Crossway recently released the English Standard Version in a 2016 “Permanent Text” edition (the updated text will be free for Logos users who own the ESV). The ESV, it was announced, would remain “unchanged forever, in perpetuity.” As Christianity Today rather cheekily titled its article on the new edition, “Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.”
I wrote a lengthy article on this topic, most of which is below; but yesterday, after much internet chatter, Crossway reversed their decision.
I’m glad perpetuity didn’t last very long, even if it meant I had to scramble to edit this piece, because now I get to agree with these brothers and sisters in Christ at Crossway whom I love and appreciate so much. I felt that they were humble and even eloquent in their statement. They now plan “to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” They clarify that “these kinds of updates will be minimal and infrequent,” but they insist (rightly, I think) that “fidelity to Scripture requires that [they] remain open in principle to such changes.”
There was parallel Internet chatter when the NIV 2011 came out, and it seems to me that many people were alarmed not so much by individual revision choices but by the whole idea that their beloved translations might be changed in the first place.
Concern is certainly understandable—this is the Bible we’re talking about. But I encourage lovers of Scripture not to panic. What, indeed, are the negative ramifications of the continued, minor revision of a much-read, much-preached-from, and much-memorized Bible translation?
Yes, there may be some confusion if the pastor carries an edition different from that of people in the pew (though that will be rare given the sheer number of words in the Bible). Yes, it can be frustrating to have memory verse cards that differ in a few places from printed texts. And yes, bronze plaques in church lobbies are difficult to revise.
But translation revisions are unlikely to bring total collapse of people’s faith in Scripture, start nuclear war, or get Philip Pullman hired by the Lewis estate to write an eighth Narnia book. I encourage people to look on the bright side. I actually think periodic revisions in the ESV (or NIV, or NASB, or any other good English Bible translation) provide an opportunity for helpful reflection on what Bible translations are and what they’re supposed to do for us.
In fact, all of the negative ramifications that I can think of turn very quickly into positives if the church will remember three simple things:
1) You have a pastor
Almost every Christian to whom I’m writing has a pastor. Many or most of you have pastors who have studied Greek and possibly Hebrew. If you are disturbed by the changes or difficulties or apparent discrepancies in a given Bible version, send him an email. God gave him to you to shepherd you, and confusion over what the Bible says is a genuine spiritual need. Give him a chance to help you with it.
If people I teach and preach to ask me questions about why a particular verse is translated a particular way—and I wish they would do it more often—I’m thrilled to be handed such a fantastic teaching moment. Bible translation is difficult; I should know, I’m doing it now for a Bible publisher. My job is to use the full resources of modern punctuation—especially em dashes, colons, and semicolons—in the New Testament, and it has proven to be even more challenging (and enriching) than it seemed when I did similar things as academic or devotional exercises. Other people are going to read my work as part of Scripture. What an awesome privilege and responsibility! I’d love the chance to explain what I’m doing to others. (I’ll resist the urge here.) I’m betting your pastor will feel the same way about the Bible he’s dedicated his life to teaching to others (Ezra 7:10). Give him the opportunity to use his training and gifts (Eph. 4:11–14), and if he feels unqualified to answer a particular question hopefully he has the email addresses of his seminary professors.
Yes, it is possible that a translation committee will choose a less than ideal rendering somewhere. Revision may even make a particular English version worse here or there according to one measure or another (readability, euphony, lexicography, etc.). But in all my years comparing major Bible translations in multiple languages, I’ve almost never come across a translation which was flat out impossible or undeniably linked to a heretical theological agenda. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their retranslation of John 1:1, but I’ve never seen the like in the major translations used by mainstream American Christians. If you think you’ve discovered a place where a translation is wrong, talk to your pastor about it.
But if a translation revision—or the differences among separate translations—sparks a question, that’s a good thing.
2) Our English Bible translations are good, but not inspired
One big reason, I think, why people become alarmed about changes in Bible translations is that they assume a simple, mostly correct, but still flawed syllogism: 1) if this Bible in my hands is God’s Word, and 2) God’s Word is perfectly reliable, then 3) it can’t change.
I totally feel the intuitive power of this reasoning, but there’s a flaw in it which is subtle yet important: translations (the Bible in your hands) are God’s word, but in a derivative and secondary sense. We can’t wiggle out from under the authority of God’s word by saying that it resides only in the Hebrew and Greek, that the English will never capture it. But orthodox bibliology is clear and has been for centuries (see Richard Muller’s excellent discussion of this issue in volume 2 of his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics): it’s only the Greek and Hebrew that are divinely inspired (2 Tim 3:16), not the Tagalog or Urdu or Japanese or Marathi or English.
God has chosen not to inspire any translations in any language, so smart and good and godly people are going to disagree over some of the finer points of translation. And that disagreement, far from being threatening, is a good thing. When it occurs among people who truly love the Lord and know the Bible, they will all have good points to make. They will all have useful and edifying perspectives on the one Word of God, and probably on English and Urdu, too.
Should ἀγάμοις (agamois) in 1 Corinthians 7:8 be translated “the unmarried,” as all English translations I could find render it, or “widowers,” as major commentator Gordon Fee has suggested? The very question will stir up good investigation and remind us that God has chosen to give us his precious Word through translations made by gifted but limited humans. If someone is bothered by scholars voting on the text of the (English) Bible, what are the alternatives? I can think of only two: either having just one translator or having an inspired translation. The latter is bibliological heresy, and I don’t see how the former is better than a committee.
I grew up in a church which felt strongly that there was only one reliable English Bible translation (I will let the reader guess which one). I love those who first taught me God’s Word, and I can never be bitter against Christian men and women who loved me like they did and do, even if I now disagree with them. But we do agree on this: the Bible nowhere promises a perfect or inspired translation.
I believe that there are many riches among the numerous excellent English Bible translations at our disposal. Far from confusing me, my Text Comparison tool in Logos has aided my understanding of the Bible over and over. One of the main things I use Logos to is compare Bible translations.
Yes, we are called to “guard the good deposit entrusted” to us (2 Tim 1:14), but I actually see that as an argument for using 1) multiple translations that are 2) periodically revised, not for keeping what we have perpetually unchanged. In other words, I agree with the Crossway’s latest statement.
3) “Vulgar” language is a moving target
And that, in turn, is because of the most important reason translation revisions in general need to continue. Here it is: like a housewife, a translator’s work is never done.
It is good, not lamentable, to have an assortment of English Bible translations—especially if they lie on a continuum from more literal to more interpretive. I want the major evangelical versions (NASB, ESV, NIV, CSB, NLT, NET, etc.) to stick around, because each has found a useful spot on that continuum. I personally would like to see periodic revisions (every 30 years? 50?) built into the charter of every one of them. If a given translation is still in use, if money can be found to pay for the translators’ sandwiches (Luke 10:7), and if English has continued to change, every translation needs to be updated—because of the principle for which William Tyndale gave his life, the principle the Westminster Confession of Faith puts this way: the Bible should be “translated into the vulgar language of every nation.” This statement reflects a central Reformation principle, and the Westminster divines cite Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians to support it: “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?”
But “the vulgar language of every nation” is a moving target. “Vulgar” is an obvious case in point: it no longer commonly means what it did to the Westminster divines in such a context. It is now positively misleading. What the Westminster divines meant by “vulgar,” of course, was not Seth Rogen or Gilbert Gottfried so much as Peter Jennings and John McWhorter. The English Bible should be keyed, at the very least, to the general standard set by the sorts of prominent writers and educators and journalists who make up the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. (Note: there are no theologians on the panel, and I have begun a small campaign to get them to pick me. Note also that British and Singaporean and Kenyan editions, if such there be, may be keyed to their respective dictionary usage panels.)
Tyndale actually keyed his Bible to a “lower” standard, however, and I tend to agree with him. His famous words to some now-forgotten prelate ring through the centuries:
If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than thou doust.
If we believe Tyndale was right, then we need to be willing to listen to modern plow boys who have trouble reading our favored Bible translations (and I don’t mean only the KJV). The Bible is given not just to prominent people but to the whole world God loves, including the hoi polloi, the children, and “the least of these.” In English we can afford to have a spectrum of translations: ESVs and NASBs for the writers and educators and NLTs and NIrVs for those without so many educational advantages—and maybe NIVs and CSBs for when everybody’s together. But no Bible translation should fail to reflect the way living people actually speak and write. And that changes. Gay, anyone?
God chose to speak the language of the people. As C. S. Lewis, someone with a subtle feel for different forms of ancient Greek, once wrote in an inimitable essay on “Modern Translations of the Bible” (which you simply must read),
The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language. (251)
Without erasing the cultural and historical gaps that exist between us and the biblical authors (there should still be unfamiliar things like “eunuchs” and “mandrakes” in English Bibles), we still need to insist that our English translations sound like us. As Lewis says,
If we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be reclothed. (252)
Permanent text editions
If the ESV were to stop being revised, we’d need to be prepared as an English-speaking Christian church to give it up some day the way we’re giving up the NIV 1984, to relegate both to a back shelf in the library used by biblical scholars but not normally accessed by those without specialized knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and English. Vernacular translation is that important.
Someday, any Bible translation that doesn’t get revised will contain words, sentence structures, and even perhaps punctuation and typographical features that English speakers no longer use—just like “chambering” and “besom” have dropped out of our vocabulary since the KJV was translated, just like we no longer say “this work goeth fast on” (Ezra 5:8 KJV), and just like we no longer have the option of omitting quotation marks the way Tyndale and Wycliffe did.
More dangerously for understanding, however, any translation that doesn’t get revised will contain words, syntax, and punctuation/typography that English speakers use differently. Maybe the reader of the future will have better resources at his disposal, but right now historical sentence structure and punctuation conventions are almost impossible for the non-specialist to look up in a reference work. And then there are the words which will still be used in the future but which have added, dropped, or amended their senses. Those will be hard to spot; that future reader may read right past them without realizing he’s missing something. And we have no way of knowing which of our words will mean something different to him—just like the KJV translators could never have known that “halt” in 1 Kings 18:21 would mean “stop,” not “limp,” to every modern reader I’ve ever asked. “Prevent” in Psalm 18:5 is another good example. (10¢ Logos credit to the first person who figures out what I mean with that one—and if you want more examples, I’ve got a book coming out next year with Lexham on this topic.)
I’m glad the ESV will continue to be revised over the years, and I don’t mind that my boxed, calfskin, single-column Heirloom edition will differ here and there from my ESV in Logos—because the principles of this article should not be forgotten henceforth and forevermore.
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