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Denominations and bible translations

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The universal church is divided between denominational lines. A sign of this division is that we differ in the translation we prefer to read in our pews and pulpit. For example, in evangelical churches, the NIV generally reigns supreme. In “Word of Life-type” of pentecostal-charismatic churches, the NKJV is widely used in study. In mainline churches, e.g., Episcopal/Anglican, Presbyterian-USA, ELCA-Lutheran, the weekly staple of lectionary readings are usually taken from the NRSV/RSV. In the Roman Catholic Church, the NAB is the officially approved translation. In conservative evangelical churches where the bible is studied in-depth, the NASB is king. In ultra conservative churches, the KJV is considered the only “true” word of God. Forgive me for making these broad generalizations but my purpose behind making these generalizations is to show that there is a relationship between denominations and bible translations. No matter how hard we may try to deny this, there is, at least, an ounce of truth in this.
This was first made most plain and visible to me when I first began to attend seminary. In my seminary, a Lutheran seminary, the NRSV was the only translation I had ever heard read from during chapel services. Believe it or not, the NIV is almost seen as a foreign translation, even a despised one by some Lutherans with liberal tendencies. This was rather disappointing for me when I started seminary. However, I am sure that this same bias also exists in conservative evangelical seminaries. I am almost certain that the NRSV or NAB would never be read in a conservative evangelical or pentecostal seminary/bible college. Many evangelicals have never even heard of the NRSV. The NAB and Jerusalem Bible are also rarely or never read from in evangelical or mainline churches. In conservative evangelical churches, where I have attended most of my life as a young person, the NIV, NLT, NASB, and NKJV were usually the translation of choice. I had never heard of the NRSV or NAB until I started to cross over the great denominational divide to visit some of my mainline and Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. You could imagine the cataclysmic shock I experienced when this naive conservative-charismatic evangelical attended a Lutheran seminary.

So what am I saying? Is there a point to all this? I’m not sure, but one thing I do know is that we, as Christians, are divided along denominational lines and it tends to affect the bible translation we prefer to read from. Our personal theologies and worldviews determine how we translate our bibles, which in turn, also affects the translation we prefer. No matter how hard we may try to deny this, it is true. If we do not see this, we really have our heads stuck in the sand. Our preference in bible translation is proof that we are divided and separated by our personal theologies and worldviews. No, I am not an ecumenist who thinks that we should all be the same and believe in the exact same ideology and theology. And no, I am definitely not an advocate of a one-world church. I admit that I also have a preference of translation, ideology and theology. But what I do advocate is that we ought to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ from different denominations. Behind the different theologies and worldviews, the true universal church may be bigger than what we first thought it was. (logos: Lutheran, Alliance, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, Mennonite)

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32 Comments

  1. Gary Zimmerli says:

    In the UMC I always hear the Word from the NRSV. It’s a mainline church, of course; part of the NCC. Do the denominations in the NCC get a kick-back from them for buying and using that translation?

    The typical UMC member doesn’t know or care what version is used. It’s “the Bible”, that’s all they know. And the pastors just toe the line and use what they’re told to use.

    As a layman I don’t have to do that. I use what I want to use. And it usually isn’t the NRSV.

  2. ElShaddai Edwards says:

    In conservative evangelical churches where the bible is studied in-depth, the NASB is king.

    Isn’t this also where the ESV in making inroads? I know there’s been some discussion that the ESV is impacting NASB sales more than other translations, e.g. T/NIV.

  3. Gary Zimmerli says:

    Good point, ElShaddai. I know in the PCA church I used to be involved in, the pastor and most members were using the NASB, but the ESV was the hot topic of conversation.

    Also, such conservative congregations would typically shy away from such a “controversial” translation as the TNIV, I think.

  4. Kevin says:

    Gary, some pastors might even be quite hesitant of using a different translation just because they’ve always used it. It’s a pity. Profs say students should try to get a global view or see things from a broader perspective but they seem to fail at reading scripture that is different from their own translation.

  5. Kevin says:

    Elshaddai, I think you’re right about the ESV & NASB. The ESV and NASB will battle each other out for their common readership. According to CBA’s rankings I saw on This Lamp, the TNIV isn’t even on the top 10, or at least not yet. I don’t think NASB purists would go for the TNIV.

  6. Anonymous says:

    What’s your point?

    At the church I attend, UMC, they use all different versions of the Bible — I have heard everything from THE MESSAGE to the NKJV.

    But from all the study that I have been able to do, the NASB and the NRSV are the most “acurate” (whatever that means) translations. But, of course, all translations are subject to the biases of the translators.

    Why not look into the issues of divergence and compare the translations.

    One of the reasons that many mainline denominations use NRSV or NASB is because they are gender sensitive, unlike the NKJV or the NIV.

    Could that be part of the reasons for choosing what they use?

  7. Kevin says:

    Anonymous, well that’s great your church uses all different versions. Most churches tend to stick with the translations they are used to. Ex. evangelicals tend to read evangelical translations; Catholics tend to read NAB & Jerusalem; liberal-mainline churches tend to use the NRSV. But I know some mainline congregations that intentionally use the NIV because it is a conservative translation. It all depends on who the pastor is and the theological makeup of the congregation members.

    One of the reasons that many mainline denominations use NRSV or NASB is because they are gender sensitive, unlike the NKJV or the NIV.

    The NASB is definitely not gender-neutral. Actually, the NRSV, TNIV, NLT, Message and to an extent, the ESV are gender-inclusive translations. So I don’t think that is the reason mainline churches read NRSV…or atleast not any longer. I really think it has to do with who the translators were and their theological worldview. When it comes down to it, liberal mainliners don’t trust the theology of conservative evangelicals, and vice-versa. This ultimately affects which bible they are going to read from.

    Why not look into the issues of divergence and compare the translations.

    Yes, comparing translations is good too. Doing this will reveal to us the minute differences and help translators work toward better translations.

  8. Danny says:

    The church I attend (UMC) uses the NIV predominantly for liturgy. I personally use the GNB for self-study because it’s easier to read (English is my third language).

  9. Kevin says:

    Danny, the GNB is a translation that is used in both mainline and evangelical denominations. Eventhough it’s a paraphrase, it’s still reliable and helpful for those who want a translation that is easier to understand. Personally, I really love the New Living Translation(2004) because it’s a translation from the original Greek/Hebrew, and not a paraphrase; and it’s very easy to understand. Today, it has become one of the most read translations. We use the NIV for liturgy in my church too.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Actually from my understanding, the GNB was renamed the GNT partly because people thought it was a paraphrase. However according to the GNT’s preface information, it is actually a translation.

  11. Kevin says:

    Anonymous, thanks for coming by my blog and emailing me too. Yes you are absolutely right about the GNT is a translation. The preface does begin by saying: “The Bible in Today’s English Version is a new translation…” I incorrectly stated it as a paraphrase in my comments when I shouldn’t have. It is unfair and erroneous to call it a paraphrase as so many people do, maybe because no one really expects such a dynamic translation to be a “real translation.” It’s still a great easy-to-read translation. I remember having used it as my main devotional bible when I was in my early teens, mainly because I liked the pictures and it was easy to understand. I’m sure you’ll like reading the GNT.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Kevin. I am enjoying the GNT thus far. Blessings to you and your family in the new year.

  13. L. Wells says:

    “But what I do advocate is that we ought to fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ from different denominations. Behind the different theologies and worldviews, the true universal church may be bigger than what we first thought it was.”

    See, to me this IS ecumenism, in its proper definition, which I support.

    I am Episcopalian, and people in my church tend to use everything from NIV to NRSV (which recently became the official translation in our liturgy, replacing the RSV, as our bishop switched us over to the Revised Common Lectionary). Personally I use many translations,ESV, RSV, NRSV,NKJV,KJV,NASB,NAB,NIV,HCSB. Mostly though, I use the NRSV, and read along with the ESV, since the ESV is not yet printed with the deuterocanonical books (though I`ve heard it will soon be in the works).

    I also would like to say that not all of us Mainliners are liberals, most of the people at my church are conservatives (of course I live in the Bible Belt). I consider myself a conservative leaning moderate. I`m not sure this response was helpful, but thought I`d add my nickel`s worth.

  14. Kevin Sam says:

    L. Wells, I do appreciate your comments. It’s nice to know that there are other mainliners out there who use translations. In my church, many people are also conservative and read the NIV, NLT and the NASB. When I preach using different translations, I believe it gives people an ecumenical feel as well. It also gives us a sense that the church is bigger than our little enclave who huddle around the NRSV.

    I thought the Episcopal Church switched over to the RCL a while ago, did it not?

  15. L. Wells says:

    “I thought the Episcopal Church switched over to the RCL a while ago, did it not?”

    Well yeah it did actually, but things can be so different from one diocese to another, it sometimes takes awhile for a particular bishop to make a decision. I was torn because I still love the old RSV (old habits can be hard to break), but the RCL contains much longer scripture readings which I think is a very positive move.

    My only real reservation about the NRSV over the years has been that I think it went a little too far with the inclusive language. I feel that most of the inclusive language is justified and long over due, but some of it is a stretch, and while it typically doesn`t affect the textual meaning much if at all, it leaves the text sounding…….awkward…….in places.

    Great blog you have here btw, I`m thankful to have stumbled across it, keep up the good work.

  16. neatnik2009 says:

    As an Episcopalian I hear the NRSV in Sunday worship. This is a fine translation, but I find the Revised English Bible (1989) and the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) more literary yet still contemporary (no archaic language). Once I found the word “perfidious” in the REB, for example. I like a Bible version whose translators assumed that I have a reading level above 7th Grade. (Mine is college level.)

    Also, as a quasi-Catholic, I prefer a translation with more than 66 books. This rules out the NIV, which is also bland stylistically.

    Kenneth Taylor
    Lay Eucharistic Minister, St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church, Athens, Georgia
    Diocese of Atlanta

  17. Kevin Sam says:

    Hi Kenneth, it’s funny how the Revised English Bible occasionally used some uncommon vocabulary. Sad to say it could have been updated and improved upon but never was.

    • neatnik2009 says:

      True, the REB is British English, and I read American English. This is why I supplement it with other translations, such as the New Jerusalem Bible, the NRSV, and the Second Catholic Edition of the RSV. And the final edition of the J. B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English is usually quite good, if dated by now and sometimes difficult because of its British English.

  18. Kevin Sam says:

    The J.B. Phillips is one translation I’ve never read. How do you like it?

    • neatnik2009 says:

      Phillips is quite good, especially if one reads the 1972 revision, which is superior to the 1958 edition. His translation gets away from familiar King James phrases, a fact which helps the reader hear the texts anew. Sometimes, though, Phillips is slightly too colloquial for my tastes. Also, some of his references are British, or were modern in 1972, but not in 2010. All things considered, though, to read Phillips alongside another translation helps a Bible study.

  19. Protege Rod says:

    It’s a fact that translations are directly connected to denominations, movements, worldview, church doctrine, church, etc. For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is a conservative, evangelical translation sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. From my research I’ve found that if you determine the organization behind the translation, you’ll determine the intended audience.

  20. Kevin S. says:

    Rod, there’s no doubt about it. The HCSB translation was driven by the SBC. Some don’t like to publicize that but I do think it’s true. It is a translation that has potential like the NIV.

  21. neatnik2009 says:

    Once I read a news story about the Holman Christian Standard Version. It quoted a SB leader saying that the HCSB is a translation the SBC “can control.” Make of that what you will.

  22. Kevin Sam says:

    I think that’s true because SBC does control Lifeway which markets the HCSB.

