Why Plenary Inspiration Does NOT Favor “Essentially Literal” Bible Translation

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004.  Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV).  Although I’m a decade or so late to the party, I will be writing a series of posts on this volume.  This is part 1, covering Wayne Grudem’s chapter “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors ‘Essentially Literal’ Bible Translation.”

Summary of Grudem’s Argument

Wayne Grudem launches this book with an argument of staggering significance: if we believe plenary inspiration, that every word of Scripture is inspired by God, then “essentially literal” Bible translations are more compatible with the teachings of Scripture.  If his conclusions are true, then God has placed his stamp of approval on essentially literal translations, and the debate over Bible translation theory and methodology among evangelicals is over.  Virtually any other argument for dynamic equivalence Bible translations is moot.  Secular translation theory may apply to other texts, but not the Bible, becase it is not morally or spiritually “neutral.”

Grudem begins with a concise but clear treatment of plenary inspiration.  Passages like 2 Tim. 3:16 and 2 Pet. 1:20-21 emphasize the divine origin of Scripture, as words that are “breathed out” by God.  Lest anyone think such passages are referring to the overall message and not the individual words, Grudem points out several passages where the words are important, such as Matt. 4:4, where “Man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and Rev. 22:18-19, which warns against adding to or removing from the words written in the book.  He also points out that on occassion, Jesus and other NT authors call attention to very small details in specific texts (e.g. Matt. 22:41-45).  His conclusion is that every word of Scripture is from God and is completely trustworthy.  (For the record, I agree with Grudem on the doctrine of plenary inspiration.)

If each word of Scripture is so important, he argues, then as translators we must translate “the meaning that each word contributes” to a sentence.  This is the primary aim of essentially literal translations.  Grudem provides this definition for this approach: “An essentially literal translation translates the meaning of every word in the original language, understood correctly in its context, into its nearest English equivalent, and attempts to express the result with ordinary English word order and style, as far as that is possible without distorting the meaning of the original.”  Elsewhere, he explains, “Essentially literal translations will place a high emphasis on translating every word of the original, as opposed to dynamic equivalence translations, which emphasize translating the thoughts more than the individual words.”  In Grudem’s assessment, this approach fits better within the doctrine of plenary inspiration because it focuses on the words themselves.

Problem #1: Essentially Literal Translations Regularly Break Their Own Rules

The bulk of Grudem’s chapter sets out to show how dynamic equivalence translations regularly break the rules established by the essentially literal translation philosophy by either adding meaning to the text, or removing meaning represented by certain words.  However, many of Grudem’s examples don’t in fact prove his points.  An additional irony is that some of these examples demonstrate that the ESV and other essentially literal translations break these rules themselves.

For example, Grudem draws attention to the Greek word orgē in Rom. 13:4, translated ‘wrath’ in the ESV: “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Translations like the NLT and NCV omit the word ‘wrath’ in favor of the verb ‘punish.’  Grudem argues that these dynamic equivalence translations omit meaning in using the word punish, because orgē is linked with Rom. 12:19, which speaks about God’s wrath.  By using the word ‘punishment,’ these translations are representing the primary meaning, but omitting a clear reference to God’s wrath.  The problem in his argument is that the meaning of the word orgē has not been omitted in the NLT and NCV, but has been represented by a different English word, “punishment” in the NLT and NCV.  This is an acceptable translation of the lexical meaning of orgē in this context.  While most would agree that God’s wrath is in view in Rom. 13:4, there is debate about whether God’s wrath or general punishment is primarily in focus.  The Greek text does not explicitly state that this is “God’s” wrath.  The ESV here inserts the word “God’s.”  This is an interpretive decision.  If the ESV is following the motto “As literal as possible, as free as necessary,” adding the word “God’s” is breaking this rule.  This is exactly the kind of interpretive activity that Grudem accuses dynamic equivalence translations of in the following section about adding components of meaning that are not in the original text.  Grudem later suggests that dynamic equivalence translations should be read as commentary, interpretation, or explanation. He ignores the fact that the ESV also explains and interprets on a regular basis.

There are many other examples of the “rule-breaking” exhibited by essentially literal translations, which others have already brought to light.  Dave Brunn’s recent book One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? provides a multitude of examples in chart form, demonstrating that not only do essentially literal translations regularly exhibit the qualities of dynamic equivalence translations, but in many verses they are more thought-based than translations like the NLT or TEV.

