Why we use the ESV

ESV Bible

We have bought copies of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible to use as our church Bibles. Some people have been wondering why, particularly because most people probably use the New International Version.

There are many different versions of the Bible now available. At one end of the spectrum are those that aim to translate the original languages of the Bibles (Hebrew for most of the Old Testament, and Greek in the New Testament) with a literal translation. There’s no attempt to unpack what the original Bible author might have meant, but simply to translate the words that are there. For example, if the original talks about ‘bowels of mercy’ then that is what is written down (rather than something like ‘heart filled with mercy’ which is what the author probably meant).

At the other extreme are translations that use ‘dynamic equivalence’, sometimes paraphrasing (rather than literally translating) and using words and phrases that will immediately bring out the meaning to the modern reader.

A good place to compare these two extremes is 1 Samuel 24:3. King Saul goes into a cave, where David is hiding at the back. The King James Version (which is well to the literal end of the spectrum) says that Saul went in ‘to cover his feet’, the Good News Bible (somewhere near the middle) says that he went in ‘to relieve himself’, whilst the Living Bible (right at the dynamic equivalence end) says that he went into the cave ‘to go to the bathroom’! The literal end translates word-for-word, whilst the dynamic equivalence end paraphrases thought-for-thought.

In simple terms, both ESV and NIV are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, with ESV more ‘word-for-word’ and NIV more ‘thought-for-thought’.

There are theological reasons and practical/pastoral reasons why we’ve decided that the ESV is the best translation to be using at Emmanuel.

1. The ESV upholds the truth that Scripture is the very words of God, not just the thoughts of God.

This point is inextricably connected to the doctrine of ‘verbal plenary inspiration’, which means that God the Holy Spirit inspired not just the general thoughts of Scripture but the very words and details. The Bible repeatedly declares that the very words of God are important, not just the thoughts they convey (e.g., Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 32:46–47; Proverbs 30:5–6; Matthew 4:4; Luke 21:33; John 6:63; 17:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Revelation 21:5; 22:18–19).

2. The ESV upholds that what is said must be known before what is meant can be determined.

Only after knowing what Scripture says can we understand what it means. Practically, this means that Bible translations are separate from and must precede Bible commentaries. A word-for-word translation along the lines of the ESV enables this to occur by seeking, as much as possible, not to insert interpretive commentary into the translated text of Scripture; rather, it lets the text first speak for itself. The general problem with thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that their English interpreters are including their own commentary (in that they have made a decision about what they think the author must have meant). But of course, this commentary is not part of the original text. For the average reader, this is problematic because we can’t know which parts of our Bible are from the original text and which parts have been added by commentators who were trying to convey their interpretation of its meaning.

3. The ESV upholds the truth that words carry meaning.

Some scholars will argue that thought-for-thought and paraphrase translations do not change the meaning of Scripture but just the words of Scripture in an effort to clarify the meaning of Scripture. But of course meaning is carried in words. When we change the words of Scripture we are changing the meaning of Scripture. For example, when we handle other important documents we do not take the liberty to change their words (for example, an attorney is not free to change the words of a signed contract).

4. The ESV maintains the theological vocabulary of Scripture.

One of the more popular arguments for thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that people do not understand the theological vocabulary that Scripture uses to express doctrinal concepts. The reasoning follows that words like ‘justification’ and ‘propitiation’, which the original text of Scripture used, should be replaced with more modern vernacular that people can understand.

The question begs to be answered: why should we stop with only some theological words that the average person does not understand? The sad truth is that we live in a culture that has very little biblical knowledge and many if not most of the central words that Scripture uses are not understood by the average person. I guess the average person probably has little if any biblical understanding of what is meant by basic words such as ‘God’, ‘sin’, and ‘Jesus’.

A minister was recently writing an article for a non-Christian newspaper and in his column wrote that God had ‘convicted’ him of something in his life. The editor responded that the word ‘conviction’ needed to be explained because they were not familiar with the word and their readers would not know what was meant. Why? Because outside of Christianity even something as simple as conviction is not understood.

