Well, the results are in. 102 pastors and professors of our churchbody have thoroughly read and evaluated the three translations. These men deserve our thanks and commendation for the time and hard work they put in. I know of at least one of these men who was given a sabbatical by his congregation to complete his work. Thank you both to these pastors and to their congregations.
Over the last several weeks I have read through their evaluations and comments and have learned some new details about these translations. Likewise, I have also had some of my previous conclusions strengthened. What follows is a gathering of these thoughts and conclusions.
- p. 20: “Deut 6:8 they shall be as frontlets over your eyes.” Comment: is “frontlet” even a word? As opposed to a “backlet” or a “sidelet?”
- p. 35: “Sometimes the ESV chooses a difficult to understand, lesser used English word rather than a commonly used and understood one. Children and the less literate among us would probably have a harder time understanding the ESV if it were used in public worship and other publications. It was hard to praise ESV for good translation when it was sitting next to NIV and HCSB.”
- P. 49: under the “five weak passages” section: “Psalm 1:1 “stands in the way of sinners” – Today’s English idiom would understand this as saying that he is getting in their way instead of hanging out with them, as the text clearly indicates. This is one of many examples of the ESV needing to be translated by the reader into modern English.”
- P. 50: “However, as a mission pastor in the Bible belt, I have seen way too many people abused by the KJV and its type of “English”. I’ve seen too many people misunderstanding the English and using that to support completely false teachings. I’d much rather save that struggle and focus on teaching the truth from Scripture rather than first “interpreting” what the English says for them as well. I’ve also seen too many people avoid reading Scripture at home because they “couldn’t understand” their KJV. ESV struggles with the same antiquated language for those people.”
- P. 57: “Proverbs 16:4 The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Reviewer: “Every time I read this verse, it sounds like Calvinistic double predestination to me.”
- P. 66: “Throughout this section of Isaiah, the ESV’s attempts at literary excellence result in just the opposite. They make Isaiah sound like Yoda from Star Wars: Decide you must, how to serve them best, if you leave now, help them you could but…you would destroy all for which they have fought and suffered… This is one example—of many—where their phrasing and word order comes across as less than poetic.”
- P. 81: “Eze 16:10 “I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather.”” Evaluation: “Don’t you shod horses? “Hold on a sec, I need to shod myself with my Nikes of fine leather.””
- P. 86: “I did not find doctrinal problems other than Dan 12:2 in this section. But does the ESV get points for not trying? When Hebrew idiom is almost universally retained, there is less opportunity for doctrinal error. And then we pay the price in a loss of clarity and in delayed comprehension.”
- P. 109: “Acts 17:34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” Reviewer: “Even though the ESV is fighting for it tooth and nail the generic use of “men” has fallen out of usage. This makes for a strange combination in this verse when the second half of the sentence tells us that there was a woman among the “men.””
Each of these men in their own way arrived at the same conclusion I reached about the ESV. What if promises in the preface it doesn’t provide in the translation…
- Linguistically: In the ESV preface we find these words:
- Within this framework we have sought to be “as literal as possible” while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence
- As an essentially literal translation, then, the ESV seeks to carry over every possible nuance of meaning in the original words of Scripture into our own language. As such, the ESV is ideally suited for in-depth study of the Bible. Indeed, with its emphasis on literary excellence, the ESV is equally suited for public reading and preaching, for private reading and reflection, for both academic and devotional study, and for Scripture memorization.
As one of the reviewers noted, the ESV’s pursuit of literary excellence makes the bible sound more like a soliloquy spoken by Yoda than a clear english translation of the bible. This, by itself, will put the ESV at the bottom of the list for most pastors.
- The footnotes that accompany the ESV text are an integral part of the ESV translation, informing the reader of textual variations and difficulties and showing how these have been resolved by the ESV translation team. In addition to this, the footnotes indicate significant alternative readings and occasionally provide an explanation for technical terms or for a difficult reading in the text.
