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Philosophy of Bible Translations



The issue of Bible translations can be volatile and quite divisive. But the discussion of reasons either for or against a certain translation often includes misapplied Scripture or no Scripture. Other reasons may be valid in our consideration of a certain translation, but we ought to begin with the perspective of "what does God Himself say about His Word." In other words, man's reasons for choosing a certain translation are secondary to God's reason(s) for choosing a translation.


Some will say the Bible does not address this issue, and thus, it is up to each Christian (or group of Christians) to decide what translation to use. Others apply (or rather misapply) "do not remove the ancient landmark" (Proverbs 22:28) as an argument against change. So their application is that if the Christian Church (in the English speaking world) has used the KJV for the last 400 years, then we ought not to "remove that landmark." But this passage is a reference to Deut. 19:14 and 27:17. The Jews were forbidden to move any markers that established the boundary lines of someone's land. So the context of "do not remove the ancient landmark" has nothing to do with the translation issue.


So what passage do we turn to for guidance on this issue? I Corinthians 14 gives us the primary principle to follow in our selection of a translation. The immediate context of I Corinthians 14 is the contrast of the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues. But the larger context is a discussion of spiritual gifts in general as well as their role in the local church (I Corinthians 12-14). I Corinthians 14 is divided up into four sections, and each section applies the same principle. The first section (v. 1-5) deals with the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts. The second section (v. 6-19) deals with the value of these gifts in the spiritual growth of the church. The third section (v. 20-25) deals with the value of these gifts in our evangelism. The last section (v. 26-40) deals with the value of these gifts in our worship.


How do we evaluate the importance of a spiritual gift (v. 1-5)? The answer Paul gives (under inspiration) is "the gift that edifies the most is the gift we should value the most." The "edification" Paul mentions is not an experiential edification. The principle is further qualified in verse 2 when Paul explains that "no one understands" the person who is speaking tongues. So the "edification" is a mental edification that comes as a result of "understanding."


Second, how do we evaluate the importance of a spiritual gift in the spiritual growth of the church (v. 6-19)? Again, the answer is "the gift that edifies the most is the gift we should value the most." Does the gift of prophecy or the gift of speaking in tongues cause us to understand more? Paul clearly indicates (under inspiration) that the gift of prophecy results in true understanding, because prophecy is communicated in the language of the people. If there is to be spiritual growth in the church, then there needs to be fruit in the understanding (v. 14).


Third, how do we evaluate the importance of a spiritual gift in our evangelism (v. 20-25)? Again, the answer is "the gift that causes the unbeliever to understand God's truth is the gift we should value the most." Apparently, the Corinthians had the mistaken notion that speaking in tongues would "attract" unbelievers (v. 22). But Paul corrects this view and tells them that the use of tongues in evangelism would only result in unbelievers scoffing and affirming that the Corinthians believers were insane (v. 23). Instead, it was prophecy that would bring an understanding of their sinful condition and cause them to fall down on their face and seek God (v. 24-25).


Finally, how do we evaluate the importance of a spiritual gift in our worship services (v. 26-40)? Again, the answer is "what edifies the most is what we should value the most." The order of service, as well as all the elements of a service, should promote clarity and not cause confusion (v. 33). "All things should be done decently and in order" (v. 40). When people do not understand what is going on or what is being said, there is chaos. The principle that should rule in all our worship services is "let all things be done for edification" (v. 26).


What exactly is the gift of prophecy? On the one hand, prophecy can be the revelation of something new. Agabus was a NT prophet who foretold of the coming of a great famine (Acts 11:27-28). Commentators refer to this as "prophetic fore-telling." On the other hand, prophecy can be the bold declaration of something already revealed. The Puritans spoke of "the art of prophesying" in reference to preaching. Commentators refer to this as "prophetic forth-telling." The "prophets" in the church at Antioch are most likely men who engaged in "prophetic forth-telling" (Acts 13:1). In I Corinthians 14:6, Paul lists prophecy as a separate item from revelation (implying a difference between the two). So prophecy in I Corinthians 14 seems to be "forth-telling" of previous revelation instead of "fore-telling" new revelation.


The book of I Corinthians was written about 54 or 55 AD. It was probably the sixth NT book to be written. How many other NT books would the church at Corinth have had in their possession? How then did those early churches receive their NT revelation? It was through prophecy. Such prophecy would not have been "new revelation" (although it might have been new to the people in Corinth). This was the "prophetic forth-telling" of the Word of God. So here's the point: Under inspiration, Paul reveals the divine principle of "God wants His Word to be understood so that His people might be edified." If this principle is true for the spoken Word of God, wouldn't it be true for the written Word of God? The answer is yes.


So like our evaluation of spiritual gifts, we should value that Bible translation the most which causes us to understand the most. Does the KJV help us to understand more of the Word of God? Or does a modern translation help us to understand more? The repeated principle from I Corinthians 14 provides us with the answer -- a modern translation helps us to understand the most because it is communicated in the language of the people. This principle (and the translation we use) is applicable in all areas of life and ministry -- our evangelism efforts with unbelievers, our own spiritual growth as believers, as well as our corporate worship services.

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