By Wissam Nasrallah
This blog is overly ambitious. I seek, in a very short space, to tackle two major topics that each deserve several pages to unpack. The first one revolves around textual criticism and the Bustani-Van Dyck Arabic translation of the Bible, while the second is an invitation to continue the conversation around the doctrine of inerrancy.
Since it was first published more than 150 years ago in 1865, the Bustani-Van Dyck Arabic Bible has been the most popular, authoritative, and enduring Bible in the Arabic language.
The respect and awe it inspires amongst Arab Christians is similar to the heyday of the King James Bible in the English-speaking world.
I am grateful for how the millions of distributed copies have been used by the Holy Spirit to build the body of Christ, proclaim the Gospel, and feed the minds and souls of Arab believers and seekers.
Beyond the beauty of the language, the Bustani-Van Dyck is characterized by its literal style of translation that seeks to be the most faithful to the original manuscripts. However, behind every translation lies the text of Scripture in the original languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
At the time the Bustani-Van Dyck was being translated, the Textus Receptus or the Received Text assembled by Erasmus in 1516 and based on manuscripts from the 12th century was the standard text used for translations of the New Testament including the King James Bible.
This was the case up until 1881, after which the Critical Text was adopted by most Bible Societies in the West. The Critical Text draws on older manuscripts mainly from the 4th century and is based on the belief that manuscripts are more reliable when they are earlier in date and thus likely to be nearer to the original. Textual criticism therefore seeks to study the different ancient manuscripts, to discover and correct errors that have crept into the text through transmission and try to determine the exact words as the author originally wrote them.
Yet, to this day, the Bustani-Van Dyck translation remains unchanged. It is interesting to note, however, that Eli Smith, who started the translation project before Cornelius Van Dyck took over, started with an eclectic approach by using manuscripts other than the Textus Receptus.
It is this crucial topic of faithfulness to the most original texts that the January 22 conference organized by Dar Manhal al Hayat (DMAH) sought to address based on the scholarship and lifetime work of the late Rev. Dr. Ghassan Khalaf in his posthumously published book, The Gospel between Byzantium and Alexandria.
I consider this conference to be a milestone for our small evangelical community in Lebanon. Indeed, talking about the translation, and in some cases mistranslations, of the Bustani-Van Dyck Bible has long been a taboo.
Indeed, the evangelical community I am familiar with, except for a few pioneers like Ghassan Khalaf, has shied away from engaging critically with the Bustani-Van Dyck translation, as if any expressed doubt over its renderings of Hebrew or Greek would unleash a domino effect that would open the floodgates of skepticism and subjectivism.
I, like most Lebanese evangelicals, firmly believe the Bible to be the inspired, truthful, trustworthy, infallible, and authoritative Word of God that constitutes the ultimate standard in all matters of life, salvation, faith and morality and is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
However, in our quest to uphold and defend the faith and sound doctrine from the assaults of liberal theology, moral relativism, and criticism from other religions and to reassure ourselves against doubt, we have been mindful to present ourselves and others with a Bible without “problems”, challenges, or mystery. This has led to solving issues by ironing them out prematurely and sometimes by locking ourselves inside an evangelical bubble that aims to shelter us from a suspicious and hostile outside world. The safe stance was to stick to what we knew and were familiar with.
With this in mind, the issue of inerrancy, which is the doctrine that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching”, was brought up several times at the DMAH conference on January 22 since, for many, textual criticism constituted a direct threat to the safe space we had created and for which a certain understanding of inerrancy was the foundation. The reasoning was if one can doubt the integrity or reliability of certain words or verses, wouldn’t this constitute a license to doubt everything else? In other terms, is the Word of God really without error or fault?
As Ghassan Khalaf showed in his book, neither variants between ancient manuscripts of the New Testament nor the translation challenges change any foundational biblical truth, doctrine, or Christian practice. This reality should comfort us in the reliability of Scripture and encourage us to welcome the work of textual scholars as they seek to bring us closer to what the biblical writers wrote.
However, as the conversation stirred a lot of heated emotions and reactions from both sides, it showed that more conversation is needed around the doctrine of Scripture, with passion and conviction but also with spiritual humility and graceful engagement away from theological tribalism, oversimplification, and caricature.
Initially, I thought this topic was more sensitive in the Arab world, given the influence of Islam where our Muslim neighbors consider the Quran to be ‘Munzal’, meaning it came down from God. However, the debate over the inerrancy of the Bible has also been a defining issue in Western, and more specifically American, evangelicalism in the past 100 years. This is true to the point where a person’s stance on inerrancy seems to define whether they are “doctrinally kosher” or not.
This is why it seems to the non-expert and non-theologian that I am, that any discussion about inerrancy will end up being a conversation about hermeneutics. Indeed, inerrancy does not reveal to us what the Bible is truly affirming but that whatever the Bible is affirming is true and without error.
Thus, for any meaningful conversation to take place, two issues should be discussed, amongst others: (1) in our effort to understand and submit to the teaching of a biblical text: how do we not disregard or arbitrarily relativize what we find in the text, while taking into consideration the specific literary genre, the original audience’s understanding of history and the way the physical world works? and (2) how do we classify our interpretive disagreements without transforming the quest for textual authority into a quest to interpretative authority ?
On the first issue, J. I. Packer cautions against the “psychological trap” which supposes “that the confession of inerrancy involves a commitment to treat all narrative and predictive passages in scriptures as if they were written according to the conventions that would apply to ordinary English prose used today for these purposes, rather than the conventions of their own age and literary genre” (Packer, 2008). He uses Genesis 1 as an example where it might be read as if “it were answering the same questions as today’s scientific textbooks aim to answer”.
On the second issue, while a robust doctrine of scripture is essential, some seem to be using inerrancy to claim the “inerrancy of their interpretation of Scripture,” to quote theologian Michael Bird. Indeed, to state that there is one possible orthodox interpretation of certain passages (e.g. creation account or Revelation) without which the edifice of the Christian faith would fall apart, amounts to having a reductionist view of Scripture. To quote Al Mohler, when we address the issue of differing interpretations, we need to do proper theological triage: “the misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.” First-level issues that cannot be denied would include but not be limited to justification by faith in Christ alone, the full deity and humanity of Jesus, the Trinity and the authority of Scripture.
In conclusion, as Elie Haddad wrote in a recent blog post, we need to “exhibit charity to one another, that we never cease respecting and listening to one another” and relearn the art of conversing and respectfully disagreeing with one another on issues of interpretation even when we have firm convictions.
In the meantime, Rev. Dr. Ghassan Khalaf’s enduring legacy through his last book will hopefully pave the way to a wider conversation about the history of the Bible, hermeneutics, and the need to have a “Revised Bustani-Van Dyck Arabic Bible” in the hands of faithful Arab believers as they seek, through the study of His word, to know more intimately the incarnate Word.
Wissam is Chief Operations Officer at LSESD. His desire is to see God’s people walk in a manner worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-10).