November 25, 2008

What the ESV is Good For

It's been a long time since I wrote much about Bible translation, but I thought I'd step up on this one. There has recently been a long series of posts on Better Bibles Blog containing a paper Mark Strauss presented to the Evangelical Theological Society entitled "Why The English Standard Version Should Not Become the Standard English Version." There is now a brief response from Bill Mounce, the New Testament Chair of the ESV translation committee.

I, on the one hand, agree with Strauss that some of the ESVs decisions make for misleading or awkward English text. On the other hand, I agree with Mounce that the majority of the passages Strauss points to seem to be consistent application of the ESV's stated translation policy. This means that it is wrong to call them 'mistakes' or 'errors'. The ESV team successfully did what they set out to do. There is another question, though: is there any good reason why anyone would set out to do this? A perhaps slightly sarcastic (but avowedly serious) comment by Peter Kirk has received some attention. Peter wrote:

ESV could be made better, but what�s the point? The market is already saturated with good quality English Bibles. If ESV were improved in the ways which Strauss suggests, the result would be so similar to NIV (not TNIV unless the gender issues are also dealt with) and HCSB that there would be no niche remaining for it. At least ESV as it currently is has found a niche market among those who believe that archaic and unclear language is the sign of a proper Bible, and that clarifying such language is the job of a preacher.

I think it's undeniable that there exists such a niche, and that people who fall in this niche and don't like the KJV for some reason (perhaps the text it's based on, or some lexicographic discoveries of the last few centuries) often prefer the ESV. However, I don't think this is the only reason why people use the ESV - in fact, I think there are a lot of intelligent people who use the ESV for a totally different reason which I will get to at the end of this post, but let me address something more general first.

There are a lot of different Bible translations in English which are good for a lot of different tasks, because there is more than one way of reading the Bible: you could be following along with a sermon, you could be picking apart the syntax verse by verse (which, by the way, I generally don't recommend), you could be doing devotional reading, you could just be trying to figure out what the flow of argument is supposed to be in one of the epistles (not always an easy task), or you could be doing any number of other things. I claim that there is a spectrum of literalness and that different positions on the spectrum are better for different things. When an adult with good literacy skills asks me to recommend a good general purpose Bible translation, this is what I recommend: I tell them to go to the bookstore and pick up the NKJV, ESV, and HCSB, pick a chapter at random, and read it in each, then pick the one that sounds the most like the way they normally speak and write. My reason for this is that I think this region of the spectrum (roughly, at least as literal as HCSB, but more dynamic than NASB) is where we should be shooting for with a 'general purpose' translation. I say 'shooting for' because someone who doesn't have the vocabulary or other background will need a more dynamic translation.

Now, I don't really expect anyone to say that, of those three, the ESV will sound most natural. I include it in my advice because I think that in every other respect it is just as good as NKJV or HCSB. To me, the NKJV sounds more like good literary English, and the HCSB more like normal spoken English. The ESV is a lot like the NKJV. It's not as good in literary quality, in my opinion (I am not an expert on English literature), but most scholars believe that the New Testament text the ESV is based on is more accurate than the one that KJV and NKJV are based on, and ESV also renders certain words which have theological significance more consistently.

This last remark, about theological words, brings me to my final point, which I think is the real reason for a lot of very intelligent people, such as Phil Ryken, use and recommend the ESV. These ESV proponents push the fact that the ESV consistently uses words like 'propitiation,' 'justification,' and 'atonement'. Other people will point out that these aren't really good English translations of the original terms - after all, in English they are technical terms of Christian theology, and in the original Greek they weren't! However, I think this criticism misses the real point. There is one activity for which I think the ESV is, hands down, the very best translation, and this, I think, is what Dr. Ryken means to endorse it for: it is the very best translation if you are consulting a Bible while reading or otherwise learning Reformed theology. This, I think, is what Dr. Ryken means when he says that when he was teaching from the NIV he would have to stop and say "this should say 'propitiation.'" He means that when Reformed theologians teach about 'propitiation' they mean to be offering a theological explanation of what the Bible means when it uses the Greek word hilasmos (and possibly also hilasterion) and that word occurs here. If you have a Bible that doesn't say 'propitiation' in those places, you won't be able to figure out how this particular Reformed doctrine is supposed to be derived from Scripture and so you won't really understand Reformed theology properly.

Now, neither Calvin, nor Warfield, nor Ryken would like us to take their theological teaching on faith without checking it against our Bibles. That wouldn't be very Reformed of them! If we read only the ESV and our only knowledge of the meaning of the word 'propitation' comes from Reformed theology (after all, where else is that word used?) then we won't be able to very effectively compare Reformed teaching against Scripture, because there will be a bunch of theology packed into that word that has nothing to do with the definition of the Greek word and everything to do with how that concept fits into systematic theology. So this is probably a reason not to read only the ESV. On the other hand, though, we really have to know where hilasmos and dikaioo ('to justify') occur in order to have any idea how these doctrines are supposed to be derived from Scripture, and the easiest way to do that is to have a translation that uses the appropriate technical terms, 'propitiation' and 'justify'.

I predict that my explanation will cause Peter Kirk to like the ESV even less, but I think it does explain why many reasonable and intelligent people think the ESV is the very best translation out there, and I think it also makes a case that it might not be unreasonable for a church or denomination in the Reformed tradition to adopt the ESV as their 'standard' Bible for reasons other than the sort of 'stylistic conservatism' Peter blames for the ESV's popularity.

Posted by Kenny at November 25, 2008 5:37 PM
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Comments

The question of theological words, is actually the reason my mother dropped her NLT in the late 90's (though she continued to use it for ministering to new Christians, who didn't have the theological background).

