Immanentist Bible Translations?

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December 4, 2012 by mattwilcoxen

ModernTheologyThis special issue of Modern Theology released a couple of months ago is a real gem. Six evangelicals and five Catholics–all eminent scholars–all contribute essays on the spiritual interpretation of scripture (SIS). The editors (Boersma and Levering) lay out a framework in which spiritual interpretation assumes in some way the possibility of a contemporaneity between the reader and the text, over against the historical-critical method in which scripture (and the words and events it attests to) are left in the past in the same way as all other historical objects. The essays unfold along three lines: ressourcement of patristic SIS, SIS itself, and essays on contemporary efforts at SIS.

David Lyle Jeffrey (Baylor) writes an essay (“Translation and Transcendence: The Fragile Future of Spiritual Interpretation”) that stands out just because it is so unexpected, practical, and penetrating, and because it cries out for further research. In essence, Jeffrey’s essay is a theological critique of Bible translations.

Jeffrey argues that the recent (since the 1960s) explosion of Bible translations has been marked by a tendency to make the original language accessible by putting it into contemporary idioms and with a low-vocabulary level. One motive for this is that it gives the text a contemporary currency–the Bible becomes accessible and comfortable. Other background factors in this trend in interpretation are: our inability to see the polyvalence and complexity of terms, a lack of understanding of metaphor, and the loss of poetic discourse. The author gives examples of the way in which each of these factors comes into play in various Bible translations. He analyzes the way hupostasis in Hebrews 11:1 has been translated and how Chokma-lev (Exodus 31:6; 35:25; 36:2) gets flattened out in contemporary versions, among some other examples.

The author’s main point is that this trend in translation reinforces unspiritual interpretations of the Bible among the laity. The Bibles that have been produced (at least most of them) come out of a cultural habitus that assumes certain things about texts, and that the Bibles then reinforce this same habitus in the readers. Wrongly assuming that the change in form will have no impact on the way content is received, dynamic-equivalency translations domesticate the scriptures. Here’s Jeffrey:

What must be said about the disposition of many contemporary translations is that they tend–much more than is warranted by the text itself–to reduce theological mysteries to mundane analogies. Once normalized in translation, a barrier to spiritual understanding is erected at the linguistic level by inadequate comparisons. We may not think of such inadequacies as proceeding from an undergirding philosophy of translation, but they usually do. The worldview of modernity, privileging present consciousness and cultural preoccupations as normative, makes it harder–not easier–to “hear” what Scripture is saying spiritually.

How does this translation tendency create a barrier? As far as I can gather, Jeffrey’s critique is that the supreme value placed on contemporary idiom and literal expression, causes the reader to miss out on the cues for contemplation that are in the text. Further, the lack of attention which contemporary interpreters have paid to the performative, communal aspects of scripture (its status as text to be read and sung publicly), lead to a flattening out of the style. This leads to a text that feels like just another text, rather than like holy scripture. This effect inevitably impacts the way the text is received.

What Jeffrey calls for is discernment. The translator needs to be engaged (even spiritually engaged!) with the discourse in the text, so that one can ascertain “when the literal sense of the words in a passage most likely intends a spiritual interpretation”. When this is the case, the translator needs not to interfere, and to try very hard to render a translation that leaves open the polyvalence of the word in question. Polyvalent terms are transcendent, pointing us beyond, and causing us to think, pray, and reflect over what the spirit might be communicating even beyond the literal, historical sense (thought not in conflict with it). Failure to preserve this aspect of language leaves us with an immanentist Bible:

If an immanentist understanding is locked into the translations of the Bible laypeople are reading, we should perhaps not wonder if some are attracted to secondary manifestations of a more generally immanentized worldview such as appears in some of the colorful but de-spiritualized marketing strategies of the “emergent church,” the attempted disarming of the doctrine of the Trinity and divine authority in books such as The Shack, the abolition of hell in Rob Bell’s Love Wins or, for that matter, the abolition of heaven in Timothy Jackson’s The Priority of Love; all of these are consistent, immanentist phenomena.

The general thrust of Jeffrey’s argument is highly convincing, probably because it does so much to account for the way people seem to be reading the Bible at the lay-level. The weakness, for me, is the lack of sustained engagement with particular texts in major translations. A couple of the examples Jeffrey gives are from paraphrases (The Message, for example), and not from actual translations. The KJV comes out as the hero in Jeffrey’s mind (he is after all, an English literature professor!), and minor heroes seem to be the NKJV, the ESV, and the RSV. If this is what he means, the article loses some of its potency. Many evangelicals anyways are already reading those Bibles and eschewing paraphrases. But I am wondering whether major flattening-out hasn’t occurred in the translations now most common in Protestant churches: the ESV and the NIV (in all versions). It would be fascinating to see Jeffrey’s work continued by more in-depth analysis of translation choices in regard to their impact upon the text’s ability to bear a spiritual interpretation.


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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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