What We Believe

August 14, 2005 Q & A

OPC and Bible Translations


Why did the OPC switch from the NIV to the ESV? Some in Reformed circles are saying that the NIV and the whole philosophy of dynamic equivalency are causing a crisis. They also say that anything other than an "essentially literal approach to translation" negatively effects the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. Have you heard of this?


First, a bit of a correction. New Horizons (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's denominational magazine) has made the English Standard Version its "default" translation; that is, in its regular features and in articles in which the author does not choose to use another translation, the ESV is used. Writers for the magazine quote from whatever translation of the Bible they choose (a policy also followed by Ordained Servant, the OPC's journal for Church officers). Also, Great Commission Publications, the publishing house jointly operated by the OPC and the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), has chosen to quote the ESV in its Sunday School materials. Individual pastors and congregations remain free to use whatever translation they prefer.

But why these switches? It's important to remember what we believe about the words of Scripture, which is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8:

"The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope." (You can find the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with Scripture proofs, here.)

That is, the Scriptures in their original languages are what we should turn to and be taught from. To that end, we require that all our pastors know Greek and Hebrew so they might be able to study and preach from the Scriptures themselves and not have to rely on English translations. Just as we want our pastors to be as faithful to the Scriptures as possible, we want the Bible translations we use to be as faithful to the Scriptures as possible. The NIV is almost universally regarded as a solid and reliable translation; however, while all translations are necessarily the product of interpretation, some feel it has a tendency to over-interpret the original text in a number of places. Few think the ESV a perfect translation, but its translation philosophy tends to minimize that tendency towards over-interpretation.

Speaking only for myself as a working preacher who regularly translates Greek and Hebrew into English, I think Christians need to avoid the temptation (sometimes encouraged by publishers of Bible translations) to identify a single English version of the Bible as the most (or only!) reliable one. In my opinion, every translation gets it right almost all of the time and wrong occasionally. For the serious student of Scripture who has not had the opportunity to learn the original languages, I strongly recommend using several translations (such as the New American Standard Bible, the traditional edition of the New International Version, the New King James Version, or the English Standard Version) along with one or two Bible commentaries which are based on the Hebrew or Greek but do not require the reader to know Hebrew or Greek to use them (such as the Tyndale series).

You also asked this:

Some in Reformed circles are saying that the NIV and the whole philosophy of dynamic equivalency are causing a crisis. They also say that anything other than an "essentially literal approach to translation" negatively effects the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. Have you heard of this?

I have not heard of this. I'm not sure what form this crisis is said to be taking. I am also not entirely sure what "essentially literal" means, despite having worked with the ESV since its publication. From my own studies, I could cite any number of instances when the ESV does not translate a word or phrase literally (in the sense of providing the most direct substitute in English) even when doing so would not obscure the meaning of the text.

You have no doubt heard it said that translation is as much art as science. As a student of the Word, I have a great deal of sympathy for Bible translators even when I do not agree with their choices. It is very difficult to translate a text precisely from one language into another, let alone in a manner which conveys the sense, style, and beauty of the original. This is why no translation which claims to be "literal" truly is in the plain sense of that term (look at their marginal notes!), and also why "dynamic equivalent" translations do not always succeed in conveying the concepts contained in the original languages.

For all that, I must say, with the exception of "translations" produced by anti-Christian cults, I have yet to find one which fails to clearly express the basic message of Scripture and to get across the plain meaning of its central texts. In all of them, I find the declaration of God's grace to sinners through the Cross of Jesus Christ plainly and unavoidably proclaimed. In our day as well, God has preserved the Scriptures so we may patiently read and search them and, by his grace and the work of his Spirit, have hope.



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