Saturday, April 4, 2009

Multiple Bible Translations – part 1: A Blessing and a Curse

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. :)



Todd Benkert said...

For a great blog that reviews Bibles and Bible translations, as well as cooking, movie reviews and random commentary, see my friend Rick Mansfield's blog -- This Lamp.

Anonymous said...

I've met a lot of people who have amazing hunger & thirst for the Word but no translation they can easily understand. My prayer is that the multitude of Great English translations will be put to good use in challenging English-speaking followers of Jesus to reach out to the ends of the earth.

-- Chad White

Anonymous said...

I've seen and taught on some of the challenges you pose. But, the larger problem I see is a lack of solid Bible teaching in any form, no matter the translation. That should be an issue, but these days, with pastors preaching topical messages, any translation that best meets the need of the pastor gets plugged into the power point and broadcast to the congregation, reinforcing your point # 6. In some cases, though tying to retain doctrinal sanity, we're our own worst enemies.

-- Guy Fredrick

Anonymous said...

If I were to add to that comment, it would probably mention that the scriptures are best understood in their original context and language, but in the absence of many who are capable of processing the Text in that fashion, finding and using a translation or translations that convey the context and content originally written are key and critical to the study of the Bible. Not every translation meets this mark.
-- Guy

R. Mansfield said...

Thanks for the link to my website, Todd.

I'm more convinced than ever (and especially after listening to Peterson's Eat This Book that translations for use publicly in proclamation and teaching ought to represent the spirit of the Koine Greek in which the New Testament was written.

Personally, as you know, I would never use the ESV in the pulpit. And in spite of my two week lapse, I'd never use the NASB in the pulpit either (I'd hoped that I could go back to using it in a less formal teaching environment, but no, not really).

I heartily recommend the HCSB, TNIV, NET Bible, and especially the NLT for public use. The Bible was written in the language of the street, not the cathedral or the classroom. Any translation not keeping with the spirit of the Koine should be reserved only for personal use in my opinion.

Todd Benkert said...

I'm strongly considering switching to the NLT for preaching, but more than a few people have purchased the ESV because I have been trying it out for a couple months. I hope they'll understand if I switch :)

R. Mansfield said...

I'd preach from the NLT with no problem. It's really good for that and reads like natural conversation.

I'd wondered though if I could teach from it, and after my experiences at IWU, I'm pretty sure I can. I'm almost 99% ready to go to the NLT as a primary translation for preaching, teaching and memorization (I want to re-memorize all the old verses I learned years ago in the NASB in a modern translation).

So, Todd, if you'll do it, I'll do it!

Todd Benkert said...


My main qualm, which I can't decide if its a strength or weakness of the NLT, is that is removes justification terminology from the text (see, e.g., Rom 3). On the one hand, it is helpful because the concept is now accessible to the reader. On the other hand, the systematic theologian in me want to retain the word and then explain it. If I can get over that, then I'm all in with the NLT.

-- Todd

R. Mansfield said...

Let me help you get over that.

Let's take for instance Romans 3:25, which in the ESV reads:

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

Now, I chose the above verse because it is from Rom 3, which you referred to as a chapter in the NLT which "removes justification terminology from the text." I also made bold propitiation because it is certainly a prime example of "justification terminology."

Propitiation is one of those heavily loaded theological words which carries a lot of meaning in a very small label. Now, as you know fully well, the underlying Greek word is ἱλαστήριον. When a word like propitiation is used in a verse like this, really it acts more as a placeholder for the larger context. In other words, the average person in the pew, in your pew, is probably not going to walk around with a fully developed theology of propitiation in his or her head. Some will, but realistically, most won't.

What this means is that regardless of what word is used here whether it is propitiation or "sacrifice of atonement" (NIV, NRSV), it will still require some amount of explanation by you. Incidentally, the word atonement was coined by Tyndale for use in his OT translation because he couldn't find a suitable English word for ‏כָּפַר.

The question remains whether it is better to have that theologically loaded word (really just a label, a placeholder) propitiation in the text or is something else suitable?

I've seen people evaluate translations (and I think I used to do it myself) based on whether the word propitiation was used or not.

What's interesting is that although the word was used in the King James Version, it was not used in William Tyndale's translation upon which the KJV was primarily based.

