The Reliability of Scripture and Its Various Translations

Recently I was asked to address the following two issues regarding Scripture:

1. The issue of whether or not we have copies of the Scriptures now that accurately compare to the originals.
2. How do you choose which translation to go by.

My response to issue number 1 is two-fold:

1. There is no other ancient document on earth that is as reliable as the Christian Bible. I won’t get into all the arguments to back that up, for they are many and covered adequately in plenty of other places. But the bottom line is this: The Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament that modern translations are based upon are very, VERY close to the originals, so close in fact that nothing else from antiquity even begins to compare.

(For more comprehensive arguments to back this up I would point you to a whole host of Old and New Testament scholars and apologists who make a great case for the reliability of the Bible. Check out stuff from Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Norman Geisler, D. James Kennedy, Gary Habermas and Ravi Zacharias, just to name a few.)

2. While the first part of my response to issue number 1 deals more with the academic/apologetic side, the second part of my response deals with the issue of faith. This statement hits the nail on the head: “I don’t believe that God would allow his Holy Word to be messed up by human beings.” In the end, that’s what it’s all about. No one can absolutely and 100% definitively argue from science, textual criticism, archaeology, etc. that the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testaments that we have are exactly identical to what was originally written. That is simply because we do not have the original manuscripts, so we are left to do two things: Keep working hard to continue the scholarly efforts mentioned above, but also rest in our faith that the same God who graciously revealed truth about Himself to mankind will also be faithful to preserve that truth for all generations.

Think about it for a moment. If you believe in God then you believe in the supernatural. If you believe that God is able and willing to reveal truth to human beings, then is it such a stretch to believe that He would make sure that this revelation is not perverted? Why would God go through the effort to reveal something to us but allow it to only be heard by a single generation? That makes no logical sense. It does make sense, however, that if you believe in God, and you believe that He has spoken, that He would also ensure that all generations of people would have access to the same truth. This, in the end, is a statement of faith, which is ultimately where we must find peace. Even if there is some unresolved dispute about a particular text somewhere in the Bible, it does not shake my faith. I still believe in revelation, and so I believe that the answer exists, even if we have not discovered it yet.

As for issue number 2, I will build off my answer from issue number 1 and say that God can even preserve the truth of His word even when it is translated into other languages. Once again, if He revealed truth only to the people who could read Hebrew and Greek, what good is the revelation? Surely the Holy Spirit can move upon the minds and hearts of both the translators who work with the texts and the readers who read it so that the truth of revelation is preserved and conveyed. If we accept this statement of faith, then really all that is left is to determine which translation (and I’m speaking of English translations from this point on) is the best one to use. On that topic there is much room for debate.

There are different translation philosophies. One camp believes that only translations that are as word-for-word literal are useful, while another camp believes that what matters is that the essence of the meaning of the text is preserved, even if not the precise vocabulary or grammar. So you have some translations that are very literal (like the NKJV and NASB), while others are less literal and use more contemporary linguistic styles (like the NLT). Others attempt to navigate between the two (like the NIV and NRSV), while some are so loosely translated that they aren’t really translations at all, but more like a paraphrase (like The Message). Honestly, I think a case could be made for just about all of these mentioned above, just as long as you keep in mind what they are. I love the NASB when I am working on a technical exposition of a text, because it is so literal word-for-word. But I use an NRSV when I do devotions or preach, because the language is more poetic and accessible and is easier to read in public. In any given passage I think there is room for the Bible student to debate which translation more accurately conveys the original truth of the text, but in the end God can speak to the reader through BOTH. But this brings us back, once again, to the earlier points I made up above: we need to be sharp academically and be aware of all the technical issues, but we also need to have faith that the God who effortlessly spoke the universe into existence is more than able to speak to my heart here and now in this moment.

In no way does any of this comprehensively address all that these questions entail, but if nothing else we can garner a few principles from it all:

1. The Bible as we have it today is very, very accurate and trustworthy.
2. All major English translations we have today are very, very accurate and trustworthy and are built upon the most recent archaeological discoveries and knowledge of the original languages.
3. God can and does still speak to us today through His timeless word.

The Holy Bible is unparalleled in all of human history. No other ancient book is as accurate, and no other book is as relevant to human beings. Its truth transcends all times, languages and cultures and has as much to say to the Wall Street banker as the bushman in the Outback, because it was inspired by the God of all times, languages and cultures. What a magnificent book!

“To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.” Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: “Lord, is it not Thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God’? Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said, ‘If any be willing to do Thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, Thy will. ‘ I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”

-John Wesley, Standard Sermons, preface, 5.

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