From: Theology’s Impact on Translation: KJV to NRSV Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
“Modernism” in the
KJV, ERV, and ASV?
To discredit a translation by contending that it represents the forces of contemporary infidelity can take several forms:
· It can be contended that the supernaturalness of Christ has been compromised.
· It can be contended that central Bible doctrines—such as the eternity of ultimate rewards and punishments—has been obscured.
· It can be contended that other matters regarded as vital to salvation have been altered or removed.
Today we would likely lump all these phenomena together under the label “Liberalism” or, perhaps because the latter dominates as a political rather than religious term today, the even more hostile epithet “Modernism.” Not as in hostile to modern technology and advances, but hostile to the excuses modern humankind has come up with in the last two centuries to denigrate, demean, reject, and even mock the Bible.
Not just coming from the fringe skeptics whose existence is almost guaranteed at any time, but as a religious approach that has grasped massive influence in supposedly “Christian” churches, colleges, seminaries, and religious institutions where you can earn prestige and a decent salary while branding—without using the words, of course—the very Book pivotal to your place’s existence as a volume of ignorance, misrepresentation, distortion, and even outright lies.
Since the early 1900s, this has become extremely obnoxious to traditionalist advocates who see their religion undermined and stolen from them as new generation after new generation are taught things fundamentally—not peripherally—opposed to what their Book teaches. Because some form of verbal shorthand is needed to discuss the matter, we have chosen “modernism” as the key descriptive word for our discussion of how the phenomena allegedly has impacted on Bible translation. It fits the time frame well and those on both sides would agree that it has been a popular term to describe the phenomena.
Following the custom we have established in previous chapters, we will once again carry a topic into areas where it is uncommon to tread. This will hopefully allow us to consider the more contemporary accusations of Modernism with a bit more restraint than might otherwise occur.
1. Modernism in the King James Version?
It will come as quite a surprise to many to discover that the bedrock of “orthodox” translation, the highly revered KJV, was vigorously attacked—even viciously--in language that certainly sounds like accusations of what we call Modernism! The target is (probably) often Calvinism, but that label is conspicuously not applied and the rhetoric is that used in our own age as an indictment of Modernist trends, influence, and renderings. Hence the application of that term seems only fair.
Henry J. Todd wrote his Vindication of Our Authorized Translation and Translators in the early nineteenth century (1819). It is a useful source of information on this obscure subject.
One of the earlier sources he quotes is a Bishop Wilson (date not provided) who “frequently found ‘the authority of the Sacred Scriptures undermined by a base pretence that they are wrongly translated’ . . .” (N. 1). Of his own time, two centuries after the KJV was completed, Todd found the criticism still quite common: “It has been likewise a pretence, in this our day, that the ancient English Versions of the Bible are of no authority; and that the Translation of it now in use, like those which preceded it, is unfaithful to the original” (N. 2).
Apparently some of these critics regarded the KJV as so weak on the “modernism” that some presented the prospect of a new translation as an “antidote to Deism” (N. 3).
The prestige of the critic was sufficient to cause the KJV to be rejected by some, especially when the critic himself was undeniably a man of great learning. Todd attributes the success of the anti-KJV propaganda of Sir Burges, in major part, to that reason, but note the powerful accusation that Burges was using, one that had to have major impact on those most deeply concerned with their own spiritual welfare:
“Now the Reasons of Sir James Burges, in favour of a new Translation of the Holy Scriptures, may impose upon the judgment of such as are swayed by a name rather than an argument. They are therefore more particularly to be guarded against. For they suggest, that our Translation of the Bible [the KJV, RW] is insufficient for teaching all things necessary to salvation” (N. 4). Right or wrong, that kind of language is inevitably going to make people sit up and wonder: “Could that possibly be true? And, if it is, how in the world do I find a translation that accurately teaches me God’s will?”
A contemporary of the KJV, Hugh
Broughton, fellow of
[Page 64] Of course over many decades the tide shifted. Those who were “conservatives” and “reactionaries” in the eyes of their critics or who were disgruntled over the Calvinism latent in various places gradually discovered that the KJV was not so bad after all.
