Not Receiving it at Mars Hill

Words vs Thoughts at Mars Hill

Stated vs Meant at Mars Hill

Words Carry Meaning at Mars Hill

Theological Jargon at Mars Hill

In his fifth point, Mark Driscoll actually cuts to the real theological heart of the issue of translation. Of everything he lists in the theology section, this is actually the real debate. There are other areas of debate between dynamic versus formal equivalence in translation, but the issue of how to communicate Scripture to our modern readers is at the heart of it.

Here is the fifth point in full,


Scripture teaches us that God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and that we should seek to reach as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19–23). As a result, the desire to make the Bible understandable so that more people can learn about Jesus is something that every Christian should wholeheartedly support.

But we must remember that we can’t change the words of Scripture, because God has called us to not only communicate widely, but also communicate truthfully. For many reasons, not all Scripture is easy to understand. First, we are sinners, so we sometimes suppress the truth we receive because we disagree with Scripture and are unwilling to repent. The problem is not just a difficult translation, but a hard heart (Rom. 1:28). Second, God’s thoughts are much higher than our own (Isa. 55:9). Third, God has secrets that he has not revealed to us (Deut. 29:29). Fourth, we sometimes see the truth dimly and know it in part (1 Cor. 13:12).

We who teach Scripture should explain the words people do not understand so that they can fully appreciate what God is saying to them through Scripture.

Furthermore, even the greatest of communicators were known to be hard to understand when they spoke God’s truth. Some of Jesus’ teaching was declared to be a “hard saying” by his hearers (John 6:60). Jesus also taught in parables, knowing that his teaching would not be readily understood by all his hearers, but only those with “ears to hear” (Mark 4:10–23). Speaking of Paul’s writings, around which controversy continues to swirl today, Peter said, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).

There’s no doubt that we should make every effort to have the Bible translated in words that as many people as possible can understand. But we must also be careful not to cross a line where we change God’s words in hopes that more people will be willing to accept them. Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit working in us, there’s no way we can gladly receive the truth. Even with the Holy Spirit, some parts of Scripture remain for us “hard to understand,” as they were even for Peter, who was trained by Jesus and himself penned Scripture.

As a result, the pursuit of all Bible translation and teaching must include both accessibility to the reader and faithfulness to God the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writings of Scripture. Indeed, much of what passes today as a criticism of the clarity of Scripture is little more than the self-condemnation of those with blind eyes caused by hard hearts. The church father Athanasius spoke of this with great pastoral insight, saying, “For the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life.”

I think it is fair to sum up Driscoll’s point here in the following way. First, Scripture is very difficult to understand because of the sinfulness of humanity. That is to say, because human beings are in willful rebellion against God, and have allowed themselves to be taken as slaves to sin,  the human capacity to reason has been damaged. Thus our ability to understand what God would tell us, which is part of being God’s image bearers, has been damaged.

Second, Scripture is difficult to understand because God is not a human, and humans are not God. God reasons on a plane higher than our own. He is the creator and sustainer of the universe. By his words the very fabric of nature unravels. The logic and capacity of reason that went into creating our universe is beyond what we can fathom as finite, mortal creatures. Thus there are things in Scripture we won’t all understand.

Now, let us understand something important. When Paul wrote his letters, he wasn’t writing to the wealthy, educated elites of Roman society. Most of his audience would have been poor and illiterate. Their knowledge of Scripture would have come down to them orally–if they had any knowledge in the first place. Thus Paul, writing a letter, isn’t trying to be difficult to understand. He’s speaking in a language that his audience understands. The goal was for his readers to get what he was saying. The same is true for everyone else who wrote Scripture. They wanted their audience to get what was being read/spoken aloud.

Therefore making a translation of Scripture that creates boundaries between the text and the reader is going against what writers of Scripture were doing. Paul did speak things that were difficult to understand. Not difficult to read. In other words, people didn’t get the concepts. But the text was still a text that could be read and understood. Words like hilasterion or dikaiosune or logos were words in his audience’s vocabulary.

Our translations should have the same goal. We want our translations to use the vocabulary of the spoken language, like Greek in the New Testament world. Readers should be able to read the translations and comprehend what they read. If the concept proves difficult to understand or accept, that’s one thing. But the translation shouldn’t be so ancient that the modern reader barely gets what is being said.

Thus I agree about communicating truthfully in that we cannot hide what Scripture says because our audience won’t accept it. We cannot hide what Paul says about sin so as not to offend the reader. And I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about translating Paul or Jesus or Isaiah in such a way that the modern reader knows exactly what is being said about sin. They can then reject that saying out of their own hardness of heart, but not because they didn’t get what they were reading.

You see, it boils down to this. If humans are hard hearted and only the Holy Spirit can impart to them an understanding of Scripture, then it doesn’t matter whether or not we favor a dynamic or a formal equivalent translation. How many words a translation uses to explain hyper hemon isn’t really that big of an issue (and remember, the ESV is the one that explains this preposition with “for their sake” unlike the NIV or NLT which says “for them”). Without the Holy Spirit, it won’t matter. So why favor a translation philosophy that isn’t trying to communicate in the language that people speak (in my case English)? Why belittle a philosophy that seeks to do that? Why be a barrier for the Holy Spirit to overcome?

~ by hankimler on September 6, 2013.

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