Theological FAQ

Should I trust my translation of the Bible? When there are so many competing translations, how can we trust one over another, and why should we believe your opinion over theirs? What is the best Bible translation?

Almost all of us — even those with training in original languages — still have to read translations. And we have a plethora of good translations to choose from:

The New International Version (NIV) is a very good translation, though sometimes it holds our hands a bit theologically, removing ambiguities and smoothing out problems. It uses an unliteral principle of interpretation called "dynamic equivalence."

The Revised Standard Version (RSV) is a very good translation. It is sometimes outdone by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), but the NRSV is more often outdone by the RSV. The NRSV's well-intentioned and generally successful commitment to gender-inclusive language sometimes makes for awkward and misleading translations.

The King James Version (KJV) and New King James Version (NKJV) are very good translations, though occasionally the meanings of its words have changed in 400 years, and so the KJV can be misleading. The KJV also includes some words, verses, and passages that were apparently added by scribes as they copied the texts, and these may not belong in the Bible (depending on your doctrine of Scripture). An example is Mark 16:9-20. But I think evangelicals have been too quick to reject the KJV, which has a poise and grace that no subsequent translation has been able to capture. I have been coming back to this version (and lately the KJV has even become rather hip in secular and literary circles!).

The New American Standard (NAS) is a lot like the RSV.

RSV, NRSV, KJV, NKJV, NAS are all rather literalistic. I like this approach to translation, except when it forces English into Hebrew and Greek constructions that are foreign to the way we speak. (An infamous example is all those "And it came to pass that...." opening phrases in the KJV. These derive from an overly literal way of rendering a phrase in Greek that is unnecessary in English.)

In other words, these are all solid translations. They will usually serve you well, but they will occasionally mislead you.

There are other fine translations that are even less literal, among them the New Living Translation (NLT) and The Message (a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson). These have the advantage of narrowing much of the cultural distance that separates the original Biblical languages' vocabularies, imagery, and thought structures. This gives them a much more "living" voice to many readers. They also have the disadvantage of hiding ambiguities, "solving" problems in translation, and clearly favoring certain ways to read these texts at the expense of others. (Some would consider these things advantages, but they become disadvantages in contexts of close scholarly study and theological interpretation of the Bible.) In my classes, I much prefer that you read the more literalistic translations.

Sometimes in class I will argue against some translations' interpretations of a particular passage. That can be frustrating for some people who worry that they can't trust their translations (or can't trust me). I too experienced the discomfort of having my earlier certainty about an interpretation called into question, so I appreciate your pain. But don't let it sour you on the whole project of interpretation itself!

We professors are inviting you students into our ongoing efforts to read Scripture better. You all are moving into theological (not just physical) adulthood. Consider it a compliment that your school is no longer hiding these problems from you. We are making you ready to inherit, and not just take for granted, the Bible that we inherited not so long ago. And inheritance confers responsibility.

For now, I am much more concerned that you all be good readers of the translations you have, than that you go out and find a huge parallel Bible that would probably increase rather than resolve your confusion. I don't mind if you trust the committees of exceptional translators whose work is behind the versions you are using. In fact, I think trust (which is what faith means) is a basic requirement of all that we do in doctrine, Church history, Old Testament, and New Testament.

But all of these versions' translators have at times made hard decisions, and even wrong decisions, and they would not want you to pretend they are perfect any more than I do. When you are more acclimated to your theological adulthood, these issues will no longer be threatening and frustrating to you. They will be engaging and fun. You will slowly learn that these translational and textual issues, while important, are still rather minor compared to the overall message of the Gospel, which rings loud and clear through every decent version. When I bring up textual issues in the classes I teach at Church, students typically find them stimulating and involving, rather than offputting. I think it's because my Church has cultivated a healthy faith in them, a faith that doesn't rest on inerrant and infallible translators!

We always build on the work of others when we read the Bible — not just as we translate it, but as we interpret it in every sense. But they did not do their hard work so that we could sit back and stop inquiring as they did; like all scientists, they worked hard to offer us a better place to stand on, and a more helpful set of issues that still needs to be solved. Several professors in my department at Westmont were on the NLT translation committee. Their joy is not in delivering a perfect translation of the Bible that would remove the need for further translations, but in empowering others to be better critical and faithful readers of God's Word.

Grace and peace, Telford