Crossway Overreach?

[sarcasm on] How in the world did the church ever have any insight in what God was saying in His word without an English translation? [sarcasm off]

Stanley Porter questions the publisher’s recent announcement and at the same time gives insight into why a translation cannot be absolutely definitive.


Crossway recently announced that, after 17 years of cumulative work in establishing a near-perfect English translation of the Bible, a final edition, or Permanent Text, of the English Standard Version was achieved in the summer of 2016. In fact, the ESV translators did not even translate most of the ESV, and hence did not even need to develop a robust translation philosophy for their translation, as the ESV is based on the RSV (Crossway apparently bought the copyright). The ESV “translators” have simply “corrected” or made the RSV to conform to their particular translational or theological agenda (is it legitimate to call a translation one’s own if over 90% of it was done by someone else, simply by buying the copyright? What if an author bought the copyright of a book by another author, changed less than 10% of it and then put his or her own name on it as author? Recent discussion over the use of other people’s material makes this an interesting question to raise).

Nevertheless, this decision to fossilize the ESV means that no future edition of the ESV will be made, much like the King James Version was solidified in 1769 (after 150 years of use and correction, not 17 years as with the ESV). Of course, we know that followers of the KJV Only movement have contributed greatly to biblical scholarship, especially in the area of textual criticism, so this must be a good idea, right? While the ESV oversight committee and the people at Crossway have the right to make any decision they so desire, there are some serious flaws and concerns that underlie such a decision.

First relates to the possibility of an “accurate” translation. The fact is that no two languages are exactly alike, so a translation is always going to miss (even if a little of) something. As the saying goes, traduttore traditore, which is Italian for “translator traitor.” But even in that statement, the pun is lost in the English translation! Anyone who is multilingual knows that there are certain sayings, even words, in one language that just do not translate perfectly into the other language; some call it the property of untranslatability. But it is apparent that “literal word for word” translators are not really aware of this fact. They seem to treat Greek like some secret code that requires translating into English. But let’s be clear, just because a translation doesn’t perfectly convey the original words of Scripture (can any translation?) does not mean it is not a good translation. It just means we should, if we want to be accurate, be realistic about the limitations of any translation.

Second, and related to the first point, this decision betrays a wrong understanding or lack of understanding of how languages work. The problem with a “literal word for word” translation (for at least the part that was done by the ESV people) is that it by necessity views all languages as working essentially the same, as if each language has the same system, just different corresponding lexical items. Such a position, then, views translation like a plug-and-play type of activity; there is a right translation and a wrong translation. Of course there are wrong translations, but there may be several ways of translating a particular phrase or clause. For example, it is typical in Korean, when eating a meal as a guest at someone’s house, to say jal muk get sum ni da, which translated (using a “literal word for word” translation approach) would be I will eat well. Say that the next time you are invited over for dinner somewhere! (You might get a weird look.) What that phrase really means is an expression of thanks for the food, which is conventional in Korean but awkward in English. Consider also the German word Ohrwurm, which literally is earworm in English. But it really refers to when you have a song stuck in your head, like a worm has wriggled itself into your brain through your ear. Try telling someone that you have an earworm in English and see if they get it. The ESV committee really needs to reconsider whether their claim to a “literal word-for-word” approach accurately reflects how languages work. We don’t think it does.

Third is an inappropriate, and even hubristic, misappropriation of 1 Tim 6:20, “guard the deposit entrusted to you.” They state that they were given the responsibility (by God) “to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.” Wait, what? The very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible? First of all, Paul was speaking to Timothy in this passage (context anyone?). The “deposit” is not a reference to Scripture (certainly not a reference to the ESV!) but a broad and general statement for Timothy to guard whatever was given to him, such as the doctrines that Paul taught him for the development of the early church—not to the ESV people to protect their English translation (without any theological or political agenda, mind you). For the ESV committee to apply this Scripture to themselves implies that they believe God has given themthe special responsibility to “protect” and “guard” this infallible and superior translation. Sounds like KJV Only. Sounds elitist. Sounds like a power move, using God’s name to gain support of naïve and gullible people. Shame on them for using manipulative language like that. Or perhaps we should mark 2016 as the year in which God gave for a second time the inerrant English Word of God, and we have the people in the ESV oversight committee and Crossway to thank.

Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.

It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.

— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon

Author: Alex the Less

My education: BA (Bible), M.Div, BBA (HRM). Also, I have been a professional carpenter for about 25 years. Now retired, I have more time to study the bible and write about it.

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