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Why we preach from the ESV

Bible translations can be a hot topic issue.  If you’re not a “church person,” that’s probably weird for you. If you are a “church person,” it’s probably also weird.

Some people make a decision based on what is easiest to read — maybe the Message (which is actually a paraphrase, not a translation), New International Version, or the New Living Translation fit the bill.  

Other people are looking for a translation that is as close to the original language as possible — the New American Standard Bible or English Standard Version are common favorites here.

Some camps value the King James Version for a variety of reasons, either textual convictions, or sometimes it’s what they grew up reading.

Whatever the reason people choose a translation, we want to take a moment to give you three things that make a good Bible translation, and a fourth which makes a good Bible translation for a church to use (but may or may not be the one you use at home).

1) Incarnation

The “incarnation” is one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith. Jesus, who is the second member of the pre-existent Godhead, enters into human history, adding humanity to his divinity, fully embracing life with us his creation.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

John 1:1, 14

The Word of God is Jesus, the one who crossed every barrier we created in order to get to us, even allowing himself to die for his creation at the hands of his creation.

And just as Jesus is the “Word of God,” the Bible, too, is the Word of God and should be a barrier-crossing book. This means that translating the Bible to the language of the people to which it is sent is not only appropriate — it’s necessary. 

This is a different perspective than some faiths have.

Take Islam, for example. Muslims do not call translations of the Quran “translations” but “interpretations.” They believe that only in Arabic is the Quran the Quran. We don’t believe this about the Bible. The Bible is God’s Word in English, or German, or French, or Spanish, or Japanese, or Arabic. 

That means that while there are multiple good translations for various times and places, we need a good English translation that is intelligible for twenty-first century Americans.

2) Inerrancy

When we say the word, “innerant” we want to be clear about what we mean. I’m not saying that I think your English translation is perfect. I don’t think any English translation is perfect.

I do, however, believe in the inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration of the original manuscripts of the Bible, sometimes called the “autographs.” In other words, while our English isn’t “inerrant”, we absolutely believe that what Matthew wrote was from God. Mark, Paul, Isaiah, James, David, Jeremiah, Jonah, Luke, John, Peter, and loads more — each of these “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” as 1 Peter 1:21 tells us.

This doesn’t mean we devalue God’s Word when it’s translated. Rather, it means we need to take into account the fact that we’re nearly two millennia removed from the original New Testament manuscripts. Old Testament books are even older.

We should appreciate the generations of meticulous scribes and scholars who have preserved and confirmed the original documents to an extraordinarily high degree of confidence for us. For well over 90% of the words in the Bible, we know exactly what they said when they were written. Sure, there are still some passages where there are potentially alternate readings based on ancient manuscript evidence. We shouldn’t act like these don’t matter, because they do; however, the combined witness of Scripture across the Bible isn’t changed by the words of which we are unsure. Jesus is still Lord. Salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. God is still our father. The Spirit has still been poured into our hearts. 

That said, when considering translation, we do want to ensure the version we use is both based off of good manuscripts and accurately translates that text for us. Each word matters, and good English translations should approach the text that way.

3) Intelligibility

Accurately standing on the original manuscripts is important for a Bible translation, but we should also note that intelligibility is also a concern. If our translation is accurate but too difficult for people to read, they can’t receive the Word.

When I first started studying the Bible personally in college, I used the New American Standard Bible (NASB) almost exclusively. It’s a great word-for-word translation — or what scholars call a “formal equivalence” translation. Most of the time, I loved it. But sometimes I found myself reading the Bible and having a hard time understanding what the author was communicating. The language felt rigid. Sometimes it just didn’t flow.

When you’re beginning to dive deeply into the Bible, hurdles like this are perhaps not the most helpful.

On the other end of the translation spectrum, you have what are called “dynamic equivalence” translations. These tend to be written with ease of understanding in mind and a “thought-for-thought” or “sense-for-sense” perspective toward translation. Where formal translations tend to maintain the original syntax and direct word-for-word translation whenever possible, dynamic translations focus on communicating the thoughts behind the syntax and words. Practically, this means that the translators (at times) end up interpreting the text for readers in significant ways.

This is also a problem for new and old Bible students alike. You need God’s Word, not a translator’s theological opinions when the language is tough.

Because of this, some translations like the New Living Translation (NLT) and Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) have tried balancing both perspectives. They often default to word-for-word translation, but they are willing to go to thought-for-thought if they feel it’s necessary for ease of understanding. The HCSB coined their philosophy as “optimal equivalence.” 

If I’ve confused you with too much terminology here, that’s not my intention. I’ll give some options below, but perhaps it’s sufficient to note that both readability and accuracy should be considered with Bible translations.

Generally, my approach is to say that for devotional reading a more dynamic translation is fine, but when we preach we always want to preach from a formal translation.

4) Accessibility

By now you can probably tell that there is no perfect English translation of the Bible. It’s true. There are, however, some which are better than others.

So how did we end up choosing the ESV to preach from on Sundays?

First, it checks all of three of the boxes from above. It’s readable in our modern English. It’s based on good textual scholarship — and even makes notes when variants exist. And it’s a word-for-word translation which is important for us as our primary teaching text.

Second, it was also easily accessible and used by churches with whom we are friends. That’s not a super spiritual reason, but it’s also not unimportant. Bibles we can give away were affordable, and it’s one of the most wide-spread word-for-word translations in America today. For what we do corporately as a church, those were important considerations.

Final Encouragement: “Which translation should I use?”

If you don’t have a conviction about this, I recommend bringing the translation we preach from on Sundays so that we’re on the same page together — the ESV (English Standard Version). However, please note that you’re free to read from whatever text you want.

Please also note that we’re not saying the ESV is the only Bible you should read. By exposing yourself to other translations, you begin to hear different perspectives that might cause you to ask some great questions.

For me, few things are more life giving that chasing down an answer to a question that I have after reading something in the Bible. And almost nothing helps bring up those questions quite like reading multiple translations.

Not every translation is created equal. So, instead of trying them all, here are a few translations I use based on how I am reading the Bible:

  • In-Depth Bible Study: ESV or NASB (both good word-for-word translations)
  • Preaching Prep: KJV (King James), NLT (New Living Translation), The Message (a paraphrase, not a translation, but helpful for preaching prep), HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) or CSB (updated version of HCSB), ISV (International Standard Version)
  • Personal Time with God: ESV, HCSB/CSB, NLT 

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