The essential characteristics of the Scriptures may be summed up in these tenets: revelation because God has communicated His mind to men; inspiration because God has superintended the recording of what He communicated; canonicity because what is inspired is recognized; infallibility because what God intended to be written was recorded without error; authority because what is recorded is binding upon all men; necessity because man cannot do without what God says; sufficiency because what God has communicated needs no supplement; preservation because God has pledged for His Word to exist to all generations; and understandability because God communicated in order to be understood.
While all these characteristics of the Scriptures are essential and significant, two of them relate directly to the routine task of the Bible translator: preservation and understandability. The other characteristics may impress the translator with the sacredness and value of the biblical texts and shape his philosophy of Bible translation, but they do not directly affect the routine, technical work of translating. They are inherent qualities that are set and permanent but are not active, so to speak.
By contrast, whenever the Scriptures are translated into a new language, preservation is newly active. And whenever the Scriptures are studied, preached, or translated, understandability is also in operation. Both preservation and understandability of the Bible are acts of “fairness” from God. It would not be equitable that God would reveal His Word, render it binding upon all men, and then not make it available; or that He would make it available and not make it understandable.
Throughout the ages, God has providentially preserved the copies of the Scriptures in the original languages. When one considers the opposition that has raged against God’s Word through the centuries, it is amazing that these copies are available at all.
Even more, God has preserved everything that was originally written. Today, scholars may argue about a low percentage of the text of the NT as to which word or phrase rendering was originally written. That is primarily a problem of identification, not essentially one of preservation. Just as a believer’s sin does not affect the righteousness of God, likewise, possible divergences among copies of the NT highlight more the limitations of man rather than any hint of doubt in the faithfulness of God.
Though preserved, the Scriptures would be irrelevant if they could not be used in a practical way. God’s purpose in speaking to men is that men might be fit and complete as God is complete (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Matthew 5:48). God has done everything necessary for man to be transformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). And He presented His perfect plan in an understandable manner for men to comprehend it. That is what is called the doctrine of perspicuity or clarity of Scripture: God communicated to be understood!
It can be put this way: All things being accounted for, the Scriptures are understandable. And as such, they are translatable. Translating the Scriptures is basically an act of transferring meaning from the texts of the Bible into a vernacular. Hence, the translator tries to comprehend the linguistic and biblical (theological) components of the Scriptures to transfer them accurately into another language. In turn, the reader understands what God intended to communicate.
Martin Luther, also a Bible translator and one who is largely responsible for the first, truly cohesive view on the understandability of the Scriptures, addressed this dilemma as well. In Bondage of the Will, he declared,
If you speak of the internal clearness [or spiritual significance], no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that hath the Spirit of God…. If you speak of the external clearness [or normal speech], nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world. (Translated, Baker Book House, 1976, p. 29)
Are the Scriptures, then, both clear and unclear? How does that affect Bible translating? This is a thought to make understandable in my next column!
P. Hantz Bernard is the director of Bibles International. Led to Christ through at 15 by Baptist Mid-Missions missionaries, Dr. Bernard soon showed evidence of leadership gifts. At Bob Jones University, he earned not only his room, board, and personal expenses, but also a BA in Pastoral Studies and Publishing, and two graduate degrees in theology, Biblical languages, and linguistics. In 2005, Dr. Bernard was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree from BJU. Bernard and his co-workers have produced a trustworthy Creole NT, and the OT translation is underway. Prior to being named as director, Hantz served as a pastor, seminary instructor, and translation consultant.