“But understand this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of or comes from one’s own [personal or special] interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21 Amp).
Theological bias in bible translation is impossible to avoid, of course, and any translation will reflect the theology of the translator to some degree because choices have to be made as to what a particular word means in a particular situation. For example, 2 Peter 1:20-21 in the REB has: “But first note this: no prophetic writing is a matter for private interpretation. It was not on any human initiative that prophecy came; rather, it was under the compulsion of the Holy Spirit that people spoke as messengers of God”. However, the NIV, a distinctively evangelical version has: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”.
It’s disappointing that the NIV translators chose to translate the verse this way because the second use of “prophet” is not in the Greek, and neither should it be translated this way. Whether the NIV translators like it or not, their role and responsibility as translators of God’s holy Word is to translate the text – interpretation is not part of their brief. And whether they like it or not, the verse specifically rules out individual Christians from interpreting the bible according to their own understanding. But private interpretation of Scripture is one of the basic principles of the Reformation and of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism. It is the authority upon which we stand. So I understand why the NIV translators did this. But they’ve made the same mistake as some of the well-meaning scribes of the first centuries who changed the text they were translating in order to support or protect the prevailing theology. The Apostle Peter warned of this danger, and writes: “He [Paul] does the same in his other letters, wherever he speaks about this, though they contain some obscure passages, which the ignorant and unstable misinterpret to their own ruin, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16 REB).
Jesus becomes a head with many bodies
However, fifteen hundred years later, the Reformers took the authority to interpret the Bible away from the Church and gave it to the individual; and the Church (i.e. Protestantism) which emerged from the Reformation has suffered ever since, having been torn in tens of thousands of different directions. The last report of the number of Protestant denominations around the world which I heard (recently) was approx. 40,000!
In 1907, Thomas Carr, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia, described the disastrous legacy of private interpretation of scripture – which was termed “sola scriptura” by the Reformers – unleashed on the Church and the world by them. Using the testimony of Protestants who acknowledge the failures inherent in Protestantism, he writes: “They vindicate the Catholic Church from odious accusations, and testify to the persevering zeal with which she multiplied copies of the Sacred Scriptures in the vernacular, as well as in the learned languages, both before and after the invention of printing” (Preface).
He says that Protestants, in general, only know one side of the story (and even that is distorted) due to the misinformation believed and promoted by some of their writers. But the well-known and respected Protestant ministers and scholars whom Carr quotes vindicate the Catholic Church by making his defence for him.
Below is a selection of quotes from Carr’s book – quotes which he, in turn, selected from their writings:
- From Martin Luther: “This one will not hear of baptism, that one denies the Sacrament, another puts a world between this and the last day; some teach that Christ is not God, some say this, some say that; there are about as many sects and creeds as there are heads. No bumpkin is so rude, but when he has dreams and fancies, he thinks himself inspired by the Holy Ghost and must be a prophet”.
- And of the utter confusion of doctrine, Luther is compelled to declare: “If the world endureth much longer, we shall be forced, by reason of the contrary interpretations of the Bible which now prevail, to adopt again, and take refuge in, the decrees of the councils, if we have a mind to maintain unity of faith”.
- John Calvin writing to Melanchthon: “It is of great importance that the divisions which subsist among us should not be known in future ages! For, nothing can be more ridiculous than that we who have been compelled to make a separation from the whole world, should have agreed so ill amongst ourselves from the beginning of the Reformation”.
- Carr says: Beza is even more emphatic: “Our people…are carried away with every wind of doctrine. If you know what their religion is today, you cannot tell what it may be tomorrow. In what single point are those churches, which declared war against the Pope, united amongst themselves? There is not one point which is not held by some of them as an article of faith, and by others rejected as an impiety”.
- Jenaer: “How insecure the Bible is, as a foundation for a system of religion, may be learned from the fact, that all the advocates of the Bible have formed their peculiar and contradictory creeds from the same volume, and anathematized and persecuted each other on the same plea” (I’ve never heard of Jenaer and can’t find anything about him anywhere. Carr’s reference has “Allgem. Literatur-Zeitung, No. 48, 1821”. The most I could find online is that “Allgem” is “Allegemeine”).
- Dr. Honinghaus, writes Carr, “gives the views of non-Catholic German writers….that the new doctrine as to the Bible being the sole Rule of Faith, is eating into the very vitals of religion in Germany”. Carr then supplies the following four German non-Catholic theologians from Honinghaus’ work. I have no idea who some of them were or of their works, and I cannot read German.
