Today’s question comes to us from Trisha: “Hello Pastor John! My name is Trisha. I’m from Michigan. I know the ESV is your preferred translation, but I sometimes find the wording of the ESV hard to understand, so I often switch to the NIV, HCSB, or NLT for clarity on a passage. Do you think it’s important to stick with one translation for reading and meditation? As a Christian I want to live and breathe Scripture, because I know it is the very word of God. I would love to hear your thoughts about sticking with one main Bible translation. I’ve read that many Puritans not only used one translation for their entire life, but also used the same physical Bible for a lifetime, knowing it so intimately as to have a visual memory of where a text was on a given page. Will I be missing out if I only use the ESV and come across wording I don’t fully understand? Thank you!”
I love the way she asks the question about wanting to live and breathe Scripture. That is beautiful. And she is right that I find the ESV, the English Standard Version, to be a translation that, while not perfect — there aren’t any — strikes such a good balance between formal equivalence to the original language as far as possible and readability and appropriate dignity, while being accessible for the most part to ordinary folks that I was glad to use it both for my personal reading and my study and the public reading in worship services at the church and the church memory work for children and adults. And that is asking a lot of a translation, to cover all of those bases.
“The ESV strikes a rare balance between honoring the original languages and being readable and understandable.”
But I think we need to choose a translation, when we are a leader in church, especially, that does best in all those areas all things considered. One of the things I appreciate about the ESV is that it has continued the tradition from the Authorized Version or the King James Version through the Revised Standard Version so that, while it is not stuck in the 17th century Elizabethan English diction, it is unashamed to preserve historic translations that have proven themselves powerful and understandable and accurate for centuries. I love that about this translation.
Some other modern translations involve themselves in more interpretive paraphrase to make certain meanings clearer. And I suppose many readers like Trisha will find that a gain. For example, if one translation — and this happens to be the ESV — if one translation translates Romans 1:5 as, “the obedience of faith” and another translates it, which some do, “the obedience that comes from faith” (see the NIV), the second one is interpreting and the first one is not. It is leaving it ambiguous, which it is in the original.
But the meaning of the second translation is clearer. “Obedience of faith” is ambiguous. You don’t know how faith and obedience are related until you think about it in context. But obedience that comes from faith tells you the interpretation; namely, faith is producing the obedience. Now, that may or may not be right, but it sure is understandable. And so she likes that. And most people do. It is just my personal opinion. I don’t want translators to make those decisions for readers. I think interpreters, not translators should be involved in that kind of thing.
Piper: “I am not aware of any contemporary English translations that would lead people into serious doctrinal error.”
Now, I know that may frustrate Trisha, but I want her to have the choice to decide how to understand the phrase “obedience of faith” for herself, rather than having the translators decide that for her. That is my view of why a more formally literal version is better up to a point. There are, of course, formal equivalencies that are so awkward that few would read them if we tried to maintain a consistent formal equivalency. It just wouldn’t be possible. Greek is just not that way in its relation to English. So, there are limits that every translation has.
But having said all that, for the average Bible reader, there are no contemporary English translations that I am aware of that are going to lead people into serious doctrinal error. Therefore, the question of whether to stick with one or to use several is a really good question. And the rule of thumb that I would suggest is this: Use multiple translations for the purpose of increased understanding — for instance, use them as commentaries — and use one main translation for the purpose of memorization and the saturation of your mind.
It is extremely difficult to carry on over the years, year after year, a system of Bible memory, which I try to do — memorizing books and chapters of the Bible — it is extremely difficult to do that while bouncing around amongst several versions. It becomes very confusing. I don’t know of anyone — I am sure there are people — but I just don’t know any who have done serious, long-term, extensive Bible memory by using several translation, like memorizing one whole book in one version and another whole book in another version.
“Immerse your mind and heart in the Bible every day until you are conformed in your thinking and feeling to Christ.”
In general, I would say to Trisha: Among the worthy modern versions, pick the version where you feel most helped by the Lord to hear his voice with authority and clarity. And make that your go-to Bible for meditation and memorization every day. Then feel free to use other versions to try to wrestle through any parts that you don’t understand by comparing them with the texts that you use most often.
What matters most of all is that all of us immerse our minds in the Scriptures every day until we are conformed in our thinking and in our feeling to the mind and the heart of Christ.