Saturday, June 17, 2017

Inspiration of Scripture and its Relation to Translations

It is some times said to us, You assert that the inspiration of the Scriptures extended to the very words of the original text; but wherefore all this verbal exactness of the Holy Word, seeing that, after all, the greater number of Christians can make use of such versions only as are more or less inexact? Thus, then, the privilege of such an inspiration is lost to the Church of modern times; for you will not venture to say that any translation is inspired. This is a difficulty which, on account of its insignificance, we felt at first averse to noticing; but we cannot avoid doing so, being assured that it has obtained some currency among us, and some credit also. Our first remark on this objection must be, that it is not one at all. It does not bear against the fact of the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures; it only contests the advantages of that inspiration…

We proceed, then, to show how even this assertion, when reduced to these last terms, rests on no good foundation. The divine word which the Bible reveals to us, passes through four successive forms before reaching us in a translation. First, it was from all eternity in the mind of God. Next, it was passed by Him into the mind of man. In the third place, under the operation of the Holy Ghost, and by a mysterious process, it passed from the prophets' thoughts, into the types and symbols of an articulate language; it took shape in words. Finally, after having undergone this first translation, alike important and inexplicable, men have reproduced and counter-chalked it, by a new translation, in passing it from one human language into another human language. Of these four operations, the three first are divine; the fourth alone is human and fallible. Shall it be said, that because the last is human, the divinity of the three former should be a matter of indifference to us? Mark, however, that between the third and the fourth— I mean to say, between the first translation of the thought by the sensible signs of a human language, and the second translation of the words by other words—the difference is enormous. Between the doubts that may cleave to us respecting the exactness of the versions, and those with which we should be racked with respect to the correctness of the original text (if not inspired even in its language) the distance is infinite. It is said; of what consequence is it to me that the third operation is effected by the Spirit of God, if the last be accomplished only by the spirit of man? In other words, what avails it to me that the primitive language be inspired, if the translated version be not so? But people forget, in speaking thus, that we are infinitely more assured of the exactness of the translators, than we could be of that of the original text, in the case of all the expressions not being given by God.

Of this, however, we may become perfectly convinced, by attending to the five following considerations: 

1. The operation by which the sacred writers express with words the mind of the Holy Ghost, is, we have said, itself a rendering not of words by other words, but of divine thoughts by sensible symbols. Now this first translation is an infinitely nicer matter, more mysterious and more liable to error (if God puts not his hand to it) than the operation can be afterwards by which we should render a Greek word of that primitive text, by its equivalent in another tongue. In order to a man's expressing exactly the thought of God, it is necessary, if he be not guided in his language from above, that he have thoroughly comprehended it in its just measure, and in the whole extent and depth of its meaning. But this is by no means necessary in the case of a mere translation. The divine thought being already incarnated, as it were, in the language of the sacred text, what remains to be done in translation is no longer the giving of it a body, but only the changing of its dress, making it say in French what it had already said in Greek, and modestly substituting for each of its words an equivalent word. Such an operation is comparatively very inferior, very immaterial, without mystery, and infinitely less subject to error than the preceding. It even requires so little spirituality, that it may be performed to perfection by a trustworthy pagan who should possess in perfection a knowledge of both languages. The version of an accomplished rationalist; who desires to be no more than a translator, I could better trust than that of an orthodox person and a saint, who should paraphrase the text, and undertake to present it to me more complete or more clear in his French than he found it in the Greek or in the Hebrew of the original…

2. A second character by which we perceive how different these two operations must be, and by which the making of our versions will be seen to be infinitely less subject to the chances of error than the original text (assuming that to be uninspired), is, that while the work required by our translations is done by a great many men of every tongue and country, capable of devoting their whole time and care to it -- by men who have from age to age controlled and checked each other, and who have mutually instructed and perfected each other—the original text, on the contrary, behooved to be written at a given moment, and by a single man with that man there was none but his God to put him right if he made a mistake, and to supply him with better expressions if he had chosen imperfect ones. If God, therefore, did not do this, no one could have done it. And if that man gave a bad rendering of the mind of the Holy Ghost, he had not, like our translators, friends to warn, predecessors to guide, successors to correct, nor months, years, and ages in which to review and consummate his work. It was done by one man, and done once for all. This consideration, then, further shows how much more necessary the intervention of the Holy Ghost was to the sacred authors than to their translators.

3. A third consideration, which ought also to lead us to the same conclusion, is, that while all the translators of the Scriptures were literate and laborious persons, and versed in the study of language, the sacred authors, on the contrary, were, for the most part, ignorant men, without literary cultivation, without the habit of writing their own tongue, and liable, from that very circumstance, if they expressed fallibly the divine revelation, to give us an infallible thought in a faulty way.

