Theology and the Great Tradition

of English Bibles

by Cameron A. MacKenzie

When I was a young man, on two separate occasions my father surprised me with gifts. I expected a present for sure upon graduating from high school and then from college, but I did not expect what it was that he gave me. For on the first occasion, he presented me with a copy of the Concordia Triglotta and on the second, with a facsimile of the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). The surprising element on these two occasions was certainly not in the giver, my father; for I knew well his commitment to the Lutheran Confessions and to the Holy Scriptures, especially in its Authorized Version. No, the surprise was entirely on my part—and I remember thinking upon both occasions: Now what am I going to do with that? And for some time I really did nothing at all with either except to keep them safe and sound—and unread and unexamined.

But I suppose my father knew me better than I knew myself, or else the gifts themselves planted a kind of seed that would come to fruition some years later when I was called into the holy ministry and would pledge myself to the Book of Concord and later still when I would undertake the study of English Bible versions as a part of my service to the church at Concordia Theological Seminary. So upon reflection, both commitments seem rather natural or even providential.

Of course, what my father had done is what Christians are always doing—handing down the faith that they have received from others. But as each generation appropriates the Christian tradition, it not only receives, it modifies its heritage—emphasizes certain elements while neglecting others, reinterprets the faith according to its own circumstances, and, in sum, makes its own contribution to the story of the church. Describing, analyzing, and explaining not just the story but the process that creates the story is the task of a church historian.

My own particular interest in the broad sweep of Christian history has been the English Bible. It is a commonplace among Christians of all sorts that theology must somehow be rooted in the Bible; but what is not always recognized is that theology also shapes the Bible, that is, the Bible as most Christians experience it, the Bible in translation—and not only theology but also values, beliefs, attitudes, and culture. For those who under take to trans late the Scriptures arrive at the task with certain commitments already about the nature and purpose of their work, and those commitments influence the outcome of their labors. So a central theme in my work has been to show the significance of such factors upon the form of English Bibles, that is, to analyze the various versions of the English Bible for what they reveal about the ideological or theological milieu in which they were produced.

For the most part, my work has focused on the sixteenth century, the first great period for the production of Bibles in English; this investigation is equally valid for the nineteenth century when the Revised Version (RV) was produced, and is still true today when the variety of English Bibles is greater than in any previous period. People produce new translations for reasons that are evident in the texts that they publish.

Furthermore, since even today, some of the more popular versions are a part of the Great Tradition of English Bibles, that is, they deliberately attempt to retain something of the language and diction of the Authorized (King James) Version (AV), a careful examination of the editions that belong to this tradition can reveal similarities and differences that reflect particular attitudes toward the divine word. In other words, the ongoing efforts to put the Bible into English without sacrificing entirely whatever it is that people admire or are accustomed to in the older versions have resulted in a family of Bibles going back to William Tyndale and extending to the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition, 1995).

Each of these versions in its own way represents a reappropriation of the Christian tradition; but in each case the translators have approached the text with a double commitment—first, to the work of predecessors in the Great Tradition but second, to what they believe is true about the Bible in their own situation. They may be motivated by concerns regarding the adequacy of the underlying Hebrew and Greek texts, or by the clarity of communication in the English text, or by the changing sensitivities of the English-speaking reader. But in every case, they are convinced that the Truth as they understand it can no longer be found quite so readily in the earlier versions of the English Bible. So in reworking the tradition—accepting, modifying, or discarding it—they reveal their own fundamental commitments, intellectual, theological, and cultural.

The tradition itself begins not with the AV but almost ninety years earlier with the work of William Tyndale, who inaugurated what we might call in the story of the English Bible, "the age of confessional Bibles," the period that begins with the publication of Tyndale's New Testament in 1525-26 and concludes with the AV in 1611. This is, of course, the era of the Reformation when both Protestant and Catholic translators of the English Bible recognized that what they were doing and the way they were doing it were the results of their particular Christian confessions. Although Protestant versions dominated the sixteenth century, English Catholics subjected these versions to scathing criticism and in 1582 produced an English New Testament of their own and in 1609-10 also an Old Testament. The versions of this period, as well as what theologians said about them, demonstrate the importance of theological commitments to those who translated them.

