It should come as no surprise to anyone that Protestants place a high value on Scripture. Examples of this attitude abound: the popular Awana program gives an award to second graders who have memorized 150 Bible verses. “Bible quizzing” effectively makes high schoolers memorize whole epistles. Teachers and parents teach children their Savior’s voice by drill: God’s words are imprinted in the hearts of the young with the hope that they will follow the Lord’s precepts until their death. This trust in Scripture’s transformative power is a definitive mark of the culture found in many Protestant congregations.
The imagery of reveling in the Word of God, tasting it, and even consuming it in a physical, almost sacramental way is so commonplace in Protestant circles that it is unremarkable. The old Anglican service calls the congregation to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Scripture. One of my college friends would post as her AIM away message every Sunday morning “feeding on the Word”—we knew what she meant. And, even if the consumption of Scripture is no substitute for the consumption of the Eucharist, it certainly increases grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. The high esteem Protestants hold for Scripture is probably their greatest charism. But to revel in the word, the average Christian needs a good translation.
This is not to suggest that Protestants have united behind a single translation—in my college Bible study the girls used the KJV, RSV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, and even the NIV (which was not so highly regarded as the other five). Although we recognized that these versions had different strengths and weaknesses, they shared a common cause: My friends recognized the literary quality and attention to detail found in the first five translations. While differences were discussed, we realized that no translation could be perfect, and thus allowed a spectrum of possibilities. That spectrum, however, had limits.
Truly, then, to a Protestant who has been raised to love and treasure the language of the word, the New American Bible or “NAB” used in most Catholic parishes is a scandal. To the Christian who knows little of sacraments and much of Scripture, a good translation provides their clearest window into the divine mystery. Yet the NAB’s terrible translations are in particular relief when Protestant strangers are most likely to be visiting. On Christmas we are forced to hear “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace”—in place of a verse which every English-speaking Christian knows because we’ve heard Handel. What editor thought it would be good to render those beautiful words in that way? One does not have to make an idol of Scripture to regard an unreadable translation as dishonorable.
Most Protestants are ill-equipped to judge the historical claims of the Catholic hierarchy, the metaphysics of the Eucharist, or the validity of sacraments. But they know that the Word is sacred, and that anyone who treats the Bible with disrespect is not to be trusted. The NAB’s jarring phrasing alienates. It discredits any claim the Catholic bishops would make to have authority: Their recommendation of an inadequate text proves them to be untrustworthy in the only area the Protestant is qualified to judge. And in an area to which we are particularly sensitive.
The continued use of the NAB indicates to Protestants that the bishops are not being faithful stewards of the things of God. Its revision or replacement is thus important for gaining Protestant trust. And one must ask, especially when vastly superior options (ESV, RSV, NASB, etc.) exist—why revise something so notably deficient? The required doctrinal revisions of any of the above texts could not be more difficult (and more expensive) than the required overhaul of the NAB’s language. Scripture is and will be useful for “training in righteousness,” and even in a debased form the word of the Lord will not return to Him void, but the NAB seems to make every attempt to diminish that power.
Many Protestants believe, rightly or wrongly, that Catholics do not respect Scripture—they don’t want to revel in the God’s Word and get to know Him intimately through this great gift. The NAB is a confirmation to Protestants that they are right—Catholics, or at least the Catholic bishops, really don’t care. If they did, how could these leaders deny their people the liturgical use of a good translation?
A good, vernacular Bible translation will not break down all ecumenical barriers that divide Christians. But it will break down a large cultural one and it will show that the Catholics are serious about their ecumenical posture. Whether or not scriptural translation is a high priority for theologians when they discuss reconciliation, it remains one of the strongest points of alienation for the most sincere Protestants—the very people who try hardest to give their lives over to God are the ones most repelled by the language of the NAB. The NAB is not just a problem for Catholics. If the Catholics are serious about wanting Protestants to “Come Home” they need to give them a translation they can respect.
Eleanor Everett Pettus is a Ph.D. student in the history department at the University of Notre Dame.
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