4. A fourth very powerful consideration, which will make one feel still more sensibly the immense difference existing between the sacred writers and their translators, is, that whereas the thought from God passed like a flash of lightning before the soul of the prophet; whereas this thought could nowhere be found again upon earth, except in the rapid expression which was then given to it by the sacred writer; whereas, if he have expressed it ill, you know not where to go in search of its prototype in order to recover the thought meant to be conveyed by God in its purity; whereas, if he have made a mistake, his blunder is forever irreparable; it must last longer than heaven and earth, it has blemished the eternal book remedilessly, and nobody on earth can correct it;—it is quite otherwise with translators. These, on the contrary, have always the divine text at hand, so as to be corrected and re-corrected, according to the eternal type, until they have become an exact counter-part of it. The inspired word leaves us not; we need not to go in search of it to the third heaven; it is still upon the earth, just as God himself first dictated it to us. You may thus devote ages to its study, in order that the human process of our translation may be subjected to its immutable truth. You can now, after the lapse of a hundred and thirty years, correct Osterwald and Martin, by means of a closer comparison of them with their infallible standard; after the lapse of three hundred and seventeen years, you can correct the work of Luther; after that, of fourteen hundred and forty years, that of St Jerome. God's phraseology is still before us, with which to confront our modern versions, as dictated by God himself, in Hebrew or in Greek, on the day of its being revealed; and, with our dictionaries in your hand, you may, age after age, return to the examination of the infallible expression which it has been his good pleasure to give to the divine thought, until you become assured that the language of the modern ones has truly received the counter impression, and given you the most faithful facsimile of it for your own use. Say no more then, What avails it to me, that the one is divine since the other is human? If you would have a bust of Napoleon, would you say to the sculptor, What avails it to me that your model has been moulded at St Helena on the very face of Bonaparte, seeing that, after all, your copy cannot have been so?

5. In fine, what further distinguishes the first expression which the mind of God has received in the individual words of the sacred book, from its new expression in one of our translations, is that, if you assume the words of the one to be as little inspired as those of the other, nevertheless, the range of conjectures which you might make on their possible faults would be, as respects the original text, a space without bounds and ever enlarging itself; while that same range, as respects the translations, is a very limited space, which is constantly diminishing the longer you remain in it.

If some friend, returning from the East Indies, where your father has, at a great distance from you, breathed his last, were to bring you from him a last letter, written with his own hand, or dictated by him, word for word, in Bengalee, would that letter’s being entirely from him be a matter of indifference to you, because you are not acquainted with the Bengalee language, and can read it only in a translation? Don't you know that you can cause translations of it to be multiplied, until they leave you no more doubt of the original meaning than if you had been a Hindoo? Will you not allow, that after each of these new translations your uncertainties will be always growing less and less, until they cease to be appreciable, as is the case in arithmetic with those fractionary and convergent progressions, the last terms of which are equivalent to zero; while, on the contrary, if the letter were not from your father himself, but from some stranger, who says he has only reproduced his thoughts, then you would find no limits to possible suppositions; and your uncertainties, transported into spheres new and boundless, would go on increasing the more you allowed your mind to dwell upon them; as is the case in arithmetic with those ascending progressions, the last terms of which represent infinitude. It is the same with the Bible. If I believe that God has dictated the whole of it, my uncertainties with respect to its translations are confined within a very narrow range; and even in this range, in proportion as it is re-translated, the limits of doubt are constantly drawn in more closely. But if left to think, on the contrary, that God has not entirely dictated it, and that human infirmity may have had its share in it, where shall I stop in assuming that there may be errors? I know not. The apostles were ignorant—shall I say, they were illiterate—they were Jews; they had popular prejudices; they judaized; they platonized; etc., I know not where to stop. I will begin like Locke, and end like Strauss. I will first deny the personality of Satan, as a rabbinical prejudice; I will end with denying that of Jesus Christ, as another prejudice. Between these two terms, in consequence, moreover, of the ignorance, on many points, to which the apostles were subject, I will proceed, as so many others have done, to admit, in spite of the letter of the Bible, and with the Bible in my hand, that there is no corruption in men, no personality in the Holy Ghost, no divinity in Jesus Christ, no expiation in his blood, no resurrection of the body in the grave, no eternity in future punishments, no anger in God, no devil, no miracle, no damned souls, no hell. St Paul was orthodox, shall I say? as others have done; but be misunderstood his Master. Whereas, on the contrary, if all have been dictated by God in the original, and even to the smallest expression, ‘to the least iota and tittle,’ who is the translator that could seduce me, by his labours, into any one of these negations, and make even the least of these truths disappear from my Bible?

Accordingly, who now can fail to perceive the enormous distance interposed by all these considerations between those two texts (that of the Bible and that of the translations), as respects the importance of verbal inspiration? Between the passing of the thoughts of God into human words, and the simple turning of these words into other words, the distance is as wide as from heaven to earth. God was required for the one; man sufficed for the other. Let it no longer be said, then, What would it avail to us that we have verbal inspiration in the one case, if we have not that inspiration in the other case? For between these two terms, which some would put on an equality, the difference is almost infinite.

Louis Gaussen, Theopneustia, Chapter 4

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