The Tyndale NT reads this way (with emphasis added) in Rom 3:25

whom God hath made a seate of mercy thorow faith in his bloud to shewe ye rightewesnes which before him is of valoure in yt he forgeveth ye synnes yt are passed which God dyd suffre

So where did the KJV translators get the word propitiation from? Why, straight out of the Latin Vulgate! Here is Rom 3:25 in Latin:

quem proposuit Deus propitiationem per fidem in sanguine ipsius ad ostensionem iustitiae suae propter remissionem praecedentium delictorum

What is inescapable, regardless of how one looks at it, is the KJV translators, rather than trying to actually translate ἱλαστήριον "cheated" and just grabbed the Latin word (this, of course, is not much different than what was done by simply transliterating βαπτίζω as baptize, rather than correctly translating it as "immerse," but now the real "Baptist" [pun intended] is coming out in me).

So, what does ἱλαστήριον actually mean (I know you know what it means, but bear with me for sake of discussion)? Or what is it that Jesus actually did for us on the cross (the real question)? I'm not going to try to answer the second question here, but I will say that when NT writers, especially in the epistles, try to answer that question, their answer at the most basic level is some kind of physical analogy for what took place on a spiritual level. This is true, regardless of whether Paul is speaking of ἱλαστήριον in Rom 3:25 or ἀντίλυτρον ("ransom") in 1 Tim 2:6. In the Reformation, emphasis came back upon ἱλαστήριον as a primary image, but in the early church, made up of the poor and in many cases, freed slaves, the idea of ἀντίλυτρον was favored. The reality is we need all of the images the NT provides to try to understand what Jesus did for us on the cross.

But back to my original question in regard to what ἱλαστήριον actually means-- When Paul uses this word, he is borrowing it from two arenas. On one hand, it's a pagan word used to describe the appeasement of a foreign God in their sacrificial ceremonies. The word meant this throughout ancient Greek literature, especially in regard to appeasing the wrath of the pagan God through sacrifice. On the other hand, the word ἱλαστήριον had been "co-opted" 200 years earlier by the writers of the Septuagint (LXX) to refer to the Old Testament mercy seat--the place above the ark of the covenant where sacrificial blood was sprinkled by the high priest to make atonement (thank you, William Tyndale) for Israel's sins, that is, to restore the people of Israel into fellowship with God.

So what did Jesus do on the cross (if I can take a stab at the second question)? Well, he "mercy seated" us with God.

Now, back to that Latin label/placeholder propitiation... This word sees the ἱλαστήριον as the place of atonement. Jesus was the "place" where God's anger was removed. But as you probably remember, C. H. Dodd in The Bible and the Greeks rejected Jesus as the place of atonement. He saw this as too closely tied to paganism. Furthermore, he was uncomfortable with the idea of a "wrathful" God. He said a better translation would be expiation because it was God’s appointed means to deal with our situation. On the Day of Atonement, he makes the effects of sin ineffective. Emphasis is on what God does (expiation), rather than what humans do (propitiation).

And of course, C. H. Dodd influenced translations of the Bible such as the RSV and NEB that opted for the word expiation in a verse like Rom 3:25 rather than propitiation.

But then Leon Morris came along, and in New Testament Studies said that wrath was indeed present in both Old and New Testaments (contrary to Dodd). Further, Morris went on to say that ἱλαστήριον is not an either/or, but a both/and: Morris said God expiates and is propitiated. Opposite of love is not wrath. The two are not incompatible. Anger is an appropriate reaction at times to those you love. The opposite of love is hatred—something into which anger can turn. Morris saw wrath as a positive angry love that does many wonderful things in the world.

In the Day of Atonement, God’s anger loomed large. Sin was taken seriously. Paul’s thought was how the Day of Atonement was understood in his time, not necessarily when it was who first proclaimed in Leviticus.

So then, we saw the rise of Bible translations that opted not to use either word (propitiation or expiation), but rather simply to translate ἱλαστήριον as "sacrifice of atonement" leaving it up to the preacher or teacher to explain further if desired.

So back to the NLT...

The 1996 NLT reading of Rom 3:25 may have simply tried to do too much:

For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us. We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us. God was being entirely fair and just when he did not punish those who sinned in former times.

There's definitely the standard "propitiatory" language in there. In fact, propitiation is defined pretty clearly in that rendering, over and above what the Greek actually says.

The 2004 revision is less overt:

For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past

"Jesus as the sacrifice for sin" is probably closer to that non-specific "sacrifice of atonement" in the NRSV & NIV.

And interestingly, the translators for Romans in the NLT are Gerald Borchert, Douglas Moo and Thom Schreiner -- a pretty good mix.

So, finally, back to your original concern, regardless of how it's worded, I believe there's still PLENTY for you as pastor/teacher to explain. I really wouldn't let lack of formal theological language--especially those which are simply Latin loan words) hold you back.

