Posted by: Johnold Strey | August 2, 2013

Musings on a Convention Translation Decision

Yes, I’m going for alliteration with that title. Or it is just rhyme? Well, I’m going for something!

The 2013 WELS convention wrapped up yesterday, Thursday, August 1, at Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota. Any WELS member who is even modestly informed about synod politics went into this week well aware that the major issue to be decided by the convention was the choice of a Bible translation that our official publications from Northwestern Publishing House (NPH) would use in the future. The previous edition of the New International Version, published in 1984, is no longer in print, and the 2011 update has not met with widespread acceptance in all corners of the synod.

Two committees of our synod have studied the issue for some time. The Translation Evaluation Committee (TEC) eventually narrowed down their study to three of the most commonly accepted English Bible translations — the updated New International Version (NIV), the English Standard Version (ESV), and the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). The TEC’s conclusion was that the updated NIV was the best choice among the three options, but as noted earlier, others in our synod did not reach the same conclusion, and the debate over the past couple of years went on without reaching a clear consensus. The Translation Feasibility Committee (TFC) was appointed to investigate whether or not it was reasonable for the synod to produce its own Bible translation. That committee’s conclusion was that such a project would be a daunting task that would put a strain on our synod’s language professors at our ministry training schools (particularly Martin Luther College and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary). However, just as not everyone agreed with the findings of the TEC, so also not everyone agreed with the conclusions of the TFC. Some significant voices in our synod, most notably Pres. Schroeder, urged us to take on this task as a synod.

As far as my own personal opinions are concerned, I have flip-flopped on this issue more than a U.S. Congressman running for reelection. At times I was in favor of the new NIV, convinced that the depth of training that we give to our future pastors is of such a high quality that we shouldn’t have a problem overcoming the weaknesses of the new NIV. Then I’d spin in the other direction, equally convinced that the new NIV was bad news due to its problems with Messianic prophecies and the gender neutral way it handles several passages related to the biblical doctrine of the roles of men and women. Eventually, once my personal pendulum had stopped swinging so strongly, I came to the conclusion that this will ultimately be a “pick your poison” decision. Opting for the new NIV would mean that we’d have to deal with the problems I’ve just described. I was not convinced, as a few vocal voices seemed to be, that adopting the new NIV would mean the “beginning of the end” for our synod, but I was still concerned about its flaws. Selecting the ESV would result in us using a translation that had a much more archaic and literal style. Pastors and more knowledgeable Christians might actually enjoy that, but that would also be a style that may sound foreign to many of those we evangelize and awkward to the young people we instruct in Catechism class. The third option, the HCSB, is a translation that one could place between the styles of the NIV and ESV, but as a brand new translation, it has its quirkiness. Of the three problems we’d have to deal with — Messianic and gender ambiguity (NIV), archaic style (ESV), or quirkiness (HCSB) — my option was the last one, so my personal pick among the three was for the HCSB.

Over time, discussion and support began to build for the idea of the WELS to lead its own Bible translation effort. An existing translation, most likely the one done by Beck, could be used as the “base translation” from which an updated version could be produced. Such efforts had been tried in the past, leading to the production of the New Testament of the New Evangelical Translation (NET, previously known as God’s Word to the Nations, or GWN). But the subsequent version, which became known simply as God’s Word (GW), did not appear as desirable as the NET did in 1990. Support among confessional Lutherans dwindled, and the GW translation has not been widely used. However, the Beck translation was still available to us and could be used as a starting point if the WELS was interested in producing its own translation (or a translation produced together with other confessional Lutherans).

I am the chairman of the WELS Northern California Delegate Conference, a meeting that takes place in the years when synod conventions are held and that is intended to allow participants to discuss and debate matters locally before our selected delegates represent us at the national level. In preparation for that conference in early June, I came across a couple of “informal editorials” from various scholars in our circles who weighed in with their opinions about producing our own translation. The sequence of receiving those documents sent me on one more pendulum swing — first, in favor of us working on our own translation, but then realizing that such a task would be extremely difficult, not to mention the strain it would put on our college’s and seminary’s Greek and Hebrew professors. At the delegate conference, I expressed from the floor that my head and heart were in conflict on this issue. My heart said, “Let’s do this! It would be great and would solve a lot of problems if we had a translation that was directed by men with a confessional Lutheran mindset.” But my head said, “This is not all that feasible. How many pastors are truly translation experts? How many of our pastors have read through the entire Bible in its original languages? This project is much bigger than we think it is.” Well, my rule of thumb is that when head and heart (intellect and emotions) conflict with each other, go with what your head thinks is right.

