Literal Bible translations: crutches for bad teachers?

ESV BibleT.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.

14 thoughts on “Literal Bible translations: crutches for bad teachers?

  1. Great post! If someone likes literal translation, maybe they should use Google translate for a while and see just how silly it can be. I must admit that I find it easy to follow the used of a particular word such as “sarxs” translated consistently as “flesh” in an English Bible, but that does not mean such consistency makes for the best translation in order to have correct meaning for the audience, especially those in the audience that are not at the level to fully understand the meanings of Greek word “sarxs” as used in the NT

  2. Yes, I am in agreement with you about the 2011 NIV in both ways. BTW, I am sometimes so lazy to proofread my comments, but then feel so ashamed of my typos when I notice them after I post them. 🙂

  3. Yes indeed a valuable post. I continue to major on the NIV 84 as that is what we have on the lectern and in the pews. But I will purchase the 2011 in due course. So I am rooted in meaning based. I have other translations available to me, mostly meaning based, but also incl the dear old AV.

    Just a request for clarification about your comment “finding themes and connections between texts”. I do like drawing attention to how a passage I am preaching from affirms and is affirmed by other passages. I will be doing so this coming Sunday. I am told Lloyd Jones was hot on this, and it seems to help us see the consistency and unity of the revalation in Scripture. You may be uncomfortable with that approach, or you may have been making another point which I fear I have totally missed. Perhaps you could clarify?

  4. Thank you, Colin. NIV, whether 1984 or 2011, is not truly “meaning-based” – for that you need NLT or Good News. But that is not to knock it – it is my favourite for most purposes.

    I know I wasn’t all that clear about “finding themes and connections between texts”. I accept that there are many genuine and valuable connections to be made. I’m sure Lloyd-Jones, as a great exegete, found these. What I object to is the fascination some bad preachers have for finding purely verbal links which are probably coincidental and have no genuine theological significance. Sorry this still isn’t very clear, but it is the end of a long busy day!

  5. Thanks for the clarification Peter. Yes I quite agree. Making links which are not there for the sake if it is not good preaching.

  6. “literal Bible translations encourage teachers to focus on unimportant details while missing the broader flow of the text.”

    And all God’s people said, “Amen!”

  7. Pingback: Literal Bible translations: crutches for bad teachers? « Better Bibles Blog

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  9. Respectfully, to me, all this talk of translation differences is kind of funny. I’m in Accordance right now reading the REB and ESV simultaneously and making comparisons in Romans. They, by and large, are all pretty easy to read.

    I notice that you, maybe, seem to be making a case that translations like the GNB, NLT, and CEV are superior; I would counter that they will put the congregation to sleep as they read like children’s books. But, maybe I’m misunderstanding. I’ve been preaching out of the REB, and I’ve found the congregation to really enjoy that translation. It also helps me to frame my sermon as a story putting the congregation in the middle of the action.

    So, I guess I would agree with you about meaning-based translations being the way to go. However, I would disagree about the GNB, NLT, and CEV (especially CEV) being the appropriate translations to replace a literal one.

  10. Also, I need to make it clear that, being from a small Kentucky, I was raised on the KJV, and have used literal translations most of my short life. So, I’m still new at this and do not claim to be an expert by any means.

  11. Zach, thank you for your comments. Sorry to be slow replying – I have been away from home.

    It is far too simple to say that I am “making a case that translations like the GNB, NLT, and CEV are superior”. Yes, for some purposes they are preferable to ESV etc – although my main point in this post was not that literal translations are bad, but that there are often misused.

    But these three translations also have a number of weaknesses, including the one that you point out, that they can seem over-simplified and childish for those people (probably the minority!) who have a high level literary education.

    That is not necessarily true of meaning based translations. I do think that there is still a gap in the market for a good meaning based translation in high quality literary English. I don’t know REB well but I suspect it is as close as any other to filling that gap, although it would probably be listed as a mediating translation like NIV.

    I would suggest that you find ESV easy to read largely because you were “raised on the KJV”. People who are not used to KJV language, and also not very familiar with other literature from that period such as Shakespeare, tend to find ESV rather hard to understand. And I think you will find that these are the majority of Americans today, although perhaps not yet the majority of those in churches.

  12. Very true! I must admit: I’m a recent convert to meaning based translations. They are much more accurate to my eye (I can compare the Greek, I don’t know Hebrew very well) in the NT, and the children get much more out of them than the NRSV. Thank you for your work here and at the BBB, it is marvelous!

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