After reading through these words in the ESV preface I expected them to provide footnotes letting us know about textual and doctrinal difficulties and the conclusions they arrived at when it came to these difficulties. And in many examples this is true. The one exception is when it comes to the Calvinist view of double predestination. It was surprising and somewhat shocking to find that they mistranslated some bible verses when I compared them to the original. As one of the reviewers pointed out, their rendering of Proverbs 16:4 is just plain wrong. So also, take for example the very difficult word, κατηρτισμένα in Rom 9:22. This participle could either be active or passive. They translate it as passive, making God the agent. And to make it all that much more clear what they want you to conclude it to mean, in the footnote they direct you back to Prov 16:4. Notice how this is the exact opposite of what they print in their preface. In the preface they say that in difficult cases they would provide alternatives for difficult and debatable words. Whenever the issue of Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination pops up, the real and legitimate alternatives vanish.
The biggest weakness in the ESV is that it doesn’t practice what it preaches. What it prints in the preface it doesn’t provide in the translation. It would be admissible and permissible for them to say in their preface that they are providing a literal translation in the family of the King James tradition….and then stop. But to overreach and say that since it’s a literal translation it is less prone to error and easily able to be read from the pulpit—who can stand that sort of rhetoric? As one reads the comments and reviews of the 102, it is plain to see that they couldn’t.
- P. 11: Lev. 1:3 “He must bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting.” The HCSB clearly prefers to express the jussive with “must” rather than “shall” or “is to.” Though Leviticus lays out the holiness code which is full of laws, the overuse of the word “must” gives an air of legalism to the book. According to BibleGateway’s word search, the word “must” occurs 212 times in the HCSB translation of Leviticus, but 169 times in the NIV11, and just four times in the ESV. I’m not sure it’s only a translation preference when I read Gal. 6:9-10 in the HCSB: “So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.” In the HCSB, a perfectly serviceable hortatory subjunctive has to yield to “must.”
- P. 24: “Joshua 10:22 HCSB offers an awkward phrase: “bring those five kings to me out of there.” Also, HCSB seems to have far too many contractions for a Bible that is to be read aloud… Yet, the single most troubling thing did not occur in this section and likely won’t be found in this review process if it is not mentioned: the “Plan of Salvation” (decision theology page) that seems to appear in every printed copy of HCSB. For some, this seems to be a deal-breaker. Promises that some day it might be removed in a special edition does not eliminate the problem that every copy that I can find has it in there. Sometimes it is not inside the cover, but in the middle of the Bible.”
- P. 106: “(John 14:1 “Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me,)I know that Baptists and Lutherans hear the word ‘must’ differently. And yet I really see no need for transforming a third person imperative (μη ταρασσεσθω) into an English “must” sentence. It just sounds too peremptory, as if the illocutionary force of Jesus’ words was to give a command as a test of faith rather than an encouragement on the basis of a solid promise.”
These reviewers summarize my thoughts about the HCSB. Like the ESV, it too has weaknesses….
- Linguistically: The HCSB loves to change hortatory subjunctives and third person imperatives into “musts.” When there are these first person hortatives and third person imperatives context must determine whether this is a gospel based or law based command. By universally translating them as “must”s it is hard to find the gospel in the way the HCSB translated them.
- Doctrinally: The HCSB is published by Lifeway, the publishing arm of the SBC. So, with keen attention we look at the HCSB to see if there are any Arminian biases found therein. And the conclusion I quickly reached is that if they were trying to drive Baptist theology down our throats, they didn’t do a good job.1 There are some highly questionable footnotes.2 And Acts 22:16 suffers from an awkward rendering. But overall the baptism passages stand fine on their own.
As the reviewers noted, not at the beginning of the bible, but deep in the book of Joshua there is a “decision” page. A number of reviewers rated the bible lower because this page existed at all. And, I suppose, who can blame them? At the MI district convention, we were assured by the representatives of the Translation Evaluation Committee that the “decision” page would be removed in future editions. I wish the reviewers knew this before they read through their sections of the HCSB. They might have rated the HCSB higher. In every measurable way it seems clear that Lifeway is taking consistent strides to avoid having the HCSB being labeled as the “Here Come the Southern Baptists” bible. We add to this the fact that two confessional Lutherans are on the HCSB translation oversight committee, and even more so we see their effort to include other church bodies in their translation.
