Expressing the words of the Bible in contemporary language has a long history, as an internet search demonstrates by noting that “the earliest translation into a vernacular European language other than Latin or Greek was the Gothic Bible, by Ulfilas, an Arian who translated from the Greek in the fourth century in Italy.”
Yet when Scripture passages are not translated, but rather updated or modified to reflect current linguistic and sociological understandings, some conservative Christians — and especially fundamentalist Christians — may object.
Perhaps the resistance stems from misinterpreted passages like, “You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32) or, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18-19). Moreover, when a person believes in a theory of inspiration that says every word of Scripture was dictated by God, then modernizing the text could be an anathema.
Such textual changes occasionally have stirred up emotional reactions. For example, the rejections of recent “gender-inclusive” translations of the Bible. The 2011 edition of the New International Version, a translation favored by many of the largest Protestant faith groups in America, has been dismissed, if not demonized, by conservative individuals and groups because of its “politically correct” gender-neutral language and the inclusion of women in biblical references.
To cite one illustration, older versions of Mark 1:17 read, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” The newer translation, however, reads: “Come follow me. And I will send you out to fish for people.” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood panned this Bible edition for renderings like this, even before it began to be marketed.
When making Scripture relevant raises objections
Stating biblical texts in new ways for contemporary audiences is thus often objectionable to biblical literalists and inerrantists. Even more troublesome, however, could be creating additional injunctions with the thought that they also might carry prophetic weight and authority, similar to that of Scripture, since they are consistent with the character of the original and their creators believe them to have been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
I am not speaking of someone actually inserting additional material into the Bible, something Jewish Bible scholar Joel Hoffman believes never has happened since the canonization of the books of the Old and New Testaments. Yet, stunningly, Miriam Adelson — the Israeli-American wife of billionaire GOP contributor Sheldon Adelson — proposed adding a “Book of Trump” to the Bible, which she suggested would be similar to the Book of Esther, since she perceives Trump to be a modern savior of the Jewish people.
“Miriam Adelson — the Israeli-American wife of billionaire GOP contributor Sheldon Adelson — proposed adding a Book of Trump’ to the Bible, which she suggested would be similar to the Book of Esther
What I am referencing, instead, is someone’s paraphrasing or amplifying biblical texts to fit the context of current listeners and readers.
This is a technique creative preachers and writers have been using since the time of Jesus, generally without criticism. Utilizing the methodology of speaking or writing in the spirit of the law rather than being bound by the letter of the law, they have felt free to apply the text to present-day circumstances, many of which are not in the Scriptures at all. Thus, 21st century proclaimers can surmise what Jesus might say about subjects as broad and contemporary as making unkind comments on social media or supporting a military response to another 9/11-style attack on America’s homeland.
Henlee Barnette, ethicist extraordinaire
It was a genuine honor for me to have known and studied under Henlee Barnette, for many years a courageous and controversial Christian ethics professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In what was probably his last written article, published just one week before his death in 2004, Barnette explained why he was proud to be considered a “liberal.” His most important reason was because that’s how he understood Jesus.
- I am a liberal because Jesus was one. Jesus’ mission was one of liberation. He was anointed to preach the good news to the poor, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:16-19).
- He (was) a liberal because he put human need above ecclesiastical law (Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Luke 6:1-5).
- Jesus liberates little children (Mark 10:14). He liberated women by providing them with a place in his ministry (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:40-41).
- Jesus was a liberal because he was inclusive. He included Gentiles in the embrace of his grace and the orthodox sought to kill him (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus was ecumenical. His disciples discovered someone casting out devils in Jesus’ name who did not follow him, and they tried to stop him. Jesus rebuked their narrow view (Luke 9:49-50).
- For these reasons and much more I am a “Jesus liberal” who puts love above law, righteousness above ritual, justice above injustice and mercy above meanness.
The Value of biblical principles as guides for life
Barnette taught from the 1950s to the 1970s, when legalism and situationism were opposing ethical extremes. Instead of favoring either of those approaches to making ethical judgments, however, he suggested a hermeneutic alternative he called “principlism,” defining the behavioral norms he felt were dominant in Scripture as principles rather than rules.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee — fellow ethics professors, friends and admirers of Barnette — acknowledge principlism’s shortcomings, but also note that its value “lies in its attention both to the details of particular cases and to the broad principles that must govern any morally adequate response to particular cases.”
Paul Simmons, a student of and later faculty colleague with Barnette, agrees, writing that “the Bible has relevant perspectives even when it gives no specific directives,” which means that “the ethicist may creatively develop norms for novel issues by building upon theological perspectives in the Bible.”
Another former Southern Seminary professor Dan Stiver concurs with what Simmons, Stassen and Gushee wrote about principlism. He explained:
Obviously, Scripture does not say everything about everything. Sometimes issues are treated in Scripture that are not pertinent today, and sometimes issues that are very burning today are not addressed at all in Scripture. … Consequently, even in the case of a fairly explicit command, a great deal of discernment is often required in order to apply Scripture. This is the place for… practical wisdom. Aristotle thought that one could never come up with enough rules to cover the details of every case, much like we think of when legalists are never able to come up with enough laws. In the Christian context, what is needed is this kind of practical wisdom that is shaped by walking in the Spirit, Scripture, the Christian tradition, formation in the life of the church, and also knowledge of the contemporary world.
