Are Translations and Paraphrases the Same? (Part 2)

 In Bible

DG Blog #28


Last week I advised the need for caution when using any one paraphrase to produce or affirm doctrine. Paraphrase authors are retelling (or “paraphrasing”) standard translations in their own words as a commentary to expand on the meaning of passages and verses of Scripture. They do this to assist the current generation of readers to understand the Scriptures in the cultural trending expressions of the day. Nothing wrong with that. All paraphrases and Bible translations were written for that purpose.

But not all paraphrases and translations were created equal because they were written by authors (or a team of translators) with different beliefs and backgrounds in theology—something which could influence their interpretative rendering of text for a passage or verse. This we should understand and keep in mind. In reality, like any paraphrase author, or a team of translators (with checks and balances), “everyone” who translates shares, teaches, or writes anything in an effort to interpret the original languages of the Scriptures is paraphrasing.

In my forty-eight years of sharing, preaching, teaching, and writing I have always paraphrased by expanding and expounding on passages of Scriptures so as to bring clarity to my audience. I’ve done this as accurately and closely as possible to the literal meaning of Scriptures, but never perfectly because we only know in part (1 Corinthians 13:9). When I paraphrase, I do it to the best of my understanding derived from the biblical language tools available. I cannot, however, deny the fact that I have done so through the lens of my own theological convictions. Were I to author a Bible paraphrase of my own, my fundamental beliefs would inadvertently come through the rendering of the passages.

So, in all fairness, caution must be applied not only to paraphrases but to literal and dynamic equivalent translations as well. Why? Because Bible translations among themselves aren’t equally and perfectly created, either, through the procedure of a translation project. If they were, there would only be one Bible translation. One of my friends, Les Schofield, himself a Biblical scholar, explains this well in a recent email he sent me. He wrote:

“Underlying any translation is a choice of editions which is often guided by theological points of view since even among translators there are relatively few that can carry on a serious discussion about manuscripts. It is somewhat disingenuous to cite “in the original” since it is more properly “in some manuscripts” and the arguments continue about the preeminence of any particular one over the others. This just to say that many decisions are made long before a translator is handed his or her task of translating. Quite often, these decisions are based on very subjective assumptions or philosophical/theological commitments.”

Dr. J. McQuilkin,[1] former President of Columbia International University, adds another element to my point when wrote: “Interpretation attempts to move directly from the ancient cultural context of the writer to the contemporary cultural context … [in order] to get at the enduring transcultural principle.” In other words, the times and culture of the original setting, when the manuscripts were written, are so far removed from our own, something is liable to get “lost in translation.” Which means all translations need to use some amount of paraphrasing to accomplish this. Does this mean that no paraphrase or translation can be trusted due to the potential of human error and bias? No, it simply means it’s prudent to use a collective body of translations to avoid it.

The written text of any paraphrase or translation cannot offer life or true meaning apart from the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Textualism[2] alone doesn’t guarantee sound doctrine. Saul was a Pharisee and textualist who persecuted the church until Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and the Holy Spirit came into him when Ananias met with him. Saul believed he was fulfilling the law by destroying the church. After he received the Holy Spirit, he saw Christ clearly in the Law, the Psalms, and the prophets. Though he knew the literal text of the law, he lacked the Spirit of life to guide him into the knowledge and truth behind its original intent. It’s the same today. We can have the most literal, accurate translation possible, or the best paraphrase possible, and still, miss the true meaning of the text apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This blog (and my previous one) are meant to provoke you to train and discipline yourselves—as disciples—to learn how to discern truth from error. This cannot be achieved through textualism alone. We must rely on the Holy Spirit (who leads and guide us into all truth). The Holy Spirit will give you a “check” in your spirit when a passage or verse in a translation or paraphrase seems off. Whenever I’ve felt such a check in a paraphrase or translation, I compare a number of literal translations and dynamic equivalent translations with the translated passage or verse in question. I also use language tools to look up the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words. I consider all translations and language tools as counselors to help me arrive at the best, consistent rendering possible for that passage or verse. In the multitude of counselors, wisdom is not lacking.

Just as the faithful Bereans examined the Scriptures every day, to see if Paul’s teachings were true (Acts 17:11), we as disciples should never take anything for granted when it comes to building a sure foundation in the fundamentals of our faith on a single Bible translation in any form. Because I’m a teacher of God’s Word, I do so with the warning of James in mind: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).” That’s sobering! I also hold to the wise advice given to my friend, Les, from one of his early professors (a student of A.T. Robertson). When the professor was asked which translation was best, he responded, “Date all of them—marry none of them!”

Grace and Peace!

[1] J. Robertson McQuilkin: President of Columbia International University (1968-1990). B.A., Columbia International University; M.Div., Fuller Theological Seminary; Honorary D.Litt., Wheaton College; Honorary D.D., Columbia International University.

[2] Textualism: a method of interpretation whereby the plain text is used to determine original intent. A textualist is a person who adheres strictly to the objective meaning of a text, especially that of religious scriptures.

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