On the subject of choosing a modern English Bible, one of the main issues is whether to get a formal equivalent translation (also called a “literal” translation or “word-for-word” translation) or a functional equivalent translation (a.k.a. a dynamic or “thought for thought” or “phrase for phrase” translation).
In my previous two posts, I presented eight arguments for owning a formal equivalent translation of the Bible and eight arguments for owning a functional equivalent translation of the Bible. I sought to present those eight arguments as a hypothetical advocate of each. In this post I want to give my personal opinion on the subject.
I’ll start by sharing what my friend, Star, commented on my previous post:
Both ‘sides’ are very compelling. I am not sure I really stand on either side. I think the arguments really point out a need to have more than one translation when really studying the Bible.”
I believe Star is right. My recommendation is that you own at least one good formal translation and one good functional translation. Use the formal translation for in-depth Bible study and the functional translation for reading, for children, for ESL (English as a Second Language), and for missions.
This was not always my point of view. In my early years I did not really have an opinion on the matter. As a small child, I carried to church a little King James Version (KJV) award Bible. That was back when pretty much everyone used the tried and true KJV. Somewhere around 8 or 9 years old, my mother bought me a hardback Children’s Edition New International Version (NIV). This one I could actually read and understand. So when I was a teenager, when God began to do a special work in my heart, my Dad got me a new hardback single-column New International Version. A year or two later I got a leather-bound Ryrie Study Bible (NIV).
But in my college days I learned that formal translations were “closer to the Greek.” This was confirmed for me during my seminary years when I studied Hebrew and Greek. For this reason, I became a strong advocate for formal translations: the New American Standard Bible (NASB), New King James Version (NKJV), and, later on, the English Standard Version (ESV).
I am still an advocate for formal translations. I teach and preach from the New King James Version (NKJV).*** But I have also become an advocate for functional translations. When my son became old enough to read, I bought him a New Living Translation (NLT). I also wrapped it in camo duct tape. I wanted to give him a Bible he would read and understand. I think the New Living Translation is a good choice for his age.
I think functional translations are also good for long reading sessions. For example, I have become a fan and advocate of Professor Horner’s Bible reading system, which requires reading 10 chapters of the Bible a day. If you are going to sit down and read the Bible for 30-45 minutes a day, it is less taxing if you read from a Bible that is smoother and has more natural feeling English syntax.
I mentioned that I was originally persuaded to favor formal translations because they were “closer” to the original languages. As a pastor for several years I have come to notice an interesting pattern. I have frequently heard laypeople argue that they trust their formal translation because “…when my pastor is preaching and he tells us what the literal Greek says, it is what my Bible says.” But on the other hand, I have heard several laypeople tell me that they trust their functional translation because “…when my pastor is preaching and he explains the meaning of a Greek word, it is what my Bible says.” How fascinating! Both feel affirmed in their choice of translation when they hear their pastors making reference to the original languages.
Of course, hardcore formal translation advocates would argue that this proves their position is right. After all, the job of the translator is to translate the words from the originals, not the meaning. But the hardcore functional translation advocates would also argue that this proves their position is right. After all, the job of the translator is to reproduce the words into the common language of the people.
So both sides argue that they are being more faithful to the originals. My position is that they both have a place at the table. Instead of debating which side is right, I would prefer to say, why be enemies?
I study from multiple versions, usually using the KJV (formal) as my base version. I preach and teach from the NKJV. When it comes to my daily Bible reading (most years I am on a annual Bible reading plan, although some years I switch to the more intense Horner plan), I mix it up. One year I read through the Bible in the NIV (functional), another year I did the NKJV (formal). In 2011, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the KJV, I read through the KJV (formal), Some years I mix it up. Most recently (2018), I have I did my Old Testament reading from the NLT (functional) and my New Testament reading from the KJV (formal).
I think you can clearly see that I believe that using multiple versions is the way to go (as long as they are legitimate translations). In future posts, I will introduce each of these versions and give you background information on each as well as recommendations for each.*
The one major drawback of using multiple versions is when it comes to Bible memorization. Which version should you use? My personal opinion is that you just choose one, probably the translation you are most familiar and comfortable with, and then stick with it.
What is your opinion on this subject? Do you agree that using multiple versions is good? Or do you think it is better to embrace one translation and make that your lifetime Bible?
*By recommendations, I mean editions such as reference Bibles, compact editions, hardback or leather, etc. Nearly every translation comes in various offerings: small, large, personal size, etc. How you plan on using the Bible will help determine the choices you make when choosing which one to buy.
**UPDATE- January, 2011: I am currently doing my Bible reading in the KJV and ESV, two formal translations. I still advocate the use of both formal and functional translations but find myself in a season in which I am doing more reading in formal translations. Also, I cannot emphasize enough that if you are going to serious study, please use a formal translation. I really like what my friend Ray Van Neste has to say about choosing a version that maintains the ambiguity of the original languages: http://www.biblegateway.com/perspectives-in-translation/2010/11/what-makes-a-translation-accurate-ray-van-neste/
***UPDATE- October, 2018: A few years ago I switched from the ESV to the NKJV for my primary base translation. Therefore, I updated this blog post to match that change. Previously, this post kept referencing the ESV as my primary teaching translation.