More About ACT—A Contemporary Translation of the Bible

At the close of the July editorial on this subject, mention was made of three items for discussion in connection with ACT, the new Contemporary Translation of the Bible being prepared under the auspices of the New York Bible Society: 1) The matter of textual criticism; 2) The question whether the language has been improved and brought up to date. 3) The question whether the translation is faithful to the original. 

The first of these questions we will discuss in greater detail in a separate editorial in connection with the Eye Opener Tract about the King James Version and the Textus Receptus (also mentioned in the July issue). Since, however, the Committee on Bible Translation makes mention in the Preface quoted in the July issue of “recent papyri discoveries” and the “new light” shed on the text of the Greek New Testament by “intensive textual study during the present century” it is not amiss to make a few remarks in this connection: 1) The science of textual criticism involves much more than a comparison of various manuscripts of parts of the New Testament. In fact, though this aspect of textual criticism is not to be minimized, it is a mistake to think of it as an extremely exact science; and, moreover, it is a mistake to attach too much value to this aspect, in preference to what is called “internal evidence.” 2) While the mention of “recent papyri (a certain kind of manuscript) discoveries” may impress the ordinary reader, who is unacquainted with the mysteries of textual criticism, it ought to be stated that there have been no major discoveries of recent date—certainly none of earth-shaking significance. 3) The same should be remarked concerning the alleged “new light” shed by “intensive textual study during the present century.” In the first place, one, must be very careful about “new light.” Sometimes what is new is not actually light, you see. In the second place, we venture to say that also in this respect there has been nothing earth-shaking in its significance. In the third place, to this writer it is, to say the least, highly doubtful whether the general caliber of the scholarship in this alleged “intensive textual study during the present century” measures up to that of past scholars, as well as highly doubtful in some instances whether it has beenbelieving scholarship. And, in the fourth place, we would have to see a great deal of evidence before being convinced that recent discoveries and textual study warrant an entirely new translation. While we would grant that it would be preferable to have a translation by “evangelicals” rather than by unbelieving liberals—all other things being equal—we are nevertheless unconvinced of the basic necessity of any new translation whatsoever. 

With respect to the attempt to clothe Scripture in contemporary language, we remark the following: 1) We have already stated our opinion as to the need and the utility of such an effort in the July editorial on this subject. A thorough and repeated reading of the sample published by the Committee, far from changing that opinion, has rather convinced us more firmly that the disadvantages of a new translation far outweigh the advantages. 2) We believe that the Committee has succeeded, generally, in its goal of achieving contemporary language. 3) The Gospel According to John (used for the Committee’s sample offering) is, in our opinion, because of its simplicity of language both in the Greek and in the King James Version, not a very well-chosen sample. It seems to this writer that of all the books of Holy Scripture the Gospel according to John is so very simply phrased in the King James Version that no one could have any grave difficulty in understanding its language. 4) While space does not permit the reproduction of our pages of ACT’s version of John, I will make a few general remarks about my impressions, based on my repeated reading through of the entire book. In the first place, the committee has made unnecessary changes. Even apart from the question of accuracy of translation, for example, is there any reason under the sun to change the word “guile” to the word “false” in John 1:47, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile. [Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.]” As far as I am able to detect, the reason for this change cannot be one of a more accurate translation: for the word “guile” is a far more accurate rendering than the more general “false.” One must come to the conclusion, then, that the translators considered “false” to be clearer and more up-to-date. But, pray, has the understanding of the English language fallen to such a low estate that the clear and expressive word “guile” is beyond the grasp of the average Bible reader? And even if such is the case, must we cater to this and substitute the word “false” at the obvious expense of accuracy? There are many such changes throughout the sample translation; and in many instances the changes appear to be so unnecessary that one can only come to the conclusion that change is introduced for the sake merely of being different. Perhaps this may sound like a rather harsh judgment; but I am stating my impressions frankly. 5) In general, the translation as a whole does not leave the impression of being smooth-flowing, but rather of being stilted, stiff, and choppy. Perhaps I am too accustomed to the majestic and dynamic simplicity of the King James Version; but again, after several readings, I must state frankly that I am unimpressed, but left with a strange and cold feeling. 6) There are far too many instances where accuracy of translation has apparently been sacrificed in the interest of trying to achieve twentieth century English, the Committee evidently thinking that the English of the King James Version in these instances was difficult to understand. Now once again, let it be stated that these difficulties with King James English are, in our opinion, much overplayed as any kind of serious stumbling block in the understanding and reception of Scripture. But surely, no one has the right to play fast and loose with the accuracy of the translation for any reason whatsoever; and the latter is what ACT has done in more than one instance. This, however, brings us to the third—and most important—item of our discussion. 

