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Q&A #123 - Is any one Bible version the Word of God?
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Dear brother: I just discovered your website. Very interesting. It holds all our feet to the fire (both KJV defenders & "other version" defenders).
My question has always been this. After preaching for 36 years (most of that time as an evangelist) and now as a pastor of a small church, my original question remains: "If I want to hold up a single book in the air in front of my people and tell them confidently, 'This IS THE Word of God!' which book do I hold up?" You and I can study the experts, the textual critics, the scholars, the translators, etc. but what do we (as pastors in public pulpits) tell our people (who will never attend Bible college, etc.) is the inerrant Word of God?
I have men in my church who love and carry the NKJV. I also have men in my church that consider all other versions other than the KJV as satanically inspired! These are all good men. Loyal men. Men who love me and the work of God. My own wife loves the NKJV. My daughters prefer the NIV and the NKJV. I personally don't have a problem with anyone (my immediate family included) who personally desires to use, read or study from a different Bible (other than the KJV) but -- are we adding confusion to the modern man in the pew (the plumber, the carpenter, the banker, the mechanic, etc.) when we tell them "Here are the four or five 'Bibles' that I consider to be (or contain) the pure, original Word of God?"
Who decides which "Bibles" are the Word of God? Are we compromising (being deceived?) -- or -- are we indeed going through a natural process of re-weighing, re-evaluating and re-educating our textual beliefs (as spiritual leaders), and, finding out that we have more learning to do, and that we are headed to greater light and discovery? It is a question that I am being forced to find the absolute answer to.
Do you see my point as a pastor and public speaker?
Any light you could shed on this would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you and God bless you, sir.
PS. Which version (Bible) do you tell your kids, wife, etc. is the Word of God? Thanks.
PPS. Will there be new findings in the middle-east and other places of the world that will always be leading us to even greater, more intelligent findings in the world of Bible translations? If so, we may never have the final authority -- just a "good, sound, approximate version"? -- right?
These are all honest questions from a concerned pastor of God's people.
Your heartfelt, honest questions go right to the core of so many important issues. As I read your email, I could hear echoes our elder brother Paul on the subject of fellowship, proclaiming God's message, and the unquenchable Holy Spirit, saying:
Fellowship: 9 God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 10 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1Co 1:9,10, NASB)
25 There should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christs body, and individually members of it. (1Co 12:25-27, NASB)
Proclaiming God's message: 1 It is love, then, that you should strive for. Set your hearts on spiritual gifts, especially the gift of proclaiming Gods message. 2 Those who speak in strange tongues do not speak to others but to God, because no one understands them. They are speaking secret truths by the power of the Spirit. 3 But those who proclaim Gods message speak to people and give them help, encouragement, and comfort. 4 Those who speak in strange tongues help only themselves, but those who proclaim Gods message help the whole church. 5 I would like all of you to speak in strange tongues; but I would rather that you had the gift of proclaiming Gods message. For the person who proclaims Gods message is of greater value than the one who speaks in strange tongues unless there is someone present who can explain what is said, so that the whole church may be helped... 10 There are many different languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11But if I do not know the language being spoken, those who use it will be foreigners to me and I will be a foreigner to them. 12 Since you are eager to have the gifts of the Spirit, you must try above everything else to make greater use of those which help to build up the church... 19 In church worship I would rather speak five words that can be understood, in order to teach others, than speak thousands of words in strange tongues... 39 So then, my brothers and sisters, set your hearts on proclaiming Gods message, but do not forbid the speaking in strange tongues. 40 Everything must be done in a proper and orderly way. (1Co 14:TEV)
The unquenchable Holy Spirit: Quench not the Spirit. (1Th 5:19, KJV)
In 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul was writing of "strange tongues," he was referring to glossolalia (and/or possibly foreign languages), but his message has relevance to Bible versions. (Of course in his day the primary Bible of the Christians was the Greek Septuagint.) For our present consideration speaking in "strange tongues" is somewhat like publicly reading from older Bible versions (such as the KJV or the Vulgate) that use an archaic language (Elizabethan English or Latin) that is no longer spoken nor clearly understood by people today. We might also consider speaking in "strange tongues" to be somewhat like publicly reading from Bible versions whose Hebrew and Greek textual basis is not nearly as accurate as the Hebrew and Greek texts available today. Both types of Bible versions provide us with access to the Word of God, yet both need explanation to be completely faithful to the intent of the original author in proclaiming God's message. According to Paul we need to cherish most the gift of directly proclaiming God's message in the language that is edifying to those who hear it.
To Paul the Word of God was not limited to the Greek text of the Septuagint version of Old Testament. The words of the Bible are not the words of God, but the Word of the Bible is the Word of God. Some of the writings in which Paul used the phrase, "Word of God," are Rom 9:6; 1Co 14:36; 2Co 2:17; 2Co 4:2; and 1Th 2:13. He wrote in 1Th 2:13 (TEV),
13 We also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of Gods message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
It was the Roman Catholic Church's 1545 Council that closed the Christian canon and dictated its favored version of the Bible (Jerome's Latin Vulgate) as authoritative. In 1576 the Spanish Inquisitor Leon of Castro pronounced the following edict of non-toleration of any other Bible version or wording:
Nothing may be changed that disagrees with the Latin edition of the Vulgate, be it a single period, a single little conclusion or a single clause, a single word of expression, a single syllable or one iota. (Quoted in Karen Armstrong's A History of God, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, p. 289.)
In the English language it was during the war over translations in the 16th and 17th centuries that politically favored Bible versions were declared as authoritative. For example, the Pilgrims at Plymouth fled King James' England clutching their Geneva Bibles and had nothing but contempt for the King James Bible, but the other colonists who were sponsored by King James and subsequent English monarchs insisted on nothing other than the King James Version as "the Bible."
It was not until the end of the 19th century that the concept of biblical inerrancy arose in North America as a reaction to what some considered the threat of the methods and conclusions of "higher criticism," also known as biblical criticism, that had been developed European Bible scholars. This reactionary new theological phenonomon was the beginning of American fundamentalism. From it arose the teaching that the words of the King James Version of the Bible were literally and inerrantly the Word of God. This obviously was not the teaching of the earliest church, whose only sacred text was the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament and whose authority was the unquenchable Holy Spirit. In fact, as mentioned above, it was not until the 1545 Council of Trent that the canonical Bible (including the Aprocrypha) was officially defined and mandated as singularly authoritative. (See Fundamentalisms Observed, by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, especially pp. 15-16, but see also 3, 5-7, 168.)
John Muddiman (The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason, and Hugh Pyper, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 758-759, "Word/Logos,") provides an excellent summary of the history of this development from the first century:
Before the formation of the NT canon, early Christianity naturally emphasized what differentiated it from its Jewish matrix: freedom from the law, fulfilment of prophecy, and the living authority of the Spirit of the risen Christ. But after the parting of the ways, it inevitably reinvented structures parallel to those in Judaism. Since knowledge of Christ was mediated for later generations chiefly through the apostolic writings, the term 'Word of God' was applied to both Testaments. The 'sacred page' became for medieval theologians the source of that knowledge of God that unaided reason could not provide. The Reformers reinforced the authority of the bible in their challenge to the church's hierarchy... Considering what followed from this assertion of scriptural supremacy (for example, the notions of verbal inspiration and propositional revelation; the defensive reaction of fundamentalism to scientific discoveries), the move might be thought entirely retrograde; but recovering the scriptural dimension of the doctrine of the Word of God had initially a broadening, humanizing effect on the the understanding of revelation. Furthermore, the translation and dissemination of printed bibles and the freeing of scriptural interpretation from ecclesiastical control were also to have other consequences, very different from those just mentioned.
Historical-critical study of scripture, though it eventually gained its own internal momentum, began in the Enlightenment's critique of biblical authority, especially regarding OT morality, messianic prophecy, and miracles. The Word of God, for those critical scholars at the turn of the 19th century who still used the term, was distinguished from scripture and understood as personal revelation, not so much through the person of Christ as by divine self-revelation to human beings through the sense of absolute dependence or through the spirit's coming to know itself as spirit...
The eclipse of liberal Protestantism at the turn of the 20th century was due to the outworking of its own method in two directions, scepticism and eschatology. As historical investigation began casting doubts on whether anything could certainly be known about ancient Israel of Jesus of Nazareth, neo-orthodox Protestants like Martin Kahler and Karl Barth rejected historical reason in the name of faith alone. The infinite difference between creator and creature could be bridged only by the sovereign Word of God in scripture, preaching, and the person of Christ...
The one important exception to the sceptical tendency of historical criticism was the rediscovery of the roots of early Christianity in Jewish apocalyptic hope for the imminent dawn of the age to come, fulfilled and transformed by belief in Christ's Resurrection: this was the very kernel of the faith, not some kind of disposable husk. The Word which Jesus and the first Christians proclaimed, therefore, concerned not just past and present but especially the future...
Unfortunately the theology and politics of the fundamentalism (not to be confused with evangelicalism) are throwbacks to the theology and politics of the government-sponsored Christian church that Constantine began creating after 313 A.D., but today's fundamentalists have the additional arsenal of voluminous modern works of fundamentalist "scholars" to cite. On the other hand, modern biblical critical scholars at the best seminaries in the world generally disagree greatly with the biblical hermeneutics and theology of fundamentalism. Scholars who have adopted modern biblical criticism (see http://www.bibletexts.com/glossary/biblical-criticism.htm) are reconstructing the original Bible texts, its origin and meaning, and early Christianity by honestly employing quite scientific methods of exploring the Bible and other early Christian writings. They are digging beneath the nearly 2000 years of traditions, ambitions, wars, intrigue, persecutions, and of attempts to destroy all records of Christian teaching differing from the Constantine-created Christianity -- to find the core of early Christian theology and history.
