Monday, June 30, 2008

Holy Means Whole: According to a Meaningful Translation June 30, 2008

I recently heard a person, whom I consider a friend, slam the New King James Version (NKJV), while I was in attendance. They also praised the New International Version (NIV). They apparently were unaware how much I, and the general public, like the NKJV translation. Not too terribly long ago, I know that the New International Version and the New King James Version were about equal in popularity. So how are we going to settle this disagreement among friends? More importantly, how are we going to settle the disagreement among friends about the meaning of holy?

I think these two issues are closely related, so I am going to treat them together. I think the principles of a meaningful Bible translation in general apply to the principles of a meaningful translation in particular for a single word like holy. So let's try this idea out.

I have to confess that I got distracted not long ago, and was drawn to a quote in an article about art, that came from Jonathan Edwards. He was quoted as seeing beauty in “the clarity of things.” Edwards seems to have thought, in the larger context of his comments, that things themselves bring clarity in God’s and our communication with one another. This idea got me thinking about the whole question of meaningful communication. So please allow me to quickly digress into my upbringing and learning about communication before applying it to both the translation of the Bible and the translation of holy.

I was brought up in the classical understanding of language under Dr. John Piper and Tom Stellar, before Dr. Piper left Bethel College and became Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This understanding of language was mainly taught in my Greek classes and in my classes focused on a book of the Bible. In addition to this understanding of language was a deeply felt inductive approach to the study of the Biblical text that really got students like myself excited. It was that deep feeling of excitement and humility before the text that was the primary benefit of sitting under Dr. Piper and Tom Stellar. They were both students of Dr. Dan Fuller, who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, who fanned this flame of excitement about the Biblical text even hotter. I later sat under him directly and benefited immensely.

What did not make my flame even hotter was the classical understanding of language. Certain parts of it are nearly incomprehensible and unbeneficial. Unless you are a scholar, you will reach a ceiling in your understanding that you cannot get past. What got me past this ceiling was sitting under the teaching of Dr. William Smalley, Lois (Malcolm) Smith and Dr. Don Larsen at Bethel College. Dr. Smalley was my primary influence. Dr. Smalley’s two primary sources for his understanding of language were Kenneth Pike and Michael Halliday. Through Dr. Smalley, I was introduced to the writings of both Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Later, Dr. Dan Shaw, at Fuller Theological Seminary, gave me the practical know how to use the tools of both organizations much more effectively. This entire approach effectively enlarged my basic understanding of the universals of language. The failure of the classical school was in its basic universals of language that created a ceiling that I originally could not get past. I am referring here to the dreaded eight parts of speech.

For many years, I also was stuck at a ceiling in understanding as to what makes a healthy or sound translation of the Bible. Part of the problem was the argument over form and meaning. On the one hand, there was a more literal (form) approach, as reflected in John Piper’s preference for the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New American Standard (NASB). On the other hand, there was a more dynamic (meaning) approach, as reflected in Dr. William Smalley’s preference for the Phillips translation and the Today’s English Version (TEV), sometimes referred to as the Good News Bible. Dr. Smalley was sometimes critical of the TEV, but he still preferred it to the NASB. I am convinced now that the argument over form and meaning is a little bit misguided, because of a recent breakthrough in my understanding.

Let’s go back now to the article in which Edwards was quoted. He saw three things in communication that stand in connection with each other. This view is not entirely unique. The three things are: things, words and ideas. What is unique is that he regarded things as superior in clarity to the other two. What led to my breakthrough, is that I decided to continue Edwards’ three things, I also decided to change his assumption that things are greater in clarity and instead I made clarity a separate part of communication alongside Edwards’ other three. So this is how I first came up with: clarity, ideas, words and things.

I then decided to bring in the aid of John Beekman and John Callow, who I first learned about through Dr. Smalley. I also decided to bring in the aid of Katharine Barnwell, who I learned about through Dr. Dan Shaw. From them, I had previously summarized the principles of what makes a good, or said better yet, a healthy or sound translation. For them, it came down to a preference for meaning over form, because a translation must be meaningful, and it came down to the qualities of: accuracy, clarity and naturalness. I decided to continue and bolster their preference for meaning over form and I decided to change the need for only 3 qualities and instead add the quality of fidelity, as something separate from accuracy. So this is how I came up with the quality of a meaningful translation overall. This is the only reason it should be preferred over form. It is the whole point in translation or communication. In reverse, translation cannot be meaningful without form. As I perceive it, form is essentially an expression of the quality of naturalness. Form then is a major part of the whole. So the qualities for being meaningful expand to be: clarity, fidelity, naturalness and accuracy.

