DOES THE ESV HAVE A CALVINIST BIAS? (PART I)

ESV Pew HC

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!

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5 responses to “DOES THE ESV HAVE A CALVINIST BIAS? (PART I)

  1. Michael Courtney

    I’ve been reading ESV for several years and not noticed a Calvinist bias, though I tend to view “elect” as a close synonym with chosen without the theological baggage some may attribute to it. Generally, I do not object to selected an English word that is closer to a transliteration for a controversial issue. One can also argue that “baptize” should be translated “immerse” and that rendering the Greek as “baptize” favors non-immersion views.

    I love the Calvinists for their zeal and for their uncompromisingly high view of the authority of scripture. Sure, we might quibble with Sproul and MacArthur about some of their teachings, but to me there are much bigger theological issues under much stronger attack today, like the holiness of God and his requirement for holiness among his people. For those who compromise on the basic issue of God’s holiness, the question of “elect” vs. “chosen” is of very little consequence.

  2. Michael Courtney

    In Luther’s day, the big issues under attack were “sola Scriptura”, “sola Christus”, and “sola fide” so Luther was quite properly motivated in his focus. In 2014, the big theological compromises are different. For example, see http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/07/evangelicals-gay-marriage-108608.html#.VK1J3ivF8SY Romans 1 and Genesis 18 seem to be under much stronger attack than Galatians 3.

  3. Many subtle, “inside baseball” intricacies of the Calvinism / Arminianism debate may have little practical significance to modern, Western Christians. There are even many Calvinists dedicated to missions and evangelism. However, I think that the doctrine of ‘perseverance of the saints’ or ‘eternal security’ does have a very, very practical application.

  4. AGREE.
    I grew up using the NIV then when it went through the major revision in 2005 I felt that there were too many critical changes and did not like the overall “feel’ (I still use the NIV84, in both my hard copies as well as on Logos). As a pastor, I felt I needed to use a reliable current translation, so I now use the ESV from the pulpit. Part of me is bothered by it. I have currently been working through the Psalms with my church [www.thetedplace.com]. I get the sense that the ESV translators became lazy and decided to just transliterate sheol. Come on! Is the pit to slimy, the grave to morbid, or did Rob Bell get the best of ya? It’s not that hard to look at the context and sort through if it means hell, grave, pit, etc…. just transalate the word. And yes, beyond all of that there does seem to be a hard “reformed theology” spin. Even if it is “our theology”, the Word should not be spun (see 2 Corinthians 4:2 [in your choice of translation lol]).

    Where is part II?

    • Ted, thanks for the comment. Theology Geek is no longer active, but rather I blog at SelectArrow.org now.

      I do have significant reservations about the ESV translation, especially after listening to comments that Wayne Grudem made about some translation decisions while listening through his systematic theology podcast series. BUT, I also felt conflicted about being divisive and focusing on theological and translational squabbles… thus I delayed my initial follow-up post.

      It frustrates me that I can’t find a “perfect” translation to use. Even my beloved NASB has its shortcomings. Then again, I could go learn Hebrew and Greek if it was really that important to me.

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