Is ACT an accurate rendering of the Gospel according to John? And: is it, in fact, more accurate than the King James Version, both textually and in its translation? 

The answer has to be an emphatic “NO!” 

We cannot take the time or space to make a total verse-by-verse comparison. Let us, for the present, take note of a few items. 

We call your attention, in the first place, to a change in the use of the term “only begotten.” For this purpose we quote three passages, in each instance citing the King James Version and ACT: 

KJV, John 1:14, And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. 

ACT, John 1:14, The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth. [Note: “lived for a while” is certainly a loose rendering of the Greek eskeenoosen, “tented, tabernacled,” and surely no better than the KJV’s “dwelt.” HCH] 

KJV, John 1:18, No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. 

ACT, John 1:18, No one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. [Note: There is a textual question involved here; and there is rather good ground for the version which ACT adopts and then proceeds to mistranslate, namely, “. . . the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father. . .” HCH]

KJV John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 

ACT, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” [Note: ACT adds quotation marks here. HCHI 

We should notice, in the first place, that ACT is at least consistent in its substitution of “only” for “only begotten.”

But the question is: is ACT correct? 

The answer is negative. And in this connection we ought to notice the following: 

1) As far as the linguistic question is concerned, the translators of ACT were all very well aware of the fact that their translation “only” was not the correct rendering of the Greek term. This is plain from the fact that in the footnotes they offer the rendering “only begotten” in all three instances. But let this be plain: as a matter of simple Greek, the term which the original uses can by no stretch of the imagination be rendered by “only.” In all three instances the Greek uses a form of the word monogeneses [mono– = only; genees = begotten]. Hence, linguistically this is plainly incorrect. This should be sufficient reason to condemn ACT’s translation of these verses, especially since there is no difficulty in finding a proper translation of the term involved. Sometimes the latter is true, and it can be difficult to find an English word which expresses the idea of the Greek without doubt; but this is the case here. 

2) We may ask the question: was this change necessary, perhaps, in the interest of a contemporarytranslation? This question is not really proper, since accuracy should surely not be sacrificed for contemporaneity. But let us explore the question nevertheless. My answer is that this suggestion is absurd. Is only begotten such an old-fashioned and Elizabethan word that twentieth century Americans with at least a slight degree of intelligence and knowledge of English cannot understand it? Not to my knowledge! In fact, is not John 3:16 as rendered by the KJV so well-known, even to people who have very little additional knowledge of Scripture, that it almost makes one stumble to leave out the word “begotten” in reciting this text? 

3) But we may ask: is this change of such great importance that it deserves all this criticism? The answer is an emphatic YES! In the first place, again, simply because of the inaccuracy of translation. Do the translators of ACT have so little faith in the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture that they are willing to change its words? My position is that if the Holy Spirit had wanted “only” here, He would have seen to it that “only” was written. But He did not! He saw to it that “only begotten” was written; and all translators had better respect that! In the second place, this is a matter of great importance as far as the meaning is concerned. Negatively, it is simply not true that Christ is the “only” Son of God; believers are also sons of God. Now even from the point of view of the uninitiated, in whose language ACT is supposed to speak, what confusion this must create. Christ is the only Son of God, but there are also other sons of God? And, positively, it is a simple fact that the Scriptures reserve this term “only begotten” for the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Second Person of the Trinity. This is the term which expresses the truth of eternal generation. Never do the Scriptures speak of believers as being the “only begotten” of the Father. They are adopted; and they are begotten of God. But Christ is the “only begotten” of the Father. In the third place, this change of language is not confessionally correct. The use of the term “only begotten” dates not only to the time of our Heidelberg Catechism (which very definitely calls attention to the distinction between our sonship and Christ’s precisely in connection with this term “only begotten”) and our Belgic Confession, but all the way back to the Nicene Creed. It only creates confusion—besides being inaccurate—to make this change which involves this important doctrine. 

There are other questions of translation in these same passages which we may briefly note: 1) Is there any real reason to change “in the bosom of the Father” to “at the Father’s side”? The word “bosom” is totally accurate in this instance, and the text definitely does not say “at the Father’s side.” Besides, there is no apparent difficulty in understanding the word “bosom” for anyone. Why this inaccurate and unnecessary change? 2) Why the change from “should not perish” to “shall not perish” in John 3:16? Is the force of this change this, that purpose is changed to result? Has the use of “should” also become archaic? In the opinion of this writer, “should not perish” more clearly expresses the meaning of Greek purpose clause (hina+ the subjunctive form of the verb). 

We will interrupt our discussion at this point, until the next issue.