“Why our church switched to the ESV” (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  April 19, 2013

In 2011 Kevin DeYoung wrote a little tract titled “Why our church switched to the ESV.” I could only think if two reasons why someone would write and publish a tract of that nature (available also in PDF for wide distribution).

1. To defend a decision against criticism. But I doubt anybody much cares what translation of the Bible DeYoung’s church uses. His own congregation didn’t much care as the switch from NIV to ESV went “without controversy.”

2. To influence others to make the same decision. This seems to be the main purpose, and so we’ll consider its merits.

DeYoung wisely reminds us that many English translations sufficiently communicate God’s word, but that not all translations are considered equal. Because his church switched from the NIV to the ESV, the bulk of the booklet is made up of carefully selected text comparisons between those two translations.

It should be noted in passing that since his church made the decision to switch before the new NIV2011 edition, most of the comparisons use – with one notable exception – the NIV84.

In his carefully selected booklet of NIV-ESV comparisons DeYoung seeks to show that

  1. the ESV is more literal (“essentially”);
  2. that it is more “transparent” (allowing more room for the reader to interpret);
  3. the ESV engages in less “over-translation” (in his estimation the NIV adds words unnecessarily);
  4. the ESV engages in less “under-translation” (the NIV avoids theological terms);
  5. the ESV is more consistent in translating a Greek or Hebrew word or thought in any given context or book;
  6. the ESV retains more of the literary quality of the Bible;
  7. the ESV requires much less “correcting” when preaching;
  8. the ESV better translates 2 Timothy 2:12 than the NIV2011 (in contrast, here, to NIV84).

Anybody moderately versed in the Bible can hold two translations up and compare selected verses to show why one is better than another. The average reader will not have a counter-comparision book on hand which is why she or he should read a book like this with caution.

But there are actually reasons within DeYoung’s own booklet to which the observant reader should be cautious of DeYoung’s argument, even without a counter-comparison book on hand.

Many of the examples DeYoung puts forth are not so much examples of one translation being better than another, but are rather examples of personal preference on DeYoung’s part in which, when it’s convenient, he applies double standards.

For example. DeYoung claims that he prefers the ESV over the NIV because the “ESV leaves interpretative ambiguities unresolved.” An example he uses is 2 Corinthians 2:14 where the ESV translates the phrase agapē tou Christou as “the love of Christ” (which is a literal translation), where the NIV translates it as “Christ’s love.” According to DeYoung, the phrase could mean Christ’s love, or it could mean the love we have for Christ. The NIV removes the ambiguity and interprets the phrase for us while the ESV leaves it open.

Without going into the merits of that argument in that specific example, what I want to do is show you an example where DeYoung is quick to apply a double standard based on his own theological bias.

At the end of the booklet DeYoung takes a look at an example from the NIV2011. In 2 Timothy 2:12 the NIV2011 breaks with the ESV (and NIV84) by translating the word authentein as “to assume authority” rather than “to exercise authority.” DeYoung is baffled as to why the NIV2011 translators would translate authentein as assume rather than exercise, even though some of the translator’s were “complementarian.” That should tell us a lot. 1. The ESV and NIV84 translated that word “exercise,” why would the NIV2011 break that tradition? 2. Especially since, theologically, some of the translators were complementarians, shouldn’t they translate this word accordingly?

What DeYoung is arguing for here is for a traditional complementarian translation of the text which would clearly resolve any interpretative ambiguity in the text. The Greek word   authentein can be translated “exercise” or “assume,” but it is the latter term retains interpretative ambiguity.

While retaining interpretative ambiguity was important to DeYoung in his 2 Corinthians 2:14 passage, it does not seem to be as important to him in the 2 Timothy 2:12 passage as his own theological bias.

And the double standard deepens. DeYoung says that the ESV requires less “correcting” than the NIV when preaching. He said that over the years he has had to “un-explain” the NIV in order to make a point in his sermon.

While this can be true of all translations, we must ask how often it is that it is a translation issue versus how often it is a matter of theological persuasion.

The example Kevin gives is Luke 10:41-42 where the ESV translates agathēn merida as “good portion” whereas the NIV translates it is “what is better.” DeYoung states that “Jesus is defending Mary more than he is rebuking Martha for her preparations.” Two quick observations. First, it is not at all clear what “good portion” means in this text. The average reader, when reading the NIV, reads “what is better” and suddenly what Jesus is saying becomes easily grasped. Second, DeYoung’s sermon point is up for dispute (even though it’s a minor point). So when he says that he had to “un-explain” the NIV, what he is really doing is retaining a difficult rendering of what Jesus said in order to make a minor-disputed point.

Now putting the merits of his argument in that example aside for a moment, let’s return to our previous example to make our point and show, again, his double standard. In the ESV 2 Timothy 2:12 does not require much “un-explaining” for DeYoung. But of course, since he is, after all, a complementarian. But consider an egalitarian who is preaching on 2 Timothy 2:12. For her the ESV requires much “un-explaining.”


Anybody moderately versed in the Bible can hold two translations up and scour the texts for “examples” of where one translation is “better” than another in ANY given category. And this is precisely why a book of this nature can be so misleading. See, most readers will not have a critical book next to them to show them every place in any given category where the NIV has been translated “better” than the ESV. So while it will be hard for the average reader to argue too much against what DeYoung puts forth here, it would be prudent on the reader to be cautious and skeptical about the whole project.

But to the observant and critical thinker, there are good reasons to reject what DeYoung has to say on the merits of his own arguments found in this booklet.

In other words, I would hope that Deyoung’s book would have an influence factor of zero in persuading others to switch from the NIV to the ESV.

UPDATE: For those who are interested in going deeper I want to recommend “One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?” by Dave Brunn. This is not the kind of agenda driven book that we find with DeYoung. And it contains extensive comparison charts with explanations and points. You’ll see examples in this book of many places where the NIV is more “essentially literal” than the ESV and many examples where the NIV retains the form of the Greek and Hebrew where the ESV does not. This is no small point. In DeYoung’s book he makes mention on occasion of where the NIV will use a word “that’s not even in the Greek.” People tend to react strong to statements like that but the truth is the ESV does the same thing quite often, in fact all translations do. In point of fact, in many places the NIV has masterfully delivered the “meaning” of a difficult text while also preserving the “form” (i.e. the original words) in places where the ESV opts for the meaning and abandons the original form completely (examples are Genesis 30:3; Deut. 11:10; Matt. 16:23 and so on).

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.