You Can’t Be Too Careful

Having rejected every authority on earth except that of their own personal interpretation of Holy Scripture, Protestants must take pains to prove that their personal interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. They are certainly at a disadvantage, seeing as how (1) they can’t claim that their understanding of any given set of verses was passed down from bishop to bishop from the apostles themselves, (2) they can’t document that their perspective on any distinctively Protestant doctrine lines up with the teaching of the Church Fathers, and (3) they can’t say that the indefectibility that Christ promised His Church somehow applies to their tiny splinter of a fraction of a denomination and not to the other equally splintered fractions which disagree with them. It is at this point where you will see most Protestant groups beginning to trot out their Bible Scholars. These are the experts who can explain to you that, “properly translated,” various passages mean something quite different from what you’d always thought they meant.

I grant that some people really are Bible Scholars. I’ve just gotten mighty tired of 2nd-year Greek students who think they can exegete a text better than the Catholic Church because they’ve “studied the original Greek!” Let me put this in context: I majored in languages (not New Testament Greek – modern languages), and after graduation I moved to Germany where I lived and taught for five years. If you asked me to translate Martin Luther’s “Von der babylonischen Gefangenschaft der Kirche” into English, I would have to decline. I am not competent to translate that work into English, even though English is my native language and I was immersed in the study of German for many years. In order to competently translate such a work, I would have to be a scholar of 16th-century German (it’s been 500 years, and languages change, you know), a student of Luther’s thought, and a theologian. To just pull someone in off the street because they happen to speak both German and English and say, “Hey, can you translate Luther’s ‘Babylonian Captivity’ for me?” would be foolish. You’d get a half-baked, error-ridden translation. Yet folks with a couple of semesters of New Testament Greek under their belt think they can translate a verse like John 3:5 better than anyone in the 2,000-year history of the Church. Catholic apologist Steve Ray dealt with someone who presented this argument:

Jesus told (Nicodemus) that one must be born ‘of the Spirit’ in order to enter the kingdom of God. A better translation of John 3.5 would read: “… except a man be born of water—even of the Spirit—he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The little Greek word kai is often translated “even”—which I believe better conveys the Lord’s meaning here. He is contrasting the water of the womb and fleshly birth, with the water of the Spirit and heavenly birth.

This person was advocating that John 3:5 be understood to mean that being “born again of water and of the Spirit” excluded baptism (“water”). He had convinced himself that Jesus wasn’t talking about water baptism in John 3:5 because “the little Greek word ‘kai’ is often translated ‘even’ – which I believe better conveys the Lord’s meaning here.” Well, golly – isn’t it swell that somebody with a rudimentary knowledge of the Greek language has come along to dispel the myths propagated by two millennia of Catholic teaching!

As Steve goes on to explain to the inquirer, no reputable translation of the Bible (Catholic or Protestant) has ever translated this passage in the way that supposedly “better conveys the Lord’s meaning” – kind of surprising if that translation is the slam-dunk that the inquirer makes it out to be (an argument you might remember to bring up the next time your coworker tries to explain to you that his peculiar understanding of a particular verse is actually “a better way” of translating it.) But this is small potatoes; John 3:5 isn’t the only verse open to creative interpretation, and much has been translated by Protestants-who-should-know-better over the years with the specific aim of helping the Almighty say what the translators are sure that He must have meant to say, so much so that Anglican Bible Scholar N.T. Wright groused:

In this context, I must register one strong protest against one particular translation. When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses. This contrasted so strongly with the then popular New English Bible, and promised such an advance over the then rather dated Revised Standard Version, that I recommended it to students and members of the congregation I was then serving. Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul’s letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said. I do not know what version of Scripture they use at Dr. Piper’s church. But I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.

