It was an unusual suggestion. after reading and carefully digesting our April 5 issue, a reader called to propose that WORLD convene a meeting of selected theological leaders. Purpose of the summit: To develop a list of wise and transcendent rules to be observed when scholars prepare new translations of the Bible.
The suggestion made sense. "Have you reviewed recently," our reader asked, "all that you have to go through to amend the U.S. Constitution? It takes a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, plus ratification by three-fourths of all the state legislatures. Compare that, then, with how little it takes to amend the Word of God. It's conceivable that a simple majority of a self-appointed editorial committee of an independent publishing company can release a Bible that totally changes what God actually said."
So, my friend suggested, it would be good to get some top scholars together for a week or two to sketch out some timeless ground rules that any responsible team of translators should observe when restating God's Word in a different language, or when restating it in the same language but for a different time.
After all, there are more or less timeless rules governing achievements in athletics, science, and medicine. Should we be less fastidious about our handling of God's very words?
I agreed with my friend that WORLD could find donors willing to fund such a meeting. It would be an exciting and historic gathering.
But the very next day my friend called back to pop my bubble. The more he had thought about it, he said, the more he realized that his suggestion carried with it the very seeds of the problem we so much need to avoid.
That problem, he said, is that we have thoughtlessly put the safekeeping of God's Word in the hands of freelancers. The fact that they are well-meaning freelancers is beside the point. They are, in the end, responsible to no one but themselves.
The Committee on Bible Translation and the International Bible Society, which for the last 35 years have worked sacrificially to produce and refine the New International Version of the Bible, are good cases in point. Read the history of the NIV and you'll find the fascinating story of how these two groups of faithful believers started with a broad commission from a variety of churches, schools, and evangelistic organizations.
But you'll also find the story of essentially independent entities who have no official accountability to the church at large. To be sure, it's possible that apart from such an independent structure, the NIV would never have seen the light of day-but the point remains that translation policies can theoretically be changed willy-nilly by the CBT and the IBS. In effect, they make up their own rules.
All of which is fine so long as you know the rule-makers, and are well acquainted with the rules they make. But what happens when the rule-makers retire or die-as the CBT has experienced, and where only two of the original 15 committee members remain? And what happens when new rules are adopted?
Isn't that when somebody like WORLD magazine needs to step forward? Except, as my friend recognized with his second call, that only perpetuates the problem. The publishers of WORLD magazine might be trustworthy right now-but they too will pass, and in their places might come folks with different views. In the end, we're no different in kind from the Committee on Bible Translation, the International Bible Society, or Zondervan Publishing House. Our board, like all of theirs, is independent and self-perpetuating.
Instead, my friend proposed, the highest courts and councils of several church denominations-known to hold the Bible in the highest regard-should sponsor such a gathering. Together, they should write down a "policies and procedures" manual governing the translation of God's Word. Like other great statements of the church through the centuries, this one would both unite and divide. It would say to translators and publishers: "Follow these guidelines, and we'll support your efforts. Ignore them or water them down, and we'll probably not buy your Bibles." Properly framed, such statements should be enormously helpful to those who want to serve God's people with faithful translations of the Scripture.
But clearly, the statements should come with the authority of broadly based churches, not just from some other independent agency. It's time to ask the officers of Christ's church to act like the officers of his church. Might the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, and other denominations rise to that challenge?
I hope that folks with demanding standards for Bible translation won't be forced now to discard the NIV-a translation that is too hard-won an achievement to let slip away. We need a commonly accepted version; we need common cadences of Psalm 1, John 3, and Romans 8, familiar on the tongues of us all. Now that the NIV in our generation has come close to providing such a standard, we don't need the confusion of changing again to still another.
But if such a change is forced on us, it shouldn't come on the basis of mere market forces or a "we're right, you're wrong" squabble among independent entities. Guidelines need to be spelled out at a high and commanding level. Will some major church courts take up that challenge?