A standard, maybe

Will evangelicals unite around a new Bible translation?

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

If you are tempted, when you begin hearing a good bit in a few weeks about still another new translation of the Bible, to respond with a cavalier, Who needs it? I beg you to think again.

The formal launch a few days ago of the English Standard Version of the Bible will be seen a generation from now, I think, in either of two profoundly different ways.

Negatively, the ESV could strike the Bible-buying public as just one more in a long series of variations on what God might have meant when He gave us His word in written form. The broad diversity of English translations over the last half-century lets us all pretend we're biblical scholars, sitting at our desks surrounded by half a dozen versions and picking the rendition on any particular subject that we happen to like the best. The problem is that little by little, such Bibles become our word instead of God's word.

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Meanwhile, other bad things happen. We memorize God's word a lot less than we did a generation or two ago. We do less unison reading in worship. Only rarely any more do we stand for the reading of the Scripture the way many of us did when we were young. Part of all that, admittedly, is the confusing bafflement that comes from having several dozen translations. But part of it is also a reduced sense of respect, duty, and awe, precipitated by making too common that which people used to hold in wonder and veneration. In a strange sense, God's blessing us with His word in easy availability and variety has become an unexpected curse.

All that's on the possible downside.

But there's also a lot of room for positive thinking. So just as many people associate the date 1611 with the first publication of the King James Bible, which then served for three and a half centuries as the "standard" Bible for English-speaking people, someday people may view the year 2001 as the date when a version finally came along worthy of equally widespread acceptance. Many Christian leaders think the English Standard Version is that good.

The ESV is not an altogether new translation. It springs from the Revised Standard Version of the 1950s-a translation that for the most part was faithfully accurate and in every respect was musically literate. The RSV, however, had some fatal flaws: The left-leaning National Council of Churches held its copyright, and that alone doomed its marketability among evangelicals. And its translators, for all their diligent faithfulness, insisted on about a dozen specific choices that stamped the RSV as a Bible inclined toward liberal theology. Not surprisingly, the RSV never became a standard among North American Bible buyers.

By the late 1990s, the NCC, by introducing a more trendy gender-inclusive version of the RSV, had relegated the original 1950s edition to the Bible museums. Sensitive and alert to an unusual opening, Lane Dennis of Crossway Books approached the NCC to ask whether rights to the historic RSV-with editorial revisions by a group of evangelical scholars-might be available. It took persistence and a bit of negotiating, but an unusual agreement was reached.

All of which conceivably sets the stage now for giving English-speaking people one more chance to adopt a "standard" Bible for personal reading, public worship, and memorizing. I note that opportunity here first because such opportunities come along so rarely. I note it also because the ESV is a worthy contender for so exalted a station. The ESV leans decidedly toward the literal end of the translation spectrum, rather than the so-called "dynamic equivalence" end; its sponsors and its translators believe that they should ask first what the words say rather than what they mean. Faithfulness with the words themselves, they believe, leads to faithful transmission of meaning. But the ESV is also lyrical; its language lends itself easily to public reading and memorization-something almost no "dynamic equivalent" efforts have been able to claim.

Bible publishing is big business in our society today, and Bible publishers have a vested interest in maintaining a proliferation of translations. Furthermore, we understand how some might think-after WORLD magazine's very public involvement with the 1997 debate over gender-inclusive Bibles-that this now gives us a chance to denigrate translations like the venerable New International Version (NIV). To the contrary, many of us once hoped the NIV would come to play the very role I mention here. But it has not done so, even after 35 years. The NIV dominates the field, but is by no means the standard.


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