Wednesday, April 22, 2015
John Owen: "for all translation is, of necessity, interpretation"
Have you ever met some more-pious-than-thou brother who claims he gets all of his theology directly from the Bible itself and never from the interpretations of men? This type of person will sometimes make the claim, for example, of being neither an Arminian nor a Calvinist but simply a Biblicist. Perhaps these are of the same sort about whom Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:12, those who claimed to follow neither Paul nor Cephas nor Apollos but only Christ. Such a person is often little aware of the fact that he is shaped more by modern American individualism and religious privatism than primitive Christian piety. In his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001), Keith Mathison calls this approach “solo scriptura” rather than the Reformation concept of “sola scriptura.” This type of person is also prone to decry academic learning in favor of his experience (as if the two have to be mutually exclusive). Thus, he criticizes those who commit time and effort to study, whether learning Biblical languages or reading the great past and present interpreters of the Christian tradition, as being filled with “head knowledge” rather than “heart knowledge” (something he naturally assumes that he has in spades).
In John Owen’s Adversus Fanaticos (translated by Stephen P. Westcott as “A Defense of Sacred Scripture Against Modern Fanaticism” in Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ [Soli Deo Gloria, 1994]: pp. 769-854) he offers a masterful critique of the Quakers, the charismatics of his day, who apparently held to a similar supposedly “interpretation-free” fantasy. At one point Owen points out the self-contradiction inherent in those who claim not to be dependent on the interpretations of men but who cannot read the Bible in the original languages and so must be dependent on the interpretations offered in translations:
On one hand they desire to be self-consistent (which thing they seem to greatly desire) and so reject all interpretation, yet, on the other, they can hardly claim to utilize the words of Scripture alone for, after all, they only have that in translation (being as they are for the most part unlearned and having no language but our vernacular). To reject all interpretation would thus be to deprive themselves of the Scriptures entirely, for all translation is, of necessity, interpretation. Yet to reject our English version on those grounds would be an unheard of example of folly and wickedness (p. 806).