Saturday, January 06, 2007

Mars Hill Church: on a different planet?

In some ways I admire the controversial preacher Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, Seattle. I admire him for his no-nonsense attitude and refusal to conform to the religious expectations of others. But in other ways he infuriates me.

And he has done so again, not so much with his church's decision to use the ESV Bible as with his allegedly theological reasons for this. It is clear that he simply hasn't got a clue what he is talking about on the subject of language and translation.

For example, he writes:
when we change the words of Scripture we are changing the meaning of Scripture.
What does he mean here by "the words of Scripture"? If he is referring to the inspired words of the original text, then no one is suggesting a change. But probably he is referring to a translation. If we change a translation, the change may be neutral as far as the meaning is concerned; or perhaps we are indeed changing its meaning. But if the old translation was not correct (or had become incorrect over time because of language change), a change should be a change for the better, the correction of an error. And of course every translation claims to be correct where others were wrong. So this is no argument for any one translation over any other. Indeed if Driscoll really believes this argument he should go back to the King James Version or earlier, on the basis that every new translation is "changing the meaning of Scripture".

Then he writes:
Romans 3:24 is one of many places where “justification” is spoken of in the original text of Scripture.
I have looked at the original text (well, a scholarly edition of the Greek text) of Romans 3:24 and cannot find the word "justification" there. There are no English words, only Greek ones. In fact this word is not in any of the translations Driscoll quotes, but I guess he is referring to the word "justified". What I do find in the Greek text is the concept "justification", expressed in a Greek word. The task of a translator is to find an appropriate way of expressing this concept in a target language like English. That may be with an individual word like "justified". The problem is that many people today either do not understand this word or misunderstand it (perhaps something to do with text layout!), and so some translators choose a different way of expressing the word. Thus for example the NLT translators express the same concept in the word "God... declares that we are righteous". Doesn't that mean exactly the same thing? Who is to say that "justify" is a correct translation and "declare righteous" is not? Of course there might be a subtle theological distinction to be made here, but that is not the point made by Driscoll, who is not known for subtlety. In fact he seems to base his preference either on "justify" being one word rather than two, or else that the choice of King James is as unchangeable as the decrees of the kings of the Medes and the Persians.

Then, on Psalm 8:4, Driscoll writes:
The original text simply says “man,” yet some translations take the liberty to deviate from that markedly:
- and among the alternatives he rejects is "humans". What, does Driscoll really believe that the word "man" is in the original text, and not a Hebrew word? What planet is he on? In fact there are two different Hebrew words rendered "man" in ESV, 'enosh with a collective meaning in the first line and 'adam in the second line. Both of these words can legitimately be translated either "man" (if understood as gender generic) or "human beings". Why is one right and the other wrong?

I suppose that Mars Hill church is named after the forum in Athens (more correctly the Areopagus, but called "Mars' hill" in Acts 17:22 KJV although by Paul's time it did not meet on the hill of that name) in which Paul debated his Christian faith with Greek philosophers. But he could only debate with them, and start the process of Christianising Greek thought, because he spoke a common language with them. However, Driscoll seems to repudiate the idea of speaking a common language with the huge majority of unbelievers in his city, but prefers, even when "writing an article for a non-Christian newspaper", to retreat into Christian jargon which the readers, even the newspaper editor, don't understand.

By cutting himself off with a language barrier from most of the people of this earth, Driscoll seems to be positioning himself and his church not so much on Mars Hill as on the planet Mars.

4 Comments:

At Sunday, January 07, 2007 1:12:00 pm, Blogger Gannet Girl said...

As a teacher in a Jewish school whose students and colleagues read their scripture in Hebrew and Aramaic (and then debate the meaning endlessly), I always get a chuckle out of claims about English translations.

I read Mr. Driscoll's argument. He seems to have no idea that he himself is engaged in a process of substantive interpretation by virtue of making and defending a choice, or that a word-for-word translation of anything is usually the worst kind.

 
At Sunday, January 07, 2007 10:45:00 pm, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Gannet Girl. I agree that Driscoll doesn't have a clue.

See also posts on this subject at Better Bibles Blog and Threads from Henry's Web.

 
At Monday, January 08, 2007 6:00:00 am, Blogger Molly said...

Great reflections. I really appreciate them.

 
At Wednesday, January 10, 2007 10:05:00 pm, Blogger Dana said...

Isn't translating a text at ALL "changing the words of Scripture"? Ay yi yi. Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much, perhaps. ;)

Have you read the book Doublespeak by William Lutz? I think you'd enjoy his explanations of semiotics - his examples are clear, insightful and even kinda fun!

 

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