T.C. Robinson, at New Leaven, quoted Daniel Doleys writing about why he moved back to teaching from the ESV Bible. I was being a bit mischievous when I commented:
This guy is simply showing that he doesn’t understand how language work[s] and doesn’t understand the ESV. … I’m sorry to say this, but by returning to ESV Daniel is simply helping himself continue to teach and preach badly.
Of course I didn’t write anything like this without explaining my reasons, which I have omitted in the quotation above. And in a further exchange of comments with Daniel I accepted that the example he had given was not really one of bad teaching.
Nevertheless, I would claim that literal Bible translations like the ESV are often used as crutches by bad preachers and Christian teachers.
First I need to explain what I mean by “literal Bible translations”. Henry Neufeld has rightly objected to a misuse of the word “literal”. As this word is so often abused it might be better not to apply it to Bible versions, and use the more technical term “formal equivalence translation”. But that would confuse many people – and make the title of this post too long.
Anyway, I am referring here to versions at one end of the translation spectrum: ESV, NASB, RSV, KJV, NKJV and some others which are classified as more or less “literal” or “formal equivalence”. The Good News Bible, CEV and NLT are among those at the other end of the spectrum, “meaning-based” or “dynamic equivalence”. NIV is somewhere in the middle.
Now I certainly don’t want to claim that all preachers and teachers who use literal translations are bad. Some of the very best preachers use versions of this type. But there are also many bad preachers and teachers out there. And many, not all, of them prefer literal translations. There are at least two reasons why:
First, preachers can simply explain the passage and pretend they have preached a sermon. Sadly it is common for pastors, especially less well educated ones, to reject meaning-based Bible translations because they would be left with nothing to say. These preachers have been used to reading a Bible passage from a version which their congregation does not understand clearly, because it is written in unnatural and perhaps old-fashioned language, and then spending a long time explaining its meaning. Maybe this is all there is to the sermon, or there is only a token attempt to apply it to the hearers’ situation. But if the meaning is clear when the passage is read from the Bible, as it surely should be, then there is little or nothing left for the preacher to say.
Second, and this is what I was getting at in my response to the New Leaven post, literal Bible translations encourage teachers to focus on unimportant details while missing the broader flow of the text. Daniel Doleys’ example about the phrase “in the eyes” in Judges can serve as an example here. Daniel complained that NIV was inconsistent in its translation of this phrase – but seemed to have failed to notice that his preferred ESV is also inconsistent. But should such phrases be translated consistently? If the meaning and context is the same, preferably yes. But part of the argument for literal translations is that each word in the original language should be translated consistently even when the meanings and contexts are different. Some bad teachers want this because they love to discuss how specific words are used with some kind of semi-mystical meaning through the Bible or a part of it – without taking into account that these words are perfectly ordinary ones like “eyes” used in many different ways.
Now I accept that there is a place for looking in detail at how each original language word is used in different senses and contexts within the biblical texts. But this kind of study should be done from the original language texts, and the results should be shared among biblical scholars. Only bad preachers try to impress their regular Sunday congregations with insights of this kind, supposedly based on an original language word but often in fact mainly derived from translations and concordances in English, or whatever else their mother tongue might be.
So it is perhaps not surprising that most ordinary congregation members prefer meaning-based translations while their pastors try to persuade them to use more literal ones. After all, the pastors don’t want their flocks to understand the passage too clearly, or they might feel redundant!
What is the answer here? Preachers and teachers need to realise that there is much more to a good sermon than exegesis, explaining the meaning of the text. They may have to do that, of course, whatever translation they are using, but they should make that task as simple as possible by using a clear and natural Bible version. They should also realise that finding themes and connections between texts, while fascinating for scholars, is rarely helpful for general congregations. The heart of a good expository sermon must always be applying the Bible passage to the needs of the hearers. And the best translation to use is the one which makes that task most effective.