The Ever-Translating God
The translator had an ambitious vision. Using various texts from scripture’s original languages, he set about to update older versions of the Bible to be more readable. He was brave to do so; traditionalists have a way of making change costly.
It took years, and not many people knew it at the time, but it was a monumental event in the history of the church when the first books of this new translation, the four gospels, were made public.
Some welcomed the translator’s work; many did not. And the resisters consistently expressed one major complaint: the translation seemed less dignified than the versions they were used to.
The translator above is Jerome, who was commissioned by the bishop of Rome in the 380s to produce a new Latin translation — the version that later came to be known as the Vulgate. It took years for this newfangled translation to catch on. It was readable, to be sure. It just didn’t sound ‘biblical.’
Today, of course, Jerome’s Vulgate is the most archaic-sounding Bible we can imagine. But when Jerome started, it was fresh. It was not the first Latin translation, but it was the first to be so comprehensive, to rely so closely on ancient texts, and to aim for accessibility. But in matters of religion, all new things are suspect.
It took a while for Jerome’s work to become standard. When did it become the accepted translation? As soon as it began to sound a little archaic. Only then did the religious-minded warm up to it.
Modern translations in the last couple of generations have faced similar challenges. Perhaps they defy tradition. Or maybe they challenge conventional thinking. Or perhaps — and this may strike a nerve — they just don’t sound ‘religious’ enough.
Novelty and spirituality
Some people jump at all novelties. Some have a kneejerk reaction against them. Somewhere in between, most of us approach them with curiosity and caution.
But in matters of spirituality — not only with biblical translations but with any stream of thought—we tend to be careful. If a translation, an insight, or a movement seems too casual, too contrary to tradition, too trendy, we wonder if it’s legitimate.
There’s a healthy skepticism in that approach, but also a dangerous resistance. Sometimes, especially when God is moving in unfamiliar ways, our traditionalism causes us to miss out on what he is doing.
Today, many people cling to the King James Version for its formality and dignity. Some cling to denominational traditions because they were accepted and passed down to us by people we trust. There’s nothing wrong with those mindsets in themselves. Old translations and established practices are valuable.
But when we cling to them at the expense of any new movement of God, we become like the Pharisees who didn’t recognize the work God was doing in front of them. We embrace godliness and miss God.
Religion and relationship
Why do we want the works and words of God to seem archaic to us? Maybe we are so accustomed to the idea of truth being passed down to us from ancient times that it needs to seem . . . well, ancient.
But like Jerome in the fourth century, we live in a time when many crave relevance, accessibility, or even just the possibility of God being near.
Recent generations have often framed this craving in terms of the difference between religion and relationship. The religious instinct longs for establishment, tradition, and dignity. Our hearts long for a connection.
Which does God prefer? I think he’s fine with whatever draws us closer to him — within the context of truth, of course. And he’s not at all fine with those who insist that it has to be their way and not any other.
God’s nature never changes, but his methods hardly ever stay the same. Every prophet’s experience was different. Every miracle of Jesus had a different twist. Every sermon of Paul and Peter fit the circumstances at hand.
God will always resist formulas and insist on a real, dynamic relationship. Sometimes he will lead you in familiar ways. Usually, he will not.
He translated his message through his prophets.
He translated the gospel through his apostles.
He translated himself in his Son.
And he still translates his will, his works, and his ways into the many situations and circumstances we face — if we will listen. Ancient truths, to be sure, but new expressions.
Always leave your heart open to God’s Word. And when he works it into your heart in new and unexpected ways, go with it. In a multitude of ways, and in many areas of our lives, he is always authoring new translations of old, eternal truths.