In this brief series on a theology of Bible translation, we are stepping away from the most common questions about translation. In their place, we are exploring the foundational questions about God and his Word in the language of the nations.
In the first blog post, we considered two propositions derived from the Scriptures. First, God reigns. Second, God speaks to reveal himself in the context of a covenant relationship. It follows from these propositions that God communicates in the context of his sovereign reign over creation. He speaks with the intention of exercising his authority in the lives of his covenant people.
In short, God speaks because he reigns. On a side note, we should also speak because he reigns, praising him and declaring his greatness.
Now let’s consider what the Scriptures say about God and the Scriptures. In this post, I present two more propositions that advance our theology of translation by focusing specifically on the Scriptures.
3. God entrusted the Scriptures to his people
For centuries God was pleased to communicate directly with his people, whether in the garden with Adam and Eve or at the worksite with Noah. God spoke with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, he spoke from the burning bush.
After Moses led the people into the wilderness and they defeated the Amalekites, God instructed Moses to write down an account of the events as well as God’s promise to eventually destroy this enemy (Ex 17:14). God’s instruction to Moses suggests that he might have already been writing down a record. If not, he apparently started at this point to write as God directed him.
When Moses and the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, God spoke to them directly from the mountain, causing terror among the Israelites. They were overwhelmed with fear as God spoke to them from the mountain in an awesome display of his power. Moses attempted to calm the people by telling them that God only wanted to instill a deep fear and reverence that would guard them from sinning against him (Ex 20:20-21).
Then Moses wrote down God’s instructions for the sake of the people. When he read it to them, they affirmed their commitment to live in obedience to what they heard. In Ex 24:7, we read: “Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people, who replied, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient. (ESV)”
When Moses ascended the mountain the next time, God supernaturally inscribed the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. Moses referred to the inscription as being written “by the finger of God” (Deut 9:10). These tablets were preserved in the Ark of the Covenant, no doubt a reminder that the law of God was written by God himself for the people of Israel.
It’s noteworthy that the writings of Moses were not only for the people of Israel in the wilderness but also for future people of God. In 1 Cor 10:11, the apostle Paul wrote: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Paul asserts that the Scriptures, as God’s word, are for all of God’s people, even those living at the end of the age.
In these passages we see that God decided to entrust his written word, the Scriptures, to his people through his prophets.
4. God commands his people to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures
We just read about Moses and how he wrote the first Scriptures for the sake of the people. And no sooner had Moses written down the instructions of God, he read it to the people at the foot of Mount Sinai.
And through Moses, God instructed his people to read the Scriptures. For instance, in Deut 31:9-13, Moses wrote that the Levites and elders of Israel were to read the law aloud at the Festival of Booths, every seven years.
Furthermore, in Deut 17:18-20, Moses wrote that the future kings of the people of Israel, when they ascended to the throne, were to make a personal copy of the Law of Moses, keeping it with them and reading it regularly.
The public reading of the Scriptures followed by exhortation and instruction continued through the centuries. In fact, in 1 Tim 4:13, the apostle Paul exhorts Timothy to be devoted to this practice at the church in Ephesus. He wrote, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
From the first century churches until today, God’s people have read the Scriptures corporately, followed by preaching and teaching. The public reading, preaching, and teaching also reinforces and encourages reading as a family and also individually.
Before Moses had even finished writing the Scriptures, he was exhorting the people to teach them at home. In Deut 4:6-7, we read, “These words I am commanding you today are to be upon your hearts. And you shall teach them diligently to your children and speak of them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
So, God intends that his people know him and live in an obedient relationship with him. God has thus instructed his people to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures, corporately as part of worship as well as at home.
Furthermore, the command to read the Scriptures aloud as part of corporate worship is the foundational reason for translating the Scriptures. When believers gather for worship, they must have the Scriptures in their own language if they are to read them aloud for the edification of the people of God.
God communicates, and he communicates in the context of his sovereign reign over creation and with the intention of exercising his authority in the lives of his covenant people.
Furthermore, God entrusted his Word to his people through his prophets, so that his people might read, preach, and teach them.
Based on these truths of Scripture, we translate the Scriptures so that the people of God from every language group might read, preach, and teach the Word.
But doesn’t the translation of Scripture follow from the Great Commission? Isn’t the command to proclaim the Gospel to the nations the scriptural basis for Bible translation?
We’ll turn to that important question in our next blog post.