Salon.com recently published an interview with sociologist Samuel L. Perry titled, “When Evangelical Snowflakes Censor the Bible: The English Standard Version Goes PC.”
And I got a reply to all this: Nuh-uh!
Let me elaborate that answer, however, because “nuh-uh” probably won’t persuade anyone. And also because there’s a bit of truth in the charge, and Christian students of the Bible need to know that truth. Perry raises very important questions about Bible interpretation, and about the proper translation of fought-over words like “slave” and “Jew.” You’re going to have to follow me here; I’m going to trace a thread ball with multiple skeins. This is going to be a much longer Word Nerd video than normal.
You can handle it, though, because Word Nerd: Language & the Bible is a serious space. We have our fun, but it is indeed truth we’re after. So I carefully read not only the Salon interview but also the scholarly article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion which gave rise to it. In what follows, I will pretty freely mix the academic article and the popularizing Salon interview. They carry the same basic message.
How the Bible Works
And that message is full of frankly cynical, acidic ideas about Bible study, ideas the editor of Bible Study Magazine can’t take lying down, ideas I’ve encountered previously in scholarly realms. In particular, Perry makes regular appeal to a book I read five years ago, Brian Malley’s How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. The book details Malley’s observations of how actual evangelicals actually used the Bible in church and in private study.
Reading Malley (and subsequently Perry) is a bit awkward. It is rather akin to reading a book about exotic savages—when you’re the savage. Anthropological examinations of my evangelical tribe can bring some insight; I don’t at all deny it. Savages can learn much from the peculiar men in pith helmets who ask to be flies on the walls of our mud huts. I wrote in the margin of my copy of the book, “Brilliant!,” when Malley said, “Literalism is itself a metaphor. Many self-avowed literalists are cautious about using the term.” I mixed ashes from my home fire with juice from the kava-kava berry and daubed this quote on my tribe’s communal cave wall.
But what if a highly educated, undeniably intelligent anthropologist posits in his heavily-footnoted academic book that savages cannot, in fact, read? And what if I’m like, “I can read what you’re writing about me in your little notebook right this very moment! It says ‘sociologically circumscribed, epistemologically naïve ignoramus,’ and I resent that—that’s not true!”
And what if the anthropologist says, “Yes-huh!”?
That’s the impasse Malley, Perry, and I have reached when it comes to the Bible. Malley wrote,
The assumption I make is that texts do not have intrinsic meanings. … I assume as a further methodological point, that the authority and relevance of the Bible today are less a function of properties specific to the Bible than a consequence of the ways in which Bible believers encounter this ancient text. (How the Bible Works)
Perry, too, talks about me like I’m not in the room, or like his big words will go over my head. I’m sorry for being so tart; I’m not normally so tart. But it’s true. Perry writes,
The goal of hermeneutic activity for biblicist Protestants [there he’s talking about me and most of the people I love] is not so much to derive meaning from the text, as though readers came to the text as blank slates, but rather to … establish transitivity, that is, to establish a seemingly natural interpretive connection between the text and the doctrinal positions of one’s group, ultimately in the service of supporting those doctrinal positions. (JAAR)
In other words, the Bible means what we make it mean. We read the Bible only to prove that our tribe is right about stuff.
At least for the purposes of their scholarly arguments, Malley and Perry treat the Bible as a human-created text in two senses: humans wrote it, and humans make it what it is by creating interpretive traditions that appeal to the Bible. I’m honestly not saying this is what they believe; I don’t know what they personally believe. Each gives some evidence of having been evangelical Christians themselves at some point, perhaps even now. But each treats the Bible according to the rules of what Christian Smith called The Sacred Project of American Sociology; that is, they practice “methodological naturalism.” They use methods of description and analysis which can, because we said so, make no appeal outside the realm of nature. God isn’t allowed to speak through the words of Scripture, because our magnifying glasses can’t see him do it.
And you know, if that’s all my Bible reading is, count me out. If this is a naturalistic world where only matter and energy exist, and there is no God telling me that there is hope in Christ, then I’d like to change evolutionary places with someone else. So the immutable laws of cause and effect made me a redheaded Bible Study Magazine editor. Would it spoil some vast eternal anti-plan if those laws made me the greatest classical choral ensemble singer in the world instead? Oh, and also the most highly paid ultimate frisbee player? Oh, and also not a savage. I want to be one of the cool kids who writes lots of footnotes with snide remarks about the epistemological naïvete of other people.
