In the 1950s thousands of Christians were outraged by a new translation of the Bible. There were protests and reliable reports of Christians burning Bibles and sending the ashes back to the publisher. The reason for all this anger? A single verse, in fact, a single word in Isaiah.
Time and again, Christians have become deeply divided over a word.
A single word ignites controversy
The Bible at the heart of this uprooar was not some radical reinterpretation; it was the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Why would Christians boycott and even consider burning their RSV Bible?
The answer lies in a single word in Isaiah 7.14.
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
NIV text for comparison:
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
The RSV translates the Hebrew word “almah” as “young woman”. Its a literal rendering referring to a young woman of marriageable age, a “maiden” we might say. The NIV (and the much earlier King James) does an equally good job, using “virgin.”, emphasising the prophetic nature of the verse concerning Jesus.
Today the NIV enjoys widespread popularity, whilst the RSV and the NRSV (1989), are far less popular. Apparently, there is even an Isaiah 7.14 litmus test used by some as “the quickest way of determining if a new translation is trustworthy”.
Why would Christians boycott and even consider burning their RSV Bible?
In fact, “almah” most likely changed in meaning over the centuries as words do, and, to give them their due, both NIV and RSV include footnotes referencing the alternative meanings of “almah”.
Both Bibles serve a purpose. The NIV is a “dynamic equivalent”, striving to uphold traditional understanding. The writers state their intention: “to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts”. The RSV/NRSV, however, prioritises faithfulness to the original texts – and is thus often recommended for theological students. But it seems that “faithfulness to the original text” translates to loss of market share.
A single word brings the church to its knees
In the eleventh century, another word precipitated the great schism in the worldwide church.
Following on from the early believers in Acts, the church was a united and growing institution. It became the official religion of Rome in the 4th century and developed two influential centres — Rome in the West and Constantinople (Istanbul) in the East.
Both cities then develop their own traditions, Rome is Latin, Constantinople is Greek. They have religious and political disagreements, ranging from the authority of the Pope to what kind of bread to use at communion. However, they agree on what they believe as written in the creeds.
But tensions grow until, in 1054, the worldwide church breaks into two: the Western church (Catholic and later Protestant), and the Eastern church (Orthodox). And the straw that eventually broke this camel’s back was one word: “filioque” meaning “and the Son”.
The opening statement of the creed which reads:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father”
Is altered by Rome, despite Constantinople’s objection to editing the creeds, to:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”
And the church breaks into two.
But the two sides are not equal. The Western church has power and wealth, the Eastern church much less so. Historians argue that this imbalance and division opened the way for Islam to spread across the Middle East and North Africa, which were predominately Christian until then. It’s worth observing, for example, that the seven named cities of Revelation today are all Islamic.
A single word may split the church again
It’s easy to look back and wonder why people couldn’t agree to disagree, but are we not the same?
What word do you think could break church unity in this century?
No prizes if you went for “same-sex” or something similar. (Ok that’s two words, but if you look carefully I inserted a hyphen in there!)
This year we’ve seen how fractured the Anglican Church has become over same-sex relationships and marriage. In my denomination, the Baptist Union is currently holding a lengthy consultation on the impacts of removing the strict, traditional definition of marriage from the “code” that ministers sign up to.
I just completed the BU survey asking for our views. The survey is well thought through. I know huge prayer and effort have gone into getting the questions right. But, no matter the outcome, either way there are groups of people threatening to leave.
Of course, same-sex isn’t just about words”, it’s a way of living that some say is contrary to the gospel while others say it is not. But the concerning part is that simply mentioning “same-sex” causes people to arm themselves for battle, and that is about words. I know people have left churches simply because a discussion on same-sex was tabled. The outcome of the discussion is somewhere in the future, but the mere fact that it is on the agenda is bad enough.
Like others, I have a perspective on same-sex relationships. My opinion is very important to me. But I also have another opinion: I might be wrong …. and that’s OK.
The idea that we can be wrong seems alien to many Christians. It’s as though our faith hinges on being right, all the time, on every possible doctrine. If we are somehow wrong on any significant point, the whole house of cards we call “faith”, could come crashing down. I don’t know where this idea comes from.
My opinion is important to me. But I also have another opinion: I might be wrong
In the beginning was the Word
Words matter, doctrines matter, of course they do, but some things matter more.
Interesting that when Jesus, the authentic Word, commanded that we love one another he said that’s how the world will know we are his followers. Not by being doctrinally sound, or getting all our words right, or being able to quote his words (all of which are important), but it’s our ability to stay together, our unity that will give us away as his people.
We confuse “unity” with “agreement”. We think unity means we must concur on everything, but it doesn’t. Christian unity means we subscribe to core, gospel-centric beliefs as written in the creeds (thankfully no longer out for edit!) On every other matter, we must respectfully disagree, continuing to work together in love and fellowship.
(And isn’t it interesting that when the church wrote those creeds they did not include anything on morality or sexuality, even though we know those were issues in the early church? What might that tell us?)
I can’t help but wonder if “same-sex” will be like “filioque” and “almah,” where years later, the church is even more fragmented and none of us will remember why.
Alternatively, could we construct bridges of empathy, maintain unity in disagreement, and be the embodiment of the Word here on earth?
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Note: some of the comments below relate to the fact that this article was written on the 10th anniversary of 7minutes.net.