Old music and new translations

10 Aug

From time to time, I have encountered this argument: “How can you be an advocate of 300 year old church music and 20 year old Bible versions at the same time? If you’re going to insist that we all love Isaac Watts, wouldn’t it be more consistent for you to prefer the King James Version?” Some ask the question sincerely; others (apparently) seem to think that they have found a sort of gotcha question that should undermine my advocacy of conservatism in worship.

I do favor modern translations. At Huron Baptist Church, the church of which I am a member, we use the New International Version as our standard translation. The NIV, NASB, and ESV would all be live options for me if I were planting a church. In fact, I am more likely to use any of those three before I would use the King James, both for personal study and corporate reading.

I am also in favor of (mostly) old music; do note that my advocacy of old music is not simply because it is old. I will expand on this idea shortly.

Are my positions on these two issues sustainable? Or am I being self-referentially incoherent?

I believe that my positions are not incompatible, and my defense is this: Bible translations and church music pursue the chief end of man (the glory of God) by different means.

Church music does (at least) two things: it allows us to express worship to God in a way that engages ordinate affections, and it also instructs the church as to what affections are appropriate in worship. Hymnody is always art; it incorporates both music and poetry. I argue that the sort of affections that are legitimate for worship are best expressed in the church’s traditional hymnody, and that the vast majority of music produced by the past 150 years of the American Christianity tends to debase the affections; it is thus unsuitable for worship.

Bible translations, however, have a different purpose than hymns. The purpose of a translation of the Bible is to communicate, as accurately as possible, the meaning of the original language of Scripture in the receptor language. Good translation is less about the affections, and more about the intellect; translation is largely about the communication of true propositions.

I must concede some overlap between translation and hymnody, in that good translation does have an emotive or affectional aspect. In other words, the difference between a good translation and a great one is that the best translation will not only choose words that communicate the meaning of the original document, but will also attempt to communicate its emphasis, style, and feeling. In a great Bible translation, then, Amos won’t sound like Luke, and the David won’t sound like Paul. They are different writers, and the writings of each should feel different.

Furthermore, the affective aspect of translation is very important in Bible translation. We are all familiar with attempts to translate the Bible for this or that sub-culture, often with devastatingly irrevent consequences. I have one such attempt on my shelf. Thus, I do not believe that reverence in wording is unimportant in evaluating Bible translation; it is (barring such brutalities) the secondary concern of the translator.

But for the most part (particularly in the non-poetic genres of the Bible), the key duty of the translator is to communicate meaning. If this is true, the primary standard for evaluating a translation is its success in allowing a modern reader to grasp the meaning of the original documents. I would argue that the King James, despite its beautiful language, often substantially impedes modern readers from understanding the meaning of the text. Thus, as a translation of the Bible, it is inferior to modern translations with reference to the very purpose of translation.

Some might still think me indefensible; please leave your comments below. I’m interested in the interaction.


Posted by on August 10, 2009 in Theology, Worship


7 responses to “Old music and new translations

  1. Chris

    August 11, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Hi Michael, I found your blog via Scott Aniol’s site. Interesting discussion.

    1. Wondering what exactly convinced you the NIV was best (one of) based upon your standard of accuracy?

    2. Also wondering what evidence you have that the KJV “substantially impedes modern readers from understanding the meaning of the text?”

    If they are just opinions, that’s fine. I’m just curious.


    Chris Harper
    Fairbanks, AK

  2. Kent

    August 11, 2009 at 6:05 am

    I would be a poster boy for a comment here. I would think that your position on translations is more of your view of the preservation of scripture. You think that textual criticism equals providential preservation in the tradition of Warfield’s revisionist understanding of the Westminster Confession. That makes it a moot point for me.

    What you are essentially saying, and tell me if I’m wrong, is that God understands the old hymns when we direct them to Him, but people don’t understand the old translation when we direct it to them. God is infinite in knowledge and wisdom, so we are incapable of going over His head. A translation, however, could go over men’s heads if the translation doesn’t keep up, or should we say keep down, with the simplification of language.

