Saturday, September 10, 2011

My Concern with the ESV

I like the English Standard Version. It's the version of the bible that I read most often. It's the bible that I usually take with me to our fellowship gatherings. I have about six or seven copies of it in various forms of study bibles, thin line bibles, pocket size bibles, etc.

I'm happy with the ESV because the translators seem to have been fair to the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The ESV reads smoothly like the NIV, but takes a more literal approach to translation like the NASB. As a bonus, the ESV Study Bible is the best I've read as far as study bibles go.

That all said, I do have one main concern with the ESV. I'm wondering if it is a valid one. My concern is that the ESV has sort of become "The Reformed Bible." If you read around the blog world these days, almost all of the writers who claim the Reformed label for themselves also use the ESV. If you attend a conference like Ligonier or T4G, just about all the speakers will use the ESV. John Piper uses the ESV. Al Mohler uses the ESV. R.C. Sproul uses the ESV.

Ask your Reformed friends what version they use; I guarantee that their primary version will likely be the ESV.

I'm sure that the response from the Reformed would be that they like it because they believe it is the best English translation available. Of course, we all tend to use whatever translations we think are the best available. Therefore, that answer actually has little meaning.

My concern comes from the fact that almost ALL of the Reformed use this translation. Why is that? We know that the Reformed tend to focus quite a bit on issues of God's sovereignty in salvation (election, predestination). Does the ESV slant in that direction? Does it give slightly more support to specific Reformed doctrines that would make it more preferable to the Reformed?

In reading through the ESV I have not found it to be biased in any particular direction. However, if the ESV has no bias at all, then wouldn't it simply be one of several versions that the Reformed might choose to use? What ever happened to the NASB, the NKJV, the HCSB, the NIV, or the NLT?

When any particular sub-group within Christianity seems to select one particular version of the bible, we should ask "Why?". At this point I'm not sure of the answers. Is the ESV just a good translation, or does it lean toward Reformed thinking?

Is this a valid concern? Do you think there is anything to this, or am I just wasting time with it? What do you think?

Regardless, issues like this are a good reminder that we will be wise to use multiple English translations when studying the scriptures.


Anonymous said...

Eric, I believe the ESV is so widely embraced precisely for the reasons that you said you like the ESV. It is a solid, essentially literal translation the faithful to the Greek and Hebrew and still has an accessible modern English gloss. Do Reformed evangelicals consider the ESV the best English translation? From what I have seen, there are a significant number of Reformed folk who say the NASB is the best English translation. Some professors here at Boyce prefer the NASB and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to learn that some professors at the Seminary prefer it as well. And as you have said, SBTS is "ground zero" for the Reformed movement right now. I consider myself to be a Reformed Evangelical and I am hesitant to assign the title "best English translation" to the ESV for some reasons such as its treatment of 1 John 5:6-8. Even if those responsible for the ESV believed the Johannine Comma not to be Scripture they should not have just left it out without any mention of it. In the end, like you said, it is best to use multiple English translations. So to answer your question I don't think there is anything to it. I don't see any indication of an ESV only camp forming similar to that of the KJV only camp.

Arthur Sido said...

I have noticed that as well. At the 2008 Together for the Gospel I attended, they gave away a small ESV to everyone there and the huge booth selling ESV's was completely sold out by the end of the conference. It clearly is the version all the cool kids use. I like it and use it almost exclusively but I also worry about it being the "Reformed" version.

reformedlostboy said...

I have noticed the slant, not just in it's popularity among reformed scholars, preachers and every other Bible reader with a reformed understanding of the text but also in the text itself when comparing different translations. Sadly, because I love reformed doctrine, when I see another translation word things differently in a way that doesn't prop up my favorite truths, I question the validity of the if the standard of good translation is Calvin's Institutes. My name is Bobby and I'm addicted to reformed doctrine. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Aussie John said...


During my lifetime there have been many "fashionable" Bibles.

