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Archive for November, 2005

The Difference between Obsolete and Archaic Language

In our last post, we talked about using the ESV in liturgical settings. We briefly mentioned one thread that deserves fuller treatment: what’s the difference between “obsolete” language and “archaic” language in Bible translations?

We turn, as we did last time, to a document produced by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. We’re not necessarily endorsing their view completely, but they provide a well-thought-through place to start.

They write in Language Guidelines and Principles of Translation (pdf):

Certain terms may not be part of everyday discourse, but they have an important function in the thought and the life of the church. “Justification,” “Seraphim,” and “Incarnation” have little currency outside of the Christian faith, but this is by no means a reason to revise them out of a contemporary hymnal.

Linguists recognize the category of technical language and language that belongs to a particular subgroup. Every field, every profession, every culture, and every subculture has a language that is its own. In fact, it is language that constitutes and makes possible the work and the identity of each group. The church is no exception.

Linguists also recognize the category of “ritual language.” Words that are seen to be performative in themselves, or language used in rituals, tend to preserve archaisms and to employ grammatical constructions of their own. Whether in a secular court room (“Hear ye, hear ye”) or in a marriage service (“With this ring, I thee wed”) or in Sunday worship (“The Lord be with you”), the grammar consists of unusual imperatives and subjunctives that are found nowhere else. (See the specialized senses of “thou” and “vocatives” described above.)

Such language, though it would sound strange in another context, is, in fact, seldom misunderstood. But when it is, the language of the church simply must be taught. Becoming part of a community (whether it is the legal profession, a clique of teenagers, or a new culture) means learning its language. Initiating members into the language of the church is a major part of catechesis and the teaching ministry of the church.

In another document (Comparative Study of Bible Translations, pdf) they provide a more specific distinction between “obsolete” and “archaic” language:

Theological writings and liturgies of the church contain many archaic terms, e.g., the remission of sins, confession and absolution, Introit, Gradual, the Propers, the Offertory, the Benediction. Those words have specific and known meanings that have remained the same for hundreds of years, but they would not be used outside the context of worship.

Archaic language helps to convey the ancient and rich theology of the Christian faith, and it may be well-loved by many in the church, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Church members know what that language means and cherish it….

In contrast to archaic language, which may benefit the church, obsolete language is old language that is no longer understood by most people. Sometimes a word drops out of usage. For example, many people would have to consult a dictionary to define “firmament” in the KJV of Gen. 1:7.

Sometimes a form of a word becomes obsolete, even if other forms of the word remain archaic and understood. For example, “begotten” in the Nicene Creed is archaic, while “bare” in the KJV of Gen. 4:1–2 is obsolete: Eve “bare” (bore, gave birth to) Cain and Abel.

Sometimes the predominant meaning of a word changes so that the continued use of obsolete language may even convey the wrong idea. For example, in the KJV of Phil. 4:6 Paul counsels, “Be careful for nothing,” and in the KJV of Lk. 10:41 Jesus says, “Martha, thou art careful.” That language is obsolete because in modern English “careful” no longer can mean “full of care, worried.”

Modern Bible translators face a dilemma when translating passages that rely on words that have fallen out of common usage (words like propitiation, and even grace, which has a slightly different meaning in church contexts than elsewhere). Should they use the same words that English Bibles have used for centuries, or should they replace them with words that are immediately understandable (“perspicuous”) to readers without access to a church to help them understand the words?

The ESV consistently prefers the traditional English words as the best way to translate the original Greek and Hebrew. We’ve mentioned before that the ESV Preface notes that the ESV “retains theological terminology… because of their central importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times.”

Such words, while “archaic” in the sense used above—we prefer the term “traditional”—are far from obsolete. Modern churches use them often, and churchgoers use such words to mold their thinking.

Note: we re-paragraphed some of the quotes to make them more readable online.

Update: fixed typo.

November 14, 2005 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Bible News,ESV,News | Author: Crossway Staff @ 10:15 am | (2) Comments »

What Makes a Good Liturgical Translation?

Rich considers the qualities of a liturgical translation in a recent post on his blog. We’ll summarize his post first and then respond.

He says that many modern Protestant churches have not retained

the liturgical form of worship for the past 1,500 years…. The historic liturgical form included spoken/sung responses (Kyrie, Alleluia, Gloria Patri, Te Deum, Nunc Dimittis, Agnus Dei, etc.).

Thus, part of the liturgical use of a translation relates to how the translation expresses and relates to these traditional musical/lyrical/rhythmic elements.

He talks about how “the Church (not referring to a denomination) has traditionally been the retainer of the text, translator of the text, and especially the user of the text.” He argues that academic and publishing concerns that have recently created new translations may not have the sensitivity to its use in liturgical settings.

A liturgical text must also, in his opinion:

have the oral/rhythmic quality that can only be heard and not just read on the page.

I suspect part of the problem with English word choices relates to whether a translation should use Latin-based words (“expiation”) or highly specific “church-language” words: righteousness, justification, grace, reconciliation, etc. Since I use the text within the context of the faith community, I believe that it is important to grow the believer into the knowledge of the faith.

This is the point at which liturgy, translation, and catechesis come together. They become both faith expressions and teachers of the faith. Thus, an 80-year-old great-grandmother and an 8-year-old great-granddaughter can recite texts based on a common liturgical heritage (I have examples of the Lord’s Prayer), where small accommodations for language changes still allow the rhythm of singing/chanting/reading the same text.

He concludes:

I have read several books about how various translations were made, including the decision-making agenda on wording and the translating process. Not once have I read anything that relates to liturgical worship.

My little plea is that translation committees make a concerted effort to examine the translation in light of and for liturgical use.

Our Response

Stephen Smith, the SBS webmaster, responds:

I attend a liturgical church, so I can sympathize with the desire for a Bible that works well in liturgical settings.

The ESV translators specifically intended the ESV for use in public worship, liturgical and non-liturgical alike.

Several translators attend liturgical churches—J.I. Packer, the ESV’s general editor, is Anglican. I attended a translation committee meeting once and observed committee members pause and read aloud proposed translations. They made sure that the wording had clarity and dignity, that it would sound good to anyone from a child to someone whose liturgical ear has over many years attuned itself to certain phrases and rhythms.

But that doesn’t address the larger question of what makes a good liturgical translation.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, a liturgical denomination, has adopted the ESV as the primary translation for its new hymnal and service book. They researched various translations and, as Rich mentions above, have a sensitivity to what works well in liturgy. Even if you don’t agree with all their conclusions, they’ve given the matter a lot of thought.

One document they produced, Language Guidelines and Principles of Translation (pdf), discusses how to choose and update hymns in a hymnal. Many of the principles they identify apply equally well to choosing a Bible for liturgical use. (We should note that they produced this document in 1999, before Crossway published the ESV.)

They consider three key areas in determining liturgical appropriateness:

Doctrinal Precision

They write:

Integral to doctrinal precision, however, is also linguistic accuracy. When the words we use to proclaim the Gospel in our worship become unclear or ambiguous, doctrinal clarity and confession immediately suffer. Words—the very specific words delivered to us in Word and Sacrament—are the way our Lord has chosen to work in our lives. Indeed, our God is a God of words, who was even incarnate as the true and living Word, to dwell among us, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14). In the service of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of His Gospel, particular care toward precision in language and expression will be crucial to the work of the LHP [Lutheran Hymnal Project].

A translation should be able to express the church’s teaching on a particular topic. In a Good Friday homily, for example, a preacher may want to talk about the idea of Christ’s sacrifice from a theological perspective. The Bible used in the liturgy should support such an approach.

Catholic Vocabulary

“Catholic” here has its traditional meaning of “the Church as a whole.” They write:

The language we use in Lutheran worship is catholic in time—that is, it consists primarily of the churchly vocabulary, syntax, and expression received from those who have gone before us.

And yet, the language of our worship is also catholic in space—that is, it reflects not just the language that Lutherans sing and know from ages past, but also a language of worship which is common to the church throughout the world today.

As such, a Bible used in liturgy reflects a tension between the contemporary and the traditional—in much the same way that a Christian life balances the unchanging Word of God revealed in the Bible while applying that Word in a particular time and place.

Monday’s blog post will talk about why the ESV retains theological wording that newcomers to the faith may not find immediately accessible.

Literary Integrity

Ths Psalms play particular importance in liturgies. Another document (pdf) published by the LCMS talks about how to identify the appropriateness of a translation of the Psalms for use in liturgical worship:

Legitimate concerns about the English rendition of the Psalter for use in the liturgy would include readability, suitability for public and corporate reading, ease of memorization, and conciseness (as opposed to verbosity, which is easy to lapse into when trying to “unpack” terse Hebrew poetry). An ideal translation of the psalms should also be suitable for chanting.

Most of the factors they identify as important for the Psalms also apply to the rest of the Bible. Much of the ESV’s “literary excellence” (as the marketing materials say) derives from the translators’ desire for a translation designed in part for public reading.


Obviously, I think the ESV serves liturgies well. It meets the above criteria of translating accurately, with an eye on both classic and present word use, and with beauty.

Additionally, I would argue that translating with a goal of liturgical use also makes the translation better for non-liturgical settings. The above criteria at least partly define excellence in any translation endeavor. Creating an accurate translation to read aloud, that retains connections with the past, and that possesses beauty produces a superior translation, regardless of the setting—whether in liturgical worship or for private devotions.

Note: we re-paragraphed some of the quotes to make them more readable.

November 11, 2005 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Bible News,ESV,News | Author: Crossway Staff @ 11:37 am | (3) Comments »