Bible Translation — the “Only One Way to Translate” Fallacy

“That Book in Your Hand”

Translations chaos (“anything goes” on Bible translations) does a lot of harm.  Differing translations can cause confusion, arguments, divisions, etc.  Confusion over translations can greatly hinder things being “done decently and in order,” and sometimes even tempt people to doubt the Bible’s authority.

As we saw last week, “double inspiration” is not a Biblical solution to translations chaos — but neither is chaos solved by teaching there is only one way to translate a word or verse.  Scripture itself shows it is possible for there to be more than one way to appropriately translate a verse.


Major themes on Bibliology, the nature of the Bible (from a sermon series):

  1. The inspiration of the Scriptures, their divine nature, from II Timothy 3:16.
  2. The moving of the Spirit in giving us the Scriptures, from II Peter 1:19-21.
  3. The inerrancy of God’s Word (completely reliable).
  4. The preservation of God’s Word.
  5. The illumination of the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit helps us understand spiritual truths.
  6. The perspicuity of Scripture — it can be understood and rightly interpreted.
  7. The canon of Scripture — which books are part of the Bible.
  8. The unity of Scripture — one Book, one Author, one unifying message.
  9. The sufficiency of Scripture — the Bible tells all we need for salvation and to guide us in God-honouring life and belief.

Previous posts on Bible translations:

“One Way to Translate” and the Translations Debate

There is not necessarily a word-for-word correspondence in translation.  One example is the Greek paraklasis, which the KJV translates as “consolation,” “comfort,” “exhortation,” and “intreaty.”  In some cases, the context shows which is best, but in others the distinction between “comfort” and “consolation” is so small that either could give the meaning of the Greek word.

Some argue that modern translations are unacceptable because they translate some words or verses differently from the KJV.  The Scripture does not anywhere say that a language can only have one legitimate translation of Scripture.  God gave one set of words, one Bible, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not in English.  Translations chaos is a very real problem, but the solution is not to teach that only one way to translate a word or verse is acceptable.  The Scriptures don’t teach that idea, and if the Scriptures are sufficient, we should not teach it, either.

On the other hand, I read an article arguing that the KJV should be abandoned.  One reason given was Romans 6:2 — “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”  The author said it should be translated, “….we who died to sin….”  If you used to live in sin, and are now dead to it, you must have died, while if you died, you must now be dead.  The two translations differ only in emphasis, and each definitely implies the other.  Is one better?  Perhaps — but that does not necessarily mean the other is unacceptable.

To prove a translation unacceptable, you would have to prove it gives a meaning different from the original language words which God gave.  And the Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there can, indeed, be more than one way to translate into another language.

“Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God”

Deuteronomy 6:5

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

According to the Lord Jesus, this is the greatest commandment of the Law.

Matthew 22:37

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

Here, Matthew records Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 6:5.

Mark 12:30

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.

Here, Mark records the same incident in the temple, a few days before the crucifixion of the Saviour.  However, Mark gives different words, adding “and with all thy strength” to the words in Matthew.

Why the difference?  Perhaps Jesus quoted it twice, varying the second time to provide a different emphasis.  More likely, since He was speaking in the temple, He spoke in the original Hebrew (or perhaps Aramaic), and the Holy Spirit has given us different inspired translations of His words.

It matters little how the difference arose.  Both are true and accurate Greek translations of the Hebrew, each emphasising different aspects of the Hebrew word meod.  Both are given by the Holy Spirit, both are attributed to Christ, and both have direct divine sanction as legitimate Greek translations of Deuteronomy 6:5.  No one can claim that either Greek version is wrong or unacceptable, or that there is only one proper way to translate this Hebrew verse into Greek.

“Thou Hast Answered Right”

Luke 10:25-28

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?
27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.
28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

This is the prelude to the Parable of the Good Samaritan.   Here, Jesus asks a question, and as part of his answer, this man quotes the exact same verse.

Jesus asked what is written.  There is no room for imprecision when you ask a teacher of the Law what is written — Jesus requires a quote, and the lawyer quotes the same verse we saw above (and part of another).  The Greek translation of Deuteronomy 6:5 here is different from Matthew and Mark.  Jesus said his answer was right.  He didn’t say, “Oh, you’ve misquoted it,” or “You are using the wrong translation.”  He approved the lawyer’s answer.

So now we have three different Greek translations of the same verse, all with divine approval.  Two are attributed by the Holy Spirit to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and the third was approved as “right” by the Saviour.

“Only One Way to Translate” Fallacy

This is not to say that “anything goes” in translation, or that every translation is of equal merit — we should reject a translation different in meaning from the words God gave and continues to preserve.  As I will write later, there are good and sound reasons for a church to adopt a single translation, and good and sound reasons for the one our church uses.

But the “only one way to translate” fallacy crumbles when we see how God Himself translated Scripture.  It is not the solution to translations chaos, nor is it a sound argument against the KJV.  Any suggestion that there can be only one appropriate way to translate the meaning of a word or verse has no place in the discussion of Bible translations.

A word can have multiple equivalent words in another language.  A figure of speech may have no equivalent in the receptor language (the language into which it is being translated).  For other aspects of language differences, see post one and post two on “Difficulties of Bible Translation.”

It is entirely appropriate to discuss those difficulties.  There is nothing wrong with discussing which underlying text is true to the words God gave, and how that text is best translated.  God wants us to use our minds and to study these things.  But it is neither Biblical nor logical to use arguments that rely on the “only one way to translate” fallacy.  It is not taught in Scripture, and Scripture demonstrates its error.

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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