22 Nov 2012

Should I Be Using a Different Bible?

Should you be using a different Bible?

To put it simply, yes. But let's not put it quite so simply.

Regardless of which translation you prefer, there can be great benefit found in using a different translation of the Bible. With a simple Google search, you can find arguments in favor of most popular Bible translations. They may argue the merits of dynamic and formal equivalence in translation or the reliability of different manuscripts, but I'd like to suggest that (unless you're fluent in Greek and Hebrew) you read the Bible in multiple translations.

Does it really make that much of a difference? You will not typically find significant differences in the meaning of most Biblical texts. If we're reading carefully and considering context, we'll tend to draw similar conclusions regardless of what version of the Bible we're using. But let's take a look at one particular example where reading more than one translation may be of assistance.

Proverbs 29:18

  • Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (KJV)
  • Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law. (ESV)
  • Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint; but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction. (NIV)
  • Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained, but happy is he who keeps the law. (NASB)

Perhaps you've heard someone quote this verse - most likely the first half of the King James Version. It's not uncommon to hear this verse referenced when speaking of the church's need to have a clear vision for its ministry. Without such vision, the church will perish. (Oh, my! Who wants to perish? We better have some vision for where we're headed.)

Michelangelo Caravaggio (1594-1596)

Unfortunately, it's easy for us to misunderstand the sense behind the word "vision" when it's used by the KJV and NASB translators. We may be accustomed to hearing the English word "vision" used in reference to leaders who are able to articulate a clear path forward for their business, or politicians who can paint an inspiring "vision" of America's future. However, additional translations can help us gain a clear picture of what is meant in this verse. When we see different translations use "vision," "prophetic vision," and "revelation," we can begin to see the word translated as "vision" isn't really being used in the modern business or political sense. The reference to "the law" in the second half of the verse (KJV, ESV, and NASB) helps us connect "vision" with something that has been clearly revealed by God. And it's not that the people "perish", but they "cast off restraint" (ESV, NIV) or "are unrestrained" (NASB).

Proverbs is not speaking about the need for "visionary leadership", rather this proverb is concerned with prophetic vision - God's revelation to His people. When the Israelites wandered from the revelation they had received through Moses and the prophets, their sin was unrestrained (and they perished). In contrast those who keep the law (which is God's revelation) are happy and blessed, living under the restraints God has imposed.

A modern day application of this verse would be a caution for the church to align its beliefs and practices with Scripture in order to remain a healthy church and avoid destructive false teaching (Rev. 2:14, 15, 20). This proverb calls us to submit our thinking and our desires to God's Word, not the independent visions and plans of those in leadership. Wise planning and leadership are still necessary, but the enduring authority of God's revelation is at the heart of this verse.

It's worth noting that once we have an accurate understanding of Proverbs 28:19, even the KJV isn't wholly inaccurate, but it is using some terms in ways that might be misleading to modern ears.

There are numerous books written advocating the use of one Bible translation over another and they will give examples on top of examples - much like I have here with Proverbs 28:19 - detailing why their preferred version provides the most accurate translation. We'll all tend to settle on a translation that suits us, but we should also make a point of periodically seeing how it compares to those other translations we've put aside.

For further reading you might consider the following books:

The Challenge of Bible Translation
If you're under the impression that translation is a rather simple and straight-forward process, this collection of essays will unburden you from that misconception.

The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism
Knowing about the manuscripts behind the Bible will help you understand why the King James Bible is not superior to other translations.

The Inclusive-Language Debate: A Plea for Realism
An avowed complementarian, D. A. Carson explains why decisions concerning the use of inclusive, gender-neutral language are not as cut-and-dried as some complementarians would have us believe.