When someone whose name is prominent amongst a particular theological persuasion and publicly uses a particular version, it doesn't take long to become fashionable.

There are a lot of people sitting in pews who want to be fashionable, and be seen to be following "the right" scholars/teachers/theologians, who, themselves, like to be "fashionable"!

Sorry to sound cynical, but that is the reality of it, so, don't fret about it!

Jason_73 said...

That's interesting Eric, I've thought the same thing. I got my first copy at a resurgence conference in Seattle with Driscoll and the gang.

It was similar when I went to the national pastors conference in San Diego put on by Zondervan. It was free NIV's for everyone.

Then there is the huge influence of Desiring God (Justin Taylor), J.I. Packer and Crossway.

I sometimes wish that I didn't have to participate in the mega-conglomeration bible industry, but there seems to be little choice.

Eric said...


I'm glad to hear that some of your profs. use the NASB. That's a good sign.

I wonder what percentage of the students at Southern use the ESV.

As for a KJV-only situation, I agree that that is not an issue whatsoever.

My concern is based on observation - simply that. There may be no substance to it. I hope that is the case. After all, I primarily use the ESV.

Eric said...


I'm sure some of this has to do with Crossway's heavy marketing push. They've done an excellent job.

As for the ESV, I hope that it is fair to the Hebrew and Greek. I believe it is, but the Reformed tidal wave toward the ESV concerns me nonetheless.

Eric said...


Maybe we need to join some sort of 12 step program together.

Eric said...


You sound like a realist to me. My guess is that many of the Reformed leaders have chosen the ESV because they think it is a good version. It is some of the youngsters who want to emulate them who concern me.

I wonder what would happen if John Piper changed his mind and endorsed "The Message"? My guess is that its sales would immediately spike among the Reformed.

Eric said...


You wrote, "I sometimes wish that I didn't have to participate in the mega-conglomeration bible industry, but there seems to be little choice."

I feel your pain. I don't know what else to do either. We can try to read from (and buy) several different versions from different publishers.

Eric said...

Someone else who commented,

I know somebody else left a good comment on this post, but Blogger somehow deleted it. Could you please leave it again so I can publish it and respond to it? Thanks.

Steve Scott said...


I view it as the reformed translation. It seemed to have that written all over it from the beginning. I've always sensed a bit of "translation envy" among the Reformed, and they have always criticized everybody else's translation. The KJV-onlyism amongst the fundies. The lesbian translators (?) who worked on the NIV and its "dynamic" translation fit in well with the criticism of the squishy evengelicals. Pick your translation. None of them were inherently "Reformed", which meant they had flaws of various stripes continually criticized. Now that we have OUR bible, life is more peaceful.

Eric said...


It is odd that the ESV has been so overwhelmingly accepted and grasped onto. It simply makes me uncomfortable.

troy said...

Perhaps part of it is the influence of the ESV Study Bible. The ESVSB's study notes/commentaries show a strong Reformed viewpoint, so perhaps the popularity of the Study Bible has spilled over some and helped the plain vanilla ESV become more widespread. But I think the MAIN reason for the ESV's popularity is that it fills a niche, in that it strikes a good balance between readability and formal equivalence, instead of making us choose between the two. I feel the ESV is a reasonably solid, unbiased translation, yet has readability nearly as good as the NLT. That is quite an accomplishment.

Note also that the ESV has become pretty popular among the churches of Christ too, despite being firmly outside the Reformed tradition.

Eric said...


Thanks for commenting. You make an interesting point about the ESV Study Bible. Because I was expecting the study notes to be Reformed, I was surprised that they weren't more so. I'm fairly pleased with them.

As for readability, I agree that it is a good translation. It may be that it is simply for this reason that it is popular.

My hope is that more groups begin to like it. You mentioned the churches of Christ. If others show an interest in the ESV, this should confirm that it is solid and not just Reformed.

guy e smith said...

