Making common sense – Why I use the ESV

sense.jpgWalk in Wisdom – Gleanings from Scripture

Nehemiah 8.8 – They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

Due to a recent question, I am resending this somewhat long answer as to why I use the ESV. I hope you find it useful.

Bible translations – unless you know Greek and Hebrew, you can’t live without them. But if you try to wade through the waters of why you ought to use one over the other – you might not be able to live with them either.

About 4 years ago, I began making the switch over to the English Standard Version or ESV. After doing some considerable research for myself, I became convinced of its accuracy of translation, and its ease of use with its updated English. Most of my Scripture memorization is in the KJV. But I have been using the NASB to preach from for the last 15 years or so. So why change? Because of articles like the one below by John Piper.

With some few exceptions, our texts are read each Lord’s Day morning from the ESV. It is the translation I am committed to preaching from. However, We need to make it clear that such being the case, we WILL NOT make a policy here at ECF requiring anyone to use any specific translation. After reading the essay below, you might want to consider picking up an ESV Bible so that we can “all be on the same page” – literally. But if you are comfortable with your NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB etc, do not feel constrained to change. I simply ask you to carefully consider the material presented below.

Quoting Piper

Good English With Minimal Interpretation: Why Bethlehem Uses the ESV.

Why I would like to see the English Standard Version become the most common Bible of the English-speaking church, for preaching, teaching, memorizing, and study. The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. –Psalm 19:7-14

I love the Bible the way I love my eyes—not because my eyes are lovely, but because without them I can’t see what’s lovely. Without the Bible I could not see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Without the Bible I could not know “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Without the Bible I would not know that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior. I love the Bible because it gives the wisdom that leads to salvation, and shows me that this salvation is nothing less than seeing and savoring the glory of Christ forever. And then provides for me inexhaustible ways of seeing and knowing and enjoying Christ.

I praise God that we have the Bible in English. What a gift! What a treasure! We cannot begin to estimate what this is worth to Christians and churches, and even to the unbelievers and the cultures of the English-speaking world. Ten thousand benefits flow from the influence of this book that we are not even aware of. And the preaching of this Word in tens of thousands of pulpits across America is more important than every media outlet in the nation.

I would rather have people read any translation of the Bible—no matter how weak—than to read no translation of the Bible. If there could be only one translation in English, I would rather it be my least favorite than that there be none. God uses every version to bless people and save people.

But the issue before the church in the English-speaking world today is not “no translation vs. a weak translation.” It is between many precious English Bibles. A Bible does not cease to be precious and powerful because its translators overuse
paraphrase and put way too much of their own interpretation into the Bible. That’s the way God’s Word is! It breaks free from poor translations and poor preaching—for which I am very thankful. But even though the weakest translation is precious, and is used by God to save and strengthen sinful people, better translations would be a great blessing to the church and an honor to Christ.

The King James Version

When I turned 15—on January 11, 1961—my parents gave me a beautiful, leather-bound King James Bible. I loved it. I loved the smell of it and the feel of it, and the dedication inside (“This book will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from this book,” Mother and Daddy), and most of all the message of it for my embattled teenage years. God met me in this book day after day when I was a teenager.

The Revised Standard Version

Three and a half years later as a freshman at Wheaton I remember the very place in the bookstore where I picked up the first Bible I ever bought for myself, a Revised Standard Version. It was close enough to the King James so that I felt at home, but its English was not Elizabethan; it was my English. So I was doubly at home. This became my reading, meditating, memorizing Bible for the next 37 years.

The New American Standard Bible

But I hit a problem in 1980. I became the preaching pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church. What version to use? The RSV was out of print—they weren’t making pew Bibles any more. I needed a literal version with all the words and phrases as close to the original as possible. I could not preach from another kind of Bible, because I made my points from the very wording of the Bible, and when the wording vanished into paraphrase I could not make my points with clarity and authority. The most literal modern translation was the NASB, and that is what I chose. So I have preached form the NASB for over 20 years. But I groaned that it was never going to be the common reading, memorizing Bible of the people. It is too awkward and unnatural in the way it flows.

The New International Version

Key question: the NIV appeared in 1978. I read it. Why didn’t I use it? The reason I didn’t use it is the reason I am here tonight. The NIV is the best-selling modern translation of the Bible. There are about 150 million copies in print. The NIV makes up about 30% of all Bible sales. Among evangelicals the percentage would be far above 30% and is probably the Bible most evangelicals read most often. And the one most pastors use in preaching. Why am I not on board? Not only am I not on board. I would be happy to see the NIV sail into the sunset if it could be replaced by the ESV as the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the English-speaking church. I feel so strongly about this that I volunteered to do this tonight before I was asked. There is no coercion here. I feel what I am about to say with a passion built up over 25 years. I have longed that there be something more readable than the NASB and more literal than the NIV. The NIV is a paraphrase with so much unnecessary rewording and so much interpretation that I could not preach from it.

Now let me say again that the NIV is the precious Word of God. Oh, how careful we must be not to belittle the Word of God. And yet we must not put any human translation above criticism. God has used the NIV to bring millions of people to faith in Christ. But at the same time I believe there have been negative effects that could be avoided. My biggest concern has to do with preaching. When a paraphrase becomes the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the church, preaching is weakened—robust expository exultation in the pulpit is made more difficult. Preaching that gives clear explanations and arguments from the wording of specific Biblical texts tends to be undermined when a Bible paraphrases instead of preserving the original wording on good English. And when that kind of preaching is undermined, the whole level of Christian thinking in the church goes down, and a Bible-saturated worldview is weakened, and the ability of the people—and even the pastors themselves-to root their thoughts and affections in firm Biblical ground diminishes.

The English Standard Version

My aim tonight is to help you be persuaded that exposing millions of people (pastors, teachers, students, laypeople) to the ESV would undo the dominance of the NIV and put in its place a more literal, and yet a beautifully readable, memorizable Bible—the English Standard Version. And this would be a good thing.

In the following examples of NIV paraphrasing compared to the more literal ESV there are four convictions at stake.

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.

I do not claim that the ESV is without its own level of “paraphrasing.” Some will always be necessary. And there will always be disagreements about how much is necessary. I am simply arguing that the ESV is the best balance available of readability and literalness. I hope that it becomes the standard for the church.

Appendix 1: Examples of NIV Paraphrasing Compared to the More Literal ESV (Compiled April 11, 2003)
Romans 1:5
ESV Through [Christ] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith (hupakoen pisteos) for the sake of his name among all the nations.
NIV Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles
to the obedience that comes from faith.
Romans 3:20
ESV By works of the law (ex ergon nomou) no human being will be justified in his sight.
NIV No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.
Romans 11:11
ESV Did they stumble in order that they might fall (hina pesosin)? By no means!
NIV Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!
Romans 13:8
ESV Owe no one anything (Medeni meden opheilete), except to love each other.
NIV Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another.
Hebrews 6:1
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.

James 2:12
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.
1 Peter 1:20
ESV He was foreknown (proegnosmenou) before the foundation of the world.
NIV He was chosen before the creation of the world.
Appendix 2: Two Examples of the Effect on Preaching
John 11:1-6
ESV Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying,
“Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of
God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, (oun)
when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
NIV Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.

NOTE: It is impossible to make the point from the NIV that Jesus’ delay is an expression of love for Mary and Martha and
Lazarus, and thus draw out the point that love sometimes does hard things because seeing the glory of God is a more precious gift than being sick or even dead.
Romans 8:35-36

ESV Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (36) )As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed (thanatoumetha) all the day long.”
NIV Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long.”

NOTE: From the NIV translation one could argue from a health, wealth, and prosperity “gospel” that “famine and nakedness” will not happen to God’s children (as they seem to in verse 35) because the Old Testament support that Paul quotes in verse 36 only says “we face death,” but not that we really “are being killed.” So the paraphrase “face death” removes an utterly crucial argument that Paul gave and that the preacher needs to make the true point that true Christians really do get killed and really do face famine and nakedness.

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15 thoughts on “Making common sense – Why I use the ESV

  1. I enjoy Piper a great deal, but I think here he’s made a common mistake of evangelicals: the assumption that literal translation is somehow best. But make a machine translation of this page on the net, or ask a Spanish-speaking friend to translate literally into English, and you’ll realize that literal translation borders on the unintelligible. We wish it weren’t so, for re-phrasing involves more of the translator than we like. But accuracy is about the sense of the passage received by the original hearers, not the dictionary definition of the words (which is equally subjective!). Such matters as voice, inflection, rhyme, rusticity or urbanity – all these, too are elements of accuracy, often ignored in favor of the passion-less English of “accurate” translators. Alas, the Bible was often not written with such coolness!
    I use the NIV and the NRSV – but I find the words leap from the page into the hearts of my hearers most effectively when I quote The Message.

  2. It is my hope, as it is yours, that the ESV continues to grow in popularity. It is the translation that I use whenever I am called upon to teach a Sunday School lesson and one which I use in devotional reading because it flows so well. I have never really warmed much to the NIV but use it during times of worship because our pastor (I thank God for him always) preaches and teaches using this text. For personal study I still primarily use the NASV with the ESV as a second reference. I also use the NASV for memory work. I know the NASV has a rough edge to it but I also understand that faithfulness to the Greek is in large part the reason and that is the reason why I continue to use it as my primary study text. Having read this article I have decided however to spend more time with the ‘new guy’ in the study and see if I come to the same conclusions. Thanks for the article today. By the way I delight in reading your blog and if your not ‘fishin’ use it to start my day. I enjoy the timely subject manner, devotion and the humor. I am blessed by your labor. Where, by the way, do you find the great pics you use?

  3. Thanks for stopping by Monte – and I (and Piper – big of me to include him too – eh?) agree with you, at least in principle. Let me quote one portion again: “I do not claim that the ESV is without its own level of “paraphrasing.” Some will always be necessary. And there will always be disagreements about how much is necessary. I am simply arguing that the ESV is the best balance available of
    readability and literalness.”

    I guess that is where I am. You absolutely need a certain amount of paraphrasing, avoiding an artificially rigid translation if you are gong to arrive at the real meaning of the original author. The KJV references to “rubies” for instance in Proverbs – Prov 3:15 She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.
    Prov 8:11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.
    Prov 20:15 There is gold, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.
    Prov 31:10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

    All in fact refer to the word for “coral”, which in our day is not precious like the gemstone is, but is red, and was precious in those days. That work will always need to be done. What he was contending, is that where we can, we ought to go with the literal, and try to avoid an overuse of paraphrasing where it is unnecessary, or even ends up clouding the text.

    I guess our discussion would be more along the lines of degree – not whether or not one should do it at all. So out of the 14 times the KJV puts “God forbid” in on the lips of Paul, the fact that God/theos never appears in one of those instances ought to lead to a “may it never be” type of approach.


  4. Too kind Phil. I really appreciate your encouragement.

    I had always stuck with the KJ until I had to spend a year teaching an inner-city, largely Hispanic congregation. The jump from Spanish to English was hard enough, without Queen Elizabeth’s bulbous head clouding the front. I switched to the NAS at that time, and still ove it. Syntactically, it is closer to the Greek (typically) and I like that feel. But it really was too clunky for others. When the ESV hit, I knew I’d found my sweet spot. It is not everyone’s cup of tea – but it works for me.

    The pics? I steal’em off of Google. I Google search a key term, word or phrase, and then click the “Images” tab in the upper left hand corner of the Google search results page. Then, I sort through until I find the one I like. It makes it easy. And basically, I’m a lazy slug.

  5. Well, ya know what I say: “If the KJV was good enough for the apostles, it is good enough for me!!” (wink)

  6. Thanks for that Reid. My question inspired a whole post!

    There’s food for thought. As I hinted at before, I emailed Don Carson about the ESV over the NIV, which I knew from his book back in the seventies was his favourite. I mentioned it in light of the fact that I’d seen Piper and Mahaney speak more favourably of the ESV. He told me he greatly respected the two of them, and worked with them on various projects, but that he thought that the ESV was a bit “wooden” to be a really great translation.

    Hmm. It seems important to not make unnecessary interpretation, but it seems a bit that the thrust of the section above that went

    “In the following examples of NIV paraphrasing compared to the more literal ESV there are four convictions at stake.

    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.”

    [sorry] is that the deviation by the NIV from the ESV’s “literalness” is in the realm of “paraphrasing” to make it more readable only. Doesn’t that obscure a bit that “dynamic equivalence” is supposed to be “scientifically” better at translating nuances that tie the meaning of the original in with the grammar, syntax, idioms, etc that a very literal translation translation (on the sliding scale) is less sensitve to?. In that the Holy Spirit inspired those parts of the original language text, as well as the words, and that’s why “dynamic equivalence” is thought by its proponents (I’m picking the thought up from Carson) to be a more scientific method of translation, and why it can’t be said that a more literal translation is neccessarily more faithful to the authors’ original, and that the NIV is a proper “paraphrase”.

    If that makes no sense its because I’ve rushed it and its probably dinner time…

    What do you reckon?

  7. Yeah, I’ve had this discussion with lots on both sides. It may be helpful to know that from my perspective, I am not ANTI-NIV, just PRO-ESV. I use the NIV too. And I can easily say it is more readable to most. But when I do my homework in the original languages (as much as my scant exposure, meager talents and dependence upon tools allows) I seem to come up with something closer to the ESV. But trust me, it is not my goal to bite anybody’s electric fence. I wanted to let folks (especially those here in our church) know why I had switched. And if anyone wants to go to the mat over it – count me out. KJV, NASB, RSV, NIV, ESV, Phillips, Moffat, NKJV, ASV, Darby – I can preach Christ from all of them. Years ago, I had the distinct honor of sitting under the preaching of Angelo Lovallo. Lovallo was a converted Roman Catholic Priest who ran a half-way house for Nuns and Priests exiting Romanism. He still preached from the Douay-Rheims. Awesomely.

    Fun stuff.

  8. Thanks Reid. I’m totally dependent on others’ homework on the original languages, such as yourself and Carson. I just have to see (without the tools) what strikes me as most reasonable as I learn on this subject secondhand with what faculties, information, providential and illuminatory help I have as I learn to think as a new creature.
    I want to be free from all remnants of one version onlyism (namely the KJV), stick to good translations (inc the KJV) and not hung up on avoiding gnats in my diet while missing the camels…what you said just above seems right to me.

    Its very good of you to take the time with others like me who’ve asked you questions. I very much appreciate that you (who were the only one) came back to me on those questions that JGR posted on soundofgrace, particularly the “active” obedience question. I look forward to talking to you again and benefiting from what I find here.

    Did you get hold of Ratzlaff’s book?!

  9. Thanks Phil – and BTW, I do hope you are feeling much better. While I’ve not secured Ratzlaff’s book, I have been interacting with his material (only slightly thus far) at the web site he edits regarding the Ellen G. White, the founder of 7th Day Adventism. He’s pretty sharp.

  10. I’ve been very favorably impressed with the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Is anyone else out there familiar with it?

    It probably doesn’t have enough “backing” to become the dominant translation, but I think it’s worth considering.

  11. Yeah, I found the Holman pretty nice. I think the SBC is using it pretty much as their standard right now.

  12. Thanks Reid. I have been very unwell with M.E. symptoms for about 6 or 7 years. I think I have progressively feeling a bit better from resting, though it is hard for me to know what is physical and what is psychosomatic from introspective struggles as I sit at home.