- “Can any man deny, that there are but few passages in the New Testament from which all readers deduce the same meaning? Now which of these is right? Which should be adopted? Who is to decide? – who can decide?” Lessing, Beitrage zur Gesch. Der Literat., B. vi, s. 58
- “Were Luther to rise again from the grave, he could not possibly recognise as his own, or as members of the society which he founded, be considered as his successors. He founded the Church in Saxony. We come together to thank God for its foundation; but alas, it is no more” Reinhard, uber die Kirchen, Verbesserung, 1800
- “According to genuine Protestant principles, it is impossible that the internal dissensions of the Church can be cured, except superficially; they cannot be stopped by the power of the [Catholic] Church, but must bleed on internally” Schleiermacher, Reformations-alman., 1819
- “Within the compass of a square mile, you may hear four, five, six, different gospels. The people, believe me, mark it well; they speak most contemptuously of their teachers, whom they hold either for blockheads or knaves, in teaching these opposite doctrines; because in their simplicity they believe that truth is but one, and cannot conceive how each of these gentlemen can have a separate one of his own”. From his “uber der Kirchen, Verbesserung, 1800”.
Carr writes further: “The injury to public morality is a branch of the subject I approach with repugnance and it is one on which I do not desire to dwell. Luther will tell us what promiscuous reading of the Bible did for Germany. With all his partiality for the work of his own hands, he is forced to admit that it were no wonder if his beloved Germany….
- …..“were sunk in the earth or utterly overthrown by the Turks and Tartars, by reason of the hellish and damnable forgetfulness and contempt of God’s grace which people manifest; nay, that the wonder is, that the earth does not refuse to bear them and the sun to shine upon them any longer” (Luther quoted in Dollinger’s Die Reformation, Vol. 1., p. 312, by Carr)
- Luther from Dollinger:“Everything is reversed…the world grows every-day the worse for this teaching [private interpretation of scripture]; and the misery of it is, that men are now-a-days more covetous, more corrupt, more licentious, and more wicked, than of old under the papacy” (Carr’s quote from “Die Reformation”, by Dollinger, Vol. 1, p. 297).
- And Luther, from p. 285 of the same book: “Our evangelicals are now sevenfold more wicked that they were before. In proportion as we hear the Gospel, we steal, lie, cheat, gorge, and commit every crime. If one devil has been driven out of us, seven worse ones have taken their place, to judge from the conduct of princes, lords, nobles, burgesses, and peasants, their utterly shameless acts, and their disregard of God and His menaces”.
As a Reformed Christian and Anglican, it grieves me to see the evil fruit of the corruption of evangelicals’ revered doctrine of “Scripture alone”. But what can one expect when we think we know better than God and mess around with his Word? I don’t know the motive underlying their wrong translation of 2 Peter 20-21 by the NIV translators, but I can’t help but suspect they were trying to protect the Protestant doctrine of “scripture alone” at the expense of faithful translation of the word of God. I hope I’m wrong.
However, I don’t think we need to become Catholics or Orthodox because of it. The Church does have the authority to interpret Scripture but that authority is to be found in the writings of the Church Fathers and, in particular, of the Ecumenical Councils of the first few centuries. The Apostle Paul refers to the Church as “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15 NRSV). The Fathers and Councils defended the Faith against all heresies and defined and formulated the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and stated them clearly and concisely in the Councils and Creeds of the Church. Their writings, always subject to Scripture, have been preserved and they are a guide to us all as we seek to understand the Scriptures. They are not of equal authority with Scripture – nothing is – but they rightly interpret Scripture. Just as in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) where the assembled Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, expressed the mind of the Spirit, and defined his will, the Ecumenical Councils did likewise. This historic teaching (i.e. Tradition) has been handed down to us from the early Church, and Scripture should be translated in the light of it.
But bible translations which undermine the Church’s authority do very much more harm than good, and today we see this glaringly and shamefully demonstrated in the lives of televangelists who are no less corrupt and immoral than those whom Luther condemned. With their brazen sexual immorality, fraud, embezzlement, and false teaching hardly any of them in the last century have stood firm. Their corrupt history goes back to the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, and the corruption and false teaching have been astonishing.
But it hasn’t been limited to televangelists and the Pentecostal movement. The sexual immorality, adultery, and paedophilia committed by some clergy and other church leaders, as well as false doctrine and church practices, are evident in every church in every denomination. It is not only the doctrine of sola scriptura which has been badly misused by fundamentalists, but also the misuse and abuse of the doctrine of sola fides (faith alone), which the abusers use as licence to sin, because as long as we repent by “rededicating” our lives to Christ at some church meeting or “crusade”, we think we can repeatedly get away with anything. As one cynic I knew said, “It’s easier to obtain forgiveness than permission”.
Carr, Thomas Joseph, Archbishop of Melbourne, “Lectures and Replies”, 1907, p. 21-23, publ., The Australian Catholic Truth Society, Melbourne, Australia