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The Impossibility of Verbal Plenary Translation

I have heard many good things about Mars Hill Church in Seattle, despite some theological disagreements (with whom do I not have such disagreements?) so I was disappointed to receive the following via e-mail from a friend: Theological reasons for why Mars Hill preaches out of the ESV.

This isn’t intended as an attack on the ESV. I put the slogan “the best Bible version is one you read.” If you find your Bible reading life lighting up when you read the ESV, then by all means use it for reading and study. If the carefully gender accurate language of such versions as the NRSV grates on your nerves, then by all means use it, but admit that it’s because of your language tastes, and not because of theology. If you’re reading the ESV because you think it is theologically more correct, or because it more accurately and clearly conveys the message of scripture to the populace in general, then I urge you to think again.

The stated fundamental assumption is one of inspiration. I don’t agree with the Mars Hill stand on Biblical inspiration, but I’m not going to dispute that. Rather, I want to ask if their stand on inspiration does really underly the remainder of their statement, or whether it actually stands on something else–something much less well founded. I quote:

1. The ESV upholds the truth that Scripture is the very words of God, not just the thoughts of God.

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. . . .

Now here’s the problem. If God inspired the very words and details, he did not do so in English. He did so in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I have no problem with this, but then I don’t believe in verbal plenary inspiration. It is obvious that in translation one must without exception alter the “words and details” of the source text, for the simple reason that an English translation contains no words in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, with the exception of a few transliterations. One assumes that Pastor Mark Driscoll is aware of this fact, but he glosses over it, as do most advocates of literal, word for word translation.

The practice actually reflects an argument used for many years by KJV Only advocates, who compare every new version to the KJV, and then call every change from the KJV in a modern version a change in the scriptures. They accuse the modern versions of altering the words of scripture. But what words are altered? The words of a translation that has no authority whatsoever over the source texts. When a translator uses a word/phrase in the receptor language to reflect a word/phrase in the source language, that doesn’t make the two equivalent. It is simply the way that translator thought was best to convey the thought of the text in the source language in the receptor language. It is critically important to state this correctly: The translator(s) of a new Bible translation do not alter the words of scripture, they reflect the words of scripture in a different way, using different words.

Some people are going to think I’m being unfair, but stripped of all the extra verbage, Pastor Mark Driscoll’s argument is, in fact, no more sophisticated than the KJV Only argument on this point. Let’s look at some illustrations. Under point “4. The ESV upholds the theological nomenclature of Scripture” Driscoll says:

First, one of the central debates of the Protestant Reformation was how a sinful person is justified before a holy and righteous God. This issue was so contentious that people died over it and Christianity split over it; it is not a trivial matter. Romans 3:24 is one of many places where “justification” is spoken of in the original text of Scripture. An examination of various translations, however, shows how the word is sometimes omitted altogether:

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  1. Molly says:

    This is an excellent critique. Thank you for taking the time to write it!

  2. Art Ruch says:

    Great post! Rather detailed – I’ll admit to skimming parts but I will return when I have more time to read fully as this is a subject I am very interested in and you always have a good opinion. In my opinion. Thanks.

  3. ReneeM says:

    this is a great post… my dad was a church planter / translator in Papua New Guinea… he was asked once if he translated from the King James Version… ? I appreciate these thoughts.

    In our house church, we have a variety of favorites, for all sorts of reasons, and some of us have definitely had to lay aside our prejudices for certain translations!!

  4. Thanks! I always like to hear from people who have some experience with Bible translation. A variety of translations can certainly help in any small group (or large group) study. You sound like you have a good idea there in your house church.

  5. Thanks for your kind words. This is one of those posts that can’t be the right length–either I didn’t cover everything or it’s too detailed. I compromised, and now it probably has both faults! 🙂

  6. bradley grinnen says:


    i’ve read the mars hill post and yours as well. i appreciate your time and energy into pulling your thoughts together here. it’s extremely helpful as i consider this issue.

    a thought occured to me. what if someone in a non-english speaking country wanted a bible in the ESV. let’s take vietnamese for example. would scholars of translate the ESV into vietnamese or would they translate directly from the greek and hebrew?

    thank you for your time.


  7. David Thatcher says:

    Here comes the ESVO crowd!
    Having been KJVO in the past it is crystal clear to me how a popular translation’s choice of words can define theology and church life for billions. Backed by “scripture,” they become unchallengable. The wording of the KJV has given us entire church and theological constructs whose basis needs to be understood for what it is.
    One of the interesting things I noted was that the ESV used the word “church(es)” less than most other versions. The use of the word “church(es)” and the word “tongue(s)” in modern versions conjure up images that may or may not be consistent with the “sematic scope” of the autograph.

  8. David Thatcher says:

    “semantic scope”

  9. Dana says:

    I started using an ESV when the church I was going to printed the scripture for the liturgy in the bulletin and it was ESV. I loved the simplicity of the language – I think you’ve mentioned awkward syntax somewhere else but I’ve never noticed it. Currently my favorite is my Serendipity NIV, because the questions in the margin mix reflection, clarification and application and help me to look at familiar passages in new ways.

    Thank you for such a thorough and well-supported post. Yeah, kinda long, but I didn’t think it was TOO long 🙂 And I’m glad you can be emphatic without being nasty.

    Does the ESV-only diatribe seem a bit cultish? Or is that just me?

  10. I find some of the ESV language a bit awkward, though it doesn’t bother me much. One funny thing about all of this is that I find the ESV quite comfortable to read. At the same time I realize that many of the people I might want to reach with the Bible message may not find it so easy.

    I don’t see any ESV advocates as cultish at the moment. They are using some “cult-like” arguments, but certainly haven’t cut themselves off from discussion. Mars Hill Church, for example, has many things to commend it.

  11. Helga says:

    Very interesting website. Keep up the outstanding work and thank you…

  12. tc says:

    If a person is looking for an NASB type Bible that is more consistent and readable, then I say use the ESV. Yes, it has its weaknesses, but it is still a good translation.

    However, if you’re looking for a great flow and faithfulness to the original, I recommend the NIV/TNIV, NET and HCSB.

    I’ve been an NASB user for sometime, my preaching and teaching Bible, but I’ve given it up because while it attempts to be literal, not only is it awkward, but it is also inconsistent.

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