“Expressing the truth of Scripture in fresh language and metaphors for contemporary audiences should not only be permitted, but encouraged.”
Keeping in mind Barnette’s understanding of the nature of the Bible’s ethical norms, Stassen’s and Gushee’s affirmation of principlism’s value, Simmons’ argument that relevant biblical perspectives enable one creatively to develop norms for novel issues, and Stivers’ recognition of the importance of practical wisdom, it seems clear to me that expressing the truth of Scripture in fresh language and metaphors for contemporary audiences should not only be permitted, but encouraged. That is why I am inspired and instructed by creative restatements of biblical injunctions and fresh metaphors and parables for teaching biblical truths.
Wine and wineskins
Jesus cautioned: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38).
I would suggest, however, that old wine can also be put into new wineskins, with no risk of losing the wine, as long as the old wine is carefully poured into the new container and its original sweetness or dryness is protected.
Here are a couple of examples of old wine in new wineskins. I still recall, now perhaps six decades later, how Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson — who ministered in the inner-city with youth gangs, drug offenders and criminals — adapted Scripture. Knowing that his young urban listeners never had seen sheep or shepherds, he couched the divine guidance and protection portrayed in the 23rd Psalm in images consistent with his contextual description of God, “The Lord is my parole officer.”
Similarly, retired evangelical pastor and founder-director of Christ in You Ministries Jim Fowler penned a version of 1 Corinthians 13 for teachers which places the insights of verses 4-7 about the nature of love in a familiar educational setting:
A teacher’s love is not condescending, does not play favorites, does not gossip, does not publicly humiliate, is not easily agitated or discouraged, and does not blow-up or give-up on misbehaving students. A teacher’s love bears the responsibility of instruction, believes that students’ minds should not be wasted, hopes that every student will achieve their potential, and endures all disturbances in the process.
“This is not Scripture but is written or expressed in the spirit of holy text.”
Beyond mere paraphrasing, there is the actual creating of biblical-sounding material. This is not Scripture but is written or expressed in the spirit of holy text. One might say it is like new wine in new wine skins. I believe that this is what Pope Francis did when he proposed six new Beatitudes that he felt are appropriate for contemporary society.
Pope Francis and his new Beatitudes
On Nov. 1, 2016, Pope Francis was in Malmo, Sweden, speaking at an All Saints Day mass. In the Holy Father’s homily, he said the Beatitudes are a Christian’s “identity card” that identifies him or her as a follower of Jesus. He explained that holiness is not about “great deeds and extraordinary events” but rather about “daily fidelity to the demands of our baptism.”
Pope Francis explained that holiness consists in the love of God and of our neighbors, which makes a person “deeply happy,” which is why the saints are called “blessed.” The Beatitudes are the saints’ “path, their goal, their native land” and “the way of life that the Lord teaches us, so that we can follow in his footsteps.”
Then the pope suggested six new Beatitudes that are fitting for the troubled age in which we live:
- Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart.
- Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.
- Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover him.
- Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.
- Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.
- Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians.
These creative “additions” to a list of characteristics of citizens of the reign of God are consistent with the biblical principles of forgiveness, compassion, non-judgmentalism, stewardship, selflessness and unity. While they are untasted wine, they are based upon these scriptural principles and thus can communicate the wisdom and grace of God in refreshing and sparkling newness.
The Living Word and the written word that is living
Much has been made about the difference between the Living Word, Jesus, and the written word, Scripture. Progressive Christians are careful to claim that ultimate allegiance should always be given to the Living Word. One of the several “troubling factors” that progressive Baptists noted in the 2000 revision of the guiding document for Southern Baptists, the Baptist Faith and Message, is “the deletion of the Christocentric criterion for the interpretation of Scripture.”
A former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Russell Dilday, clarifies that the 1963 edition of the Baptist Faith and Message states that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ,” while the 2000 revision substitutes “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation.” Deleting the theological principle that Jesus is the criterion or standard for interpreting God’s word, says Dilday, is the “most serious flaw” and “amounts to nothing less than idolatry” and is “pure bibliolatry.”
Nonetheless, to believe that the ultimate guide for Christian belief and behavior is Jesus and not the Bible itself does not mean that the Bible is not a living document. The written word is also living. It is dynamic and not static. It is God-breathed, but God has not stopped breathing insight and understanding into those who seek God’s wisdom and direction. The Holy Spirit still speaks, instructs and inspires.
Therefore, I commend those who are led to reframe biblical truth in fresh language (new wineskins). But I also appreciate those who sense the inspiration from God to create new truths (new wine), consistent with Scripture, which will enable them to communicate truth to God’s people in contemporary idioms.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.
Why I’m proud to be a liberal | Opinion by Henlee Barnette
Jesus first, then creation. Otherwise, we preach another gospel | Opinion by Matt Dodrill