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Why Mars Hill uses the ESV Bible
How should Christians and pastors evaluate the multitude of Bible translations and paraphrases available today? Which Bible translation is the best? Pastor Mark Driscoll explains why Mars Hill Church has settled on the English Standard Version in this fifth installment of his blog series, which provides a guided tour of topics like where the Bible came from, how to interpret the Bible, and misconceptions about the Bible.
Mars Hill Church has used the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible since 2007. Prior to this we used the New International Version (NIV), another translation God has used greatly in my life, beginning with my conversion in 1990.
There are two lines of reasoning that led the elders of Mars Hill Church to decide that the ESV is the best translation for our preaching ministry: theological and practical.
6 theological reasons Mars Hill uses the ESV
First we will cover the theological reasons. Theology drives our practice.
1. The ESV upholds the truth that Scripture is the actual words of God, not just the thoughts of God
This point is inextricably connected to the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration, which means that God the Holy Spirit inspired not just the thoughts of Scripture but the very words and details.
How does this belief inform Bible translation?
Well, translations which follow a looser translation philosophy often attempt to interpret the words of Scripture to convey whatever the translators believe to be the “thought.” For example, the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4 ESV) is interpreted by one translation as “those who do right for the right reasons” (CEV). Another example is Psalm 23:5b (“you anoint my head with oil”), which is rendered by one modern translation as “you welcome me as an honored guest” (GNB). The ESV is committed to faithfully reproducing the words of God in Scripture, not just the translators’ idea of what “thought” the words are meant to communicate.
This point is significant because the Bible repeatedly declares that the very words of God are important, not just the thoughts they convey (see Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 32:46-47; Proverbs 20:5-6; Matthew 4:4; Luke 21:33; John 6:63; 17:8; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Revelation 21:5; and 22:18-19).
2. The ESV upholds that what is said must be known before what is meant can be determined
Before we can interpret the meaning of Scripture, we must first accurately understand the message of Scripture. Or, to put it another way, only after knowing what Scripture says can we understand what it means. Practically, this requires that Bible translations be separate from and prior to Bible commentaries. A word-for-word translation (like the ESV) best enables this to occur by seeking, as much as possible, not to insert interpretive commentary into the translated text of Scripture. Instead, it lets the text breathe as a living word and speak for itself. This is also sometimes called the formal equivalency approach to Bible translation. It tries to remain as close as possible to the original grammar and structure of the manuscripts. In addition to the ESV, other examples of this style of translation include the NASB and the HCSB.
The Bible repeatedly declares that the very words of God are important, not just the thoughts they convey.Tweet
Other approaches to rendering the Bible in modern English include the dynamic equivalency approach, which includes thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases. Unlike the formal equivalency method, dynamic equivalency translations, such as the NIV, work harder at capturing the original thoughts of the text rather than trying to stick strictly to the grammar of the original text. The gain here is typically easier readability—these versions are popular because they can come across as “fresh” renditions of Scripture—but sometimes this comes at the expense of accuracy.
The general problem with thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that their English interpreters include commentary that is not part of the original text and thereby mix Bible and Bible commentary. For the average reader, this is problematic because they do not know which parts of their Bible are from the original text and which parts have been added by commentators who were trying to convey their interpretation of its meaning.
3. The ESV upholds the truth that words carry meaning
Some scholars will argue that thought-for-thought and paraphrase translations do not change the meaning of Scripture, just the words of Scripture in an effort to clarify the meaning of Scripture. But this reasoning is misguided because meaning is carried in words. So when we change the words of Scripture, we are changing the meaning of Scripture.
This is why when we handle other important documents we don’t take the liberty of changing their words. For example, an attorney is not free to change the words of a signed contract, a husband is not free to rewrite his vows of promise after his wedding, and a public notary is not free to make alterations to the words of a signed legal document. We would be rightly worried if such liberties were taken with our personal affairs, and we should be even more worried when such liberties are taken with God’s affairs.
When we change the words of Scripture, we are changing the meaning of Scripture.Tweet
In this way, word-for-word translations like the ESV are following the directives of 1 Corinthians 4:6, which admonishes us “not to go beyond what is written,” and Proverbs 30:5–6, which warns, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”
4. The ESV upholds the theological nomenclature of Scripture
One of the more popular arguments for thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that people don’t understand the theological nomenclature that Scripture uses to express doctrinal concepts. The reasoning goes that words like “justification” and “propitiation,” which the original text of Scripture used, should be replaced with more modern everyday wording that people can understand.
An example will help clarify this point. One of the central debates of the Protestant Reformation was how a sinful person is justified before a holy and righteous God. This issue was contentious enough that people died over it and Christianity split over it. Romans 3:24 is one of many places where “justification” is mentioned in the original text of Scripture. An examination of various translations, however, shows how the word is sometimes omitted altogether:
- (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . .
- (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus . . .
- (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
- (TNIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
- (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
- (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
- (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
- (TM) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we're in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.
- (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.
Some of these translations might not be problematic if they were presented as commentary. But they are simply unfit to be the biblical text of Romans 3:24 because they don’t say what God the Holy Spirit said through Paul; the reader would have no way of knowing that they were reading commentary instead of Scripture.
Which theological words should be changed because the average person doesn’t understand them? The sad truth is that we live in a culture that has very little biblical knowledge, and many of the central words that Scripture uses are unfamiliar to the average person. I was once writing an article for a non-Christian newspaper, and in my column I said that God had convicted me of a sin in my life. The editor responded that I would need to explain what “conviction” meant, because they were not familiar with the word and assumed my readers would not know what I was talking about. Outside of Christianity, even something as simple as conviction is not understood.
Words open up worlds of new truths. But if people don’t know the words of Scripture, we should not give them new words that close off new truths. Instead, we should give them the old words of the original text, literally translated into English, so that a new world of truth can be opened to them. Because we love the people God entrusts to our care, we who preach and teach Scripture should explain the words people do not understand so that they can fully appreciate what God is saying to them through Scripture.
5. The ESV upholds the truth that while Scripture is meant for all people, it cannot be communicated in such a way that all people receive it
Scripture teaches us that God loves the whole world (John 3:16) and that we should seek to reach as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19–23). As a result, the desire to make the Bible understandable so that more people can learn about Jesus is something that every Christian should wholeheartedly support.
But we must remember that we can’t change the words of Scripture, because God has called us to not only communicate widely, but also communicate truthfully. For many reasons, not all Scripture is easy to understand. First, we are sinners, so we sometimes suppress the truth we receive because we disagree with Scripture and are unwilling to repent. The problem is not just a difficult translation, but a hard heart (Rom. 1:28). Second, God’s thoughts are much higher than our own (Isa. 55:9). Third, God has secrets that he has not revealed to us (Deut. 29:29). Fourth, we sometimes see the truth dimly and know it in part (1 Cor. 13:12).
We who teach Scripture should explain the words people do not understand so that they can fully appreciate what God is saying to them through Scripture.Tweet
Furthermore, even the greatest of communicators were known to be hard to understand when they spoke God’s truth. Some of Jesus’ teaching was declared to be a “hard saying” by his hearers (John 6:60). Jesus also taught in parables, knowing that his teaching would not be readily understood by all his hearers, but only those with “ears to hear” (Mark 4:10–23). Speaking of Paul’s writings, around which controversy continues to swirl today, Peter said, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:16).
There’s no doubt that we should make every effort to have the Bible translated in words that as many people as possible can understand. But we must also be careful not to cross a line where we change God’s words in hopes that more people will be willing to accept them. Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit working in us, there’s no way we can gladly receive the truth. Even with the Holy Spirit, some parts of Scripture remain for us “hard to understand,” as they were even for Peter, who was trained by Jesus and himself penned Scripture.
As a result, the pursuit of all Bible translation and teaching must include both accessibility to the reader and faithfulness to God the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writings of Scripture. Indeed, much of what passes today as a criticism of the clarity of Scripture is little more than the self-condemnation of those with blind eyes caused by hard hearts. The church father Athanasius spoke of this with great pastoral insight, saying, “For the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life.”
6. The ESV upholds the complementarian nature of gender in Scripture
There is a great debate raging in academic circles about the language of gender and how it relates to biblical translation. The argument is commonly made that in generations past people used the word “man” or “mankind” to refer to humanity in general as an all-encompassing term that included both men and women. But, it is said, the understanding of these words has changed so that in the minds of the average person today it refers only to males and excludes females.
I would argue that the general assumption is not clear. It’s still common for people to understand words like “man” and “mankind” as a reference to both males and females. It is God who called the human race “man” in Genesis 5:1 (ESV, NIV, NASB, TAB, KJV, NKJV, HCSB) and not the “human race” (TM) or “human beings” (TNIV, NLT, CEV).
