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.


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?

Χριστός in Matthew 1

Matthew’s gospel begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (ESV).  Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ appears in this particular form 105 times in the New Testament.  Most translations exclusively translate this as ‘Jesus Christ’ or an equivalent transliteration, as it normally functions as the name of Jesus.  This construction presents no problem when looking at it in isolation.  However, a look at Matthew’s broader theological purposes reveals that a simple transliteration may not be the best practice here.

Some Background on Χριστός

Χριστός is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word māšîah used in the LXX.  It means ‘anointed person.’  In the OT, anointing signified the Lord’s “initiative, election, and commission” for a particular task.  Most often it would be kings who were anointed, but there were also anointed priests and prophets.  We see an many anointed kings in the Psalms.  Interestingly, none of these passages refer to a future king who will restore or redeem Israel.  What seems to have happened is that because the ideal expressed in the Royal Psalms was left unfulfilled, these passages were later interpreted to refer to the future Davidic ruler predicted by the prophets.  Though the prophets never used the term māšîah in their predictions, it eventually became a title for this expected Davidic ruler.

While māšîah/Χριστός became a title, it was not widely used before the time of Jesus.  In fact, expectations of a coming redeemer/deliverer/king within Judaism were by no means uniform.  There was variety in the type of person or being who was expected, what their role or rule would look like, how long it would last, and what this person was called.  māšîah was just one title that was used.  It was the first Christians who emphasized Jesus as the Messiah.

A Name or a Title?

As Jesus became increasingly known as the Messiah, Χριστός became attached to Jesus’ name in the forms Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ or Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, whereas before, it usually occurred alone as a title, most often with the definite article.

There is disagreement about whether Χριστοῦ is a name or a title when it occurs with Ἰησοῦ.  Some argue that it should be treated as a name in these places, because many of the early Gentile converts probably would have understood Χριστός as no more than a name, especially considering its similarity in form and pronunciation to the common Greek name Χρηστός.  Others argue that even as a name, it still carried the meaning of “Anointed One.”  According to Tim Farrell, even Gentiles would have understood its basic derivation and at least been aware of some kind of titular usage, even if they didn’t fully understand the concept.  He also rightly argues that names in NT times carried much more meaning than our names today.  His conclusion is that Χριστός should always be translated as a title.  A meaningless transliteration is not enough.

Farrell’s assessment leaves me wondering how far he would take this conclusion.  Would he advocate translating other names with obvious meanings?  Would he suggest translating Πέτρος as ‘the Rock’?  Always translating the meaning of names could get out of hand, drawing attention to meaning that wasn’t in focus in a particular passage.  We have to consider if the meaning of the name is in focus in a particular instance.  For example, in Matt.1:21, the angel speaking to Mary draws attention to the meaning of the very common name Ἰησοῦ.  Most of the time, however, the meaning of that name is not in focus.  Farrell argues that the meaning of Χριστός is in focus more often than we might think, but not always.

In summary, the line between Χριστός as a title and as a name is a blurry one.  It may have carried more meaning to some than to others, and the meaning of the name may have been in focus to varying degrees when it was used.  Therefore, many translators opt to translate the meaning of Χριστός when the title is in focus, and to transliterate when it is mainly being used to refer to someone.  I think this is a decent approach, although I am left partly dissatisfied, because there is an underlying unity that is lost.

Translating Χριστός as a title

I’ve seen three basic options to translating Χριστός as a title:

1) Add a definite marker to a transliteration of Χριστός.  This won’t communicate the meaning, but it may at least indicate that this is a title, not just a name.

2) Transliterate “Messiah” if that will communicate better.  This is really only better than the first option if people already have familiarity with the term “Messiah” from exposure to Christianity or other Bible translations.

3) Translate the meaning of Χριστός using vernacular terms. I have seen few translators attempt this in my context, as options 1 or 2 seem to work well for them.

Translating Χριστός in Matthew 1:1

Returning to Mathew 1:1, let’s assume that we are taking the dual approach of translating Χριστός distinctly as a name in some places, and as a title in others.  The presence of Χριστοῦ alongside Ἰησοῦ with no definite article might suggest that this is simply a name.  However, if we remove ourselves from our tunnel vision for a moment and look at Matthew 1 as a whole, we see that the aim of this genealogy is to show that Jesus is the son of David, son of Abraham, the expected Messiah.  In v. 17, we even see the definite article used with Χριστός.  Clearly, Matthew is drawing attention to the titular meaning of Χριστός.  R.T. France says in his commentary on Matthew, “The colorless translation ‘Jesus Christ’ here and in v. 18 in many English versions does not do justice to the excitement in Matthew’s introduction of Jesus under the powerfully evocative title ‘Messiah,’ the long-awaited deliverer of God’s people, in whom their history has now come to its climax.”  The NLT shows an awareness of these issues, translating  Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as “Jesus the Messiah” not only in this verse, but also in Matt. 1:18 and Mk. 1:1.  In my assessment, this kind of more meaningful  translation is a better option in such verses.  Transliterating Χριστός as a name simply misses the primary thrust of Matthew’s argument.


‘Χριστός’ in BDAG.

De Jonge, Marinus.  ‘Messiah.’ Anchor Bible Dictionary.

Farrell, Tim. “Christos – ‘Mr. Christ or the Anointed One of God.’ Notes on Translation 12:4 (1998).

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007. The New International Commentary on the New Testament.

“You Said It” – Assent or Ambiguity?

“You said it.” Jesus gives this peculiar answer to a number of yes/no questions in the gospels. Most of them occur in response to questions about his identity, although one is a response to Judas asking if he will be the one to betray him. Jesus’ answer to Pilate occurs in all four gospels. His answer in Matt. 26:64 contrasts with the parallel Mk. 14:62, where Jesus answers with a clear affirmative, “I am.” There are some variations in the wording. Sometimes the verb is aorist, other times it is present. Two of them restate part of the question asked. Nevertheless, the basic pattern is consistent.

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Assent or Ambiguity?

Is this type of answer to be taken as a clear affirmation, an ambiguous, dodging the question kind of answer, or something else? Some would argue that this was a common Rabbinic or Jewish formula indicating clear assent. The focus on you would have the sense of either affirming the person’s words as correct, or possibly drawing attention to the fact that it was that person who forced the answer. Others argue that in some cases this is a “qualified” affirmation. For example, Jesus is telling Pilate that he is a king, but not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. A third option is that the lack of an explicit yes indicates ambiguity. In all of these verses this would amount to a veiled affirmation. Nowhere is this a possible denial. The real answer is clearly yes, but Jesus appears reluctant to give an explicitly positive answer.

One clue as to the intended meaning comes from the way people responded to this kind of answer in the text. In Matthew 26:25, Jesus’ response to Judas appears to be ambiguous – a veiled affirmation. Judas would have understood, but the other disciples show no evidence of comprehension. In Lk. 22:71 and Matt 26:65, the elders, chief priests and scribes clearly take Jesus’ words as an affirmation that he is indeed the Son of God. Luke’s account reads, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.” However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus’ answer itself was clear. These people had already shown that they were looking for a way to trap him in his words so they could accuse him of a crime. For them, an ambiguous or veiled answer would be just as useful as a clear one. In Lk. 23:3 it is not clear how Pilate understands Jesus’ response, but either way he does not see it as enough to convict Jesus of a crime worthy of death.  The parallel John 8:37 contains a similar answer, which in its own context comes across as more clearly affirmative, with Jesus’ mention of “my kingdom” in v.36.

The evidence within the text is very limited, but of the possible interpretive options a veiled or guarded affirmation seems most likely. Many commentators argue for the “qualified affirmative,” although I don’t see much direct evidence for it in the text. True, Jesus was not the kind of king Pilate had in mind. He made this clear in John 18:36. But is this what Jesus was calling attention to in his response, or did he simply want to avoid giving a direct answer? I am sure that a review of extra-biblical texts would provide more information to go on, and would also allow me to assess the credibility of the theory that this kind of answer is a Rabbinic or Jewish formula for clear assent.

Translating a Veiled Affirmative

Most English translations agree with my tentative conclusion, avoiding a clear yes answer in their renderings. NIV84 is one exception. For example, Matt 27:11 is rendered, “Yes, it is as you say.” However, the 2011 edition has changed it to the ambiguous “You have said so.” However, in other languages, a literal you said it answer may or may not work. Even in English, I think it would most often convey clear affirmation. For all we know, speakers of other languages could take a you said it response as a no answer, along the lines of you said it, not me. I wouldn’t say that. Translators must consider how they would naturally respond affirmatively in a “veiled” way to a yes/no question, if this is the interpretation they are following. In English, I think of the rather formal sounding, “I can neither confirm nor deny…” that you might hear when someone wants to conceal the truth about something. I rather like the Message’s “If you say so.” Both of these options might be too noncommittal, though I suppose they could be construed as a yes answer by some. In any case, this is a good example of why translators need to give priority to considering what people will infer from a statement over the translation of individual words or propositions.