The earlier objections continued to be argued, of course, but they became a comparatively minor annoyance as—weaknesses not withstanding—the “Authorized Version” became pervasively used. Those who took the Bible in the most strict sense as Divine revelation, now came to embrace the KJV as a paragon of accuracy and authority when just a few generations back those of a like mind had been among its most vigorous protestors.
The flip-flop from vehement opposition to virtually blind loyalty is well reflected in a quotation Todd presents from the pen of one A. T. Rennell, D.D. By the time this man wrote, the vast bulk of religious opinion was not only no longer open to the suggestion that the KJV reflected brazen inaccuracies, but was suspicious that those who proposed its replacement often did so with the hidden agenda of injecting exactly that! Of injecting “modernism” in the sense that we would use that term today.
The grounds, on which these projects are to be resisted, are much more
serious and important. For when we see men of the most latitudinarian principles
uniformly pressing forward this dangerous proposal; when we see the most
unbound panegyrics bestowed on those, who have converted the Mosaic history
into allegory, and the New Testament into Socinianism; when we see these
attempts studiously fostered, and applauded, by the advocates for this projected
revision; we must conjecture, that something more is meant that a correction of
mistakes or an improvement of diction.
Those doctrines, the demolition of which we know to be, in late instances,
the grand object of such innovators when they propose alterations in articles of
faith, or correction of liturgical forms, are surely in still greater danger when
attempted, by the same men, under the distant approaches of a revision of our
English Bible (N. 7).
Here we clearly have “Modernism” in the narrowest and strictest sense and because of the embracal of it by leading individuals who would be among the translators, the project is automatically disqualified from any credence. The theology they hold is so anathema to basic Biblical teaching, that it would inevitably ruin the new translation. The personal theology of those who prepared the Revised Standard Version was used in a similar effective manner to promote the rejection of that more recent translation.
If men like Rendall had been heeded, the world would certainly have been spared some inferior and inadequate translations. On the other hand the world would also have missed such splendid efforts as the American Standard Version and its English equivalent, the English Revised Version!
The accusation of “Modernism” was an invaluable tool for those opposed to any revision of the King James. And it remains such for it allows a person to dismiss a translation without giving it any more than the most casual attention. “Damned by translator,” if you will.
[Page 65] Such is foolhardy: Only by a careful examination of the translation itself can we determine whether a translation deserves the label “Modernist” and to what degree. If we successfully use Bible translations that have some degree of other doctrinal errors—remember how the KJV has been transformed from an apostate defense of Calvinism that should be junked to a bedrock of Christian fundamentalism?—should we not extend that courtesy to modern efforts as well?
Evaluate before rejecting. Determine what parts (if any) can be used with minimum danger before rejecting the entire work. If you can’t do that, you really should throw the KJV with its various errors into the trash can as well. For the degree of its unbiblical Calvinism may have been exaggerated, but there clearly are places where it stares one unblinkingly in the face.
2. Modernism in
the English Revised Version and
the American Standard Versions?
Because the American Standard Version enjoyed such a well deserved reputation from at least the early to middle twentieth century and even beyond, it should be noted that even that prestigious translation contains renderings that allegedly give aid and comfort to Modernism. Indeed, in parts of the criticism, there seems to be the assumption that these readings may actually be the product of “modernism” among the scholars who produced the disputed readings!
The scholars we will be quoting in their attacks on the “revised” text will have the English Revised Version specifically in mind. To make their case relevant to the ASV, we will be citing them only when the reading is identical or virtually so. (Any variances will be noted.) Hence these blasts aimed at the ERV—if valid—also indict the ASV as erroneous, weak, and under the influence of infidel elements.
A. Slanting through the Choice of Wording:
The “True” Significance of the Words
Selected to Replace Those in the KJV
John W. Burgon is best remembered for his effective defense of the genuineness of the “long” ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). Less often remembered are his vehement attacks on the English Revised Version and, implicitly (because the readings are identical or near so), of the American Standard Version as well. His critique will be the source of the bulk of what we have to say (N. 8).