I personally agree with some of Grudem’s critiques of specific verses in dynamic equivalence translations, not because they “added” or “removed” a word, but because they truly failed to account for the meaning a particular word contribtued to a verse.  The dynamic equivalent approach is not perfect, nor is it perfectly executed.  But neither is the essentially literal approach.  If, as Grudem argues, the essentially literal philosophy of translation is required by plenary inspiration, and if, as I have demonstrated, the ESV breaks these rules, then the ESV cannot be trusted as the Word of God and is no better than the dynamic equivalence translations he criticizes.

Problem #2: The Argument for Essentially Literal Translation Based on Plenary Inspiration is Flawed

The logical conclusion stated above is not my own, because the first premise is flawed.  Plenary inspiration does not in fact favor an essentially literal approach.  I affirm that every word is important and inspired, yet it is very possible to hold to the importance of words, while at the same time prioritizing meaning.  While words do carry lexical meaning, it is when they occur in combination with one another that broader contours of thought are formed.  Each word is still vitally important in contributing to that larger thought.  The difficulty in translation is that both the words and the way in which they combine differ from one language to another.  Copying “nearest English equivalents” for each word will inevitably result in miscommunication, even if steps are taken to “express the result with ordinary English word order and style.”  Meaning-based translations do not neglect the importance of words.  They affirm their importance in the role that words play in constructing meaningful thought, and recognize the reality that each language has its own ways of combining words.  Often to express the right meaning, a translation must deviate from the nearest English equivalent to get the job done.  This does not mean that the words of the original text are unimportant.  It simply means that languages differ from one another.

In his seminal book The Semantics of Biblical Language, James Barr lamented the tendency of biblical scholars to place too much emphasis on individual words.  Barr argued that meaning is expressed in larger linguistic structures, as words combine and interact with one another.  This isn’t a fringe notion that Nida borrowed in his works on translation.  It has become a standard hermeneutical principle in biblical studies, but it seems that old habits die hard.  Doug Moo, in his article “We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr,” argues that many evangelical biblical scholars and translators are still not consistently honoring these basic principles.  They are affirmed in theory, but in practice are often ignored.

I think that Grudem understands at some level that this is the way language works.  His approval of thought-based decisions in the ESV evidence this. But he is a theologian more than he is a linguist, and somehow his commitment to plenary inspiration prevents him from wholly embracing these linguistic realities.  If we follow his logic to its fullest conclusion, we’d have to say that plenary inspiration prohibits translation altogether.  Translation by nature is adding to and removing from the text.  All of the words are being removed, and an entirely new set is being added in their place.  Even nearest lexical equivalents have different semantic ranges that add and subtract meaning.  To state it succinctly, dynamic equivalence isn’t to blame.  Translation is.  As the saying goes, “Translation is treason.”

Why translate then?  To make the text more meaningful to people reading.  If we’re going to change the words even a little, a precedent has been set, allowing for greater formal change for greater understanding.  In the end, both essentially literal and dynamic equivalence translations accomplish the same things.  They change the words.  They interpret.  They bring a foreign text closer to a new audience.

In summary, dynamic equivalence translations are just as aware and respectful of plenary inspiration as their essentially literal counterparts.  Labeling dynamic equivalence translations as inferior “skillful free interpretations” misrepresents both the nature of plenary inspiration and the nature of linguistics and translation, issues that I think Grudem and I ultimately agree on, even if our practices aren’t consistent with our philosophy.

Conclusion

Essentially literal and dynamic equivalence translations differ in their approach, but I will not argue that one is better than the other.  Both regularly deviate from their stated methodology.  Both honor the doctrine of plenary inspiration.  Both attempt translation ultimately to communicate meaning.  Both are successful and fail in their own ways.  These approaches are complementary, and each has its own use.  For those who don’t have knowledge of the biblical languages, I would suggest reading a variety of translations.  Noting the differences will provide much greater insight than using one translation exclusively, as no translation will fully communicate the whole meaning of the original text.  No other language has such a wealth of Bible translations available.  Why not use them instead of limiting ourselves to the strengths and weaknesses of just one?

10 thoughts on “Why Plenary Inspiration Does NOT Favor “Essentially Literal” Bible Translation

  1. A good reflection on this issue, Ben. I was thinking as well, that the caveat “as far as that is possible without distorting the meaning of the original” in Grudem’s definition leaves too much room. Who decides when it’s not possible? There is no standard for when it’s possible and when it’s not. Your conclusion is right on – if we hold that each word is somehow special, translation itself is not possible.

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  2. Good point, Jono. I’m also not exactly sure what they mean by “meaning” in that statement. Are they still talking about lexical meaning, or broader meaning? Their emphasis is usually on lexical meaning, but I suppose the ambiguity of this statement gives them liberty to interpret it how they want, which they regularly do.

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  3. Great post. The best translation is a different one than what you read last year. Insisting on the use of only a single translation is like forbidding a teacher to ever rephrase a statement when a student asks for clarification. It may or may not be high principled, but it certainly sabotages communication.

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  4. Ben, I teach Greek and Latin for a living, and (while I’m not sure I’m on the Plenary Inspiration bandwagon) I agree that the “essentially literal” approach is problematic for all the reasons you mention. Multiple translations are so helpful. And the thing that seems to be omitted from the discussion by proponents of “essentially literal” translations as well as “dynamic equivalents” is that a) every translation is a reflection of the translator(s) attempt to reflect what they think the original text means and b) none of the translators of the Bible are native speakers of the Biblical languages! So it follows that any translation is hampered by these two (and many other) issues. Translation is treason . . .

    An interesting side question would be how evangelizing fits into the questions of “inspiration.” If many (most?) people get saved through a message, a paraphrase, a summary of the gospel, is that message inspired? And how does that inspiration relate to the inspiration of scriptures? Grudem seems to assume that θεόπνευστος is something that only applies to the Bible. The term is used among early church fathers and bishops to speak of their own or each others words. Does Grudem give the term a special meaning for the Biblical books that it doesn’t have for other works? Or do we discard the early Christian writings because they are not scripture?

    I hope I do not run on too long, but I would also add that Grudem is arguing about inspiration from the perspective of a closed canon, but the texts he cites are written before a closed canon: 2 Timothy 3:16 is about the Old Testament canon (which arguably is not yet closed to this day), Revelation is talking about itself . . . and arguably is talking about the content not the individual words (poor scribes who made scribal errors if that is the case!). Anyways, if you haven’t had a chance, I would pick up the book Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Age by Richard N. Longenecker, which addresses not only the use of scripture by those in the apostolic age, but also the nature of the manuscripts and the pluriform nature of the texts. It certainly gives food for thought to those who are tied to finding the “original text” through textual criticism. And textual criticism itself does not give us “assured results” as to the original text. How can plenary inspiration be helpful if God has not even given us an original text to work with? No manuscript has the original text in word-perfect form (nor do the results of textual criticism). Or am I misunderstanding what is meant by plenary inspiration? Anyways, that is why I prefer to see inspiration as something that is ongoing, whereby God is leading is church by the power of the Holy Spirit. He did inspire scripture, but he has kept the exact words from us for some reason – maybe so we would not rely too slavishly on them, but try to understand the main points. [That said, as for any text, I still think textual criticism vital and valid. For no text, secular or sacred, should we be content with endless corruptions. But neither should we be deluded into thinking we have the original text, if there is but one.]

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    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. These are good points. I would also add that the NT authors often quoted or referred to the Septuagint, so a case could be made that the OT text they considered inspired was a translation itself.

      Regarding the original manuscripts, I don’t think that most who hold to plenary inspiration are bothered that we don’t have original manuscripts. In our view, textual criticism has given us a text that is very reliable, and most variants that are in question aren’t theologically significant.

      I’ll add the Longenecker book to my reading list! Sounds very interesting.

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      • Thank you for your reply. I am interested to know why plenary inspiration doesn’t have problems with the fact that we don’t have the exact words of scripture. I thought every word matters and contributes to meaning . . . How can the fact that what we have is reliable but not word-perfect be enough in such a scheme? If you have any literature that you would like to point me to, feel free. BTW it is of interest to me that every word both in Hebrew and Greek can refer to “concept” (thing) or “argument”.

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  5. It seems that Grudem’s point about plenary inspiration and every word of God should highly encourage people to learn the biblical languages, rather than favor one particular translation style. If even essentially literal translations break their own rules, then, as has been said before, translation is treason. But not everyone is (or should be) a biblical language scholar. So, if you don’t have the years necessary to devote to refining your Koine Greek (and Hebrew, and Aramaic!), then the best solution is to have a set of different translations, looking at all of them when studying the Bible, some more literal, and others more dynamic or “meaning-based”.

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