NIV 2: What is Bad Theology?

In my last post, "NIV: Mistranslation, Deception, or Bad Theology?"" I argued that we should consider translation differences to be interpretive difference rather than error or intentional "mistranslation."

A few readers noted that I never really addressed why the NIV would be "bad theology", or what I mean by that term. This is true, as the point of the post was simply to point out that when we argue about translation disagreements, we are mostly arguing about theology (or politics), rather than possible "errors" or "deception."

Describing the NIV as "bad theology" is, I admit, intentionally provocative. I happen to consider the NIV's view of scripture to be an inadequate account of biblical inspiration, authority, and significance. Also I happen to have disagreements with the NIV translators on theo-political issues such as creationism, the authorship of the Torah and prophets, historical "inerrancy," prophecy/fulfillment, atonement theology, apocalypticism and the end-times.

You may agree with the NIV and evangelicals on all of these issues. Many people do! The point is that defending the NIV takes place on the same rhetorical level as critiquing it: on the level of theological argument. And that is an argument that we know how to have. Translation is not something unique that operates under different rules than any other kind of interpretation.

So, in my view there are three common moves within translation debates that are problematic. First, we should not critique the NIV for making translation errors; rather they make interpretive errors that become evident in their translation. (It seems to me that this is basically the point of Paul's original list of "intentional mistranslations." My point is only about the terminology and framework of the debate.)

Second, translators cannot simply declare their theological perspective and thereby protect their translations from criticism as interpretations. I'm no relativist, but all of this meaning-making takes place within communities and is subject to the contingencies of language.

For example, these two points mean that someone can't translate Isaiah 7:14 with "virgin" because 1) it is "correct" or 2) it is a "Christian" text. Also, one cannot translate Isaiah 7:14 with "young woman" because 1) it is "correct" or 2) it is a "historical" text. I believe that "young woman" is lexically and historically preferable, but I have to make that case as an interpretive decision, not as a "translation" decision.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we should be suspicious of biblical translations that tout their unparalleled "fidelity" or "accuracy," or that describe the translation process as a "literal" rendering of words and phrases without interpretive interference of the translator. The NIV and its translators are actually much more careful in this regard (it appears to me) than the ESV publishers and defenders, who promote a very problematic "essentially literal" approach.

On the other side, however, mainline translations such as the NRSV and CEB participate in the exact same process of interpretation and shaping in their translations. The "dynamic equivalence" approach doesn't produce anything more objectively "correct" than "formal equivalence" does. The main problem is not with conservative translations; it is with the uncritical way that Christians think and write about translation itself.