by Rev. Dr. John Sias
Photo courtesy Concordia Publishing House
We Lutherans are sola scriptura people. Scripture alone! When it strikes home in us, this powerful Word of God, inspired by the Spirit, written by the prophets and apostles, does what it says—proclaims forgiveness of sins through Christ and gives peace with God and eternal life (John 8:31–32; 14:23–24; 16:13; 20:30–31; 2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:21). Luther knew this as his own story. When Rom. 1:17 finally grasped him— that “the righteousness of God” is not a standard for us to achieve (or not), but the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation God gives us solely by grace, through faith, for the sake of Christ crucified—heaven was opened to him.
And so were the Scriptures. From 1522 until his death in 1546, Luther worked on translating and revising a Bible in which the Spirit spoke clear Law and Gospel in clear German. The Lutherbibel’s faithful theology left its mark on the Reformation; its forceful clarity, memorable constructions, and vivid, accessible vocabulary spoke so well that it shaped the German language for centuries.
Where precision was important, Luther was deliberately literal rather than freely German. At the same time, he knew well how he and others had so long mistaken the Bible as God’s to-do list for man. He knew this sort of “self-help advice” is what the self-righteous human heart wants to find, rather than the Word of God that kills and makes alive in the cross of Christ. Luther’s translation, therefore, carefully underscored the chief doctrine of the Bible: justification by faith in Christ. He translated Rom. 3:28, “We hold that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law,” adding alone (sola fide!). This, he argued, was how a German St. Paul would make his point and how German hearers would get it. To make sure they got it, Luther added marginal notes to difficult passages and prefaces that prepared readers to receive each book as preaching of Law and Gospel, of Christ crucified and resurrected for us.
Not many of us can read the Lutherbibel but, as we choose from the dizzying array of English Bible translations, its example is instructive. Which version will best drive home what God means to say? Since Luther’s day, more has changed than simply the language. In the rest of this article, we’ll consider some pros and cons of modern English translations in three areas: textual basis, theory of equivalence, and language issues.
Translations have as their basis original-language manuscripts, copies of copies of the originals, long since returned to dust. All is not lost though—far from it! We have over 5,000 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament, copied in the second to 15th centuries. These include essentially complete books (codices) from the fourth and fifth centuries and sections copied out in the second. While we shouldn’t exaggerate their differences (they render no point of doctrine uncertain), these hand-written copies do not all agree in every place. There were occasional omissions or misspellings or “corrections.” Sometimes extra words from marginal notes or other contexts also crept in.
Different English translations start from different sets of manuscripts. Both the “Old” and New King James Version (KJV, NKJV) use the manuscripts available in 1611. Other translations, such as the New International Version (NIV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and English Standard Version (ESV), take into account many older manuscripts differing from those used in KJV and NKJV (Matt. 6:13b; Mark 16:9–20; Luke 11:2–4; John 7:53–8:11; Acts 8:37; 1 John 5:7b–8a). The closer we can get to what the prophets and apostles wrote, the better!
The Old Testament in English generally relies on the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), as copied by Jewish scribes in the seventh through 11th centuries A.D. They also wrote their suggested vowels into the previously vowel-less Hebrew, standardizing pronunciation and dictating a particular meaning. Occasionally our translations indicate a “revocalization,” where modern editors suggest different Hebrew vowels.
Masoretic manuscripts are not the only witness to the Old Testament text. A third-century B.C. Greek translation, the Septuagint (often abbreviated LXX), survives in fourth century A.D. copies and often matches New Testament quotations more nearly than the MT. The Dead Sea Scrolls—found in the mid-20th century and dating from 150 BC–70 A.D.—also generally confirm, but sometimes differ from, the MT. As with the New Testament, the translator has to decide which is the best text to translate. The more evidence considered and the more useful information shared clearly with the reader, the better.
‘Formal’ vs. ‘Functional’ Equivalence
After a starting text is established, the translator faces a choice between making a more literal, wordfor-word translation, or making a less literal but perhaps more easily understood one. The (N)KJV and ESV fall more on the formal, literal end of the spectrum. The NIV, familiar to us from its use in Lutheran Worship, falls more on the functional end. Paraphrases like The Living Bible or The Message go even farther.
A functional translation, like the NIV, often seems easier to understand at first. Its user, however, relies heavily on the translator to have understood the precise sense of the text and to have produced a new, yet fully faithful, expression of it. Sometimes the interconnection of different passages of Scripture can be very intricate, and it is hard to come up with new forms that respect all the intended connections.
A formal translation, like the ESV, conveys the structure of the original language in a more wordfor-word fashion and leaves it to the reader to interpret the text from context. Since translators cannot always be relied on to interpret the text for you without their own biases (that is, to let the Spirit do the talking), a more formal translation can be a wise choice for worship and for study. Time spent pondering the context to see what God means to say is, after all, time well spent!
Beyond issues of which manuscripts to follow and the style of translation, translators have to decide which words will speak most faithfully and clearly to hearers. Beyond the manageable thees and thous, the beautiful but outdated vocabulary of the KJV can get in the way of understanding. More contemporary (but still not faddish) language (as in NIV, ESV, NKJV, etc.) can make for more time spent contemplating God’s Word rather than puzzling over words.
