Should We Abandon Our Bibles?

This is something I wrote back in 2002 on the ESV translation that we currently use at CCB.

Should we abansone our Bibles? Nothing like a provocative opening to grab the attention! Let me put it this way, ‘should we abandon our dog eared and ageing New International Versions (NIV) and replace them with a shiny new English Standard Version (ESV)?’

Christian publishers like the Good Book Company want us to do so. Familiar voices from Australia tell us that it’s likely to become the Bible of choice amongst evangelical congregations in the English speaking world. Our own Christ Church Balham (CCB), Fairfield Community Church and Cornerstone have already abandoned the NIV and embraced the ESV and St Helen’s Bishopsgate followed our strong lead! Were they prudently sensible or recklessly impetuous? After all, the NIV is the biggest selling modern translation of the Bible. There are about 150 million copies in print. It makes up about 30% of all Bible sales.

Should the ESV be the Bible most evangelicals read? I want to suggest that all the congregations should make the change. But to substantiate that claim we need to think about what sort of translation we should be using.

What sort of translation?

We’re about to throw ourselves into the deep waters of translation theory and if we’re to emerge alive we’ll need to keep it simple. The debate about the merits of any Bible translation depends upon our commitment to functional equivalence (FE) or dynamic equivalence (DE). Readers who are keen to chase this further should visit the Matthias Media website and follow the ESV links.

Dynamic Equivalence

The NIV is a DE translation that aims to convey the equivalent sense of a phrase rather than the equivalent words. The underlying translation philosophy prioritises the reader rather than the text. It attempts to reshape the ancient text to make it accessible to the modern world. The emphasis is on pursuing readability for the modern reader. Therefore the goal is seems to be to make the translation as simple as possible. There is no question that the NIV is simpler to read but that is not as good a thing as it first appears. This commitment to simplicity results in the following four frustrating features:

1. The NIV employs shorter punchy sentences that make the language lively and engaging. But doing this eliminates those helpful connective words that demonstrate the logic of the author’s argument.

2. The NIV irons out any ambiguities of meaning in the original text and presents one of the options to the reader. But this approach takes the responsibility of interpretation into the hands of the translator and not the reader. True, all translations involve interpretation but the NIV is at the ‘taking liberties’ end of the spectrum.

3. The NIV translates the same original word with different words to produce more stylish flowing English. But this means that the reader is unable to put together a picture of what the author means when he uses this same word.

4. The NIV removes concrete biblical metaphors with more abstract concepts that are supposed to be more straightforward. But the original images are not hard to understand and the effect is to flatten and lose the power of the word’s imagery.

Functional Equivalence

The ESV is a FE translation that aims at ‘word for word’ correspondence. The underlying translation philosophy prioritises the text rather than the reader. Therefore the aim of the translator is give the reader as much access to the ancient text as the reader’s linguistic skills will allow. It is unrealistic to expect most readers to learn the original languages and so the aim is to replicate the ancient text in terms of content and also form. It does this by preserving as many of the features of the ancient text as possible. Nevertheless it would be misleading to suggest that the ESV translation is free from any interpretative translation decisions. All translation involves a degree of interpretation since a complete word for word correspondence would be virtually unreadable.

For example consider a literal translation of Galatians 5:16, ‘but I say in Spirit you walk and the desire of the flesh by no means you will complete’. It’s transparent but inaccessible! The ESV renders this ‘but I say walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the NIV goes for ‘so I say live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of your sinful nature’. The ESV is preferable since it preserves the vivid ‘walking’ metaphor and Paul’s frequent word ‘flesh’.

ESV Imperfections

However, the ESV is not perfect. No translation is. There are two problems that will need revision. The commitment to FE is not carried out consistently and fails to meet it’s own translation aims. Nevertheless, what we get with the ESV is a translation that is at least at the same level of formal equivalence as the NIV but in most cases it is several steps closer to the original. The ESV has not lived up to its promise in the area of clarity of expression and the quality of English usage. At CCB we have had occasion to reach for the dictionary when words like, ‘sojourn’, ‘portent’, ‘confute’ and ‘adjure’ came up. It is supposed to be pitched at Year 8 but there must be some very clever 12 year olds in America! And this is its most frustrating feature. At times the English is almost inaccessible. We need a revision and someone without a degree needs to check it out!

Conclusion

Should we abandon the NIV? In time, perhaps. Should we abandon the Bible? Never. So let’s keep our perspective on this. In the Christian press there has been some theological mud slinging. Pejorative words like ‘transparent’ suggest that the NIV is ‘obscure’, it’s not. Words like ‘dynamic’ suggest that the ESV is ‘static’, it’s not. We’re talking about two good translations. And so to decide to go on reading the NIV is not like saying you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God. Surely we’d rather people read any translation than no Bible at all. But if you had to choose I’d recommend the ESV. It may feel for a while like owning an Apple Mac. It’s a superior product, loved by its users, revered by those in the know but owned by hardly anyone! And that may be a sufficient reason to stick with the NIV.

Further resources on this issue can be found here

  • Driscoll, ‘Why Mars Hill Uses the ESV’
  • Payne, ‘How close are we to the Bible?’
  • Payne, ‘The Briefing and the ESV: A response to Don Carson and Allan Chapple’,
  • Piper, ‘Good English with Minimal Interpretation: Why Bethlehem uses the ESV’
  • ESV Resource Page at Matthias Media
  • For information from the publishers on the ESV go here

10 thoughts on “Should We Abandon Our Bibles?

  1. Anna Moyle May 28, 2009 / 3:38 pm

    My rule of thumb is to try as much as possible to have several translations of the Bible at your fingertips so you’re not stuck with just one. However, I disagree that the NIV makes the author’s logic harder to follow by eliminating “helpful connective words.” Sometimes those connective words found in the ESV are not helpful at all – they often convolute the meaning of the text, especially when reading Paul. I think that the shorter sentences is actually a major plus of DE translation (although if I was a true postmodern I would call it “interpreting” not “translating” :)). Overall I still prefer the NIV for readability although I realise it’s not perfect, and nothing is the same as going back to the original language. But when you reach for the dictionary, I usually reach for the NIV!

    • theurbanpastor May 28, 2009 / 3:51 pm

      Thanks Anna
      I agree that the ESV connectives don’t always help but in the Epistles they’re so useful for following the writer’s argument. I remember working on Romans 8 and benefitting immenesely from the ESV connectives.But I also remember being distracted and then infuriated by them in Mark 1!
      All translation is interpretation, isn’t it? It just comes down to how much you think the ‘translators’ should be doing. You don’t need to be postmodern to believe that, do you?
      If they ever did an ESV quality Study Bible in the NIV I’d be completely stumped!
      perks

  2. Anna Moyle May 28, 2009 / 4:13 pm

    No, you don’t have to be a postmodern to believe that all translation is interpretation. I just think the word “interpretation” is a major part of the lexicon of the postmodern age and much more acceptable to people now than the word translation. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

  3. Lauri May 28, 2009 / 4:56 pm

    In my mind to PoMo ears (not necessarily my ears) the word ‘translation’ might sound like it is possible to convey the full meaning of something. So if you translate correctly ALL will be translated. (Which the PoMo would reject as impossible outside a given culture, or even between two readers, dep. on the degree of PoMo-osity.)

    The use of the word ‘interpretation’ on the other hand makes clear that it is the only thing one can do because one brings oneself to the act that is happening (reading the text or rendering the text readable from one language to another), inevitably influencing the meaning of the text. I think a bit of this happens in translation, the key is what do we mean by ALL meaning.

    Hence ‘lost in translation’ implies that because of the incongruity between author, culture and reader the intended or original meaning has been reduced or changed and an interpretation is needed for the authenticity of the text to be properly understood.

    I wonder what lost in interpretation would look like? And what parts of the interpretation we would be happy with and which we are not happy with at CCB.

    Perks, could you give us examples of how the NIV drives us to a different doctrinal understanding (or emphasis) than the ESV say in the trinity, salvation, christology, ecclesiology or another big doctrinal area? Are heresies involved?

    I know there is more controversy about the TNIV. What do you think of that translation?

    And then there is style:

    cited from your post: “Galatians 5:16, ‘but I say in Spirit you walk and the desire of the flesh by no means you will complete’.”

    Sounds to me like Yoda from Star Wars. A voice which is always fun to imitate.

    • theurbanpastor May 28, 2009 / 5:23 pm

      The ESV/NIV debate doesn’t veer into the realms of heresy! Though it’s a much hotter issue in the States than it is in the UK. We’re talking about two really good translations/interpretations of the Bible.
      Off the top of my head I can’t think of any major doctrinal differences between the NIV and the ESV. The debate with the TNIV has to do with gender-neutral language. I’ll see whether I can dig out some comment on that. Mark Strauss comments on the ESV here . And Bill Mounce responds hereand the pdf in full is here. I may get round to reading it at some stage soon. Looks thorough, readable and irenic, which is nice! Wayne Grudem, a staunch and enthusiastic supporter of the ESV. comments on the TNIV here. Follow the related articles for more on teh subject.
      You do realise that the Galatians 5:16 translation you quote is the literal tanslation not the ESV, don’t you?! I know at times it’s clunky, but I’ve never known it to be that bad!

      • Lauri May 29, 2009 / 12:16 pm

        Hehe, Nono I knew that the Galations text is a direct translation… Yoda was Greek! Who knew…

        I don’t really have a strong opinion on the ESV v NIV only to say that I read the NIV (because I was given that version and have a version that does not have columns but reads more like a book. I like some of the ESVs design though… But then don’t judge it by the cover right?

        I actually find that there are times when the ESV really helps me understand a bit more than the NIV, but that might just be because it allows me to understand more than one possible meaning in a text, something which I really appreciate and which helps me concentrate when I am reading a passage I think I already understand, or in which the language has become so related to a song or a clichéd saying/prayer. It is in those times that a different version helps to re -orientate my mind to the verse within the context of the passage, hopefully breaking down the abused meaning of the verse and making it new and full of meaning again.

        Thanks for the links.

        Colin! Hehe Umberto Eco has a humorous comment:

        “…Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world… the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. …Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist.”

        And he goes on. Read that here: http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_mac_vs_pc.html

  4. Colin Hall May 29, 2009 / 10:40 am

    I wouldn’t compare it to a Mac though, more a Linux machine, it’s gone back to the raw code. NLT is the Mac of Bibles, much simpler to use.

  5. brianfulthorp June 1, 2009 / 11:28 pm

    of course we should never abandon the Bible.

    I would think perhaps the translation you decide to go with is highly personal – some like the more literal approach and others like the more dynamic approach – I say pick one you like and go with it.

    looks like you have a good blog.

    -Brian

  6. Kenneth England September 4, 2009 / 4:26 pm

    My self I use the Revised Standard as it matches almost any translation give or take but suitable for me. I also use a MPG version called the WEB or World English Bible. It is more like the older version. and taken from the American Standard as the copright has expired.

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