“Destabilized” texts and “misled” readers:

A review of Leland Ryken’s The Word of God in English.

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 2004 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.




As I begin this review, the English Standard Version of 2001 on which author Leland Ryken labored as a literary stylist no longer can claim credit as the newest English translation. That title at this writing goes to the Holman Christian Standard Bible, scheduled for release on April 15, 2004. The Florida Baptist Witness reports that the latter is “the culmination of a 20-year, $10 million project.” To the question of why another translation was needed, the new version’s general editor, Ed Blum, responded that “Our knowledge keeps increasing….With computerization, discovery of ancient manuscripts and the change of the English language, it’s time for a new Bible. The Holman CSB is a modern, up-to-date translation that has been the work of a lot of research.”[1] 


Of course it does seem that in modern times, it has been “time for a new Bible” about every ten minutes. (In fact, it’s entirely possible that another “newest English translation” will be announced before you finish reading this review!) A publicity piece I have in front of me, published in 1989, helps illustrate this trend, claiming that


By the middle of the twentieth century…it was clear that a new chapter was needed in that rich history [of Bible translation]. It was time for a new Caedmon, a new Bede, a new Tyndale. New scholars were needed to pick up where those famous men had left off. It was time for a new vision, a new translation of God’s Word into the English language.[2]


The “new translation” meant by the author is the NIV, of which the New Testament was published in 1973 and the complete translation on October 27, 1978;[3] however, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, “shifts in English idioms and usage”[4] had apparently caused even this contemporary version to become obsolete and in need of replacement by “Today’s New International Version” (TNIV). But is there anyone who really believes that the language of Richard Nixon and TV’s All in the Family has become so unintelligible that scarcely twenty-five years later it needs retranslation? Does the fact that it is so frequently and so often “time for a new Bible” denote health on the part of the evangelical Christian community? Or is not the following assessment closer to the mark?


. . . there is much to lament in recent developments. The English-speaking world has not been brought closer to the ideal translation with the proliferation of modern translations. Readers are less sure than ever of what the original text actually says. Many of these readers carry Bibles that lack dignity and that have reduced the Bible to the level of colloquial discourse. . . . We are not in a golden era of English Bible translation. (p. 63)[5] 


A “spirit of license” on the move?


These words from Dr. Ryken’s book are remarkable not only because they represent something that should be self-evident, but, I submit, are also so because they articulate a truth that many advocates of modern translations have taken special pains to avoid and disparage. Much of the cause of this state of events, Dr. Ryken argues, is the divergence of English Bible translation theory down the road of “dynamic equivalence,” a philosophy that produces what is often called a “thought for thought” (rather than a basically literal) translation. He traces this transformation to Eugene Nida, a foreign missionary and translator, who “almost single-handedly changed the course of English Bible translation” by championing this theory (pp. 13-14). The NIV, which Ryken considers “on the ‘conservative’ or literal side of the dynamic equivalent half of the translation spectrum” (p. 54), although he is on record as giving it a negative review in Christianity Today (pp. 17, 246), provides an example of the success of this kind of translation—which has become so prevalent that it is reported (not by Ryken) to have given rise to “devoted sectarian use across the world, even to the point, distressingly, of bigotry.”[6] Eugene Peterson’s The Message, which many including myself would consider to have only the most tenuous claim to being a translation of the Bible,[7] in Ryken’s words “simply represents the logical extension of a spirit of license that settled in with the acceptance of dynamic equivalence” (p. 191). In other words, it is on the extreme end of the same philosophy that guides the NIV, and Ryken’s illustrations from The Message should therefore give NIV adherents pause.[8]


So what, as a partisan of these versions might ask, is the problem with this “spirit of license”? Aren’t these translators just bringing God’s Word to the level of the people? After reading Dr. Ryken’s treatment of this topic, an honest observer would be hard pressed not to conclude that this is just what they are not doing. For one thing, Ryken draws an analogy between dynamic equivalence translations and “corrupt texts,” a term that scholars of literature use to denote a text “changed from its original and reliable form to something different from that standard” (p. 28). Since we do not feel free to alter the words of a human author in preparing a literary text, he argues, we should show the same respect to the words of the Bible and to their Divine Author, God. Otherwise, we end up with a “destabilized text” where no definite controls on interpretation can be found, making it difficult for a reader to have confidence in what it says (pp. 32, 82). Indeed, Ryken’s discussion of “Correct Connotations for Words” on pp. 232-33 suggests that inattention to the choosing of words with proper meanings and sub-meanings can introduce further distortion.


Also, in reducing the difficulty of the biblical text due to the “assumption of a theologically inept readership,” Dr. Ryken argues that translators take on “the role of priests, doling out the ‘right’ interpretation to the masses,” creating a “hypothetical text” where the sometimes complex and multifaceted words of the biblical writers are replaced by what the translation committee has determined to be the meaning (pp. 110, 288, and 237, respectively). Preachers who use such a version are either locked into this predetermined interpretation or forced to retranslate the underlying text to extract the full range of meanings (p. 290), and their congregations who use such a version do not get “the right material with which to work” to form their own understanding of their theology (pp. 206-7). In fact, such “a theologically impoverished text” will “produce a defective theology, which will in turn undermine the foundation of the church” (p. 137). Even from such a necessarily simplified overview, it should be clear that Dr. Ryken has done a good deal of thinking about the problems involved with dynamic equivalence translations.


Ryken’s contributions


The Word of God in English makes at least two significant contributions to our knowledge. One is with regard to the history of English Bible translations, in putting the ESV into the context which its translators and other laborers intended. When I first saw this version on sale in my local Christian bookstore, I must admit that I could not see the point behind it. After all, the Revised Standard Version of half a century ago on which it is based had already given rise to a New Revised Standard Version (1989). Why another refurbishing of what had already been redone so recently? Dr. Ryken responds that the NRSV “is not the genuine heir of the RSV” since it has made the shift not only toward dynamic equivalence, but also into “tak[ing] liberties with gender references to accommodate feminist concerns.” The “true heir” to the original RSV, he claims, is the ESV (p. 53). Frankly, I have not familiarized myself with the NRSV to the point where I can either affirm or dispute Ryken’s assertion, though I would imagine that it would not go unchallenged among NRSV users. But it does illuminate the motivation behind the committee that created the ESV, which appears to have been driven by the desire to salvage its “literary excellences” while removing the stigma of what Ryken calls its “alleged theological liberalism” (p. 52). The ESV, then, is a revision of the RSV from a completely different perspective from that of those who produced the NRSV.


More importantly, in my view, Dr. Ryken provides important validation of the concerns that others before him have raised about modern translations. It would be have been easier to have taken the superficial approach that so many others who have written on modern versions have adopted, in one such book parading the “men of God who have labored diligently in the field of textual study and translation” and implying that any criticism of their labors is to be rejected out of hand as “KJV Onlyism,” “disrupting the church,” or any number of other charges made by non-serious writers and the Internet acolytes who echo them. Well, “men of God” can “labor diligently” and yet bring forth something that is seriously objectionable, just as “great men are not always wise” (Job 32:9). Dr. Ryken, who has served on a translation committee himself, can certainly not be labeled with silly designations like “KJV Only,” and yet many of his points do coincide with issues raised by those objecting to the way modern translations have been carried out. I certainly see a linkage between some of the criticisms of Dean Burgon—who like Ryken showed concern even for connotations of words in translation—[9],  those of present-day supporters of the KJV, the critiques of those who have objected to a translation like TNIV, and the present book’s argument.[10]


Isn’t the question more than what “meets your needs best”?


True, there are also significant differences between, say, the position of KJV advocates and Dr. Ryken, or between Dr. Ryken and many who have expressed strong reservations about TNIV but retain high regard for the NIV.[11] But there is an even sharper break between the position of a Ryken and that of a typical apologist for modern translations. Dr. Ryken does not urge what to me is the most significant Bible passage of warning for translators, Rev. 22:18-19, but I think this is because his approach is to admonish other Christian scholars “as a brother” rather than counting them as enemies, which I think is scripturally valid (2 Thess. 3:14-15). He does cite many other verses that indicate “that the very words of God and the words of the Bible matter a great deal” (p. 133), and goes the length of saying that he has “come to the unwelcome conclusion that many evangelicals who theoretically espouse the doctrine of verbal or plenary inspiration—who reject the position of theological liberalism that the Bible contains primarily the thoughts of God—are betrayed by their very choice of a dynamic equivalent translation into the position that they claim to reject” (p. 135).


