ESV – NIV – NLT

People come to radblog for many reasons.   Well, three big ones at least:

1. They love the BMX movie “RAD” and have been aching for a place to cohort.

2. They are concerned about radiation and want to read a blog about it.

3. They are my mom.

Others search blogs and are looking for people’s opinion about stuff.  One ‘hot topic’ has been a discussion about bible translations.  As you may or may not know, I am a Christian and work at a Church which aims to make and develop more Christians.  We use the Holy Scriptures — the Bible — as a specific, intentional and accurate rendering of God’s Word to all the world.  Since the Bible plays such a crucial role in our understanding of who God is, the revelation of Jesus the Son as our Redeemer and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives, we take its translation very seriously.  As an English-speaking individual who serves mostly other English-speaking individuals, it is important to have a Bible that is rendered in English.  I don’t read Greek (fluently) or Hebrew (at all), nor do my Nascar-watching, 9-5 “working for the weekend” friends and neighbors.  The need for God’s Word is great; so is the need to be able to understand and apply it in our lives.

This is where the Bible translation issue arises.  What is the balance between accuracy and readability?

For a good 25 or so years, the New International Version (NIV) has risen close to the top of the list of often used translations of Scripture.  Many churches use the NIV in their pews, preaching and publication*.  It is readable yet trustworthy — mostly.  The translation team that oversaw the NIV Bible used a mix of Essentially Literal translation and Dynamic Equivalence.  EL takes the original language and renders it as closely as possible in 20th century English, aiming for a “word for word” translation.   DE takes the original language and sees sentences and pericopes (paragraphs) on a wider plane, aiming to do a “thought for thought” translation.  It might look something like this.

Original: Ho!  Everyone that is thirsty, cometh to the well!

Essentially Literal: Hey!  Everyone that is thirsty, come to the well!

Dynamic Equivelance: Listen, if you’re thirsty then come and take water from the well.

The Message: Yo!  We have this well, y’all.  And wouldn’t you know it, it’s chock full of the H2O, you know what I’m layin’ down?  So get the wet stuff out of the hole in the ground and put it down your gullet!  You’ll feel better then, yo.

I should mention that my rendering of The Message is just a joke and a playful jibe against a “translation” of Scripture that is not a translation at all, but rather Eugene Peterson’s masterfully done thought for thought rendering.  It’s the “you might say it this way” version that has a lot of plusses and only a few minuses.  One plus is that it often puts a familiar verse in a new light.  One negative is the fact that it’s someone’s take on the Scripture instead of the Scripture itself.  I see it as more of a commentary and use it as a side tool to better understand the Scripture.

I like the English Standard Version (ESV) because it uses the Dynamic Equivalence translation approach, aiming to render the original language in such a way that it retains its intended message.  What I don’t like about the ESV is that 1) it can get a little tough to understand and 2) it sways Calvinist.

First, with the whole tough to understand thing.  Shouldn’t the Bible be a bit of a mystery?  I mean, it’s the Word of God!  We should make it our aim to study something to understand it; if that means a few more moments on a strangely worded passage, that should be OK.  I agree.  But I also know what it’s like to have the audience of 6-12th graders for 20 minutes, and the ESV surpasses the attention and comprehension levels of most teens.  This has been my experience.  It’s a tough balance, because I would rather they start out with the ESV and have the most accurate translation on hand.  Yet, I want their week at camp/retreat to be transformative, not cerebral.  Most teens have NIVs or NLTs — I have yet to see a teen in my circles that uses an ESV.

The whole Calvinist thing is simple: I’m a Wesleyan/Arminian.  The ESV was not translated for us per se.  This is especially obvious in the ESV study bible, which follows 5-point Calvinism to a tee.  I could never recommend to a congregation that they get the ESV study bible, at least, not without offering the disclaimer that I don’t agree with the study notes.  Wouldn’t that be confusing to some people?

I mentioned the NLT — New Living Translation.  I love the NLT.  It is a Dynamic Equivalence translation that puts things in plain English.  That’s my plus.  The minus is the fact that it often softens the intentionally sharp edge on Scripture.  Commands come off more like suggestions for a good life.  At the same time, some might argue that God sounds “mean” in the ESV — especially teens.

So… I use all three.  I have at my fingertips all three translations.  I love them all for different reasons, as stated above.  I get bogged down when I start thinking about which one to teach/preach from.  My denomination uses the NIV primarily, though I know of more and more Free Methodist Pastors who use the ESV.  The day that I see an ESV pew bible in a Free Methodist Church will be huge, at least for me.

Right now, when I preach/teach, I use the NIV.  Here’s why:

  1. It’s common.  I want people to be in their own bibles, so I want them to be reading what I’m reading and find following along to be relatively easy and not a chore.
  2. It’s fairly trustworthy.  It doesn’t water down too badly.
  3. I know it.  My brain “thinks” NIV.
  4. Every time I switch to either the ESV or NLT, I always switch back.  It’s a good middle ground between the two.

So, there’s where I’m at.  For deep study, I like the ESV.  For ministry, I like the NIV.  For new-in-the-faith, I like NLT.

About radamdavidson

I'm a husband, dad, and pastor living in Portage, Michigan. I suppose I'm a euphoric melancholy generalist with average skills, experiences, and passions across several intertwined disciplines and hobbies including music, speaking, writing, leadership, ministry, and collecting cultural artifacts from the 1980's -- mostly vintage boomboxes. You can read my blog at www.radamdavidson.com, subscribe to my podcast (RadCast) or friend me on facebook.com/radamdavidson. about.me/radamdavidson
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