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ETS Paper on ESV/TNIV (Monday with Mounce 50)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday With Mounce buttonThis is a bit off-topic, but thought I would share about my paper at ETS on the ESV/TNIV. Basically I think it went well, and hopefully set the tone for further debate.

My paper was entitled, “Can the ESV and TNIV Co-Exist in the Same Universe?” (It was a response paper to Mark Strauss.) I jokingly answered, “In light of current developments, evidently not” and opened the floor for questions.

My real answer was, “Yes, in fact, they must co-exist” (thinking of the NIV2011). I do not believe that one size fits all. Children no longer learn to read by reading the Bible, and we live in a post-Christian culture that is attempting to expunge any hint of biblical language/metaphor.

When I was a full-time pastor, I preached from the ESV, but for VBS we used the TNIV. We had hundreds of unchurched kids from the neighborhood, and I had no idea of their church background and how their mom felt about “man” and “he.” After all, the goal of translation is communication, so I used the translation that helped me communicate the best in both contexts.

So if they must exist together, the question becomes how. My suggestion was that we all learn to “Play Fair,” and I suggested seven principles of how to play fair.

1. Ephesians 4:29

We can enjoy aggressive, rigorous debate, but all debate comes under Eph 4:29 (see my earlier blog). I believe that for the most part Wayne Grudem and Mark Strauss have done this. But others haven’t. I found one blog saying that the “ESV … has found a niche market among those who believe that archaic and unclear language is the sign of a proper Bible.”

One of the papers read at ETS said the ESV was in one place “theologically illiterate” and the repeated refrain was, “Who do the translators think they are?” This type of language has no place among followers of Christ, all of whom come under the authority of Eph 4:29.

2. We must never question motives

We don’t know what they are and at the end of the day they don’t matter; we have to deal with what is. But when someone says, for example, that not using male language was done so as to not offend readers, this is not helpful. The translation committee of the NIV believes that “man” is no longer generic, and so “man” and “he” are mistranslations.

Besides, all translation from time to time changes the “literal” translation so as to not offend. No translation of the Song of Solomon is “literal” because its anatomically precise language is offensive to many. Check out the real meaning of Jude 23.

3. Never question competency

These are, after all, ad hominem arguments; when you are not able to debate the message, you attack the messenger. And so when a person says that a translation “misses” the point,” acts “without due consideration,” these are attacks on a translator’s competency. Besides, how does anyone who is outside the translation committee know what was considered? They can’t.

4. We must respect translation philosophies

This doesn’t mean we have to like them; it means we need to discuss translation theory at the level of theory. Instead of saying that the NIV “omits” certain words, we should debate the real issue: “Is meaning conveyed more by words or by sentences?” Rather than say the ESV would “get it right” if they, in essence, became functional, the debate should be done at the level of translation theory.

I spent special time on the issue of word choice. Some translation decide to flatten the English language, both vocabulary and grammatical. This is not right or wrong. There were many examples in Mark’s paper where he said the ESV just wasn’t English (e.g., “For necessity laid upon me”), but of course it is English. It just isn’t colloquial English.

5. Keep Separate Things Separate

So often many issues are clumped together under the one issue of how to use “man” and “he.” But these issues should be kept separate.

  • Most agree that viewing God as “Father” is a different situation
  • Many agree that the use of “son” is different when the implications of full inheritance are at play
  • The use of a singular “he” in Messianic passages like Ps 34:32 is different

Other things need to be separated as well. It is frustrating to hear people say, “Jesus said ‘brother,’ not ‘brother and sister.’” Actually, he never said “brother”; he said αδελφος. Keep English and Greek separate.

Exegesis and translation are two different things. Mark has a section where he talks about the ESV’s mistranslation of the genitive, but this has nothing to do with translation theory.

6. Separate Fact from Preference

I was firmer here than anywhere else in the paper. I am tired of hearing people say, “‘Man’ only means ‘he.‘“ This simply is not true, and no matter how many times someone says it, it still is not true. It takes very little observation to see this. Just watch enough football and you will see the ad for the Prius: “Harmony between Man, Nature, and Machine.” A person may not like using “man” to mean “mankind”; a particular subculture may not like it, but that is not the same as saying my preferences should control the language of all subcultures.

7. Not simplify the debate

It is easy to be outside the translation process and see what you think is an inconsistency, and then pronounce it as a mistake. But it is not that simple. The ESV probably had about 50 “rules” that were always in play, and any single verse had many of these rules at play: concordance, euphony, less interpretive, not create misunderstanding, etc. (see my earlier blog on γραμμα). If you are not aware of all the rules, you had better be careful at pronouncing something an error.

This does raise the question of how much this debate can go forward outside the halls of the academy. I am not convinced that non-academic celebrities should be making pronouncements on translation theory.


For the sake of the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world, and because there are so many subcultures populated with people headed to hell, the answer must be, “Yes.” Both formal and functional translations must co-exist.

How? We must play fair. Life is too short, and hell is too hot, to not communicate the gospel to our subculture in language they can understand, whatever be that subculture.

MounceWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek (third edition coming in 2009!), and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at  

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