This is an extremely significant statement, resulting from an unflinchingly honest look at problems caused by dynamic equivalence translations of the sort that one would never find from the typical modern versions apologist, who must defend all of them[12]—even those translated on contradictory premises—as equally valid. For example, consider the following quote from an AOL message board posting by one such author, who in abruptly leaving a rather heated discussion included this admonition:


Recognize that one side is telling you to embrace one particular translation to the exclusion of all others; the other is telling you to be responsible in your choice of translations, to embrace your responsibility as a believer to “prove all things,” and that you are free to enjoy whatever translation meets your needs best.


I personally find this a shocking statement, considering that, despite the window dressing of a Bible quotation (from 1 Thess. 5:21), this reputed authority on Bible translations is borrowing the language of situational ethics, or perhaps of a Dr. Ruth Westheimer “safe sex” discussion (“be responsible in your choice…embrace your responsibility…free to enjoy…meets your needs best”). Vocabulary like the above shows how very far we are from where we need to be in discussing such a sacred topic.  I find the perspective reflected in such a comment a clear example of what Dr. Ryken terms “a narcissistic cultural orientation that elevate[s] the reader rather than the author or text to center stage in the reading process” (p. 15), as well as “a smorgasbord approach to choosing a Bible translation” where “readers can simply take their pick” because there are no objective standards (as far as the readers know) for evaluating them (p. 117).


Connotations and misunderstanding


There are some of Dr. Ryken’s literary criticisms concerning which I do have to express reservations. His section on “Correct Connotations for Words” referenced above questions the use of “lover” by the NIV at Song of Solomon 6:3, which, he writes, was acceptable until recently but now “conveys the incorrect connotation of illicit sexual relations.” A valid point, though I think it could be argued whether this connotation carries over to the NIV’s context. Similarly, he objects to “yokefellow” in KJV, RSV, and NIV—among other renderings, such as “comrade” and “teammate”—at Phil. 4:3: “This communicates nothing to a modern reader except a vague sense of bondage” (a judgment with which I disagree). For this verse, he argues, only the word “companion,” as in the ESV, NKJV, NRSV, and Jerusalem Bible, is “devoid of inaccurate connotative baggage,” he argues.  But not so fast; I see that the American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth College Edition) gives one sense of “companion” as “domestic partner” (!!), and anyone familiar with Shakespeare will probably recall that Mistress Quickly had no use for “swaggering companions” in her establishment, and that Brutus dismissed a foolish poet with the words “Companion, hence!”[13]


On what seems to me to be even less solid ground is the criticism of Ruth 3:9 as it appears in the NIV and other translations (and indeed in the KJV—“thy skirt”—though Ryken does not specifically mention it here); Ryken feels that there is a connection between this verse and Ruth 2:12, where the same Hebrew word appears, and commends the ESV at Ruth 3:9 for translating “Spread your wings over your servant” (emphasis mine). But the same Hebrew word[14] also shows up in verses such as Deut. 27:20 and 1 Sam. 15:27, and in the latter verse the ESV does indeed give “skirt”; in this instance, as the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary remarks on Ruth 3:9, “To spread a skirt over one is, in the East, a symbolical action denoting protection,”[15] and that is the connotation that translations that give “skirt” and its variants in Ruth 3:9 are preserving. Therefore when Dr. Ryken comments here that “translations that are indifferent to retaining the words of the original let us down” (pp. 221-22), while there are ample grounds for demonstrating this, and in most cases he provides good examples, I think that Ruth 3:9 is not a particularly happy illustration, since KJV’s “skirt” and NIV’s “corner of your garment” are fully justifiable.


