The Original Text of Holy Scripture and the Translations
Since Scripture is intended for the use of all Christians, of whatever station, sex, age, etc. (Deut. 6:6–9; Joshua 1:8; Is. 34:16; Neh. 8:2–8; 2 Kings 23:1–2; Luke 16:29 ff.; John 5:39; 20:31; Acts 17:11: “They searched the Scriptures daily”; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 John 1:4; 2:18–14; 2 Tim. 3:15; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27: “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren”), it is God’s will that the Scriptures be translated into the various human languages. And accordingly the Church, from its beginning, made it a point to furnish translations of Scripture into foreign languages.
We do not say that it is absolutely necessary that one must read the Scriptures in order to be saved. What is absolutely necessary is the knowledge of those fundamental articles of the Christian faith through which repentance and faith in the remission of sins purchased by Christ is brought about in man (Luke 24:46–47), and this knowledge may be obtained by the mere hearing of a Scriptural sermon or instruction.
The dogmaticians teach that a man may come to faith and thus become a member of the Christian Church without as much as knowing that there is a Holy Scripture, Gerhard: “It is not simply and absolutely necessary to salvation to believe that there are any divine Scriptures if this unbelief issues from simple ignorance, for many have been saved who have grasped the essentials, or fundamentals, of the Christian faith.” But after men have become Christians, it is indeed God’s will that they read the Scriptures, search the Scriptures, and judge according to the Scriptures, as is evident from the passages quoted above and as will be set forth more fully later.
The contention of the Papacy that the reading of Scripture cannot be permitted to all Christians because that would expose the “laymen” to the danger of interpreting Scripture according to their own thoughts and thus introducing false doctrine is beside the point, for experience has shown that it is, above all, the clergy and, primus omnium, the Pope who have interpreted the Scripture according to their own mind and filled the world with the most horrible heresies.
The Relation of the Original Text to the Translations
It is self-evident that the original wields canonical authority also over the translations. The vernacular versions have authority only in so far as they correctly render the original text. All translations must submit to the test whether they reproduce the original correctly. When the Church of the Pope declares the Vulgate to be absolutely authoritative, it commits an Antichristian outrage. However, the disparity between the original of Scripture and its translations must not be unduly stressed. Modern theologians engage in this erroneous and dangerous talk when they argue against the inspiration of Scripture along these lines: Even if Scripture were entirely God’s Word, that would be of no benefit to the Church, since the Church, with the exception of a small minority of its members, can use the Scriptures only in translations, and the translations must be regarded as merely human views. With this argument Dr. Briggs sought to confuse the Presbyterian Board of Investigation at his trial.
Also Henry E. Jacobs declared: “It is only the Scriptures as written in the original languages that are inspired. Even the best translation is only a human explanation or interpretation of the inspired words, however well the inspired thought may be conveyed in other language.” These words could convey the thought that Bible colporteurs could offer an English or German Bible to prospective customers not as being the Word of God, but merely as being the translator’s understanding of the Word of God. Over against this view it must be maintained: Of course, even the best translators of the Bible are not inspired as were the infallible Apostles and Prophets, and for that reason their translations must remain under the control of the original text and in so far are norma normata. Our dogmaticians emphasized this over against Rome.
On the other hand it must not be forgotten: Whatever is God’s Word in Greek, is God’s Word also in German and English if only the German or the English is a faithful translation of the Greek. We should here keep in mind the nature of the Holy Scriptures. The language of Holy Scripture is so simple, particularly in the sedes doctrinae, that every translation which at all deserves the name of a “translation” must reproduce the original. One who understands the New Testament Greek and commands the language into which he is translating must take particular pains if he is minded to produce a translation which does not reproduce the original text.
Place side by side the Greek text of John 8:16, the German, the English, and the Latin translation: will anyone say that the translations do not reproduce the original? that we cannot say of the translated passage that it is the Word of God? that we must say that it is merely “a human explanation or interpretation” of the inspired text? John 3:16: Ὅτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἴνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται, ἀλλ῾ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον; “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, dass er seinen eingebornen Sohn gab, auf dass alle, die an ihn glauben, nicht verloren werden, sondern das ewige Leben haben”; “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; “Sic Deus dilexit mundum, ut Filium suum unigenitum daret, ut omnis qui credit in eum non pereat, sed habeat vitam aeternam” (Vulgate).
