Friday, 17 June 2011

Southern Baptists, Bible Translations, and the Condemnation of the NIV

A majority of the men at the Southern Baptist Convention today condemned the New International Version on the basis that it is not a faithful translation of the word of God.

At issue is whether men must translate with something like “goodwill to men” rather than “goodwill to people,” or whether men must translate that God wants all men to be saved rather than all people, or whether we must always refer to the Israelites as the “sons of Israel” instead of “children of Israel.”

In formal Greek linguistic categories, the nouns and pronouns in question are in the masculine, but nonetheless convey the inclusion of women. The NIV does not always render these nouns and pronouns with their corresponding masculine forms, but rather with English words which convey the same meaning as the Greek.

Because of NIV’s tendency to render the meaning of the Greek rather than slavishly reproducing formal masculine linguistic categories, certain influential men brought their case against the NIV before the Southern Baptist brethren. The resolution narrowly passed by the votes of a few men.

Ironically, the version most closely associated with Southern Baptist is the HCSB which translates many of these same passages similarly as NIV.

The fault lies with a handful of men, sometimes scholarly ones, who innocently say, “I prefer a more literal version such as the ESV.” Well intentioned laymen and pastors combine this innocent statement with their rightly placed belief in inerrancy, and conclude, mistakenly, that literal versions are theologically preferable, while anything less is liberal.

Let those men who study these issues be more cautious about how they promote certain Bible versions. There’s no such thing as the one best version. There is, however, such a thing as the best version for a particular need:

  • literal versions are to be preferred for exact and detailed study involving vocabulary and syntax (ESV ASV NASU)
  • dynamic equivalent versions are to be preferred for lengthy or protracted or speed reading, such as reading-the-Bible-in-a-year programs, or for evangelizing men (NLT TEV)
  • middle-of-the-road translations for Bible memorization or for public reading (NIV NRSV)

We men who teach the Bible need to stop saying that “literal translations are best for those men who believe in inerrancy.”

Scholarly men need to stop providing fodder for the demagoguery of translation theory, because what they say will produce misguided resolutions such as what was passed at the Southern Baptist Convention today. This is so unfortunate because misguided resolutions trivialize other resolutions that good men might pass at the convention. For example, the men of the Southern Baptist Convention rightly reaffirmed their belief in hell, but they did so while condemning the NIV. How can men take one resolution seriously when the other is so unfounded?

Another unintended consequence of this misguided resolution is to reinforce the KJV-only laymen and churches in their suspicion against “untrustworthy” versions. The resolution sets back churches at least a year or two in the effort to get into the hands of our churchmen a more accurate translation than the 400 year old linguistically outdated KJV.

Just for clarification, all of my aforementioned references to “men” are meant to imply women as well and are included to illustrate that men don’t talk the way that the authors of the resolution expect men to translate.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Problem with the English Standard Version (ESV) and Theological Demagoguery

The problem with the English Standard Version (ESV) is not with the translation itself, but with the theological demagoguery that its advocates use to promote it and to discredit its competition.
This demagoguery involves thoughtless assertions that the more literal a translation is the better. Accordingly, dynamic equivalence is made suspect as the invention of liberal scholars. The intended conclusion of such demagoguery is that people who believe the Bible should stick with formal equivalent versions such as the ESV. These claims are faulty in so many ways, but in this post, I’ll just point out one.
ESV is marketed as having an eighth grade reading level. This in itself shows that ESV fails in its intended purpose to be formal equivalent. It intends to render all of the Bible at the same reading level, even though the Greek (and Hebrew) of some of the individual books and authors of the Bible are easier to read than others.
In the New Testament, the Greek style and vocabulary of John’s Gospel is so simple that an intermediate Greek reader can just about speed read it, while the Greek style and vocabulary of Luke-Acts and Hebrews is so complex that advanced Greek readers struggle mightily therein.
If ESV really felt that formal equivalency were a theological tenet rather than a pragmatic tool, the translators would have translated the easy to read Greek into easy to read English, while those Greek books which are more difficult to read would be translated into more advanced English. As it turns out, the reading levels for the ESV are about the same throughout the Bible. Thus, readers get no sense of the level of difficulty of the Greek behind the English translation.
Of course, the only reason why the publishers cast aside formal equivalence in regard to readability levels is because difficult-to-read Bibles don’t sell. A case in point would be the short-lived New English Bible which, for example, translated the lofty prose of Heb 1:3 as referring to Christ as the effulgence of God’s glory, the impress of his substance. Stuff like this doesn’t sell.
Ultimately, we need to cast aside the notion that translation methods reflect theological commitments. Rather, we should take advantage of the availability of so many very excellent translations, and use the best translation according to the occasion: use the right tool for the job.