Of course, that leads back to the first question. If we don’t have our own translation, then what translation will we use? Fair use laws permit NPH to continue to use the NIV 1984 indefinitely in products where the Bible text is less than 20% of the total text. But that won’t work for everything, particularly a planned revision of our catechism.

As I mentioned earlier, my personal pick of the three that had been most discussed (NIV, ESV, HCSB) was the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Further information now indicates that this could become the best choice down the road. The HCSB was a Baptist-led effort; in fact, the initials HCSB have been jokingly interpreted as “Hard Core Southern Baptist.” But, to the best of my knowledge, the committee behind the Holman translation has not tried to make it a “Baptist translation.” It is my understanding that among the three translations mentioned, Holman is the only one with confessional Lutherans on its translation team. I have heard that the Holman committee has been very open to our synod’s suggestions for improvement. And a revision of this presently-brand new translation is planned for in five years — a revision that will also drop the “Holman” from the name and just be known as the “Christian Standard Bible.”

I’m not the expert here, so please take my musings with a grain of salt, but it appears that the Holman people are striving to produce a translation that will be usable by all conservative, confessing Christians. “Holman” is to Southern Baptists as “Northwestern” is (was?) to the WELS; by dropping the “H” and (much more importantly) by welcoming confessional Lutherans onto their translation team and confessional Lutheran input into their work, it appears to this pastor that the planned revision of the (H)CSB may have much to offer us in the years to come. And so not selecting one specific translation at this convention seemed more and more the way to go.

If you are reading this blog post, you have more than likely already read the results of our synod convention’s translation votes. Delegates chose to use an “eclectic approach” for official WELS products produced by NPH, allowing the authors and editors to select the translation they deem best for each book or product. I’m glad for that decision for a couple of reasons: It does not require NPH to use a translation (namely, the new NIV) that a fair amount of WELS members are not comfortable with, and it gives us time to see what developments may come in the years ahead (such as the planned revision of the HCSB) and to develop a stronger consensus based on those future developments and the additional time we’ll have to carefully consider our options.

The convention also decided that WELS would not produce its own translation. Two months ago I would have been disappointed by that decision, but today I’m also content with that choice. Several of our synod’s Greek and Hebrew scholars noted the challenges of this project, challenges which the average layman or the average pastor (a category in which I place myself) might not realize at first. Such a project, as desirable as it is, would likely put a heavy strain on the language professors at Martin Luther College and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.

If there is still a significant segment that would like to see a translation produced by confessional Lutherans, they are not without an option. A para-synodical group could be formed (i.e. an organization that exists independently from the synod and is funded outside the synod budget), and, since church fellowship would not be implied by working together on this project, the assistance of other confessional Lutherans could be sought.

Finally, the synod also resolved to form a standing committee that will interact with existing CBT’s (Committee[s] on Bible Translation) and suggest improvements for existing translations as they undergo revisions. This idea was an idea that came from an opinion document written by MLC Hebrew professor Thomas Nass. This also appears to be a fine decision from our delegates. Not only is it a more manageable task for our church body, but it encourages us to move our discussions and insights about Bible translations into the larger Christian community.

Besides posting sermons, I haven’t blogged in quite some time. As I started typing this post, I simply wanted to share my thoughts about and agreement with the translation decisions that were just passed at this week’s convention. These thoughts are fresh in my mind, and it provided some good fodder for a blog post. There are also other news items to note from the convention, especially the resolution encouraging further talks between WELS and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS), and the similar resolution passed by the LCMS delegates at their national convention last week. I find that to be very encouraging good news. Even if the situation is such that we won’t be declaring fellowship anytime soon, I’m glad to see these two former Synodical Conference partners discussing theology with one another. More on that some other time. Well … maybe!

As far as the entire translation discussion is concerned, I’m as pleased as one could have hoped for following the now-completed 2013 WELS Convention. It was a blessing to be able to watch the proceedings online and observe the debate and discussion. May God continue to guide us as we strive to be faithful to his Word and faithfully communicate his Word within the church and into the world.

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  1. Thanks for the excellent summary and commentary on the translation decisions! Much appreciated!

