Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Translation and the ministry of the word

Reformed theologians understood that while translation was necessary, and while they could convey the Word of God from the original Hebrew and Greek in substance, it could not be translated absolutely, perfectly, or exhaustively. This doctrine is classically expressed by Francis Turretin (cf. Francis Turretin, The Doctrine of Scripture trans. J.W. Beardslee III, Grand Rapids, 1981) but in the British post-Reformation context it may be discerned in the preface to the Authorised Version of 1611, ‘The Translators to the Reader’. Here it is asserted that in the sixteenth century English translations, ‘all is sound for substance’ (p.19). Slightly before this, the Elizabethan English Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright, responded to the criticisms levelled by the Roman Catholic translators of the Rheims New Testament with the tenet that ‘the title…the worde of God’ used in relation to translations ‘agreeth only to the truth of God, which hath also the frame of his words’ (Answer to the Preface to the Rhemish Testament, London, 1602, p.102). Like Calvin, he favoured essentially preserving the word order (T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Grand Rapids, 1971, p.102) in order to convey the majesty of the Scriptures. Calvin was well aware that Biblical Greek was not classical Greek: it was in fact more powerful, ‘the force of the truth of Sacred Scripture is manifestly too powerful to need the art of words’ (Institutes, I.viii.1). That is to say, it does not need to be revised according to classical taste in rhetoric and elegant style, it has a simple, clear and powerful style of its own.

It was widely recognised amongst the Reformed that preaching is able to supplement the deficiency of translations, and, moreover, that, as Beardslee explains, preaching ‘continues the work of Bible translation; hence the importance of an educated ministry’ (ibid. p.154, n.3). In their high view of preaching the Reformers held it to be the Word of God. Bullinger enunciates it in the clearest terms: ‘praedicatio verbi Dei est verbum Dei’ (the Word of God preached is in fact the Word of God) (quoted John R. Knott, The Sword of the Spirit: Puritan Responses to the Bible, Chicago, 1980, p.50). Likewise Calvin said that ‘[t]he Word of God goeth out of the mouth of God in such a manner that it likewise goeth out of the mouth of men; for God does not speak openly from heaven but employs men as his instruments’ (quoted Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, London, 1953, p.82). We read of Ezra and his colleagues that ‘they read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading’ (Nehemiah 8:8).

Clearly, the Reformers were not claiming either ex cathedra infallibility or immediate inspiration for themselves as their Roman Catholic and Anabaptist opponents respectively asserted. The distinction between the substantial authority of translations and the total verbal authority of the original is perhaps helpful here. Preaching, inasmuch as it represented the Word of God faithfully, could in fact be termed the word of God. A similar distinction was made at the Westminster Assembly by George Gillespie, who held that truths established by logical deduction, that is ‘good and necessary consequence from scripture’ should be regarded as authoritative truth (cp. WCF I.vi and A treatise of the Miscellany questions, Edinburgh, 1649).

The Westminster Confession asserted ‘the majesty of the style’ of Scripture, an epithet that reflected Calvin’s emphasis. Thomas Cartwright likewise spoke of the ‘maiestie of th’authentical copies in the Greek’ (op. cit., p.93), while the discerning preface to the 1611 AV identifies the ‘perspicuity, gravity, majesty of the original Hebrew’ (p.21). William Perkins therefore recommended that pulpit speech be ‘simple and perspicuous, fit both for the peoples understanding and to express the Majestie of the Spirit’ (The Arte of Prophesying, quoted Knott, p.50 - my emphasis). In other words preaching should reflect the majesty of the Scriptures and should aim together with translation at least to be an echo of it.

The Westminster Directory of Publick Worship used similar phrasing in recommending that the minister ought to preache ‘Gravely, as becometh the word of God’ and in requiring him to abstain from ‘an unprofitable use of unknown tongues, strange phrases...sparingly citing sentences of ecclesiastical or other human writers, ancient or modern’. William Perkins had asserted that ‘[h]umane wisdome must be concealed, whether it be in the matter of the sermon, or in the setting forth of the words: because the preaching of the word is the Testimonie of God, and the profession of the knowledge of Christ not of human skill’, therefore a preacher must not ‘tickle the itching eares of his auditorie with fine ringing sentences of the Fathers but observe an admirable plainness and an admirable powerfulness’ (quoted Owen Watkins, The Puritan Experience, London, 1972, p.7). Preaching was to echo the plain powerfulness of the Scriptures themselves and to be informed by close study, in other words it must correspond to a large extent with translation.

