What follows is a paper I submitted to the Translation Evaluation Committee of our church body (the WELS) over a year ago. If you’re interested in my evaluation, you’re welcome to continue reading. If you’d like to print out the pretty hardcopy, here is the written paper.
Assignment and Assessment
“When there are many words, sin is unavoidable,
but the one who controls his lips is wise.”
(Proverbs 10:19 HCSB)
“a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,”
(Ecclesiastes 3:7 NIV11)
For better or worse the NIV has changed. With that change came an assignment. The Translation Evaluation Committee invited us to evaluate several bibles and arrive at a conclusion. As you can see from the title of this paper, I have arrived at my conclusion—at least in a limited way. While I am still weighing some of the translations, I am convinced that it would be unwise for us to adopt the ESV for use in our synod publications. I write these words so that, perhaps, you men might arrive at the same conclusion.
When I say that we should set aside the ESV I need to clarify just exactly what I mean. I am not saying that the ESV is unusable. I am not saying that the ESV is not able to convey the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that the ESV should be kicked out of the list of six translations being reviewed by our synod. And I am not saying that should our synod decide to use the ESV in her publications that our congregation would not buy and use catechisms from NPH. However, this is my assessment: we should move it towards the bottom of that list of six. For it has sizable weaknesses.
In an effort to be concise and clear I am writing my conclusions first and the proof in the back as appendices.
When we as a synod choose a translation for use at our publishing house, one of the basic, common sense questions we need to ask is ‘does this publisher and do these translators approach the bible in the same way we do?’ How people treat and translate God’s word has far-reaching implications not just when it comes to the words on the page of the bible, but also when it comes to our long-term relationship with a publisher.
In the preface of the ESV we find these words:
The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on “word-for-word” correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.1
Wayne Grudem uses even stronger words:
The idea that all the words of Scripture are the words of God—strongly favors essentially literal translation of the Bible, and seriously calls into question the theory of dynamic equivalence translation.
Now, compare the words of the ESV promoters and translators with familiar words from our past:
The Dogmaticians remark, in advance, that by the Word they do not understand the bare external letters of the written Word. QUEN. (I, 169): “We must distinguish between the Word of God as it is materially expressed and exhibited in the written characters, points, letters, and syllables adhering to paper or parchment . . . or also in the sound and the external words formed in the air . . . and formally considered, as the divine conception and sense which we find expressed in these written letters and syllables and in the words of the preached Gospel. In the former sense it is called the Word of God only figuratively (σημαντικως); in the latter, however, κυριως, properly and strictly, it is the Word of God, the wisdom of God, the mind of God, the counsel of God. We ascribe not to the former, but to the latter, divine power and efficacy.”
CAT. MAJ., DECAL. (101): “Such is its virtue and power that where it is recalled to mind, or heard and considered with serious attention and interest, it never passes away without fruit, but always engages, retains, and excites the hearer with some new intelligence, delight, and devotion, and purifies his feelings and thoughts. For the words are not putrid or dead, destitute of sap and vigor, but truly living and efficacious.”
Is there a difference in understanding between us and the preparers and promoters of the ESV? Which is more important—the words or the thoughts? As a church-body we show by our actions that the words are important, don’t we? All those years devoted to learning the greek and hebrew prove this. But, as Quenstedt teaches, the word is the materia and the “conception” is the forma. To the extent that a bible translation communicates and conveys the thought it is a faithful translation. It is not enough for a pastor in a pulpit or classroom to use words like “propitiation, justification, etc.” He must also explain the thought behind the word.
None of this is new to you men on our Translation committee. But do the translators at Crossway have the same understanding? If they do, then this first section is quite meaningless and futile. However, if they have a different view of bible translation, is it wise to “hitch our horse to this wagon” for the years to come?
Accurate or Not?
In contrast to the ESV, some Bible versions have followed a “thought-for-thought” rather than “word-for-word” translation philosophy, emphasizing “dynamic equivalence” rather than the “essentially literal” meaning of the original. A “thought-for-thought” translation is of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretive opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture.
Is a literal translation the same as an accurate translation? That is the question that Professor Steinmann asked some years ago. The story he tells is worth repeating here:
A few years ago at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature I attended a session that examined the translation technique of several ancient Targums to the Old Testament. One presenter analyzed a Targum by classifying the translator’s technique at various points as “literal,” “paraphrase, but accurate,” or “paraphrase and inaccurate.” After the presentation, when the moderator solicited questions from the audience, I asked whether the presenter found any examples of “literal, but inaccurate” translation. In reply, he asked me what my question meant. His presumption was that literal translation (whatever literal may mean) was inherently accurate, whereas paraphrase (whatever that means) can vary in its accuracy.
