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July 26th, 2013

Do We Need So Many Bible Translations?

“But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15, KJV).

From time to time in my classes, students will ask me which Bible translation I prefer.  I lecture from the English Standard Version (ESV), because I believe it is the overall best translation out there (balancing readability with faithfulness to the original languages).  The old 1599 Geneva Bible is not widely distributed these days (see Tolle Lege Press), and is hopelessly archaic as an English translation, despite its fascinating study notes from the Puritan era.  The King James Version is still aesthetically beautiful, but based on a form of the Greek New Testament (the Textus Receptus or TR) that has been shown to be inferior in many places, based on centuries of manuscript study.  The New American Standard Bible (NASB) never has really caught on (despite its updated edition), because, while it does a good job of being literal to the Hebrew and Greek originals, it stumbles in the English department.  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) makes too many accommodations to political correctness.  The New English Translation (NET) is valued more for its masterful study notes than the translation itself.  The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is a good translation, but parochially marketed to the Southern Baptist Convention.  The New International Version and New Living Translation (NLT) are very readable, but not ideally suited for lecturing or expository preaching, due to the liberties they take in translation.  And so, while I am not always in agreement with the eclectic Greek text which underlies the NT portion of the ESV, it seems to be the best option currently, and one which is becoming increasingly popular in conservative circles.  Also in its favor is the fact that the ESV Study Bible is probably the best study Bible that has ever been published!

At any rate, all of these Bible translations certainly do create confusion.  I really don’t think we need so many of them (and I haven’t even given an exhaustive list).  I don’t think it communicates a very clear message when we have so many divergent translations of the Bible.  When you refer to the Bible, the immediate question is raised, “Which Bible are you talking about?”  Those who advocate the exclusive use of the Authorized Version (KJV) have a good point.  When we talk about the Bible, and quote from it, shouldn’t we be, so to speak, on the same page?  Would anyone advocate the same chaotic diversity of wording in our hymnals, with five different versions of each song floating around the congregation while we sing?  Or how about the canon of Scripture?  What if some Bibles left out 2 Peter, others 2-3 John and still others the book of Revelation?  The sensible impulse which moves us to adopt the same list of books in the New Testament ought to move us to adopt a commonly received English translation.

I don’t have any easy fix for this problem, but I think a few broad principles can be kept in mind: 

  1. 1) The translations we have are here to stay.  We are not going back to the days when all Protestants used the same Authorized Version.  Might as well accept that reality.  At least, I should say, as long as Christ’s Church remains split into different factions, we are going to have a variety of versions of the English Bible.  Our current confusion is partly a byproduct of our sad divisions.
  2. 2) At least we could encourage more uniformity within particular traditions.  Denominations could encourage and/or mandate the use of a particular translation of the Bible within their public gatherings.  The Southern Baptists would do well to stick with their HCSB in their worship services.  (I know there’s that whole “autonomy” of the local church thing to reckon with.)  The KJV remains the only option for our Independent Fundamentalist Baptist brothers (bless them) who wish to emphasize their separation from the world and other denominations.  The Continuing Anglican communions like the Anglican Province of America and Anglican Province of Christ the King (which still use the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer) naturally gravitate toward the use of the KJV in their church services.  The mainline Protestant denominations (American Baptist, Episcopal, PCUSA, ELCA, United Methodist, UCC) are a good fit for the NRSV, since it accurately conveys their shared progressive ethos.  The ESV could be officially adopted as the standard version for those conservative denominations that stem from the Protestant Reformation (Anglican Church in North America, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, PCA, OPC, Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Free Methodist).  Not only could this be a symbol of their spiritual unity as conservative Protestants, but it would ensure a healthy uniformity in public worship and preaching across the spectrum.  The Pentecostal and charismatic churches seem well-suited to the NIV, given their inspirational and informal style of preaching and Bible study.  Perhaps the NASB still remains a good fit for most independent churches on the hard-right (Reformed Baptists, non-denominational Bible churches).
  3. 3) Some translations are of quite limited value.  The NLT might be useful in certain settings, such as evangelistic rallies, prison ministry and college campus ministries (Reformed University Fellowship, Young Life, Campus Crusade for Christ).  The NKJV really does not have much of an advantage over the old KJV (its underlying Greek text is just as problematic), and it loses the nostalgic Elizabethan English.  The NET Bible is never going to be much more than a scholarly aid to religion professors, divinity students and Bible translators. The Message is a rather poor paraphrase of the Bible, and should have been pushing daisies a long time ago.  The Contemporary English Version (CEV) has no obvious advantages over the NIV or NLT.  The same can be said of Today’s English Version (TEV).  Perhaps the CEV remains a good choice for children, and the TEV may find a place among adolescents in youth ministry settings.  It is very difficult to imagine the need for any further English Bible translations for the foreseeable future.  Some of them should probably be given a graceful retirement.

At least that’s my opinion!  What do you think?