- P. 10: Exodus 10:7 “NIV translates אֶת־הָאֲנָשִׁים as the people. This might be defensible if there were no context. The context indicates that the officials did mean exactly what they said – let the men go. If the women and children stay, the men will have reason to return. In verse 10 Pharaoh gets agitated when they also want to take the women and children with them, and flat out commands no, allow only the men to go. Should keep this one ‘men.’ “ This is one of the issues I have with the NIV. They overreach with the gender inclusive language. I can’t object much to valid inclusive language. But here the NIV is more “quirky” than the HCSB.
- P. 58: “Proverbs 15:9 The LORD detests the way of the wicked,but he loves those who pursue righteousness: “The “Notes” from the NIV Committee on Bible Translation say that in general, “Using plurals instead of singulars to deal with generic forms was avoided” (p.5). Given this statement, I was surprised to see how often singulars in Hebrew are shifted to plurals in the NIV11 in order to make a passage gender inclusive. I listed about 120 such passages in my notes! Especially surprising for me were passages like Proverbs 15:9 where the singular could easily have been retained: “The LORD detests the way of the wicked person, but he loves the one who pursues righteousness.” This freedom with the text does not make me happy.””
- P. 106: “The NIV11 would certainly be the easiest transition for our people because we are used to NIV84. However, I don’t think the NIV11’s efforts to gender inclusive language conveys accurately the meaning of Scripture. Not only gender specific pronouns but also nouns (υἱός, τέκνον, παῖς) are changed to gender neutral terms which, in some cases, obscure or change the meaning of the text. These more subtle changes will also make it harder to explain to our hearers why the translation is weak.”
- P. 111: “I was also surprised with how much I liked the HCSB. In many places they got it right. It certainly is a readable translation, for the most part. The TEC’s evaluation of it seems to me to be a correct one: it is quirky and at times overly literal, but closer to the ideal than the ESV. If we were able to compromise behind a single version, the HCSB is the way to go.”
- P. 125: “I grew up on the NIV. I was born in 1978. It is all I have really known. That is a double-edged sword. It is familiar, and so it is feels comfortable. At the same time, the changes made spark more emotion than differences found in the other translations. I like the overall style partly because I am used to it. But then the changes made, especially the ones to achieve gender neutrality, drive me to distraction. It’s not just”messing with my Bible,” either. There are sections, such as the beginning of [Romans] chapter 14, where you can’t help but feel the strain from the editors to pull off the grammatical gymnastics to eliminate male pronouns. And while I understand the context of the end of chapter 2 is emphasizing the importance of the circumcision of the heart, I stilled barked a loud laugh when I revisited a note about how they removed the male references when talking about circumcision! In addition to that, I also found a tendency for the NIV11 to “tweak” things over the NIV84 that, in my opinion, made no difference. They didn’t add to or subtract from the thoughts in the old version. So why change things?”
In many ways, it might be tempting for us to just stay with the NIV. After all, it’s what we’re used to. And there are clearly a number of improvements. In addition, it’s the easiest to read. But, what I didn’t realize is some of the weaknesses that the update gave us too:
- Linguistically: As the reviewers note, gender inclusive language is a laudable goal. But the CBT seems to have been overzealous in finding and replacing words with gender inclusive substitutes. As the reviewers noted, it’s clear and obvious (in Exodus 10) that Moses commanded Pharoah to let all the people go. Pharaoh responds by saying that he would let the men go, but not the women and children. In the NIV11 Pharaoh seems like he’s not just stubborn, he’s also somewhat forgetful. So too, including women in the circumcision passages is (as the reviewer notes) laughable.
