A few years into his current pastoral role, Kevin DeYoung was faced with a church that needed to replace its well-worn pew Bibles. DeYoung wrote to his congregation, outlining seven reasons why he preferred the English Standard Version (ESV) and was proposing its adoption. Among his top reasons for switching to the ESV DeYoung noted its essentially literal translation philosophy, avoidance of over- and under-translation, consistency in translating important Greek and Hebrew words, and retention of important literary features.
DeYoung’s letter has been newly edited and put into booklet form. Sold individually or in packs of ten, Why Our Church Switched to the ESV is an excellent tool for pastors or lay leaders seeking to learn more about the English Standard Version.
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About the Author
Kevin DeYoung (PhD, University of Leicester) is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). He serves as board chairman of the Gospel Coalition and blogs at DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed. He is the author of several books, including Just Do Something; Crazy Busy; and The Biggest Story. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have eight children.
Read an Excerpt
Narrowing the Question
It would be impossible, in a few pages or even a few hundred pages, to compare the ESV with every other modern English translation. Instead, I want to focus on how the ESV compares with the NIV, the former pew Bible at University Reformed Church and the most popular Bible in the United States in terms of sales. I could give reasons why I like the ESV more than other translations — the KJV/NKJV is based on inferior manuscripts, the NASB is too wooden and lacking in literary quality, the NRSV opts for a gender-neutral approach, The Message is too paraphrastic, the RSV is burdened by theological bias, etc. — but since the switch at my church was from NIV to ESV, I will explain my preference for the ESV by way of comparison with the NIV.CHAPTER 2
ESV or NIV for URC?
Here are seven reasons why I prefer the ESV over the NIV.
1. The ESV employs an "essentially literal" translation philosophy. The NIV, by contrast, has a less literal "dynamic equivalence" philosophy (though it is probably the most literal of the dynamic equivalent translations). The difference means the ESV tries to translate "word-for-word" as much as possible while the NIV translates "thought-for-thought." The different approaches can be seen by comparing prefaces (italics added).
The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers. They have weighed the significance of the lexical and grammatical details of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meaning of words (emphasis added).
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 biblical 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 (emphasis added).
The difference between the NIV and ESV is not a chasm, but one of degree. Anyone who has translated from one language to another knows that achieving a rigid word-for-word translation is a naive goal. Languages work differently and the words fit together in different orders, making strict word-for-word translations overly clumsy and often impossible. That's why the ESV is called an essentially literal translation. Its goal is to translate word for word wherever possible. Because every single word of Scripture is breathed out by God and is for our edification (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21; see also Prov. 30:5; Matt. 4:4; 5:18; John 10:34), it is important to translate, insofar as possible, not just the thought of the biblical writers but the meaning that each word contributes to the sentence. If this talk about translation philosophy seems esoteric and abstract, the differences between the two approaches — essentially literal and dynamic equivalence — will be evident when we look at specific examples below.
2. The ESV is a more transparent translation. That is to say, the ESV leaves interpretive ambiguities unresolved so that the reader or preacher or student, rather than the translator, can determine which meaning is best. Often, even when the Greek or Hebrew construction can be easily translated, the meaning of the translation is still ambiguous. A common example in Greek involves genitives. The most basic translation for a noun in the genitive case would include the word "of." For example, 2 Corinthians 5:14 reads (in the ESV) "For the love of Christ controls us ..." The phrase "the love of Christ" translates the Greek agape tou Christou which is, grammatically, a nominative noun followed by a genitive noun. The love of Christ could mean the love Christ has for us, or the love we have for Christ, or both. All three are possible from the Greek and from the ESV translation. The NIV, however, translates 2 Corinthians 5:14 "For Christ's love compels us ..." This may be what the Greek phrase means (or it may not be), but the NIV has settled the matter for us — agape tou Christou means the love Christ has for us (i.e., "Christ's love") — and has not allowed the reader to come to his own conclusion. This is what I mean when I say the ESV is more transparent. It makes more of an effort to leave ambiguities in the English that are actually there in the Greek.
Here are several more examples:
[ESV] "So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty [nomou eleutherias]."
[NIV] "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom."
The NIV interprets the law of liberty to mean the law that gives freedom, but the Greek is ambiguous. The phrase nomou eleutherias may mean that liberty is the law under which we are to be judged, or that liberty is characteristic of the law, or that the law imparts liberty, or some combination of all of the above. The ESV allows for all these possibilities; the NIV does not.