    I think that it is mainly a text issue, but here is where I think you could run into some indefensibility. At what point have we profaned God’s Word by making it so common that it loses its sacredness. You might want to read some time John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing, The Degrading of Language and Music. I agreed with his thesis that we are to the point where we have no formal language. Granted, we have legalese, like what legislation is written in, but I’m talking about the lofty rhetoric that takes men to a different level of seriousness.

    Jesus came to us to bring us to a new level. He did not come to us to get on our level. His communication was often times for the purpose of sifting out the unserious. We have taken, it seems, free enterprise and applied it in almost every genre of American culture. And as a result, we get kitsch and banality. Sure man wants a Bible that is very, very easy to understand. But is it worth losing the impressive rhetoric, the beautiful language, the aura, the magnificence of the literature. I think that when you offer praises to God, you are saying that there is an objective standard for beauty. And that beauty is communicated better by a higher level of poetry. We reached those heights before 150 years ago. We look at the psalms as an example for what we are shooting for. So we don’t bow to modernism for the sake of a dumbed down culture. And should we contribute to a dumbed down culture by dumbing down our Bible.

    I could write more, but I believe that the two, translation and hymns, go together. Anyone that understands literature knows that the King James Version is not an ancient version. I get tired of that. That alone is kitsch and banal. It is tiresome. Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. Those are olde English. The KJV is modern. But then again, it is a text issue, isn’t it? It’s a view of preservation, isn’t it?

  3. Scott Aniol

    August 11, 2009 at 8:16 am

    Helpful, Mike. Thanks.

  4. Michael Riley

    August 11, 2009 at 10:43 am


    You’ve asked some fair questions, and you haven’t asked them belligerently; I appreciate that. However, I’m going to sidestep answering them, at least publicly, because I think that to do so will get the discussion here off the topic that I want to pursue. If you’re strongly interested in my opinion on the version issue, send me an email, and I’ll get back to you.


    You are right that my view of preservation does play heavily into my preference for the modern versions; when I speak of the KJV being an impediment to understanding the Bible (at times), I would certainly include passages in which I am convinced that the KJV represents a reading that was not part of the inspired text.

    Like I told Chris, however, I’m not interested in turning this into a versions debate, so let’s not pursue the preservation issue here.

    The rest of your post, however, is very relevant to our discussion. Let me focus on one thing you said: “At what point have we profaned God’s Word by making it so common that it loses its sacredness[?]”

    I agree with your concern here and am very aware of this danger; in fact, I mentioned an example of such profanity in my original post (The Word on the Street). Examples of such problems could be multiplied: in the New Living Translation, for instance, Jesus preaches that “the highway to hell is broad.” While this is quite a vivid image for describing the broad way, I have to insist that utilizing the title from one of the most popular rock albums of all time is an indisputable instance of making the sacred profane.

    I would suggest, as an aside, that some shifts in language since the 1600s might leave the KJV itself open to such charges. Who among us hasn’t had to stifle the laughter of the immature when reading passages that speak of asses, or bastards, or the unusual turn of phrase in the historical books that speaks of cutting off of the male heirs? The counterargument (that people just need to grow up and not think that way about such things) could be used for the modern versions just as easily as it could for the KJV; thus, the KJV is not utterly immune to the charge that some versions unnecessarily make the sacred common.

    But back to the main line of the discussion. Let me suggest two counter points to your concerns. The first is that I do not think you can honestly suggest that the NASB, the NIV, or (especially) the ESV uses language that demeans the sacredness of the Bible. None of these translations is particularly given to clichés or other time bound expressions.

    Second, (and this was one of my main points from the original post) the duty of the translator is not to produce the masterwork of artistic language, even if he is translating the Bible. While that is an admirable idea (and perhaps useful in some contexts), it is, in most contexts, simply bad translation.

    Let me elaborate. We are all aware that the New Testament is written in Koine Greek, not classical Greek. We are also aware that different NT writers have differing writing styles, sometimes reflecting differing “heights” of language. For instance, 2 Peter is regularly cited as an example of really rough Greek. John’s Greek tends to be profoundly simple (to use a meaningful oxymoron). If we were to translate either of these men so that, for instance, they speak Shakespearean iambic pentameter, we may have great English, lofty expressions that are great for countering the dumbing down of American writing and thought, but we’d have inaccurate translation, because the translation would not accurately reflect the type of writing found in the original.