I there there is a place for maintaining these words, but as you state, its not in replacement of other translations that expand them in English, but rather its beside such translations.

Posted by: Mike at November 25, 2008 7:45 PM

If you're correct (and I think you're suggestion is at least plausible), does this then raise the issue of whether or not the ESV is an attempt to "sneak" reformed theology in through the back door? Create a translation that helps teach your theology, get endorsements from other like-minded people and market it well enough to make it one of the most popular translations around. Could be a nice strategy.

Of course, there could be a different purpose motivating the translators and those who endorse it. What do you think?

Posted by: danny at November 26, 2008 1:48 PM

Well, Kenny, I don't think I actually like ESV even less because of your explanation. That's because I kind of knew what you write, that many people who like ESV do so simply because it supports their theological presuppositions, allowing them to believe that passages in which they find words like "propitiation" mean exactly what their favourite theologians say they mean, and not necessarily what the Greek text as clearly translated means. But I didn't write that on BBB as that would probably breach its posting and comment guidelines.

Posted by: Peter Kirk at November 26, 2008 3:17 PM

Danny and Peter -

I really don't think this has to be interpreted as disingenuous in any way. Firstly, as you well know, all translation involves some degree of interpretation, and these people sincerely believe their interpretation is correct (and many of them are very educated and intelligent). Secondly, think about what happened with the theological vocabulary: it was mostly introduced into English specifically to translate these words. A case can be made (and the HCSB introduction takes more or less this line) that these words are necessarily (and vacuously) accurate translations of the propositional content of the verse because the English word 'propitiation,' for instance, doesn't have any real definition other than "whatever hilasmos means in the Greek New Testament." In other words, it works just like transliteration. It's just a placeholder.

I don't buy the 'Reformed' party line on a lot of issues - I'm not even a Calvinist on the so-called 'doctrines of grace' - but I do think that many of these people, certainly including Calvin himself, have studied from the Greek and come to these conclusions, and believe that understanding the exact meaning of these words is critical to getting the interpretation of the passage right, and that no standard English word or phrase that isn't long and clunky could possibly get that right. (I've sometimes tried on this blog to translate dike as 'on the right side of the law,' and its cognates accordingly, because I think that's the best translation into normal English but, let's face it, it's a pain and it inflates the length of the text and messes up the flow.)

At any rate, I probably wouldn't recommend anyone to read only the ESV for the reasons I listed, but I read and listen to Reformed theology from time to time, and if I didn't read Greek I would want to have the ESV around so I know where these words occur, since they are so important to understanding that theological tradition. I don't think this has to be a matter of sneaking the theology in through the back door.

Posted by: Kenny at November 26, 2008 8:00 PM

I was excited when I purchased my first ESV Bible. I anticipated a version that would strike a balance between the dynamic equivalence versions and word translations. Specifically, I liked the idea of combining the cadence of the KVJ and the clarity of the NASB. Initially, I believed that this readable, yet traditional sounding version had succeeded. However, I became increasingly concerned about the ESV's growing popularity and promotion by influencial Reformed Theologians. As I am not Reformed, I made a calculated decision to stick with a Bible that represented my personal doctrinal beliefs. My Bible of choice is the NKJV Study Bible, 2d Edition. I use the ESV and other versions as alternative sources of study. Thankfully, there are a variety of choices for various theological persuasions. Thought: Choose a good word translation and use all others as study aids.

Posted by: Jerry Caskey at September 11, 2009 7:59 PM

Personally, for Bible study I would rather use a Bible that disagrees with my theological beliefs. If it has the same biases as I do, I might not notice that it's biased. (Of course, we want to minimize bias as far as possible.) For the same reason, I try to read news sources that disagree with my political beliefs. Of course, just the opposite is true for devotional reading.

Posted by: Kenny at September 11, 2009 11:01 PM

Hey, just thought you would like to know: William Mounce quoted your blog at the recent ETS.

You can find his quote here: http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/11/ets-paper-on-esvtniv.html

Posted by: bobby at November 23, 2009 4:21 PM

bobby - thanks for pointing this out, but the only quote I can see is the one from Peter Kirk, which was originally a Better Bibles Blog comment.

Posted by: Kenny at November 23, 2009 4:59 PM

Is the ESV really the best translation out there? Lets take a look at John 6:68-69 shall we.

ESV
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

NIV
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

NKJV
68 But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

KJV
68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. 69 And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.

Is there anything missing in the NIV and ESV, or are they simply updated modern versions? In verse 68 it is simply the latter of the two. However, when a preacher at a local churched used the ESV today I was shocked and appalled by the forfeit of "Christ", and that he is "The Son of the living God." What difference does this make? It makes a world of difference.

Christ means "Anointed One." Much as King David was anointed by God through Samuel, Jesus Christ is the anointed one by God. Omitting the simple word Christ omits the fact that he is anointed by God. Secondly simply stating that Jesus is "the holy one of God" is far short of saying that Jesus is the "Son of the living God." By saying that he is the Son of God you are stating that God and Jesus are one. A sticking point for many Jewish people who believe that we worship three separate gods. By omitting the term Living God we now do two things. We group God in with various gods of the time thereby rendering him impudent. It also does not stress the fact that through God there is life and that Jesus who knew he was to be crucified would rise again.

Simply put neither the NIV nor the ESV should be used in church by pastors. They should stick with the received text and preach the word of God. If they wish to use a different translation to help clarify a point then so be it.

Posted by: Joshua Baird at February 20, 2011 1:23 PM

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