The ESV and the Importance of Biblical Clarity


About 40 years ago I bought my first New American Standard (NAS), a Ryrie Study Bible.  I desired to use that translation based on my desire to have “biblical clarity” in my personal study and public preaching and teaching.  Since introduction, the NAS has been regarded as the best all-around translation considering both accuracy and readability.  This translation is significantly faithful in its accuracy to current biblical scholarship, and provides the most faithful and dependable translation of the biblical writers’ original documents.

  1. Accuracy – Use of the most authoritative Greek & Hebrew manuscripts, translated by a team of respected biblical scholars almost all of whom are committed to a historical/literal/normal hermeneutic, and most associated with schools that would indicate dependable sources of trustworthy biblical scholars.  The NAS has the distinctive of not being influenced by theological and hermeneutical bias as indicated by the makeup of the editorial participants for various other translations.
  2. Readability –  The NAS is an English text that provides both clarity and readability with a balance of fluid word and grammar choice.  The suggestion that the NAS translation is somehow “wooden” seems to be an observation made by someone who has grown up in the woods – this is a weak distraction which can be shown to be an invalid characterization of a beautiful translation.  In fact, the NAS follows the flow of the KJV closely enough to be comfortable to the large majority of English-speaking, Bible-believing Christians today.

There is a remarkable (and I think illogical) groundswell today of vested interest within our American evangelical band of brothers for jumping on the Calvinist/Reformed /Covenant (CRC) “bandwagon”.  That in turn has resulted in these aspiring Reformers needing to possess at least one copy of an English Standard Version (ESV) Bible, the defacto “badge of honor” of said bandwagon.  It is amazing yet not surprising to see this preference to move away for a strong literal approach of Scripture to one of loosely managed allegorical interpretation which results in introducing individual perception and preference into the interpretation.  As I study  and teach God’s Word in various settings, I take seriously my recommendation to those interested in stepping up their strength as students of God’s Word. This article is to provide some summary observations around the  ESV that explain why I do not recommend any use of it other than as a peripheral study source.

I have three basic areas of thought that hopefully will help capture my perspective on these important points of consideration.  I believe I need to start, however, by making a couple of observations regarding the CRC community and it’s distinctive non-dispensational hermeneutic.

CRC Approach to Bible Interpretation
That “band of brothers” which I mention above is a special association of world occupants that I proudly and joyfully claim to be a part of.  We know it as the True Church of Jesus Christ, the remarkable throng of who-knows-how-many millions of brothers and sisters around the world who are truly born again Christians.  They have bowed before God, convicted of their sin, recognized the finished work of Christ on the Cross as God’s accepted payment for the penalty of their sin and through faith humbly received the free gift of salvation given to us by God’s grace alone.  We will rejoice together in heaven for eternity, worshiping at God’s throne, reigning together with Christ.  Wow!  Sorry – I get carried away.  But I am glad to be in that fellowship, and always happy to meet a new friend in that fellowship, even when he or she doesn’t have exactly the same biblical/theological perspective on all points as I do – that’s really ok! None of us are perfect on this earth and our finite minds can only grasp so much.  We can still rejoice in Christ together, here today and in eternity.

However, I am still responsible before God to apply the challenge Paul laid before Timothy (2 Tim. 2:15) to “accurately handle” the Word of God as well as I can with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and  enablement.  To be sure, there are many diverse and loosely defined/recognized associations which our band of brothers identify with.  It is because we are so diverse, not just in America but globally, that there is no way to expect us all to think exactly the same way.  Again, that’s ok.  Our biblical faith (unfettered recognition of the One True God and His Word) in Christ (as the only Way to God) is the single essential benchmark (with agreement that the “fundamentals” of our faith fall within that benchmark as well).

Within that legacy of doctrinal accountability, God has brought me to the place where I  am committed to a an approach to the Bible that bases its method of interpretation (hermeneutic) on what is referred to as a  “literal” translation approach to all of Scripture.  This approach requires an appreciation of a “normal” translation based on analysis  of the word as used in its original language, the Scriptural context of the verse, along with cultural and historical considerations, and an interpretive agreement with all of Scripture.  Simply stated, the Bible translator approaches every passage of Scripture assuming that it should be translated literally unless there is some clear indication in the passage that would indicate an allegorical or “spiritualized”  interpretation is needed.

I have not studied the allegorical approach in depth and do not desire to do an analysis of its essential distinctives here.   Allegorical interpretation looks for a deeper, spiritual meaning within the text. While not necessarily denying that the text has a literal meaning or that the historical incidents reported are true, allegorical interpreters will look for a deeper symbolic meaning and often give it precedence over the literal interpretation.

Applying the literal translation approach leads to key elements of biblical truth that the CRC movement disowns:
– the conclusion that there is a dispensational framework to God’s revelation
– the view of a literal Israel (the Church is not the “spiritual Israel”)
– a pre-tribulation Rapture
   – a pre-millennial interpretation of the Millennium (it has not occurred yet, and it will be when God literally fulfills His final promises to Israel)
– a literal millennial reign of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem on the throne of David.

Note that these are key elements of biblical truth.  Further, the CRC movement seems to attempt to cast the dispensationalist view in a questionable light, uninformed or shallow, often with improper inference to it being in support of Arminianism.  The CRC movement, by my own observation, includes these distinctives (not intended to be a definitive, authoratative or exhaustive list, this, is just my take):

  • A loyalty to the Reformer heritage:  Deeply rooted in the Presbyterian church, this loyalty to the Reformers seemingly takes precedence over more developed biblical agreement that has occurred since the 5th century – reference to them is done in such reverential tones that it could almost trump all other opinions.  This loyalty seems to ignore the realities of how heavily influenced the Reformers would have been by the cultic errors of the Catholic church.  This strong link to the Reformers also sometimes seems bring with it a tendency towards high church liturgy and trappings – things observed at the core of the apostate church.
  • A Covenant approach to Bible interpretation which gives place to a priority of allegorization.   As stated above, I believe that a biblical approach to studying Scripture requires an assumption of a literal interpretation unless the passage clearly indicates that there should be an allegorical meaning.  We should not set aside these priorities just because the resulting interpretation doesn’t align with our expectations for such things as a literal Millennium and a clear separation of Israel and the Church throughout Scripture, yet Covenant theology is committed to a spiritualized Israel and Millennium.
  • A strong Calvinist approach to salvation doctrine:   the Five Points of Calvin as referenced by the “TULIP” outline of core salvation truths, supposedly to stand apart from Arminian views – which is confusing to me since I definitely don’t agree with Arminianism.  There are issues with the Calvinist 5 points, some more significant than others.  Limited Atonement

The CRC Badge of Honor
With a general sense of my caution regarding CRC theological perspectives, I now come to the point of this article: Why I don’t encourage the use of the ESV, which can be expressed in three points:  Can we trust it?  Do we need it?  Should I use it?

  • Trust
    • The translation’s introduction emphasizes its roots in the Revised Standard Version, a product of the American and World Councils of Church, which are understood to be completely liberal, apostate organizations.  Biblical scholarship for decades has considered the RSV to be a weak, and in some cases erroneous translation.  It is amazing for it to be honored as the precursor for what is intended to be a biblical translation.
    • Senior Editor for the translation, the one who has trumpeted the “need” for a new translation, is Wayne Grudem, considered by many to be the foremost reformed theologian today (early 21st century).  Do you think that this editor would enthusiastically represent translation decisions where the perspective of a literal, normal hermeneutic would be considered not in agreement with a reformed/allegorical interpretation (e.g. literal fulfillment of God’s promises to a literal Israel in a literal Millennium which follows a literal Tribulation)?
    • Taking the time to review the people who are complete of broad spectrum editorially…………………..
  • Need
    • Full Adequacy of the NAS
    • Descriptions for the ESV of “updated” and “readable” are just marketing ploy
  •  Value
    • I will maintain my dispensational distinctive and not confuse observers
    • I will seek out the best translation based on sound criteria
    • No investment needed
    • Avoid it?