The Language of the Spirit: Interpreting and Translating Charismatic Terms by Robert P. Menzies. CPT Press, October 15, 2010, 136 pages. ISBN-10: 1935931016; ISBN-13: 978-1935931010; paperback. Available from Amazon.
In the six illuminating, and sometimes technical, chapters of The Language of the Spirit, Robert Menzies presents a clear case for the importance of unbiased biblical translations. Drawing on his background as a distinguished New Testament scholar and his years of service in China, Menzies addresses important issues that impact the translation of New Testament terms, particularly those related to the work of the Spirit or other Pentecostal themes.
As a theologian and Christian worker who has taught throughout Asia, including mainland China, I was attracted to this book because of the fascinating way in which the author references his own experiences of the Chinese church and culture while demonstrating the impact of biased or unclear translation on scriptural understanding. In each chapter, Menzies is careful to give parallel examples from common English translations, but he does not hold back from discussions of the specific Chinese characters chosen by the translators and their implications in Chinese culture.
Beginning with the challenge of interpreting certain texts, and in some cases illustrating how outright errors have made their way into the standard Chinese translation of the Bible, the Chinese Union Version, the author demonstrates why the hard work of interpretation must always precede the important work of translation. Above all, the text must be allowed to speak for itself regardless of the presuppositions of those doing the translating.
In his opening chapter, “Prophecy or Preaching?”, the author shares an experience teaching a group of Chinese believers on 1 Corinthians 12–14. In the midst of his listeners’ confusion as Menzies spoke of the nature of prophecy, he discovered that the Chinese Union Version had translated the word for prophecy as preaching—not Spirit-inspired speech, but prophetic preaching. He then presents a history of the Union Version translation and why it is as significant for Chinese Christians as the King James Version was for many English speakers in previous generations.
Produced by a committee of qualified scholars, the New Testament translation took thirty years to complete. What is important for this study is that Menzies demonstrates that in certain key places, the translators violated their own written principles of translation in order to produce a translation more in alignment with their own Reformed presuppositions than the text would allow.1 Just as Calvin considered New Testament prophecy to be preaching, so the translators of the CUV forced this interpretation onto the text rather than following their own translation principles. The result is inconsistency from one passage to another.
In chapter two, “The Divine Spirit or the Human Spirit?” Menzies examines several passages written by Luke, Paul, and John where the term pneῦma has been interpreted as God’s Spirit in some translations and as the human spirit in others. Whereas in the first chapter of his book we see that the CUV translators were guided by their theological bias, in this chapter it is their rationalistic bias that guides their translation decisions according to Menzies. Examples include Acts 18:25, 1 Corinthians 14:2, and John 4:23.
Chapter three, “How Shall We Translate Paraklētos?” rejects both the Union Version translation, which uses Chinese characters that have their roots in the Confucian understanding of a master or teacher as well as those English translations which use a non-specific general term such as comforter or counselor. Instead, Menzies argues persuasively that the Greek paraklētosought to be translated in the legal or forensic sense of an advocate or lawyer.
In chapter four, the author takes on the traditional translation of Luke 17:21, “Is the kingdom of God within you?” and argues from the broad context of Luke’s writings that the kingdom is never presented as an inner or invisible experience, but rather as an outward demonstration “manifest in dramatic acts of healing and deliverance; and it results in a radical reorienting of one’s life that has visible and tangible results” (p. 68). The better translation then, despite the more common “within you,” used by the Chinese Union Version and some editions of the NIV, would be “among you” or “in your midst.”
“Did Jesus Send Seventy or Seventy-Two?” is a question that has been asked perpetually by scholars of the New Testament and is also the title of chapter five. In this chapter, after demonstrating that manuscript evidence is not conclusive on either side, Menzies digs into the potential symbolic nature of the number and arrives at a compelling conclusion. Rejecting the more popular view that the number finds it roots in the list of nations in Genesis 10, he proposes instead that one must read this Lucan account against the backdrop of the reference to seventy elders found in Numbers 11. Moses’ wish that “all the Lord’s people were prophets” thus looks ahead to the Pentecost account of Acts 2 and beyond. Listing numerous advantages to the Numbers 11 view, Menzies concludes that Luke finds continuing fulfillment of Moses’s wish in his accounts of the Spirit’s outpouring in Samaria, Cornelius’s house, and Ephesus.
In his final chapter, “Tongues or Languages,” Menzies builds on a 1994 article by Jenny Everts that appeared in the Journal of Pentecostal Theology.2 The issue focuses on the translation of lalein heterais glōssais in Acts 2:4, 10:46, and 19:6. While most modern English translations consistently translate this phrase “to speak in other tongues,” the New Revised Standard Version and the Chinese Union Version use “other languages” in Acts 2:4 while reverting to “other tongues” in Acts 10:46 and 19:6.
This parallels the inconsistent translation of the Greek word for prophecy discussed in chapter one. In both cases, the lack of consistency confuses, rather than clarifies, the clear meaning of the text. Here, Luke certainly intends for the accounts of Acts 10 and Acts 19 to be read in light of the outpouring of the Spirit first described in Acts 2. Some may argue that there is a difference in that only in Acts 2 do listeners hear and understand the message spoken in their own language. But this misses the point. Luke has intentionally shaped his narrative in order to highlight the linkage between these three texts. The pattern is important to him. Luke desired to make the connection and establish Acts 2 as a model. In all three cases, “speaking in other tongues” refers to Spirit-inspired prophetic speech and serves as a sign that the Pentecostal gift has been received. There is no hermeneutical reason to translate the identical phrase differently. Instead, the lack of consistency obscures Luke’s message.
Menzies concludes this short book with a challenge to recognize the value in comparing translations produced by various cultures. He states, “Our context does impact how we read a particular text” (p. 113). By exposing ourselves to translations produced in societies and cultures distinct from our own, we can discover our own biases and arrive at a better understanding of the Scriptures.
In the context of China’s severe crackdown on religious liberty, particularly since the 2016 National Religious Work Conference, and the 2022 repeat of that conference in which the “Sinicization of religion” was again presented as state policy,3 some may question the importance of a book like Menzies’s The Language of the Spirit. After all, with the full weight of the CCP being brought against biblical Christianity, how important is it to examine the comparatively minor errors addressed in Menzies book? I would suggest that it is even more important. Awareness of bias against the supernatural or against the Lucan emphasis on the empowerment of the Holy Spirit becomes more important as the state pushes back against the gospel. This is clearly seen in the persecutions of the first and second centuries and ought to be embraced again as the church in China faces the greatest persecution since the Cultural Revolution.
- The three men who formed the core of the translation team, guided the project over the years, and significantly shaped the final product were all steeped in the Reformed tradition. These men were C. W. Mateer of the American Presbyterian Mission, Chuancey Goodrich, a Congregational missionary, and F. W. Baller, a Baptist missionary.
- Jenny Everts, “Tongues or Languages? Contextual Consistency in the Translation of Acts 2,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology Vol. 2 Issue 4 (1994): 71-80.
- Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 16-17, available at: Annual Reports | USCIRF.
Mark Barclift is Vice President of the Center for Global Reach, Global University. He frequently ministers in creative-access countries. For theological and training resources in simplified Chinese, the contributor recommends Global Reach, Global University. Free interactive online courses using similar material are available for enrollment from International Bible College.View Full Bio