But did it all begin with Tyndale? You know, of course, that historians are notorious for not getting started with their subject, since every subject requires just a little bit of historical background to understand it completely. I cannot forego at least mentioning that Tyndale was heavily influenced by the great Reformer himself, Martin Luther. In fact, many of Tyndale's publications are a translation or paraphrase of a Lutheran original; and even in his translation of the Bible (the New Testament and major parts of the Old Testament), though he worked from the original languages, Tyndale also employed Luther's German Bible.

Even more important yet in terms of his Lutheranism was Tyndale's attitude toward the Scriptures. As is clear from the prologues, prefaces, and notes that accompanied his translations, Tyndale viewed the English Bible as a vehicle for teaching true religion, which he summarized in good Lutheran fashion as law and gospel:

All the Scripture is either the promises and testament of God in Christ, and stories pertaining thereunto, to strength thy faith; either the law, and stories pertaining thereto, to fear thee from evil doing. There is no story nor gest, seem it never so simple or so vile unto the world, but that thou shalt find therein spirit and life and edifying in the literal sense: for it is God's Scripture, written for thy learning and comfort.

But how did such convictions regarding the purpose and message of the Bible influence the form of the translation? Did Tyndale's Lutheran convictions affect the words and phrases that appeared in his text? In the opinion of Tyndale's Catholic contemporaries and critics, the answer was clearly, "Yes."

Tyndale's first New Testament appeared in 1525-26; and in 1528, Cuthbert Tunstall, bishop of London, licensed the humanist politician and Catholic apologist Thomas More to read heretical books for the purpose of refuting them. The result of that commission was a wide-ranging response to many elements in the Protestant program, including Tyndale's translation of the New Testament. More entitled his work, A Dialogue...Wherein Be Treated Divers Matters as of the Veneration and Worship of Images and Relics, Praying to Saints and Going on Pilgrimage. With Many Other Things Touching the Pestilent Sect of Luther and Tyndale, by the One Begun in Saxony and by the Other Labored to Be Brought into England.

But what is it that Thomas More found so objectionable in Tyndale's version of the Bible? He did not reject the notion of an English Bible per se, but the specific version that Tyndale offered to the English-reading public. Further, while affirming the general value of a vernacular text, he objected to Tyndale's Bible as a deliberate perversion of the sacred word, prepared for the purpose of foisting heresy upon the unsuspecting:

It is. . . to me great mervayll that any good crysten man havyng any drop of wyt in his hede wold any thyng mervayll or complayne of the burnynge of that book yf he knowe the matter. Whyche who so callyth the newe testament calleth it by a wronge name excepte they wyll call it Tyndals testament or Luthers testament. For so had Tyndall after Luthers counsayle corrupted and chaunged it frome the good and holsom doctryne of Cryste to the devylysh heresyes of theyr owne that it was clene a contrary thyng.

Although More went on to claim that deliberate mistranslation affected more than "a thousande textys" in Tyndale's work, the actual "mistakes" he enumerated were only seven. He charged Tyndale with having used the word "seniors" for the traditional term, "priests"; "congregation" for "church"; "love" for "charity"; "favor" for "grace"; "knowledge" for "confession"; "repentance" for "penance"; and "a troubled heart" for "a contrite heart."

Setting aside the question of accuracy, More was certainly correct in discerning a theological motive behind Tyndale's choice of terminology; for in each case, Tyndale avoided a term fraught with theological significance and instead used more neutral terminology. But the choice of a neutral term was itself an implicit rejection of traditional theology; and one can hardly fault More for supposing that Tyndale, following Luther in this respect, had stacked the deck against the Catholic position by choosing the terms he did. "Fyrste," More argued,

[Tyndale] wolde make the people byleve that we sholde byleve nothyng but playne scrypture in whyche poynte he techeth a playne pestylent heresye. And then wolde he with his false translacyon make the people wene further that suche artycles of our faythe as he laboreth to destroy and whyche be well proved by holy scrypture were in holy scrypture nothynge spoken of but that the prechers have all thys .xv.C. yere mysse reported the gospell and englyshed the scrypture wronge to lede the people purposely out of the ryght way.