    Dale’s got a website and bookshop here

  13. M. E. – eh? Have you tried L-Lysine? It is a natural amino acid you can get at any health food store. I had a near life-threatening case of mono back in the 70’s. Permanently damaged my liver. The result is, I still suffer from extreme mono symptoms (fatigue, fuzzy brain, aches, scratchy throat) UNLESS, I stay on the L-Lysine. I’ve interacted with several folks who’ve suffered similarly and found at least some relief with the stuff. Can’t hurt ya. Couple thousand milligrams a day to start – and see what happens.

  14. Thanks, Phil, for your kind reply. Forgive me for writing clumsily here as I try to express what I am thinking, and thanks for giving me a place to try to say it.
    I think where we’d have a bit different emphasis is in this: I see paraphrase as a necessary element of translational accuracy, and not one of readability. Here’s why: God has chosen to speak to us through the various human writers of Scripture, not by dictation to them, but by “God-breathed” insight through them. Their writing may or may not be readable (and thus, translation of them, likewise). But unless translation is sophisticated enough so that Peter speaks as an unlettered fisherman, Paul as a learned Jew, and David as an accomplished lyricist, we get a translation of only those elements that appeal to our post-enlightenment outlooks. And they may not give birth to the implications in our hearts and minds that were given to its early hearers. It becomes academic, for we value academia.
    I think the inerrancy wars of a generation ago left us with the idea that literality is good and safe, and that its only harm is that things get a little wooden. If one believed in a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration, then I suppose literalism would indeed be the order of the day. But since most of us don’t, today, believe in a mechanical word-by-word inspiration, but an inspiration that is expressed truly in the words that faithful humans found to express what God had given them.
    Surely accuracy, it seems to me, then, would encompass faithfulness to their tone, emotion, beauty (translation of the Psalms by non-poets becomes an oxymoron!) as their early hearers would have perceived them, by whatever mode it takes to recover the accurate force of the arguments and stories made in God’s Word.
    Else we end up with a Bible for professionals, rather than one that more readily impassions and summons a generation of hearers from all walks of life. After all, our goal is not (as is often said) to make things Biblical (with the many things that can be said to mean), but to make people into disciples (i.e., to make and be made Christ-like), which is surely the goal of the Bible as well. It is the accurate reproduction of Christ we seek; God’s Word is one of the sacred tools given us for that noble end.

    Best wishes,

  15. Well, food indeed for thought. Monte, it makes sense to me to try to translate the nuances of the individual authors, as much as can be deduced scientifically from the scientifically deduced original autographs. But I’m concerned by the importance of respecting the plenary word-by-word inspiration of the originals…false entire, direct dictation theories of inspiration aside… we must be sure the originals didn’t just contain God’s word in thought, but was (providentially) to the letter. That in mind, I think its very important (given the choice and knowledge) to have a translation that aims to the best of godly scholars’ ability, to respect that, and not to engage in SPECULATIVE interpretation…our worthy host feels, with his knowledge, that the ESV acheives that better than the NIV (no doubt acknowledging the translators sincere good efforts)…other worthies (e.g. Carson) seem to me to be saying that the “extra” interpretation in the NIV is more scientific than speculative, and therefore the end result is a MORE respectful transmission of the original autographs into the receptor language.But I think most would agree that there comes a point where interpretation clearly becomes speculative and as one gets too far into paraphrasing, people are right to be concerned about whether the result deserves the title “God’s Word”…even though God uses paraphrases, it doesn’t absolve us from responsibility to be faithful to the originals as best we can.

    Those are my concerns here. Thank you for your gentle words and help.

    Reid, I’m unfamiliar with mono [nucleosis?] What is it? I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m glad the amino helps. I will look into it…I eat a grim tasting protein powder that’s loaded with aminos…I’ll check and see if its in…I think the protein helps a bit.

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