Are you catching the idea that I’m a bit miffed? I am. The sense of serious word play we cultivate around here at Word Nerd has given way to the righteous zeal of Zelophehad. I wasn’t even two paragraphs into Perry’s academic article and I already wanted to run a spear through it. If what he says is true, then the entirety of the Logos Bible Software library is an exercise in self-deception. Our commentaries and lexicons and search tools are Jello castles built on top of one of those dough balls that pops as soon as you touch it.
It’s galling for people to say all manner of evil things against you falsely. I just have to remind myself it’s for Jesus’ sake. If they persecuted him, they will persecute me.
Because Jesus did speak. And he meant things. God the Father spoke, and he also meant stuff—all three persons of the Trinity go around meaning stuff all the time through the pages of the Bible. I cling to those words; to whom shall I go? Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.
I’ve let myself dive long enough into generalities, but it’s those cynical general theories of what evangelical Christians do with the Bible that pave the way for Perry’s specific arguments. And now I must turn our gaze to those specifics. His case focuses especially on two phenomena in evangelical English Bible translations (especially but not only the ESV): (1) the translation of “slave” terminology, (2) the translation of “the Jews” in certain passages. He also complains about (3) the rendering of certain gender language, and (4) the production of a Gideons ESV modified slightly for textual-critical reasons, but I will leave those aside and focus my energies where Perry does.
Perry argues that the English Standard Version has softened the New Testament’s slavery terminology to make it more palatable to outsiders. It will be best to quote him directly:
The English Standard Version [translators] … started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the “slave” word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, “We’re going to call this a bondservant. So it’s different from a slave.”
By 2016 they didn’t use “slave” language at all. … All you see is this kind of Christian-used, churchy word “bondservant,” which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it’s a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, “Hey, these are slaves, but they’re not real, real slaves. They’re not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It’s something different.”
Perry calls the ESV on its alleged hypocrisy, because it calls itself “essentially literal” and has cultivated a reputation, he says, for pushing back against political correctness. But here it is—he says—“adjust[ing] the language [of the Bible to] … make it back to your own theological preference, or the preference of the people you’re trying to market the Bible to.”
Sounds pretty sneaky. But one of the reasons Perry knows what the ESV is doing is that the ESV preface explains it in some detail. You can even go on YouTube and watch a fascinating video in which ESV translators discuss this very issue. Wayne Grudem in that video makes an impassioned case that “slave” in contemporary America calls up “irredeemably negative associations and connotations.” Grudem says that “in people’s minds [“slavery” is] a permanent condition, whereas in the Old Testament and certainly the time of the New Testament it’s temporary, it leads to freedom, and it was often voluntary—at least in the first century.” He also says that slavery in Bible times “was not primarily racial, it was economic.” He argues, too, that slavery “carried considerable legal protections.”
He didn’t persuade everyone on the committee. He need not persuade Perry. I myself am not persuaded; I would have chosen “slave” in a more formal translation like the ESV; I would have expected Bible students to do their homework to figure out what was intended. That’s what formal translations are known for.
But Grudem’s arguments are serious and weighty; they clearly fit within the norms of scholarly discourse about the Bible. And yet Perry did not handle these arguments. He appealed to “most scholars that I’ve read and respect.” But in neither his academic article nor his popular piece does he engage the substance of the case made by Grudem and the ESV preface. I would encourage you to read that preface; to watch an excellent video by Peter Williams, who was on the ESV committee; to read Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ by Murray Harris. I’m not denying that there are difficult questions involved here, but I also don’t think Perry has the right to criticize the ESV without even footnoting serious back-and-forth discussion of those questions.
Perry performs a similarly cynical analysis of the ESV’s translation of the Greek word Ἰουδαῖοι (Ioudaioi), or “Jews.” It is true that the New Testament’s mentions of “the Jews” can at times sound cringey to post-Holocaust ears.
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews * were seeking to kill him. (John 7:1)
What Perry critiques is the footnote that appears in the ESV about a dozen times at passages like this, passages in which “the Jews” in general are mentioned and which could, therefore, be used by antisemites as justification for their antisemitism. Here’s that note:
* Greek Ioudaioi probably refers here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, in that time.
The ESV translators are trying to particularize, localize, and temporize these references to the wiles of “the Jews,” trying to limit the extension of the word to those who were truly guilty of murdering Jesus.
Here Perry is a bit confusing, because his stated object of study is the ESV, but the ESV continues to translate Ioudaioi as “the Jews”—as Perry prefers. Some translations, such as the NIV, do render the word with “the Jewish leaders” or “religious leaders” in certain potentially offensive passages. But evangelical commentary literature makes a careful defense for this choice. Carson in his Pillar volume makes a careful and cogent survey of the different ways, positive and negative and neutral, in which John uses the phrase “the Jews.” There are even places, such as John 7:1, in which the reference may be more geographical than anything else: “the Judeans,” in other words, were seeking to kill Jesus.
The ESV did not flinch here. It translated formally as it said it would. But the other options—“Judeans” and “Jewish leaders”—are put forward by serious people who give sophisticated reasons for their choices. To gain his point, Perry would have to engage these reasons instead of resorting right away to the concept of “intransitivity,” which is merely a fancy word used to charge Christian scholars with “cooking the books” of the Bible.
Is it really evangelical snowflake-ism to keep the formal translation, “the Jews,” in the text and point out in the margin what attentive readers will already know, namely that it wasn’t literally every last Jewish person who was scheming to kill Jesus? “The Jews” in passages like these is synecdoche, using the whole Jewish nation to represent the individual Jewish people, contextually delimited, who were after Jesus’ blood. If people twist this wording into support for antisemitism, that isn’t the Gospel writers fault.
Now, briefly, regarding gender language in English Bible translation: I see a situation similar to the two I’ve just described. Serious people have had serious debates about this issue. I’m literally reading through the key books right now (Carson and Poythress/Grudem). Anybody on left or right who thinks they can score easy points against their enemies by bringing up this topic must earn the right to speak on it by doing the reading. Such an one will, I think, find that the matter is too complex for easy points, that it calls for some mutual charity. These very books are in the “References” section of Perry’s academic piece; I give him credit for this. But in my opinion, he once again turns a serious debate into an opportunity for potshots.
Briefly regarding the Gideons ESV: Perry warns darkly of Crossway’s willingness to, quote, “adjust some of the language in the ESV to conform to the preferences that the Gideons wanted.” He acknowledges that these changes were minor, and they were. They are also part of a massively complex discussion of New Testament textual criticism; they really don’t belong in a piece critiquing translation. The Gideons preferred some readings from the Textus Receptus, the basis of the KJV. Crossway acquiesced. None of these were ideological edits.
Finding the kernel of truth
I wouldn’t be honest—and I wouldn’t be an Augustinian/Pauline Christian—if I didn’t acknowledge some truth in what scholars like Malley and Perry say about evangelical uses of the Bible. When they scribble observations in their notebook, sometimes I have to nod in agreement, even when their comments are about me. Sometimes I do misread the Bible. Sometimes I come to the realization that I was doing it culpably out of a desire to prove my rectitude and not innocently out of simple human finiteness. It is possible for Bible translators to bow to malign pressures.
And who in my experience has most often made these very observations about the way fallenness and finiteness mar Bible interpretation? Not anthropologists but people just like me: Bible teachers, and teachers of other Bible teachers. Who am I to deny that people misread the Bible? It’s implicit in many articles I write. It’s a big reason we need Logos Bible Software and Bible Study Magazine. Study resources are ways of humbly checking my read against that of the overall community of believing Bible readers in all their different stripes.
So, again, it’s not as if Malley and Perry are describing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist. Jesus was way ahead of them. Two millennia ago, he caught the Pharisees establishing transitivity between the Bible text and their traditions—rather than submitting themselves to God’s words. I think of that passage in Mark in which Jesus condemns the Pharisees for designating money they owe their parents as “Corban,” gifts to God. He said they were “making void the word of God by [their] tradition” (Mark 7:13 ESV).
Here’s maybe the difference between me and what admittedly little I know about (exvangelical?) scholars who critique Christian use of the Bible: I can inhabit that complicated space of self-awareness and God-confidence that we call “I could be wrong, but I’m praying to be right.”
The first step in interpretation should be transitivity. You should try to fit what you read in the Bible in with your existing tradition. That’s simple hermeneutical humility—as long as it’s paired with a sincere desire to hold one’s tradition up to the light of Scripture. The Reformation was about recovering our ability to do just this, to stand within a tradition and yet make our consciences captive to the word of God. Here we stand.
And it’s not as if postmodern arguments about the power of interpretive communities have caught evangelicals flat-footed. Countless of our luminaries—I think especially of Don Carson and Moisés Silva and Kevin Vanhoozer and Mark D. Thompson—have written thoughtfully and, I think, persuasively about not just the dangers involved with postmodern modes of interpretation but the benefits and insights they yield. Humble little me has written a journal article on the thought of that sometimes slippery sophist, sometimes incisive prose wizard Stanley Fish. I really do feel as if Samuel L. Perry felt that a little postmodern sneer in my direction would make me wilt.