There are some clear parallels, but what really clinched the deal was the reading of Dr. Smalley’s material that organizes language around: continuity and change, bond and barrier, rule and freedom, and sense and nonsense. I decided to bolster his view by adding his own views on reference and non-reference, based on the need for accuracy and I decided to also bolster his view of sense and nonsense by making it equivalent to the need for a translation to be meaningful. So I came up with sense and nonsense being the whole of translation’s purpose. Then I came up with the parts being: continuity and change, bond and barrier, rule and freedom and reference and non-reference.

So, in the end, I was left with these parallels:

clarity ideas words things
(Jonathan Edwards)

clarity fidelity naturalness accuracy
(John Beekman, John Callow, Katharine Barnwell)

Sense & Nonsense
Continuity & Change Bond & Barrier Rule & Freedom Reference & Non-Reference
(William Smalley)

Each of these parallels helps clarify the meaning of the others and helps to make each of them more meaningful. You could say it this way, combing the first two sets of understanding, we need meaningful communication, clear clarity, trustworthy ideas, natural words (or forms) and accurate things. What underlies these is that to have meaningful communication, it must have sense; to have clear clarity, it must have continuity; to have trustworthy ideas, it must have bonds; to have natural words, it must have rules; and to have accurate things, it must have reference. Obviously, when I listen to a House Wren sing, some of these elements are missing, so to that extent their communication is nonsense to me, while it make total sense to another House Wren.

So a meaningful translation must be clear, it must be trustworthy, it must be natural, and it must be accurate. The problem in the past has been that when people argued meaning against form, they were unaware that they were arguing for the whole against one of its essential parts. A part is less than a whole, yet it is not optional or unessential. If people understood form as a discussion of what is natural and what are the rules, then I think the discussions would have been more productive. There is a lot of evidence for this in one of Kenneth Pike’s books. What has happened in discussions is that form did not have a chance against meaning, yet it was by nature and everyday example an unfair battle of the whole versus just one part. Also many times translations then tended to downplay form against meaning, as though it was optional rather than essential. This, of course, caused many people to practically feel uneasy. And sometimes this uneasiness happened for good reason. So part of the problem was that people did not see that they were preserving form in naturalness and in words. Rather even worse, they were often fearful of losing accuracy, because they joined accuracy to form rather than referent. This led to even greater fears and stronger disagreements. So the other part of the problem is that rather than coming down the escalator of fear and anger, people instead went up the escalator of fear and anger.

We’ve had similar problems with the meaning of holy. If you look at the word holy, you must ask yourself if it is meaningful language. I would argue that in many ways it is no longer meaningful by itself or in context. It seems to always require substituting another word to explain it. That is not to say it was not very meaningful at one time. We need to be very meaningful, when we talk about the most important character trait that God and we are supposed to possess. The word holy is very important, so it needs to be very meaningful.

Let’s examine it in regard to making it a word that is meaningful, because it is: clear, trustworthy, natural and accurate. I will deal with each of these separately, because each part is essential to making holy meaningful again.

First, let’s look at how clear it is. Something is clear when it has a history of continuity rather than change or when we are talking about one thing versus many things. When you look at me you see both continuity and change. I have been who I am since I was born, so people see continuity, even while they see a change in my age every year. They see me as one person with many years. One person is clear every time I meet a sibling, even if how many years may be unclear. Holy through time has been one, even with its predecessors that were spelled slightly differently, but its definition has changed over time. If you asked the earliest English translators, they would have said it had a primary sense of wholeness and a secondary sense of separation in the context of the church and translations of the Bible. In the English language itself, it likely had only a sense of wholeness, as many etymology people argue. So its translation usage was likely the first change to this word’s meaning, because the idea of separation was added. The second change came at the end of the 1800s, when scholarship said you must cut the loaf of bread in half and choose between wholeness and separation. Scholars largely choose to keep the definition of separation and drop the meaning of wholeness. Then still later it modified this position by bringing back wholeness to describe the degree of separation. Still more recently, wholeness alone has been promoted as it’s meaning. These changes have made holy less than clear to people because there hasn’t been just one definition for holy, but at least four. So this has clearly muddied the waters.