Clergy and many scholars such as the one I questioned at the SBL Meeting often characterize Bible translations as literal or paraphrase, terms that are vague and often betray a prejudice against whatever translation is perceived to be a paraphrase instead of a true translation. Clearly those who exercise such prejudice need to become better acquainted with the theory of translation and the linguistic principles that support it.
What is often called literal translation is more accurately called formal equivalent translation. In formal equivalent translation the translator attempts to match the original text of the source language in the target language on a word-by-word basis. In addition, the word order of the original is preserved whenever possible. The translation attempts to meet the semantic (meaning) challenge of translation as well as to preserve the form of the original (hence the name). Most who have studied the biblical languages will identify this as the technique often used by beginning students. Yet one would hope that Bible translators are more sophisticated in their use of this technique than beginning students.
But to return to the question at hand: could there have been a “literal but inaccurate” translation? Consider this translation of Psalm 1:1:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers (NIV).
This translation matches the form of the original fairly well. It only changed the word order slightly to match English preference, and it does not repeat the negative not twice to match the Hebrew. This translation does preserve the conceptual sequence of the Hebrew: walk, stand, and sit. Yet despite its supposed literalness, this translation is not in common English. After all, what does “standing in someone’s way” mean in English? It signifies being an obstruction. Certainly, the Psalmist did not intend to say that one is blessed if he does not obstruct sinners in their sinful ways! Instead, the Psalmist was saying that one is blessed when he does not join sinners in their sinning. This verse from the NIV is an example of a translation that is literal but inaccurate.
What use is there in having a literal translation if the literal words do not communicate the right idea? It is true that a functional equivalent translation can go astray. But a formal translation can go astray just as easily. For a sizable sampling of verses in which the ESV is both literal and inaccurate, see Appendix below.
Archaic and Obscure
The English Standard Version (ESV) stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium. The fountainhead of that stream was William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526; marking its course were the King James Version of 1611 (KJV), the English Revised Version of 1885 (RV), the American Standard Version of 1901 (ASV), and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and 1971 (RSV). In that stream, faithfulness to the text and vigorous pursuit of accuracy were combined with simplicity, beauty, and dignity of expression. Our goal has been to carry forward this legacy for a new century.
To this end each word and phrase in the ESV has been carefully weighed against the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, to ensure the fullest accuracy and clarity and to avoid under-translating or overlooking any nuance of the original text. The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work. Archaic language has been brought to current usage and significant corrections have been made in the translation of key texts6
In these words they point out that “Archaic language has been brought to current usage.” This is true in many examples. But there are many, many examples where the archaic language is retained. As one works through the ESV it is clear that the RSV and ASV are not simply the base for their translation. They are the backbone of the translation. The result is a translation that is difficult for 21st century ears to hear—and even more difficult to understand. It would be difficult to teach a catechism class from this bible. So also, it would be difficult to read this bible from the lectern and expect my congregation to cohesively understand the words I am reading. For examples, see Appendix below.
Calvinist or just inconsistent?
When buying a bible from a non-WELS publisher there is always the fear that translators will mistranslate parts of the bible to suit their own theology. For years now we have had to deal with the weakness in the NIV’s rendering of Acts 3:21:
“He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:21 NIV)7
One of the difficulties I have begun to find with the ESV is that it translates verses in ways that a Calvinist would have no objection with. Particularly, when it comes to the Calvinist view of election they take some very interesting translation choices. Professor Nass notes the odd wording of 1 Peter 2:8 and Jude 4.8 But if you have the patience, I would like you to have a look at some other sections of scripture along with me. I have found a pattern—at least enough of a pattern that it deserved my attention. I invite you to look at these same passages and share your conclusions. Please refer to Appendix below.
The NIV11 has come under the spotlight and the microscope. With the attention being given to it, I’m sure that our pastors and professors will arrive at conclusions based on a thorough reading of that bible. The time has come for the ESV to share that same spotlight and microscope. I have used the ESV for my main devotional bible for months now. I have read the vast majority of it and have arrived at my verdict. It is usable. But its weaknesses have moved me to move it towards the bottom of my list of six translations.
