Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 2, 2012

Bible Translation Update

Other than sermons, and despite intentions otherwise, I have been rather quiet on my blog lately.  You may have noticed that I added a serious of pictures that rotate as the header; the pictures come from past and present congregations I have served (going back to my vicar year), and from the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary chapel, the Martin Luther College chapel, and past WELS National Worship Conferences.  There are also a few updates on the pages (specifically the Media page, Sunday Bible Class page, and Bible Information Class page), but I haven’t written any new posts lately.  So what’s the solution?  Answer: Quote someone else!  🙂

Earlier today, WELS President Mark Schroeder sent an email message to called workers; his message follows these preliminary comments.  Over the past year or so, WELS has been dealing with the issue of Bible translations in the publications of Northwestern Publishing House (NPH), the official publishing company for the WELS.  In the past, NPH publications used the New International Version (NIV), which had last been updated in 1984.  When Zondervan, the NIV’s publisher, released a newly updated translation of the NIV in 2011, it appeared that WELS materials published by NPH could no longer use the previous NIV 1984 in its products.  Pres. Schroeder’s email message noted an interesting development: NPH will not be prevented from using the “old” NIV 1984 in future publications so long as it does not comprise more than 20% of a product’s content.  This development would allow WELS and NPH to continue to use the NIV 1984 after 2013, which had previously been thought to be the final year that the NIV 1984 could be used in publications.  More importantly, this provides more time for an unhurried discussion and decision on the translation that NPH will use for its future publications.

I won’t rehash all of the arguments for and against the “new” NIV 2011.  Personally, I find the entire matter to be a “pick your poison” discussion.  There are revisions that I appreciate about the new NIV, especially as I work with it and other translations side-by-side in personal study.  But I also find the most common arguments against it to be persuasive (with respect to gender neutrality and Old Testament prophecy).  While I personally don’t mind the literal nature of the English Standard Version (ESV), and I do appreciate The Lutheran Study Bible (which uses the ESV) as a helpful resource, I do not find the ESV’s “formal correspondence” approach to be beneficial for public worship or Catechism instruction.  The average adult in the pew or teen in the classroom is going to have a difficult time understanding some of the ESV’s archaic-sounding language, and it is the average person that we ought to be most concerned about.  I’m also a little bothered by claims from some voices that say that Luther was in favor of a very literal, word-for-word, “formal correspondence” translation; there is plenty of documentation to the contrary (here’s one essay on that matter), including Luther’s own comments about translation.  The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) interests me, and I have heard positive comments about it from voices outside WELS circles, but I am aware that its present version has some quirkiness, especially with the way the proper name for God is translated in the Old Testament (both “Yahweh” and “LORD”).  Truth be told, I have changed my opinion on the “translation vote” several times; if you asked me for a vote right now, about all I could say with confidence is, “present.”  That’s not exactly a bold statement, but it is an honest one. 

Today’s update from Pres. Schroeder does not mean that a decision on the translation used in NPH products is permanently off the table, but it does give the WELS breathing room on what has sometimes been a hotly discussed matter among us.  So all in all, I find this to be a useful development.  Time for discussion and consensus-building will prove to be much more beneficial in the long-run than a decision that appeared as if it was going to be forced by Zondervan’s clock.

Those personal comments aside, here is the message Pres. Schroeder sent out to WELS called workers earlier today.

February 2, 2012

Fellow servants,

As you know, for more than a year we have been involved in discussions about the selection of a translation to be used in WELS publications. For a church body like ours, firmly committed to the truth of the inspired and inerrant Scriptures and to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, few discussions could be more important. I know this is one more e-mail in your already full in-box, but I believe it’s important for all of our called workers to be well informed of the facts of this process and what will be happening in the coming months.

As part of the ongoing effort to foster brotherly discussion and to clarify the issues involved in a translation choice, the Translation Evaluation Committee (TEC) organized a symposium held in early January. The symposium was attended by two pastors from each district (appointed by their respective district presidents) and the members of both the TEC and the Translation Feasibility Committee (TFC). Its purpose was not to promote one translation or to achieve consensus on a particular translation. Rather, it was intended to provide a forum to hear and discuss all sides of the translation issue and to work toward consensus on the translation principles that will guide our decision.

According to those who attended the symposium, it was a fruitful and beneficial gathering. Unfortunately, a summary of the symposium was circulated rather widely that unintentionally conveyed some inaccurate information. President Paul Wendland asked me to relay this message to you:

“There seem to be some misunderstandings circulating regarding the nature, the purpose, and the outcome of the TEC committee’s recent symposium on translation. Out of a sense of love and fairness to all who were there, I offer the following as an attempt to clarify matters.

We (the TEC) felt that the symposium had served a good purpose. All of us came away with a deeper understanding of the complex choices that need to be made in translating God’s Word into English. All of us were given ample opportunity to speak about our translational preferences and concerns, especially as those concerns applied to the NIV 2011. United in the belief that the Bible is God’s inspired word and in our conviction that Christ is the center of the scripture, we were able to discuss our preferences in a frank, and yet in a very fair and brotherly way. To that end, the symposium achieved its purposes. It was never envisioned that the symposium as such would draw any conclusions or make any recommendations to the synod or to the districts about a preferred translation. As a matter of fact, we did not do so.”

