A critique of functional equivalence

Posted: 3rd August 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

My last post featured a link to a 2001 article by Dr. Raymond Van Leeuwen published in Christianity Today. Van Leeuwen argued for the need of a modern literal Bible translation that moved away from functional equivalency (FE) as a translation philosophy in an effort to better understand the original words and meaning of Biblical texts, e.g. removing the overlay of interpretation that FE applies to make texts more easily understandable by a target audience.

Van Leeuwen uses a number of scripture examples in his article, primarily critiquing the NIV and NRSV translations that were predominant at the time he wrote. I thought it would be interesting and perhaps useful to review some of his key examples with a few of the major translations to be published since his article was written, the TNIV, ESV and HCSB. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve wavered between the TNIV and HSCB as primary recommendations, though currently the pendulum is closer to the latter.

Colossians 3:9-10
Van Leeuwen describes Paul’s use of “old man” and “new man” to refer to Adam and Christ, respectively. He argues that translations using language like “new self” or “old human nature” obscure Paul’s concrete meaning that “we become new persons only ‘in Christ’ (Gal. 3:27) and by taking off Adam and putting on Christ, who is our life (Col. 3:3). By seeking familiar modern meanings, these newer translations make it much harder to see the deep biblical pattern of Paul’s thought.”

He continues, “Translations like ‘your old self’ and ‘new self’ may unwittingly lead readers away from Christ (‘the new man‘) to the individual self, one of America’s greatest idols. And while Paul’s ‘man’ refers concretely and specifically to Adam and Christ, ‘human nature’ is an abstract, philosophical idea whose meaning changes with the wind. Both translations prevent readers from learning that the ‘new man’ is not us but Christ.”

TNIV: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

ESV: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.”

HCSB: “Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his practices and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of his Creator.”

Comment: the TNIV does not make any changes to the NIV’s translation, leaving the ambiguity that Dr. Van Leeuwen describes. I was modestly surprised to see the ESV (and my NASB) use “self” as well. In addition to the HCSB and KJV, the NET Bible uses “old/new man”.

Galations 5:16-26
Van Leeuwen: “Paul contrasts ‘the works of the flesh’ with ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. Paul’s words here and elsewhere have often been misunderstood as meaning an opposition between the Spirit and our unspiritual ‘material’ body. To avoid this misunderstanding, the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) renders ‘flesh’ as ‘self-indulgence,’ while the NIV speaks of ‘sinful nature’ (with a footnote on flesh). This does two things: it prevents us from finding out why Paul used the Greek word for ‘flesh,’ and it may mislead us to infer that human nature is sinful or evil, even though the ‘Word became flesh’ (John 1:14).”

TNIV: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious […] But the fruit of the Spirit is […]”

ESV: “Now the works of the flesh are evident […] But the fruit of the Spirit is[…]”

HCSB: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious […] But the fruit of the Spirit is […]”

Comment: much has been written and argued about the translation of sarx in functionally equivalent Bibles. I really don’t wish to get into this too much further, other than to note that this may be a “milk vs. solid food” argument for new and mature Christians. The latter should chew on the text and strive to understand Paul’s arguments as he wrote them; in lieu of knowing Greek, leaving the translation as “flesh” seems to me to be an appropriate approach for this audience.

Ecclesiastes 1:14
Van Leeuwen: “In Ecclesiastes (and only in Ecclesiastes), the NIV translates hebel as ‘meaningless.’ Hebel is the most important word in Ecclesiastes and appears 37 times; its translation dramatically shapes our understanding of the entire book. Hebel means something like ‘breath,’ ‘mist,’ or ‘fog’. In Ecclesiastes hebel describes life metaphorically, as a breath, mist, or fog. Unfortunately, the NIV’s interpretation forces readers to read the book only one way, and to conclude roughly that life without God is meaningless. Other scholars are convinced that Ecclesiastes does not say life is ‘meaningless,’ but that it is like a breath or fog, hard to grasp, beyond control, sometimes impenetrable, here today and gone tomorrow.”

TNIV: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

ESV: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

HCSB: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind.”