More's argument that Tyndale had employed a specific vocabulary in his translation in order to support Protestant theology is actually confirmed by Tyndale's response, an Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (1531). Although Tyndale defended his terminology on philological grounds and also by citing both Erasmus, More's good friend, and the Latin Vulgate in support of his position, he also readily admitted that he had chosen his terms in order to correct erroneous theological opinions.

For example, Tyndale argued that by using the word "congregation" instead of "church" the people would understand "the whole multitude of all that profess Christ" rather than just "the juggling spirits"; and he defended his choice of "repentance" over "penance" on the grounds that his opponents used the latter term to teach the doctrine of justification by works of satisfaction whereas the biblical text conveyed "Repent, or let it forethink you; and come and believe the gospel, or glad tidings, that is brought you in Christ, and so shall all be forgiven you; and henceforth live a new life." For Tyndale, Bible translation was a vehicle for teaching true doctrine. Its vocabulary should reflect that truth and avoid confirming error, even if traditionalists were displeased.

Although Thomas More affirmed the desirability of an English Bible in his debate with Tyndale, the English Catholic community did not produce one until well into the reign of Elizabeth. Instead, English Protestants dominated the field, and Tyndale's pioneering work was soon superseded by numerous additional versions, which, while incorporating large measures of Tyndale's prose, also revealed somewhat different attitudes toward the Bible.

Of these subsequent editions, one of the more important was the Great Bible (1st edition, 1539), because this was the first English Bible to be placed in the churches of England by order of the king, Henry VIII, Supreme Head of the Church in England. The man principally responsible for preparing the work for publication was one of Tyndale's former associates, Miles Coverdale, who preserved much of his predecessor's work in this version of the sacred text. But there were important differences as well. For example, although Coverdale grouped the apocrypha in a section between the Testaments, he arranged the New Testament books in their traditional order whereas Tyndale had followed Luther by placing Hebrews, James, and Jude along with Revelation at the end. More significant still, the Great Bible omitted Tyndale's prefaces and notes, with their distinctively Lutheran flavor; but as of the second edition the Great Bible did include a preface by Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.

A product of Henry's reformation, not Luther's, Cranmer's prologue avoids any explicit reference to Protestant positions regarding justification or the sacraments and does not explicitly reject the piety of the old church. Nevertheless, Cranmer does contend for lay reading of the Bible on good Protestant grounds, the sufficiency of Scripture:

Here may all manner of persons. . . of what estate or condition soever they be. . . in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning Almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other.

Cranmer, however, avoids spelling out the content of the faith ("what they ought to believe") and goes so far as to warn the Bible reader against "frivolous disputation" regarding the Scriptures. He does not want the vernacular Bible to become an occasion for religious dissent or social discontent. Instead, its purpose is to promote virtue. From the Bible, husbands, wives, children, and servants may all learn their duties; and "herein may princes learn how to govern their subjects: subjects, obedience love and dread to their princes."

As the title page of the Great Bible indicates, those who authorized this version, had in mind not so much a reformation in doctrine but the creation of a civil and obedient people. As the Word comes from God (yes, He is there—above and smaller than the king), it passes to officials of both church and state who in turn mediate it to the people at the bottom of the page—men and women, young and old- who are all calling out, "Vivat rex. God save the king!" Ironically, then, the work of Tyndale who fled Henry's England was used to promote Henry's rule and power in England.

Perhaps closer in spirit to Tyndale were the Protestant exiles of Mary's reign who used his and Coverdale's work to produce yet another version of the English Bible, the Geneva edition of 1560. By that time, Geneva had become a center for Protestant biblical scholarship, especially under the influence of Theodore Beza. There, a team of English exiles led by William Whittingham, erstwhile scholar at Christ Church, Oxford, and soon to be Dean of Durham under Elizabeth, published an English New Testament in 1557, a psalter in 1559, and the entire Bible in 1560.

