I cringe almost every time I hear a preacher criticize a particular phrase from an English Bible translation in preaching—even and especially those times when I caught myself doing it before I could stop myself. We preachers and Bible teachers would do better not to publicly correct the Bible translations on people’s laps.
Here are three reasons why.
1. We are putting down people our sheep need to trust.
When we criticize a given English Bible translation or marvel at how they could have gotten a passage so wrong, we are not putting down a faceless publishing company; we are putting down people. People who have given their entire lives to study and teach Scripture and to make the Bible available to others. People who are at that very moment sitting in a pew somewhere or standing in a pulpit like we are. People whom our people need to trust.
Why do our people need to trust Bible translators? Because without Bible translators, they don’t have the Bible. They’ve got to trust at least someone to take God’s words on the sometimes arduous journey from Hebrew and Greek into English (or whatever modern language they speak).
When we criticize the nameless, faceless (and defenseless) people who supposedly messed up the Bible, we destroy a trust that is generally healthy. What evangelical Bible translator out there purposefully sets out to misrepresent God’s word? Would we criticize his rendering that way if he were one of our Sunday School teachers? One of the translators of the NLT—he worked on Numbers—is about 40 feet from me as I speak. Super nice guy. A faithful churchman. Back trouble I’ve been praying for. A real-live person.
And yet I have heard partisans for multiple (other) translations talk dismissively about his work. I’ve also seen the end results of that kind of talk: the people in the pews get an unhealthy message. Often their consciences are bound for or against given translations, and they feel a revulsion they can’t explain for Bible translations they’ve never read a word of, translations that could be very useful for them.
I don’t mean we can never disagree with a particular rendering. God has not chosen to give equal clarity to all portions of Scripture, or even to all lexemes. So there are some real corkers in Scripture, passages that scatter the translators all across the map. It is healthy to acknowledge this fact, because our people should not trust any one translation so completely that it becomes, in effect, perfect—doubly inspired.
So I declare open season on στοιχεῖα (stoicheia), and if we can make our comments with the spirit of friendly competition rather than us-versus-them, godly-versus-stupid/crazy/evil, I personally think it’s okay, even good, to come down in favor of one translation or another. But no put-downs are necessary.
2. We may be overestimating our abilities.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: do we really and truly know more about Greek verb tenses or translation theory or textual criticism or the difference between hades and hell and sheol and gehenna than the biblical scholars who put together the NIV/ESV/KJV/NASB?
Do we really and truly know English better than the stylists who worked on those translations, people who had access to linguistic corpuses which show, as scientifically as possible, what certain English words and sentence structures mean today?
Maybe, maybe. Translators are not perfect; they make occasional dumb mistakes as humans after the fall are wont to do. They “fix” one problem of tricky English and unwittingly create a new problem of intertextual interpretation. And we preachers have had some education of our own, or we wouldn’t be preaching, using Logos Bible Software, or reading this blog. But I think it is safer generally to assume that smart people had good reasons for choosing the renderings we see in the pages of the Bible in front of us, and that they could explain those reasons if we had a chance to sit down with them. The quest to discover their reasons may uncover valuable truths we were missing. I always try to go on that quest before I dismiss what I see in front of me (Prov 18:13).
If we absolutely must disagree with one Bible translation’s rendering of a certain passage, I suggest we use it as an opportunity to praise and lift up another one. If we have to take some stock away from the 1984 NIV in our people’s eyes because of its translation of σάρξ (sarx) as “sinful nature” rather than “flesh,” then let’s make sure to reinvest that stock of trust in the 2011 NIV for acknowledging and fixing the problem.
Quite often, there will be a good motivation behind that “dumb mistake.” So let’s give it publicly: I appreciate the way the NIV translators are always striving to make the Bible text understandable to the average reader. (I always think of the time the NIV “added” the word “boundary” in Psalm 16:6—though I would say it was not an addition but a necessary clarification for English readers—instantly clearing up a decades-long misunderstanding I didn’t know I had.)
If we don’t put public stock in other Bible translators, and other Bible interpreters more generally, we may find that we do real harm to our sheep—and to our own ministries. We ourselves falter; we ourselves are the unwitting causes of serious misunderstandings. We don’t want our people to go through a market crash in their faith—because we encouraged them to trust their pastor as the only reliable Bible teacher in existence.
We’re going to be wrong sometimes in our interpretation; we’ll breed far less distrust if we’re humbly wrong than if we’re arrogantly wrong. Some humble-hedging may help us when it comes time to disagree with our Bible translations: “I may be missing something, but it seems to me that the NIV communicates the truth here a bit more effectively than the ESV.” We can’t humble-hedge the gospel or the call for repentance or other things the Bible clearly says; we should speak confidently as the oracles of God (1 Pet 4:11). But we should also know when we might be missing something. Humble people cultivate that sense.
3. We are withholding God’s gifts from our people
Bad-mouthing a Bible translation stirs up the kind of party spirit Paul condemned: “I’m with Paul,” “I’m with Peter!,” “I’m with Apollos!” And in my experience, it doesn’t merely place other translations on a second tier but on a villain tier.
If my kids are fighting over who has the best ball, I want to say, “I bought all of these balls for all of you! Just enjoy them and use them; don’t twist my gifts into an excuse to fight each other!”
And that’s pretty much just what God, our Father, says (through Paul):
Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
Paul and Apollos and Peter? All these Bible teachers are yours; don’t fight over them. The men and women who gave us the NIV? All are yours. The teams who produced the ESV and NLT and CSB and NKJV and NET? Yours. They are gifts to the church (Eph 4:11–12). We should all enjoy them and use them; we should not twist them into an excuse to fight one another.
Pastors are supposed to guard the flock (Acts 20:28–31); it is appropriate sometimes to warn them about doctrinal dangers. We may indeed want to suggest to people that another Bible translation might be a better use of their study time. But I personally am careful not to scare my people away from something God gave them for their good, just because (like Paul and Peter and Apollos) it isn’t perfect.
The line between “helpful contribution” and “hobby horse” is not always clear, and my many posts on the use-all-the-good-Bible-translations theme may be moving ineluctably from the first category to the second. So I must point out that I’m not the only one who sees the problems I’m seeing. My friend Andy Naselli sees it, too, and his article on the topic is fantastic. And the respected authors of Going Deeper with New Testament Greek (Koestenberger and Plummer) observe,
A pastor should never undermine the congregation’s trust in English Bible translations through comments such as, “The ESV gets this really wrong here . . . .” or “I can’t believe the NIV says . . . .” It is arrogant and detrimental for the pastor to present himself as the infallible pope of Bible translation. (B&H Academic Blog)
We pastors and other Bible teachers can model a careful, appreciative use of all God’s good gifts to Bible students. If our people ever get asked, “Which Bible translation is best?” They should know by our example to reply, “All the good ones.”
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