Psalm 8:4 serves as yet another practical example of the varying ways that differing translations take liberties with the clear text of Scripture regarding the issue of gender. The original text simply says “man,” yet some translations take the liberty to deviate from that: “mere mortals” (TNIV); “us humans” (CEV); “mere mortals” (TM); “human race” (NET); “human beings” (NRSV); and “mortals” (NLT).
We must be careful not to change God’s words in hopes that more people will be willing to accept them.Tweet
In its more insidious forms, the push for gender-neutral language is in fact a clear push against Scripture. Scripture, for instance, states that God made us “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). Consequently, in God’s created order, there is both equality between men and women (because both are his image-bearers) and distinction (because men and women have differing roles). This position is called complementarianism and teaches that men and women, though equal, are also different in some ways and therefore function best together in a complementary way, like a right and left hand (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18–19; 1 Tim. 2:8–3:13).
But those with a progressive agenda are seeking to eradicate the created distinction between males and females so as to validate new alternative lifestyles that are not acceptable according to Scripture. Translations such as the New Revised Standard Version accommodate this by wrongly translating “male and female” in Genesis 1:27 as the androgynous “humankind.” The New Living Bible translates it as the genderless “people.”
There are many reasons why all of this matters to Bible translation. First, there is pressure from some theological camps to change the masculine language that Scripture uses in favor of more feministic or gender-neutral language, which is not the language of the original text. Translations that use gender-neutral language include the NRSV, TNIV, NIV2011, NLT, NCV, GNB, and CEV.
Second, even more disturbing is the effort by some to feminize God. Perhaps the worst example of this is a recent translation released by a group of fifty-two biblical “scholars” called The Bible in a More Just Language. In an effort to remove what the group sees as unjust treatment of women and homosexuals, God the Father is now “our Mother and Father,” and Jesus is no longer the Son of God but rather the “child” of God. Satan, of course, is still referred to as male.
Theologically speaking, God does not have a biological gender because God is Spirit, without physical anatomy (John 4:24), and as a result is not a man (Num. 23:19). In using the word “he,” the Bible is not saying that God is merely a man, but rather that God is a unique person who reveals himself with terms such as “Father” when speaking about himself.
All Bible translation and teaching must include both accessibility to the reader and faithfulness to God the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writings of Scripture.Tweet
By way of analogy, John Calvin said that God uses terms such as “Father” to speak to us in baby talk, much as a parent uses words that their young child can understand in order to effectively communicate with them. Jesus said “Our Father” when he gave us our model of how to pray (Matt. 6:9–13). So referring to God as Father is not an antiquated oppression from a patriarchal culture, but an echo of the prayer life of Jesus. It is the predominant way God has chosen to reveal himself to us.
Third, we acknowledge that Scripture does infrequently describe God in terms that are more feminine in nature, such as a hen who cares for her chicks (Matt. 23:37). Nonetheless, such language is both infrequent and metaphorical, because God is no more a woman than God is a chicken.
God created mankind “male and female” (Gen. 1:27; 5:2). We must not bend to the pressures of an androgynous culture that would oppose his created order and refer to men and women as anything less than simply “man,” as God does (Gen. 5:1). We must likewise not bend to the pressure to recognize God as someone other than “our Father” because that is the primary way he has chosen to reveal himself to us. In short, God the Father commands all who disagree with him on this point to repent of their nonsense rather than revise his name.
5 practical reasons Mars Hill uses the ESV
In addition to the theological reasons, there are also five practical reasons the elders of Mars Hill Church have settled on the ESV as the translation for our preaching ministry.
1. Our pulpit is theologically oriented
The people of Mars Hill Church have been very gracious to allow me to preach lengthy sermons that include much theological instruction. While I do believe that all doctrine is practical, I agree with the Puritans who taught that biblical living can only flow out of correct biblical doctrine. With that said, preaching doctrine requires the best word-for-word translation in an effort to provide theological accuracy.
2. Our pulpit exists to teach people what they may otherwise not know
God has called pastors to be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Practically, this means that people don’t just need a good Bible translation, but they also need a good church with good teaching from good pastors. One of the things we learn from the Trinitarian community of God is that truth rests most gladly in loving Christian community. As a result, Christians who sit down alone with their Bible are missing out if they don’t also have Christian friends with whom to examine and apply Scripture and pastors who help them to understand the parts they find confusing.