We also find in the Florida Baptist Witness story cited above an expression of concern about connotations by an owner of Peachtree Editorial and Proofreading Service, which proofread the Holman Christian Standard Bible:


“Translations are always being redone, not because the original languages change, but because our cultural language changes,” said June Gunden, who owns Peachtree with her husband, Doug. “People do not say the same things in the same ways. For example, we can no longer say, 'Paul was stoned,' because of the way young people will interpret that.”[16]


These comments are not as apt as some of Dr. Ryken’s on the same subject (p. 231), since the new Holman translation as represented by an available edition of its New Testament, does in fact present Paul as saying:


Three times I was beaten with rods.

Once I was stoned. . . .[17]


But both sets of remarks lead us to what I think is a serious problem. If the possibility, however remote, that someone might misunderstand is to hold veto power over what words can be used in an English translation of the Bible, it will not only severely limit the stock of vocabulary available to a translator, but will virtually guarantee that no version of the Scriptures will have a very long “shelf life” before it’s once again “time for a new Bible,” since words so frequently acquire new meanings and connotations. In fact, it could well be argued that the variety of words needed for translating the Bible into English (or perhaps any language), and the likelihood that many of them already carry or will soon carry undesired meanings, makes it impossible to create an adequate Bible translation. Only deconstructionists and other adherents of literary nihilism could possibly embrace such a conclusion; to everyone else, it will be clear that at some point, a reader has to take responsibility for attempting to meet a piece of writing’s meaning as its author (or Author) intended.


A translator should strive not to be needlessly obscure, but the reader who expects his spiritual food in the Bible to be not only served, but also pureed so that no chewing is needed, is a reader with an entirely unrealistic idea of how to receive God’s Word. Thinking of the kind of reader who would construe Paul’s statement that he was “stoned” into a confession of being high on drugs, I personally have an image of an immature junior high school student (such as we all have been at one time) looking for an excuse to snicker and get silly—in other words, not at all a serious student of the Bible.


When readers are “misled”


One big problem with modern translations of the kind that Dr. Ryken criticizes is that the serious student does not get, in his words, “the right material with which to work.” Ryken provides several excellent examples, but I would like to add another, from 1 John, a book in which the apostle expresses himself in some of the most basic and straightforward language found in all the Scriptures. The KJV in 1 John 2:20 has “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.”  “Unction” is, of course, an “anointing,” and the ESV on which Ryken served is in fact close to the KJV on this: “But you have been anointed by the Holy One. . . .” Contrast with this the New Century Version, which gives “You have the gift that the Holy One gave you, so you all know the truth,”[18] or with the New Living Translation, which has “But you are not like that, for the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and all of you know the truth” (sticking the literal meaning of the text into a footnote). Neither NCV nor NLT gives the reader the true meaning here, and I find the former’s “gift” seriously misleading. Both of these versions may be attempting to interpret the text for the reader—but in doing so, they are not presenting the text, but only their gloss on the text. That prevents the reader of either version from getting all the meaning that God intended.[19] Nor is this an isolated instance even in this chapter; earlier, NCV has declined to translate correctly the term “antichrist” in v. 18, preferring instead “the enemy of Christ,” and NLT begins v. 19 with “These people left our churches. . .” (“our churches” being words added by the translators that have no equivalent in the Greek).[20]


The NIV contains similar instances of paraphrase rather than translation, as when in Mark 1:23 we read of a man “possessed by an evil spirit”—which in the KJV, RSV, and many other translations (and in the NIV’s own footnote) is an “unclean” spirit, surely meant both to hearken back to “unclean” things mentioned in the Mosaic law and to cross-reference to other evil things (as in the vile spirits of Rev. 16:13 and the unclean person who does not inherit the kingdom of God in Eph. 5:5), a sense lost to the NIV’s readership.[21] So when Dr. Ryken writes that “Readers of English translations operate on the premise that they are reading what the original text says. With some translations, they are frequently misled and in some cases virtually deceived” (p. 291), he is simply stating what anyone who looks into the matter will find fully verifiable.


