What Kind of Bible Should I Use? Formal (Literal) or Functional (Dynamic)?

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 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, most recently, the English Standard Version (ESV).

I am still an advocate for formal translations. I teach and preach from the English Standard Version (ESV). 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, using the ESV (formal) as my base version. I preach and teach from the ESV. I am currently doing my 10 chapters of reading each day from the NIV (functional). But I mix it up, sometimes using the ESV (formal), CSB (optimal), NLT (functional), or NCV (New Century Version, functional). For family devotions, we have been using the NIrV (New International Readers Version).

I think you can clearly see that I believe that using multiple versions (provided they have reputable background) is the way to go. 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/

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15 thoughts on “What Kind of Bible Should I Use? Formal (Literal) or Functional (Dynamic)?”

  1. Hi Pastor Brett,

    In my opinion, it is the contrast between receiving God’s Word versus receiving God’s thought that we seem to be struggling with.

    Functional/Dynamic seems to be attempting to convey His thought in a way that is understandable to the end reader with the emphasis on the reader.

    Formal/Literal seems to emphasize in delivering His Word, with the emphasis on the Author.

    I believe I am in agreement with Wayne Grudem on this one:

    http://kowalker.com/2010/02/21/wayne-grudems-thoughts-on-bible-translation/

    “I would be fixing in my brain verses that were partly God’s words and partly some added ideas, and I would be leaving out of my brain some words that belonged to those verses as God inspired them but were simply missing from the dynamic equivalent translation.”

    Peace of Christ to you!

  2. Calvin, I think summarizing by saying it’s the difference between God’s words and God’s thoughts is oversimplification of the issue. Unless you choose to use an interlinear, even the so-called “literal” versions add words and make interpretive choices.

    I love Dr. Grudem and think his Systematic Theology is the best modern systematic available today, as attested by the fact that it is the only one with arm’s reach of my computer! But he is a theologian and in these issues I tend to agree with the linguists/translators who have served on the committees of both formal and functional translations who, I believe, would say that it is definitely more complex than Dr. Grudem makes it seem with that statement.

    The truth of this can be born out in simply comparing the modern literal translations, which I do pretty much every week in the passage in which I am preaching. The NASB, KJV, NKV, and ESV frequently have different words, and sometimes have more words or less words than the other translations. I did not include the HCSB, because it is not a purely literal translation, incorporating both a formal and functional approach in a hybrid fashion. For example, the KJV has 33,237 more words than the ESV. The ESV has 38,496 more words than the HCSB.

    When you also factor in that there is not always an exact 1-1 correspondence between a Greek word and the best English word (or phrase) to currently communicate the meaning of that Greek word, you begin to see that it’s just not that simple. Notice I added “phrase” because many Greek words cannot be adequately communicated in one English word. This is why the current Greek/Hebrew text has 545,202 words while the modern versions have somewhere in the range of 718,000-790,000 words.

    I point that out because the reality is that even the so-called “literal” versions or even “essentially literal” versions are built on translators making choices to take a Greek word and assign it a phrase in English, which is not far from taking 2-3 Greek words and assigning them a phrase.

    Finally, I will grant, and have pointed out in these posts, that I think that the literal versions are “closer” to the Greek and safer for in-depth study, teaching and preaching, as evidenced by my own use of the ESV as my primary Bible, both for study, teaching, and preaching.

    Now paraphrases, as I know you are fully aware, are a whole different story!

  3. Pastor Brett,

    I’m a fellow pastor, and I just want to affirm the advice you have given. Both translation philosophies have their strengths and weaknesses, and it would be unwise to limit ourselves to just one. I constantly tell my church members, “Short of actually learning the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the best course is to use and compare multiple translations.” Having done that myself for most of my ministry, I have become aware that in any given passage, most of the translations will generally agree with each other; and the times where they don’t, it usually does not affect the meaning.

    By the way, I just recently ran into your blog and have enjoyed reading it. May God continue to bless your ministry.

  4. Thanks, Fernando, for your words of affirmation regarding this particular post and the blog in general. I’m curious, what translation do you use as your primary translation?

    1. Thanks, Nathan, for stopping by the blog and commenting. Yes, I have just recently been using the NET Bible as a study tool and am, so far, impressed. Which is your preferred version?

      1. The version I use the most is the ESV. Mostly because it has a lot of different editions I like. I also use the NET a lot, because there are a few places where the ESV’s doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance Psalms. 144:5.

        All of this just to say I,m not sure what my preffered version would be. I use the ESV the most, but if I had to pick one version I would probably pick the NET.

  5. Hi Pastor,
    Thanks for this blog and topic. I am stuck. I have started Prof. Horner’s Bible reading system but haven’t decided which Bible to use. I read my NIV study Bible the first day then switched to my Holman the next. The thing is I like them all including the ESV, NKJV, NLT and the new NET looks awesome, too. I want to choose one “forever” Bible. When I go to glory, I want my dd to have my Bible to hold onto — to say “This was Momma’s Bible.” Know what I mean?
    I’m way picky, though. I want one that is genuine leather, no articles in the midst of the text, pages that aren’t too thin … yada yada yada.
    I’m stuck. I’ve even prayed about it!

    Blessings to you!

