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.