  2. Thank you for this balanced summary. I leaned a little more strongly than you did in favor of our own translation, but I do not deny how daunting of a task it would be, so I’m not overly disappointed that the idea didn’t fly. Of the three, I also prefer the HCSB, for the same reasons you mentioned. I have heard that of the 9 main people on their lead committee (I’m not sure of their terminology), two of them are confessional Lutherans, and another one is strongly sympathetic to confessional Lutherans. Assuming that is true, this seems to be an opportunity that I hope we don’t let pass by. The HCSB seems to not only be open to our input, but to actively desire our input – something that could not be said about the NIV for quite some time now. I’m hoping that we can “settle: on that solution, but I wonder if that means tolerating some of its “quirks.” My fear is that many won’t want to do that, so the HCSB won’t get the necessary traction it would need to become the leading option with its next revision a few years down the road.

  3. Johnold, thank you very much for this insightful commentary and summary. I found myself on a parallel “pendulum” along with you as I considered this issue and the varied opinions. I too feel that the delegates made the best decision and am very intrigued about the (H)CSB option in the future, though I must admit I had previously dismissed this as a viable option. I am in particular intrigued by the use of “Yahweh” for the tetragrammaton, as I feel that would help me to convey to our people how special this name is for our God. I truly appreciate your fair and honest commentary on this difficult challenge we’ve been dealing with over the past two years.

  4. Thanks for this, Pastor Strey. Although I am not WELS (or LCMS), I have been following this closely for the past two years, and I have been in dialog with a WELS pastor. My interest in translation and translation philosophy has increased considerably in the past 15 years.

    Of all the options, it does look like HCSB is the best direction. I had served congregations that tested the NET 1988, 1990, and 1992 (predecessor of GW) and offered many suggestions which were accepted.

    I was called to a new congregation two years ago. The unchurched population is 98%, which means no church affiliation and in most cases no history of the Bible, doctrine, or church history. Communicating in a clear and faithful way has been critical in this context.

    While NIV 1984 was used when I came, it was soon to disappear from use. So I looked at four options: ESV, NIV 2011, HCSB, and GW. Ultimately I eliminated ESV and NIV 2011 for the same reasons you offered. We have alternated by month/quarter between HCSB and GW. Although GW is the best oral translation, the translation of δίκαιος/δικαιοσύνη (“God’s approval”) left something to be desired. But I have spent quite some time evaluating HCSB in the last two years. The two areas of concern: 1) Inconsistent translation of the tetragrammaton—either go fully with it, or return to LORD, 2) concerns about how some passages become Law oriented that don’t seem consistent with the original language texts.

    Pastor Rich Shields, AALC
    President, American Lutheran Theological Seminary

  5. Johnold, you wrote that church fellowship would not be implied if we work with others (LCMS, etc.) on a translation project. What are your reasons for saying that?

  6. Good summary. You seem to have also written my bio on this, except for one thing. I serve a congregation that has been using NKJV for 20 years, and despite its name, it is not as clunky as ESV. It even has such delights as “He was delivered over to death because of our sins, and raised to life because of our justification.”
    Personally, I’m wishing we could buy and sell NKJV/HCSB parallel Bibles. But I am hopeful about the CSB ’18 revision and our potential involvement.

  7. A quick reply to Pastor Kurtzahn: I said that as a brief passing comment to alleviate any concerns someone might have about such a joint project. I don’t see studying and analyzing God’s Word together as a fellowship issue whether it happens at the local community level (evangelism) or a scholarly level (free conferences, translation projects). I guess you could say I was anticipating and subtly responding to a possible objection that I could imagine someone raising. But I did not add that because I sensed that such objections were present; I don’t. Thanks for your question.

  8. Playing devil’s advocate here, I’m not trying to give you a hard time … If a WELS professor and someone else from a different church body in which we’re not in fellowship have a disagreement in the exegesis and translation of a verse, and the non-WELS participant insists his position is the correct one, could that not be an issue when it comes to fellowship?

  9. We wouldn’t have to endorse every translation of every verse even if our own men — or people, NIV11 🙂 — are involved. In fact, we could explain, in some kind of appropriate venue or publication, where we didn’t get the votes to translate a verse in a particular way and why we disagree with the majority’s position. I see this as professional theological discussion where we try to positively influence the final product (different than but in the same category as Nass’s suggestion to influence CBT’s), not a public statement that we are united in doctrine or, in this case, exegetical conclusions. I’m not sure if I’m getting at your point or not, but I hope that makes sense. I do sense that you are not trying to give me a hard time, and I appreciate that!

  10. Agreed. Thanks so much.

  11. Talks with LCMS: Missouri still has many solid doctrinal statements and fine, orthodox pastors, but the single biggest issue with them is their apparent tolerance for false teachings and false teachers. So will our talks focus on this, or will there simply be the more polite but less productive academic discussions?


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