The Sufficiency of the NLT

Thanks to Mike for this contribution:

150x200_mosaic It’s been a long road from where I’ve started to where I am now.  Ever since I began studying seriously the Scriptures in my early teens, I’ve been sensitive to the translation philosophies of the various versions of Scripture that have appeared in the last 30 years.  I remember distinctly the time when my father took me to the local bookstore to choose a study bible with which I could begin delving deep into the story of God’s interaction in the lives of men during the first several millennia of recorded history.  Although today there is a dizzying plethora of translations from which to choose, even in the mid-80s there were still enough translations on the market to make choosing the right one difficult.  Although my father was a dedicated proponent of the New American Standard Bible (NASB), he recognized that, for a 16-year-old, I likely required a “less literal” translation.  In the end, I opted for the NIV Study Bible, which served me well for about a decade, at which point I felt embarrassed carrying around such a tattered holy book.  In the decades that followed, my interest in the principles of Bible translation became both more informed and more sensitive:  informed in the sense that I understood the need of an “essentially literal” translation (e.g., the KJV or NASB), and sensitive insofar as the importance of the Scripture’s understandability (e.g., the NIV or Good News Bible).  Personally, I chose a more literal translation, landing solidly in the NASB camp for about a decade and then switching over exclusively to an ESV/NET Bible combination.

Despite my inclination toward “essentially literal” translations, I still wondered whether I was being too close-minded when it came to more dynamic translations such as the New Living Translation.  I mean, was an update of that awful (yet extremely influential) 1970s paraphrase really a tool that God could use mightily?  Wasn’t fidelity to the original languages something to be pursued?  Yes.  And no.

Ironically enough, in recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that, while still the “word of God,” the Bible is not as inerrant as I had once believed.  I had come to recognize that ancient science (e.g, a 3-tiered geocentric cosmos) pervaded both the Old and New Testaments and, thus, for me to hold to the belief that any scientific matter upon which the Bible touched was forever scientifically correct would result in severe cognitive dissonance.  And that’s when it hit me.  The ancient cosmology reflected in the Bible was merely an incidental vessel in which God’s truth was communicated.  God accommodated his message in terms (scientific, historical, or otherwise) that the original readers could understand.  To focus on the science would be to miss the big picture.  It dawned on me that I was attributing to Scripture a property that it never claimed for itself.  As well, the facts of history bear out the truth of the matter:  the Christian church has never possessed a perfect Bible.  Because of inherent imperfections in the translation process, as well as the manual process by which the Word of God was transmitted to the Church through the ages, it goes to say that it is extremely likely that God never meant His word to be immaculately preserved.

So, with what was I left?  Biblical adequacy—the concept that, regardless of the fallible human methods by which God communicated and transmitted his word, the Scriptures remained sufficient, despite the ravishes of the millennia, to “teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.  It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.  God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NLT).  From a careful reading of these verses, it appears to me that “what is true” has much less to do with transmitting history, scientific concepts, and languages with 21st-century accuracy and everything to do with helping us to recognize our inadequacy to do what is right in the sight of God, to recognize the necessity to rely on God’s moral guidance, and to recognize the mission to which we are called.

Wrought-iron fidelity to the original languages, while it has its place, is not the end-all-be-all of communicating God’s message faithfully to the English-speaking world.  What’s more important to recognize is that a “less literal” translation, such as the New Living Translation, is equally capable of doing everything 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states to be the purpose of Scripture.  The New Living Translation is adequate and sufficient to communicate the truths of God.  And that’s why I’ve decided to give the NLT a chance to speak to me next year, as I read through the entire Bible for the fifth time.

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29 Replies to “The Sufficiency of the NLT”

  1. Oh, now i know you are headed straight to hell. BTW you forgot to mention the fact that the actual composition of the bible is extra/non biblical. How can we know that the book we hold is God's complete revelation – i.e., is the canon closed?Plenty of room in the fiery lake for us all. B-D

  2. That's a shame Joel. It was well thought out and cogent. So many of our ideas about the bible are based on its assumed completeness and authority. An inerrant document that can't be understood is not very useful.

  3. I am honored that you thing I could write it! While, Mike and I might disagree over inspiration, I believe that I would not break fellowship over this issue. But we do agree, all around:"An inerrant document that can't be understood is not very useful."

  4. Sonny,Many thanks for the compliment on my post. Writing it helped solidify my thoughts on the topic, so I thank Joel for the invitation. "Assumed completeness and authority" … interesting phrase and one that's gotten the gray matter juices flowing on more than one occasion. I'm headed overseas this December for a year and I'm taking Clark Pinnock & Barry Callen's "The Scripture Principle: Reclaiming the Full Authority of the Bible" and N.T. Wright's "The Last Word" (among about two dozen other books on theology and science). Hopefully, those two books will help shape my thoughts for the book I plan to write next year.

  5. Working title: "Rethinking the Alpha and Omega: Theological Musings of a Non-Traditional Evangelical." It will put into book form a lot of content from my current blog on the origins debate as well as eschatology, plus the topics of inerrancy and inspiration. In essence, it's a theological powder keg in pulp (non)fiction format. Going for that Donald Miller/Anne Lamotte/Rob Bell feel.

  6. Thanks, ElShaddai!

    Damian: It was rough going, actually. I’m in the final 6 weeks of my language training and things are moving like a freight train. So, guest blogging was a considerable challenge, but I found a free hour and took advantage of it. Interestingly enough, it got the theological mental juices flowing again, so it might not be long before another legitimate TCOAE post becomes a reality. 😉

    Just for kicks, I think I’ll cross-post this to my TCOAE blog!

  7. I appreciate your post, and I agree with the first comment that the canon itself is extra-biblical. But with the view you hold, are you not simply left with an essentially human book? I can see your point but how can we claim the Bible has anything to teach us morally or about the future if it has been the work of fallible men? I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I’m not a KJV Onlyer or anything. Just trying to flesh out the implications. I mean couldn’t someone just simply do away with the Bible then and just rely on a simply subjective relationship with Jesus? What about the prophetic fulfillment of the OT in the New? I mean Matthew took some liberties didn’t he? “Out of Egypt I have called my son” refers to Israel, not Jesus. How do we view such things? Human inventiveness?

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