  23. David Tadlock says:

    Growing up in the Nazarene church (pentecostal-non charismatic) we used KJV. Almost all of my memory of verses is KJV. When I preach, I use the NIV because most of the congregation and pew bibles are NIV. I like to use the NASB if I am going to get word specific in my messages. With the new PDA and Computer based Bibles, it was able to do quick word searches much like a concordance. I found though that sometimes I could not find a particular verse because, I was remembering a particularly spelled word or a particular word from popular songs. As an example, when I looked for the Jerusalem visit that spoke of the rocks crying out, I was unable to find it until I found that the actual Bible word was stone and not rock. I also find that Google is an excellent help in finding Bible verses because of its fuzzy word searches. Overall, I find the use of several translations a valuable thing, even when it poses challenges to my memory.
    I was surprised when I became quite good friends with a Calvinist. I found that his definitions of terms like sin were different from mine. I began to see that it was not so much that we believed differently about God and Christianity as it was that we described it differently and viewed from a different perspective. When they said they sinned in word,thought and deed each day, they were trying to say they were not as much like God as they wanted to be – they were falling short of the Glory of God. When we were saying that we were holy, we were saying that we were much different in our dedication and focus, that we were dedicated to God and changed by Him. They believed they were changed when they were “born again” also; but, they could not bring themselves to ever use the term holy to describe themselves.
    Though a long ways from being an ecumenist, I also wish we Christians could look at each other with less fear and more recognition. If we looked at each other as probable assets who might have new and different insights to the same challenge, we might be able to help each other on this journey.
    Just as my garage is full of tools, my study has 38 paper Bibles, my computer has LOGOS and my PDA has MyBible with many translations. The more I read the more I learn. The more I learn the more I wish I had started my studies earlier.

    • Kevin S. says:

      David,

      It’s funny how reflection on theology can help us see the things from different perspectives, ie., sin and holiness; and that more or less emphasis on different things doesn’t necessarily mean we believe in different things.

      The more I learn the more I wish I had started my studies earlier.

      It’s never too late to learn.

  24. neatnik2009 says:

    I have created three devotional blogs (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, Lent-Easter, and Ordinary Time), all of which follow lectionaries. Part of my discipline is typing out the assigned readings almost all of the time. This practice brings me into intimate contact with the source material, causing me to see things and notice verses I have missed over the years. From time to time to change the translation I use. Now I am typing out of the Second Catholic Edition of the RSV; I also use the NRSV, Goodspeed, Phillips (second edition), The Jerusalem Bible, The New Jerusalem Bible, the Revised English Bible, Beck’s New Testament, and the 1985 TANAKH, of the Jewish Publication Society, among others. Notably I avoid the NIV and its cousins, as well as the ESV and the Authorized Version, for which I have a decided distaste. I also avoid the translations written below the Sixth Grade reading level, for I left Sixth Grade a long time ago. Sometimes I muse that I will see the Dick and Jane Version on a shelf one day: “See Jesus Die.” Really, we ought to raise our reading levels.

    • Kevin S. says:

      Neatnik,

      Really, we ought to raise our reading levels.

      Different strokes for different folks… including some who do really read at a sixth grade reading level. I started at KJV, then down to GNT, now NRSV (and NLT).

  25. protegerod says:

    Good points Kevin S. Even though I understand neatnik2009’s observations, I don’t agree with them totally. Yes, we should study and increase our knowledge, understanding, vocabulary, etc. However, older re-versions like the KJV, ASV seem almost ridiculous in places. The 17th-Century Old English just bothers me! Who talks like that! Do we know words like Kerchief, Hungerbitten, Amerce, Concupiscence, Crookbackt, Sodpdoiler, Shigionoth?; you better if you read the KJV. It even has words like Easter and unicorn which are mistranslations.

    The less formal translations serve certain audiences and they are good to use for clarity alongside formal translations. We should be thankful we have different English translations that serve different purposes.

    The KJV is to be respected as one English translation, nothing more, nothing less.

  26. neatnik2009 says:

    My paternal grandmother taught high school English for almost forty years. Through her influence, sometimes direct and other times via my father, I learned to love the English language at its best. I grew up reading great novels and summaries of Shakespearean plays before I read the plays themselves. Know, therefore, that I come naturally to books and an unapologetic preference for literacy. It is natural for me then, to adore the Revised English Bible (1989), which uses works such as “perfidious,” and TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures (1985), which employs a nice vocabulary, including “benighted,” but not Eugene Peterson’s The Message, whose rendering of the magnificent prologue of the Gospel of John has Jesus moving into the neighborhood.

    Maybe this helps explain why I like the Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition, which uses fully modern English (not a “thee” in sight) while providing beautifully crafted sentences with lovely turns of phrase. One can be modern and clear without forsaking poetry and beauty in language.

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