Comment: None of the translations really go as far as Van Leeuwen suggests, which might read “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and everything slips through the fingers of time like the fleeting morning fog.” The ESV preserves the language of the KJV, which Van Leeuwen describes as also missing the mark.

Romans 1:17-18
Van Leeuwen: “Paul uses parallel language to say that ‘God’s righteousness is revealed’ in the gospel and that ‘God’s wrath is revealed’ from heaven. […] Many scholars maintain that […] ‘God’s righteousness’ more probably expresses the thought of God’s character (of who he is) than of his gift (what he’s done for us). Thus both phrases, the one about God’s righteousness and wrath, speak of God’s character. Some FE translations make it difficult even to discuss this issue, because they give us only a meaning based on Luther’s interpretation of Paul, which points to the gift of righteousness in the first phrase but the character of God in the second.”

TNIV: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed […] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven […]”

ESV: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed […] For the wrath of God is revealed […]

HCSB: “For in it God’s righteousness is revealed […] For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven […]

Comment: this is another example of where the TNIV has moved away from the NIV’s rendering (“a righteousness from God”), coming inline with Van Leeuwen’s preferred reading. The HCSB uses possessive grammar to clearly indicate that righteousness and wrath are properties of God.

* * *

From these examples, it seems that the HCSB comes closest to the desired translation that Van Leeuwen describes in his conclusion:

We need an up-to-date translation that is more transparent to the original languages. If the translator’s task is to negotiate the difficult balance between faithfulness to the original text and offering immediate sense in the target language, a direct translation will lean toward the original text. As a member of Christ’s body and a Bible teacher, I am pleading for a type of translation that is more consistently transparent, so that the original shines through it to the extent permitted by the target language.

Finally, I will add that I’ve been able to contact Dr. Van Leeuwen and he appears to favor the HCSB as well:

As you know, no translation is adequate. […] I do like the HCSB, especially because it tries to give “direct” translations in the footnotes when it translates more freely in the text. In general, we need more pastors who can handle Greek and Hebrew!

For further reading, Dr. Van Leeuwen recommended his essay “On Bible Translation and Hermeneutics” in After Pentecost, edited by Craig Bartholomew et al. (Zondervan, 2001), and his essay “Translation” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Kevin Vanhoozer et al. (Baker, 2005).

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Colossians 3:9-10 … Both translations prevent readers from learning that the ‘new man’ is not us but Christ.

    This is van Leeuwen’s exegesis of these verses, but clearly not that of the TNIV or ESV translation teams, which between them include many of the world’s top New Testament scholars.

    Galations 5:16-26 … Paul’s words here and elsewhere have often been misunderstood as meaning an opposition between the Spirit and our unspiritual ‘material’ body.

    Indeed. And it seems that van Leeuwen wants to perpetuate this misunderstanding.

    Ecclesiastes 1:14

    Van Leeuwen, a New Testament scholar, seems remarkably confident that he understands how this Hebrew metaphor is being used better than the Old Testament scholars who translated the versions he criticises.

    Romans 1:17-18

    This simply shows that none of the versions you consider are FE translations.

    • Mike Aubrey says:

      Peter, Van Leeuwen is actually an OT scholar as far as I know. He was one of the translators on Proverbs for the NLT.

      • Peter Kirk says:

        I based my information on the following on page 9 of the CT article:

        Raymond C. Van Leeuwen is professor of New Testament at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

        If he is also an expert on the wisdom literature, then I suppose his opinion on Ecclesiastes is of equal value to that of each member of the NIV/TNIV team.

  2. Colossians 3:9-10 … see my question on the first Leeuwen post if you get a chance.

    Galations 5:16-26 … isn’t Leeuwen’s argument simply that the ambiguity of “flesh” should be preserved so that readers can study the text without being led one way or another? Is there another translation of sarx that is ambiguous in the sense that it could be interpreted several ways? Maybe simply “human nature” instead of “sinful nature”?

    Ecclesiastes 1:14 … one of my former teachers once said that hebel could be translated in the sense of passing gas. A bit crude, but perhaps another facet of the metaphor.

    Romans 1:17-18 … indeed. My purpose wasn’t to categorize any of the translations as FE, but simply to take Leeuwen’s comments and see how some of the newer and most debated translations compared.