Contrary to the impression the circulated summary gave, no “vote” was taken at the symposium regarding a preferred translation. In fact, there was a wide range of opinion expressed about the NIV 2011; both favorable opinions as well as various concerns were expressed. In keeping with the purpose of the symposium, the participants focused their attention on translation principles and the process of translation, agreed that more discussion and study is needed, and specifically determined not to take such a vote or as a group to express a preference for any particular translation.

So where are we now? What will happen in the coming months?

After the symposium, the TEC has come to the informal conclusion that continued discussion and further study is needed before any final decision can be made. Again, President Wendland has said,

“Is it wise for us given the time constraints we’ve all been working under to make a final decision this summer? For one thing, have we really—either as a synod, as districts, or even as an evaluation committee—had sufficient time to make a comparative evaluation of the various versions? Since July 2011, the TEC has been active, attending conventions and gatherings in all twelve districts, writing articles and reports and e-mails. We have done our best to do as the convention asked, namely ‘to educate the synod on the general principles that we ought to use to evaluate the Bible translations mentioned in its reports, and so to help build a consensus among us on which translation to use for synod publications.’ But the committee is still left with the question, ‘Can a delegate really say that he has been provided with enough information to compare the merits and demerits of the NIV 2011, for example, with the merits and demerits of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) so that he can vote accordingly?’ “

In addition to the fact that the TEC has not had the time to study alternatives to the NIV 2011 as completely as it would like, a number of other factors indicate that it may not be wise to make a final decision this summer. When the convention determined that a decision should be made at the districts, the information available indicated that the NIV 1984 would not be able to be used in WELS publications after 2013. This has turned out not to be accurate. The “fair use” principle in copyright and publishing law indicates that Northwestern Publishing House would be able to continue using the NIV 1984 in its publications, provided that the quotations do not comprise more than 20% of the published material. In other words, NPH will be able to use the NIV 1984 in nearly all of its publications, including Meditations and Forward in Christ. Furthermore, NPH has said that it does not want its publication needs in any way to drive a final decision on translations and will find alternate solutions if necessary. For example, in the Christ-Light materials, NPH is considering a “translation neutral” approach, printing only Bible references and not the passages themselves.

All of this—the continuing concerns about NIV 2011 as well as the new information regarding the use of NIV 1984—means that the option to delay a decision may be one of the choices put before the district conventions this summer. The Conference of Presidents will be discussing this in upcoming meetings. If the COP adopts a recommendation to delay a decision, that recommendation will be forwarded to the districts for consideration.

What about the possibility of producing a new or revised translation by Lutherans? This matter is still under discussion by the TFC. If a decision is delayed by the districts this summer, additional time would be available to explore this option further. It is my personal opinion that this possibility should be pursued vigorously. While I recognize the obstacles and challenges (and many of those have been clearly voiced), it’s an idea that should not be dismissed until we have carefully looked at all the factors involved. A translation (either a new one or a revision) by Lutherans would be a tremendous gift to the church. Admittedly, this option would not solve our more immediate problem with translations, but it could be a long term solution that proves to be a blessing for decades to come.

Some are concerned that this entire translation issue is an unfortunate cause of division among us. But in many ways, this entire discussion can be a blessing to us. We are not divided on doctrinal issues or the nature of Scripture itself. In all of our discussions—even those with some passion and heat—it is evident that we are completely united in our commitment to the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures. It is clear that we have a fervent desire to communicate God’s truth as clearly and as accurately as we can. Even among brothers there will be differences in how this can best be done. But we stand together, as Luther did, on Scripture alone. It’s my prayer that our commitment to his Word will be deepened and strengthened by this process, difficult as it may sometimes be. After all, it is that Word that unites us in a common faith, committed to work together with one voice to preach the crucified and risen Christ.

Serving with you in Christ,

President Mark Schroeder

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Responses

  1. Thanks for posting this! I was happy to read this after hearing similar thoughts expressed at our January Conference.

  2. Appreciate your thoughtful blog, Pastor Strey. One item of note that may be of interest. Zondervan is actually just a licensee for the NIV, as Hodder Faith is in the UK. Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) is the actual worldwide publisher of the NIV and owner of the copyright. As such we sponsor and support the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) which is the independent group of scholars commissioned by the NAE and a broad coalition of denominations in the 60’s to produce the NIV. In my role at Biblica as President, Global Publishing, I have had the privilege to meet with many denominational leadership teams to talk about the NIV, its origins, its history and the commitment of the CBT to their original charter when they began their work in the mid-60’s. I am often joined by a member of the CBT, as well. I would be delighted to meet with President Schroeder, yourself or any others from your demoninational leadership if you feel it might be helpful in your ongoing discernment process about translations. We would welcome the opportunity.

  3. Two quick follow-up notes…

    First, to all readers:

    Pres. Schroeder sent the following follow-up message to called workers this morning. I have made the corrections in the post above, but readers might want to be aware of these corrections to the original message:

    “I apologize that the earlier copy of En Christo contained two errors. Please note that two pastors from each district attended the symposium, not three. Also note that an important word was omitted in the paragraph that begins ‘In addition to the fact that the TEC has…’ The word ‘not’ was omitted: the sentence should read, ‘…a number of other factors indicate that it may not be wise to make a final decision this summer.’ The corrections are included in the version [above].”

    Second, to Mr. Bolinder:

    Thank you very much for your comments. It says a lot that the president of Global Publishing at Biblica would take the time to respond to a translation discussion on a blog and to be willing to discuss concerns further. I have passed on your message to the proper folks in our church body so that they know about your willingness to discuss matters further with them. Again, thanks for taking the time to comment!


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