Words are tricky though! On the one hand, it helps us to see connections in the Scripture if each Greek or Hebrew word is translated as consistently as possible (KJV). On the other hand, a single Hebrew or Greek word can have different senses that no single English word shares. The Hebrew word torah, for example, is commonly translated “law” but also refers to the books of Moses as a whole, which certainly contain Gospel (e.g., Gen. 3:15) as well as Law.
Translators have to avoid the old error of making the Bible sound like a book of “God’s rules for good living” rather than keeping it the book that points sinners to Christ, but this is hard. Remember: it’s what our Old Man wants to hear, so let the reader beware, and listen to good Dr. Luther. A faithful study Bible’s notes can also be a great help!
The Bible, the whole Bible, is about Law and Gospel, about Christ. But some scholars impose on the Old Testament their view that the Old Testament should be understood as a Jewish text, not an Israelite or Christian one. The New Revised Standard Edition (NRSV) writes the Holy Spirit out of Gen. 1:1, saying a mere “wind from God” hovered over the waters. It writes the Virgin and her son Jesus out of Is. 7:14 when it ignores the clear evidence of the Septuagint and of Matthew’s Gospel, and has Isaiah’s prophecy merely as “a young woman is with child and will bear a son.” Such choices are unhelpful in finding Christ in all the Scriptures, which He Himself says is their point (John 5:39–47; Luke 24:27, 44–49).
Christ can also be obscured by political correctness. In Hebrew and Greek, as historically in English, the word man and the male pronoun (he/him/his) have been understood as meaning either a male person or, in the sense of mankind, any person, male or female. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).
Modern, gender-neutral English tries to eliminate this usage, often substituting people and they for man and he. Some modern Bible translations (NRSV/Today’s New International Version) follow suit, translating, for example, Ps. 8:4 as “What are mere mortals/ human beings that You are mindful of them, human beings/ mortals that You care for them?” instead of a more literal rendering like that of the ESV: “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?”
Here, as Heb. 2:5–9 makes clear, man and the phrase “the son of man” point to mankind but especially to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, our Lord. We might add that the people of God are considered (all together) the body of Christ and so can be found “in him” in a lot of those masculine pronouns—and “in him” is not a bad place to be.
How Do I Choose?
With all these concerns, choosing a translation seems fraught with danger. On the other hand, being in God’s Word, where the Spirit works, is full of promise. Here are a couple of thoughts on where to go for help:
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked an Ethiopian traveler who was reading from Isaiah 53. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” he said (Acts 8:30–31). In reading the Scriptures for understanding, context is everything. A study Bible can serve as such a guide for us, but choose carefully. The Lutheran Study Bible (TLSB by CPH, 2009) is a good option, based on the “essentially literal” ESV text.
TLSB provides a thorough system of cross-references (including the Lutherbibel’s) to help the reader understand a passage in the context of the whole of Scripture. Possible points of confusion or alternate translations from the original languages are well-noted. TLSB also follows in Luther’s tradition, providing book introductions (including Luther’s), helpful notes, and devotional prayers. All focus on delivering Christ as the point of the Scriptures and prepare us to hear God speaking Law and Gospel to us, to kill our Old Man and to bring our New Man of faith to life. Although the LCMS has not officially adopted a Bible translation, since the ESV is used in Lutheran Service Book resources, TSLB provides an especially helpful companion in preparing for, or following up on, our time together as a congregation in God’s Word.
Finally, the Bible is not simply words on pages for us to use to feed ourselves but is the living Word of God, meant for proclamation, for public reading (1 Tim. 4:13), and for preaching (2 Tim. 4:1–4). We in the LCMS are blessed to have pastors well-prepared for these tasks. Having studied the biblical languages, they can evaluate translations and feed you from with the “full, original strength” Word of God as written. Trained to be faithful stewards of God’s Word, they are also equipped to rightly divide Law and Gospel and to give each one the right word at the right time (2 Tim. 2:15; Matt. 24:45). Like Philip, like Luther, they’ll gladly help you hear God’s Word in a way that strikes home, so that to you also, heaven will be opened and also the Scriptures.
About the author: Rev. Dr. John W. Sias is pastor of Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Colstrip, Mont.
For a more detailed analysis of several common Bible translations, see the LCMS Worship Office’s Comparative Study of Bible Translations at /wp-content/uploads/2010/11/BibleComp.pdf
- Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 46–56.
- Martin Franzmann, The Word of the Lord Grows: An Introduction to the Origin, Purpose, and Meaning of the New Testament (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961).
- Horace Hummel, The Word Becoming Flesh: An Introduction to the Origin, Purpose, and Meaning of the Old Testament (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979).
- Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Third Enlarged Edition (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
- Uuras Saarnivaara, Luther Discovers the Gospel: New Light upon Luther’s Way from Medieval Catholicism to Evangelical Faith (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).
- Jeffrey Gibbs, “All Those Translations!” Classic Witness, www.lcms.org/witness.