Good English With Minimal Translation: Why Bethlehem Uses the ESV

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Why I would like to see the English Standard Version become the most common Bible of the English-speaking church, for preaching, teaching, memorizing, and study.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight, O LORD,
my rock and my redeemer.

--Psalm 19:7-14

I love the Bible the way I love my eyes—not because my eyes are lovely, but because without them I can't see what's lovely. Without the Bible I could not see "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:4). Without the Bible I could not know "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8). Without the Bible I would not know that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior. I love the Bible because it gives the wisdom that leads to salvation, and shows me that this salvation is nothing less than seeing and savoring the glory of Christ forever. And then provides for me inexhaustible ways of seeing and knowing and enjoying Christ.

I praise God that we have the Bible in English. What a gift! What a treasure! We cannot begin to estimate what this is worth to Christians and churches, and even to the unbelievers and the cultures of the English-speaking world. Ten thousand benefits flow from the influence of this book that we are not even aware of. And the preaching of this Word in tens of thousands of pulpits across America is more important than every media outlet in the nation.

I would rather have people read any translation of the Bible—no matter how weak—than to read no translation of the Bible. If there could be only one translation in English, I would rather it be my least favorite than that there be none. God uses every version to bless people and save people.

But the issue before the church in the English-speaking world today is not "no translation vs. a weak translation." It is between many precious English Bibles. A Bible does not cease to be precious and powerful because its translators overuse paraphrase and put way too much of their own interpretation into the Bible. That's the way God's Word is! It breaks free from poor translations and poor preaching—for which I am very thankful. But even though the weakest translation is precious, and is used by God to save and strengthen sinful people, better translations would be a great blessing to the church and an honor to Christ.

The King James Version

When I turned 15—on January 11, 1961—my parents gave me a beautiful, leather-bound King James Bible. I loved it. I loved the smell of it and the feel of it, and the dedication inside ("This book will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from this book," Mother and Daddy), and most of all the message of it for my embattled teenage years. God met me in this book day after day when I was a teenager.

The Revised Standard Version

Three and a half years later as a freshman at Wheaton I remember the very place in the bookstore where I picked up the first Bible I ever bought for myself, a Revised Standard Version. It was close enough to the King James so that I felt at home, but its English was not Elizabethan; it was my English. So I was doubly at home. This became my reading, meditating, memorizing Bible for the next 37 years.

The New American Standard Bible

But I hit a problem in 1980. I became the preaching pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church. What version to use? The RSV was out of print—they weren't making pew Bibles any more. I needed a literal version with all the words and phrases as close to the original as possible. I could not preach from another kind of Bible, because I made my points from the very wording of the Bible, and when the wording vanished into paraphrase I could not make my points with clarity and authority. The most literal modern translation was the NASB, and that is what I chose. So I have preached from the NASB for over 20 years. But I groaned that it was never going to be the common reading, memorizing Bible of the people. It is too awkward and unnatural in the way it flows.

The New International Version

Key question: the NIV appeared in 1978. I read it. Why didn't I use it? The reason I didn't use it is the reason I am here tonight. The NIV is the best-selling modern translation of the Bible. There are about 150 million copies in print. The NIV makes up about 30% of all Bible sales. Among evangelicals the percentage would be far above 30% and is probably the Bible most evangelicals read most often. And the one most pastors use in preaching. Why am I not on board?

Not only am I not on board. I would be happy to see the NIV sail into the sunset if it could be replaced by the ESV as the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the English-speaking church. I feel so strongly about this that I volunteered to do this tonight before I was asked. There is no coercion here. I feel what I am about to say with a passion built up over 25 years. I have longed that there be something more readable than the NASB and more literal than the NIV. The NIV is a paraphrase with so much unnecessary rewording and so much interpretation that I could not preach from it.

Now let me say again that the NIV is the precious Word of God. Oh, how careful we must be not to belittle the Word of God. And yet we must not put any human translation above criticism. God has used the NIV to bring millions of people to faith in Christ. But at the same time I believe there have been negative effects that could be avoided. My biggest concern has to do with preaching. When a paraphrase becomes the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the church, preaching is weakened—robust expository exultation in the pulpit is made more difficult. Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on good English. And when that kind of preaching is undermined, the whole level of Christian thinking in the church goes down, and a Bible-saturated worldview is weakened, and the ability of the people—and even the pastors themselves-to root their thoughts and affections in firm Biblical ground diminishes.

The English Standard Version

My aim tonight is to help you be persuaded that exposing millions of people (pastors, teachers, students, laypeople) to the ESV would undo the dominance of the NIV and put in its place a more literal, and yet a beautifully readable, memorizable Bible—the English Standard Version. And this would be a good thing.

In the following examples of NIV paraphrasing compared to the more literal ESV there are four convictions at stake.

1. A more literal translation respects the original author's way of writing. It is a way of honoring the inspired writers.

2. Translators are fallible and they may mislead the English reader if they use unnecessary paraphrases to bring out one possible meaning and conceal others.

3. A more literal translation gives preachers more confidence that they can preach what the English text says with authority that it reflects what the original Greek or Hebrew text says.

4. A more literal translation which preserves ambiguities that are really there in the original keeps open the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers.

I do not claim that the ESV is without its own level of "paraphrasing." Some will always be necessary. And there will always be disagreements about how much is necessary. I am simply arguing that the ESV is the best balance available of readability and literalness. I hope that it becomes the standard for the church.

Appendix 1: Examples of NIV Paraphrasing Compared to the More Literal ESV (Compiled April 11, 2003)

Romans 1:5

ESV Through [Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith (hupakoen pisteos) for the sake of his name among all the nations.

NIV Through him and for his name's sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.

Romans 3:20

ESV By works of the law (ex ergon nomou) no human being will be justified in his sight.

NIV No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.

Romans 11:11

ESV Did they stumble in order that they might fall (hina pesosin)? By no means!

NIV Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!

Romans 13:8

ESV Owe no one anything (Medeni meden opheilete), except to love each other.

NIV Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.

Hebrews 6:1

ESV . . . not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works (nekron ergon)

NIV . . . not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death.

James 2:12

ESVSo speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty (nomou eleutherias).

NIVSpeak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.

1 Peter 1:20

ESV He was foreknown (proegnosmenou) before the foundation of the world.

NIV He was chosen before the creation of the world.

Appendix 2: Two Examples of the Effect on Preaching

John 11:1-6

ESV Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill." 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, (oun) when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

NIV Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick." 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

NOTE: It is impossible to make the point from the NIV that Jesus' delay is an expression of love for Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and thus draw out the point that love sometimes does hard things because seeing the glory of God is a more precious gift than being sick or even dead.

Romans 8:35-36

ESV Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (36) As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed (thanatoumetha) all the day long."

NIV Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long."

NOTE: From the NIV translation one could argue from a health, wealth, and prosperity "gospel" that "famine and nakedness" will not happen to God's children (as they seem to in verse 35) because the Old Testament support that Paul quotes in verse 36 only says "we face death," but not that we really "are being killed." So the paraphrase "face death" removes an utterly crucial argument that Paul gave and that the preacher needs to make the true point that true Christians really do get killed and really do face famine and nakedness.