(1) The Example of “Signs” in Place of Miracles
Both the ERV and ASV substitute “sign” for a Greek term the KJV translates as “miracle.” Although Burgon concedes that “sign” is a correct rendering, he believes that there are still serious objections to actually making that alteration. He lodges three objections, which we will study in a different order than he presents them.
First, “the words under consideration are not only not equivalent but they are quite dissimilar. All ‘signs’ are not ‘miracles’ (e.g., Matthew 26:48; Luke ), although all ‘miracles’ are undeniably ‘signs’ ” (N. 9).
Although he does not argue it this way, we could further develop his objection along this line: In the word “miracle” we always find the implication of supernatural power at work. It is a “sign” that God is working with and through that person, but it has a “sign” element because it is miraculous. In contrast a “sign” does not, inherently, have to carry that necessary implication. It only implies that it is intended to be learned from, for a deduction or lesson to be learned from it. (Burgon himself presents a variant of this approach in his third objection, below.)
Since Christ’s “signs” were always manifestations of supernatural power, “miracle” is therefore the better word to render the Greek to bring out its full implication in actual usage. The use of “miracles” would therefore typically be taken as indicating an unquestionably “conservative” Christian slant, while “sign” would be more in keeping with “liberal” bias in which genuine miracles--acts of Divine power causing things to happen that normally would not—simply don’t and have never occurred.
In the second place, he argues that “miracle” is the term traditionally attached to the Greek word. He throws out the challenge: Will we alter “hypocrite” to “actor,” “church” to “assembly,” “gospel” to “good tidings,” “grace” to “favor”?
In each case the change could be defended on the same ground of greater literalness. Yet each of these terms has been sanctioned by long term usage to describe a specific idea or concept; to interject a new term breeds needless confusion. (At this point, the reader may join me in a quiet “ouch” since at least some of these changes we individually would either like or prefer—or at least footnoted as alternative translations. Complete consistency is, perhaps, impossible in the real world?)
In the third place, Burgon suggests that the change of wording is a subtle way of eliminating the DOCTRINE of “miracles.” He writes (N. 10):
With equal displeasure, but with even sadder feelings, we recognize in the
present Revision a resolute elimination of “miracles” from the New Testament.
Not so (we shall be eagerly reminded) but only of their name. True, but the two
perforce go together, as every thoughtful man knows.
At all events, the getting rid of the name (except in the few instances
which are enumerated below) will in the account of millions be regarded as the
getting rid of the thing [itself]. And in the esteem of all, learned and unlearned
alike, the systematic obliteration of the signifying word from the pages of that
Book to which we refer exclusively for our knowledge of the remarkable thing
signified, cannot but be looked upon as a memorable and momentous
motivated by personal commitment to skepticism or not, this change clearly promotes
“misbelief,” he insists (N. 11). At the very least, it certainly does nothing
to discourage it. By reason of omission,
should a translation quietly “bias” individuals
against labeling the healings and such like as “miracles”?
(2) The Example of “Eternal Punishment” in Place of “Everlasting Punishment”
It is argued that if one substitutes “eternal punishment” for “everlasting punishment,” that one provides aid, comfort, and encouragement to those who insist that after death punishment of the wicked is not endless and, at the worst, temporary. Of the ERV in particular (and the ASV again contains the same disputed rendering) Burgon has this to say (N. 12):
In view of the present controversy about the Eternity of Future
Punishment, which has brought into prominence a supposed distinction between
the epithets “eternal” and “everlasting,” how painful it is to discover that the latter
epithet (which is the one objected to by the unbelieving school) has been by our
Revisionists diligently excluded . Every time it occurs as the translation of aionis,
of the more palatable epithet “eternal!”
“Signs” and “eternal punishment” are the two strongest examples Burgon provides of Modernist bias, but one wonders how many people today—including rigorous conservatives—would count either as proof of the “modernist taint” of the ASV and ERV? Would not even “signs” being substituted from “miracles” be considered, at most, a case of technical accuracy being purchased at the undesirable price of potential conceptual misunderstanding?
On the other hand if words are being recast into a special sense would not the inclusion of that particular word choice—as in “eternal punishment” in place of “everlasting punishment”—be interpreted by many as an endorsement of that particular doctrinal approach? For example, as absolutely accurate “immersion” and its synonyms would be for “baptism,” would the substitution be interpreted as anything else than embracing of immersion as the only—or, at least, best—“form” of “baptism”?
If that is true, in that context, why not in the current one? Words take on the connotation of their current meaning. And when they are used by a subgroup to have a [Page 68] special meaning then the contemporary reader will strongly tend to assume that that meaning is being endorsed.
(3) Other Examples
There is the ever-present danger of overkill, however, when one ventures down this path of demanding that traditional terminology should not be altered. For example, one can create disputes over wording where the bulk of readers will not find a significant difference. At the most they see exegesis legitimately accomplishing what had once been directly in the text itself.
The more extreme example is found in demanding preservation of renderings that—looked back upon a half-century or so later—are viewed by even the most vigorous “anti-Modernists” as much to do about nothing.
Burgon is an excellent example to us today of this latter phenomena. At times he could be a passionate zealot clearly led astray by this enthusiasm. He waxes eloquent, for example, about the horrendous evil of replacing “charity” in 1 Corinthians 13 with “love” (N. 13):
Do not these learned men perceive that “love” is not an equivalent term?
Can they require to be told that,
portrait of “charity,” and the use which has been made of the word in sacred
literature in consequence, it has come to pass that the word “charity” connotes
many ideas to which the word “love” is an entire stranger? That “love,” on the
contrary, has come to connote many unworthy notions which in “charity” find no
place at all? And if this is so, how can the revisionists expect that we shall endure
the loss of the name of the very choices of the Christian graces. . . ?
We speak of charity today as helping the needy or helping organizations or movements that help the needy. Although charity, in a sense, could “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7) it requires quite an interpretive stretch, doesn’t it? Paul clearly has in mind behavior that relates to how we deal with everyone and not just the poor and outcast. In that kind of context, surely “love” fits superbly and “charity” does not.
Maybe once it did. Perhaps. But if it did, it has long lost such overtones. In fact the imagery has to be “crammed in” to fit at all.
I doubt if any of us today would denounce as a sign of apostate “liberalism” the use of “love” in 1 Corinthians 13; that it has marked us with “the sign of the devil,” so to speak. So this case serves as a useful “warning shot across the bow” that we need to keep careful balance in criticism lest we fight against reasonable change rather than digging in our heels only when it is twisted and bent.
B. The Translation of Individual,
Specific Texts that Either
Indicate or Encourage
Modernism, Skepticism, and Unbelief
With the obvious exception of 1 Corinthians 13, whether these examples are considered encouragement to infidelity or proof of infidelity will hinge upon which critic is introducing the specific example. The same “misleading translations” can be introduced to prove either point, depending upon the assumptions of the criticizer.
It should be remembered that the argument from what a translation supposed “encourages” can be either a strong one or a very over stated one. Furthermore, ninety-nine percent of users might be completely oblivious of any doctrinal impact of the change. Does one translate for the 99 or for the super-cautious and suspicious 1? For that matter how can anyone so translate to fully avoid “false doctrine” being read into the new text? People have credibly creative minds don’t they!
In addition a translator is morally obligated to be fair and honest, even if the result is a rendering that the unscrupulous and ignorant can misuse. (Against such there is never any fool-proof protection!) If a teacher perverts that passage, the blame should be placed on the misuser and not the innocent translator, shouldn’t it?
However there are other cases where the situation is much different. For example, where a text can be legitimately translated—from the standpoint of grammar and sentence construction—in two different ways, but one creates a blatant contradiction with other Scriptures or creates serious “tension” with them. In such cases, it is only an anti-Scriptural pseudo-scholarship that requires rendering it in the way most hostile to the consistency and full inspiration of the Bible. It is nothing short of dishonorable capitulation to the forces of unbelief—whether one’s own or that of others.
With these as background thoughts, let us proceed to examine a number of the challenged renderings that led to controversy
(1) John 5:39
In the KJV this is a command: “Search the Scriptures.” In the ERV and ASV this is altered to an assertion of what they were doing: “Ye search the Scriptures.” This removes the element of obligation and duty present in the KJV rendering.
critics of the change argued that this was an abandonment of a well-established
wording: It “had been chosen long before
by Wycliffe, Tyndale, Cranner,
and the versions of Geneve and
Sufficiently divided was the opinion that the ASV concedes “Search the scriptures” as an alternative, footnote possibility.
