On having a standard translation of the Scriptures
As I have been thinking through the arguments leveled by the advocates of the traditional text of Scripture, a certain irritation with modern bible translations has entered my mind. Not with any translation in particular, but with the endless proliferation of them. James White echoes this:
I certainly believe we have all the English translations that we need. There is absolutely no need for any further English translations. And 90% of what we have could definitely be retired without causing any problems. The reason that we have the number of English translations we have is simply business. It’s business and it’s money. Basically, the large Christian publishing firms all now have their own English translation. Zondervan has the NIV, Thomas Nelson has the NKJV, and Crossway has the ESV, and Holman has the HCSB… This point is, there came a time when if you want to put out a study bible, you didn’t want to have to pay royalties to someone else because that would cut your margin of profit on each of those study bibles. So, let’s be honest, the origin of the ESV comes from business. And almost all the modern translations, that’s the case. […] Anyway, that’s where they came from. We don’t need any more NLTs which I wouldn’t even consider to be a T in the first place. We don’t need any more super simplified first-grade level translations of the New Testament. We got a glut of them, and most of them aren’t really worth the paper they’re printed on in the first place. So, the ESV came along, and Crossway knew how to market that thing. I mean, Lockman could have learned something from them. The ESV isn’t all that different from the NASB. I have frequently called it the NASB without the semicolons. But Lockman held way too tight on the NASB. They kept it too tightly licensed, and stuff like that. And the ESV guys come along, and man, they hand them out on college campuses and at bible colleges. They locked John Piper in a room until he sang its praises. (chuckle) They just did it right. And it has just exploded, and taken over the market. […] And it has beaten the NIV to death. Of course, the NIV ended up being purchased by a big, seecular corporation that did not know how to handle it. So, it has really become the big boy.
Christian publishers want to make money, there is nothing wrong with that. But why is the increasing number of translations a problem?
The problem is that there isn’t and cannot be an expectation of a standard English text of Scripture. More and more translations are produced, and every few years we are asked to switch to the latest and greatest manifestation of what scholars deem as literal, faithful, and possessing literary beauty. The previous incarnation isn’t good enough anymore. Church leaders will write articles, blog posts, and produce YouTube videos where they will explain to us why there is a new translation we’re asked to consider. And all of this is driven by business, as White says. At this point, you might have your KJV bible you used when you were growing up, the NIV bible you loved in the 1990s, and now you claim that the ESV is the best bible translation.
Now, I’m all for being flexible, and adopting new ideas if they are good and sound. I have no problem with modern translations per se. I’m not one of those people in your church who grumble about every change that might be introduced. But at the same time, I like continuity and legacy.
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Imagine this: You are the first person in your family to become a Christian. You marry a godly woman, and you start a family. You do your research, and after much deliberation you decide that the ESV is the translation you are going to use. You invest in nice editions for every member of your family. Your church uses the ESV. You memorize large portions of Scripture in the ESV. You teach your children bible verses from the ESV. You read books that quote the ESV. You read articles that encourage you to write in your bible, and to pass it down to your children. You spend thousands of hours reading your bible. You know where on the page your beloved passages are. The pages have scribbles everywhere, many are bent, and ruffled, and some are covered in sweat and tears. You spend your life with this bible. The Lord uses its words to change you, to “conform you to the image of his Son”. You speak its words of wisdom to your grandchildren, just as their parents do.
And then, it happens. A new bible translation is published. The publisher’s marketing department locks the likes of John Piper into a room until they sing its praises. Your church switches to this translation. Quoted passages in books and sermons no longer sound familiar to you. They are like a distant echo, or a blurry memory. You are now an elder in your church, and every few weeks you are asked to read Scripture during worship or to lead the congregation in prayer. You bring your beloved bible to the pulpit, and read from it. The young people in your church tease you for still using that old thing. The bible you have pored over, and wept over. You feel betrayed by your church, and grieve the loss.
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Even if you choose a modern translation as your forever translation, you can’t be sure that it won’t change from under you. For example, the ESV was published in 2001. Then, it underwent revisions in 2007, 2011, and 2016. The 2016 edition was originally declared to be the final text, and then the decision was infamously reverted. Now, we can expect the ESV to change at some point or points in the future.
Your other option is to choose the King James Version (I can already see the eye rolls). Joel Beeke wants you to. It was first published in 1611, and underwent a few revisions, and its final form was produced in 1769. It is the bible that sounds like the bible. It has the thees and the thous. It has words that aren’t part of our normal vocabulary anymore. What’s worse, it has words that don’t mean the same thing anymore, and confuse the modern reader. The Puritans quote the KJV so that would be nice. The framers of our Reformed confessions used the KJV. The church recites the Lord’s prayer in the words of the KJV. It’s probably a bible that’s been read for generations in your family. The text is in the public domain, and so printed editions are cheaper, and there are tons of free online tools to help you study the bible.
Should the ESV become the new KJV? The KJV isn’t perfect, and neither is the ESV. Is Crossway a good steward of a standard translation of the bible?
Does this even matter? Will our children use printed bibles? Will they memorize Scripture or just use the search function of their favorite bible app? Wouldn’t you be better writing your notes into a document or an app on your computer, instead of in your bible?