It is a truth commonly known that people are generally more aware of the weaknesses and dangers attendant to the views of others, less so with respect to the views they themselves hold. This is a point that every self-described Christian conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist would do well to consider. (Of course it is also a point that every self-described Christian liberal or progressive would do well to consider. But my focus here is on self-described conservative, evangelical theology.) I last discussed this issue in “Why conservatism is often riskier than you might think“, and it is now time to take up the discussion again.
Erickson on translators and transformers
Our conversation partner in this exercise will be Millard Erickson in his bestselling textbook of conservative evangelical theology Christian Theology (2nd ed., Baker, 1998). Let’s turn to page 122 where we encounter a section titled “Two Approaches to Contemporizing Theology.” On the following page Erickson describes these two positions — translators and transformers — a classification he draws from William Hordern. Erickson explains:
“The translators are theologians who feel a need for reexpressing the message in a more intelligible form, but intend to retain the content, as one does when translating from one language to another. The transformers, however, as the name would indicate, are prepared to make rather serious changes in the content of the message in order to relate it to the modern world.” (123)
Erickson thus distinguishes translators from transformers in terms of intention and result. Here we’ll focus on the intention distinction.
According to Erickson, translators “intend to retain the content” of “the message” while communicating it in a way accessible to the denizen of our modern world. Although Erickson does not explicitly state that transformers intend to alter the content of the message, this is implied by his description of translators alone as having an intention to retain the content.
It doesn’t take much reflection to realize how tendentious this characterization of the issues is. Over the following pages Erickson discusses what he calls “A clear case of the transformer approach”, namely “Death of God” theology. I agree with Erickson that Death of God theologians transformed Christianity into something altogether different from what it once was. Indeed, the more radical Death of God theologians were merely atheists with a sprinkling of pixie dust.
But that’s not our concern here. Our concern, rather, is with the claim of intention. Did Death of God theologians intend to change the Christian message into something altogether different from what Christians ought to believe? One doesn’t get a sense of that from reading their work. Rather, one gets a sense that they are aiming to be translators. To be sure, they recognize that their articulations of Christianity deviate in significant ways from ways that Christianity has been understood by many Christians in the past. But nonetheless, they’re not trying to transform what they believe the essential true core of Christianity is. Rather, they are attempting to retain that core, refine it, and pass it on to the future. Consider the best-selling book by liberal Anglican bishop John Robinson which anticipated the Death of God theology. It is called Honest to God. Now that’s a telling title, isn’t it? Clearly Robinson’s intentions are to retain the truth of what Christianity is and should be, not to transform it.
Time and again you will see Christians that Erickson would label “transformers” laboring to translate the message of the Gospel to today. The same admirable intention that drove Robinson also drove von Harnack before him. When von Harnack answered the question “What is Christianity?” by speaking of the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the infinite value of the human soul, he believed he was being a very effective translator for our modern age. A century earlier the same intention characterized the work of Schleiermacher in defining Christianity in terms of a feeling of absolute dependence.
The Sober Lesson
So what is the sober lesson of all this? It is, to allude to a tired idiom, a reflection on that which constitutes the pavement to perdition. And if that’s too subtle (and it probably is) then let me be clear: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This is a sober lesson for those liberals out there who had the best of intentions to translate the gospel and yet failed miserably to do so. (Hey I’m lookin’ at you Schleiermacher, von Harnack and Robinson.) But it is also a sober lesson for those conservatives, people like Erickson himself, who think they can dismiss the labors of those they call “transformers” as being motivated by an intention to change the gospel. That’s false and terribly uncharitable.
To make matters worse, those self-described conservatives who buy into this simple picture are liable to be unaware of their own dangers. You see, if the best intentions of a Schleiermacher or a von Harnack or a Robinson can form part of the pavement to hell, what about the best intentions of a Hodge or an Osteen or an Erickson? Can they also make terrible mistakes in seeking to translate the gospel, this despite the best of intentions?
The truth is that every Christian who cares enough about Christianity to put on a theological hat and explain the essence of the faith for the contemporary age is aiming, by definition, to be a translator. Despite that fact we may fail modestly or miserably to achieve that end. But let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that there simply are transformers with bad intentions (the other guys) and translators with pure intentions (ourselves and our buddies).
The dilemma with the self-described translator is captured by the famous quote of Rabbi Judah ben Illai, “If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar, but if he adds to it, he is a blasphemer“. While this statement may be hyperbolic, it does effectively capture the tension with any exercise in translation. And reassurring ourselves of the adequacy of our translations by impuging the motives of others may only serve to blind ourselves to our own weaknesses.