Over the weekend, sociologist Samuel Perry raised eyebrows by suggesting that the ESV is the official Bible translation for “Trumpists.” I’m not sure what he was trying to accomplish with this. Was he trying to cast shade on the ESV by showing the nefarious characters who read such a translation? About an hour and a half after posting this, he shared some data that sort of deflates the nefarious connotation of his earlier claim. The data show that readers of the NIV, Amplified, and KJV are also likely Trump voters. He then draws a more limited conclusion, saying that “voters who read evangelical translations vote like evangelicals.” Hardly earth-shattering news.
This morning, however, Perry has posted some additional thoughts on Bible translation that need some sort of a response. He writes:
Evangelicals, please stop saying silly stuff like “I read the XYZ translation cuz it’s the most [accurate, literal].” How’s your Greek & Hebrew? Non-existent? Then you are unqualified to judge “accuracy.” And “literalness” is a dumb standard anyway. But you can do better.
Rather than defensively repeating advertising claims you can’t evaluate like “accuracy” or tribal slogans like “literalness,” YOU can start to evaluate Bible translations on whether the editorial team has sought to be 1) transparent about their decisions & 2) accountable.
By “transparent” I mean have they sought to explain the MANY translation or TC options? Did they explain why they made their choices? In the days of the Internet, there are NO legit reasons why publishers couldn’t make this known somewhere online. NET Bible is great here.
By “accountable” I mean does the editorial team comprise at least SOME diverse opinion? Is it only white men/pals from the same theological tradition? Prolly gonna be some bias in that translation. Or is there expertise + some denom/background diversity? NIV is solid here.
What I’m encouraging here is for lay evangelicals to be less gullible about the Bibles they use and throwing around silly standards they themselves can’t judge. You, dear reader, can today ask whether your preferred Bible translation has been transparent & accountable.
I don’t know Perry at all, and I have no explanation as to why his remarks about Bible translation are dripping with contempt toward evangelicals (“stop saying silly stuff,” “unqualified to judge,” “dumb standard,” “gullible,” etc.). Is it because he regards these evangelicals as Trump voters? Is it because of Wayne Grudem’s role as a translator for the ESV? Perry claims in a 2021 article that Grudem is the general editor of the ESV. The only problem with this claim is that Grudem is not and never has been the general editor of the ESV. Nor is he even the New Testament chairman.* We can only speculate as to why Perry expresses such contempt because he doesn’t really tell us. In any case, this posture is—shall we say?—less than charitable. I think he can do better.
As to his substantive claims about Bible translation, I would just encourage lay people not to be discouraged by what he is saying. You can make informed decisions when choosing which Bible translation to read. You may not have a Ph.D. in any of the theological disciplines, but neither does Perry. That doesn’t stop him from having informed opinions on the matter, and it shouldn’t stop you either.
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to understand the basics of translation philosophy. Translators tell you their translation philosophy in the introductory material of English Bibles. If they thought you were incapable of comprehending all of this, they wouldn’t bother to tell you. They are not playing hide-and-seek with what they are doing. You can read it all there, and I encourage you to do so.
Every translation that you read is going to reflect more or less either a formal equivalence approach (sometimes called “essentially literal”) or a dynamic equivalence approach (sometimes called “functional equivalence”). In simple terms, a formal equivalence approach is a preference for word-for-word renderings in English. A dynamic equivalence approach is a preference for thought-for-thought renderings. I say that these are preferences because no translation can be all one thing or the other. The truth is that all translations manifest tendencies from both ends of the spectrum, but they nevertheless can be distinguished by which approach they employ most often.
Formal equivalence translations (e.g., KJV, ESV, RSV, NASB, NKJV) have the advantage of preserving somewhat more clearly some of the underlying structures of the source text. The downside of these translations is that the English is sometimes less clear or specific (e.g., 2 Cor. 10:13 NASB). That is why many English readers prefer to read dynamic equivalence translations. They just read better to the ordinary English speaker.
Having said that, dynamic equivalence translations (e.g., NLT, NIV, REB) have their own downsides as well. Preachers who read the original languages and who do verse-by-verse exposition of the biblical text will often have difficulty with thought-for-thought renderings, and so will their listeners. Such preachers will more often disagree with interpretive judgments in thought-for-thought renderings than they will in word-for-word renderings. As a result, they will more often have to “correct” the translation while preaching, which does not over the long haul inspire ordinary readers to have confidence in their Bible translation. This is why as a preacher and as a reader I prefer formal equivalence/essentially literal translations of the Bible.**
There is much more that can and should be said. I just want ordinary readers to know that you can make reasonable judgments about the Bible translation philosophy that you prefer, and you don’t need a Ph.D. to do so. Contrary to Perry’s claims, it is neither “stupid” nor “gullible” to prefer essentially literal translations. It is a perfectly reasonable preference, and in my view the most practical preference for those preaching (or listening to the preaching) through verse-by-verse exposition.
* It is strange to find such a significant error in a peer-reviewed academic journal.
** There are plenty of godly brothers and sisters who disagree with me on this, and they aren’t ungodly or “gullible” for doing so. We can agree to disagree charitably about translation philosophy.