Do Bible translations matter?

Since I recently finished a series on why the KJV is not the only bible that should be used by Christians I think its appropriate to tackle the Bible translation issue from a different perspective. Namely the question: “so does it really matter what translation I use?”

First, let’s briefly survey what the Bible says about the Bible; this will give us insight on wether or not Bible translations matter, and if so, what we should look for in a Bible translation.

What the Bible says about the Bible

When thinking of the subject of bibliology (the doctrine of the bible) one immediately calls to mind the doctrine of Inspiration. The doctrine of inspiration comes from two main texts: II Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (ESV), and II Peter 1:20-21 which says, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (ESV). The first passage (II Tim 3:16) gives the divine origin of Scripture, while the later gives the human.

Here are a couple of things that should be pointed out when looking at these texts: the first thing to notice is that inspiration is plenary, that is, it is comprehensive. It says that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” The second is that it is verbal, meaning that Scripture is the very word of God, not just the thoughts! Notice the beginning of 3:16; it says, “all Scripture…” The Greek word translated “Scripture,” graphe, speaks of actual words. It is not simply the general ideas, or thoughts that are inspired but the very words used. The words of Scripture are emphasized elsewhere as well, for example:

Deuteronomy 32:46–47 “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”

Proverbs 30:5–6 “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”

I Thessalonians 2:13 “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

Matthew 4:4 “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Luke 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

John 6:63 “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

John 17:8 “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (ESV)

Time and again words are emphasized in Scripture as being from God, rather than the mere thoughts.

Now about those translations

That being said, let’s look at the three main translational styles and see how they match up with what God says about His Word. This is not meant to be a legalistic chart of what translational methods are right and wrong, or ‘holy’ and ‘sinful,’ because that can’t be done. I simply want to lay out what I believe to be a good framework for choosing a Bible.

1. The first translational style is formal equivalence. This is the translational style used by translations such as the KJV, NASB, NKJV, ESV, ASV, RSV, Green’s Literal, and others.  These translations are often referred to as being “literal translations.” More or less, formal equivalence seeks to translate in a ‘word-for-word’ manner, sacrificing some everyday readability to be true to the actual words used by the author as inspired by God.

2. The second method is known as dynamic equivalence. This is the translational style made famous by the NIV, also used by the TNIV, Phillips, NET, NLT, Good News Bible, and others. Rather than working toward a word-for-word translation of the original languages, dynamic equivalence attempts to translate the thoughts of the passage into words that would be better understood by modern readers. This method often sacrifices literalness, linguistic idioms, and original wording/word-order in the name of readability. It can be noted that that there are translations which may fall between the lines of these three translational methods; the Holman CSB is a translation which falls between formal and dynamic equivalence, in a philosophy which they call “optimal equivalence.” The NET Bible is similar in this manner.

3. A third method that could be added to this group is what we could simply call a paraphrase. The most popular version in this category is “The Message,” but is also found in the Living Bible, The Voice, and others. Paraphrases don’t really try to “translate” the passage at all; they simply “retell” the story in whatever way the paraphraser interprets it.

What I believe is best

From the version used in the verses above you probably know that I prefer the formal equivalence method and the ESV in particular. The reason for favoring formal equivalence comes from what the Bible teaches about inspiration, and out of respect for the biblical writers in general.

As was pointed out earlier, God’s inspiration applies down to the very words of Scripture, which I believe is a good reason that translations should strive to translate the actual words of the original language into their best English equivalents, rather than merely the thoughts.

The problem with dynamic equivalence

I am not trying to say that the NIV or those who read it (or any other dynamic equivalence translation) are less spiritual; I believe that these type of translations have their place in Christian’s libraries and can be a valuable study help. The important thing to understand is the fact that the further a translation gets from a word-for-word method the more interpretation is allowed to creep in. Instead of translating the words of the text (allowing the reader to interpret) dynamic equivalence translates the thoughts of the text giving you a pre-chewed, pre-interpreted Bible, and leaving you hoping that the translator interpreted correctly! Now I believe that the NIV translators do a good job of interpreting in most cases (though not in all), but I personally would like a little interpretation as possible so I am not left guessing wether or not the words I am reading are close to the original or are merely a translators opinion of them.

Anything that can be said about the interpretation in the NIV can be said 10 times about paraphrases. Bible paraphrases can’t really be called translations because they are really just the ‘translator’s’ thoughts on what is said. Some believe that paraphrases should not be used as a primary translation for a Christian, but can be used simply as a commentary. I would agree with the first part, but would argue that there is no paraphrase out there written by anyone who I would want to read a commentary by! Most are very liberal, and in the case of The Message, new age.

I have to be honest here and say that no translation is without some amount of interpretation though. Even literal translations such as the ESV and KJV have an amount of ‘dynamic equivalence.’ We have to understand that the Bible is only powerful when we understand it, and doing a strict word-for-word rendering would be almost totally incomprehensible.

Why the ESV is my personal favorite

Though I own a NIV and other less literal translations, I believe that the serious Bible student should always have a literal translation as his primary bible for devotion and study. John Piper gives four reasons to use a literal translation:

“1. A more literal translation respects the original author’s way of writing. It is a way of honoring the inspired writers.

2. Translators are fallible and they may mislead the English reader if they use unnecessary paraphrases to bring out one possible meaning and conceal others.

3. A more literal translation gives preachers more confidence that they can preach what the English text says with authority that it reflects what the original Greek or Hebrew text says.

4. A more literal translation which preserves ambiguities that are really there in the original keeps open the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers.”

(John Piper, Good English With Minimal Translation: Why Bethlehem Baptist Uses the ESV)

I have read out of the KJV most of my life, and have great respect for it, the NASB and even the Holman CSB, but the English Standard Bible has come to be my favorite and primary Bible translation. What the ESV has done is translate the Scriptures in a literal way, while somehow keeping the language very readable, grammatically correct, and even keeping the poetic flow of the King James in poetic passages.

Once again this isn’t about passing judgment on the NIV or other translations, but sharing my personal opinion about Bible translations, and why I choose formal equivalence. Grace and peace!