Among all the items that needed to be treated at the great Synod of Dordt, the matter of Bible translation was first on the agenda. After the Synod began, it spent nine days discussing the need for and the execution of a new translation of the Bible into the Dutch language. The final result would be a new authorized Bible version known as the Statenvertaling (States’ Translation). This Bible would have the same significance and prestige in the Dutch language as the Authorized Version (King James Version) would have in the English language. In fact, the Statenvertaling and the King James Version are sister translations based upon the same original manuscripts.
It might seem odd that the Synod of Dordt had to deal with the issue of Bible translation. After all, were there not already other Dutch translations of the Bible? Yes, there were, but these translations were not up to the standard of what a good translation ought to be.
What were these other translations? For example, one of the most widely used Dutch Bibles was the so-called Liesveldt Bible, originally published in 1526. The Lord would use this Bible in a powerful way, but the problem was that it was not a translation out of the original languages but a translation of Luther’s German Bible (which itself was not a strict, literal translation from the original languages). The weaknesses of the Liesveldt Bible would become especially clear with the publication in 1562 of another Bible translation known as the Deux Aes Bible. However, this newer translation also had much to be desired, as it was stiff and wooden. From 1562 to the time of the Synod of Dordt, various Reformed synods would discuss the need for a better translation, but no long-term satisfactory solutions ever came from these discussions.
The problem of creating a good Bible translation was not unique to the Dutch-speaking people. The English, for example, had faced the same problem. To solve their problem, in 1604 King James of England commissioned the translation that would become known as the King James Version, which was finally completed and published just seven years before the Synod of Dordt. In fact, at the Synod of Dordt, the president, Johannes Bogerman (who was himself a highly trained linguist), gave a special word of praise for what the English had accomplished with the Authorized Version, and commended it as a model for what the Dutch needed to do.
It took only two sessions at the Synod of Dordt before the delegates unanimously voted to proceed with the production of a new translation of the Bible. After further discussion on how the translators should go about their work, the following decisions were made:
- That they always carefully adhere to the original text, and that the manner of writing of the original languages be preserved, as much as the clarity and properties of Dutch speech permit. But in cases where the Hebrew or Greek manner of speech was harder than could remain in the text, that they note this in the margin.
- That they add as few words as possible to complete the meaning of a sentence if it is not expressed fully, and that these words be distinguished from the text with a different font and placed between brackets.
- That they formulate a short and clear summary for each book and chapter and write this in the margin at the respective locations in the Holy Scriptures.
- That they add a brief explanation providing insight to the translation of unclear passages; but the addition of lessons learnt is neither necessary nor advisable.1
The ultimate objective would be an entirely new translation of the Bible and not a revision of an existing version. However, where possible, the translators were to use what was familiar to the people from already existing versions.
Part of Synod’s discussion revolved around what to do with the Apocrypha:
A lively debate developed around the question whether the apocrypha were to be included in the new translation or whether they would be omitted altogether. Both Gomarus and the Geneva delegate Diodati…argued strongly against inclusion of the apocrypha. The advocates of inclusion based their arguments on practical grounds. They pointed to the usefulness of these books, to the example of other Reformed churches, and to the possibility of creating offense among the unlearned if suddenly an established practice were to be discontinued. Especially the last two considerations swayed the opinion in favor of inclusion of the apocrypha. However, the points of principle adduced by Gomarus and Diodati were not as such denied. Gomarus had argued that these books consisted of fanciful fables and were full of dogmatic errors. Inclusion in the new Bible would be an attack upon God’s honor. Already the Jews had kept these writings separate from the canonical books. There was now absolutely no reason to retain them, especially since the church of Rome had placed them on one line with the canonical books. Diodati likewise declared that most of these books belonged to the realm of Jewish fable, with the exception of First Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, and Jesus Sirach. They conflicted with the truth and majesty of Holy Scripture, and hence they were harmful and dangerous to the reader.
Synod decided that less effort would be made in the translation of the apocrypha than in that of the canonical books, and that separate type and pagination would be used in printing them. It also decided that a preface would be prepared in which attention would be called to the errors that the apocrypha contained.2
Synod appointed six men to translate the Bible, three men for the Old Testament and three men for the New Testament and Apocrypha. Besides the translators, there would be revisers, two for each provincial synod. It was hoped that the work could begin soon after the Synod adjourned, but the State government did not grant funding for the project until 1624, and the first actual meeting to carry out the work did not take place until 1626. The Old Testament was completely translated by 1632 and the New Testament by 1634, and after revision work was done, the final product was published in 1637.
