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ESV Endorsements

I’ve written a considerable amount of negative stuff, not about the ESV itself, though I do have a few complaints, but about its supporters. Thus when a friend e-mailed me a new endorsement, I thought I’d take a look at why these endorsers regard the ESV so highly. The latest endorsement is ESV: the long-awaited Palmertree endorsement. The key thing about this endorsement is that, well, there is no key thing. It’s sort of an “I waited a long time and then got comfortable with it” kind of endorsement.

He does, however, cite three other endorsements: John Piper, Philip Ryken, and Mark Driscoll. I’ve dealt with Mark Driscoll’s comments before (more recently here), though he has revised the material a bit, but the bottom line is still the same. After reading the other two, I have to say that they have added little, so I’m not going to go over them point by point.

There are three elements in these endorsements of the ESV:

  1. Nostalgia
  2. Theological positions
  3. The allure of literal “accuracy”


Nostalgia was something that drove the KJV only movment for years. Now many people who might earlier have been sort of gentle KJV advocates are realizing they need some modern version, and the ESV has proven the least shocking option. I actually have little problem with someone using a Bible for reasons of nostalgia. If you understand the ESV, and you enjoy it, go ahead and use it. The same thing goes for the KJV.

Where I have a problem with nostalgia is in churches when its used for public reading and especially outreach. Too often church people regard something as obvious, clear, enjoyable, and downright cuddly and loveable, when most of the people who come through the door find it anything but. Consider your audience when choosing a Bible translation for use in the pews.

Theological Positions

First, I do not mean that one must not hold any theological positions, nor do I mean a position that holds the Bible to be inspired and accurate translation to be important. I have never run into anyone who doesn’t think the Bible should be translated accurately. Disagreements are about precisely what constitutes accuracy, and how one goes about achieving it.

What I mean here, however, is selecting a Bible based on how well your favorite texts support your favorite theological positions. If you have carefully examined the source languages, and tested how the English expression would be understood, and you then regard the expression used as the best expression of the meaning (pause for breath!)–then that’s fine. But that’s not what I see argued. People simply announce that the Bible in question, especially the ESV, supports their conclusion. How about some linguistic arguments, assuming you endorsers are capable of presenting them.

The Allure of Literal “Accuracy”

I put accuracy in quotes because I think this is the great failing of this entire school of Bible translating. It’s an example of the one ended telephone cord approach to meaning. In communication, there is no “accuracy” except in terms of what the receiver actually receives. You may think “propitiation” is a wonderful word, which accurately conveys the meaning of the Greek word hilasterion, but if the hearer hears “blablabla” instead, no meaning is accurately conveyed.

Of course, ESV advocates will announce that they can explain the word propitiation, and then the congregation will understand it. Well, so can the Bible translators, by translating hilasterion into something the readers understand in the first place. You complain that those using dynamic equivalence deny the readers the chance to decide for themselves. Well, all your process does is deny them the same choice by passing it on to their pastor, who has likely determined what “propitiation” means based on his church’s doctrinal statement.

Accurate translation has to convey meaning accurately from the source language to the reader or hearer in the receptor language. I repeat what has become nearly a mantra for me: There is no accuracy in a vacuum. It’s only accurate communication if the hearer accurately hears it.

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  1. Accurate translation has to convey meaning accurately from the source language to the reader or hearer in the receptor language.

    So accuracy is dependant upon the understanding of the reader? That makes accuracy a bit subjective, doesn’t it? Who is the reader? Is he educated, spiritually discerning? Does the burden fall on the translator to compensate for those sorts of deficiencies?

  2. Thank you for this analysis. I will read through your other articles, but there are other things to consider, like readability. As I’m sure you are aware, the highly regarded NASB is considered accurate, but clumsy english. I would say the same for the NET bible, which is probably one of the more transparent English translations due to the notes.

    I am actually hoping that the next edition of the ESV is updated and improved, because it is very readable, and in many ways more accurate than my current readable translation, the NKJV.

  3. If you prefer a literal translation (and I’m guessing by the ones you cite that you do), then the ESV is not a bad choice. Personally, I don’t regard literal translation as the best option in presenting the message of scripture in a new language, but that is the root of the debate in any case. As a literal translation, I find relatively little to criticize about the ESV.

    It is absolutely much better than the NKJV. One of my surreal experiences in testing Bible translations was when I decided to read the book of Daniel in the NKJV side by side with the Hebrew/Aramaic texts. On a couple of occasions I found myself looking from the NKJV to the Aramaic to figure out what they were trying to say.

  4. >>So accuracy is dependant upon the understanding of the reader?>That makes accuracy a bit subjective, doesn’t it?>Who is the reader?>Is he educated, spiritually discerning? Does the burden fall on the translator to compensate for those sorts of deficiencies?

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