Second, let’s look at how trustworthy it is. For many years it bonded together the definitions of whole and separate. Now that bond has pretty much been broken and there is a barrier between the two meanings, because of scholarship beginning in the late 1800s. There is also a new bond between the two, but it is not the same as the first, since now wholeness is just descriptive of separation. My understanding is that before our times, the context determined pretty much whether wholeness or separation was emphasized in a particular biblical text. Sometimes a commentator like John Albert Bengel would sing the praises of God’s beauty, because holiness summarized the sum of all God’s attributes. Another time it was seen as thundering the message of God’s separation from sin. It bonded these two ideas together that otherwise have a barrier between them in our language. Wholeness and separation have no common bond in our language. You can also add to this that when a translator goes from the original foreign language to the latest native language, there is supposed to be a bond between the ideas in the original and the ideas in the translation. The translator is trying to find the links between the two languages and avoid the breakdowns between them. This is why I continue to look at the original language for holy and I look for possible links with either wholeness or separation. So I see a fair amount in the breakdown of bonds within our own language, when it comes to the idea of holy, even if I cannot go into depth on the translation process here. So there remains the inherent problem of bonding together two ideas like whole and separate which have a barrier between them in our language and possibly also in the original languages.

Third, let’s look at how natural it is. Holy was once a very natural word in our language, as it enjoyed ties to halig, hale, hal and healthy. Of these, only healthy is still commonly around along with holy. It is a little less natural now, because holy no longer has natural ties to healthy, but rather we are taught it is connected with separation and sanctification, which is not natural in English. I think this is one of the reasons that pastors are constantly telling people, depending on which meaning they see, to substitute either wholeness or separation. I think it would be a very practical rule to remove much of the unnaturalness of holy, sanctification, and saints and either go with words related to wholeness or go with words related to separation. For historical reasons, this list of words could be tied to these natural words and forms, but they should not be front and center in a natural translation for today. You must remember God spoke to Abraham in Abraham’s language of Hebrew, then He spoke to His Jews in Babylon in their natural language of Aramaic, and then He spoke to His Jews under Roman domination in their natural language of Greek, even while He spoke periodically in Hebrew too. It is what comes natural to us that is the rule, and to use language foreign to people, even if it is English, is not the rule of Scripture itself.

Fourth, let’s look at how accurate it is. Holy is very accurate, when I understand its historical English reference to be wholeness. In English, its central focus referred physically to a thing that is whole. For example, a healthy body was a whole body. But let’s talk about the thing of separation. Separation is the idea of physically cutting something. For example, you can take a knife and slice a belt in two. That is physically what is meant by separation. These are the two things that one or the other substitution for the word holy is referring to in English.

In the Bible, what is assumed sometimes, is that in the creation story, you are to cut in two the doing of work and the doing of rest. They are both actions, but they are different kinds of action, separate from each other. My problem is that work and rest are not what are blessed and sanctified (a Latin term brought over into English for holy) as the things referred to in the context, but the day is what is referenced and it is what is blessed and sanctified. We must be accurate. It says, “He blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” He rested “in it,” yet the rest is not what He chose to bless or sanctify. Nor is it accurate to say that He blessed and sanctified it “because … He rested.” No, he blessed and sanctified it “because in it He rested.”

Also in the Bible, is the fact that there is also not a reference to a day being separate from the other days, because referring to a day as “the seventh day” does not separate it so much from the other six, as it refers to the fact that it is “the seventh” day “in the beginning” of days, pointing out that it is quantitatively one part of the first seven days. There is nothing in the context to point out a focus on separation, but rather a focus on a part of a whole, when it comes to the days mentioned. It has to be that the word holy itself would have to refer to separation without any added support from the context. It is important to note that you cannot refer to it simply as a day of rest where the focus is on rest. It is more accurate to refer to it as rest in the seventh day or the rest of the seventh day. In each of these the focus is on the whole of the seventh day, rather than on the part of day referring to the whole of rest that occurred on that day. The other days likewise were not just days of work, but were rather seen as the work of the first day, etc., since time was so much in focus. Remember God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning. The part that He did was that he created the heavens and the earth. The whole of when He did this particular work was “in the beginning.” So the right focus in reference must be maintained.

Yet another thing related to reference is that the seventh day, like the other six, would have had an “evening and morning” that made up that day also. So it is very likely that these would be the parts of a day that would make up a whole day in the case of the seventh day. So parts and wholes are clearly in the context for the word holy to refer to as a possibility.

So a meaningful bible translation and a meaningful translation of holy share the same qualities, when it comes to making sense. I think that due to these qualities of: clarity, trustworthy, natural and accurate, I would go with whole over holy at this time in history. I would have gone with holy against words like sanctification at an earlier time in history. I would also choose to go with whole over separate at this time in history, because of the concern of accuracy in understanding that the thing that is referenced in the section is that God “rested in [the seventh day],” rather than saying that it was a day of rest, where the focus is on rest. Accuracy in reference is critical, but more important is this, that without accuracy, our words are not meaningful. We need to communicate meaningfully. May God bless your whole day.

In Christ,

Pastor Jon