The English Standard Version, first published in 2001 by Crossway Bibles (and revised in 2007 and 2011) has surged in popularity despite its relatively young age. It consistently ranks 5th in both unit and dollar sales of all Bible translations and is steadily chiseling away at the market share of its competition. I believe that the ESV’s popularity is due to a combination of great marketing, celebrity pastor endorsements, offering many great editions for purchase, and the public’s acceptance and enjoyment of the translation itself. But… is there a hidden “Reformed Theology” bias underlying the text? Is there any evidence beyond the anecdotal? If there is indeed a slant, is the bias conscious or unconscious? Obviously, this can be considered “inside baseball.”
Let me start off by saying that I do not desire to promote factions or divisions within Christianity, to create a stumbling block for others, to start a translation “flame war,” or to in any way lord myself over my brothers and sisters in Christ. I legitimately hesitated to write this post for all of those reasons. Let me also say that I own several copies of the ESV Bible – perhaps as many as six. I own more copies of the ESV than I do my much preferred translation, the New American Standard Bible. I would also at this time continue to recommend the ESV to others as a solid and reliable translation that is available in a startling variety of options and editions.
So why write this post at all? Three reasons:
1. One of my all time favorite books of the Bible is 1 Peter. It brings to me tears when I read it. And, as I have made my preference clearly known, I prefer to read from the NASB. One day, reading 1 Peter 1:1 from the ESV, I encountered the word “elect” where I had previously always read “chosen.” Now elect is a theologically-charged word. The concept of election is absolutely central to Calvinism and Reformed Theology. And I would argue that the Greek eklektos no more means “elect” than diakonos means “deacon.” Both of those words require further translation to make sense in English. Eklektos is best translated as “chosen” and diakonos is best translated as “servant,” in my opinion. I then began to do some digging and found many others with similar suspicions. So, my first reason for writing this post is to actually investigate and see if there really is or is not a theological slant underlying the translation philosophy of the ESV.
2. I am heavily procrastinating writing my “omnipresence” post. That concept is quite complex and I do not want to rush my conclusions. Also, having two boys under the age of two in the house does not leave me much free time for reading these days…
3. Bible translations matter! Those curious believers who are “King James only” and also hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy are faced with the awkward task of explaining that unicorns really did exist, but that they are now extinct. Yes, the King James Version uses the word ‘unicorn’ six times; every other translation uses ‘wild ox.’ Inaccuracies in the KJV also led to the development of the Gap Theory of Creation. Other examples: Much controversy has surrounded the translation of Isaiah 7:14 – is it a “young woman” or a “virgin?” Also, debates over gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language in modern translations continue – is God our heavenly parent or specifically our heavenly father?
The translation(s) we are exposed to as children, or grow up reading, or start reading once we become Christians… that language has a lasting influence on our theology. I hope that every Christian would strive for the most accurate and trustworthy translations of Holy Scripture possible.
Part II of this series will examine the circumstantial evidence. Part III will example the textual evidence through specific examples. Does the ESV truly have a Calvinist bias? Let’s find out!