Words open up worlds of new truths. Therefore, if people do not know the words of Scripture, we should give them the old words of the original text, literally translated into English, so that a new world of truth can be opened to them. Because we love people, we should strive to explain the words that they do not understand so that they can fully appreciate what God is saying to them through Scripture.

5. The ESV upholds the complementarian nature of gender in Scripture.

Unknown to the average Bible-reading Christian, there is a great debate raging in academic circles about the language of gender and how it relates to biblical translation.

It must be pointed out that, in its more insidious forms, the push for gender-neutral language is in fact a push against Scripture. For example, Scripture states that God made us ‘male and female’ (Genesis 1:27). Consequently, in God’s created order, there is both equality between men and women (because both are His image-bearers) and distinction (because men and women have differing roles). This position is called complementarianism and teaches that men and women, though equal, are also different in some ways and therefore function best together in a complementary way, like a right hand and left hand (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:18–19; 1 Timothy 2:8–3:13). But those with a feminist or homosexual agenda are seeking to eradicate the created distinction between males and females so as to validate new alternative lifestyles. Translations such as the New Revised Standard accommodate this by wrongly translating ‘male and female’ in Genesis 1:27 as the androgynous ‘humankind’. The New Living Bible translates it as the genderless ‘people’. The reason all of this matters to Bible translation is two-fold.

First, there is pressure from some theological teams to change the masculine language that Scripture uses in favour of more feministic and/or gender-neutral language that is not the language of the original text.

Second, even more insidious is the effort of some to feminize God. Theologically speaking, God does not have a gender because God is not a man (Numbers 23:19). In using the word ‘He’, the Bible is not saying that God is merely a man, but rather that God is a unique person that does not have a biological gender but does reveal Himself with terms such as ‘Father’ when speaking about Himself. For example, Jesus said ‘Our Father’ when he gave us our model of how to pray. Therefore, referring to God as Father is not an antiquated oppression from a patriarchal culture, but an echo of the prayer life of Jesus.

6. The ESV upholds the truth that while Scripture is meant for all people, it cannot be communicated in such a way that all people receive it.

Scripture teaches us that God loves the whole world and that we should seek to reach as many people as possible. So the desire to make the Bible understandable so that more people can learn about Jesus is something that every Christian should wholeheartedly agree to. It’s very logical for us to think ‘let’s go for a translation that is easily understandable by as many people as possible’.

However, we must remember that we cannot change the words of Scripture because God has called us to not only communicate widely, but also communicate truthfully. We must accept that not all Scripture is easy to understand for many reasons. First of all, we are sinners, which means that sometimes we suppress the truth because we disagree with Scripture and are unwilling to repent. The problem is a hard heart and not just a difficult translation (Romans 1:28). Second, God’s thoughts are much higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9). Third, God has secrets that He has not revealed to us (Deuteronomy 29:29). Fourth, we sometimes see the truth dimly and know it in part (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Furthermore, even the greatest of communicators were known to be hard to understand when they spoke God’s truth. For example, some of Jesus’ teaching was declared to be a ‘hard saying’ by His hearers (John 6:60). Jesus also taught in parables, knowing that His teaching would not be readily understood by all his hearers, but only those with ‘ears to hear’ (Mark 4:10–23). Speaking of Paul’s writings, around which controversy continues to swirl today, Peter said, ‘And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures’ (2 Peter 3:15–16).

We should make every effort to have the Bible translated in words that as many people as possible can understand. But we must also be careful not to cross a line where we change God’s words in the hope that more people will accept them. Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit working in us, there is no way we can gladly receive the truth. Even with the Holy Spirit, some parts of Scripture remain for us ‘hard to understand’, as they were even for Peter, who was trained by Jesus and penned Scripture.

Having said all of this, there are good reasons to enjoy multiple good English translations of Scripture. Many people will continue to use NIV at home or in our Home Group. But it is a good ‘rule’ to use a word-for-word translation as our primary study tool while also using other translations as secondary resources. Study Bibles are useful too, but again, don’t treat the interpretator’s notes as if they have the same authority as the words of Scripture themselves. Remember the place where God certainly speaks, and use every available help so we understand it properly.

Read more on the ESV website. Especially worth looking at is the section on Translation Philosophy. Or you could try browsing through the articles listed here.