In this way, the Divines maintained the careful balance set by the Refomers and their heirs that required learning on the part of a minister with the important qualification that it should not be paraded in the pulpit. They ‘presupposed (according to the rules for ordination) that the minister of Christ is in some measure gifted for so weighty a service, by his skill in the original languages, and in such arts and sciences as are handmaid unto divinity...all which he is to make use of and improve in his private preparations, before he deliver in publick what he hath provided’. Samuel Rutherford supplied the homely but pithy aphorism, ‘the pot may be used in the bilyng but not brought in with the porridge’ (quoted, R.S. Paul, The Assembly of the Lord, Edinburgh, 1985, p.365).

Certain sectarians in England, particularly leading Antinomians, opposed these views at the time. William Dell and John Webster attacked the emphasis upon learning the original Greek and Hebrew. Webster held forth in his tract Academarium Examinem that there could be no teachers, since only the Spirit could teach anyone. ‘To this I know it will be objected’, he said, ‘[t]hat schools teach the knowledge of tongues, without which the Scriptures (being written in the Hebrew and Greek) cannot be rightly translated, expounded, nor interpreted: and therefore it is necessary that Schools and Academies should teach these as properly and mainly conducible to this end’. Webster, however, could concede nothing to such objections, in his opinion languages had been changed and altered as ‘fashions and garments’ and in fact, whoever relies upon a translator is the same as anyone that depends upon a teacher (London, 1654, pp.6-7). Where this left the individual is hard to distinguish. Dell on the other hand simply rejected learning as necessary or prerequisite for the ministry (Christ’s Spirit a Christian’s Strength, London, 1651, p.22).

Rutherford took it in hand to reply to these directly, he emphasised the importance of all Christians having access to the Scriptures but not without what the Confession calls ‘a due use of the ordinary means’ for interpretation (I. vii). The grammatical-historical method could not be dismissed by appeal to the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, although the illumination of the Spirit was of course important. Rutherford could not see that those who ‘goe from weaving, sowing, carpentarie, shoo-making to the pulpit...being voyd of all learning, tongues, logick, arts, sciences, and the literall knowledge of the Scripture’ could make the dangerous claims that they made and allege a direct calling from Christ (A Survey of Spiritual Antichrist, London, 1648, vol. i, p.44-45). As Reformed theologians always emphasised, there must be a final appeal to the Hebrew and Greek, and there it was possible to refute heresies and ‘burie them by the power of the Word’. If the authority of ministers using the proper means of interpretation was rejected and ‘if interpretations be left free to every man’ chaos would ensue inevitably in ‘millions of faiths with millions of senses, and so no faith at all’ (A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience, London, 1649, p.28 & 32).

According to this view as well as that of the Directory, the minister is a specialist engaged in reproducing and applying the message of the Scriptures, or preaching. The minister is a specialist in the Scriptures and must be entirely acquainted with them. J. Gresham Machen, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, in an article entitled defends this principle powerfully ‘The Minister and his Greek Testament’. ‘[W]hatever else the preacher need not know, he must know the Bible; he must know it at first hand, and be able to interpret and defend it. Especially while doubt remains in the world as to the great central question, who more than the ministers should engage in the work of resolving such doubt - by intellectual instruction even more than by argument?’ The obvious conclusion, however, is that ‘this work can be undertaken to best advantage only by those who have an important pre-requisite for the study in a knowledge of the original languages upon which a large part of the discussion is based’ (The Banner of Truth, 103, 4/1972, pp.21-23).

The translators of the Authorised Version possessed these qualifications to an extraordinary degree. Some such as Miles Smith were so conversant in Hebrew that when called upon for the public reading of Scripture on one occasion he produced a small Hebrew bible without vowel points and read from it in ‘the English tongue plainely and fully’. The Westminster Form of Church Government had comparably high standards and required candidates for ordination to be examined by ‘reading the Hebrew and Greek Testaments and rendering some portion of some into Latin’. The problem is that (speaking in the context of the last two centuries) the university or the Academy has taken biblical studies away from the Church particularly with higher criticism and its results. Specialisation in the Scriptures no longer seems to serve preaching at all. Most mainstream evangelical preaching is remarkable if it achieves any depth of continuous concentration upon the Bible at all. While there is no need to introduce learning in itself one feels that learning must be of no real use in the preparation of such discourses.

Today, there is a priestly caste of academics speaking their own language to themselves and these ‘Biblical scholars have rather successfully convinced many in the community of believers that only they, the biblical scholars, can really appreciate the Bible. They are the only ones who can determine what it means. The rest of the community must sit up and listen to the biblical scholars explain what the Bible means’ (T.J. Keegan, Interpreting the Bible: A Popular Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, New York, 1985, p.9). Yet this coterie has produced no collective consensus on the meaning of Scripture in the way that Rutherford envisaged synods of ministers achieving and as was indeed the case in the great Reformed confessions and standards. The work of interpretation, however, ‘cannot be turned over to a few professors whose work is of interest only to themselves, but must be undertaken energetically by spiritually-minded men throughout the Church’ (Machen, op. cit., p.23).