In today’s Christian market, at least in the English world, we have the benefit of a number of solidly conservative translations available. Modern translations with which I am personally comfortable and recommend include the NASB, ESV, NIV, NLT, HCSB, NKJV and yes, even the TNIV. These translations fall on varying degrees of the dynamic equivalence / literal scale, but all are trustworthy and accurate renderings of the biblical text. The variety and number of translations holds many benefits for the modern English reader:
• The Bible is accessible to many reading levels and to readers who have little or no Bible background.
• Students of the Bible can compare texts to aid in comprehension
• Students can identify difficult passages without a knowledge of the original language
• Fewer instances of false doctrines and/or misunderstandings occur that are based on a the use of a particular English word
• Believers can find a Bible they can read, understand, and put into practice.
• Different translations are available for different purposes
• The availability of “competing” translations ensures that each of the Bible publishers and translation committees put out the highest quality product.
There are many benefits and I have not addressed them all here. For the most part, I am pleased to live in an era where the Bible is so readily available and accessible to all.
Along with these benefits, however, come a number of problems for the pastor and church planter in terms of practical ministry. This is especially true today, because no translation has emerged as the dominant translation for evangelical believers. Thirty years ago, we basically used either the King James or NIV. Even ten years ago, I defaulted to the NIV because “that’s the version un-churched people can buy at Wal-mart.” Today, however, the multiplicity of translations – even those available outside Christian bookstores – is remarkable … and problematic.
Here are a few issues that result:
1. The impossibility for many churches to “default” to a single modern translation.
In my church, for example, we do AWANA. The curriculum is available in NKJV or NIV. The kids memorize scripture in one of these two translations. Our Sunday School literature, however, is only available in HCSB. I preach from the ESV. I prefer the NLT or TNIV for new believers or those who are new to the Bible. Plus, my preferred outreach testament (Here’s hope) is only available in NKJV, NIV, or HCSB. Preferred gospel tracts are also available in only certain translations. All this makes it impossible to choose one single translation as the main translation used in our church.
2. The difficulty of choosing a translation for evangelism. What Bible do we recommend and/or give to a new believer? What Bible do we use for outreach? In my case, I prefer Bibles on the dynamic equivalent end of the spectrum for use with evangelism or new believers. Choosing such a translation would be no problem, except that the translations that are most accessible to the beginning Bible reader are NOT the translations that are available in the curriculums and resources that we use. We end up again with no consistent translation or new believers must read a more difficult translation.
3. The problem of consistency in Bible memorization. Since there is no “standard”, what translation do we use for Bible translation – especially with our kids? Because there is no standard, people may differ with each other or, worse, may themselves memorize from multiple translations. For those who cherish consistency, that is a problem. The problem is more prominent when you consider that in many churches the children’s curriculums, most of which have Bible memory components, don’t match in terms of translation (e.g. AWANA vs. Lifeway).
4. An inability to “follow along” in the preaching. This problem is particularly applicable to me as a preacher because I am often asked, “what Bible do you preach from?” Translation: “I want to buy an expensive leather Bible and I want it to be what you use in the sermons so I can follow along in my Bible – oh and don’t go changing your mind after I shell out all that money.” Ok, so that’s a little exaggerated, but you get the point. Many Christians in evangelical churches have been trained to bring their Bible to church and to open it during the sermon. Translations are different enough in word choice and order of phrases that following along is near impossible unless you have the same translation as the preacher.
5. Confusion when choosing a translation. Most church members have little or no conception of translation theory and the reason why certain translations do what they do. As a result, they don’t know how to choose a translation. Often, believers want to know what I think is the best translation. Some assume that the translation I use in the pulpit is what I think they should buy, but are confused when that is not the one we use elsewhere.
6. A lack of trust in the words of Scripture. Some Christians find the multiplicity of Bible translations (much like the multiplicity of Christian denominations) disconcerting. Because so many translations are available, some Christians lack guidance and confidence that the Bible in their hands is trustworthy. The problem is compounded by those that are privy to the in house and online controversies surrounding some translations – not to mention the KJV only crowd.
All of these and more are common problems associated with the availability and use of multiple Bible translations. You have probably experienced many or all of them. All in all, however, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Churches should embrace the blessings of modern evangelical scholarship in English translations despite the issues that arise because of the multiplicity of such translations. Someday, one modern version may emerge as the dominant one for use by evangelical Christians and churches as the NIV did in the previous generation. In the mean time, pastors and churches will have to be creative and purposeful in addressing the problems that come with the variety. I have some ideas for that, but you’ll have to wait for the next post. :)