For several weeks I’ve been trying to End Bible Translation Tribalism. I’m urging Christians not to make our good Bible translations into rallying points or battle flags for internecine warfare. Instead, we members of Christ’s body should recognize our (good) Bible translations for what they are: useful and complementary tools for listening to Christ, our head.
Obscure redheaded bloggers near the Canadian border can only do so much about Bible translation tribalism. Suspicions about other “Christian” tribes’ bad “Bible” “translations” will continue no matter how hard I try to stop them. Just recently at a conference a dean at a Christian college told me that a certain major Greek-English lexicon was secretly altered as part of a conspiracy to promote the NIV. I was dumbfounded.
But I understand such suspicions. I do. I’ve got a Christian tribe, too, with our own predilections. To borrow from C.S. Lewis’ famous ecclesiological analogy in Mere Christianity, I work in the “mere Christian” hallway all day, but my true home is in one of the denominational, theologically specific rooms off to its side.
I like my room. I like my tribe. I prefer its views—I even prefer its problems—to those of other tribes in other rooms. I’m willing to insist on certain divisions from my brothers and sisters in Christ when I believe the Bible tells me to (2 Thess. 3:6, 14). And in another venue, we can discuss (in Christian love) the reasons I might choose to do so.
But I still believe that recognizing the existence of the hallway—acknowledging the genuine good in other tribes—is an important thing to do. God has his 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal, and they’re not all in your tribe. (You may not have always been there either!)
One of the important corollaries of my belief in the hallway is this: if Christians’ suspicions about other Christian tribes keep them from profiting from our many good Bible translations, those suspicions have gone too far. Such Christians are being unhelpfully tribal. And the people they are most unhelping are themselves.
Translating in the Hallway
No translation is perfect, because they are made by fallen humans. Even respected, well-trained Bible translators feel the subtle tug of tribal bias. As Charles Simeon once said with regard to two Christian tribes,
There is not a decided Calvinist or Arminian in the world, who equally approves of the whole of Scripture…., who, if he had been in the company of St. Paul, whilst he was writing his different Epistles, would not have recommended him to alter one or other of his expressions. (xxiii)
The best and most respected translations have achieved that status in part because the translators who produced them recognized their own fallenness. How did they counteract their own tendency to wrench the Bible in their own tribe’s direction? They set up their work tables in the hallway.
Just as the founding fathers of the United States purposefully set up checks and balances among the various branches of government, so the broad coalition of Christian tribes who worked on the NIV—including Anabaptist, Anglican, Baptist, Bible, Brethren, Christian Reformed, Church of North India, Dispensationalist, Evangelical Covenant, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian scholars—helped keep that translation from subtly favoring one (Protestant evangelical) tribe over another.
And lest you think I’m an every-translation-is-a-good-translation, it’s-all-one-big-happy-party-come-on-in-it’s-fun-you’ll-like-it kind of person when it comes to Bible translations, notice that in all my posts about the topic, I’ve consistently claimed that only the “good” translations are worth checking. I, too, avoid certain translations and even feel a bit suspicious toward certain others.
What would make someone who is so publicly thankful for multiple translations suspicious? One of the main answers is this: if a translation is the product of precisely one Christian tribe and no others, I’m suspicious. I actually want Christians I disagree with on lesser matters to be involved in producing the Bible translations I read and study. Even the HCSB, which is closely identified with the Southern Baptist Convention, included Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others on its translation team. For all my love for my tribe, and for all my desire for others to join it, I recognize that other Christian tribes have theological strengths mine doesn’t have. Certain tribes grasped the redemptive historical character of Scripture many decades before my tribe did, for example.
If I think my tribe sees some scriptural truths others miss, I nonetheless recognize that the Bible is not my tribe’s book, but rather rules over and belongs to all truly Christian tribes. If Christians have to retreat to separate rooms off the hallway each Sunday—and we do, because certain doctrinal differences make ecclesiastical community almost impossible—then at least it’s healthy for us to be carrying the same Bible translations into those rooms with us.
The Best Bible Translations
And which ones should we carry? What exactly are the best Bible translations? How can you know which ones count as “good”?
I suggest you look again to the Christian hallway.
Just yesterday one of our number crunchers at Faithlife sent me a spreadsheet detailing Bible translation usage across our user base. I think there is wisdom in the aggregate opinion of actual Christians, real Bible students. Among them the top translations are just what I’d expect from my own long-term use of multiple translations: the ESV, NASB, NKJV, NIV, NLT, NRSV, HCSB, KJV, NET, LEB, Message, etc.
Most, though certainly not all, Logos users hail from evangelical tribes, and that’s reflected in the list. But I’m glad to see non-evangelical translations in the top 25 as well; I often encourage evangelicals to check translations from outside evangelicalism.
I don’t think the way to end Bible translation tribalism is to anoint one translation as the successor to the KJV in English-speaking lands. I actually hope we’ll continue to have multiple, regularly updated translations available along the spectrum from literal to dynamic. But I still resonate with the spirit of these comments from Doug Moo, chair of the Committee for Bible Translation, which is responsible for the NIV:
The NIV is one of the few English Bibles that is produced by an independent and widely representative group of evangelical Biblical scholars. Our work is not influenced by a publisher or any other organization. CBT is wholly independent; only we can make changes in the text of the NIV. In a day when evangelical Christianity seems to be dividing up into more and more factions, the vision of a translation “owned” by the evangelical movement as a whole—with no particular denominational or theological bias—is worth recapturing.
The truth is that what Moo said can be said of all the major modern evangelical Bible translations, even the ESV, which is most closely associated with the neo-Reformed tribe. And I hope that all of those translations will serve as glue keeping Christians together in the hallway—under the divine authority of the words of the living God.
Other posts in this series:
- Which Bible Translation Is Best? All the Good Ones.
- When (and How) to Use Multiple Bible Translations
- 5 Guidelines for Picking the Right Bible Translation
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.
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