Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Case of the Disappearing "Testament:" Modern Bible Translations and Covenantal Theology -- Part 1

On Good Friday of this year, we at Intrepid Lutherans published a Good Friday sermon that was originally delivered by an important WELS theologian, Dr. Adolf Hoenecke, entitled, The Legacy of the Dying Redeemer. This sermon focuses on the seven last words of Christ on the cross as the seven provisions of His last will and testament, which are ours as His heirs.

It may have simply passed the reader’s attention, but the fact is Dr. Hoenecke’s sermon could not be preached today. It could not be preached. Why? Because the idea that God’s promise to mankind was given by Christ as a last will and testament – an idea which had been carefully guarded for almost two millenia – has been dropped from use in just the past 100 years. Completely dropped from use.

The complete disappearance of the term ‘testament’ from modern English Bibles... and from modern liturgies
Nearly five-hundred years ago, one of the greatest and most important works the English language, the King James Version of the Bible, conspicuously retained this idea:
    Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:20)

    For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matt. 26:28)

    And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14:23-24)

    After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Cor. 11:25)

    And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. (Heb, 9:15-17)
Even the corollary of a ‘last will and testament’ is supported in this “old version of the Bible” – that such a bequest is left to heirs:
    The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Rom. 8:16-17)

    And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Gal. 3:29-4:7)
Such inheritance – the same inheritance, in fact – was even applied to Old Testament believers:
    By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise... (Heb. 11:7-9)
Such natural corroboration – that to be an 'heir' there must be a 'testator' who has recorded his 'last will and testament' – has disappeared from recent translations, however. Along with the rise of the historical-critical method in the 19th Century came the notion that the Bibles generally received in the various languages, like the King James Version in English and Luther’s Unrevedierte Ausgabe in German, needed significant revision, and that such revision ought to proceed under the peculiar academic judgment of the translator(s) regarding what the underlying text actually was (once the layers of “human error” had been stripped from it) and once that was determined, what the text actually meant to say. Since the “scholars” were not and have not been unanimous, this has resulted in a plethora of “new and improved” translations under the guise of a “better idea” or “deeper insight” into the texts, their meaning, and relevance to contemporary society. At least one thing has been consistent, however: the terms ‘testament’ and ‘testator’ have been virtually eliminated – and in seemingly dishonest ways, in some cases. In the familiar references of Christ’s institution of the “new testament in His blood,” the term ‘testament’ has disappeared and has been rendered as ‘covenant.’1 This may seem to be just an “update” in English usage – even though the term ‘last will and testament’ is still very much in common usage, and is easily distinguished from the term ‘covenant.’ The case of Hebrews 9:15-17, however, very much tells of the convictions of modern translators. The Greek word diatithemai in its noun form means ‘testator’, and in its verb form means ‘to dispose of by will’ or to ‘assign one’s possessions to another’. The meaning here is almost impossible to escape. Nevertheless, in two modern translations we see diametrically opposed interpretations:
    For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. (Heb. 9:16-17, NKJV)

    For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. (Heb. 9:16-17, NASB)
In the case of the NKJV, we see the only appearance of the term “testament” and “testator” in any modern translation that I am aware of (outside of the 1988 edition of God’s Word to the Nations [GWN]), in a way that is perfectly consistent with our common understanding of these terms. Anyone who has sat through the reading of a will understands the terms used in this reference, as they are common in matters of probate – matters which everyone must face. In the case of the NASB (a Baptist translation) however, we are confronted with utter incoherence. Here we have a ‘covenant,’ which is not a ‘testament’ at all. Moreover, in ancient usage, death does not validate a covenant; it terminates it. But look what happened to the term ‘testator:’ it is rendered “the one who made it.” And this is the pattern we see in all other modern translations striving to avoid even the suggestion that Christ, as divine 'Testator' of the 'New Testament in His Blood,' issued a ‘last will and testament’ at all:
    For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (Heb. 9:16-17, ESV)

    In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (Heb. 9:16-17, NIV 1984)
Oddly, in these newer translations, this is the only reference where a ‘will’ is suggested – a term which does not recall the consistently and long-used ecclesiastical term ‘testament’ – and the context does not drive the reader to conclude that Christ is a ‘testator’ who has made of His life's work a bequest to be received by His ‘heirs’ through faith. The choice of words in these modern translations makes clear that there is an apparent struggle to avoid what the Church has understood for almost two millenia – while they are technically valid, they are not entirely honest, being deliberately emptied of significant meaning.

And this is unfortunate, because these translations all still retain the notion of heir-ship, that we inherit something. It is unfortunate because when one who thus thinks he is an ‘heir,’ goes looking for the terms of his ‘inheritance’ in the ‘last will and testament’ of Christ, he will not find it – for in modern translations we have no idea who the ‘testator’ is (since He is not directly named), nor do we know when and where He gave His “last will and testament!” There is some mild suggestion that a ‘will’ exists, but what are the terms of this will? Modern translations simply do not say.

Some modern liturgies have gone the same way. The liturgies of former generations retain wording in the terms accepted and used by the Church for millenia. For example, in the “old” The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) we hear the words of institution as:
    Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks, brake it and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” After the same manner also He took the cup when He had supped, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink ye all of it; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
Likewise, in newer hymnals, in which a desire to “retain the pattern of sound words” accepted and profitably used by the Church for two millenia is evident, we read:
    In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (Lutheran Service Book, 2006)

    In the same way also He took the cup after supper, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 1996)
On the other hand, in cases where divergence from past usage seems to be prominent – perhaps dictated by a perceived requirement to quote verbatim from “officially adopted” translations of the Bible – we hear something quite different:
    Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hynmal, 1993)

(NOTE: Part 2 is scheduled to appear tomorrow [Wednesday], and the final installment, Part 3, will be published Thursday)

Mr. Douglas Lindee

  1. Compare Luke 22:20; Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:25:


Joe Krohn said...

As we approach our observance of the Reformation, this is an important discussion. I would offer that all these translations are spear headed by those who come from a decision theology camp so naturally, the word 'covenant' would be used...as in two sided. Testament is one one sided. God promised what He would do and He did it...and gives us the faith to believe it for our salvation. Our Bible class has been studying Genesis and recently chapter 15. The KJV uses covenant, but it is a testament when the Lord passes between the halved offering that Abraham prepared. Abraham was completely passive...

Mr. Douglas Lindee said...

Thank you Joe -- and yes, you are correct. In fact, tomorrow's post will include a significant discussion on the testamental nature of the Abrahamic Covenant and the OT promises of a "New Covenant" (which in fact describe a testament). Such 'covenants' are distinguished in Scripture from the Mosaic Covenant which was a classic two sided arrangement ('if you do this, I will do that'). In Part 3 will appear some of the theological ramifications of language that is exclusively 'covenant oriented,' including its support for Covenantal Theology, which is rampant in greater Evangelicalism. Luther's principle in translating the original words will be offered in Part 3, as well, and hopefully inspire a return to a more balanced translation and use of the terms testament/covenant.

Stay Tuned!


I'm glad to see you publicizing this matter, Mr Lindee. I have argued for 'testament', as opposed to 'covenant', in the liturgy of our church for some time.

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