One of the pleasures of taking up the blog after so long a time is the chance to revisit, on the one hand, long-forgotten drafts (some nearly finished!) waiting to be published, and on the other, seemingly endless scraps of paper carefully tucked away in my desk drawer, in the hopes that one day I might have occasion to return to them. I had meant to publish a couple of short posts drawn from each of these categories last week, but the toils of life in this fallen world and the infirmities of the flesh prevented me from so doing (though, happily, not from posting altogether). Allow me, then, to resume the program this week, and so bring you a post (and perhaps two others in the near future) that harks back to the golden days of Biblioblogdom. This one happens to have been drafted on the whole in 2008, in response to our good friend Lingamish (a.k.a. David Ker), who has long departed the blogosphere for other (and doubtless more fruitful) fields of endeavor. He is nevertheless sorely missed, not least as a creative force and sparring partner. Here’s to you, Dave. Thanks for all the lingapotami.
It appears that our good friend Lingamish is presently distraught because his biblical translation of choice, the Contemporary English Version (CEV), has started to make use of the word “grace” in recent editions. (Previously, he notes, it used exclusively such expressions as “undeserved kindness” and “gift,” depending on the context.) He opines:
“I strongly believe that when a Bible translation uses archaic or insider vocabulary that they are in effect requiring readers to finish the translation for them. This is a half-baked strategy. In essence what the translator is doing is saying, ‘When you read the word grace you shouldn’t understand it as a synonym for elegance like it is used in modern parlance. Instead you should understand it as a deep theological word whose full significance is only accessible to you if you understand my theological framework.’”
“[T]he word ‘grace,’ of course is absent [from the CEV]. It was brought into the text by John Wycliffe, 1384, when he transliterated the Latin term ‘gratia.’ The problem, of course, the word ‘grace’ today is that it means charm, poise, beauty, loveliness, and you cannot even create a contemporary English sentence using ‘grace’ in the sense that it’s used in the biblical terms, you’re saved by grace. And so we looked at the meaning of the Greek word rather than […] continuing with the […] traditional terminologies.”
Now I realize that this may come as a shock to some, but it bears noting that the Bible, like any other religious text (and more to the point, like any other sacred text), contains a great deal of specialized terminology—what Lingamish calls “insider vocabulary,” or worse, “Biblish.” This is so because a sacred text both belongs to the community that regards it as sacred and finds its rightful context within it. In turn, the community receives these “insider words” and invests them with expansive meanings that reflect the understanding and experience of the community (i.e., its “theological framework”). Thus we are not dealing merely with shorthand or jargon that can be merrily parsed away by means of circumlocution, but precisely with weighty words whose full significance is indeed only accessible to those connected to the community. Thus, what is needed is not merely for a translation to resolve every conceivable problem in the text, but rather to bring readers into the life of the community. Or, to put it in perfectly traditional Christian “insider words,” what is needed is conversion and catechesis, initiation and mystagogy.
Note that the Christian Bible itself does not take the view that all of its parts are equally clear; II Peter 3:16 explicitly tells us that in St Paul’s epistles, for instance, there are “some things hard to understand.” Nor does Scripture suggest that all of its parts are equally accessible to the general reader apart from the community.1 The episode of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 makes this counterpoint eloquently, particularly in the exchange between St Philip and the Eunuch (vv. 30-31a), which highlights the need for a guide in connection with the act of reading Scripture:
“So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said: ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?'”
Anything to the contrary assumes a view of Scripture which effectively separates it from the life and experience of the community of faith to which it belongs. And indeed, the sort of translation for which our dear friend Lingamish yearns is only possible in a universe where the Bible stands alone, severed from the Church’s reading and use of the Scriptures over two millennia. Not only do I adamantly refuse to be part of such a universe, but I note that it is merely an unattainable mythical creation—not an utopia, even, because there is nothing ideal or desirable about it. Indeed, not even the most fervent biblicist truly believes in such a thing, whatever their protestations. The story is often told of the distinguished Christian preacher convinced that, were Bibles to be dropped in a remote area without previous contact with Western civilization, the people there would necessarily organize Churches of Christ, non-instrumental: that is, that they would replicate exactly (O wonder!) his own community of faith.
Incidentally, during a recent visit [i.e., in 2008] to the Bible Society in Río Piedras, I picked up an inexpensive copy of the Traducción in Lenguaje Actual (TLA), the Spanish equivalent of the CEV. After a week or so of reading several representative portions of this translation, I have only this to say: so help me if I ever again have to read a banal and basically meaningless adjective like special applied to such a wondrous and weighty subject as God’s choosing of a people for his Name!
1 By the same token, neither does the Bible take the view that all of its parts are equally unclear, nor does it suggest that all its parts are equally inaccessible!