Words vs Thoughts at Mars Hill

Recently I was pointed to a page at the website for Mark Driscoll’s church that talked about why his church uses the ESV from a theological and practical standpoint. Mark delves into 6 theological and 5 practical reasons for the switch from the NIV to the ESV in 2007. Reading through the article I was almost horrified at the reasoning the Driscoll gives for the switch, particularly the 6th theological reason. So I want to take some time to explore why Mark uses the ESV and talk about why the reasoning isn’t very sound.


Mark expands this point in the following way,

This point is inextricably connected to the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration, which means that God the Holy Spirit inspired not just the thoughts of Scripture but the very words and details.

How does this belief inform Bible translation?

Well, translations which follow a looser translation philosophy often attempt to interpret the words of Scripture to convey whatever the translators believe to be the “thought.” For example, the statement “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4 ESV) is interpreted by one translation as “those who do right for the right reasons” (CEV). Another example is Psalm 23:5b (“you anoint my head with oil”), which is rendered by one modern translation as “you welcome me as an honored guest” (GNB). The ESV is committed to faithfully reproducing the words of God in Scripture, not just the translators’ idea of what “thought” the words are meant to communicate.

This point is significant because the Bible repeatedly declares that the very words of God are important, not just the thoughts they convey (see Exodus 19:6Deuteronomy 32:46-47Proverbs 20:5-6;Matthew 4:4Luke 21:33John 6:6317:81 Thessalonians 2:13;Revelation 21:5; and 22:18-19).

There are some problems that exists with this line of reasoning. The first is that there cannot be an exact word-for-word translation because Greek and English are two different languages that operate under different rules. For example in English word order plays a primary role for how we understand what the words are communicated, whereas in New Testament Greek it does not. In English, the sentence must go “subject-verb-object.” No English speaker could understand the sentence otherwise. If I were to literally write the end clause to John 1:1 it would read, “and God was the Word.” But Bible translators know that Greek has rules that allow for the subject of sentence to appear after the verb. Hence we read, “and the Word was God,” in the ESV. Word-for-word just doesn’t work.

A second problem comes from a term called “idiom.” An idiom would be something like, “Can’t have your cake and eat it too.” No one gets cake unless they plan on eating it, if we take this literally. But this is an idiom or a turn of phrase that means something else in our culture and society. The Bible has these also. The following clip is a Baptist preacher talking about “him that pisseth against the wall,”

An entire point of a sermon that insisted on a literal translation of a Hebrew phrase. But even the ESV will translate “him that pisseth against the wall” as “males” because the KJV phrase used in the video doesn’t communicate to the English mind of today like it would have in 1611, and like the Hebrew phrase did when 1 Kings was written. Word-for-word translations lose sight of all of this. Even the ESV isn’t exactly a word-for-word translation. So if that’s the case, does this undermine all that Driscoll says about the ESV? Does it communicate the very words of God faithfully if they will paraphrase an idiom to better communicate its meaning, and the thought behind it, to its English-speaking audience?

Personally I like the ESV and prefer it when I want to read a translation that is a formal-equivalence translation, that is a translation that seeks to reproduce literal translations as much as possible. But understand this, no translation seeks to reproduce exactly the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible because those languages and the cultures behind them aren’t our own. There will be some give and take in order to communicate into English. There has to be. Driscoll’s logic ignores this and acts as if this can be overcome in a way that the translation he is recommending doesn’t believe in. I bet he knows this, but it’s unfortunate that he will misguide his readers because he’s building to a specific theological point.


~ by hankimler on September 5, 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: