Why I Preach from the ESV

One of the most important decisions an American Christian makes is what English translation he is going to read.  He lives in an unprecedented time in world history; for most of the Christian era—before the printing press—a hand copied version of the Bible would’ve been too expensive for him to own.  Now he enjoys an embarrassment of riches with printed Bibles.  The decision then becomes, “What translation is best suited for me?”

I do not haphazardly chose my translations from which I read and preach.  I have specific criteria in mind when evaluating a Bible translation:

1. Does it take pains to be faithful to the very words written by the writers?  

Different Bible versions were translated by different philosophies governing the committees responsible for producing the English text.  For example, consider a comparison of 2 Timothy 4.1 between different standard translations:
I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; (KJV)

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: (NKJV)

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: (NASB)
 I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom, (LEB)
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:  (ESV) 
          I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living
          and the dead, and because of his appearing and his kingdom (CSB)

 What is striking about this comparison?  What’s striking is that nothing is striking.  A preacher could be quoting from any of the above and the congregation could follow along in the other translations without a problem.  Notice, though, how these translations handle 2 Timothy 4.1:
And so I solemnly urge you before God and before Christ Jesus—who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom: (NLT)
I solemnly call on you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge those who are living and those who are dead. I do this because Christ Jesus will come to rule the world. (God’s Word) 
When Christ Jesus comes as king, he will be the judge of everyone, whether they are living or dead. So with God and Christ as witnesses, I command you (CEV) 
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and because he is coming to rule as King, I solemnly urge you (GNB)
Do you see the difference?  The first grouping of translations, called formal equivalent translations, largely read the same.  However, in the second grouping, called dynamic equivalent translations,  it may be more difficult to follow along with someone reading from another translation because the wording patterns have changed.  However, that is not the real culprit as I see it.  Notice one phrase from the first grouping again:

    at his appearing and his kingdom; (KJV)
    at His appearing and His kingdom: (NKJV)
    by His appearing and His kingdom: (NASB)
    by his appearing and his kingdom, (LEB)
    by his appearing and his kingdom:  (ESV)
    because of his appearing and his kingdom (CSB)

They all consistently translate Paul’s Greek phrase:
    και     την   επιφανειαν    αυτου     και     την     βασιλειαν   αυτου
    And   the   appearing       of him     and    the      kingdom     of him

The second grouping translates this phrase as follows:

    when he appears to set up his Kingdom: (NLT)
    Christ Jesus will come to rule the world. (God’s Word)
    When Christ Jesus comes as king (CEV)
    and because he is coming to rule as King (GNB)

They rather stray from the more literal translation, don’t they?  Also, it introduces a possible theological question; if someone reads, “...when he appears to set up his Kingdom” (NLT) then he may think this alludes to the premillennial belief of a physical 1,000 year kingdom based in Jerusalem.  But Paul didn’t explicitly write that view.  He literally wrote that when Jesus appears his kingdom appears with him.  To see Christ is to see his Kingdom breaking in with visible power.

Does 2 Timothy 4.1 by itself either prove or disprove amillennialism or premillennialism?  No, it doesn’t.  Paul’s actual words  in this verse are more ambiguous than some translations may be read to infer. 

Understand that it is impossible for scholars to be strictly literal as they translate from one donor language to another receptor language.  However, it is important to understand how free—based on their philosophy of translation—they feel they have the right to tweak the words and still call it a faithful translation.  Some translations lean more toward the word-for-word philosophy.  Others believe it is more faithful to the definition and nature of translating to adopt a thought-for-thought.  I was taught to translate Greek from the word-for-word school.  My professor, the late Reverend Doctor Malcolm W. Shelton, believed the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was the best translation available to the English-speaking world.  The English Standard Version (ESV)—itself a revision of the RSV—and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) are my preferred English translations.  I can't say I'm crazy about the 1984 New International Version's New Testament translation.  It's not heretical, of course, but I don't believe it is the best pulpit Bible for precision's sake.  However, I do have serious and grave problems with the 2011 New International Version which is being sold today.

Dr. John Piper, senior minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church and ESV advocate, gave four convictions he had for an essentially literal translation:
1. A more literal translation respects the original author's way of writing. It is a way of honoring the inspired writers.

2. Translators are fallible and they may mislead the English reader if they use unnecessary paraphrases to bring out one possible meaning and conceal others.

3. A more literal translation gives preachers more confidence that they can preach what the English text says with authority that it reflects what the original Greek or Hebrew text says.

4. A more literal translation which preserves ambiguities that are really there in the original keeps open the possibility of new insight by future Bible readers.
I do not claim that the ESV is without its own level of "paraphrasing." Some will always be necessary. And there will always be disagreements about how much is necessary. I am simply arguing that the ESV is the best balance available of readability and literalness. I hope that it becomes the standard for the church.
2. Does the New Testament follow the Greek Alexandrian Text?

Admittedly this is a hard criterion to explain!  Most modern translations, such as the ESV, NIV and NASB (my second choice), use the United Bible Societies/Nestle-Aland text that I support and not the Textus Receptus or Majority Text traditions.  The first is written in a much easier style to understand than the second:

White, James R.  The King James Only Controversy:  Can You Trust the Modern Translations?  (MINNEAPOLIS: Bethany House Publishers, 1995.)

Metzger, Bruce M. and Bart D. Ehrman.  The Text of the New Testament:  Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration.  (NEW YORK:  Oxford University Press, 1964, 2005).  Fourth ed.

3. Does it avoid societal pressure to become an "inclusive language" version?

This is another thorny issue today.  Some in society wish to speak of humankind rather than mankind.  A fireman is now a firefighter.  The mailman is now a "letter carrier" and a waiter/waitress is now a "server."  The English use of the generic "man" to mean "person" has come under fire by some.

Some feel that English, itself, has a particular problem: the third person singular pronoun only comes in a masculine sense—"he."  In English there is no genderless third person pronoun.  For example, proper English would say:
Anyone wanting extra credit should stay after class to learn how he can earn it.
Some have a problem with that because they believe it belittles or ignores females.  Some would have us change it to a plural:
Those wanting extra credit should stay after class to learn how they can earn it.
Some go so far to commit a grammatical faux pas and pluralize the singular pronoun:
Anyone wanting extra credit should stay after class to learn how they can earn it.
This makes for implications in biblical translation.  Consider this well-known verse from the King James Version:
 And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
Okay, the word "man" is not in the Greek.  We could translate, "If anyone..." without a problem.  But the Greek speaks of a single person yet some would have us pluralize it:
Those who will come after me, let them deny themselves, and take up their crosses daily, and follow me.
I have a big problem with that.  Why?  Because the Greek New Testament does not use plurals here.  It uses singulars.  If God wanted Luke to write it in plurals he could have made him do it.  But he didn't.  Keep the Word of God as it is!  To keep it singular some may even recommend this monstrosity:
If anyone will come after me, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily, and follow me.
Ugly English!

Even the respected conservative scholar, D. A. Carson, couldn't convince me to embrace inclusive language after perusing his work, The Inclusive Language Debate, though he does embrace it.  That's why I neither endorse nor use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Today's New International Version (TNIV), the 2011 New International Version or the New Living Translation (NLT).

I believe in a third person singular generic "he."  And while God the Father is a spirit and not a "he" in terms of gender God isn't called Mother in Holy Writ, which is what inclusive languages in its most extreme form might have us do.  (I hasten to add that D. A. Carson and other conservatives DO NOT advocate this.)  Jesus Christ incarnated into the God-Man, very God of very God and a Jewish male.  He remains a Jewish male.  The Holy Spirit is genderless as the Father, physically speaking, yet the masculine pronoun is used for him in the Greek New Testament, thus establishing the precedent.

Examine the English Standard Version for yourself.  Here is one free Bible program that allowa you to download the copyrighted ESV for free.  (Yes, this is a free and legal program.)

e-Sword

As of this writing you can download the ESV for free for your kindle, too!

kindle ESV

One day I may twist my own arm and use the just-released Christian Standard Bible.