Trying Not to Panic Over Updates to the Bible

Recent updates to the New American Standard Bible, Christian Standard Bible, and, less recently, the New Internatlional Version, English Standard Version, and Amplified Bible have awakened discussion about the possibility of introducing error or succumbing to pressure to conform with the world when updating the English Bible.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about new translations. Christians are put in a very awkward position and most don’t realize the nature of it. On the one hand, we have language, which is continuously evolving. This evolution is relatively slow, but not so slow that you can’t see it if you’re looking for it. Those of us with more than a couple decades under our belts can definitely see changes between how the language was spoken in our youth vs. how it is spoken now. On the other hand you have the Bible, which we hold in high esteem and which we believe to be (or contain) the very Word (or words) of God. We can’t imagine God not expressing himself perfectly the first time, and just assume that our English Bibles should be just as unchanging.

When looked at in the big picture, we understand that we need a Bible written in our native language, and that by that we mean not just English but Modern English. We can probably understand the Great Bible (1540) and King James Bible (1611) but not in their original blackletter font and Early Modern English orthography. Even the vaunted 1769 and early 1900’s editions of the KJV that many Christians cling to as the Bible have been significantly modernized in order to be readable. Despite this innate understanding, we are at least slightly repulsed by the idea of “updating the Bible”.

It’s when we start to act this general understanding (that is, that we need a Bible written in our native language) that we get into trouble. One of the big problems is gender language. Because it’s a politically sensitive issue, there’s a feeling like the Bible should be above it. But setting aside where our personal politics lie, we have to admit that we want an accurate translation of the Bible. The fact is that the biblical languages do not convey gender in the same way English does, and the way English conveys gender has been changing. We try not to say men when we mean people. And we are trying to figure out if we like using they to refer to a single person of unspecified gender.

Personally, I’ve avoided these issues by not picking a favorite. I have a lot of experience with the RSV (predecessor of the ESV and descendant of the ASV) and the KJV (the most successful of the Early Modern English translations). For years I carried a side-by-side KJV/NIV. I was reading from the 1977 NASB when the 1995 edition came out. I’ve read through the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), World English Bible (WEB; modernized ASV), NIV (1984), and KJV; some of these more than once. I’m about 30% through the 2020 NASB. I don’t consider any of these to be the Bible; they are all just translations of the Bible into my language. By adopting this position, I completely avoid any emotional response to any new edition of any of the versions of the Bible I read.

I like to think this is an enlightened, mature perspective. Let others get hung up in arguments over which imperfect translation of one of several imperfect collations of imperfect copies of imperfect copies of the original manuscripts is somehow “best”. I choose to focus on the fact that Jesus summed up 3/4 of the Bible (the Old Testament) in two commandments (love God; love others) and his own ministry in one sentence (the Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost). Paul summed up his ministry (and thus the bulk of the New Testament) in 2 Cor 5:14-21. Those fragments are enough to occupy one’s life; precisely how they are worded doesn’t change their implications or importance. And much of the rest is just exposition.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

One Reply to “Trying Not to Panic Over Updates to the Bible”

  1. Good points to remember. I mostly get concerned about new/updated translations when there’s an agenda involved that isn’t “be faithful to God’s word” but something else. We had a study some years back where one section focused on “where did we get our Bible”. That discussed how the canon came to be, criteria, etc. It was during this time that it clicked for some people that Paul didn’t write in KJV English. (I think they _knew_ that at some level, but it didn’t actually stick until we hit that point in the study.)

    I have friends and family who work for mission organizations with a major focus on translating the Bible into other languages. Their whole goal of reaching people with God’s word in people’s native languages helps me keep the whole translation thing in perspective. There are also some cool stories about how those people receive God’s word in their language. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *