The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration teaches that every word of Scripture as it was originally written is inspired and authoritative throughout the entire Bible. It is not merely the themes or ideas that were inspired, but in fact the precise wording. Most King James Onlyists and many Christians who are not King James Onlyists deduce from this doctrine that the only good translations of the Bible are those that render the text as "word for word" as possible, capturing the essence of each word rather than merely each thought or concept. There is an apparent compelling logic to this deduction, and indeed for many years I held to this position myself. It would seem, to our human reasoning, that if inspiration lies not merely in the realm of ideas but also in the concrete realm of words, then we would need to bring every individual word over from the original languages into ours for our translation to truly be the inspired word of God. On the surface, this appears to be the logical consequence of a biblical doctrine of inspiration, but in fact, the reasoning turns out to be both unbiblical and unworkable.
Before moving forward, it is important here to be clear on the issue at hand. There are two general philosophies or methodologies of translation. The first is what is often called "formal equivalence." As the name implies, the goal is to be, as much as is possible, equal to the original in the very "form" or the precise wording of the text. For each word in the original, the translator aims to use one equivalent word in the new language, and even word order is maintained in as much as grammar and syntax allow. Simplistically speaking, formal equivalence aims for a "word for word" translation.
The second approach is often known as "dynamic equivalence." Rather than putting the primary focus on one-to-one word ratios and matching the precise order of the words, the goal is instead to convey the meaning of the text as fully and completely as possible in the host language. Readings in overly formal translations can be awkward and make little sense in the new language. Such renderings may preserve the words, but they lose the meaning, either in part or in whole. The dynamic philosophy seeks to avert this problem by translating the text into more natural speech to the readers of the second language. Sometimes this means using more than one word to to translate a single word or, conversely, summing up a couple of words with a single term. It can mean being more flexible with word order and syntax. It can also mean rendering a Hebrew or Greek cultural idiom into a more straightforward statement in English (Idioms are especially tricky to translate as they rarely make much sense in other languages). Thus, simplistically speaking, if formal equivalence translation can be summed up as "word-for-word" translation, then dynamic equivalence would be "thought-for-thought" translation.
Now, it is important to note that this is not a strict "either/or" scenario. No translation is 100% formal or 100% dynamic in its approach. Even the most formal translations will find it necessary to render certain words or phrases a bit more dynamically simply because languages differ so greatly in their grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. One must, indeed, sometimes stray from the literal simply to make any sense. Likewise, even the most dynamic translation cannot help but sometimes render in a formal, word-for-word manner. Sometimes that is clearly the best or even the only way to say in English what was written in the Greek or Hebrew text. Still, the question before us is, does our doctrine of inspiration demand that we render the text in as formal a manner as is humanly possible?
The New Testament and Translation
If we truly believe in verbal plenary inspiration, then we must believe that all of Scripture is inspired. So if in Scripture we see translation handled a certain way, we cannot take that to have been the ignorance of the authors or the mere cultural circumstance. The Holy Spirit of God inspired that use of translation. The New Testament is a collection of inspired documents written in ancient Greek. It often quotes from the Old Testament, however, which was written in Hebrew. Thus, the New Testament contains the frequent use of translation, and specifically the translation of inspired words. So, if we are to be biblical in our doctrine of translation, we must take note of how the Scripture themselves deal with translation of the sacred words. Not surprisingly, we do find passages that are rendered quite literally. To take one example:
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel," (Isaiah 7:14, KJV).
"Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us," (Matthew 1:23, KJV).
While "be with child" is somewhat idiomatic rendering for "conceive," and therefore a bit dynamic, overall this was a pretty straightforward, word-for-word rendering of the original Hebrew into Greek. Such examples could be multiplied. There is no doubt that the formal approach was used by the New Testament authors. But was it the only method of translation used? Let's take another example:
"I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes," (Hosea 13:14, KJV).
"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15:55, KJV).
Here, Paul offers a significantly freer rendering of the text. Both passages reflect the meaning that God will redeem and deliver His people from death, but the wording is quite different. One might point out that Paul was citing this passage in the Septuagint, and they would be correct. But that only reminds us that Paul and the other New Testament writers were willing to use the Septuagint and cite it as the Word of God even where it was less than formal in its approach. Indeed, the Spirit inspired them to do so! And again, such examples could be multiplied. If the Scriptures use dynamic translations and treat them as the word of God, then a commitment to the inspiration of all of Scripture would lead us to follow the inspired writers in allowing for this rather than opposing what they blessed and used themselves under the Spirit's inspiration.
(For more detail on this, see our article "How did the New Testament authors approach the use of translations?")
Does Inspiration Forbid Translation?
While the reasoning that argues from verbal inspiration to the strict use of only formal translations seems at first compelling, when we follow its logic to its full conclusion, this reasoning actually turns out to forbid all translation. If the inspiration of the very words of Scripture means the text can only be Scripture when it is expressed in those precise inspired words, that means that it can only be Scripture in the original languages. Even in the most formal translation possible, every single word is only an approximate synonym of the inspired word, it is not the inspired word itself. The English word "word" means roughly the same thing as the Greek word "λόγος," but it is not the word "λόγος." The Greek λόγος carries all kinds of nuanced implications that the English cannot, but even if it didn't, the English would at best be a close synonym. It would not be the same word that the Spirit inspired the Apostles to write. The moment you begin to argue, "well, yes, its not literally the same word, but it means the same thing," you have left the argument for formal equivalence behind and justified conservative, reasonable dynamic translations.
Think I'm just being overly picky here? Consider the following passage:
"Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said, I see a rod of an almond tree. Then said the LORD unto me, Thou hast well seen: for I will hasten my word to perform it," (Jeremiah 1:11-12, KJV).
This is one of the many examples of places where the actual inspired words do something that no translation can do. When we read this in English, no matter how formally, there is absolutely no verbal connection between the almond tree that Jeremiah sees and God's promise to hasten to perform His word. Yet, in the Hebrew, this is a beautiful play on words. Note the words:
שָׁקֵד - Almond tree
שָׁקַד - Hasten
The only slight difference between the two is the vowel point under the middle letter (two dots under "almond tree" and a straight line under "hasten.") But, vowel points are a much later innovation. They didn't exist when Jeremiah was written, so the words for "almond tree" and "hasten" would have been written identically, even though they are not pronounced identically. Thus, the inspiration is present here in the original Hebrew down to the very letter. No translation, however formal, can capture this. In other languages, you have to use different letters and write only roughly equivalent words. English won't let you spell "Almond tree" and "Hasten" the same, no matter how hard you try. But the Spirit inspired them as identically spelled words, and its not a trivial detail. Its the whole point of the vision! So, does this mean that no translation of such passages is possible? Can no translation of Jeremiah truly be the word of God? That is not the conclusion to which the Scriptures themselves would lead us. Muslim's may claim of their Scriptures that the Quran is only the Quran in Arabic, but that has never been the Christian belief about the Bible. The New Testament authors translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek and cited Greek translations, and they called these translated passages the very word of God! Christians down through the centuries have been eager to render the Bible into every language necessary, indeed, into every language possible! Our logic and reasoning must yield to the Scriptures themselves. It may strain our understanding to see how we can embrace both verbal, plenary inspiration and also embrace translations, even dynamic translations, as the word of God, but the Bible affirms both and so must we.