the linguistics of inspiration*

When people ask my opinion as a linguist, I usually quail. Most often that is because the question is to do with some area of linguistics that I’m under-equipped to deal with, which in truth means most areas. But other times it’s because the topic isn’t capable of being handled by the discipline of linguistics, at least as far as any respectable linguist would understand it in today’s academic environment.

One such topic is the question of the inspiration of scripture. A gentleman who recently commented on this post on the properties of the AV flagged up a moderated debate on the relative merits of two other translations of the bible, the ESV and the NIV, both of which are hugely popular in the Reformed Christian world. (It was further discussed here.)

To be up-front about it, the Versions Wars have more or less passed me by. I have no problem with the AV as something I can quite happily use almost exclusively in personal, family, and corporate reading. Equally though, I see no virtue in pretending that it is flawless, and if it hadn’t happened that I was brought up with it and belong to a context that is steeped in it, I can well imagine myself using alternative versions simply in a bid to achieve comprehension of the text.**

Which is partly a reason why I can’t contribute anything to the question of which is better, ESV or NIV, since I’m simply not acquainted enough with either to be able to comment.

But it is also an excuse to move the question a step back. The major difference between the ESV and the NIV (correct me if I’m wrong) seems to be the translation philosophy which underlies them. In the case of the ESV, the translators aimed to provide as literal a translation as possible. In the case of the NIV, the translators aimed to provide as rhetorically effective a translation as possible. The outcome of these decisions is that the ESV can be critiqued for phrasing things in ways that sound awkward to the less biblically literate reader (“it’s just not how we’d say it”) (although if they’d kept up a nodding familiarity with the AV along the way, it often really would be how we said it). On the other hand, the NIV can be critiqued for giving too much interpretative power to the translators, allowing the final translation to convey what the translators think it should say/mean to the reader, rather than leaving the decision about interpretation up to the reader. So in both cases the focus of the discussion is over the practicalities of the final product, and the effect that it has on or for the reader.

But the choice of a translation philosophy must itself, surely, depend on a prior understanding of the nature of the documents being translated. That is to say, the real question (surely) is about our doctrine of inspiration.

A doctrine of inspiration which allows for, just say, a long slow process of canonisation and lots of redaction, and is non-specific about the form that the revelation took when the prophets received it from God (assuming they did receive a revelation from God and didn’t just write things that were subsequently increasingly appreciated by other people), or whatever, is not going to give rise to a translation philosophy that will take particular care over conveying to the reader the details of what was in the document itself. On the other hand, a doctrine of inspiration which adopts the view that God gave words to his prophets to write, and they wrote them, will more naturally encourage a translation philosophy which provides the reader with just what the text says, as far as that is possible, and at least attempts to let the text speak for itself.

Anyone with any sense (thus by definition excluding KJVO-ists) knows that translations themselves are not inspired. Inspiration is the process that ensured that the divine revelation that was breathed out in human words has all the properties of the words of God – when it is God who is speaking, the word is authoritative, timelessly true, internally consistent, complete in itself, comprehensible, holy (all necessarily so), and also (in his sovereignty) full of grace towards sinners. Verbal plenary inspiration, which we deduce from the scriptures, carries with it the implication that the words themselves matter, and a translation philosophy which is maximally consistent with this doctrine will prioritise the rendering of the words themselves – not so much their presumed rhetorical equivalent for speakers of the vulgar tongue – translating as literally as possible, as dynamically as necessary.

Obviously, this view of inspiration can’t be handled from an academic perspective when that academic perspective excludes the possibility of the supernatural. But it seems to me that your doctrine of inspiration, your understanding of the nature of the sacred texts themselves, is the essential starting point when you come to evaluate how successful one translation of the text might be in relation to another.

Old semi-related discussions –
On revelation

In the Confession

On canonicity

* But not the inspiration of linguistics, much as I covet the Chiasmus of the Month award.
** By far the weakest point of the pro-AV case (referring here to honest British conservatives who are emphatically not KJV-Onlyists) is the twin insistence (i) that the longevity of the AV rules out the need for any successor and (ii) that it is quite unproblematically readable and accessible to anyone who cares enough to make the effort. The AV is no longer the ploughman’s bible, and arguments in its favour need to acknowledge this.