Approaches to Modernizing Christian Classics

When updating and modernizing Christian classics, there are several different approaches. Should you only update spelling and punctuation? Should you rearrange sentences, update the wording, or abridge the text?

Over the past year, I’ve been working on a series of updates to older Christian books. I love learning from older Saints, seeing both how much we have in common in our faith as well as being challenged by ideas and emphases that are not as common in the church today. When I consider whether to modernize an older Christian book, I first look at the availability of other updated editions on Amazon. I’ve noticed there are several approaches, which I’d like to compare to three major Bible translations. 

1: The NASB approach

The NASB Bible translation attempts to provide (as much as possible) a word-for-word literal translation of the original texts. For an example, here is Romans 12:1 in the NASB:


“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship”

Romans 12:1 (NASB)

Similarly, one way to modernize older books is to attempt to keep the text as close to the original as possible. This maintains things such as vocabulary, phrasing, and sentence structure. Some updates of Christian classics take this approach and only update punctuation, spelling, and errors (such as incorrect scripture references). They might also make small changes like replacing “thou” with “you” or “hast” with “has”.

The benefit of this approach is that the editors make no interpretations of the original author’s intent. This type of update might be best for academic study or for people who enjoy understanding older authors in their own words. The downside is that the text is still difficult to read.

2. The NIV approach

Another approach to modernizing/translating is to focus on making the sentences flow while retaining the original meaning. The NIV Bible translation is a good example of this. Compare Romans 12:1 in the NIV translation:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship

Romans 12:1 (NIV)

In some minor ways, the verse has been interpreted by the translators and then written to help the reader understand. For example, the NIV translates “brothers and sisters” rather than “brethren”. Would anyone say that Paul only wanted men to follow these verses? Probably not. So to help the reader not stumble, they added “and sisters”. Then in the final part of the verse, the NIV states “this is your true and proper worship.” This is much clearer than the NASB’s “which is your spiritual service of worship,” but the the NIV has interpreted that phrase to reword it more clearly.

This is an approach for updating Christian classics. Take each sentence and, where necessary, reword or rephrase to bring out the original meaning more clearly. This has the advantage of being very readable while sticking closely to the original text. The trade-off is that you depend on the interpretive decisions of the translator/editor, and they might occasionally get it wrong.

3: The Message approach

The final approach I’ll cover is most similar to The Message (MSG) Bible translation, which is essentially a paraphrase of the Bible. This approach modernizes not only the sentences but also adds modern expressions and examples not found in the original text. Compare Romans 12:1 in the MSG:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.

Romans 12:1 (MSG)

This type of paraphrase is the easiest to read and most “modern”. The trade-off is that it is the furthest removed from the original words and phrasings.

Christian classics that are updated in this way are sometimes abridged to help tighten any repetitive sections of the original book.

It is important to note that while many people hold strong opinions about how to translate God’s Word, older Christian authors do not hold the same infallible and inerrant status. So for books outside the canon of Scripture, there is no right or wrong way to choose an updated edition other than personal preference.

My approach

With Christian Classics for the Modern Reader, I use a slightly modified NIV approach. Here are some specific goals:

  1. Communicate every sentence. My goal is to make every sentence from the original text easy to read and understand. I don’t want to remove any part of what the original author expressed, so that when you finish reading the modernization, you have read the original work.
  2. Interpret accurately. At times I do have to decide what the author is saying in a particular sentence in order to rephrase it. So, like the NIV, some interpretation is involved. But my hope is that it is true to the original meaning of the text.
  3. Address the reader. My updated editions try to speak to the reader more directly. 17th century writers often wrote in generalities, referring to “men”, “a man”, “a Christian”, etc. I try to change these to address the reader in terms of “you” and “we” depending on the context. I believe this rarely changes the meaning and helps the reader to connect more with the exhortations and encouragements.
  4. Add headers and formatting. Many older books have complex outlining systems that follow the author’s exposition. These are really hard to follow at times. To assist the reader, I give the Chapters titles (rather than just roman numerals) and add descriptive headers to topic transitions. Then I save the numbering to the lists under the headers. At times I introduce those list items with a few words and bold them to make the argument even easier to follow. It’s like having an outline embedded in the text.
  5. Provide full verse quotations in footnotes. Classic Christian authors heavily quoted and referenced scripture. I want to provide the verses in the footnotes to aid with meditation and study.

The following shows a side-by-side example of an update to Thomas Boston’s book, The Crook in the Lot. In the original work, there were no clear chapter breaks, so I added chapters for major shifts in the text. The text stays close to the original, but hopefully the changes are helpful to reading and following Boston’s arguments.

Side-by-side comparison between the original text and the modern English update.

Ultimately, my goal is to help you to read and learn from the wisdom of past Saints. I thank God if he chooses to bless you through these books. He has blessed me in the process of updating them!

2 thoughts on “Approaches to Modernizing Christian Classics

Add yours

  1. As a Chinese and a lover of Puritan works, your updates are really great blessings to over. Like a fountain in a dark period of my life. I pray that God will use your work mightily to bless more our family members.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! Your encouragement means a lot to me. Praising God that He has used these books to bless you. These have been a blessing to me as I work on them as well, and I am currently working on another book.

      Like

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