Hi. I'm new to ESV. New to the ESV Study Bible. It's received great reviews and awards, so I decided to get one. I grew up NIV. Been carrying an NIV 1984 since I was born in 1985. The gender neutrality of the 2011 version bothers me. It is great to follow some evolution of the common language for the sake of readability, but I find it scary to change male pronouns to them and they. When does God become a 'she'?

As for the ESV Study Bible - the place I notice it most blatantly reformed is 1 Timothy 2:12. There are a couple sizable paragraphs telling women they cannot teach authoritatively at church when men are present. I would have preferred a commentary more in line with how they handled Revelation 20: Offering different Christian viewpoints. To the credit of Zondervan, my old NIV Study Bible approaches women in church ministry less matter of fact.

As for the ESV text itself, no I have not noticed it being reformed. While the words elect and regenerate seem to appear a bit more, I don't think that's with ulterior motives. Example: One person mentioned 1 Peter 1:1 says elect instead of chosen. So does the NIV 2011. So does the KJV. The ESV is in line with Tyndale, KJV, RV, ASV, RSV... Therefore it makes sense they would continue with the word elect. I have read that King James and his translators were more of a 'calvinist-type' mindset anyway.

This is fun. No question that the power of marketing drives our translations. Welcome to Capitalist America. If you want to avoid it completely then sell out to the KJV and refuse to move. Or you could be a saint and choose a less popular translation. You'll be less satisfied more than likely, but you'll at least be beating the big publishers ;)

Happy Reading!

David Brainerd said...

@guy e smith, The ESV is more anti-masculine than the NIV 2011. The ESV is not your salvation. If you want a modern English Bible that is not anti-masculine, use the NKJV. You'll have to deal with the horrors of having a Bible that actually includes all the verses in the New Testament unlike the ESV and NIV of either year, but you'll learn to live with having a full Bible. The ESV's cardinal sin is the PRETENCE that it is somehow in the line of Tyndale/KJV and the LIE that it is somehow traditional, which it effectively markets by taking the RSV and restoring KJV-ish syntax (haphazardly and contrary to proper grammar) in a handful of places. In doing so it FOOLS people into thinking its some kind of updated KJV and they somehow are BLINDED to the fact that it contains more anti-masculine changes than the NIV 2011 and NRSV **COMBINED**. (Ok, "COMBINED" may be a slight exaggeration, but if you actually took a real Bible like the KJV/NRKJV and compared it to the ESV, or took the NIV 2011 even and compared it to the ESV, you'd find indeed the ESV is pushing the anti-masculine agenda harder than the NIV).

Also as to CALVINISM in the ESV. Its a trojan horse. Its not that its heavily Calvinist YET, but that it WILL BE. Just like with the NIV. Its a gateway drug, and the more hard core drug it introduces you too has the same name. That is, they came out with the NIV. They kept updating it and changing what it said without renaming it. They hooked you on it, then broadsided you with an agenda. The ESV has its big Calvinist update PLANNED, and when it comes out, most people won't even be aware. Their old ESV will be wearing out, so they'll buy the new 2016/2018 or whatever ESV, and it will be loaded with new Calvinist changes, and they'll be too stupid to know it. It will take 5 years for public consciousness to be raised to the facts of what was done. Same as what happened with the NIV 2011. This is the problem with constantly updating modern translations where the translation committee is never disbanded and keeps changing the translation without giving it a new name.

David Brainerd said...