Now, similar to the aforementioned Constantine-created Christianity of the 4th century, today's fundamentalists are taught to burn -- at least mentally, and sometimes physically -- religious or biblical works that are a threat to "corrupting" their intellectually controlling theology. (In the early 1950's this was reflected in the public book-burnings of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which fundamentalists of that era believed deviated from the pure Word of God found only in the KJV.)
After the Council of Nicea
of 325 A.D. not many other groups or literature of the once richly diverse Christianity
survived, because any literature that differed with the official theology and
politics of the centralized, government-sponsored church was hunted down house-to-house
and burned. That Constantine-created church had been integrated with, modeled
after, and had the authority of the central Roman government. Not only was such
literature burned, but those who produced it or who were found with it were
hunted down and pursecuted -- and sometimes killed. (That was not exactly the
"love your enemies" approach that Jesus advocated.)
In the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed (Joh 17:20-23, TEV):
20 I pray not only for them, but also for those who believe in me because of their message. 21 I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22I gave them the same glory you gave me, so that they may be one, just as you and I are one: 23 I in them and you in me, so that they may be completely one, in order that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them as you love me.
Certainly the languages of the scriptures read or the versions of scriptures read are of little importance to the oneness to which Jesus referred. Allowing language or version to divide a congregation, a denomination, or the entire church body of Christ would be to put a created object ahead of the Creator. Such pharisaical legalism is contrary to Jesus' teachings and example. It would defy the Great Commandment (Mar 12:28-34) and the New Commandment (Joh 13:34) of which Jesus spoke. It would be the practice of bibliolatry -- the worship of the book, rather than the proclamation of its message, the Word of God.
For example, the Lord's Prayer represents the Word of God, but if we mistakenly say that a particular version of the Lord's Prayer is the Word of God or possibly the words of God, then we not only need to choose the language and Bible version, but we also have to choose between the form in Matthew and the form in Luke, as to which are the words of God. Then it is worthwhile asking, is the Didache form of the Lord's Prayer also the Word of God, the words of God, or simply representing the Word of God? Does any one of them more represent or better represent the Word of God than the others? I would most likely answer that they all represent the Word of God -- the message of God. I would also agree with many other scholars that Luke's shorter prayer form is most likely closer what Jesus originally taught; but, also in agreement with many scholars, I believe Matthew's representation of Mat 6:10,11 is closer to the actual wording that Jesus taught for those verses. That said, I would still say they all represent the Word of God -- the message of God.
You asked, "Which version (Bible) do you tell your kids, wife, etc. is the Word of God?" Consistent with what I have noted above, I do not believe or teach that any particular Bible version is the word of God. Since members of my family are multi-lingual that would be especially difficult. My endeavor is to be a faithful vehicle for proclaiming the Word of God, the message of God, regardless of the words I use or the Bible versions I quote. Of even greater importance is that my life faithfully proclaims the Word of God.
For word studies I recommend that my family members use a more word-by-word version -- such as the NASB, NRSV, or NAB; and when reading the Bible from cover to cover and when trying to understand the genuine context of Bible passages they are studying, I recommend that they use a reliable phrase-by-phrase version (such as the TEV or REB). I recommend having at least one of both types at hand at all times.
In my article, "The King James Version and the Textus Receptus: Their history, accuracy, and relevance today," I state the folllowing:
The importance of knowing and understanding Jesus actual words, actions, and life as accurately as possible -- at whatever theological or intellectual cost.
Whether I am reading from modern versions, the KJV, or from texts in the ancient languages, I conscientiously try to ensure that what I am reading accurately represents (as closely as currently can be determined) the unadulterated, first-edition wording of the original biblical writer. Most important to me when reading the New Testament is to verify that I am reading an accurate representation of Christ Jesus' words, as reported by the original biblical writers.
Due to the conscientious endeavors of archeologists, textual analysts, and researchers in a variety of disciplines, it has gradually become more and more possible to verify or accurately reconstruct Jesus' words as reported in the first Greek editions of what are now the texts of the New Testament. At the same time, Jesus' message, reflected in both his words and his actions, continues to make its demands on each one of us, whether or not we are aware of those demands.
The more nearly we can verify, understand, and obey Jesus' actual words, actions, and life, the more we can cooperate with the demands (and opportunities) of his loving sacrifice, victory, and liberating salvation. These are demands that each one of us must ultimately face. With or without our cooperation, these demands and the genuine spirituality they require will increasingly compel us to "put off the old self with its habits and ... put on the new self. This is the new being which God, its Creator, is constantly renewing in his own image, in order to bring you to a full knowledge of himself." (Colossians 3:9,10 - TEV) Resistance to God's demands - even ignorant resistance - is ultimately both futile and very uncomfortable; thus, it seems much more desirable and more efficient to participate willingly, humbly, lovingly, reverently, and understandingly. An accurate and understandable representation of especially Jesus' and the apostles' actual words and actions can be a big help!
Below are some additional resources for exploring the topic of the Bible as the Word of God.
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer