This was a very unusual Sunday morning for us, as we did not attend a worship service. Yesterday, my wife Helen was released from the hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, four days after undergoing back surgery. This morning was dedicated to trying to ease her pain and discomfort. However, there was opportunity for me to observe and listen to two worship services on television.
The first one focused on the message of a conservative evangelical minister who described how a perfect God used imperfect people to write a perfect Book. He said that God, through the Holy Spirit, enabled the writers of Scripture to write a perfect book, without error or mistake. He spoke firmly about the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
He clarified that this infallibility and inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts. Then, he affirmed that, although we have only copies of copies of copies of those manuscripts, God preserved the reliability of the Scriptures throughout the centuries. This brought back memories to me of the theological debates on the subject of the inspiration of the Scriptures when I was in seminary forty years ago. The conservatives insisted that God had verbally dictated every word to the writers. The moderates agreed that God directed the thoughts of the writers, but added that the words were definitely theirs, pointing out that the personalities and cultural backgrounds of the various authors are reflected in what they wrote. On the other extreme, the liberal theologians referred to the Bible only as great religious literature.
Since then, there has been a great deal of theological strife over just how and how much of the Bible is inspired. Forty years ago, I would have sided with the conservatives in asserting that the Bible in its original manuscripts is infallible and inerrant. But, it is no longer an issue with me due to our working on the revision of the Bible in the Tzeltal Indian language. This translation experience has shown me how irrelevant is the claim of infallibility and inerrancy.
Translating the Bible has been a frustrating and humbling experience for me. Reading through the Tzeltal translation, I find passages that are unclear. I read the passage in Spanish, and it is also unclear. I look in the English translations and see how they struggle to make it meaningful and how much they differ from each other. And then, I read the footnotes that say: The Hebrew is unclear. I notice differences in the various versions in Spanish and English, and once again I read the footnotes that say: Some manuscripts say this and other manuscripts say that. Consequently, every translator has to make choices. They make the choice carefully and prayerfully, but not infallibly.
In our translation, we search for the best way of saying it in Tzeltal; but, no matter how much time we spend on a passage, there is always yet a better way of expressing it. No matter how much you sand a piece of wood, it is never perfectly smooth. So also, no matter how well you translate the Bible, your translation can always be improved on. We can make no claim for an inerrant or infallible Tzeltal Bible.
The Tzeltal revision committee went over the books of Moses twice; then, Helen and I went over them twice. Hundreds of changes were made. The questions that we could not answer we took to the translation consultant of the Bible Society. He looked at the Hebrew and sometimes found an answer. But, at other times, he replied: The Hebrew is not clear. It could be this, or it could be that. And we had to choose between this and that.
Finally, we published the five books of Moses. And when the revision committee began reading it, they found inadequacies and insisted on going over them carefully another time.
We would love to produce an inerrant Bible. We use a new computer program to help us with accuracy, and it keeps discovering typographical errors and misspelled words. But it does not uncover all of them.
All of which tells me that Christians have wasted a lot of energy and words arguing about whether or not the original manuscripts of the Bible were infallibly and verbally inspired by God. The fact is that those manuscripts no longer exist. The copies of copies of copies that we have are not without error. And our translations, no matter how well they are done, are not perfect, either.
So, instead of holding up a Bible and proclaiming that it is an infallible and inerrant Book, perhaps, we need to be a bit more realistic and say that it is authoritative and trustworthy in what it teaches. And we can affirm that whoever believes its message will find eternal fellowship with God.
And those statements are true. Last year, we printed the Book of Mark in the Amatenango dialect of the Tzeltal language. It is the first piece of Scripture in their dialect. It is not an infallible or errorless translation; it needs additional editing and revising. But, one day, a new Amatenango believer took a copy home. He began to read it to his wife as she was molding clay flowerpots. She had been adamant that she would not become an evangelical. Her parents had told her that the Bible was a bad book that confused and misled people who read it. But she listened to her husband reading the Book of Mark, and finally said: Thats a beautiful book. Those are good stories. Those are Gods words to us. Im going to become a believer.
She did not believe it because it was the inerrant, verbally inspired, infallibly written Word of God. She believed it because it is Gods true message to us – written by human hands, copied through the centuries by human scribes, and translated by very fallible human people. It is a Book that is less than perfect, but powerfully able to communicate Gods power to save all who believe.
NOTE: Sam and Helen Hofman have spent forty years since seminary days as missionaries to the native people of the Mexican state of Chiapas. On several occasions, our family traveled with them as they visited congregations in the area. In my comparative analyses of many versions of the Bible, I have come to the same conclusion as Sam has in his article. On numerous occasions, Sam and I have discussed this issue. I also feel that many people worship the Book, sometimes one particular version, instead of trying to understand the basic message. This article was printed in a publication of his church and drew both positive and negative feedback. Those who have criticized probably have not had the experiences that the Hofmans and other translators have had. Permission has been granted by the author to print this article.
(Written in 1998)