This author does a real service by articulating such issues, which have been for all too long papered over, often evaded by polemics that have chosen to attack those who dared to question troubling trends in modern versions. I find it quite interesting that he continues to be drawn time and time again to mention the KJV, although he rules out a return to it because, he writes, it is “now considered suspect (as not being based on the best manuscripts), and the English language has moved out from under it” (p. 284). (Critiquing the first point in the detail it deserves would be outside the objectives of this review, and the second point is somewhat qualified by Ryken himself when he acknowledges that there are situations in which “it is appropriate for a Bible translation to have a slightly archaic feel to it” [p. 184], and that there is “irony” in the fact that “the most difficult Bible, the King James Version, continues to be used primarily by people who are less educated rather than more educated” [p. 114; see also pp. 107, 109]!) Nevertheless, the KJV “almost invariably sets the standard for excellence” in prose rhythm (p. 260), it is “the very touchstone of exaltation and affective power” (p. 270), and “we should frankly acknowledge what a toll has been exacted by [its] decline . . . and the loss of a common English Bible” (p. 188). Indeed, though Ryken notes that the KJV is “somewhat disparaged,” considered as used only “by readers who do not ‘know better’” (p.227), he goes the length of saying the following:


. . . although I do not use the King James Version for my regular Bible reading, I do read it occasionally. One of several reasons for doing so is that when it comes to transporting us from our own time and place to another time and place, one cannot beat the King James translation. As a result, reading the KJV has the salutary effect of reminding us that the world of the biblical text is, in fact, a world in which much is strange. (pp. 184-5)


This should not be a remarkable statement, but given the climate around us, speaking of the virtues of the KJV is more often considered to be creating “controversy,” while taking the “smorgasbord approach” and test-driving various translations and study Bible editions like so many new cars raises no eyebrows.




There are some points that Dr. Ryken makes in The Word of God in English to which I respectfully take exception—in some cases, quite significant exception (such as regarding the alleged obsolescence of the KJV)—, but I still feel that this is a worthwhile book. Dr. Ryken has clearly invested himself in taking an honest look at the current situation and has identified a good deal that is amiss in the way that Christian scholarship has been handling the Scriptures. I find that his conclusions validate many criticisms made before him by brethren troubled at current trends, but perhaps not able to articulate them as well as this author, with the result that said criticisms have generally been misrepresented and ridiculed. Dr. Ryken will not be as easy for the ridiculers to dismiss, and I hope his book will help to compel a healthy and overdue discussion of the impact of modern Bible translations on the believing community.     

(April 5, 2004)



[1]Holman Christian Standard Bible available April 15,” Florida Baptist Witness, 3/11/04.

[2] Richard Kevin Barnard, God’s Word in Our Language: The Story of the New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Lamplighter Books [a division of Zondervan], 1989), p. 13; brackets mine.

[3] Ibid, pp. 178-79.

[4] “A Word to the Reader,” Holy Bible, New Testament: Today’s New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p. v.

[5] Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002). To avoid overloading the references, all quotes from this book will be given with the page number in parentheses in the main text, following the citation.

[6] David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven & London, Yale UP, 2003), p. 757.

[7] See Daniell, pp. 617-8, for some strong criticism of The Message’s treatment of 1 Cor. 13. (Sample comments: “Nowhere in the passage does the Greek refer to that….totally abandons the Greek. Worse, it corrupts the sense….seriously inaccurate….” And these are only remarks on the lack of fidelity to the Greek; Daniell has a great deal more to say about Peterson’s stylistic lapses.)

[8] One especially telling illustration in Ryken, p. 205 concerns the way The Message handles Ps. 32:1-2, which starts: “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be.” Dr. Ryken says all that is needed by way of comment in ten words: “Forgiveness of sins has degenerated into getting lucky with God.”

[9] See for instance his comments on the Revised Version’s handling of 1 Cor. 13: “What else but a real calamity would be the sentence of perpetual banishment passed by our Revisionists on 'that most excellent gift, the gift of Charity,' and the general substitution of 'Love' in its place? Do not these learned men perceive that 'Love' is not an equivalent term? Can they require to be told that, because of S. Paul's exquisite and life-like portrait of 'CHARITY,' and the use which has been made of the word in sacred literature in consequence, it has come to pass that the word 'Charity' connotes many ideas to which the word 'Love' is an entire stranger? that 'Love,' on the contrary, has come to connote many unworthy notions which in 'Charity' find no place at all?” (--John William Burgon, The Revision Revised, Collingswood, NJ: Dean Burgon Society Press, n.d. [reprint of 1883 publication], p. 201.)

