As a conservative instructor at a conservative school, I occasionally meet with surprise that I use and love my NIV Bible. Classed by most as coming from the “functionally equivalent” school of Bible translation, the NIV has long been viewed with skepticism by many in the fundamentalist community, and has fallen on hard times among conservative evangelicals as well, picking up critics like John Piper, Leland Ryken, and others.
I’ll frankly concede up front that the publishers of the NIV have not helped themselves in the past decade by being a bit “stealthy” (the whole TNIV fiasco) and more culturally driven, at times, than is prudent; still, I remain sympathetic to the idea of the functional equivalency theory of translation. My primary sympathies derive not from the fact that functionally equivalent translations are simpler or easier to read (though they often are), but because I am convinced that this theory has the potential to produce the very most accurate translations—more accurate sometimes even than formal or literal translation theories. And as an inerrantist, I am extremely interested in accurate translation.
A few years back, the late Rod Decker published an exceptional article on this topic that confirmed me in this understanding, and I’d like to take a few moments to honor his memory by rehearsing a few of his arguments (mixed together with some commentary of my own):
(1) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for idioms (not that formal equivalency has no answer to this problem, but its answer is simply to say these are exceptions to the normal rules of word-for-word translation).
(2) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the extremes of highly paratactic languages (enormously long strings of independent clauses connected by “and,” such as is common in Hebrew) and highly hypotactic languages (enormously long strings of dependent clauses connected by a variety of logical connecting devices, such as is common in Greek). Of course, this sometimes leaves functionally equivalent translations in the unenviable position of not including “all the words” (drawing ire, for instance, from John Piper in this video clip), but it also explains why this is sometimes warranted, viz., because transitions of thought and speech are often not identical when one language is converted to another.
(3) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the problem of non-SVO languages (subject-verb-object) without producing translations that sound faintly like Yoda is reading the Bible.
(4) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the problem of non-corresponding vocabulary sets between transmitter and receiver languages without opting for arcane or antiquated terms that average readers cannot recognize.
(5) Functional equivalency theory most successfully accounts for the principle that the basic unit of propositional thought is not properly the word, but the clause/sentence.
My point here today is not to criticize formal equivalency in Bible translation or to wish that literal translations will “ride into the sunset” to disappear forever (as Piper did of the NIV). As many have pointed out, those who are familiar with Greek and Hebrew can often “see” the original languages bleeding through formal equivalency translations, making it easier to reconstruct the original and interpret it. For this reason I use formal equivalency translations regularly and with great profit, and promote their use particularly among those with advanced linguistic skills.
Nor have I found that using translations other than my functionally equivalent favorites to be a barrier to preaching or a danger to readers. The differences between formal and functional translations are not great, much less insuperable, but they are real, and I believe that a valid defense of functional equivalency may still be made despite the growing aggregate of arguments against it.