    So you miss my point to suggest that I am for modern versions primarily because they lower the reading requirements for the modern reader. My point is that the modern versions better reflect (for the modern reader) the sort of writing found in the OT and NT manuscripts. And that, it seems to me, is exactly the basis on which translations ought to be judged.

  5. Kent

    August 11, 2009 at 2:05 pm


    You make some good points in your response. I wasn’t trying, by the way, to lure you into the text discussion, but I thought that I should say a little to preface my remarks. I like your subject and you showed thoughtfulness in even introducing it as a subject. I would think that many people would consider it problematic that you even bring it up as a topic. With that being said, you should know that I don’t mind talking about translation accuracy. I believe preservation is found in the original languages. I don’t believe preservation is found in the English words and letters, which have obviously changed since 1611. Am I siding with “archaic” KJV English because I have a bias for the text? It could be, but I think I’m not. I’m, like you, thinking about bucking the trend of modernization that Wells talks a lot about in his series of books starting with No Place for Truth.

    You were looking for arguments. Should Peter sound like Peter? John like John? Should a translator want his translation to reflect the style of the language? Yes. Did that happen with the KJV. I believe so. There is only so much you can do that in a translation. For instance, how do you make Peter’s rough Greek sound like rough English? I took eight years of Greek and I would still ask why we need to think of Peter’s Greek as rough. Different, yes. But why is it rough? It seems that we might be getting then into a discussion on the nature inspiration in our bibliology. I recognize that you are just using this as an example, but I believe this is where we have a balance.

    The translators of the Geneva Bible took this very thing into consideration when they did their work. They write in their preface in 1560: “[W]e have in many places reserved the Hebrew phrases, notwithstanding that they may seem somewhat hard in their ears that are not well practiced and also delight in the sweet-sounding phrases of the Holy Scriptures.”

    Consider 1 Peter 1:13. Have we done the translation credit by removing “gird up the loins of your mind” and replacing that with “prepare your minds for action”? The former might seem outdated to some, a little odd, and worth replacing. But wasn’t Peter bringing his readers back to a Hebraic expression related to the Passover? (Exodus 12:11) That’s missed in the simplification.

    What about the force of ekballo in Mark 1:12? The KJV says, “the spirit driveth him into the wilderness,” and the NIV says, “the Spirit sent him out into the desert.” The ESV sticks with the more literal approach, “drove him out,” but you can see the trouble with the NIV.

    Does “look” and “see” function to modern readers as the interjection that “Behold” communicates?

    What word best conveys the understanding of aidos in 1 Timothy 2:9, “modesty” of the NIV, “decency” of the NASV, or “shamefacedness” of the KJV? The two former words leave out the concept of aidos that is not merely compliance to a standard, but a sense of shame that accompanies a godly woman.

    Do you think that “became the father of” is a better rendition of egennesen than “begat” in the genealogies? “Begat” is what egennesen means.

    These are just five examples, but they illustrate the meaning eluded by chasing after modernization.

  6. Chris

    August 11, 2009 at 2:51 pm


    That’s wise. The last thing we need is another comment thread focused on translations. On the other hand, maybe you could at least touch on those points in a later post or something. I am putting you into my feed-reader for regular review, so I’ll be certain to read with interest if you do.

    What peaked my curiosity most was your statement that the “purpose” of a translation “is to communicate, as accurately as possible” coupled with your endorsement of the NIV. That’s not a common argument, you must admit. Even if you leave the KJV totally out of the discussion (perhaps another wise decision), it would be interesting to know how you arrived at that conclusion.

    I’m generally with you on the overall theme of the article, however. Bending over backwards to be consistent, even to the time-frame our materials were written is probably not the best use of our time!


  7. ilias

    August 12, 2009 at 2:01 am

    If you were choosing the hymns based on their age then your position would be incoherent. You were very clear that this is not so. You choose the hymns that best communicate the message through both word and tune. You choose the version that best communicates the message, and maintains a high reverence for God.

    I think a fundamental misunderstanding is with the people that think you choose Watts because they have characterized your position as old language = right affections, when this is clearly not the case.

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