(2) 1 Timothy 3:16
Here in the King James we read: “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” The ERV and ASV substitute “He” for “God.” This removes a direct attribution of Deityship to Jesus.
Although Frederick Field was a critic of the ERV, it was mainly on technical or narrow matters of correct translation. “Although not of the number of those who lightly estimate or altogether deny the doctrinal results of the Revision, I cannot help thinking that the extent and importance of them has been greatly exaggerated both by advocates and impugners of the catholic faith” (N. 15). Clearly to them the very number of doctrinally related “mistranslations” meant they could not be dismissed as eccentric flukes but a systematic pattern of unbelief being intentionally inserted into the text.
Here, however, he felt an important doctrinal matter had been needlessly altered and he was quite upset at what had been done to the passage. He was especially indignant at the effort of various defenders of the alternative to take refuge in the claim that this change is in the same category as that of the universally rejected “three witnesses” addition in 1 John 5:7. (Although he does not mention it, one obvious difference is that 1 John 5:7 involves a textual addition; 1 Timothy involves an alleged textual substitution.)
Field argues that the textual omission of “God” may not be as overpowering as often thought, but his main stress is on the “internal” evidence of the verse itself: Having introduced the subject “great is the mystery of godliness,” to then add that “God was manifest[ed] in the flesh” makes inherently greater sense than the vague “he”—“he”—who and how?—was manifested.
(And what does that “he” have to do with “godliness” unless the “he” under discussion was a unique manifestation of it—moral perfection, i.e., Deity? Furthermore in the light of John 1:1ff’s assertion of Jesus’ deityship, would not “God was manifested” be the most logical remark for John to have written—when John 1 clearly shows he believed that was what had happened? Why then would he shift to vaguer language in John 5?)
(3) Romans 9:5
This is another text alleged to have been rewritten with the purpose of eliminating any reference to Christ’s supernaturalness. The KJV reads: “Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.” Here, though, the attack is lodged at the marginal, alternate reading and how it shows ways to avoid making “God” here refer to Jesus.
If you can’t purge it from the text itself, you can at least try to discredit the supernatural allusion through the addition of a clever and misleading footnote—or so the [Page 71] reasoning goes. Burgon tore into the translator “irresponsibility” with great vigor and enthusiasm (N. 16):
A grander or more unequivocal testimony to our Lord’s eternal Godhead
is nowhere to be found in Scripture. Accordingly, these words have been as
confidently appealed to by faithful Doctors of the Church in every age, as they
have been unsparingly assailed by unbelievers. The dishonest shifts by which the
latter seek to evacuate the record which they are powerless to refute or deny, are
paraded by our ill-starred Revisionists in the following terms:
“Some modern Interpreters place a full stop after ‘flesh,’ and
translate, “He who is God over all be (is) blessed for ever.’ Others
punctuate, ‘flesh, who is over all. God be (is) blessed for ever.’ ” [RW:
The ASV has this footnote: “Or, ‘flesh: he who is over all, God, be
for ever.’ ”]
Now this is a matter—let it be clearly observed which (as Dr. Hort is aware) belongs to interpretation, and not to textual criticism.” What business then has it in these pages at all?
Is then the function of Divines appointed to revise the Authorized Version, to give information to the 90 millions of English-speaking Christians scattered throughout the world as to the unfaithfulness of “some modern interpreters?” We have hitherto supposed that it was “ancient authorities” exclusively (whether “a few,” or “some,” or “many”) to which we are invited to submit our judgment.
After raking them over the hot coals for inserting a matter of interpretation—modern, not ancient—he then points out that even as interpretation it flies in the face of the vast bulk of ancient church writers who applied “God Blessed” to Christ rather than to God the Father:”
Against such an overwhelming torrent of Patristic testimony—for we have
enumerated upwards of sixty ancient Fathers—it will not surely be pretended that
the Socinian interpretation, to which our Revisionists give such prominence can
stand. But why had it been introduced at all?
