Politicizing Scripture

Should Christians welcome a ‘conservative Bible translation’?


Image Wikipedia Portion of the Codex Sinaiticus, containing Esther 2:3-8
A portion of the Codex Sinaiticus, containing Esther 2:3–8.

Criticizing Bible translations which can be deemed ‘liberal’ either in their translation philosophy (such as The Message) or in their politics (such as The Green Bible) might lead to the question, “What about a conservative translation?” Can Christians agree that a conservative translation is a good thing?

It depends on what one means by conservative. A translation that is conservative in its principles of translation seeks to retain (‘conserve’) the meaning by adhering to the ideas and, when possible, the actual words of the original while at the same time seeking to produce a high-quality literary product in the receptor language (the language into which Scripture is translated). Such translations are based on the best available manuscript evidence at the time, and are apolitical, insofar as a good translation seeks to bring out the meaning of the text, not to promote the agenda of any contemporary political party. This is the sort of Bible every Christian should want to read, because it seeks to bring out God’s word as clearly as possible without favoritism to a particular contemporary philosophy.

The conservative educator Andy Schlafly, however, is heading up a project for a very different ‘conservative’ translation of the Bible. On the Conservative Bible Project page he identifies the guidelines behind the conservative Bible translation.

Guidelines for “Conservative Bible”

“Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias.” While it is laudable that they seek to eliminate bias from their translation, CMI has pointed out before that no scientist is without bias, and this goes for Bible translators as well. There are times when the text is ambiguous, or there are multiple levels of meaning in the Greek word which cannot all be brought out in an analogous English word. In such cases, the bias of the translator comes through as he tries his best to bring out what he thinks the biblical author is trying to communicate. A politically conservative bias, I would propose, is no better than a politically liberal one; both will inevitably do violence to the meaning of the original text.

“Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, ‘gender inclusive’ language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity.” As I pointed out in a previous article, The gender neutral Bible, such gender-neutral translations can distort the meaning of Scripture. However, in some cases, the generic masculine can be legitimately translated in a gender-neutral way to clarify what the text actually means. This should be done carefully however (see What’s in a pronoun? The divine gender controversy). As the original Greek of the NT does not have any gender-neutral language referring to people, however, the Conservative Bible’s aim to also eliminate gender-neutral language from its translation is not inherently perverse.

“Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level.” One thing a translator has to continually consider when translating Scripture is the demographics of his intended audience. A Bible translation mainly intended for scholars could use a wider range of vocabulary and more complicated grammatical constructions, but would be largely inaccessible to the average layperson. It is revealing that even the NIV is too hard for many English-speaking people to read: the average American reads at the 8th grade level. While the solution to this problem may be education rather than further “dumbing down” of Scripture, one must be careful not to produce an elitist text that only a few are actually able to understand.

“Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word ‘comrade’ three times as often as ‘volunteer’; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as ‘word’, ‘peace’, and ‘miracle.’” This is the first instance where the Conservative Bible project runs seriously foul of good translation procedure. Infusing Scripture with “conservative” terms (it is hard to see how “volunteer” is either conservative or liberal) will ultimately change the tone of Scripture. Also, it is hard to see how either of the three words they propose to update have changed in meaning so much that they must be updated. One passage where they propose to update “Word” is when it is used to describe Jesus in John 1, substituting “Word” for “Truth”. This is unacceptable meddling with the Greek text; ‘word’ remains the best translation of the Greek word ‘logos’. This is very important Christologically, since John was identifying Jesus of Nazareth with the Jewish Memra (word) of God, which was in some way sent from God but was also divine (see Christmas and Genesis). So to translate it as ‘truth’ changes the meaning of the text.

“Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as ‘gamble’ rather than ‘cast lots’; using modern political terms, such as ‘register’ rather than ‘enroll’ for the census.” The problem here is that “cast lots” does not refer to gambling as we would see it today (with the possible exception of the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ clothes). Rather, in the Old Testament, and when the apostles engaged in it in Acts to determine who should be Judas’ replacement, it was a way of discerning God’s will. The main danger in using modern political terms is that of anachronism; it would seem too obvious for explanation that the Roman Empire is unlike the United States’ republic in almost every way conceivable.

“Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.” No disagreement here—because this one seeks to follow Scripture (see also our articles on eternal conscious punishment).

“Express Free Market Parables: explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.” It is hard to know which parables they mean. Modern western capitalism as such did not exist in the Roman empire, so reading it into the parables is anachronistic. Let the passages speak for themselves.

“Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story.” The adulteress story is almost certainly not original and thus should not be included, at least in John (it may have originally been part of Luke). But one wonders what makes it a “liberal” insertion—is it the fact that Jesus is compassionate? It is almost certain, however, that this is a true account of an act of Jesus which was inserted fairly early on. One wonders, with their admirable goal of including only the original text in their translation, why they included the long ending of Mark, which is not original.

“Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels.” One wonders what “open-mindedness” they are talking about. The disciples in the Gospels are repeatedly shown to be dunderheads with almost no good qualities whatsoever, shining examples that God definitely doesn’t choose His servants for their brains. A translation that seeks to portray the disciples in the Gospels positively goes against the testimony of Scripture about them.

“Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word ‘Lord’ rather than ‘Jehovah" or ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Lord God.’” This guideline shows the arbitrary, to the point of ridiculousness, use of the word ‘liberal’—anything Schlafly disagrees with is liberal, it seems. The consistent use of the word Lord would do violence to the original text, which uses many names for God, including compound names like YHWH-Elohim (usually translated as “the LORD God”). There is good reason for the choice of names, which had deep significance in biblical cultures (see What’s in a name?). Good translations consistently translate each name in a way that the reader can tell which is used in the original text. So this translation principle of Schlafly’s is perhaps the worst yet.

Other weaknesses of the Conservative Translation

The Conservative Bible is being translated on Conservapedia, a Wikipedia-like online encyclopedia which can be edited by anyone. There is apparently no one on the team proficient in Greek and Hebrew, which should be a basic prerequisite for seeking to change the prevailing terms in the translations. In fact, there is a decidedly anti-scholar bias, which I find to be quite uncalled for, as now there are many evangelicals involved in Bible translation who fall along all points of the political spectrum in terms of the way they vote (if they vote at all). Evangelical Bible scholars who have the requisite knowledge to participate in legitimate Bible translation, such Dr Dan Wallace, unanimously criticize the Conservative Bible’s translation principals (see Wallace’s critique)

The Conservative Bible is also based on the King James Version of the Bible; their use of such an old translation, almost by definition filled with archaic terms, is ironic, given their commitment to modern political language. One problem arises because in the 400 years since the creation of the King James Version, we have discovered many manuscripts which are earlier and more accurate witnesses to the original text of the New Testament, though the differences are not so great that they make the King James a bad translation. Rather, it is simply not the most up-to-date textually, and as the Conservative Bible Translation seeks to be a new translation for the 21st century political conservative, one would suppose that they might as well start from scratch rather than use a 400-year-old translation, and use the best textual evidence available today. An accurate translation of the Bible based on the KJV which seeks to be faithful to the best manuscript evidence would have to include thousands of changes, almost creating an entirely new translation. Unfortunately, the Conservative Bible Project also lacks anyone proficient in textual criticism (and for such an undertaking a whole team of them would be needed).

Do conservatives need their own translation of the Bible? Should they want one?

The most troubling aspect of this translation, and the reason all Christians should oppose it, no matter the way they vote, is that this translation makes politics the deciding factor in Bible translation; deeming something “liberal” is sufficient grounds for exclusion. But the Bible should shape the Christian’s politics, not the other way around. The Bible, if read correctly with openness to the Spirit’s conviction, should challenge anyone, regardless of his political leanings. Forcing the Bible to conform to a certain political agenda, no matter if one happens to agree with that agenda,1 is a perversion of the Word of God and should therefore be opposed by Christians as much as ‘politically correct’ Bibles.

As C.S. Lewis has reminded us, there is always a problem with “Christianity and … ”, whether “Christianity and socialism”, “Christianity and nationalism”, “Christianity and a certain view of science”, etc. and the same must apply to “Christianity and modern conservative politics”. As he says, “Christians lose their effectiveness when they substitute for the faith itself some fashion with a Christian coloring.”2

Examples of poor translations by Conservative Bible3

Matthew 1:19 Joseph was a righteous man and thus felt he should divorce her, but he did not want to humiliate her, so he wished for the divorce to be private.

Greek: Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθηλάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.

‘Literal translation’4 : But Joseph her husband, as he was righteous and did not want to humiliate her, intended to divorce her quietly.

Error in CB translation: “thus felt he should divorce her” is nowhere in the text. Also, in the Greek, his righteousness was the reason for his not wanting to humiliate her, but in the CB translation it’s the reason for his wanting a divorce.

John 1:1 In the beginning was Truth, and the Truth was with God, and the Truth was God.

Greek: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

‘Literal translation’: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Error in CB translation: there is no context in which “Truth” is an acceptable translation of logos.

John 1:14 And the spirit was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as the only child of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Greek: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσενἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρηςχάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας.

‘Literal translation’: And the Word became flesh and dwelt with us, and we beheld his glory, like the glory of the unique [one] from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Error in CB translation: The CB translation could lead one to think it was the Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, who became flesh, which is absolute error. This is unnecessary, and it is not even consistent with their previous erroneous translation of logos. Also, monogenēs here likely means “unique” or “one and only”. Biblically, Christians are called ‘sons of the Father’ as well, so it is appropriate, and in line with the Greek, to emphasize Jesus’ uniqueness, not his “only child” status.

Published: 24 December 2009


  1. Although CMI has an apolitical stance, we are not opposed to criticizing people on either side of the political spectrum when we believe they are in error. For example, Legalized Cloning in Australia: What are the issues? commended and criticized politicians on both sides; CMI has pointed out the Darwinian foundations for both Communism and the ruthless robber barons (at least ones who allied with the government to suppress competition), and I have criticized US President Barack Obama for his pro-abortion and pro-infanticide stance and for promoting embryonic stem cell research while hindering the productive field of adult stem cell research. Return to text.
  2. Screwtape Letters, page 25. Return to text.
  3. Conservative Bible verses cited reflect the translation at the time of publication, and due to the fluid nature of the translation, may or may not reflect the current Conservative Bible translation. Return to text.
  4. ‘Literal translation’ here means as close to word-for-word as will result in an intelligible translation, for the purposes of showing what the Greek actually says. Return to text.