Monday, December 06, 2004

The Bible as Holy Scripture: to whom does it belong?

A discussion starter

The way in which the Hebrew and Greek Testaments of the One Canon of the Bible have been translated and published since World War II raises acute questions concerning the ownership of the Bible and the copyright of the original texts.

Let us suppose that the Canon of Scripture, made up of the Old and New Testaments, is the gift of God the Father through Jesus Christ the Lord and by the work of the Holy Spirit to the Church as the Household of God, the Body of Christ and the Bulwark of the Truth. It is the duty of the Church to preserve the sacred texts, to translate them, to interpret them, to make them known and to live by their rule of life. In the worship of the Church, the Scriptures are read and a context of worship and wisdom is provided for their interpretation and exposition. Reading and meditation in the homes of believers is, therefore, a growth from and, though important, is secondary to the public use and reading of the Bible in the assembly of the faithful.

This kind of approach is commended by the Collect in The Book of Common Prayer (1549) of the reformed Catholic Church of England for the second Sunday in Advent.

Blessed Lord [= God the Father], who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning [= instruction]: Grant that we may in such wise hear them [in the congregation of Christ’s flock], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them [in public service and then in private devotion], that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Here the Bible is seen as given by God to us [the Church] and is first to be heard in the worship of the Church.

With the use together of The Book of Common Prayer and The English Bible (1611 – the Authorized Version or K.J.V.) in the Anglican Way, the basic purpose and meaning of the Bible was established in divine service and thus a framework of understanding was provided for family and personal use of the Bible in study, meditation and devotion. From the praise, prayer and instruction of divine service, the Scriptures in a healthy context flowed into homes and individual lives.

Looking back over the centuries from say the year 1939 it is possible to see and to claim that there was a general recognition in the Anglican Way (and more so in the R.C. way) that the Bible as Holy Scripture is first the Church’s Book and secondly and derivatively the Book of individual families and persons.

However, if we look back from 2004 to 1945, the end of Word War II, then we find that we cannot make this general observation and claim. For increasingly in these six decades, there was a move from (a) the English Bible as holy Scripture being firstly the Church’s Book to (b) the Bible in an English rendering becoming a commodity to be sold in competition in the supermarket of religion and thus becoming the individual’s Book. Let us recall that it is now possible to purchase around one hundred different paraphrases or translations of the original Hebrew and Greek texts and these are available in a variety of styles, typography, formats and covers.

No longer can the Bible straightforwardly be called the Church’s Book for the Church[es] have lost all control over the translation, printing and publication of versions of the Bible. With the involvement of pressure groups, commercial publishing houses and scholars ready to earn good money as translators or paraphrasers, the supermarket of religion offers the consumer real choice in the purchase of a version of the Bible. The many versions on offer are aimed at the individual person, at individual churches, and in some cases at denominations as the basic text to be used for their Sunday School program and lessons. In some cases, denominations and associations of denominations have commissioned a translation in order to have a Bible that meets their needs and commends their doctrines.

We need to realize that the ability of translators to make the ancient books of the Bible commend some modern developments and innovations (e.g., women’s ordination & same-sex blessings & politically correct speech) in their versions is much helped by the use of the modern approach to translation known as dynamic equivalency, where the translator provides not an essentially literal translation but an equivalence of thought. So, for example, if the ancient text has “the man” then the dynamic equivalent in the modern West becomes, for example, “the human being”, for to say “the man” today is regarded by some as sexist. By this now widespread method of dynamic equivalency, the Bible, made to read as a modern book, can be perceived to proclaim something entirely different to what it proclaimed in its original text in a different context.

The effects of all this – perhaps inevitable in a society and culture dominated by freedom, individualism, commercialism, consumerism and choice -- has been and is wide-reaching and deep. The Bible has lost much of its character as “HOLY Scripture” and has become merely “the Bible”, an important, easily accessible Book which is used to support the religious, devotional and moral choices made by individual persons, groups and societies. And religion has become for conservative and liberal alike “a personal relationship with God” based on an individual reading of the Bible in one or another version together with an individual spirituality, not formed from classic models by true religious habit, but by the exercise of privatized judgment and imitation of modern dominant models.

Let us be honest! There is not likely to be much change in the immediate future. People who enjoy and thrive in this individualistic approach to religion will continue to do so; but, those who see religion as first of all corporate and then leading to personal and individual dimensions are going to continue to have a difficult time as they seek to hear an authorized version of the Bible read and expounded in church and as they seek to read such in their homes and live by its teaching in their lives. And in this situation the traditional Anglican will find he has much in common with the traditional Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, all of whom believe God holds the copyright to the original texts and that he has given permission to translate them only to the Body of his Son, his Household – not to commercial publishing houses!

The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon Advent II, December 2004

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