We shall have every Christian reader with us in our contention that such
perverse imaginations of “modern Interpreters” are not entitled to a place in the
margin of the New Testament. For our Revisionists to have even given them
currency, and thereby a species of sanction, constitutes in our view a very grave offence. A public retraction and a very humble apology we claim at their hands
. . . [This footnote, RW] would, by itself, have been sufficient to determine the
fate of the present Revision.
(4) 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Most readers of the New Testament have probably not paid a whole lot of attention when they’ve come across the above alterations. However, one that does leap out and grab your attention no matter how casual a reader one may be is found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. There the KJV reads, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” Both the ERV and ASV replace this with, “Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for. . . .”
Burgon protests that this substitute wording “may be plausibly declared to imply that a distinction is drawn by the Apostle himself between inspired and uninspired Scripture” (N. 18).
The technical Greek merits and demerits I will leave to someone else. But it does not take a Greek linguistic expert to recognize that the ASV / ERV rendering seems to fly in the face of the very point Paul is making. He is speaking of a body of writing (“Scripture”) that makes one “perfect” or “complete” to “every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).
If one is only talking about (some?) of the components of Scripture (“every scripture [if it is] inspired of God”), how then could a partially inspired volume make one perfect/complete to “every good work”? How could one distinguish between the parts that would do that and the uninspired parts that might even be detracting one from such complete obedience? Indeed if the “scripture” is under discussion is of such a mixed bag, wasn’t it imperative for someone like Paul to purge it of those inferior elements so that all it could do was point the believer in the right direction?
That wasn’t done. And the only rationale for it not being done was the assumption that every thing that truly qualified as “Scripture” contributed to making the believer able to perform “every good work” and that none served as a genuine potential obstacle. In short, we are driven back to where we began, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” Believe it or reject it as fact, but can any of us fairly deny that it was the assumption Paul was working from?
It should be noted, however, that at least some staunch conservatives have argued that even if the ERV / ASV reading be conceded as the better one, the impact on the doctrine of inspiration is actually nill. The famous Benjamin B. Warfield made the case this way:
No doubt both questions are interesting, but for the main matter now
engaging our attention they are both indifferent. Whether Paul looking back at
the Sacred Scriptures he had just mentioned, makes the assertion, he is about to
add, of them distributively, of all of their parts, or collectively, of their entire mass
is of no moment: to say that every part of these Scriptures is God-breathed and to
say that the whole of these Scriptures is God-breathed, is for the main matter all
Nor is there any difference between saying that they are in all their parts,
or in their whole extent God-breathed and therefore profitable, and saying that
they are in all their parts or in their whole extent, because God-breathed as well
In both cases these Sacred Scriptures are declared to owe their value to
their Divine origin, and in both cases their Divine origin is energetically asserted
of their entire fabric.
C. The “Modernism” of the ERV and ASV
as Perpetuated in the “Liberal” RSV, NRSV
and in the “Conservative”
NKJV, NASB, and NIV?
The accusations of a Modernist “taint” pervasive throughout the American Standard Version may seem utterly unthinkable and improbable to those who were taught that it was solid “bed rock,” virtually the embodiment of full translation accuracy. Yea virtually the standard by which we can judge other translations.
Yet the charges are clearly relevant to the similar controversies as to reliability that have swirled around the more recent Revised Standard and New Revised Standard Versions. Only those KJV “only and forever” advocates are unlikely to be surprised that such accusations have occurred regarding earlier major translation efforts. To the rest, the ASV (though little used today) probably still has the aura of “gold standard” for comparison.
The ASV outlived its initial critics, but it took a considerable amount of time to do so. Phil Maruo’s attack on the ASV/ERV translations (Which Version? Authorized or Revised) (N. 20) was published almost a quarter century after the appearance of the ASV, almost forty-five years after the ERV, which contained the same basic objected to “faults.”
So it is not surprising that when the Revised Standard Version first appeared in the late 1940s that it “inherited” an undying band of critics, as has the New Revised Standard of more recent vintage. In spite of the critics, the RSV has had a large religious readership among supposed religious “moderates” and even among such groups as the Southern Baptists, who would normally be described by such terms as “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” Even so it never became the translation of choice among the general evangelical religious community.