Watching the watchers
Several times I’ve read academic and popular-level writing about evangelicalism by apparently secular scholars, and I’ve quickly gained the impression that the writers had to have had some kind of evangelical background themselves. The level of knowledge they have attained is typically attained only by insiders. (The only one that got me was Molly Worthen, who grew up non-religious yet knows a ton about evangelicalism; kudos to her for her work ethic.) But it isn’t just their knowledge that most confirms for me that they have some (at least historic) connection to evangelical Christianity; it’s their very effort to appear detached. I read a piece a few years back critiquing evangelical views of inerrancy. It was relentlessly academic, with all the hedging and quibbling and quoting germane to the genre. I saw so many references in the footnotes to my respected friend and firm evangelical inerrantist Vern Poythress that it suddenly hit me: this writer must have studied at Poythress’ seminary. A quick check of his CV confirmed that I was right.
I don’t like getting personal, but I can’t be detached here. Who can, really, when God is concerned? Romans 1 says that people either acknowledge God or suppress the truth we all can’t not know about him. So I checked Samuel Perry’s C.V. He has a fairly recent ThM from a major evangelical seminary, followed by a PhD in sociology from the (secular) University of Chicago. I make no comment as to his motivations or his theological views; I will observe, however, that he is pretty free with his reading of other people’s motivations. Major evangelical scholars are, he says, soft-pedaling truths about the Bible in order to promote their narrow theological agenda and sell more Bibles. “The birth of the ESV was ideological in nature,” he says. Evangelicals are trying to maintain internal cohesion for the flock while maintaining defensive apologetic ramparts and smoothly oiled evangelistic entrance doors. They are not—because our magnifying glasses cannot see them doing it—sincerely but imperfectly trying to teach God’s words to Christ’s sheep through the work of Bible translation.
But what if the savage were to turn his gaze on the anthropologist and do a little study of his own? What if we were to watch our watchers? What would we find?
A friend of mine wrote up this little line to answer that question:
The goal of sociological research is not so much to discover facts about society, as though sociologists came to their data as blank slates, but rather to establish transitivity between the data and their existing beliefs.
Indeed, why does Perry get to tell us stuff he expects us to understand and God doesn’t? There are sophisticated appeals to postmodern skepticism; I think of my beloved Stanley Fish. But I felt that Perry’s appeal was pretty bald—and blind. And Perry’s assessment of the ESV (that same friend pointed this out to me) was eerily similar to that of the KJV-Only folks. Both are guilty of an uncharitable rush to fit the actions of contemporary Bible translators into pre-existing distrustful narratives. Perry’s narrative just comes from the left, the KJVOs’ from the right.
I can be grateful to Perry for some sharp observations, even some warning shots, while still insisting that any view that muzzles God, that severs the link between his intentions and his words, is rebellion. That’s what I see when I look back at the anthropologists who critique my Bible reading. It isn’t only religious people who can turn the Bible into something it wasn’t intended to be. Anthropologists can make their own power plays with God’s words. To offer “establishing transitivity with existing views” as a wholly sufficient view of evangelical Bible use is to take a small truth and make it the whole truth. It is to say to God, “We can’t hear you because other people are talking.” Sure, people abuse the Bible, make it serve their own ends. That’s what I expect in a fallen world. I’ve done it myself. And sure, some things the Bible says are difficult. Peter said so under divine inspiration. But God invented language. His words will accomplish the purposes for which he sent them. When God addresses me in Scripture, I can’t let its admitted ambiguities and difficulties excuse me from trust and obedience of what I, by God’s illuminating Spirit, do understand.
When people say you can’t get any meaning out of the Bible but can only pour meaning into it, the best way to refute them is to get meaning out of the Bible. It’s like that famous scene from Samuel Johnson, who heard that Bishop so-and-so thought physical things aren’t real. He kicked a rock and said, “I refute it thus.” You are fallen and finite; don’t expect exhaustive certainty about every aspect of Bible interpretation. But when you sin, get meaning out of the David’s penetential Psalm 51. When you see condos fall down in Florida, get meaning out of Jesus’ comment about the tower of Siloam and the erroneous guesses about why it fell. When you are proud, get meaning out of “God gives grace to the humble.” When a supposedly objective anthropologist says that reading the Bible is power plays all the way down, get meaning out of Jesus’ resonant words to the sophistic Pharisees who went before them: “Have you not read?”