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The Role of Bible Translations

© P. Gerard Damsteegt

Adventists Affirm, Fall 1992


The early Adventists solved their perplexity over the interpretation of the prophecies through the help of Bible translations that gave a literal reading of the Greek New Testament text. So today Seventh-day Adventists can still find the best support for their understanding of the sanctuary from translations that stay as close as possible to the original text. Such translations follow the principle of "complete equivalence," which attempts to preserve all the information of the original text.

A growing number of modern translations, called "dynamic translations," do not follow this principle. Rather, they paraphrase the text when the translators want to make its meaning relevant for today's readers. Using the principle of "dynamic equivalence" they render the phrase "then the sanctuary shall be cleansed" (Dan 8:14) with such expressions as "then the sanctuary will be reconsecrated" (NIV) or "then the Temple will be restored" (TEV). These are obvious attempts to translate the text in the light of the rededication and restoration of the Jerusalem temple by the Jews after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes.

During the controversy among Seventh-day Adventists in 1979-1980 over the issue of the sanctuary, the opposition to the view of Christ's two phase ministry in heaven frequently appealed to the New International Version, a new dynamic translation that was touted as the most accurate product of Biblical scholarship. In its rendering of the Book of Hebrews, this translation portrayed the total scope of Christ's heavenly ministry in the framework of the Day of Atonement. Consequently, the translators did not leave readers in any doubt that after His ascension Christ entered the most holy place and began His Day of Atonement ministry. Notice these examples: our hope "enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain;" "the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing;" and Christ "entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood" (Heb 6:19; 9:8, 12 NIV).

When this translation came out it was heavily advertised in the church's ministerial monthly. Recently it was voted to use this version for "the memory verses for the cradle roll, kindergarten and Primary Sabbath school divisions" (Adventist Review, Dec. 12, 1991).

We find no unworthy intent here. Certainly there is much good in this translation; we can commend its clarity, readability, and in many instances, its accuracy. But have its advocates tried to use it to share the Adventist understanding of the sanctuary doctrine with others? Those who are on the cutting edge of evangelism know that this translation directly contradicts the New Testament foundations of the sanctuary doctrine.

Shall we promote a translation that undermines the Biblical foundations of the sanctuary doctrine? In times of no controversy over this doctrine, there is little reason for concern. But when the sanctuary again comes under close scrutiny from both within and without the church, believers will experience a rude awakening when they discover that their favorite and trusted translation does not support their church's view of the sanctuary. A disrupting and traumatic crisis of confidence may follow, which could seriously affect their relationship with the church.

Seventh-day Adventists who desire a modern translation would do well to make their primary Bible a version that follows the Biblical text as closely as possible, such as the New American Standard Bible or the New King James Version. Such versions will be most effective in sharing the present truth. This does not mean one should avoid dynamic translations; they are helpful for textual comparisons and finding relevant expressions. But students of the Bible must realize that the best and most accurate insights are obtained by using translations which preserve all the information of the Biblical text, leaving the interpretation to the reader.

The experience of the early Adventists clearly demonstrates the wisdom of staying as close as possible to a literal reading of the text. As long as Seventh-day Adventists follow this practice, there is no danger for the effective transmission of the present truth contained in God's last message of mercy that was discovered by the early believers. This proclamation calls attention to their new insight that the world is living in the time of the finishing of "the mystery of God" and Christ has embarked on His closing intercessory work for the salvation of humanity in the sanctuary just prior to His return. In this work He graciously offers His righteousness as a final gesture of mercy to all who are willing to accept it.