Keep the Fish in the Water: Translating the Bible Within the Church Context
A well-known metaphor among biblical (and other) scholars is to “look at the fish.” The story as it’s usually relayed involves a doctoral student of Professor Louis Agassiz examining a fish for weeks, before Professor Agassiz concludes “and now you know something about it.”
Often overlooked in the retelling of this story is one of its most crucial details: The fish was out of the water and dead. Professor Agassiz’s student certainly could learn “something” about the fish by examining it as he did, but the student could never know everything (or even a lot) about the fish without seeing it in the water.
The fish couldn’t be fully appreciated outside of its natural habitat of the water. There simply wasn’t a way for the student to observe how the fish’s fins flitted through the water, scales reflected light at different angles or gills bobbed rhythmically. Much less could the fish’s beauty and majesty be appreciated while it lay dead on a plate.
Texts Must Be Studied and Appreciated Within Their Contexts
Just as Professor Agassiz’s fish could never be fully known outside of its natural aquatic habitat, texts too can’t be truly understood or appreciated outside of their habitats. A text’s natural habitat is its context.
The importance of context holds true across all manner of texts. Context often plays a vital role in first amendment cases, and “one pistol’ means something very different in a police report versus in the delis where pastrami sandwiches are “pistols.” More broadly, a newspaper is largely only relevant when read within the context in which it was written. Most stories are irrelevant a few weeks, or even a few days, later.
The Bible’s Proper Context is the Church
The proper context for studying, appreciating, and applying the Bible is, of course, the church. While any single passage should be interpreted within its broader biblical context, neither a single part nor the whole can be fully appreciated outside of a church. The church is the Bible’s habitat.
As much as the church might be a “people of the book,” this statement is most true in the sense that the book proceeds through the people. The Bible is the work of God bringing his special revelation to his people, and his people participate in virtually every way.
Without discounting God’s role in the least, the Bible is from, for, and in the church. You can probably add just about any other prepositions you like: the Bible proceeds out of the church to the world, it has authority over the church as the rule for faith and life, and it lights the way forward in the faith.
For now, there are a few prepositions to enumerate that show the Bible’s relationship to the church:
From: The bible proceeds from the church. As much as we might want to claim the church is grounded on the Bible, the church existed before the Bible as we recognize it today. Even the most conservative estimates of authorship dates place New Testament books after many of the NT believers were gathered. Moreover, the happenings of Acts -- which details the growth of the church -- occurred before Luke gathered all of his data (Luke 1:1-4). Simply put, the church was there before we had the Bible in its present form.
For: The Bible is for the church. This is evident in Paul’s statement that “all Scripture is God-breathed…so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Scripture’s God-breathed character is for God’s servant, or his people who are the church. While the Bible offers hope for the unreached, how often is that hope ordinarily brought by the hands of Christians? It’s not the Bible that Jesus sends into the world during the Great Commission -- he sends his people to “go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
In: The Bible belongs in the church. This is perhaps most evident when the Bible is read in church, but how much does the Bible also lead readers into the church? Those who responded positively to Peter’s message at Pentecost were baptized into the church (Acts 2:41), and much of the Bible’s message directs believers into the church. This is evident from exhortations like “do not give up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25) to John’s prophecy about the church in Revelation.
We might say that the church is the context of the book through and through, although that preposition only grasps an aspect of the bible’s relation to the church.
To take the bible out of the church is to remove it from its natural habitat. There is likely another lesson from Professor Agassiz’s dead fish here.
Living Out the Bible Within the Church
For the Christian life, the implications of this are clear. The Bible can only be fully known -- indeed, God can only be fully known -- within the church. Individual Bible study may be an important component of a mature Christian life, but it’s within the life of the church that the Bible itself fully comes to life. It’s within the church that Christians hear, share, and live out the Scriptures.
Translating the Bible Within the Church
With regard to Bible translation, the work is firmly placed within the locus of the church. Bible translation shouldn’t be done outside of the church, for without the church the Bible isn’t in its natural habitat. It’s like a fish out of water.
What If There Isn’t a Church?
This raises the obvious question of what translation efforts should be undertaken in places where there isn’t yet a church?
We must first be careful to not be overly strict on what constitutes a church here. Remembering that Jesus said he was present where ever there were two or three gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20), and he himself started out with a small gaggle of 12 disciples.
If there truly are no believers in a people group, my answer to this question is to follow the pattern of the New Testament and of Jesus himself. Send Christians to share the good news, using their own book. Begin the work of bible translation once there is a church within the unreached group, and appreciate the Bible’s new expression as it unfolds within this young group.
Put another way, a bible translation is a testimony (testament) of faith in Christ. To truly reflect a particular local church’s faith in Christ, the translation must come from that church. An outsider can explain details of the Christian faith at large, but no outsider can give a full representation to another group’s testimony.
What About When Disagreements Arise?
Another question arises when there are disagreements over translation issues, and such disagreements do occur since this work is laden with brambles and thorn bushes post-fall (just like all other work is too). When there is a disagreement within a team, how should the disagreement be resolved?
Here again, my answer is within the church. The church whose translation the work will be should oversee the resolution of the issue, for it’s that church’s book. Outside team members (e.g. consultants) ought to be careful not to over-assert themselves as decision-makers. They can lend their expertise to the church, but the decision of whether to accept an outsider’s recommendation should remain with the local church leaders.
After the work is done, the outsider will likely move onto another project and worship with the translation their church uses (e.g. English). It’s the local church that will continue to use this new translation, and the new translation should fully and truly belong to the church.
Keep the Bible Within the Church
The Bible can be studied and dissected like a scientific object, but it’s only fully appreciated when lived out within the context of God’s people. From reading to translating, keep the Bible in the church and marvel at the beauty that unfolds.
The thoughts contained herein are those of Scott M. Brodie, and don’t necessarily represent those of Angela Brodie or Translation of Truth. Angela and Scott frequently disagree on matters biblical and otherwise. To see some of Scott’s other projects, check out Seminaries and Bible Colleges.