The Unbreakability of Scripture

Andrew Wilson raised the issue of the “inerrancy” of Scripture recently, and questioned whether the term itself was a helpful one. Some people complained in the comments that it wasn’t even a term that the Bible uses of itself. It left me wondering if there was a better word we could use and John 10:35 came to mind, where Jesus says that the “Scriptures cannot be broken”. That would certainly be a cool name for a doctrine: “the unbreakability of Scripture”, but what did Jesus mean by it?

If you had asked me to speculate what Jesus meant by “Scripture cannot be broken”, my initial guess would be that Jesus is using the language of promises: Scripture can be thought of as a promise from God that cannot be broken. But that just goes to show how a translation of the Bible can cause you to read meanings into the text that are not present in the original language, since none of the commentators I consulted consider this a viable option (although apparently Jungkuntz argued that it meant the passage from Psalms that Jesus had just quoted must be fulfilled).

It seems this is a tricky phrase to translate, as the majority of versions simply leave it as “Scripture cannot be broken” without giving us any clues as to exactly what that means. However, there are some versions who attempt to interpret this tricky phrase for us. Here’s a summary of various interpretations:

NIV84, ESV, KJV, NASB, HCSB, JBP, NET: “Scripture cannot be broken”
NLT: “the Scriptures cannot be altered”
ISV: “Scripture cannot be disregarded”
GNT: “what the scripture says is true forever”
AMP:  “the Scripture cannot be set aside or cancelled or broken or annulled”
CEV: “You can’t argue with the Scriptures”
MSG: “Scripture doesn’t lie”
NIV2011: “Scripture cannot be set aside”
Tom Wright: “you can’t set the Bible aside”
Don Carson: “Scripture cannot be annulled or set aside or proved false”

The Greek word for “broken” is λυθῆναι, which actually crops up in several places in John’s writing, and is typically translated “break” or “destroy”. For example breaking the Sabbath (Jn 5:18), destroying the temple (Jn 2:19), breaking the law (Jn 7:23), destroying the devil’s work (1 Jn 3:8).

So Scripture is unbreakable, or “indestructible” even. Not in a physical sense – plenty of Bibles have been successfully destroyed by fire. But in the sense that Jesus uses in Matt 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” The doctrine of the unbreakability of Scripture means that God’s words never lose their truth, relevance or power. We never move beyond Scripture, and we never argue with Scripture. Or as J C Ryle explains it:

“Wherever the Scripture speaks plainly on any subject, there can be no more question about it. The case is settled and decided. Every jot and tittle of Scripture is true, and must be received as conclusive.”

Tomorrow’s NIV – Thoughts on the New NIV

The announcement that we will be getting an updated NIV has caused a bit of a stir. The TNIV, which was the last update to the NIV has not really taken off. Partly this was due to clumsy marketing, with it being presented as an alternative to the old NIV, rather than a replacement. It probably also suffered from coming out around the same time as the hugely popular ESV translation. But most of all, it found itself in limbo due to the decision to use gender-neutral language wherever possible. I think this is a shame, because the TNIV offered many improvements other than just the gender-neutral language. So this is a bold decision by the translators, but one that makes sense if the NIV is to remain in widespread use.

Here’s a few of my thoughts on the matter:

1. On the whole, I am supportive of the change to gender neutral language where possible. For example, in the NIV, Matt 5:16 reads “let your light shine before men”, while the TNIV changes this to “shine before others”, which is the same choice the translators of the ESV have made. This type of change should not be considered controversial, and has no need to be reversed.

2. My main criticism of the TNIV, from what I have read of it so far, is that repeatedly using the phrase “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” quickly becomes cumbersome. It is unfortunate that there is no viable single-word generic alternative in English. When this phrase is repeatedly used (e.g. James 5:7-12) it becomes jarring, particularly when read aloud. Also, as the translators have pointed out, this kind of politically correct speak is waning in popularity. We have moved on. Hopefully the new NIV will revert to “brothers” and put “brothers and sisters” as an alternative reading in the footnotes, allowing those reading it in public to choose whether to put it in or not as they go.

3. Ultimately, no translation can avoid the problem that there is a huge historical and cultural distance between us and the first readers of the Bible. More than that, the NIV is read by a wide variety of people who will detect different shades of meaning in the same English phrase. With any translation, the need for careful and prayerful study remains if we are to fully grasp the meaning of the text. If you look at who is on the CBT, you will see a collection of first-class Biblical scholars from both complementarian and egalitarian perspectives, and I have confidence that we can expect sensible decisions from them.

4. I sincerely hope that the new NIV finds widespread acceptance amongst both the reformed crowd who have preferred the ESV in recent years, and amongst those from a egalitarian perspective. It does not seem appropriate that we use Bible translations as a badge to indicate which theological ‘team’ we support. I will continue to make extensive use of the ESV for my personal Bible study, but I still feel that “dynamic equivalence” is the most appropriate translation technique when it comes to readability and comprehension.