From the standpoint of the English text, their work is essentially a revision of previous English Bibles on the basis of the Hebrew and Greek (Tyndale's work was their starting point for the New Testament and the Great Bible for the Old); but the influence of Genevan Reformed scholarship is clear as well. For John Calvin has replaced Martin Luther, literally, in the 1557 New Testament which utilized as its preface a translation of a piece by Calvin prepared originally for a French Bible in 1535.

The 1560 complete Bible does not include Calvin's preface, but his theology is all over the book—in annotations, prefaces, chapter summaries, even running titles on the pages and the index. Justification by faith, double predestination, sola scriptura, and total depravity are all taught in the notes, while papal primacy, the sacrifice of the mass, the cult of the saints, and the use of sacred images are all condemned. By reading carefully, the student of the Geneva Bible could learn everything he needed to grow in knowledge of the true, that is, Reformed, faith, to avoid falling into error and heresy. And, unlike the Great Bible, the reader might find encouragement and confidence even when opposed by the powers of the state, for not only do the Genevan notes affirm that "if anie command things against God, then let us answer, It is better to obey God then men," they also instruct the clergy to model themselves after Elijah in his dealings with Ahab, "The true ministers of God oght. . . to reprove boldly the wicked slanderers without respect of per sons."

A few years later, still another version of the Great Tradition appeared, the Bishops' Bible of 1568, essentially a reworking of the Great Bible on the basis of the original languages, prepared for use in the churches of England by Elizabeth's first archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. Although still a manifestly Protestant work, including Protestant notes and prefaces, it was a far cry from the Geneva version. Official England permeated, including portraits of the queen on the title page and of her two chief advisors elsewhere.

Already in the first years of Elizabeth's reign, therefore, there were two competing versions of the Protestant Bible, each incorporating Tyndale's work but each also representing different versions of the faith—the one from Canterbury, which articulated an erastian vision of Protestant religion that was dependent upon and perhaps even subservient to the state, and the other non-erastian, deter mined to spread its gospel by means of the divine word with or without the cooperation of the monarch.

Therefore, by the time King James authorized a new translation of the Bible at the outset of his reign in 1604, the history of the English Scriptures was already quite complicated; and the King James translators had a variety of options before them, including a New Testament prepared by Catholic exiles in Rheims, France, during Elizabeth's reign. Naturally enough, however, they decided upon the official Bible, the Bishops' version, as their base—"to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit"; but they also followed the Great Bible in eschew ing all marginal notes of a doctrinal sort. Also like the Great Bible, the translators' preface is clearly Protestant in its attitude toward the Bible but does not spell out the content of the faith. Unlike both Rheims and Geneva, this version would not provide theological glosses upon the text.

Still, the AV has a pivotal place in developing the Great Tradition, not only because of its popularity over so many centuries but also because of its attitude toward its predecessors. With the notable exception of the Catholic version, the translators for King James affirmed all of their sixteenth century predecessors as direct ancestors of their own work. In effect, they created the Great Tradition by specifying that "these translations to be used when they agree better with the text than the Bishops' Bible: viz., Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, Whitchurch's [that is, the Great Bible], Geneva." Sensitive to the charge of their opponents that Protestants were continually changing their Bibles, the translators responded, "Wee never thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one,...but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath bene our indeavour, that our marke."

In this way, the translators embraced a tradition that included both Geneva and Canterbury, a tradition that stretched back just eighty years to William Tyndale whose work continued to be the foundation of their own. Indeed, in their preface, the King James translators identified the work of their predecessors with the word of God. "Wee doe not deny, nay wee affirme and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set foorth by men of our profession [that is, Protestantism] . . . containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God." Ironically, then, Tyndale whose work was designed to over throw one tradition had become the source of another.

