Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

7 Jan 2015

Biblical Inerrancy, Preaching, and Bible Translation


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):

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.

3 Responses

  1. Farewell, Mark Snoeberger. (c;

    More seriously: translations such as the NIV too often effectively sweep aside the writer in the interests of translator-as-mindreader-interpreter-and-improver.

    In such approaches, the translator conceals from English-only readers both designed ambiguities and intepretive questions. He decides what “flesh” means and gives his interpretation as translation (sinful nature). Or he decides an “and” is clunky and, thought it probably is interpretively significant, he simply drops it (Matthew 17:1).

    I won’t even touch the abomination of pluralizing singulars to please the feminist fad; while that may not be inherent in functionalism, it is a dark fruit of it.

    The funcationalist is like a Photoshopper. He has an image of what he thinks the picture (painted by the author) should be, and he adjusts it. So the painter may have included discordant elements precisely to communicate something; but the functionalist reimager doesn’t like the effect, so he Photoshops them out.

    I ran into this constantly writing my book on Proverbs, and translating it as I preached through the first ten chapters. Functionalism removes wordplays and word-tags. While a literal translation is undeniably clunky, it preserves clues Solomon meant readers to see, connections he painstakingly designs. His concerns, however, are lost on the functionalist reimager, who finds them offensive to his sense of smoothness and clarity. So he Photoshops them out.

  2. Mark Snoeberger


    The overused adage that “All translators are traitors” is overused because it is true. Good translators make agonizing syntactical decisions in every sentence they translate from one language to another, and you are absolutely right that they regularly “lose” things in translation–things, sometimes, that don’t need to be lost. So I sympathize with much of what you’ve said.

    But when translators don’t make those syntactical decisions at all (i.e., when they leave the syntax untranslated), and push off all the translational/exegetical decisions onto the reader, I would argue that this is not always a noble thing Sometimes it’s a case of incomplete translation. Yes, it is very “safe,” but it can leave English-only readers (especially those who are linguistically challenged) hopelessly under-informed. The English-only reader often doesn’t even know that there is a syntactical decision to be made, much less the syntactical options available to him, and he ends up dependent on an expert linguist-preacher to complete the translation and disclose to him the meaning of the text.

    What I’m suggesting here is that functional equivalency translations are more complete translations, translating not only the words, but also the language-specific syntactical forms, and thus rendering the meaning more immediately available to the reader. Yes, an “expert” is still involved in the process, but I would contend that this is better than giving a reader an ambiguous reading and no available means of discovering the meaning of the text. This leaves the reader not only baffled and detached in his reading, but also vulnerable to bad translations and sometimes even disinclined to read his Bible at all.

    Of course you are right that there are all sorts of language-specific rhetorical/poetic devices, idioms, meter, word soundalikes, word orderings, and syntactical emphases that are inevitably “lost in translation” (especially when translating poetry). This is true of all translation “theories” to a greater or lesser degree. It is an enormous challenge to reconstruct them as reasonable English equivalents–and often impossible (I’m still looking for a formal translation that includes “all the words”–not a single one includes those myriad Hebrew particles that mark off the direct object. They’re words too, aren’t they?). For very advanced readers, it makes some sense to leave more of these original devices in place, because such readers are equipped to reconstruct the original and make cogent deductions about them. But for most readers, these devices obfuscate meaning rather than reveal it.

    In the end, I don’t think that there is a single translation that is perfectly suited to everyone. But I would opine that a functional equivalency like the NIV or HCSB comes closer to that ideal for the range of people with whom I rub shoulders on a daily basis.

  3. Thanks so much for the interaction, Dr. Snoeberger. It’s kind of you to take the time! You make very good points, to most of which I wouldn’t give a “No” as much as a “Yes, but…”

    Having done it informally for the purpose of teaching and preaching for a few decades, I’d be the last to argue that translation is easy. And it is impossible to avoid making interpretive decisions “behind the curtains” without alerting English readers. My inclination, however, is to make as few as possible.

    Even more, when I see an author making a point, I want the English reader to see it. Preaching through Proverbs 1-11 meant pouring delightful hours into the Hebrew text and translating it. I saw tags and links and delightfully artistic touches I’d never noticed previously. Most of them are impossible to see in any English version, and completely lost in more dynamic versions. So I offered a very literal ad hoc version for the purpose of the sermons only, to make it easier to show the saints the artistry of Solomon’s text.

    But some completely defeated me. I recently spent hours trying to figure out how to show in English the exegetically significant (to my mind) wordplay between the uses of ephistemi in 2 Tim. 4:2 and 6 — but I was defeated, and had to footnote and explain it.

    My objection still is twofold: (1) That EVV so often don’t even seem to try (e.g. dokimazo/adokimos in Romans 1:28); and (2) That formal/dynamic versions make SO MANY decisions and alterations without note.

    In sum, if it were called “New International Targum” (to say nothing of “New Living Targum”), I’d have much fewer squawks. But they aren’t, so I do.

    Thanks again, and God bless you in your labors.

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