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WELS weighs Bible translations

Is one version better?

New International Version

For Lutherans, what the Bible says is a big deal. In the past, Lutherans have gone to war among themselves over how properly to interpret biblical texts, or even how to regard the Bible in its entirety. But no Lutheran is indifferent to Scripture.

Perhaps no Lutheran church body in North America approaches biblical interpretation with more rigor than does the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). Its pastors and theologians care deeply about biblical content, its interpretation, and its application in the life of the church.

For the past two years, leaders within WELS have been engaged in serious conversation — some would say vigorous debate — over which English-language Bible translation should be used by its Northwestern Publishing House (NPH).

For the past 30 years, NPH has used the New International Version (NIV) when developing curriculum and other materials. But a few years ago a publisher’s revision of NIV was announced. Once NIV2011 became available, the previous version was scheduled for oblivion. (The publisher announced it would no longer be making it available for sale.)

That set off a debate within WELS. Should the synod simply authorize NIV2011 for use at NPH, move to some other Bible translation, or not endorse a single version at all?

A deliberative process

At the denomination’s 2011 national convention, it was decided to put the matter to a vote of the several districts. If two-thirds affirmed use of NIV2011, that would settle it. In the meantime, a Translation Evaluation Committee (TEC) went to work, examining the text of the new version, which had become available on the Internet, and asking for input from over 100 WELS pastors.

As the process progressed, and ime for the 2012 district conventions drew near, it was clear that findings and recommendations from the TEC wouldn’t be ready in time for their use. So the districts agreed to let the matter be decided at the 2013 national convention, planned for this coming summer.

Whatever is decided next summer, it won’t amount to designating an “official” Bible translation for the synod.

In the meantime, the TEC finished its work and offered a couple options for voters at the upcoming national gathering. They could either affirm NIV2011 for use at the publishing house or they could decide not to affirm any single version. (The TEC did, however, speak positively of NIV2011, The English Standard Version [currently favored by LCMS], and the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

At a conference sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), a church body in fellowship with WELS, held in Mankato, Minnesota, last fall, the Rev. Paul Wendland, TEC chair, presented a major paper on Bible translation. Wendland, who is also president of the WELS seminary in Mequon, Wisconsin, shared his insights in the second of a series of lectures at Bethany Lutheran College’s annual Teigen Reformation series.

Focused on principles of biblical interpretation, the essay provided good information for WELS pastors and lay people on the question of how a worthy Bible translation should be created. His presentation, the manuscript for which ran to 39 single-spaced pages, weighed the merits of a pair of principles seemingly in tension with one another. The two approaches to translation define the two sides in WELS’ current debate.

One group favors a Bible translation that adheres as closely as possible to the literal meaning of the words in the original language(s). The other prefers a version that focuses less on literalism and more on the intended sense or meaning of the biblical writer. As part of the discussion process, Wendland urged each “camp” not to demonize the other’s positions.

In his second Teigen lecture, Wendland stressed that both approaches need to be honored. He maintained that NIV2011 appears to bridge both groups’ concerns as well as any. He also noted that, unlike some translations, NIV2011 does not weaken the doctrine of male leadership in church and home, a teaching important in WELS theology. NIV2011 was also judged to be superior to some translations that seem to weaken the concept of Old Testament messianic passages pointing to Christ.

Whatever is decided next summer, it will not amount to designating an “official” Bible translation for the synod. Congregations and members are still free to make their own choices for Bible reading and study. The decision will amount to an instruction to NPH as to which Bible version(s) to use in its publishing program, and nothing more.

Do other Lutheran publishing houses have official versions?

Each of the several U.S. Lutheran church bodies tends to gravitate toward a preferred Bible translation for use by their official publishing houses. Even though the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) publisher, Concordia Publishing House (CPH), used NIV for its Concordia Self-Study Bible (1986), it is not the version currently used in St. Louis. Paul McCain, CEO at CPH, told Metro Lutheran, “Our translation of choice these days is the English Standard Version. It is used in all our worship resources, curriculum materials, devotional materials, [and] books.”

The Rev. Robert Holst, president emeritus of Concordia University in St. Paul, says that, as far as he is aware, LCMS congregations use a wide variety of Bible translations. “I think that most would probably have the NIV. In our Bible class on Sundays [at Bethel Lutheran in St. Paul], a good number have ‘electronic’ Bibles and they seem to switch from translation to translation, seeking clarity. I personally — and professionally — prefer the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Many in the LCMS also like it.”

Holst conceded, however, that many LCMS pastors and congregations would not be comfortable using NRSV.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is more inclined to favor the NRSV, favored by many mainline Protestant denominations. Says Marcus Kunz, ELCA executive for theological discernment, “The ELCA Style Guide states a preference for NRSV. This applies to the churchwide organization’s communications. When circumstances warrant, the churchwide organization also uses other translations.”

The Rev. Scott Tunseth is senior editor at Fortress Press, a unit of the ELCA’s Augsburg Fortress Publishers. He says, “The translators for NRSV mostly come from the teaching faculties of seminaries and schools of graduate study that train most of the mainline clergy. These connections have made the NRSV a natural fit for our resources, though it is not the only translation we have used in curricula.”

Wendland says that, even though it’s not being recommended for use at the publishing house, the Revised Standard Version (precursor to NRSV) is not without its supporters in the Wisconsin Synod. “There are likely individuals in WELS who use either the King James Version (KJV) or the RSV. There may also be some congregations that still use the KJV, since it was our default translation prior to the adoption of the NIV for the publishing house back in the 1970s.”

What do other bodies do?

The Church of the Lutheran Brethren (CLB) is also in a process of choosing a translation for its official publications and resources. “The CLB previously used NIV1984, but with the new translation and the discontinuation of the NIV1984, we have asked our Theological Council to research and decide which translation we should use,” explained Tim Mathiesen, director of communication and prayer. “We do not require our congregations to use a certain translation, but we would like to use one translation for all of our publications.”

Ruth Gunderson, managing editor of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations’ (AFLC) publication, explained, “The AFLC has made a point to not promote one version over another. The Lutheran Ambassador follows that decision. Our writers, all volunteers, are free to use the version they prefer. We note that version on the first use within an article.”

In addition, Marion Christopherson, director of parish education for the AFLC, further clarified, “In the Ambassador Sunday School Series, catechetical resources, and adult Bible studies, Ambassador Publications uses the New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1995 updated edition).

“In some publications such as adult Bible studies, although the NASB is used as the standard translation, we do allow authors to refer to other translations that may be helpful for study purposes.”

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