Literal and Inaccurate Verses
“And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”” (Genesis 19:5 ESV)
וַיִּקְרְאוּ אֶל־לוֹט וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אַיֵּה הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר־בָּאוּ אֵלֶיךָ הַלָּיְלָה הוֹצִיאֵם אֵלֵינוּ וְנֵדְעָה אֹתָם׃
“Bring them out to us, that we may know them” is a literal rendering. But who would understand it if they hadn’t been steeped in the KJV or hebrew?
“For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.” (Psalms 38:4 ESV)
כִּי עֲוֹנֹתַי עָבְרוּ רֹאשִׁי כְּמַשָּׂא כָבֵד יִכְבְּדוּ מִמֶּנִּי׃
In what sense are the psalmist’s sins over his head? The HCSB (For my sins have flooded over my head) and the NIV-11 (My guilt has overwhelmed me) actually get at the point David is making.
“Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand.” (Psalms 39:10 ESV)
הָסֵר מֵעָלַי נִגְעֶךָ מִתִּגְרַת יָדְךָ אֲנִי כָלִיתִי׃
“Stroke” here doesn’t convey the meaning accurately. The reader is left asking the question “what kind of stroke?” Does he mean the type of stroke from a blood-clot which causes one to go to the hospital? It’s a literal rendering of the words. But does it convey the thought?
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 ESV)
τέλος γὰρ νόμου Χριστὸς εἰς δικαιοσύνην παντὶ τῷ πιστεύοντι.
Did Christ come to destroy the law? Or did he come to fulfill it? The literal ESV wording makes it seem as if Jesus came to put an end to the law with the result that it doesn’t apply to us anymore. Here the NIV11 is better: “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 NIV11)
“I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23 ESV)
יָדַעְתִּי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא לָאָדָם דַּרְכּוֹ לֹא־לְאִישׁ הֹלֵךְ וְהָכִין אֶת־צַעֲדוֹ׃
What is the “way of man?” It’s literal. But is it accessible and accurate? Can people actually understand what this means?
“They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no man lays it to heart.” (Jeremiah 12:11 ESV)
שָׂמָהּ לִשְׁמָמָה אָבְלָה עָלַי שְׁמֵמָה נָשַׁמָּה כָּל־הָאָרֶץ כִּי אֵין אִישׁ שָׂם עַל־לֵב׃
What does “lay it to heart” mean? It is literal. But who would understand this verse by itself without someone to explain the Hebrew behind it?
“Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.” (Jeremiah 22:15 ESV)
הֲתִמְלֹךְ כִּי אַתָּה מְתַחֲרֶה בָאָרֶז אָבִיךָ הֲלוֹא אָכַל וְשָׁתָה וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה אָז טוֹב לוֹ׃
What does it mean to “compete” in cedar? What races or tournaments have cedar as their main component? Literal, but quite inaccurate.
“Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:32 ESV)
וְאָנֹכִי לֹא־שְׁלַחְתִּים וְלֹא צִוִּיתִים וְהוֹעֵיל לֹא־יוֹעִילוּ לָעָם־הַזֶּה נְאֻם־יְהוָה׃
What does “profit” mean here? We use this word almost exclusively for financial language. The HCSB is far better: “It was not I who sent or commanded them, and they are of no benefit at all to these people” (Jeremiah 23:32 HCSB).
““Therefore, thus says the Lord: You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the Lord. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” (Jeremiah 34:17 ESV)
הִנְנִי קֹרֵא לָכֶם דְּרוֹר נְאֻם־יְהוָה אֶל־הַחֶרֶב
What is “liberty to the sword?” Is it freedom to use the sword? Or is it the ironic freedom to be used by a sword?
“The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?”” (John 7:15 ESV)
ἐθαύμαζον οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι λέγοντες· πῶς οὗτος γράμματα οἶδεν μὴ μεμαθηκώς;
What does it mean to have “never studied?” “Studied” today is what a student does at home. It makes it seem as if they “marveled” at him because he knew a lot without doing any homework. The NIV-84 contains this inaccuracy. But the NIV-11 and the HCSB have a better rendering: “without having been taught?”” (John 7:15 NIV11); “since He hasn’t been trained?”” (John 7:15 HCSB)
“The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9 ESV)
λέγει οὖν αὐτῷ ἡ γυνὴ ἡ Σαμαρῖτις· πῶς σὺ Ἰουδαῖος ὢν παρ᾿ ἐμοῦ πεῖν αἰτεῖς γυναικὸς Σαμαρίτιδος οὔσης; οὐ γὰρ συγχρῶνται Ἰουδαῖοι Σαμαρίταις.