Todd Benkert said...

You offer a pretty persuasive argument. I'll be referring some folks to my blog just to read your comment.

I get so used to hearing those words -- propitiation, atonement, justified -- that it seems strange not to hear them.

I've never doubted the scholarship, (Block was the first to pitch the NLT to me way back in 1995, before it was even released). I just needed to get over my own personal hangups. Your comment goes a long way.

I'm almost ready to make the switch, just need to confer with my deacons ;)


R. Mansfield said...

I may also turn my rather LONG comment into a post on This Lamp. Do you mind if I reference our conversation? I'll certainly point people to your blog by linking here.

Todd Benkert said...

I was actually going to suggest it. The comment is too good to be relegated to a mere comment on my blog :) Go for it!

Laura Bartlett said...

Hi Todd, another resource you could use for considering that question is this post by NLT Blogger (and NLT Chief Stylist) Mark Taylor, on the topic of ἱλαστήριον in the NLT.

Todd Benkert said...

Thanks for the tip, Laura (and thanks for stopping by).

R. Mansfield said...

For what it's worth, I taught a group of 45 people today from Matthew 28 in the NLT and it worked just fine. In fact, Todd, I'd recommend looking at Matt 28 in a second edition NLT. It is "normal" English, yet at the same time, there were no "gotcha" dynamic renderings. If anything it was fairly traditional in its sound.

As I said somewhere, I'm going to give the NLT two months and then evaluate, but I really like the results so far.

Rachel Kay said...

I have enjoyed reading this comment section for the Multiple Bible Translations. I have completely enjoyed the discussion between Todd and Rick.
I use the NLT for my personal enjoyment. I study out of other translations along side of it. I also have found the NLT to wonderful when teaching children as well as sharing the gospel.
Personally, I don't enjoy the "theological terms" because they do not help in any way when speaking to children or to those who do not have a Bible background.
Using regular language, and simple terms seem to better in my thinking. Why not make the Word as simple to understand as possible?
Anyway, I enjoyed the conversations. I will keep looking in to see what more there is to learn!! Loving it.

Michael Wilhite said...


I share your concern about accuracy and yet readability in Bible translations. At one time I really did not like the NLT much at all. And it was really my own stubborn pride that was getting in the way. I know this isn't the case for everyone, but for me personally I was so conservative that I felt something less than a more literal translation just wasn't as holy. It was like it did injustice to God's holy Word by removing those words like justification and propitiation. I really struggled with that.

It's kinda funny that I just came across your post, because in recent weeks the Lord has really been dealing with me on this exact issue (among others). I've had to make the hard admission to myself and to God that I've been arrogant in my approach toward translations. And I've come down off of my high and mighty pedestal that I had for some reason placed myself on! It was wrong of me and thankfully the Lord broke that down.

I used to preach from the HCSB or the NKJV because they were understandable, yet very accurate. The problem was that virtually none of my congregation used those translations. I have a very economically challenged congregation with lower education levels for the most part. I recently realized that well over 60% of my congregation uses the NLT. So I repented of my spiritual arrogance and asked God to guide me to the right translation. I just felt like I was connecting as well as I could be.

To make a long story short, I am now preaching from the NLT which is a huge step for me. And the crazy thing is that I really love it. It's fresh and it connects with my people! Here's what God has been teaching me lately as a pastor. I have come to realize that preaching is virtually of no use if your people can't connect with it. I can get the most accurate translation and do all the right exegesis I want, but if my people can't understand it or can't relate to the wording and tune out as a result, I've failed as a preacher. And that's where I once was. Now that I've been preaching from the NLT, I feel refreshed personally in my own life. The translation is a breath of fresh air for me. It's really energized my own life. And my people have been connecting more and I feel like people are paying much more attention to the sermon.

Now not everybody will have the pride issue that I had with it. I sure hope not anyway! But even for those that are just concerned about other issues with the NLT, I can tell you it preaches very easily for me. And I'm used to the NASB and NKJV type translations. I highly recommend going for it. It's worth a couple of Sundays trying it out to see if it works for you. What's the worst that can be done, you try it out, don't like it and go back to what you were using? Just a thought.


Todd Benkert said...


Thanks for chiming in. I think I am going to try the NLT in my next series. By the way, be sure to stop by and comment next week when I post part two.

Right now, though, I'm on vacation with my family at Niagara Falls :)


Todd Benkert said...


So what your saying is that if I switch to NLT you won't get mad and leave the church? ;)

-- Todd