As a pastor, I’m not afraid of handing our people a word-for-word translation that may have some theological terms they don’t immediately understand. First, it will compel them to prayerful and careful study, which is a wonderful gift. Second, it will compel them to be connected to our church family where they can learn from other Christians, including the pastors who find profound joy in explaining the truths of Scripture to eager learners. Third, I trust that God the Holy Spirit illuminates the understanding of those who humbly read the Scriptures that he inspired to be written.
3. Our pulpit must strengthen and not weaken the trustworthiness of Scripture
Like all preachers who love Scripture, I need to be able to read the English translation to our people and tell them with confidence that they are hearing what God, through the original author, actually said. When I have to say their translation is not accurate, I wince because I fear I am weakening the trustworthiness of the Bible they are holding in their hand. I do not want our people to put their Bible down or read it halfheartedly because they are uncertain of its accuracy. Conversely, what I do want is for our people to continually enjoy their Bible and read it in faith that God is speaking to them through it. For this to occur I need to preach from a translation that is accurate and does not need me to clarify it in order to teach accurately.
4. Our pulpit is precedent-setting for the life and doctrine of our people
In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul tells a fellow pastor, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” As a preaching pastor I cannot only look out for my own life and doctrine, but must also keep in mind that others are following and imitating both my life and teaching.
God the Holy Spirit illuminates the understanding of those who humbly read the Scriptures that he inspired to be written.Tweet
James 3:1 is likewise a constant reminder that I face greater judgment than the average Christian. As a result, it’s imperative for pastors to be careful with our teaching. A good word-for-word translation is a gift that helps us to be as effective in our teaching as possible, benefiting both ourselves and those who call us husband, father, or pastor.
5. Our pulpit is plugged in
One of the great blessings and curses of our age is the Internet. For years our church has been posting my sermons online for free. The result has been a much broader sphere of influence and a corresponding broader sphere of criticism. In years past, it was not uncommon for a pastor to preach a sermon and then have it disappear forever. But in our age, what we preach can and will live on indefinitely in various media forms. Because the impact of our preaching can be far larger and longer-lasting than at any time in history, it is all the more important that we preach from the best possible translation of the Bible.
The place of other translations
Mars Hill Church has never divided over the issue of Bible translations. We have always maintained that different translations have various strengths and weaknesses, and that the student of Scripture benefits from enjoying multiple translations. Furthermore, we have always praised God for every good English translation and trust God the Holy Spirit to use them to transform our lives.
In addition, we would not discourage our people from enjoying multiple good English translations of Scripture. With that said, we would encourage them to use the English Standard Version, or another good world-for-word translation, as their primary study tool while also using other translations as secondary resources for their studies. We are not saying that the ESV is good and that other translations are bad. Rather, we are saying that for the purposes of theological accuracy and preaching and teaching, we believe the ESV is the best, while other translations are also helpful and good.
A good word-for-word translation is a gift that helps us to be as effective in our teaching as possible.Tweet
On this point I would like to be both clear and emphatic. At Mars Hill Church we believe that the student of Scripture is best served by enjoying multiple translations of God’s Word. Some years ago I went in to check on my son, Zac, who was six or seven at the time. I found him awake on his top bunk, studying. I asked what he was doing and he said that he was examining a verse in Scripture that he had been thinking about all day. He was using multiple Bible translations to see how they each articulated God’s truth. As a father, I was delighted both to see my son so interested in God’s word that he had to have his theological curiosity satisfied before falling asleep, and also his willingness to examine multiple English translations to further his theological development. Simply, I would exhort everyone to have the same zeal for Scripture and appreciation of its multiple translations as my buddy Zac.
Lastly, while purchasing a study Bible can be quite expensive, every serious student of the Bible should consider investing in at least one Bible with some helps (footnotes, cross-references, etc.) and room for their notes. When buying a Bible, the general rule is that the more money you spend, the better the quality of paper, binding, and leather you will receive. Because your primary Bible will be filled with notes and become very familiar to you, it is wise to invest in a good Bible so that it lasts. This will enable you to spend considerable time reading it, memorizing it, studying it, and meditating upon it as God the Holy Spirit reveals to you the person and work of Jesus on every page.
Want to learn more? Read Pastor Mark’s previous post in this series, 8 misconceptions about the Bible.