With the publication of the AV, for all practical purposes, the "age of confessional Bibles" in English came to an end; and the next great period in the story of the Great Tradition of English Bibles would not arise until the second half of the nineteenth century. By that time the intellectual climate was far different from that of the Reformation so that the primary motive behind a new generation of English versions was the perceived need for an English version that was more accurate than the AV, especially in its underlying Greek text of the New Testament. Theology would continue to be a factor in translating the Bible but other issues would arise as well that would become even more important than the differences between Catholics and Protestants in accounting for differences in translations.

For want of a better term, we may call the period beginning with the RV of 1881 "the age of scientific Bibles," since the principal motive behind the translations of this period often seemed to be contemporary and ostensibly objective scholar ship in textual criticism, philology, and linguistics rather than theology per se. More over, the fact that the translation teams that prepared the versions in this period were ordinarily cross-denominational is also an important indication of the declining significance of confessional commitments in the preparation of English Bibles.

The process resulting in the RV began with a motion by the Bishop of Winchester in the 1870 Convocation of the Church of England to revise the AV "in all those passages where plain and clear errors, whether in the Hebrew or Greek text originally adopted by the translators, or in the translation made from the same, shall, on due investigation, be found to exist."

Convocation agreed and resolved "to invite the cooperation of any eminent for scholarship, to whatever nation or religious body they may belong." Thus, the revisors included members not only of the Church of England but also of other Protestant churches and even a Unitarian. A Roman Catholic was also invited, but he declined to participate. Scholarly credentials and not theological commitment were the criterion.

What motivated this revision was in large part a growing consensus in the academic and theological community that the underlying Greek text of the AV was not the original text of the New Testament. In the introduction to their work the translators indicated that "a revision of the Greek text was the necessary foundation of our work"; and among those who took part in the work were the eminent textual critics of their time, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort. For them, textual revision was not a question of theology either Catholic or Protestant but a matter of science, of human ingenuity applied to ancient texts in order to determine the authentic New Testament text from the many manuscripts available:

Since the testimony [to the NT text] is full of complex variation, the original text cannot be elicited from it without the use of criticism, that is, of a process of distinguishing and setting aside those readings which have originated at some link in the chain of transmission.

The decision to revise the text accounts for some of the more noteworthy innovations in the translation when the New Testament appeared in 1881, especially the absence of many familiar passages, such as John 5:3b,4 (the angel at the pool of Bethesda), Acts 8:37 (Philip's interrogation of the Ethiopian eunuch before baptism), and 1 John 5:7 (the Johannine comma). The revisers placed these passages and others in the margins of their work, because they had concluded that they were not a part of the original Greek text.

However, so great was their respect for the language of the Great Tradition—although not its textual scholarship—that the translators agreed not only "to introduce as few alterations as possible into the Text of the Authorized Version consistently with faithfulness" but also to "limit . . . the expression of such alterations to the language of the Authorized and earlier English versions." Instead of trying to modernize the vocabulary and grammatical constructions, these nineteenth century revisers produced a deliberately archaic version of the Bible, designed to sound like the AV, although departing dramatically from it in the underlying Greek of the New Testament.

Of course, not everyone was willing to accept a critical text or the ideological commitments from which they proceeded. Preeminent among those who opposed the RV was John Burgon, Dean of Chichester, who offered an explicitly theological rationale for retaining the Greek text represented in the vast majority of extant manuscripts and undergirding the versions of the Reformation period. Since God was at work in His church preserving His word according to His promise, Burgon argued, we can be confident that the text used and found in the church is the right one. He wrote:

Profane literature has never known anything approaching it, and can show nothing at all like it. Satan's arts were defeated indeed through the church's faithfulness because, (the good providence of God had so willed it) the perpetual multiplication, in every quarter, of copies required for ecclesiastical use, not to say the solicitude of faithful men in diverse regions of ancient Christendom to retain for themselves unadulterated specimens of the inspired text, proved a sufficient safeguard against the grosser forms of corruption.

As for Westcott and Hort's heavy reliance on two fourth century manuscripts, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, the one neglected for centuries and the other only recently rescued from a monastery waste basket, Burgon responded, "We incline to believe that the Author of Scripture has not by any means shown himself so unmindful of the safety of the Deposit."