Oh, I forgot to mention. The RSV is considered to be a liberal translation. Yet the RSV contained no gender-neutral language like the NRSV and ESV (both of which are revisions of the RSV). The ESV is marketed not only as your salvation from that awful NIV2011 but from Satan's NRSV (this is how the ESV crowd present it, not me in my own person) and even the liberal RSV. But the fact is, the ESV is more liberal than the RSV (not to mention the NRSV). The liberal quality of the RSV is that it translates Isaiah 7:14 as "young woman" rather than "virgin" (which the RSV-CE, that is the Catholic version, fixed long ago, and its the only RSV still on the market) and that in one passage in the NT it chose to give a rendering that sounds a lot more unitarian than Trinitarian (again changed by the RSV-CE which has the monopoly on RSVs). So the ESV was not needed to fix those liberal aspects of the RSV, since the only RSV on the market already had changed them. The ESV is in fact more liberal than the RSV, because I've never seen the gender neutral type of language in the RSV-CE (I'm not Catholic, but I do own an RSV-CE, because as I said, its the only RSV you can find in stores). The RSV is of course a revision of the ASV, and it reads like a paraphrased ASV to a great extent, but in that paraphrasing it did not follow the anti-masculine agenda. The ESV is just the RSV, probably 70% of the text, and then the remaining 30% of changes particular to the ESV are the anti-masculine agenda and sloppy reversions to KJV language that leave the translation lopsided.

David Garcia said...

I realize that this is a very old post. But I just found it and I believe the rallying around the ESV, especially in Reformed circles, is actually a simple and considerable reason - In the way that the KJV was the 'standard' Bible in English for 300 years, for the past 100 years there has been no such thing. I think the Reformed circles want a Bible like that again. They want the ESV as the standard preaching, reading, memorizing Bible of the English-speaking church. And to be honest so do I!

Lewis Doyle said...

I share your concern.

What I find odd is that all the accusations regarding translation philosophy which are aimed at the ESV's competition, can be found present within the ESV - such as interpretative rendering, dynamic rendering and gender neutrality. Much of this has been highlighted by Mark Strauss and Rod Decker in their independent reviews of the ESV which can be found easily enough via a browser search.

I think that ultimately, Crossway are the 'Apple' of the Bible world and that is why its both the cool translation and the one which people think does everything right.

Someone said early that consulting multiple translations is wise and I agree with that.

Brian Bivins said...

I will say right off the bat I am reformed but I do not like any biased in translation of holy scripture. With that being said when I first came across the ESV was in e-Sword I was witnessing in a chat room but the KJV wasn't cutting it the person was struggling with it. I seen the ESV was free and at the time I was in between work so I had no spare money to get and NKJV or NIV module for it, so I used to ESV. I started to notice how well it was translated because at that time translations that were free were either outdated in English or were just bad. Anyways to make a long story short I got online to start comparing it with other translations and found I really liked it so I needed up buying it since my NKJV was falling apart. This was a time when I wasn't Reformed yet and it was before I knew it was cool to have one. I don't find any bias in it at all, the NLT does seem to have a biased because it is a dynamic translation. If it was about biased that would probably be the Bible for Calvinists, I don't think it has anything to do with bias though. The reason I like it is because it is not a dynamic leaning translation and it is a very well done translation. Readability has a lot to do with it as well because if the NASB was easier to read I believe most Calvinist would use it but like me most find it to wooden. Most Calvinist tend to lean more towards a formal equivelance so that has a lot to do with it being so popular, plus they seem to offer it for free download on kindle as well as most all of the Bible apps which is nice in my area where in some places we don't even have data. Anyways I don't think it has anything to do with bias it has everything to do with the type of translation method that is used. As for the ESV Study Bible I have never read it or owned one I am not a fan of study Bibles anyways. The typical verses we Calvinists seem to use tend to be the same in any translation so I don't see how it is biased unless you want to say that of all of them. I will stand by what I said above though the NLT (2015 version) that I have does seem to have a bias, like forknew tends to be translated as knew in advance which is not how Non Calvinists would interpret it. So I will say that is one modern translation that has a bias though I would say it was translated correctly. If I were you I wouldn't worry stick with the ESV it is a solid translation but so is the NIV to me the criticism the NIV is getting is largely undeserved and it seems like a solid translation if you like a more dynamic leaning translation. The NKJV would be great except for the manuscripts they used for it.