The theme of this year’s Reformation Hymn Festival is sola Scriptura—”Scripture alone.” Sola Scriptura was one of the great principles of the Protestant Reformers, who wanted all Christian doctrine and the whole Christian life to rest on the solid foundation of God’s Word. Over against the Roman Catholic Church, which based its theology on both Scripture and tradition, the Reformers put their trust in Scripture alone.
One of the first things that the Reformers had to do was translate the Bible into words that people could actually understand. Men like Martin Luther believed that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; ESV). However, at the time of the Reformation, the Word of God was only available in Latin, the language of scholars. Although several attempts had been made to translate parts of the Bible into English—most notably by John Wycliffe—the vast majority of Christians had never read any portion of the Bible in their own language.
Even among the clergy biblical illiteracy was widespread. On one occasion the English Reformer William Tyndale got into a heated argument with a Catholic priest. He became so frustrated with the man’s ignorance of the Scriptures that he cried out, “I defy the pope and all his laws, and if God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou doest.” Tyndale made good on his promise, translating the entire New Testament and many parts of the Old Testament into common English. This was illegal, and eventually the Catholics burned Tyndale at the stake. But by that time he had rekindled a flame that still burns today—the flame of biblical truth.
We believe that reformation is not a thing of the past, but remains our calling in the present. One example of modern reformation is the ongoing work of Bible translation. Tonight I want to introduce to you a brand new translation that promises to help the church in its ongoing reformation. The new translation, released only this month, is called the English Standard Version, or ESV. I have followed this project closely from its earliest stages because, my father—Dr. Leland Ryken of Wheaton College—served as literary stylist. (I mention this in the interest of full disclosure).
The primary aim of the English Standard Version is to provide precise word-for-word accuracy. This immediately distinguishes it from nearly every other recent English translation. Contemporary Bible translators generally aim for what they call “dynamic” or “functional” equivalence. Instead of simply communicating what the Bible says, they try to explain what it means. For example, the phrase “God is my rock” is translated “God is my firm support.” God is a firm support, of course, and that may be part of what the Bible means, but the problem is that the English reader no longer knows what the Bible says. Or consider another example: In Ephesians 5:2 the New International Version (NIV) exhorts us to “live a life of love.” However, what the Scripture actually says is “Walk in love,” which, among other things, reminds us that the Christian life is a pilgrimage.
The advantage of a word-for-word translation is that it keeps us close to the original biblical text. This is especially important when it comes to understanding some of the classic theological vocabulary of Scripture. The ESV restores the important term “propitiation” (which was removed from the NIV), to the biblical text. Thus Romans 3 reads: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25a). This is one example of the way a more literal translation can help promote sound theology.
The English Standard Version is also superior from the literary standpoint. This is partly because it inherits the rich cadences of the King James Version. The ESV stands in the classic stream of literal Bible translations that began during the Protestant Reformation. This tradition runs from William Tyndale’s New Testament in 1526, through the King James Version (KJV) in 1611, to the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of 1952 and 1971. The King James Version has always been the best translation for public reading because the scholars who produced it had had an ear for spoken English, and thus carefully alternated between stressed and unstressed syllables. The English Standard Version retains the dignity and beauty of the King James Version.
At the same time, the ESV is partly based on the Revised Standard Version, or RSV. The RSV is an excellent translation. Among other things, it updates some of the old-fashioned language of the KJV. However, evangelicals have always rejected the RSV, mainly because the liberal scholars who produced it mistranslated some key biblical texts. But when the editors at the evangelical publishing house Crossway Books were given the opportunity to revise the RSV, they jumped at the chance. For the past several years a team of evangelical scholars has carefully scrutinized every word in the Bible to produce a literal and literary translation for all of life.
I have only just begun to use the English Standard Version for my own personal Bible reading. It is still too early to tell, but I hope it is the translation I have been waiting for all my life. In fact, I have such a strong desire to prefer the ESV that I am trying to be especially cautious, even suspicious. I encourage you to get a copy and make your own evaluation. But then I would encourage you to read a copy of any decent English translation. The reformation of the church always begins with reading the Bible. If you study the Bible every day, then you are making a personal commitment to sola Scriptura. Indeed, in your own quiet way, you are working for a modern reformation.
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