    1. Stephanie,

      Forgive me for taking so long to respond to your comment. Have you made any progress in deciding which Bible to use?

      I want to just encourage you that it is a wonderful thing that you like the NIV, ESV, NKJV, NLT and NET. You love God’s Word!

      But I also can identify with your desire to have that one “forever” Bible. Here is a suggestion. Keep using multiple Bibles but settle on “one” Bible that will be your heirloom Bible, maybe even one that you will write notes in the margins, mark up, highlight, etc. Spend some quality time choosing it (as you mentioned make sure it’s real leather and not bonded) and then go for it. Write your greatest and most meaningful insights in it and then pass it down as “Momma’s Bible.” It doesn’t have to be your everyday Bible, but you could consider it sort of a spiritual scrapbook Bible.

      Far more important than the physical Bible you pass down, or whatever version it is, is the reality that by your example you are passing down a love for God’s Word!

      As for a Bible that is “genuine leather, no articles in the midst of the text, pages that aren’t too thin, yada yada yada” I suggest you spend some time at the following websites, if you haven’t already, and you will probably find a Bible to fit the bill:

      http://www.bibledesignblog.com
      http://www.evangelicalbible.com
      http://www.bibles-direct.co.uk

      Let me know how it goes.

  6. Dear Pastor Brett,

    I cannot tell you the amount of times I have picked up a Bible of the KJV only to put it down again because I do not fully understand it. Indeed for many years I struggled time and again, until I discovered the NLT version. Now I can refer back to the KJV and understand it better.

    I believe that thousands and thousands of people are missing out because they will not struggle with Elizabethan English, yet those like myself who have discovered a more common language version (NLT for example) can read the KJV with a clearer head of what it is actually saying.

    To give another example, I was speaking to someone a while ago who is an avid reader of anything and everything. However, two things he has never read are any works of Shakespeare and the Bible. He, like many others cannot or will not endlessly struggle, but lose out not only from a religious point of view but to the wonderful stories contained within them.

    D.W.

    1. David,

      I bet your experience is very common. Reading the KJV takes a lot of hard work if one is not familiar with it. I think the KJV/NLT approach is a great idea. Thanks for sharing and come back to my blog often.

      – Pastor Brett

  7. Brett, I enjoyed reading the posts on this issue, but seems I’m a year late on this discussion.

    The division into four methods was unnecessary. The paraphrase is simply the extreme form of the dynamic/functional method, while optimal equivalence seems to be the dominant method, and has been for centuries.

    “Unless you choose to use an interlinear, even the so-called “literal” versions add words and make interpretive choices.”

    So instead of having four supposedly separate systems, what we really have is a continuum from the interlinear (extreme formal) to the paraphrase (extreme dynamic (sorry, I prefer this term.)) The interlinear is a simplification of what linguists call a gloss and is useless to most people when not accompanied by a more dynamic translation. So on your continuum, you’d have the interlinear at one end moving through say Youngs Literal translation through the ESV; N/KJV; NASB group, then through the NIV; NLT; CEV, finally down to the Living Bible and the Message. This simply shows an increasing level of interpretative licence as one goes along. I feel that the propensity people have for strict demarcation over simplifies the issue.

    To illustrate the existence of the dynamic/functional approach found even in the supposed formal approach, one only needs to consider that the phrase “for ever and ever” never appears in the Greek version of Revelation. The Amplified Bible; The Analytical Literal Translation and the interlinear translations all render those literally as “unto the ages of the age.” This is problematic to English speakers as we wouldn’t actually ever choose to render such a phrase in normal English usage, hence the dynamic/functional approach, which could just as easily be rendered “for ages.” An example would be: in Afrikaans (a South African language similar to Flemmish) the phrase “Enige Jan, Rap en sy maat” would formally translate as “Any Jan, Rap [both of these being pronouns] and his friend.” This means nothing to an English speaker, but “any Tom, Dick and/or Harry” would convey the message perfectly.

    To answer your questions, I use a NKJV not only for it’s high degree of formal equivalency, but also for the fact that I don’t have to go hunting in the footnote for some verses. The footnotes also provide a good idea of which different texts (Unified; Nestle; Received or Majority) the different renderings come from. I have recently been exposed to the ESV and find it easier reading than the NKJV. If I need an easier rendition for understanding in a sermon (I’m a lay preacher) I use the NIV, simply because it is one that’s always been in our house, so it’s an accessibility issue. I generally enjoy the NLT as well.

    The issue of where the texts from which the translations are made, and how they are translated is important for informed Bible Study, but the advocation of one over another seems narrow minded, and I feel will deprive people of better understanding.

    As for choosing a Bible for life, there are beautiful parallel Bibles which contain the KJV (tried and trusted); the NASB (formal); the NIV (dynamic/functional) and the Amplified Bible (Analytic). I think people could do a lot worse than to have all these in one tome. I personally find Bibles like this a little cumbersome, and thus my most used Bible is my ultraslim NKJV.

    Thanks for the posts.

    1. Your welcome. Thanks for your comment. Very good thoughts. I, too, especially like how the NKJV show in the footnotes the textual variants. But as much as I like that, the ESV reads so much better, to me, that I rarely use the NKJV much anymore. Great version, though. Thanks again for your thorough and well thought out comment.

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