This is a large claim, and I have made it good, line by line, in relation to Romans in my big commentary, which prints the NIV and the NRSV and then comments on the Greek in relation to both of them. Yes, the NRSV sometimes lets you down, too, but nowhere near as frequently or as badly as the NIV. And, yes, the NIV has now been replaced with newer adaptations in which some at least of the worst features have, I think, been at least modified. But there are many who, having made the switch to the NIV, are now stuck with reading Romans 3:21-26 like this:

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known…. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…. [God] did this to demonstrate his justice… he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

In other words, “the righteousness of God” in Romans 3:21 is only allowed to mean “the righteous status which comes to people from God,” whereas the equivalent term in Romans 3:25 and Romans 3:26 clearly refers to God’s own righteousness – which is presumably why the NIV has translated it as “justice,” to avoid having the reader realize the deception. In the following paragraph, a similar telltale translation flaw occurs, to which again we shall return. In Romans 3:29, Paul introduces the question, “Is God the God of Jews only?” with the single-letter word e normally translated “or”; “Or is God the God of Jews only?” –in other words, if the statement of Romans 3:28 were to be challenged, it would look as though God were the God of Jews only. But the NIV, standing firmly in the tradition that sees no organic connection between justification by faith on the one hand and the inclusion of Gentiles within God’s people on the other, resists this clear implication by omitting the word altogether. Two straws in a clear and strong wind. And those blown along by this wind may well come to forget that they are reading a visibly and demonstrably flawed translation, and imagine that this is what Paul really said.”

To summarize, Wright is claiming that there are some serious problems with the Bible version used by most English-speaking Evangelical Protestants. So, who’s right – Anglican “Bible Scholar” N.T. Wright, or the “Bible Scholars” who produced the New International Version of the Bible?

With no Magisterium to rely on, the Protestant faithful are the civilian casualties in these Bible Scholar Wars. They simply have to choose the team they think looks best in their uniforms and hope that it all turns out well. If I have 20 Bible Scholars who say that this is the correct understanding of James 2:24, and you have only 19 who say that that is the correct understanding, my understanding must be the correct one – right?

My team wins!

The Catholic Church looks at it this way: The New Testament was written in the first century A.D. in “common” Koiné Greek, as was the Septuagint, the Old Testament of the early Christians. Koiné Greek is now a dead language, so there are no native speakers with whom to consult. Anyone studying the language of the New Testament must familiarize himself with that language without the assistance of anyone who actually speaks that language in this day and age. That in and of itself is a substantial handicap.

Then there is the cultural aspect of translation, which should not be minimalized. Modern-day American English, for example, relies heavily on exaggeration and sarcasm. Ya think?? Other societies simply do not exaggerate and sneer the way we do. (I should know – I once told a Turkish friend of mine that I had to wait in line behind “a hundred other people.” To this day I don’t think she understands that I didn’t mean that literally.) Someone living 2,000 years from now who tries to translate a 21st-century American novel into Bengali, for example, will have to bear this tendency in mind; taking everything the characters say literally will result in a gross misinterpretation of what is actually meant. Culture plays a huge part in translation, and modern-day Bible Scholars can only unearth so much. Certain aspects of ancient cultures will always remain somewhat mysterious to us.

All this is the basis of the Catholic argument that the people closest to Jesus in time, place, language and culture are undoubtedly the best equipped to break the stalemate and explain to us what the words of Jesus and his disciples actually mean. Twenty-first-century English-speaking Bible Scholars are simply laboring under too many insurmountable handicaps to claim that they can translate reliably without availing themselves of the invaluable assistance of the Church Fathers. Protestants, especially Evangelicals, tend to downplay this assessment, basically since the Church Fathers contradict the prevailing Protestant wisdom at every turn. Yet, when it is sometimes difficult even for me, a 21st-century native speaker of English, to understand what you, a 21st-century native speaker of English, are trying to say, why should we feel that the chances that modern-day Protestant Bible Scholars might be mistranslating and misinterpreting Scripture are slim to none?

This brings back a memory of an uncomfortable teaching mishap in Germany – my attempt to explain to my class the meaning of the English phrase “you can’t be too careful,” which the students understood to mean “Don’t be too careful.” I struggled fruitlessly to explain that the phrase actually means that you must be very, very careful – my students, having believed that they grasped the obvious meaning of the words, didn’t want to be corrected, even though they were non-native speakers of English and I was the one with the State of New York birth certificate. Their attitude was one of: The meaning of the phrase is self-evident – now teach us something we don’t know!