1 Thessalonians 1:3
[ESV] "remembering before our God and Father your work of faith [tou ergou tes pisteos] and labor of love [tou kopou tes agapes] and steadfastness of hope [tes hupomones tes elpidos] in our Lord Jesus Christ."
[NIV] "We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."
Even without a knowledge of Greek, most readers will be able to see from this side-by-side comparison that the NIV has significantly augmented the passage. Of course, translations require plenty of judgment calls (it's not an exact science). Every translation effort involves some interpretation. But the NIV has tried too hard to clarify verses like this one by adding key words that are not in the Greek, such as "produced," "prompted," and "inspired."
[ESV] "... not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works [nekron ergon] ..."
[NIV] "... not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death ..."
Again, the NIV has removed the ambiguity that exists in the Greek and is made transparent in the ESV. Are dead works those works that lead to death, or those that are done in the absence of life, or both? The NIV decides the matter for us.
We see a similar example with "the love of God" (agape tou theou) in 1 John, which can mean the love God has for us, or our love for God, or both. The ESV consistently translates the phrase "the love of God" while the NIV interprets the phrase as "God's love" (1 John 2:5), "God showed his love" (4:9), and "love for God" (5:3). The NIV approach gives the English reader not only a destabilized text (the same phrase translated three different ways) but interpretations in addition to translation. Granted, the words or phrases do not always have to be translated the same way, but if "love of God" is understandable in each instance, why muddy the waters with interpretative amplifications?
Likewise, Romans 1:5 speaks of "the obedience of faith" (ESV). The Greek (hupakoen pisteos) may mean that obedience comes from faith, or that faith is obedience, or some combination of both. The NIV removes the ambiguity and renders the phrase "the obedience that comes from faith."
This whole notion of a "transparent" translation is a key difference in translation philosophy, and it affects a myriad of translation decisions. Will ambiguities be left in the text or resolved? Will strange images and figures be decoded for the reader, or will we meet the text on its own terms, with its own way of speaking? Will important repetitions be removed or retained? Will implicit information be made explicit or left implicit for the reader to discover? Will immediate intelligibility trump almost all other considerations, or will we allow the "otherness" of an ancient, foreign book to shine through as much as possible? Should Bible translation be a guide through the forest of interpretive difficulties or a window that makes the original language, style, and ambiguity of the text as transparent as possible? I have to side with the ESV. When it comes to understanding and living by God's Word, I want teachers to teach and translations to be transparent.
3. The ESV engages in less over-translation. Translation is not always based on one-to-one correspondence. You cannot take a single word in one language and always use a single word in another language to translate it. Sometimes a word needs to be translated with two or three words. At other times two or three words in the original language require only one word for accurate translation. That's how translation works. But the NIV often adds words unnecessarily, not in order to better translate a Greek or Hebrew word but in order to clarify what the translators think the passage means. The result is that the NIV sometimes over-translates:
[ESV] "that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land."
[NIV] "that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth."
The word translated in the ESV "live" is from the Greek word eimi meaning "to be" or "to live." It never means "to enjoy." The NIV has over-translated the text and changed its meaning from living a long life to enjoying one.
1 Corinthians 4:9
[ESV] "For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.
[NIV] "For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men."
Most scholars agree that Paul's imagery of becoming a spectacle (theatron) is meant to invoke images of the gladiatorial arena. But the connection is not mentioned explicitly in the text. Being unsatisfied with an implied connection that readers might not notice, the NIV adds to the verse to explain the imagery with words like "procession" and "arena." This may have been the image in the back of Paul's mind, but it isn't what Paul said.
Allow me one more example of over-translation. In Colossians 3:1–2 Paul tells us (in the ESV) to "seek the things [zeteite] that are above" (v. 1) and to "set [our] minds on things that are above" (v. 2). I once heard a sermon on this text where the preacher was using the NIV, which has Paul saying, "set your hearts on things above" (v. 1) and "set your minds on things above" (v. 2). The preacher went on to talk about how we first set our hearts on things above, and then we set our minds on things above. But this is a point drawn from the NIV and not from the Greek. Paul, in verse 1, simply tells us zeteite ("seek"). The language of heart first and head second is found in the NIV, but not in the actual Bible text.
4. The ESV engages in less under-translation. In order to make the thought (not the words) of the biblical writers clearer, the NIV at times avoids theological words and important concepts found in the original languages.
