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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Westminister Confession of Faith & Bible translation

It is stated so well in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
SECTION VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.
We are to "read and search" the Scriptures. And "they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come..." What is the vulgar language of a nation? At the time the Confession was written, "vulgar language" referred to the common language spoken by the people of nation. It is not a "dumbed down" language, but it is language which is understood and spoken in common. Into what form of English would the Reformers say the Scriptures should be translated if they came to the English-speaking people for the first time today? The clear answer from the Confession is "the vulgar [common] language." It is not a language spoken only by the clergy. It is not a language of an elite educated class. It is not a language of a previous period of language history, not even that of beautiful, but past, classical literature. No, it is the common language of the people, with its contemporary beauty of good literary quality that is accessible in common by speakers of a language. Because the Reformers emphasized integration of spirit and mind, I have no doubt that they would have upheld the idea that the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular should have literary beauty in the vulgar (common) languge, including some way of maintaining powerful literary images which exist in the original biblical source texts. But I also have no doubt that the Reformers would have insisted that however the translation was done into vulgar languages, it should not include language which could not be understood by all speakers of a language, since, by definition, those speakers are included in the group who speak a "vulgar," that is, common language.

Let us be thankful for the wisdom of these great men of the church who continued the vision of early centuries missionaries who translated the Scriptures into Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, and other languages outside the Greek-speaking areas where the Gospel of Christ was taken. And let us not lose that vision today during debates over what kinds of English should be used for translating the Bible today for the English-speaking world.


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