Listen to Philip Graham Ryken explain why Tenth Presbyterian Church uses the ESV (3MB MP3). He delivered this talk at the ESV Breakfast at ETS in November 2005.
Below is the raw transcript.
We have in living memory used three church Bibles in the history of Tenth Church. One of course is the King James Version, which up until 1978 was present in the pews of our congregation in the edition with all the Scofield notes (which would surprise, I suppose, some people who know the ministry of James Boice).
And then in the late 1970s/early ’80s made the transition to the New International Version, which we received, I think, with mild enthusiasm—I say mild, not wild enthusiasm—enthusiasm because there was an opportunity to have a translation that was fairly standard across the evangelical church and somewhat more readable, but mild enthusiasm because some of the deficiencies in terms of literal accuracy were evident from the very beginning and brought some weaknesses to the teaching ministry.
And then just a couple of years ago now, I believe in 2003, [we] made a decision as a session for our congregation to use the English Standard Version as our church Bible. When I say “church Bible,” I mean not simply a Bible that we put in our church pews—although we do that—but also a church Bible that we use as the basis for our program of children’s memory; also the Bible that we are encouraging everyone to use in local small groups and home Bible studies that forms the basis for, really, all of the teaching and meditation and personal and public Bible study of the church. That’s what we encourage.
I initially was somewhat cool to the idea of the English Standard Version. I had heard very early on that there was an opportunity to do an evangelical revision of the RSV. I was somewhat hesitant about whether we really needed another translation; somewhat daunted, perhaps, by the prospect of seeking to find a sufficient audience within the church for yet another translation and yet strongly attracted to an evangelical revision of the RSV, which in many ways was the main Bible that I used in childhood.
And also strongly attracted to having a translation within the tradition of the King James Version that would preserve some of the literary excellence of that, and particularly the cadence of the King James Version, which I have been told—and I can’t confirm this myself, I suppose—it does not have consecutive stressed syllables, but is always alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables, which partly explains some of the rhythmic qualities of the King James Version.
I was (I’m a cautious person by temperament) a cautious observer of the progress of the English Standard Version, began reading any samples of it that were available, sharing those also with my elders. [I] began using the Psalms when they were available for my own devotional reading. And all the while passing this material along to my elders as well, so they would be well-informed about the English Standard Version. And then when it was available using the Bible in its full translation.
There were a number of obstacles to our considering the transition. One was a very practical concern: we had just outfitted the church with the New International Version—new copies of that—which had been dedicated in the name of a young person in our congregation who had died of cancer. That had only been just a couple of years ago; it’s a very practical kind of concern, but the kind of thing you have to deal with in local ministry. And all other things being equal, it wouldn’t have been the time that we would’ve wanted to put new Bibles in the pews.
And then a somewhat more personal obstacle, and that is, as some here will know, my father, Leland Ryken, was the stylist on the translation committee, and that made me even more cautious than usual, wanting to make sure that a decision about the translation was not influenced by my own personal connection like that—and that this was really the right decision for our congregation.
And I eventually was persuaded. Some of the reasons for that have already been mentioned: primarily, because it is a more literal translation. Dr. Beale has mentioned preserving the Bible’s own ambiguity, where things are left open in the original language itself.
I would add to that the importance of preserving the metaphors of the Bible and not trying to explain a metaphor by putting it in more abstract language. That experience was fresh in my mind because I had used one of the other dynamic-equivalent translations that had recently been published and was using that with my children for morning devotions over breakfast—we were reading through the Proverbs—and I eventually abandoned that translation entirely because it was so much harder to understand when it was abstracted from the original metaphors. And that’s one of the strengths of the ESV, I think, to preserve those metaphors and not put them in supposedly more readily understandable language, which is doubtfully the case.
An additional reason as a pastor for wanting a more literal translation is because I think, over time, as you continually have to explain what a translation “really says,” you run the risk of undermining people’s confidence in the Bible that they are reading. And you want to do that as little as possible. And to me it was much preferable to have a more literal translation that did not require some of the explanations that a dynamic-equivalent translation requires.
I mentioned also the exalted literary style of the English Standard Version. That was important to us. In the public reading of Scripture (we like to have public reading of Scripture in all our public worship services, not just the passage from which we are preaching but in addition to that), to me the English Standard Version is a literal translation that has some of that exalted language that you want for public reading.
I would also note the importance of theological precision, most notably to me the use of the word propitiation in the New Testament where it rightfully belongs. But in doing what is sometimes doctrinal preaching, I like to have a translation that gives you the biblical terms that support those biblical doctrines.
Well, there’s much more that could be said. Eventually, we made the decision to change to the English Standard Version, and the decisive thing for me, having thought about it, prayed about it, used the Bible for a period of more than a year, I believe, I asked myself this question: “What Bible do I want my children to grow up hearing from the pulpit, using in worship, and using in their own memory work?” And it was just obvious to me that I wanted that to be the English Standard Version. Why would I not exercise the same kind of fatherly care of my congregation?
Two anecdotes in support of this. One is: I had preached through the book of Galatians and was preparing that material for an expositional commentary. And I had preached in the New International Version but wanted for various reasons to retrofit it to the English Standard Version for publication. And one interesting thing as I went through it, virtually every chapter, I would come to a paragraph or a section, and I would see that I had given an explanation based on the NIV, explaining what it really should’ve said.
And in preparing things for publication, I was just able to delete those paragraphs entirely—they were no longer necessary because the English Standard Version was saying what needed to be said. And as a preacher, I like that because I want to spend my time in explanation and exhortation. It gives me more time in preaching to do the things that I most want to do, not simply explaining what a biblical text should say.