- Doctrinally: The NIV’s zeal also gets them into trouble in some key doctrinal passages too. In psalm 8, one could take it as a typical or direct prophecy. By adding gender inclusive language to that psalm one is boxed into a typical understanding when exegetically, both are possible. Another example is in the book of Acts. When the church chose Stephen to help the apostles the twelve stood up and said, “men, brothers…”3 In the NIV11, directly going against the greek, they translate those opening words as “brothers and sisters.” Not only is this translation indefensible, it also begins to erode the consistency of passages throughout the bible which speak about the roles of men and women in the home and in the church.
It is important for us to speak about the NIV in a clear and even critical way. For there are many substantive, positive updates in the NIV. But, like these other two bibles, there are weaknesses too. And if we proceed by using the NIV in our church body it’s important what we’re getting ourselves into.
I am very pleased to see the amount of work, care and detail the reviewers put into their work. Through their work I was able to see whether the philosophy of translation which was stated in each bible’s preface was actually carried out in the resulting translation. In its preface the HCSB we find them stating that the HCSB is a new translation which seeks to find a middle-road between the formal and functional methods. And when one reads through the bible this is what we consistently find. Sometimes it may be a little quirky. But they were consistent with their stated goals. So also, in the NIV we find the same. They state in their preface, “Updates are needed in order to reflect the latest developments in our understanding of the biblical world and its languages and to keep pace with changes in English usage.” We might conclude that they went too far with their updates. But we definitely can’t conclude that they weren’t consistent with their goals. What they planned in their preface they provided in their translation. This then leaves us with the ESV. Consistently, to borrow the quote from the movie, Top Gun, it “writes checks that its body can’t cash.” In the preface of the ESV they promise us a translation that is both literal and yet also easily readable. They promise us that where there are translation difficulties they give us the options in the footnotes. As we read the translation itself, we find they they consistently do not apply what they plan in their preface.
The obvious conclusion one reaches after reading the tallied ratings of the 102 is that the ESV is out of the running. So, let’s talk about the other two. Specifically, when deciding which of these two to work with, we should ask the question, “what are we going to do with this bible?” Are we going to use this bible for almost exclusively from the pulpit? What about Catechism class? What about family devotions? What about printing our own Lutheran study bible?
I start with these questions because, with one of these translations we will have to explain the words they use because they are under-translated. Yahweh, Lord of Hosts and Propitiation are all words which don’t explain themselves when we read them from the pulpit. On the other hand, with the other translation, we will have to explain the the words that are over-translated. When we use the NIV we will have to explain and teach that women do not get circumcised and that the men were the voters in Acts 6.
The other reason I ask the question “what we’re going to be using this bible for” is a practical question. If we, as a synod, would like to have our own study bible (and I think this is a really, really good idea), then it would be wise for us to look at what the publishers are offering us in this area. Biblica will allow us to publish our own study bible, but at a much, much higher cost than the other publishers. Our Translation Feasibility Committee informed us this past summer that the publishers of the HCSB would allow us to publish our own study bible at a practical, approachable price. For this reason, I recommend that we choose the HCSB for our Synod publications.
But, speaking solely for myself, there’s another reason I think it would be wise to consider the HCSB. There are two confessional Lutherans on their translation oversight committee. And one of them (Andrew Das), is in our fellowship. Can you think of any Lutheran on the Translation Oversight Committees of either of the two other translations? If we are looking for signs that the HCSB is striving to set aside the image of the HCSB of being the “HardCore Southern Baptist” bible or the “Here Come the Southern Baptists” bible, it’s hard to overlook these actions. The efforts of the HCSB folks to include people from other denominations who treat God’s word as being true and authoritative speaks well of their view of God’s word and a future we might have with them.4”
Finally, it is a wonderful, beautiful joy to have the challenge of deciding between these two fine translations. I can use either of these translations in the pulpit and in the classroom with full confidence. There are many people who do not even have an updated translation in their own language, let alone several. I look forward to seeing what decision our men will arrive at in our Synod in convention. My prayers will be with you all.