In His inscrutable wisdom and providence, God had raised up eminently qualified and thoroughly Reformed scholars for the work.
During the period in which the translators of the Staten-Bijbel did their work, the first half of the seventeenth century, the Netherlands was an internationally renowned center of biblical learning. The scholarship of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands was significantly ahead of that in Lutheran countries both in linguistic ability and in the knowledge of antiquity.3]
The men who were chosen for the work were renowned both for their learning in the original languages, and their Reformed judgment. They were Reformed to the highest degree.
The annotations (marginal notes)
As noted above, the Synod of Dordt made the decision that marginal notes would be added to give insight into the translation and meaning of unclear or difficult passages. As a result, the new Bible would not only be a new translation but an actual study Bible with exegetical notes. These annotations (kantekeningen) are significant because they give a biblical, Reformed understanding of the Scriptures that would guide an entire nation in its understanding of the Bible. In fact, so highly esteemed were these annotations, so thoroughly Reformed and helpful, that in 1645 the Westminster Assembly commissioned the translation of the Statenvertaling met Kantekeningen (“The Dordt Authorized Version with Commentary”) into English, so that the notes could be used in the English language.
To illustrate what these annotations are like, consider the note given with II Samuel 7:11. In II Samuel 7, Nathan gives King David the well-known prophecy that David’s kingdom will be established forever. At II Samuel 7:11, commenting on the words “He will make thee an house,” the Statenvertaling has the following comment:
[I.]e., establish and continue thy kingdom in thy posterity, and (that which is far more) raise up out of thy seed (according to the flesh) the Messiah who shall be an everlasting king over his people. This prophecy is to be understand, that it partly looketh at Solomon, as a type of the Lord Christ, partly at Christ himself, whose type he was, and that some things suit or agree to Solomon only, some only and properly to Christ, some to them both.
Such notes are highly significant, not only because they give thoroughly Reformed explanations of passages that might otherwise be difficult, but also because such explanations stand antithetical to higher-critical approaches to interpreting Scripture which, with the rise of Arminianism, were becoming more prevalent and popular during the mid-seventeenth century. What we should not lose sight of is that the battle at the Synod of Dordt was not just a battle over the doctrines of grace (TULIP); it was ultimately a battle over how the Bible should be treated. The issue was this: Should the Bible be treated as the mere words of men, so that Old Testament prophecies such as II Samuel 7 have no reference to Jesus Christ at all? Or, should the Bible be treated as the very inspired Word of God, so that prophecies such as II Samuel 7 are interpreted as clearly referring not just to Solomon but also (and even especially) to Jesus Christ? The Arminian camp would more and more go in the direction of the former, treating the Bible (like salvation itself!) as the work of man, to be treated and interpreted just as any other human work is treated. The Reformed camp would insist on the latter, treating the Bible as the Word of God, to be treated and interpreted accordingly. This is part of the great significance of the marginal notes (annotations) in the Statenvertaling.
The Statenvertaling is significant, then, for especially two things. First, it gave a faithful, word-for-word, God- honoring translation of the Scriptures that emphasizes the truth of the verbal inspiration of the Bible. When the Bible is translated from the original languages into another, that translation must be faithful to and bind itself to the written words of the original Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. The Statenvertaling provided that.
Second, the Statenvertaling is significant because the annotations (marginal notes) maintained a Reformed view of interpreting the Bible, and rejected an Arminian, higher-critical approach to interpreting the Bible, which throughout the years has destroyed many churches. No Bible translation is neutral. Certainly, no study Bible is neutral either. In God’s providence, the Dutch Reformed people would have in the Statenvertaling a study Bible that was preeminently Reformed and biblical. In this regard, only God Himself knows how important the Statenvertaling and its marginal notes were for the preservation of His church in the Netherlands during the rise of higher-critical approaches to Scripture.
It is our hope that this article shows you one more way in which the Synod of Dordt was indeed “the Great Synod.”
1 From the Acts of Synod (taken from “Statenvertaling.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Dec. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statenvertaling).
2 Marten H. Woudstra. “The Synod and Bible Translation,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, P. Y. DeJong, Ed. (Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship), 127-28.
3 Woudstra, 131.