Literal and inaccurate. Today, “have dealings with” means “do business with.” In earlier years this may have been acceptable, but today these words are misleading. “associate with” (as NIV-11 and HCSB) is better.
“do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with haughty neck.’”” (Psalms 75:5 ESV)
אַל־תָּרִימוּ לַמָּרוֹם קַרְנְכֶם תְּדַבְּרוּ בְצַוָּאר עָתָק׃
What does it mean to speak with a “haughty neck?” A hebrew reader would understand this. But how much work would your average english reader have to do to understand this?
Archaic and Obscure Verses
All of these examples have one trait in common. They show how many of the archaisms in the ESV have not been updated from the RSV. And sometimes they have not been updated from the ASV. Instead of commenting, I’ll simply emphasize the archaic language by underlining them.
- Psa. 37:1
- Is. 62:6
- Ephesians 6:6
- Romans 2:4
- Romans 2:7
- Psalms 40:17
- Psalms 44:2
- Jeremiah 8:11
- Jeremiah 18:13
- Psalms 60:12
- Jeremiah 44:18
- John 2:9
- Psalms 73:15
- Romans 9:25
- Psalms 68:19
- John 12:42
- John 13:24
- John 13:26
- John 15:1
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!” (Psalms 37:1 ESV)
 Fret not yourself because of the wicked,
be not envious of wrongdoers! (RSV)
“Fret not thyself because of evil-doers, Neither be thou envious against them that work unrighteousness.” (Psalms 37:1 ASV)
“On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest,” (Isaiah 62:6 ESV)
 Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night
they shall never be silent.
You who put the Lord in remembrance,
take no rest, (RSV)
“I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem; they shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that are Jehovah’s remembrancers, take ye no rest,” (Isaiah 62:6 ASV)
“not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,” (Ephesians 6:6 ESV)
 not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, (RSV)
“not in the way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers; but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;” (Ephesians 6:6 ASV)
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4 ESV)
 Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (RSV)
“Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Romans 2:4 ASV)
“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;” (Romans 2:7 ESV)
 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; (RSV)
“to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life:” (Romans 2:7 ASV)
“As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!” (Psalms 40:17 ESV)
 As for me, I am poor and needy;
but the Lord takes thought for me.
Thou art my help and my deliverer;
do not tarry, O my God! (RSV)
“But I am poor and needy; Yet the Lord thinketh upon me: Thou art my help and my deliverer; Make no tarrying, O my God.” (Psalms 40:17 ASV)
“you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted9
 thou with thy own hand didst drive out the nations,
but them thou didst plant;
thou didst afflict the peoples,
but them thou didst set free; (RSV)
“Thou didst drive out the nations with thy hand; But them thou didst plant: Thou didst afflict the peoples; But them thou didst spread abroad.” (Psalms 44:2 ASV)
“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:11 ESV)
 They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, `Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace. (RSV)
“And they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:11 ASV)
““Therefore thus says the Lord: Ask among the nations, Who has heard the like of this? The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing.” (Jeremiah 18:13 ESV)
 “Therefore thus says the Lord:
Ask among the nations,
who has heard the like of this?