And—to meet an objection—it is not only John 3:16 which is so clear that the translator could not go astray, but, as the greatest theologians of all ages have pointed out, the whole Christian doctrine is revealed in Scripture passages that need no exegesis, but are an open book alike to the learned and the unlearned and can be so readily translated that the translator cannot go wrong unless he has made up his mind to depart from the original. We are confronted by the fact that there is not one among the common versions of the Bible in which the Christian doctrine in all its parts is not plainly stated and the opposing errors are not rejected.
This holds true even of the Vulgate of the Roman Catholic Church. The “ipsa conteret caput tuum” of Gen. 3:15 is rejected through the correct translation of the many passages which present Christ as the sole Savior from the guilt of sin and death, e.g., 1 Tim. 2:5–6: “Unus enim Deus, unus et Mediator Dei et hominum, homo Christus Iesus, qui dedit redemptionem semetipsum pro omnibus”; and Gal. 3:16: “Abrahae dictae sunt promissiones et semini eius. Non dicit: ‘Et seminibus,’ quasi in multis, sed quasi in uno: ‘Et semini tuo,’ qui est Christus.” Also justification alone by faith without the deeds of the Law is clearly taught in the Vulgate, e.g., Rom. 3:28: Arbitramur enim iustificari hominem per fidem, sine operibus legis; and Gal. 2:16: Scientes autem, quod non iustificatur homo ex operibus legis, nisi per fidem Iesu Christi. In its official Confession, the Tridentinum, the Roman Catholic Church, in several canons, anathematizes justification by faith without the deeds of the Law, but this curse is directed against the doctrine which is clearly taught in its own official Bible translation, the Vulgate. If one should agree, disputandi causa, to discuss the doctrines with the Papists on the basis of the Vulgate, he would still retain the weapon with which to vanquish the opponent.
Also the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper is clearly stated in the Authorized Version: Matt. 26:26–28: “Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said: Take, eat; this is My body. And he took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to them saying: Drink ye all of it; for this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” The parallel texts of Mark, Luke, and Paul teach the same.
Thus Holy Scripture checks, so to speak, by its clear and simple mode of speech, false translations. It is by God’s arrangement a light that no translation can extinguish easily. We should, then, not say that even the best translations are but a human view, or opinion, of God’s Word. On the contrary, in so far as the translations are faithful translations—and exact translations are hard to avoid particularly in the sedes doctrinae—they are likewise the very Word of God. Walther therefore is right in saying: “One may be unacquainted with the original languages of the Bible and still be divinely assured that his German Bible is God’s Word, for through it he receives the witness of the Holy Spirit.” As Scripture in the original tongues proves itself to be God’s Word, so also the translation—if it be a real translation—has the same power.
There is ample Scripture proof for the fact that translating does not deprive Scripture of its character of being the infallible Word of God. According to Scripture the infallible Word of the Apostles and Prophets will to the end of time, at all places, among all nations and tongues, be the foundation of faith for all Christians and the norm and standard according to which all Christians judge whether the doctrine is true or false. Since, however, the vast majority of Christians possess the written Word of the Apostles and Prophets only in translations, it is clear that Holy Scripture does not lose its character of being the infallible Word of God by being translated.
God’s protecting hand has guarded not only the original text, but also the translations. As we have a firm and fixed Word of God in the original despite the variae lectiones, so the current versions of the Bible present a firm and fixed Word of God, and this despite the fact that every existing translation contains occasional mistakes and is subject to continuous correction in the light of the original.
The continuous demand for “revised” translations calls for two additional remarks. 1) As all theologians who deny the substitutional satisfaction of Christ and the inspiration of Scripture are according to God’s order excluded from the teaching office of the Christian Church, so all such theologians should realize that they have no call to translate the Scriptures. 2) We shall always have to be content with versions which in the translation of difficult passages do not introduce false doctrines, but offer a translation which is “according to the analogy of faith” (what the analogy of faith, or the regula fidei is, will be shown in the chapter “Holy Scripture and Exegesis“).