Should the ESV really be the Reformed Standard Version?

Posted: 26th November 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

There have been a number of Bible translation-related posts around blogdom this week as a result of papers given at the 60th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). One paper, Mark Strauss’ critique of the level of English used in the ESV (reproduced in 13 parts on Better Bibles, also PDF), has generated the most dialog to date, though Ed Blum’s presentation of the HCSB (newly reproduced on This Lamp) may also spark some conversation.

As part of the ESV dialog, I found the following quote from Kenny Pearce somewhat irresistible, as it points to one way to understand and accept the ESV:

The ESV is a lot like the NKJV. It’s not as good in literary quality, in my opinion (I am not an expert on English literature), but most scholars believe that the New Testament text the ESV is based on is more accurate than the one that KJV and NKJV are based on, and ESV also renders certain words which have theological significance more consistently.

This last remark, about theological words, brings me to my final point, which I think is the real reason for a lot of very intelligent people, such as Phil Ryken, use and recommend the ESV. These ESV proponents push the fact that the ESV consistently uses words like ‘propitiation,’ ‘justification,’ and ‘atonement’. Other people will point out that these aren’t really good English translations of the original terms – after all, in English they are technical terms of Christian theology, and in the original Greek they weren’t! However, I think this criticism misses the real point. There is one activity for which I think the ESV is, hands down, the very best translation, and this, I think, is what Dr. Ryken means to endorse it for: it is the very best translation if you are consulting a Bible while reading or otherwise learning Reformed theology. This, I think, is what Dr. Ryken means when he says that when he was teaching from the NIV he would have to stop and say “this should say ‘propitiation.'” He means that when Reformed theologians teach about ‘propitiation’ they mean to be offering a theological explanation of what the Bible means when it uses the Greek word hilasmos (and possibly also hilasterion) and that word occurs here. If you have a Bible that doesn’t say ‘propitiation’ in those places, you won’t be able to figure out how this particular Reformed doctrine is supposed to be derived from Scripture and so you won’t really understand Reformed theology properly.

Certainly the positioning of the ESV as a Reformed translation has been done before, often by its detractors, but Pearce offers a perspective from the ESV side that’s worth chewing on for a while. He concludes:

I think [my explanation] does explain why many reasonable and intelligent people think the ESV is the very best translation out there, and I think it also makes a case that it might not be unreasonable for a church or denomination in the Reformed tradition to adopt the ESV as their ‘standard’ Bible […].

  1. […] Should the ESV really be the Reformed Standard Version? […]

  2. John says:

    You know, this probably isn’t so much just a “Reformed” thing…the word comes from the Latin Vulgate (propitiatio); the Reformed adopted the latin term (because it’s precise, and that being the prevalent language for discourse during that time); whether using “propitiation” or “appeasement” they’d still be synonymous…and in use by even Catholics (who read Latin)!

  3. Yes, I would hesitate to assign a translation to a specific doctrine based on its use of traditional theological language or lack thereof. All Pearce is saying, as I understand it, is that the ESV is more appropriate than the TNIV or NLT, for example, for theological teaching in Reformed churches because of its use of such language.

  4. John II says:

    Too weird. I hold opposite opinions from Reformed theology and I love the ESV. I’ve been using it heavily for a couple of years and I have never come across anything that made me think, “This thing has a reformed bias.”

    I wonder if Kenny Pearce would still grant me “reasonable and intelligent” status because I prefer the literalness and language of the ESV and don’t have a Reformed perspective. Perhaps that is beyond comprehension.

  5. I wonder if Kenny Pearce would still grant me “reasonable and intelligent” status because I prefer the literalness and language of the ESV and don’t have a Reformed perspective.

    John, I’m guessing he would… I think that it would be more accurate to say that “because of its traditional theological language, the ESV supports Reformed teaching more accurately than the TNIV or NLT.” That’s not to say that teachers from another tradition, e.g Arminianism, could not equally use the ESV to equal effect.

  6. I’m with Pearce on the ease at which I am able to discuss and teach Reformed concepts to others using the ESV. The newly released ESV Study Bible should reinforce that, too. It’s notes, articles, etc., are unquestionably Reformed. The only thing the new study bible is missing is a decent topical index. So I just tore one out of an old MacArthur study bible and glued it into my new ESV Study Bible.

  7. Kenny says:

    John II – I actually agree with you. I don’t think there is a Reformed bias to the ESV. What I meant to say was that there are certain terms (propitiation, justification, etc.) which are really important in Reformed theology, and it is therefore very difficult to teach Reformed theology from a translation that doesn’t use those words. If someone hasn’t seen those words in the Bible that person won’t be able to understand how Reformed theology relates to the Bible. As the first John pointed out, there are other traditions that use this language too, and so my points will apply equally to those theological traditions.

    What I meant to claim was just this: I think the ESV is a very good translation, but it doesn’t happen to be my personal favorite. However, there is one task for which I think everyone, regardless of ‘taste’ or whatever, should acknowledge that it is the very best translation, and that is, as a Bible to consult while learning a theological tradition which, like Reformed theology, cannot be understood without understanding these technical terms.

  8. I wouldn’t call it the Reformed Standard Version as much as the Confessional Standard Version. Anyone learning theology in a confessional context probably benefits from having traditional theological language retained (which I suppose is just restating the point). Then again, having to articulate the theology without that language in place might be beneficial.

    Perhaps one reason why confessional Christians might have a tendency to prefer literal/traditional translations is the fear (justified or not) that non-confessional translators are “translating away” not just the theological language but the theologies that employ it. Winning the argument, so to speak, by reframing the question.

  9. […] Really? Nothing? There is a conspicuous lack of balance in many of the endorsements of this translation, and it all feels a little too much like the kind of regard many people still have for the King Jimmy. I have great respect for many of those who are endorsing the ESV Study Bible, but I can’t help wishing people would just calm down a bit and eat a few less blue Smarties. 4. It should have been called the Reformed Standard Version […]