretation. Yes, you still have to interpret it but reading versions side by side really help with this.

          1. Yes, you are right. Readers do interpret, but so do translators. There is no way around it. Some translators may stick closer to the text than others, but this does not negate interpretation.

  4. The translation issue IS most important!
    Just look at how engish is used now compared with even 20 yrs ago(sic is good(cool or whatever-Ram-is an Animal-or is it?&so on!
    Language has allways evolved& just how long since the bible was written?
    So it’s not just straight word translation It how words were used at any given point in history!
    ONE Easy example–Abomination–Oridginaly meant(old hebrew) Not of our custom–Not nessaraly a sin!
    So-Sometimes we don’t understand old literature properly!

  5. ” The Bible does not teach eternal punishment. God’s love & mercy endures forever. ”

    Is that you Rob? I’ve been meaning to ask you a few questions about your book…

  6. Are you suggesting that Luther and Calvin also emasculated the text? As you know, Luther did not even use the equivalent German term “sons of God” even once. He also called humans Mensch, that is “humans.” Calvin’s Latin commentary also calls humans “homo” and not “vir.”

    Do you really want to challenge the trustworthiness of Luther’s Bible, and Calvin’s commentary?

  7. Please. please, please present facts. In the name of God. And please do not say that since I am a woman, what I say about Luther’s Bible cannot have authority. Please respond to truth and not the authority of the carnal human male.

  8. Hi Jim,

    I have just realized that the ESV, NET, NIV, HCSB and so on, have removed the word “men” from their translation at least 13 times in the book of Acts. Now I am wondering if that means that these translations are no longer the word of God according to the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy. Perhaps you could comment on that.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *