One of the Facebook forums that I watch but rarely participate in (more heat than light) is called Atheism vs Christianity (no holds barred). Recently, a skeptic posed this question, which I started to answer, but my answer grew to the size of a blog post. So here you go.
SKEPTIC: When people hear there are over 50 different versions of the Bible in English alone, they often think to themselves, “No wonder there are many denominations each teaching different things, there are many different versions of the Bible.”
I think it is a mistake to attempt a correlation between the many English Bible translations and the many denominations. First, denominalization arose at a time when there was primarily only one English translation in use, the 1611 King James Bible. Second, most doctrinal splits are not over translations, but interpretations of the identical translation. But before I disassemble this premise, I am wondering, what is the accusation or argument behind this assertion? At the risk of creating a straw man, let me assume this type of argument under the assertion:
- Premise 1: Many bible translations exist because many denominations wanted their own doctrines emphasized
- Premise 2: The doctrinal predilections of these translation committees has made these translations less than accurate, partisan, and generally unreliable
- Conclusion: Therefore, not only does Christianity fail to bring people together, the documentation on which it is based is unreliable and schismatic.
Time to show why, in my estimation, there is LITTLE to NO relationship between denominations and translations.
1. Why so many denominations?
Denominations predate the multiple English Bible translations, so for sure, translations don’t cause denominations. So what DOES create denominations?
a. No State Church
Religious freedom was taken quite seriously here, and was one of the primary motives for coming to North America. Lack of oversight or centralization meant lots of variances.
b. No Pope
Again, lack of a governing doctrinal body in Protestantism meant that local variants on doctrines were often unchallenged.
c. The Doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers 1
One of the more heinous doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church (in the view of Protestants, esp. Martin Luther) was the separation of clergy and laity. In Protestant New Testament theology, there is no longer any need for mediators between God and man (priesthood) now that Jesus ‘removed the wall of separation.’ (In Prostetantism, Pastors do not stand between the individual and God, but instruct us on how to access God directly.) With that in mind, anyone who felt ‘called’ to preach could start his or her own church, and often, without any formal education (the Apostles themselves, though taught by Jesus, were otherwise unschooled and not from the religious intelligentsia).
d. Ongoing Biblical Restoration (Progressive Reformation)
While the original Protestant Reformers with their Five-Solas emphasis restored a lot of Biblical theology, especially the idea of Salvation by Grace Alone, and the priesthood of believers, there were further doctrines obscured by centuries of Catholicism that did not immediately get recognized. When, for example, the Anabaptists (literally ‘Baptize Again’) began to emphasize credobaptism (adult baptism based on a change of belief to Christianity, or being ‘born again’) over paedobaptism (infant baptism), the Lutherans who started the Reformation *persecuted* the Anabaptists. If you view the Pentecostal movement as a restoration of something lost, that too became a denomination because of opposition from the Fundamentalist Baptists (descendants of the Anabaptists!). In our time, there is a strong Conditionalist movement challenging the traditional view of hell, that of Eternal Conscious Punishment. Conditionalists are making a strong biblical argument (see rethinkinghell.com), but have yet to form a denomination based on it (which may happen, though that is explicitly warned against by many in the movement). All that is to say, men get attached to their doctrines, and if they refuse to continue to grow or update, then new denominations must form to accommodate these new views – call it Progressive Reformation.
e. Racial, Linguistic and Cultural Gaps
Sad to say, in American religious history, while many attempts have been made to bring white and black together under the banner of Christ, most have failed, creating mostly white or black denominations. While there are many good examples of integrated Christian communities, the history of denominations, especially in the early 1900’s, is not impressive. Of course, when people from unique language or cultural groups form a church, they tend to stick with these affinities – it’s human nature.
2. Whose Bible version is the TRUE one?
SKEPTIC: And what makes you believe that you follow the “one true faith”?
This skeptic also misunderstands the role of multiple translations in American Christendom. Multiple translations are not so much about doctrinal disagreement, or created based on the desires of doctrinal or denominational wants, as upon many other factors, including:
a. The English language morphs quickly
Any translation has to use the language as the modern reader might understand it, and with the rapidity of language change in our day, having new translations to speak to the new generations is just a necessity. A good example of this is the traditional use of ‘man’ as ‘mankind’ for all humans, which is now viewed as confusing, if not patriarchal, so newer translations have changed their verbiage accordingly.
b. Scholarship means better translation
It has been said that in these times of intense scholarship, research, and information technology, the amount of new knowledge and information created doubles every 12 months, and may soon be every 12 hours. 2 With new historical discoveries comes better understanding of the cultures and worldviews of the original writers, and this can be used to improve our translations. And so we come out with new translations with better interpretations of words and idioms. In fact, with the advent of the Net Bible Translation, (bible.org), you can see the Bible versioned much more like software than a book coming out in new editions every decade.
c. Varying Levels of Interpretation
There are three common levels of Bible translation that vary in their literalness – that is, from very literal and close to the original syntax and verbiage of the original manuscripts, to very interpreted for easy understanding by the reader. The three levels are:
- Formal Equivalence – very literal, moderate readability (e.g. NASB, NKJV, NET)
- Dynamic Equivalence – some level of interpretation, better readability (e.g. NIV, ESV, CEB)
- Paraphrase – high level of interpretation, easy readability (e.g. NLT)
All three have a place in common use, and actually, on either end of this spectrum, you can find one more level – ‘interlinear’ on the literal side, and ‘idiomatic’ or ‘slang’ versions on the paraphrase side. 3 So the many translations are multiplied by the need for both scholarly and popular level translations, and everything in-between. 4
d. Differences in Secondary Hermeneutics or Specific Doctrines
This is where personal ‘opinions’ may influence the types of translations. While the primary laws of interpretation of texts (hermeneutics) are held by most scholars, there are some secondary principles on which they may differ, and having more than one version can lead to fruitful discussion and liberty on these secondary issues instead of having one central doctrine that is mandatory where the text may be equivocal. For example, primary interpretive rules that all hold might be something like ‘always interpret based on literary type, e.g. poetry, historical narrative, apocalypse’ and ‘interpret within the original historic milieu and understanding of the writer,’ but secondary interpretations might depend on, for instance, whether or not you think that prevailing historic views on women were being challenged completely by Christ, or only in certain ways. This, along with other linguistic issues, might make you interpret a word as ‘wives’ instead of ‘women,’ or ‘effeminate’ v. ‘weak.’ 5
The original question of the skeptic was based on the wrongheaded idea that multiple bible versions have some correlation with multiple denominations. However, the truth is, there are very good reasons for multiple translations that have nothing to do with denominations, and many human and historic reasons for the many denominations, some noble, some not. Multiple denominations represent both the freedom of religion enjoyed here in the US, and the human penchant for parochializing and separating from others due to what are often over-emphases on specific dogmas. Multiple translations represent academic rigor, a desire to maximize access to the scriptures for all readers, and a love for the nuances of the Bible as literature. One last point – the skeptic seems to think that various denominations argue about which translation is the most authoritative or ‘right.’ But outside of the marginalized King James Only Movement, 6 this just doesn’t happen. 7
- Universal Priesthood (wikipedia) ↩
- Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours (industrytap.com) ↩
- The Message Bible (wikipedia) ↩
- For an interesting comparison of how these translations compare on a verse, click here ↩
- The Common English Bible – do we need another translation? (audio) – This discussion between Joel B. Green and an NIV translator will give you a great idea of the finer points of secondary hermenteutics. ↩
- King James Only Movement (wikipedia) ↩
- Unbelievable? 12 Feb 2011 – Is the King James Version the best? (audio) ↩