This can be the attitude of Evangelical Bible Scholars, who just “know” that Jesus taught justification by faith ALONE. This pseudo-knowledge is bound to color their translation efforts – how could it be otherwise? “When the Bible says ‘justified by faith,’ it means ‘justified by faith ALONE’!

The meaning of the phrase is self-evident!”

Patrick Madrid in his Where Is That in the Bible? proposes a simple exercise in understanding: Any native speaker of English would claim to be able to comprehend the simple phrase, “I never said you stole the money.” Even non-native speakers with a few years of training in English would feel confident of their comprehension. It’s not Shakespeare! But think of the possible nuances involved here. The speaker could actually be saying:

I never said you stole the money (but Martha said you did).

I never said you stole the money (those words never crossed my lips, but I sent a telegram to that effect).

I never said you stole the money (but the money was stolen, and I said John stole it).

I never said you stole the money (but I did say that you might have borrowed it and forgotten to return it).

I never said you stole the money (I’m sure you didn’t steal the money; I’m equally sure you did steal everything else).

You speak English; I speak English – yet we cannot guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have correctly understood the nuances of that simple, 7-word sentence. Can any modern-day Bible Scholar claim with a straight face that he can correctly understand the Bible to say that a man is justified by faith alone, and not by works (contradicting James 2:24 which reads “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”), and that the first- and second-century Church Fathers (the majority of whom were speakers of Koiné Greek, and some of whom knew the apostles or the disciples of the apostles), simply misunderstood this critical teaching ?

“The whole past time of your faith will profit you nothing, unless now in this wicked time we also withstand coming sources of danger. … Take heed, lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called, we fall asleep in our sins. For then, the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, will thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord. … And you should pay attention to this all the more, my brothers, when you reflect on and see that after such great signs and wonders had been performed in Israel, they were still abandoned. Let us beware lest we be found to be, as it is written, the ‘many who are called,’ but not the ‘few that are chosen.'” Barnabas (c. 70-130 A.D.)

“We are justified by our works, not by our words.” Clement Of Rome (c. 96 A.D.)

“He who raised him (Jesus) up from the dead will raise us up also – if we do his will, and walk in his commandments, and love what he loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness.” Polycarp of Smyrna (c. A.D. 110)

“Let those who are not found living as He taught, be understood not to be Christians, even though they profess with the lips the teachings of Christ. For it is not those who make profession, but those who do the works, who will be saved.” Justin Martyr (c. 160 A.D.)

“Rather, we should fear ourselves, lest perchance, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins, but are shut out from his kingdom. And for that reason, Paul said, ‘For if [God] spared not the natural branches, [take heed] lest he also spare not you.'” Irenaeus (A.D. 180)

“So, by obeying the will of God, he who wants to can procure for himself life everlasting. For God has given us a law and holy commandments. And everyone who keeps them can be saved. And, obtaining the resurrection, he can inherit incorruption.” Theophilus (A.D. 180):

“For by grace are ye saved” – but not, indeed, without good works. Rather, we must be saved by being molded for what is good.” Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195)

You can’t be too careful when it comes to interpreting the sacred texts. The claim that we Enlightened Geniuses of the modern-day world are in a far better position to understand the teachings of the New Testament than those benighted contemporaries of the apostles doesn’t make a whole lotta sense. In the writings of the Early Church Fathers, one finds the doctrines taught by the Holy Catholic Church on the subjects of abortion, apostolic succession, baptism, the canon of Scripture, Holy Tradition, the virtue of remaining celibate, divorce and remarriage, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the necessity of good works and final perseverance, penance, the communion of saints, the primacy of Peter, Christian unity – all areas in which Evangelical Bible Scholars feel that they simply “know better” than the Fathers and the Catholic Church with whom the Fathers agree.

The new-and-improved Christianity produced by Protestant Bible Scholars is a very shiny product, appealing to many, but I wouldn’t buy into it if I were you. It pays to bear in mind the old saying, “Let the buyer beware,” also commonly expressed as:

You can’t be too careful!


On the memorial of St. Francis Xavier

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. So, the take-away is that I’m not getting you to translate Luther for me? Boo hoo. 😉

    • Hey, I can translate Luther for you – just not competently!

      If that doesn’t bother you….

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