What Bible translation do you use?

Church seekers often ask, “What Bible Translation do you use?” This question is usually inspired by one of three concerns:

  1. The person asking believes a particular translation (usually the King James Version) is the only acceptable translation.
  2. The person asking does not believe this and wants to avoid churches that do.
  3. The person asking wants to know if we use a translation with which he or she is familiar.

When I first came to Christ, I studied the King James Version (KJV) because, as a child in church, I had heard many of the accusations leveled at modern translations and their translators. I was naturally fearful of falling into error, so I stuck with the translation my childhood churches had trusted. In time, I found the language of the KJV to be a hurdle when ministering to the average person—any person who had not grown up with its archaic language. I was spending more time explaining the “English” than the truth it expressed. The Word of God is most effective when given in the heart language of those to whom it is given, and seventeenth-century English is no one’s heart language today.

In time, I settled on the New International Version (NIV). There were several reasons leading me to this one, but perfection is not one of them. Those unable to deal with a translation being less than perfect do not understand the difficulty of translating from one language to another. Neither did I believe the NIV to be superior to the KJV. In my studies, I use the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek) and even find myself looking into Latin, to see how the verse was anciently understood in Western Church tradition. For modern translations I regularly consult somewhere around a dozen translations, including some lesser known.

Each person or committee translating scripture cannot help imparting their own views and values to the translation. Contrary to the accusations of the King James Only camp, this is seldom from some nefarious plot to hide the true Word of God from the world. Usually it comes from a strong conviction among the translators that the material is so important great care must be taken to ensure the understanding given in the original is relayed by the translation—something very hard and at times nearly impossible to do. Often, words used in one language have no equivalent in the other. Sometimes, several different words in one language may have only one counterpart in the other. Consider, for example, the English word “love,” which can be used for several Koine Greek counterparts: agape, eros, or philos. To demonstrate in English which Greek word was intended one must switch from translation to interpretation. Take, for example, the use of agape and philos in John 21:15-18. Jesus asks Peter three times “Do you love me?” and Peter responds three times in the affirmative. Yet, in English, details about the conversation are lost. In English we miss that Jesus used the word ‘agape’ for love the first two times. Neither does the English show Peter affirming his love with the word ‘philos’ in place of ‘agape.’ The third time Jesus changes from ‘agape’ to ‘philos,’ but the English fails to show this as well. Is this significant? Perhaps it is; perhaps not. Yet one using the English translation would not even know to ask the question. Some translations try to demonstrate this by translating ‘philos’ with ‘I am fond of you.’ Is this important? I’ll leave that to you to find out.

Translations vary the degree of interpretation according to the audience they seek to reach. You will often hear this expressed when people say, “This translation is more literal than that one.” In a translation intended for more scholarly study of scripture—among academics, highly-trained pastors, and seminary students—less interpretation is used and the translation will more closely follow the original. The scholar, understanding the idiomatic use of the words, interprets them himself. In translations intended for popular consumption this work is done for the reader by the translators. Rather than giving what can appear to be a slavish literal rendering of the original into English, the translator interprets the idiom of the original into idiomatic English. Some do this more than others, accounting for the different feel of translations. There are very few translations where this was done to confuse the reader or to support heretical teachings. I am only aware of two: The New World Translation (used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the Joseph Smith Inspired Version of the Bible (used by some Mormons).

Earlier, I said there were several reasons why I spent years teaching from the NIV. I’ll give those here since I do not believe it to be the best translation or a perfect translation. I settled on the NIV because:

  1. The language of the NIV seldom needs explanation.
  2. The style of the NIV feels natural to the average American.
  3. The NIV has been the most commonly used translation, so most visitors trust it.
  4. If a visitor brings a Bible to church it will likely be the NIV.

Settling on a translation was not easy in my early ministry. It was very hard to stop using the KJV because I was so used to its language and poetic feel. But I came to realize that the KJV, though a beautiful example of what the English language once was, is not a translation for today’s speakers of American English. To keep the Word of God locked in an archaic form of English is to deny it to the common man and woman no less than those who once insisted on the Latin Vulgate.

These days, I don’t use the NIV as much. I use any one of a number of translations, and usually include the text in the presentation. Most of these will be from the English Standard Version, but I also rely heavily on the Holman Christian Standard Bible or the Lexham English Bible. This is because at times I find a translation that better renders the meaning of the original—remember all translation committees have their own doctrinal baggage, as was true of the Anglican translators of the King James Version. Some are better than others at keeping these peculiarities from showing through in their translation work.

Now that you know which translations we use, the next question should be “Will I find your church a comfortable home?” If you are a firm KJV-only believer with no interest in hearing any other view, then we are not the church for you. Anyone else should fit in quite well.

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