The virgin Israel
has done a very horrible thing. (RSV)
“Therefore thus saith Jehovah: Ask ye now among the nations, who hath heard such things; the virgin of Israel hath done a very horrible thing.” (Jeremiah 18:13 ASV)
“With God we shall do valiantly; it is he who will tread down our foes.” (Psalms 60:12 ESV)
 With God we shall do valiantly;
it is he who will tread down our foes. (RSV)
“Through God we shall do valiantly; For he it is that will tread down our adversaries.” (Psalms 60:12 ASV)
“But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”” (Jeremiah 44:18 ESV)
 But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (RSV)
“But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven, and pouring out drink-offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.” (Jeremiah 44:18 ASV)
“When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom” (John 2:9 ESV)
 When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom (RSV)
“And when the ruler of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and knew not whence it was but the servants that had drawn the water knew, the ruler of the feast calleth the bridegroom,” (John 2:9 ASV)
“If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed the generation of your children.” (Psalms 73:15 ESV)
 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children. (RSV)
“If I had said, I will speak thus; Behold, I had dealt treacherously with the generation of thy children.” (Psalms 73:15 ASV)
“As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”” (Romans 9:25 ESV)
 As indeed he says in Hose’a, “Those who were not my people
I will call `my people,’
and her who was not beloved
I will call `my beloved.’” (RSV)
“As he saith also in Hosea, I will call that my people, which was not my people; And her beloved, that was not beloved.” (Romans 9:25 ASV)
“Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Selah” (Psalms 68:19 ESV)
 Blessed be the Lord,
who daily bears us up;
God is our salvation. [Selah]
“Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden, Even the God who is our salvation. Selah” (Psalms 68:19 ASV)
“Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue;” (John 12:42 ESV)
 Nevertheless many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: (RSV)
“Nevertheless even of the rulers many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue:” (John 12:42 ASV)
“so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.” (John 13:24 ESV)
 so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” (RSV)
“Simon Peter therefore beckoneth to him, and saith unto him, Tell us who it is of whom he speaketh.” (John 13:24 ASV)
“Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.” (John 13:26 ESV)
 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. (RSV)
“Jesus therefore answereth, He it is, for whom I shall dip the sop, and give it him. So when he had dipped the sop, he taketh and giveth it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.” (John 13:26 ASV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” (John 15:1 ESV)
 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. (RSV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” (John 15:1 ASV)
I hope the passages listed here do a sufficient job of showing that the RSV is far more the backbone of the ESV than its base. If anyone would like more examples of the preceding, Prof. Mark L. Straus’ paper outlines some similar examples.10 However, someone might respond by saying that, like a Jehovah’s witness, I’m cherry-picking the exceptions out of their proper context. If one would like to see how the ESV reads as compared to the RSV, all you have to do is open up to the opening words of 1 Corinthians. Allan Chapple points out that most of the words in 1 Cor. 1 in the ESV are the same as in the RSV.11
Possible Calvinist Passages
In his Institutes, John Calvin wrote:
We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction.12
In clarifying this doctrine, further along in his Institutes, he writes:
Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated, (Bernard. in Die Ascensionis, Serm. 2). This they do ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation. God is said to set apart those whom he adopts for salvation. It were most absurd to say, that he admits others fortuitously, or that they by their industry acquire what election alone confers on a few. Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children.13
To Calvin, if God chose people to go to heaven, then of logical necessity he had to choose people to go to hell. Based on passages like this (and many others) we would not agree that God chooses people for Hell:
“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11 NIV)
With all of this in mind, when we read through a bible we are very reticent to recommend a translation which makes a habit out of translating passages from a Calvinist-double-predestination point of view. There were two separate categories which I found particularly frustrating:
“Creating for destruction.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that there aren’t any passages which clearly say that God chooses people to go to hell. That’s why I found it odd that the ESV translators would translate some passages in a way which might give the impression that God does choose people to go to hell:
“The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” (Proverbs 16:4 ESV)
כֹּל פָּעַל יְהוָה לַמַּעֲנֵהוּ וְגַם־רָשָׁע לְיוֹם רָעָה׃
The HALOT shows that פָּעַל is a very flexible word. They suggest that it is virtually synonymous with עָשָׂה.14 Exegetically, I suppose it’s possible to translate it as “make.” But it’s strange that a translation which prides itself on leaving translation options open for the reader would box the reader in when we get to this passage. The NIV11 and HSCB to a better job of leaving the options open: “The Lord has prepared everything for His purpose— even the wicked for the day of disaster.” (Proverbs 16:4 HCSB); “The Lord works out everything to its proper end— even the wicked for a day of disaster.” (Proverbs 16:4 NIV11)
“Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd…,” (Psalms 49:14 ESV)
כַּצֹּאן לִשְׁאוֹל שַׁתּוּ
The ESV translation of this passage is simply inscrutable. First, שַׁתּוּ is a qal (active) verb. Here they have it translated as a passive. Literally, it would read “they place [...] for Sheol.” Instead of making it a passage which speaks of people setting themselves toward Sheol they make it into a passage which speaks of God placing them in this position.
Second, just as פָּעַל is a flexible verb (in the previous example) so also is שׁית. Again, why would the ESV box us into this interpretation when the original doesn’t? The HCSB does a much better job of reflecting the original: “Like sheep they are headed for Sheol…” (Psalms 49:14 HCSB)
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” (Romans 9:22 ESV)
“εἰ δὲ θέλων ὁ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι τὴν ὀργὴν καὶ γνωρίσαι τὸ δυνατὸν αὐτοῦ ἤνεγκεν ἐν πολλῇ μακροθυμίᾳ σκεύη ὀργῆς κατηρτισμένα εἰς ἀπώλειαν,” (Romans 9:22 GNT-T)
κατηρτισμένα is a perfect, middle-passive participle. It too is a somewhat flexible verb as we can see from some examples:
- Matt. 4:21
- “Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them,” (Matthew 4:21 NIV)
- “καὶ προβὰς ἐκεῖθεν εἶδεν ἄλλους δύο ἀδελφούς, Ἰάκωβον τὸν τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ μετὰ Ζεβεδαίου τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῶν καταρτίζοντας τὰ δίκτυα αὐτῶν, καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτούς.” (Matthew 4:21 GNT-T)
- Matt. 21:16
- ““Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?”” (Matthew 21:16 NIV)
- “καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ· ἀκούεις τί οὗτοι λέγουσιν; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς λέγει αὐτοῖς· ναί. οὐδέποτε ἀνέγνωτε ὅτι ἐκ στόματος νηπίων καὶ θηλαζόντων κατηρτίσω αἶνον;” (Matthew 21:16 GNT-T)
- Luke 6:40
- “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:40 NIV)
- “οὐκ ἔστιν μαθητὴς ὑπὲρ τὸν διδάσκαλον· κατηρτισμένος δὲ πᾶς ἔσται ὡς ὁ διδάσκαλος αὐτοῦ.” (Luke 6:40 GNT-T)
- 1Cor. 1:10
- “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV)
- “Παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί, διὰ τοῦ ὀνόματος τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ἵνα τὸ αὐτὸ λέγητε πάντες καὶ μὴ ᾖ ἐν ὑμῖν σχίσματα, ἦτε δὲ κατηρτισμένοι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ νοῒ καὶ ἐν τῇ αὐτῇ γνώμῃ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10 GNT-T)
There are, of course, other examples of the various ways this verb is translated. But this is enough to show us that even though it has the basic meaning of “prepare”, it is translated a number of different ways depending on the context. When we add to this the fact that this participle is either middle or passive, I find it strange that the ESV would lead us to conclude that God is the only option for the agent in this participle. Commentators spent much time and text outlining the options for this verse.15 Couldn’t the ESV even give us a footnote? The HCSB does a better job here of making the flexibility of the greek transparent: “And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction?” (Romans 9:22 HCSB)16
I don’t have any other examples of this pattern. And I’d be surprised if there were any. There aren’t any passages which say that God chooses people for destruction. So, it’s not surprising that there are only a limited number of passages which could be squeezed into that box.
Where’s the middle category?
In our OT isagogics notes we find these words:
“But I will harden his heart … “ The fact that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, as indicated in this passage (אֲחַזֵּק Piel – form of חָזַק cause to be hard; harden) has raised questions concerning the cause of impenitence. Does this rest with God or with man? In this passage the impenitence. Does this rest with God or with man? In this passage the Lord gives a summary of what is eventually to happen in the case of Pharaoh.
As we follow the entire situation of Moses with Pharaoh, we find that in the first instances the hardening of heart is ascribed to Pharaoh himself. Either a different form of חזק is used Pharaoh’s heart became hard,” an intransitive form of the Qal. — Ex 7:13; 22; 8:15; 9:35), or a form of the verb כָּבַד is used, meaning that “Pharaoh’s heart was hard” (Ex 7:14; 9:17). Still another verb, קָשָׁה is used in Ex 13:15 which means that “Pharaoh made his heart hard.” The process in Pharaoh’s case, in other words, is progressive. After Pharaoh hardened his own heart against God’s revealed will during the first five plagues, the Lord himself begins to take a hand and the hardening on the part of Jehovah begins (Ex 9:12).}
Thus it was not until after Pharaoh himself had repeatedly rejected God’s call to repentance, manifesting an obdurate, defiant spirit, that God himself stepped in and completed the process. Nowhere do we hear that Pharaoh believed. His acts of resistance to God’s will were repeated. They became a habit. Finally a complete state of obduracy and unsusceptibility set in, which is God’s own final judgment upon the impenitent sinner. It is in this sense that we understand the words: ‘I will harden his heart.” (Confer also Eze 33:11; 1 Tm 2:4; 2 Pe 2:9).
As we look through a translation then, we should look for this pattern:
- Pharaoh hardens himself.
- Pharaoh’s heart is hard.