Will the NRSV do any better? It perpetuates so much of what hostile critics denounced as “modernism” in its predecessor, that the major theological hurdles remain in place. Furthermore, it has added a potentially far more explosive issue, its “surrender” to the forces of militant feminism—a subject that requires a chapter in its own right. As if this weren’t enough, the NRSV injects an abundance of additional new problems, so extensive that it makes the original RSV look like an island of sanity in comparison.
In addition it faces no less than three major competitions produced by and aimed at those who consciously and militantly conservative in their theology: the New King James Version (my favorite), the New American Standard Bible, and the New [Page 74] International Version. Indicative of the divisions among religious conservatives, the NKJV seems to have its strongest clientele among those who especially like the KJV and the NASB among those who loved the ASV as a standard of modern language orthodoxy. (But whose reliability, as we have seen, has been vigorously challenged on that score.)
has powerful forces pushing in its behalf and it may well dominate “mainline
Protestantism,” at least in
In this chapter we are left with the question of whether the RSV and NRSV can rightly be considered (and dismissed as Modernist perversions of the word of God. Is the “taint” minimal or nonexistent or, at the other extreme, powerful and dominant? Just as the charge was made against the ASV, the making of such an accusation does not prove its validity—especially to later generations.
An obvious beginning point is to examine the specific cases of alleged Modernism in the ERV / ASV and to see how the RSV / NRSV handle the same texts. For purposes of validating or invalidating the accusation we will compare them with three versions that are normally ranked as bulwarks of conservatism (the NKJV and NASB) and a third (RSV) that is placed in that category even though it may well have a different major problem in its alleged friendliness to Calvinism. As to the specific editions we utilized, our RSV was printed in the early 70s, the NIV in 1974 and the NKJV in 1982.
In our earlier study we initially examined examples of alleged bias in word selection.
The prime offender was the replacement of “miracles” by the word “signs.” Of nine cases in the gospel of John (KJV), the NASB, the RSV, and the NRSV make the substitution in all cases. The NKJV follows this pattern in eight of the nine cases; in John 9:16 it retains the reading, “How can a sinner do such miracles?”
An ideal method of using the word “sign”--if one is to use it at all--is found in the NIV rendering of the nine texts: “miraculous signs;” this is faithful not only to the literal meaning of the term (“signs”) but also stresses the element of supernaturalness (“miraculous”) that is clearly implicit in the usage.
A second offender that ouraged Buron was the substitution of “eternal” punishment for “everlasting” punishment. It was claimed that “eternal” was preferred by those who believed that Divine punishment after death unquestionably comes to an end.
There are 14 occurrences of “everlasting” in the KJV of the four gospels. In this text sample of ours, the NASB changes all of them to “eternal;” the RSV and NRSV do the same. The NIV makes the alteration in 11 of the 14 cases. “Everlasting” is retained in only John , , and . In marked contrast to these, the New King James Version retains everlasting in all 14 instances.
Next we turned our attention to four cases of substituted renderings, three of which raised indignation because they were placed in the text and one because it is suggested in a footnote.
In the KJV, John is a command: “Search the Scriptures.” The ERV / ASV turn it into something less forceful, an observation not of what must be done, but of what was being done: “Ye search the Scriptures.”
[Page 75] “You search the scriptures” is the reading of the RSV, NRSV, NASB, and NKJV. Interestingly, the NIV endorses the change, but puts greater emphasis on the intensity of the study: “You diligently study the Scriptures. A footnote suggests that they “study diligently (the imperative).”
In 1 Timothy the change from “God was manifested in the flesh” to “He was manifested in the flesh” was strongly protested. Only the NKJV retains the KJV rendering though conceding in a footnote, “Neutral Text reads, ‘who.’ ”
In footnotes, the other translations provide the KJV wording. The NIV: “Some manuscripts read ‘God.’ ” The NASB is less friendly: “Some later manuscripts read ‘God.’ ” The RSV seems to play down even further the acceptability of the KJV approach. On “He” it comments: “Greek, ‘Who;’ other ancient authorities read ‘God;’ others, ‘which.’ ” The NRSV has the same minimizing note.
