Burning Scripture with Passion: A Review of The Psalms (The Passion Translation)

Posted by on Apr 23, 2022 in mobile site | Comments Off on Burning Scripture with Passion: A Review of The Psalms (The Passion Translation)

Burning Scripture with Passion: A Review of The Psalms (The Passion Translation)


Brian Simmons has made a new translation of the Psalms (and now the whole New Testament) which aims to ‘re-introduce the passion and fire of the Bible to the English reader.’ He achieves this by abandoning all interest in textual accuracy, playing fast and loose with the original languages, and inserting so much new material into the text that it is at least 50% longer than the original. The result is a strongly sectarian translation that no longer counts as Scripture; by masquerading as a Bible it threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god .

1. Some Reflections on the Task of Bible Translation

Brian Simmons’s translation of the Psalms1 is one volume of a projected new Bible, of which the New Testament and a few other Old Testament books are also finished. Two things immediately mark it out as different from other English versions. First, it is a solo effort. And secondly, its approach to translation removes the final text much farther from the original words than any other English version.

In principle there is nothing wrong with this. Solo versions – think The Message, or the J. B. Philips translation – let the unique personality of their creator shine through in refreshing ways. And while they can be idiosyncratic and flawed, such as Mitchell Dahood’s Psalms, or J. B. Phillips for that matter, they can also be faithful, as William Tyndale’s was. And even the most formal of versions, such as the KJV or the ESV, embrace meaning-based translation. The word of God is conveyed not by the words in and of themselves, but by the meaning those words generate when combined into clauses, sentences and paragraphs. And this means that all translation involves interpretation.

So how can a translation avoid the dangers of subjectivism, of reading meanings into the text that were not there to start with? There are three main ways, all closely related to one another. (1) Through prayerful reliance on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit points us to Christ as the goal and meaning of all Scripture, and this understanding of the whole helps us better to appreciate and respect the original meaning of the parts. (2) Through Christian fellowship. Translators since Martin Luther have worked together in groups, not only to pool their expertise, but to restrain the idiosyncrasies, impulsive decisions and lack of wisdom from which the best of us suffer. (3) Through the canonical rule of the original words. When a Hebrew sentence has been translated into an English sentence of equivalent meaning, the original words are of course lost. But they can never be left behind: each element of meaning in the English has to justify its existence by reference to the words of the original, and each element of the original ought to be represented in some way in translation. This is because Holy Scripture is inspired at the level of its words.

Let me tease out this last point a bit more. The word of God takes many forms, but not all of them are Scripture. Any message which truly and faithfully presents Christ, such as a sermon or even a song, is a proclamation of the word of God. But for the word of God to count as Scripture, that is, the Bible, it must be a faithful equivalent of the specific words used by the inspired authors. The translation must not add to or subtract from the original words, or change their meaning. Not that there is anything wrong with adding, subtracting or changing words (so long as the message is not distorted), but the result will be an adaptation or commentary, which by nature lacks the authority and normative status of Scripture.