This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why Bethany Community Chose to Use the ESV

This week someone asked me why we use the English Standard Version (ESV) as the preaching and teaching Bible at Bethany Community Church. It occurred to me we have many people in our church now who weren't around when we first addressed this question four years ago. Here are some things I shared four years ago as we talked about using the ESV (and a few new things I didn't share).

My Translation History

At the school I attended from 2nd to 4th grade, each child was required to bring a King James Bible (KJV) to school. I can still remember going with my mom to purchase the Bible and holding it in my hands for the first time. It had a blue cover and the words “Holy Bible” inscribed in gold on the front cover. As I held it, I couldn’t believe I actually owned a copy of the Bible.

The KJV is a beautiful translation and I used it to memorize verses while in elementary school. When I'm thinking of the wording of a verse, I often think of it in the King's English. I thought that the "thee's" and "thou's" were part of the original text and assumed that Jesus, Paul, and Moses spoke Elizabethan English.

In our family devotional time, however, we didn’t use the KJV. We generally used the New American Standard Bible (NASB). This was the version of the Bible that I used most of my life.

In 6th grade, my Sunday School teacher, Mr. Hill offered a prize to any boy in the class who memorized a certain number of Bible verses. The night before we were to be tested over the passages memorized, Mr. Hill called my dad and told him to make sure I was ready. Without that extra encouragement, I’m quite sure I would not have been prepared. The prize was an NASB Ryrie Study Bible.

I still own it:
I think it's hard to overestimate the impact of that Bible on my life.

The Ryrie Study Bible opened a whole new world to me. I learned the historical context of the books of the Bible and was able to understand passages that had seemed incomprehensible before. While I’ve sometimes questioned some of the conclusions Ryrie reached in his notes in the intervening years, I owe a great debt to his monumental effort—and to Mr. Hill’s generosity. The NASB, then, was the version of the Bible I became most familiar with.

In college, I began to learn a lot more about the philosophy behind Bible translations. I learned that, broadly speaking, Bible translations could fit somewhere on an equilibrium between “formal” translations and “dynamic” translations.

A translation that is formal translation seeks to be literal and correspond, as much as possible, word-for-word with the original text. A dynamic translation is not as concerned with word-for-word equivalency but instead tries to communicate the sense of the passage.

In college, I began working at a Christian bookstore and bought a lot of different versions of the Bible to familiarize myself with their differences. Pictured on the right are some of the Bibles I bought while in college.

Some complain that formal translations are too stilted and it’s certainly true that a purely literal translation would be unreadable in English. However, I generally like my translations like my personality: wooden.

Here's a chart from Dave Croteau in his article on translation philosophy (which can be found here) that shows how different translations compare in terms of their translation philosophy:

A translation that is more formal has several advantages, such as:

* It protects translators from overly incorporating their own, sometimes mistaken, theology into the text.

* It forces readers to confront idioms or sayings with which they may not be readily familiar but deepen their understanding of the text.

* It helps a congregation to see how the preaching pastor reaches the conclusions he does, thereby aiding their ability to understand God's Word on their own.

* It shows a greater reverence for the inspired text.

* It allows readers to make connections between texts that might be missed if translators are doing “thought for thought” translation.

Which Translation for the Church Plant?

When we were deciding which translation to use for the church plant, my heart was initially drawn to the NASB. There was a comforting familiarity in that text, like an old friend. It is an excellent translation, in my opinion, but it has suffered from having a reputation of being too hard to read. I also think those who own the copyrights to the text have done a poor job of allowing it to be used and so it's a translation that is hard to access.

There were three other options I and the shepherding team considered: the NIV, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and the ESV.

I wasn't that excited about the NIV. It’s an excellent translation in many respects, but not suited for expositional preaching. For example, consider how the NIV translates 1 Peter 5:6-7:
NIV: 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
If I was preaching from the NIV, it would seem like there were two commands in these verses: (1) Humble yourself (v. 6) and (2) Cast your anxiety on God (v. 7).

This is readable but not as accurate as the HCSB and the ESV:
HCSB: 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you in due time, 7 casting all your care upon Him, because He cares about you.
ESV: 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
Do you notice the difference? There is a clear relationship between the two verses. In verse 7, casting your anxieties upon God is how humility is demonstrated. The ESV and HCSB make it clear that "casting" is a participle. There's only one command: humble yourself. That’s not as clear in the NIV.

So Why the ESV?

The elders ultimately chose to use the ESV at Bethany Community Church as our preaching translation for several reasons: (1) it was more literal than translations like the NIV, (2) it was more readable than translations like the NASB, and (3) it had a greater level of availability than translations like the NASB and HCSB.

One more thing: I want to emphasize my appreciation for the plethora of great translations that are available to me as an English reader. The issues I have with most translations are relatively minor. None of the translations I've mentioned are poor translations. And even poor translations can still communicate God's truth to some degree. Whatever version of the Bible you have, be sure to read it!

By His Grace,



  1. Thanks for answering my question, Daniel!- Leslie

  2. We use the ESV at East White Oak too. I generally like it, and I find that I do not have to say, "Now this should be translated differently," as often as I did when I preached from the NIV. Nor (dare I admit my age?) do I have to explain the English words as I often had to do when I preached from the KJV.

    However, the more that I am using the ESV, the more I find some renderings puzzling, particularly in the OT. This Sunday, for example, I will be preaching from Psalm 84. In verse 1, ESV translates the plural "dwelling places" as "dwelling place." In verse 5, it goes the opposite direction, translating the singular "blessed is the man (or one)" as "blessed are those". In verse 6, it chooses the more dynamically equivalent (and, in my judgment, a poor interpretive choice which follows the KJV) rendering, "the early rain also covers it with pools," over the more literal "the early rain also covers it with blessings."

    Even with that, you are correct. The ESV has the best combination of current translations of being readable, literal, and available.

  3. While no expert, I find that the ESV has a nice cadence when being read.

  4. In the interest of full disclosure, the issues in Psalm 84:6 were far more complex than I indicated in my earlier post. The "pools" vs "blessings" was actually a Hebrew vowel pointing issue, but I continue to view "blessings" as the better rendering. There is a LOT in that verse to digest, including a fanciful Islamic interpretation from Sura 3:96. Go to later this week and you will be able to listen to my explanation of the issues by clicking on the sermon from 9/2/12.

    The ESV translation of 84:1 "dwelling place" instead of "dwelling places" misses some genuine theological beauty, which beauty I attempt to demonstrate in the sermon.

  5. While the ESV is an excellent translation, and I am thankful for the use of a formal translation in BCC. I would just like to suggest (and think most would agree) that when doing personal study, reading multiple translations is a good idea. Formal translations and dynamic both can communicate different nuanced truths in a passage. Reading both formal and dynamic can give you a more fully developed understanding of any given text. Never is there a meaning of one word in language "A" that can be 100%,fully,accurately communicated by only one word in language "B".

    There are great Bible software programs and Bible websites to allow easy access to multiple translations. I usually bounce between the NA27,NASB,AMP,ESV,HCSB,NET,NIV and sometimes stretch out even to the NLT, but no farther :)


  6. Thanks, Daniel, for an excellent overview about the ESV. It is a very nice translation.

    I still prefer the literalness of the NASB-95 for study but often use the ESV in my ABC classroom presentation (unless it obscures a passage). I still think the ESV (as does the NIV and even the NET) tend to smooth over tough readings and thus it is harder to see what is happening. However, I know I am in the minority there, as many see the NASB as too wooden to read and too difficult in vocabulary. The good news is that the ESV is not too far away from it, and (as you say) very accessible.

    One reason I like the more literal translations is that they often reflect better the Greek and Hebrew behind the text. And literary word plays and structural clues to understand the message of the ancient authors is facilitated by that clarity.

    I was thrilled to see that the ESV, for instance, kept the continuity between Ruth chapter 2:12 and in the next chapter 3:9. Keeping "wings" in both verses enables the reader to see the literary allusion and the connection between the two narrative stories. That is valuable for identifying the worshipful demeanor of the encounter between Ruth and Boaz, not to mention the proposal and the redeemer focus (see two passages below). The ESV has been winning my support in many ways like this. :)

    Ruth 2:12
    English Standard Version (ESV)
    12 The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”

    Ruth 3:9
    English Standard Version (ESV)
    9 He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings[a] over your servant, for you are a redeemer.”

    ESV Footnotes:
    Ruth 3:9 Compare 2:12; the word for wings can also mean 'corners of a garment'