One of the clearest examples is how the NIV translates YHWH tsavaoth. The ESV uses "Lord of hosts" to translate this common phrase, while the NIV uses "the Lord Almighty" and "God Almighty" because, according to the NIV Preface, "for most readers today the phrases 'theLord of hosts' and 'God of hosts' have little meaning." It may be the case that "Lord of hosts" is not in many people's vocabularies, but shouldn't it be — at least for Christians? We lose something in translation when we no longer read "Lord of hosts." Yes, "Lord of hosts" implies that the Lord is Almighty, but YHWH tsavaoth also implies that our God is the Lord of heavenly hosts and military armies. The imagery of YHWH leading his people in battle or summoning legions of angels to deliver his people is lost when tsavaoth is not translated as "hosts" or "armies" (which is what the word means) but rather is translated as "Almighty" (which is not what the word denotes).
Another example where the NIV under-translates in an effort to be more understandable to modern readers is with the Greek word hilasmos (and its derivatives hilasterion and hilaskomai). Going back to the KJV, hilasmos has been usually translated as "propitiation." To propitiate means to placate, appease, or pacify. Christ is said to be our propitiation because he appeases the wrath of God (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The ESV uses propitiation in all four verses. (The RSV, wary of notions of God's wrath, has "expiation," which refers simply to the removal of guilt. This is one of the reasons why evangelicals never embraced the RSV — another reason being Isaiah 7:14, where the RSV has "young woman" instead of "virgin.") The NIV, to be more easily understood, translates hilasmos (and its derivatives) as "sacrifice of atonement" (Rom. 3:25), "atonement" (Heb. 2:17), and "atoning sacrifice" (1 John 2:2; 4:10). So what's wrong with this? The problem with dropping "propitiation" is that (1) it makes it much more difficult for Christians to learn the meaning of and the concept behind this crucial word, (2) it is questionable whether "sacrifice of atonement," without explanation, will be readily understood by most Christians (or non- Christians) either, and (3) it deprives the church of important Christian vocabulary.
Let me give one more illustration of under-translating.
[ESV] "And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands [ton cheiron] of Paul ..."
[NIV] "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul ..."
For some reason, the NIV leaves out "the hands" even though it clearly is in the Greek. This happens in recounting other miracles as well (Mark 6:2; Acts 5:12; 14:3). I imagine the NIV felt that this was a circumlocution — a figure of speech where a number of words stand for something simple (i.e., "hands of Paul" = "Paul"). That's one possible interpretation. But it is more an interpretation than a translation. Why not leave "the hands" in the text? Perhaps God wants to make a point about the laying on of hands or the personal, physical nature of the miracles. Whatever the significance of "hands" may or may not be, the English reader should at least see that it is in the text and make his interpretations accordingly.
5. The ESV does a better job of translating important Greek or Hebrew words with the same English word throughout a passage or book. Every word in any language has a semantic range. This means every word can be translated with two or three or five or seven other words, and conversely that two or three words might all be translated by the same word, depending on the context. No translation project as big as the Bible can always translates "X-word" in Greek as "Q-word" in English. But an essentially literal translation will try, where possible and especially where it is important, to keep translation choices consistent according to the context.
For example, a key word in 1 John is the Greek word meno, which means "abide" or "remain." The verb occurs twenty-four times in 1 John. It is an important part of the overall argument of the epistle. The verb can easily be traced in the ESV with a good English concordance. Twenty-three out of twenty-four times, meno is translated as "abides" (or "abiding" or "abide"). By contrast, the NIV translates meno with five different words: "lives," "remains," "has," "continue," and "be."
A second example comes from the book of Ruth. In 2:12 (ESV), Boaz tells Ruth, "The Lordrepay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings [kanaph] you have come to take refuge." Then in 3:9, at the threshing floor, Ruth tells Boaz, "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings [kanaph] over your servant, for you are a redeemer." Ruth is in effect telling Boaz to be the answer to his own prayer: "You told me to find refuge under the Lord's wings, so why don't you spread your wings over your servant and be my refuge, as you prayed?" The NIV has "under whose wings" in 2:12, but translates 3:9 as "the corner of your garment." This is an acceptable translation of kanaph, but translating the same Hebrew word with the same English word in 2:12 and 3:9, as the ESV does, helps the reader see the connection between Boaz's speech and Ruth's petition.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Why Our Church Switched to the ESV"
Copyright © 2011 Kevin DeYoung.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Narrowing the Question,
ESV or NIV for URC?,