This article is part of the ESV 20th Anniversary series.
Here, a few members of the ESV Translation Oversight Committee comment on the translation philosophy and why it makes a difference in preaching and teaching. This article is adapted from interviews conducted at the Tyndale House, Cambridge in 2016.
Preaching Depends on Accurate Bible Translation
Kent Hughes: There are several reasons that word-for-word preaching is so important. One is, if you’re using an essentially literal word-for-word translation, you are able to kind of proceed with the text without a lot of extraneous explanation.
The other is, if you have an essentially word-for-word translation, then you’re going to have concordance among words within books and even in the corpus of the New Testament so that you can help your people see the association of words within the text. So it helps your congregation to understand and read the Bible for themselves.
It also builds up confidence in the text because if you’re taking issue with the text or saying It doesn’t quite say this, then they begin to think, Well, then why read it for myself? I need someone else; I need my pastor, I need my priest. So it takes away, in a sense, part of the priesthood of believers.
A congregation that sits under good teaching of the word within an essentially literal translation is being taught week after week after week how to read the Bible and think for themselves.
Clifford John Collins: The ideal translation philosophy should enable the person who doesn’t speak the original language to listen in on the original communication event. To, as it were, to take a trip to a foreign land where they speak a different language, where the things in the world that they are accustomed to are different from the things in the world of the target language and so the translation should enable me to get a feel for what it was like to be there at the first when this original communication was made.
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Preaching the Very Words of God
Dane Ortlund: Some translation theories want to slide the translation closer towards interpretation and build more interpretation into the very translation. We certainly believe that it’s vital for the health of the church and for believers to have leaders in the church interpreting the Bible for us, but we believe that that is not the job of the translators. Rather, the translators should get the text as close as possible to the original Hebrew and Greek, and then the reader and the preacher and the teacher of the Bible can do the work of interpretation.
We want the reader of the ESV to have confidence that they are hearing and reading the very words of God. To the degree that we build in interpretation of the text, we lose that deep and profound confidence that we’re hearing the word of God and reading them when we read the Scripture.
Gordon Wenham: It’s important that we should have an exact translation because we want to be closest to the ideas that God has inscribed in Scripture. There is quite a tendency in the sort of free, modern translations to import your own views into the text where you should actually be listening to the text rather than preaching from the text.
We want the reader of the ESV to have confidence that they are hearing and reading the very words of God.
The job of the interpreter is different from the job of the translator. The translator is trying to give you an exact rendering and get you into the world of the Bible so you can understand how God is revealing himself in that particular culture. The job of the commentator and preacher is to explain to our culture what the relevance and meaning of the text is.
Preaching the Arguments and Transitions in the Text
Paul House: Pastors who desire to preach expositionally need to know where the arguments and the transitions in the text occur, so they need to know that every instance of ‘and’, ‘therefore’, ‘for’, ‘because’ are all in place so that they can follow along.
I once saw a man with a dynamic equivalent translation that had removed some of those transitional phrases trying to do expository preaching, and he was struggling at every turn with where to make a point.
It’s important for Greek and Hebrew students, as they learn to read Greek and Hebrew, to see a good, solid, thorough, essentially literal translation so they can see the reason why they would be doing the kind of language work they’re doing. And hopefully it’s helpful for scholars as well so that they won’t have to look up every word and phrase and deal with every aspect of the text as you would if you had to make your own translation from scratch. It’s helpful for every type of reader to understand translation philosophies.
Preaching through Complex Passages
Frank Thielman: It’s very useful to teach students from a text that keeps correspondence between words in Greek and Hebrew as long as we can keep that same correspondence in intelligible English. We don’t want to render something into unintelligible English. But if it’s intelligible and it can show the correspondence, it’s helpful for students to read the text slowly and to see that correspondence, particularly in poetic texts.
This is very important in texts where there is a great deal of complex theological argumentation. Paul’s letter to the Romans or the letter to the Hebrews, for example, would be letters where, to see the correlation in similar nouns and verbs or similar phrases is very useful to the student of Scripture. So if I’m teaching a group of people, say a Sunday school class or a class in an academic setting where I can’t be confident that everyone has a facility with the biblical languages, it’s enormously helpful to show them some of the things that you can actually learn if you do know the biblical languages by using an essentially literal translation like the ESV.
One of the things I like most about the ESV is that it balances this essentially literal aspect with a readable aspect that is often really beautiful in English—and that balance is hard to strike.
Learn more about the English Standard Version and the Translation Oversight Committee.
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Dr. Packer served on the Translation Oversight Committee as general editor for the English Standard Version.
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