Burgon's position regarding the truth to be found in sanctified tradition did not prevail. Subsequent translations, done in our own times and by conservative scholars such as the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New International Version (NIV), have been based upon texts, established using the canons of contemporary textual criticism, with the notable exception of the New King James Version (NKJV). But even with respect to this last version, its New Testament editor, Arthur L. Farstad, has not proceeded along the lines urged by Burgon. Farstad wrote:

First the NKJV is an update of an historic version translated from a specific type of text. We felt it unwise to change the base from which it was made . . . . Secondly, in recent years the extreme reliance on a handful of our oldest manuscripts . . . has decreased. There is a greater openness to giving the so-called Byzantine manuscripts a fair hearing.

Farstad also pointed out that the vast majority of extant manuscripts support the readings of the textus receptus; but Burgon's argument from the providence of God at work in the church to guarantee the majority reading no longer appears.

In our own times, besides the NKJV, other Bibles have also broken with the linguistic conventions of the sixteenth century while also attempting to retain something of the vocabulary and style of the AV. These include the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the NASB, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the New American Standard Bible (Updated edition). Besides accuracy in text and translation, these versions also valued familiarity—words and phrases, diction and style that had become traditional for the English Bible.

However, a major impetus behind several other translations appearing over the past thirty years or so has been the conviction that using "Bible English" of this sort fails to communicate to the contemporary reader and so fails the test of accuracy because it does not create the same linguistic effect on its audience as did the original upon the first audience to hear it. In other words, those who desire the most accurate translation— which is the principal characteristic of the age of scientific Bibles—must pay attention not only to the accuracy of the original text and to the peculiarities of Greek and Hebrew grammar but also to how one communicates in contemporary English.

Eugene Nida, one of the great proponents of such sensitivity to the intended audience of the translation has written:

The competent translator actually goes through a seeming round about process of analysis, transfer, and restructuring . . . . The translator first analyzes the message of the source [sic] language into its simplest and structurally clearest forms, transfers it at this level, and then re structures it to the level in the receptor [sic] language which is most appropriate for the audience which he intends to reach.

The result of this special attention to the language of the English reader of the translation has been numerous versions that are independent of the Great Tradition of English Bibles. Versions ranging from the New English Bible (NEB) to Today's English Version (TEV) to the NIV all aim at putting the Bible into the "current speech of our own time", or "in words and forms accepted as standard by people everywhere who employ English as a means of communication", or "clear and natural English ...idiomatic but not idiosyncratic, contemporary but not dated".

Although the concern of such versions has still been accuracy—just like the RV—this new emphasis on the effect of the version upon its intended audience has perhaps sown the seeds for yet another generation of translations, so concerned with the contemporary reader that fidelity to the original has become secondary. What I am suggesting is that with the publication of the NRSV in 1989 and the Revised English Bible (REB) in 1990, we have entered into yet another period in the story of the English Bible, "the post-modern age of English Bibles," in which translators freely reshape the biblical text to account for contemporary concerns not really present in the original.

Routinely, these versions employ feminist English rather than traditional forms and in so doing, they often change the grammar and the meaning of words in the original to accommodate certain cultural trends today. A fascinating example of this sort of Bible is the NRSV, still another rendition of the Great Tradition. Like the RSV of 1946-52, the NRSV is committed both to the latest findings of textual scholar ship and to retaining as much of the old language as possible. According to its preface, "As for the style of English adopted for the present revision, . . . the directive [was] to continue in the tradition of the King James Bible, but to introduce such changes as are warranted on the basis of accuracy, clarity, euphony, and current English usage." But its efforts to accommodate the contemporary idiom are strictly limited, and so Bruce Metzger, the chairman of its translation committee has written, "The New Revised Standard remains essentially a literal translation."

But then Metzger added a significant exception, "Paraphrastic renderings have been adopted only sparingly, and then chiefly to compensate for a deficiency in the English language—the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun." Although this sounds like a grammatical point, it is actually an ideological one, since traditional English has been able to accommodate the meaning of the original for many centuries using the generic "man," "him," "his," "he," and so forth. And accord ing to surveys and studies by Wayne Grudem, it still can.