[10] I think it is legitimate to note such common ground given that Dr. Ryken himself claims such ground with the authors of a 1970 book entitled Literary Style of the Old Bible and the New, which he cites numerous times and which, he writes, contains “appeals to the KJV as the standard of literary excellence in criticism of the RSV” and the NEB—which he believes “could now be advanced in favor of the RSV when compared to more recent translations” (Ryken, note 5 on p. 64, italics in source).

[11] For some detailed criticisms of TNIV, see http://www.cbmw.org/resources/tniv/ (site of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and http://www.no-tniv.com .

[12] Generally with the understood exclusion of outright distortions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation and other cultic perversions.

[13] 2 Henry IV, II.iv.94; Julius Caesar, IV.iii.138 (line numbering as in Riverside Shakespeare).

[14] The word kanaph (Strong’s H3671). It should be mentioned that I do not cite the Hebrew and Greek as someone with any pretensions to scholarship in these languages, but simply as information that can be easily verified by anyone with the appropriate reference works (especially Strong’s Concordance).

[15] Text taken from the Swordsearcher 4.4 Bible software by Brandon Skaggs.

[16]Holman Christian Standard Bible available April 15,” op. cit.

[17] 2 Cor. 11:25, Holman Christian Standard Bible. (Quoted from the UltraTrim New Testament [Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2000]; perhaps the forthcoming complete HCSB will differ here.) In comparing several other translations, one finds a general consensus over “once was I stoned” (KJV, RV, ASV, Young’s Literal) or “once I was stoned” (New Berkeley, NAS, NKJV, NAB, NLT, ESV, NIV, Amplified, RSV, TNIV, TEV, Jerusalem, NEB, Douay), although there are some exceptions that are the results of paraphrase (e.g., NIrV’s “Once they tried to kill me by throwing stones at me”) or simply odd (such as NRSV’s “Once I received a stoning,” or The Message’s “pummeled with rocks once”). Plainly the best way of saying in English what Paul says requires use of the word “stoned,” rather than being intimidated away from it because of the colloquial meaning.

[18] A footnote in NCV on “gift” reads, “This might mean the Holy Spirit, or it might mean teaching or truth as in verse 24.”

[19] Compare Barnes’ Notes on this verse: “…the idea seems to have been that the oil thus used was emblematic of the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit as qualifying them for the discharge of the duties of their office. Christians, in the New Testament, are described as ‘kings and priests,’ . . . and hence they are represented as anointed, or as endowed with those graces of the Spirit, of which anointing was the emblem.” (Text taken from Swordsearcher by Brandon Skaggs.)

[20] To be fair, it may be said that some of NLT’s deficiencies here and elsewhere may stem from the fact that it is based on Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, which is a paraphrase and not a translation. Verse 20 in the Living Bible and NLT match almost exactly (the only difference is that NLT adds the words “all of” to the last phrase). Verse 19 in the Living Bible starts, “These ‘against-Christ’ people used to be members of our churches….”  If the foundation was unsound, the resulting NLT was likely foreordained to have such problems as the ones cited in my main text.

[21] It is interesting that the same Greek word, akathartos (Strong’s G169), appears in Acts 10:14 and is there rendered by the NIV as “unclean”—quite properly but also inconsistently with Mark 1:23. Rather ironically, the first major translation to challenge the KJV, the Revised Version, condemned the version of 1611 for translating the same word in the original texts in multiple ways, claiming that “the studied avoidance of uniformity in the rendering of the same words, even when occurring in the same context, is one of the blemishes in [the translators’] work” (“Preface of the Revisers of the New Testament,” in the Revised Version of 1881-85). In modern times, that view has apparently shifted 180 degrees and the KJV is not varied enough in current thinking, judging from the example of the NIV and even more extreme dynamic equivalence translations.

Return Home