- The Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart.
It is easy to find the first and third categories. But the ESV is at the very least, somewhat confusing when it comes to the second category.
“Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:13 ESV)
וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה׃ פ
The ESV translates the opening words as “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” confusing the subject and the object. The Hebrew simply says that the heart of Pharaoh was/became hard. The NIV11 and HCSB are better here: “However, Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:13 HCSB); “Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:13 NIV11)
“But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. So Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:22 ESV)
The ESV is slightly better here. But it still hints at 7:13 where God was the agent. Again, the NIV11 and HCSB are better here: “But the magicians of Egypt did the same thing by their occult practices. So Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:22 HCSB); “But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:22 NIV11)
“Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:19 ESV)}
While making a slight improvement in 7:22, here they go back to their previous translation in 7:13. Again, the NIV11 and HCSB are clearer: “the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:19 NIV11); ““This is the finger of God,” the magicians said to Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 8:19 HCSB)
“And Pharaoh sent, and behold, not one of the livestock of Israel was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go.” (Exodus 9:7 ESV)
…וַיִּכְבַּד לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
Here in this verse we change from חזק to כבד. But the tense of the verb (qal) and the subject are still the same. Here again, instead of leaving the translation more open and flexible, we find the same pattern here in chapter 9 as earlier. Not surprisingly, the NIV11 is better here: “Pharaoh investigated and found that not even one of the animals of the Israelites had died. Yet his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go.” (Exodus 9:7 NIV11)
“So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.” (Exodus 9:35 ESV)
…וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
Now we change back from כבד to חזק. But the ESV translation is the same. They lead us in the direction of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart instead of his heart becoming hard. For comparison, here are the other two translations: “So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses.” (Exodus 9:35 NIV11); “So Pharaoh’s heart hardened, and he did not let the Israelites go, as the Lord had said through Moses.” (Exodus 9:35 HCSB)
I do not pretend to have completely mastered either the greek or hebrew. So, even though I have found this pattern, I am quite willing to be taught and corrected if I might have erred in my conclusions. At the very least, I thought it would be good for you men to have a look at these passages with me.
And finally, so that it doesn’t appear like I’m the ubiquitous guy at the voter’s meeting who points out problems but doesn’t offer up any alternatives, please allow me to say this:
- I am uncomfortable with the changes in the NIV which the TEC has brought to our attention. But I do recognize that there are real and sizable improvements in other areas. As a result, I’m still studying it to see if I can give my own “stamp of approval” for the NIV.
- I find the HCSB growing on me. It is quirky in some places. It is downright awkward in others. But, the more I use it, the more it seems to be what the ESV should have been. The HCSB makes a concerted effort to dump the archaic language. And when it comes to an idiom in the hebrew or greek that would be unclear in english, they do the hard work of translating it into something an english reader would more easily understand. It would be wise for us to look at the HCSB in more depth—especially if we might be able to put a guy on their translation committee.
1 preface. p. vii
2 Wayne Grudem,—Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors Essentially Literal‘ Bible Translations, in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 56.
3 Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs; 3d revised, Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolisnn: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 503.
4 preface. p. vii
5 LOGIA. Volume X, Number 1, p. 14
6 preface, p. vii
7 As Professor Nass pointed out on the synod convention floor during the open forum, we are indeed thankful for the NIV11’s change in the new version: “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:21 NIV11)
8 Some Thoughts on the ESV and Bible Translation, Thomas P. Nass, p. 4
9 awkward word order.
; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;” (Psalms 44:2 ESV)
11 Chapple, Allan. “The English Standard Version: A Review Article.” Originally published in The Reformed Theological Review, Vol. 62, No. 2 (August 2003), pp. 61-96. Available at: http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/briefing/files/pdf/306-chapple-esv.pdf. (Here I’m citing the entire paper, since the url is no longer active)
12 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Accordance electronic ed. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), n.p.
13 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Henry Beveridge; Accordance electronic ed. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), n.p.
14 —1. with personal subject: —a. ( = עָשָׂה) to make, accomplish… —3. sbj. God: —a. to make, prepare, with acc. and לְ, the place Yahweh prepared as an abode Ex 1517; to make, create Pr 164; —b. to perform; (“פעל,” HALOT, 3:950.)
15 e.g. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 604-609.
16 It is interesting to note that the NIV (old and new) goes in the same direction the ESV does, even citing Prov. 16:4 as proof.
17 cited from the commentary for Exodus 4