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The necessity & purpose of Bible translations


Capitol Commission was recently able to partner with Truth Remains to bring an historic collection of 16th- and 17th-century English Bibles to our state Capitol in Frankfort. These first English translations from the Hebrew and Greek were produced at great cost. The two men responsible for the first translation, William Tyndale and John Rogers, were burned at the stake for their "crime." This raises the question: Why would men risk their lives and die to translate a book? Why would they take the time to learn Hebrew and Greek and hide for years away from their homeland to work on a translation that they knew could result in them being burned at the stake?

The answer is that they had a certain conviction about the Scriptures. It's a conviction that Kentucky Baptists share, because it is rooted in the testimony of Scripture about itself in 2 Timothy 3:16ff. In this passage we learn that all the words of Scripture are breathed out by God.

Steve Weaver

The Inspiration of Scripture

"All Scripture is breathed out by God"

(2 Timothy 3:16a)

When we say that Scripture is inspired we are not using the word "inspired" as when we say that a great author, artist or athlete was inspired to perform at a high level. We are literally saying that the words of Scripture are the words of God. The Greek word is theospneustos "God's breath." As humans, we must breathe in order to speak and all speech is the product of breath. To say that Scripture is the breath of God is to call the words of Scripture the very words of God.

It's not merely the thoughts and ideas of Scripture that are inspired. The word "Scripture" translates the Greek word graphe which refers to the actual writings. This refers primarily to the original handwritten manuscripts—the original writings. But those manuscripts have been remarkably and supernaturally preserved through thousands of handmade copies of the originals which have been passed down to modern times. From these Greek and Hebrew manuscripts your English Bible was translated. As a result of this meticulous process we can now boldly hold up our English translation and say that this is the Word of God!

Paul says "all Scripture" is inspired. This means that not just some words or parts of the Bible are inspired, but all of it! There is no part of Scripture which is more inspired than any other. This understanding rules out the belief of some who pit the sayings of Jesus versus the sayings of Paul as if one were more inspired than the other. The reality is that all Scripture is inspired by God.

The reason that these clarifications are important is that we must be very clear what we are saying when we affirm that the Bible is God's Word. Many years ago, it was enough for people merely to say that the Bible is the Word of God. When some questioned what that meant it was required to articulate what we mean when we speak of inspiration. From this clarification comes the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration that affirms that every word of the Bible is as much the words of God as if they came from the very mouth of God.

Why is this important? The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is based upon this idea. Follow with me: If all the words of Scripture are all God's Words and if God cannot lie (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18), then all the words of Scripture are without error.

The Authority of Scripture

Since the Bible is the Word of God, it cannot err; it is authoritative. Since the Word of God is authoritative, we must "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:1-2)!

This is the mandate of our belief in the inspiration. There is a solemn charge found in 2 Timothy 4:1-2. It is grounded in the doctrine of the inspiration and sufficiency of the Scripture found in vv. 16 and 17 of chapter 3.

This is also why the conviction that undergirds the desire to translate the Scriptures into language people can understand is so important!

The Necessity of Bible Translations

The Bible was not originally written in English. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (with a few short sections in Aramaic) and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. Therefore, if anyone besides Greek and Hebrew speaking people were ever going to be able to read and/or hear the Word of God intelligibly it had to be translated into other languages.

This is nothing new, the Greek speaking authors of the New Testament used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament called the Septuagint (LXX). Scholars tell us that citations of the Old Testament used in the New Testament were mostly taken from this translation, not from the original Hebrew.

The fact that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek has caused many throughout history who have been committed to the importance of the Word of God to translate it into their own language. In the 1300s, John Wycliffe prepared the first English translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate. In the 1500s, William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. Also, in the 1500s Martin Luther translated the Bible into German for the first time, and a translation of the Bible in Spanish was made for the first time. Up to this point in history, the Bible had only been available to the western world in Latin.

This work of Bible translation continues today. There are still people around the world who do not have a translation of the Bible in their own language. That's why there are missionaries whose life work is to translate the Bible into those languages. They believe, like those early translators of the Bible into English, that the Scriptures are inspired, inerrant and authoritative. Therefore, the Scriptures must be made available to every person.

The Purpose of Bible Translations

While the King James remains an excellent translation, the English spoken today is not the English spoken in 1611. One example of this comes from the 2002 movie Spider-Man. In the movie, the villain (Green Goblin) presented the hero of the film with a sadistic choice to either save his girlfriend or a group of children. He could save the woman he loves or "suffer the little children," citing the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:14. Or course the word suffer in 17th-century English meant "to allow or permit." Jesus was inviting the little children to Himself. That was not the way the Green Goblin read the King James!

The purpose of Bible translation has always been to get the Bible into the language of the people. This goes all the way back to the fact that the New Testament was originally written not in Classical Greek, but in Koine Greek: the Greek of the average person. The purpose of the Latin Vulgate was to get the Bible in the language that people spoke.

The English translations of the 17th century were translated in order to put the language in the common language of the people. The reality is that 17th-century English is not the language of the average person today. The purpose of Bible translation has always been to get the Word of God into the language of the people because of a deep and abiding commitment to inspiration, inerrancy and authority of Scripture.

Men and women have died so that we might have the Bible in the English language. They believed that the Bible is God's Word and that it contains the only message of how sinful human beings can be reconciled to a holy God. That message is centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus as fully God and fully man was able to bear the full wrath of God for the sins of rebellious human beings and give His perfect righteousness to all who believe.

I'm thankful for how the Bible exhibit at our state Capitol reminded many of the great sacrifices made that we might have the Bible in the English language and how that points to their belief in the inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word. Pray that many who attended this exhibit will come to know the message of Scripture that is worthy of such a sacrifice.

Steve Weaver is pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church and Capitol Commission State Minister.

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