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Could My Bible Translation Be Bad For Me?

Every word counts. As we saw in my previous article, when it comes to choosing a Bible version, if we do not take heed of the delicate balancing act between being culturally applicable and true to the original text, we could find ourselves in unsafe waters. The task of translating the Bible is in many ways a call to impact the shape of people’s minds around the character and work of God. This is not a light-hearted matter. Nor is choosing which Bible translation we use, both individually and in our churches.

Different versions of the same text can massively impact your view of yourself and God.

To make this point, that the translation you use really matters, I will show how two different versions of the same text can massively impact your view of yourself and God. We will see how leaning too much into readability and receptor culture distorts theology. As Kevin DeYoung writes, “The Bible we study, the Bible used in our pulpits, the Bible we read to our children is the Bible that will shape our vocabulary about God and even the way we think about God”.

Your Bible Translation Impacts Your Faith

Below is the same passage, Ephesians 2:1-3, in two different Bible versions. As you read them, compare the respective visions that emerge of humanity and God.

The New King James Version (NKJV) reads, “(You) … were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.”

Leaning too much into readability and receptor culture distorts theology.

The Message reads, “It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us.”

The differences are obvious. You can pick them up everywhere. But the first question I want us to ask is this: Who do I become in the first Bible translation? And who do I become in the second?

1. Different Versions Of “Me” Emerge

The NKJV describes us as dead, while The Message describes life as merely stagnant. The Message says we are disobedient. But the NKJV describes humanity as the sons of disobedience, whose allegiance is to the prince of the air, Satan. According to The Message we are driven along by our feelings, softening the language of being lustful in our flesh. In a nutshell, one sounds very heavy in its description of humanity, while the other offers a much lighter spin.

One version sounds very heavy in its description of humanity, while the other offers a much lighter spin.

In one version humanity is considered dead without God. But in the other we are bogged down by our old foul life. To be rendered dead is huge. It is a hopeless, impossible position. No one can change that. But to be bogged down by a way of life opens the door for me to choose to step out and make a change.

The NKJV says humanity follows after Satan if they don’t follow God. Apart from the work of God we are both dead and in Satan’s employ. If we are not in Christ, we are in Satan. But Satan isn’t even mentioned in The Message. From the latter Bible translation we get off on a much lighter note, for I am simply living as a stale, bad, overburdened, unobliging human who needs a lifestyle change rather than the miraculous and powerful intervention from God.

2. Different Versions Of God Emerge

If the idea of humanity being dead is abandoned in The Message, then so is the amazing act of God (Ephesians 2:4-6). We read in the NKJV that Christ makes us alive. For only he can change us. He alone can save us. Only God can intercede to resurrect a dead person. Our change and hope rest entirely on a gracious God. When I emerge incapable, God is revealed as the only capable change agent.

But when I emerge capable, God emerges as simply embracing. Walk away from your old way of life, and God will welcome you. God’s grace is cheapened. His amazing act loses its magnificent power when we change the words as significantly as The Message does.

Our change and hope rest entirely on a gracious God.

But it is the last line that strikes me the most (Ephesians 2:3). One translation describes God as almost losing his temper. But the other describes humanity as objects of God’s wrath. Either God is righteously angry, or unpredictable and given to losing his temper.

These words shape who God is. Is he a God of wrath? Or is he just managing to control his temper? Is temper even a word that should be used to describe God? These translations determine our view of God. Only one of them presents us with the gloriously righteous yet graciously redeeming God of the Bible.

A Bad Bible Translation Is Damaging

Clearly a translation affects the meaning of who I am, and who God is. The respective translations shape our theology, the way we think about the world, God, and how he is working. As D. A. Carson writes, “The more clearly we see sin’s horror, the more clearly we shall treasure the cross”.

Bible translations shape our theology, the way we think about the world, God, and how he is working.

It’s a serious call to make significant changes to the word of God (Revelation 22:18-19). It is imperative to be aware of the implications that changes can have when we read and then absorb a worldview from every word that is chosen in the text. This article might simply highlight the discrepancies in one example. But by doing so I hope it pushes each and every one of us to be mindful, alert, and engaging readers of the Bibles we have in our hands. Let us be discerning when choosing a Bible translation.

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