Our third illustration was Romans 9:5 in which “God blessed for ever” is clearly a description of Jesus (in the KJV). The ERV / ASV footnotes pointed to different punctuation that would make the text refer to the Father instead.
The NASB main text has it “Christ
according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever.” The NKJV is emphatic that Christ’s deityship is under discussion: “Christ came, who is over all, the eternally
blessed God.” Neither translation
provides a footnote suggesting the possibility of a different reading.
The NIV includes as its main text the KJV type reading while noting the alternative possibilities in a footnote. The RSV main texts the verse in such a manner as to clearly strip it of any reference to Jesus’ deity: “Christ. God, who is overall, be blessed forever.” However a footnote draws attention to an alternative reading in which “God” clearly refers to Christ.
The NRSV main text also strips the passage of any reference to the Godship of Jesus. It is the “Messiah” who is “God blessed forever” rather than being God. The footnote allows for a Christocentric approach, however (of “God” as referring to Christ) while also submitting another alternative that continues the separation of the God and Christ parts of the text.
Finally there is 2 Timothy where the dispute is between “all scripture” (implying the totality) and “every scripture” (implying or at least allowing that only specific parts of Scripture are under discussion. The ERV and ASV both opt for the latter.
All five recent translations return to the KJV approach. The NIV and NKJV do so without providing any footnote suggesting the rendering preferred by the ERB and ASV. The RSV and NRSV give “every scripture” in a footnote. The NASB acknowledges the existence of this alternative, but indicates its judgment of its weakness by saying, “or possibly, ‘Every scripture. . . .’ ”
We can see that these readings that were once dismissed as doctrinally weak and modernistic have been generally accepted. In only one case (2 Timothy -17) has the judgment been reversed. The other contested readings have either come to dominate or, at least, been accepted as legitimate alternatives.
The RSV has been severally criticized for its “Liberalism” tendencies, but the acceptance of these by the NASB, NIV, and NKJV surely cannot be dismissed on such grounds. (Unless we are going to say that even the more evangelical style versions have been the victims of major league distortion as well.) The lesson we would draw is that [Page 76] though the disputed changes may, indeed, be wrong that they (at least generally) reflect good faith errors and not intentional theological axe grinding.
Furthermore, even if one does establish a Modernist rendering here and there, it would not necessarily follow that a translation is dominated by such or must be laid aside—any more than the KJV’s Calvinist errors prove that translation must be fully rejected. In both cases, the bias that does exist warns us to be alert and perceptive readers, aware of the danger, so that we will “catch” the existence of the error when we come across it.
(Whether the NRSV is salvageable on such terms is a very different matter. Here we have a translation that suffers not only from “traditional errors” but which proudly acknowledges that it is going to embrace a “gender neutral” approach no matter what the text actually says. A translation that is proud of its bias and that openly doesn’t care what was in the original represents such a spiteful rejection of translator responsibility that one wonders whether it can ever have enough virtues to compensate.)
N. 1 -- Henry J. Todd. Vindication of Our
Authorized Translation and Translators.
N. 2 -- Ibid., page vi.
N. 3 -- Ibid., page vii.
N. 4 -- Ibid., pages vii-viii.
N. 5 -- Ibid., 69.
N. 6 -- Ibid., page 70.
N. 7 -- Ibid., pages 73-74.
N. 8 -- John W. Burgon. The Revision Revised. 1883.
N. 9 -- Ibid., page 203.
N. 10 -- Ibid., page 202.
N. 11 -- Ibid., page 207.
N. 12 -- Ibid.
[Page 77] N. 13 -- Ibid., page 201-202.
N. 14 -- Frederick Field. Notes on the Translation
of the New Testament.
N. 15 -- Ibid., page 204.
N. 16 -- Burgon, page 211.
N. 17 -- Ibid.
N. 18 -- Ibid., page 209.
N. 19 -- Benjamin J. Warfield. Revelation and Inspiration. Page 80.
N. 20 -- Phil Mauro. Which Version? Authorized or Revised? 1924.