John Gill on the Relationship of Bible Inspiration to Bible Translations
Prepared By Doug Kutilek
For more than 25 years I have been reading and studying about the inspiration, canonization, copying and translating of the Scriptures. In all that study, the single best statement by far that I have discovered about the relationship of Bible translations to the original text is that written more than 200 years ago by John Gill (1697-1771), Baptist pastor in London and predecessor of Charles Spurgeon. In his Body of Divinity [the full title is: A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity: Or, a System of Evangelical Truths], (London: Mathews & Leigh, 1839; Sovereign Grace reprint,1971; The Baptist Standard Bearer reprint, 1984 ), pp. 13-14, published only a year or two before his death, Gill addresses the subject as follows:
"Fourthly, This [i.e. inspiration] is to be understood of the Scriptures, as in the original languages in which they were written, and not of translations; unless it could be thought, that the translators of the Bible into the several languages of the nations into which it has been translated, were under divine inspiration also in translating, and were directed of God in the use of words they have rendered the original by; but this is not reasonable to suppose. The books of the Old Testament were written chiefly in the Hebrew language, unless some few passages in Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, and Esther in the Chaldee language [note: Esther is in fact entirely in Hebrew]; and the New Testament in Greek: in which languages they can only be reckoned canonical and authentic; for this is like the charters and diplomas of princes; the wills or testaments of men; or any deeds made by them; only the exemplar is authentic; and not translations, and transcriptions, and copies of them, though ever so perfect: and to the Bible, in its original languages, is every translation to be brought, and judged, and to be corrected and amended; and if this was not the case, we should have no certain and infallible rule to go by; for it must be either all the translations together, or some one of them; not all of them, because they agree not in all things: not one; for then the contest would be between one nation and another which it should be, whether English, Dutch, French, &c. and could one be agreed upon, it could not be read and understood by all: so the papists, they plead for their vulgate Latin version; which has been decreed authentic by the council of Trent; though it abounds with innumerable errors and mistakes; nay, so far do they carry this affair, that they even assert that the Scriptures, in their originals, ought to submit to, and be corrected by their version; which is absurd and ridiculous. Let not now any be uneasy in their minds about translations on this account, because they are not upon an equality with the original text, and especially about our own; for as it has been the will of God, and appears absolutely necessary that so it should be, that the Bible should be translated into different languages, that all may read it, and some particularly may receive benefit of it; he has taken care, in his providence, to raise up men capable of such a performance, in various nations, and particularly in ours; for whenever a set of men have been engaged in this work, as were in our nation, men well skilled in the languages, and partakers of the grace of God; of sound principles, and of integrity and faithfulness, having the fear of God before their eyes; they have never failed of producing a translation worthy of acceptance; and in which, though they have mistook some words and phrases, and erred in some lesser and lighter matters; yet not so as to affect any momentous article of faith or practice; and therefore such translations as ours may be regarded as the rule of faith. And if any scruple should remain on the minds of any on this account, it will be sufficient to remove it, when it observed, that the Scriptures, in our English translation, have been blessed of God, either by reading them in it, or by explaining them according to it, for the conversion, comfort, and edification of thousands and thousands. And the same may be said of all others, so far as they agree with the original, that they are the rule of faith and practice, and alike useful.
Here I cannot but observe the amazing ignorance and stupidity of some persons, who take it into their heads to decry learning and learned men; for what would they have done for a Bible, had it not been for them as instruments? and if they had it, so as to have been capable of reading it, God must have wrought a miracle for them; and continued that miracle in every nation, in every age, and to every individual; I mean the gift of tongues, in a supernatural way, as he bestowed upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost; which there is no reason in the world ever to have expected. Bless God, therefore, and be thankful that God has, in his providence, raised up such men to translate the Bible into the mother-tongue of every nation, and particularly ours; and that he still continues to raise up such who are able to defend the translations made, against erroneous persons, and enemies of the truth; and to correct and amend it in lesser matters, in which it may have failed, and clear and illustrate it by their learned notes upon it."
Gill's statement is entirely in harmony with the uniform views of prominent Baptists in the centuries before and after him, including Henry Jessey, Benjamin Keach, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Broadus, J. P. Boyce, Basil Manley, J. R. Graves, Thomas Armitage, Alvah Hovey, B. H. Carroll, Charles Spurgeon, and A. T. Robertson, to name only some whose writings I have mined for information on this subject. I have found no exceptions among prominent Baptists. Gill, then, in effect summarizes not only his own view but that of Baptists historically.
That Gill's words speak so directly to the current English Bible translation controversy seems little less than astonishing, indeed almost prophetic, anticipating and refuting error centuries in advance as they do. In reality, Gill's words, originally written to refute a Roman Catholic error of claiming infallibility for a translation apply so well to the English Bible controversy because those who advocate an error-less, infallible English translation have fallen into what is essentially a Roman Catholic error, merely substituting one translation, an English one, for another. As Gill refuted the error of the papists, so his words are a rebuke to his modern-day Baptist brethren who have, with good intentions, stumbled into essentially the same error.