More over, it soon becomes evident that the concern of the translators regarding gender applies to the original language as much as to the English. Consider, for example, the terms "son" and "brother," which are usually gender-specific in Greek as well as in English. Routinely, however, when these terms refer to fellow-believers in the New Testament, the NRSV avoids translating them liter ally. Usually, "brothers" becomes "brothers and sisters" (one may compare Romans 1:13; 7:1; 8:12; 10:1; James 2:1, 5, 14); but in James 2:9, "brother" becomes "believer"; and in Matthew 18, an erring "brother" becomes "another member of the church."

Similarly, "sons" usually becomes "children" even when a theological point is being made as in Galatians 4, where Paul argues that after God sent His Son, He sent the Spirit of His Son so that we—male and female alike—might be adopted as "sons." In the NRSV believers have become only "children" by adoption, although Christ does remain a "Son."

Additional changes abound. "Fathers" become "parents" (Exodus 20:5) or "ancestors" (John 4:20); singulars become plurals (Psalm 1:1; 10:4; 14:1; Psalm 37:13); third person becomes first person (Psalm 37:23, 24); and in the Old Testament, "son of man" becomes "mortals" in Psalm 8:4, "O mortal" in Ezekiel 3:1, 4, 10, 17, and just plain "human being" in the critical "son of man" passage (Daniel 7:13).

Clearly, the NRSV translators have sought to accommodate the Great Tradition to our current cultural climate although not necessarily to promulgate some new theology. However, just as Thomas More noticed that Tyndale's version promoted Protestantism, it is evident that the accommodations of the NRSV may have pro found implications for theology, even if unintended, for if man is free to adapt the text of the Bible to the concerns of today, perhaps he is also free to adapt the doctrine of God that he finds in that text to those same contemporary trends. And indeed, that is precisely what is happening in one of the most recent editions of the English Bible, actually a special and even more culturally accommodating edition of the NRSV, entitled: The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version.

Besides deciding to "replace or rephrase all gender-specific language not referring to particular historical individuals, all pejorative references to race, color, or religion, and all identifications of persons by their physical disability alone," this version has also chosen to identify God as our "Father-Mother," to call Jesus the "Child of God" not the Son and the "Human One" not the Son of man, and to minimize such expressions as "king," "kingdom," and "Lord." Not the text itself, but the translators' convictions about what the text should say account for such decisions. Openly, the translators refer to the "interpretive" character of their version, but that is hardly the same thing as faithfulness to the original text which was the principal motivation of the revisers of 1881 and 1611.

Clearly, the concern of those who prepared the Inclusive Version was as much ideological as the Geneva translators or William Tyndale's even if it does seem that the sixteenth century scholars were more respectful of the text as well. Nevertheless, both then and now, people's convictions regarding the Bible and its place in the church have affected the form of that Bible in the English language. Even within the confines of the Great Tradition, a variety of attitudes toward the sacred text has produced a variety of Bibles. Protestantism, erastianism, textual criticism, antiquarianism, and feminism have all left their mark on the English Bible. Or should we say, "English Bibles"? For in leaving their mark on the tradition, ideology, culture, and theology have created distinct and differing versions of the sacred Scriptures in the passage of time.

For that reason, those of us who value what we have received from our fathers, not only on account of its familiarity but especially because of what it is, in this case, the Word of God, will have a marked interest and concern for what in fact has been done with that heritage. Therefore, as a professor of historical theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, I pray that God will continue to bless my work not only in telling the story of the church's past but also in participating in the church's ongoing task of appropriating her heritage in a way that is faithful to the One who originally gave it. For, after all, when we use the Bible in English, we want to hear God's voice and not garbled echoes of our own.

Cameron MacKenzie is Chairman and Professor of Historical Theology, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

Permission is granted for reproduction by the publisher of  Concordia Theological Quarterly a journal of Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne.

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