NIV losing ground as new translations gain popularity among Southern Baptists

The high volume of sales of an inexpensive Outreach New Testament and the introduction of the ESV Study Bible has kept the English Standard Version (ESV) among the best-selling Bibles for several years, according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). Data from Christian Booksellers Association show ESV in fifth place for unit sales with the Holman Christian Standard Bible following in sixth place.

Several leading theologians say Southern Baptists contributed to those sales by using the ESV in increasing numbers since its release in 2001.

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said the surge of ESV sales likely reflects a dissatisfaction with the long-popular New International Version (NIV) and its most recent revision entitled Today’s New International Version (TNIV).

“I think people are being attracted to the ESV, because when the TNIV came out, many people realized that even the NIV had made some very grave errors in translation and approach to translation,” Patterson told the TEXAN. “I, myself, began to urge people publicly, as I had done privately already, to no longer use either the TNIV or the NIV, and I believe that many other evangelicals did the same thing. The ESV offered a ready alternative and, for that reason, has been very successful.”

He added that the ESV is his second favorite translation, with the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and King James Version (KJV) being tied for first.

KJV and NKJV rank second and third behind NIV in the two publisher lists, with NASB consistently remaining in the top 10. While Southwestern Seminary encourages its students to rely on the Greek and Hebrew texts as much as possible, Patterson said the ESV is among the most commonly used English translations on campus.

In translation philosophy, the ESV descends from the KJV and the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Though weighed against the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts, the ESV translation committee took the 1971 RSV text as its starting point, updating that text for accuracy and readability.

The ESV is a word-for-word translation like the KJV, RSV and NASB. In contrast, versions like the NIV and New Living Translation adopt a thought-for-thought translation philosophy that focuses on the original author’s meaning rather than individual words. LifeWay’s Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) offers a middle way between word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations.

“When the ESV project was first inaugurated, I did have the privilege of working closely with Wayne Grudem, some other evangelicals, and the publisher to secure and see to the revision of the text at the point that it needed to take place,” Paige Patterson said, referring to his role on the ESV advisory council which also included his wife Dorothy, professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern. “In that sense of the word, I have endorsed it. I do think it is a good translation and that it has a thousand assets over the more popular NIV.”

Numerous Southern Baptists contributed to the ESV Study Bible, including several from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. endorsed the study Bible, calling it a treasure–“a beautiful volume, filled with a wealth of resources.”

The ECPA awarded the ESV Study Bible its 2009 Book of the Year, the first time a study Bible has received that distinction. Along with notes on the biblical text, the ESV Study Bible features charts, maps, illustrations and more than 50 articles on various topics. Plus, each hard copy comes with access to an online version of all its content.

Tom Schreiner, professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern, served as New Testament editor for the ESV Study Bible.

He said the study Bible has sold well because of “its focus on explaining the text first of all. But the ESV (Study Bible) also has a theological, apologetic, and practical slant. So, it is very useful for study and teaching.”

Denny Autrey, dean of Southwestern’s Havard School for Theological Studies in Houston, agreed that both the ESV translation and Study Bible have many positive features.

“Both the ESV and ESV Study Bible have produced a more accurate record of translating the text and have cleaned up many areas that were questionable in the RSV,” Autrey said. “Thus it has been well received in the academic field and has been recommended by some prominent pastors who have endorsed and are using it regularly in their preaching and study.”

Some, however, worry that the eSV Study Bible is too Calvinistic in its interpretation of the biblical text. David allen, dean of Southwestern’s School of Theology, gives the study Bible’s notes that address the issue of the extent of atonement as one example of his concern. “The notes on these passages [Romans 5:19, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, Hebrews 2:9, and 1 John 2:2] argue the case of limited atonement and make no reference whatsoever to the majority position of unlimited atonement,” Allen said. Under the heading “Salvation,” Allen asserted, “The notes promulgate the Calvinistic error that regeneration precedes faith.”

He also observed that “virtually all articles that deal with aspects of theology are written by Calvinists.”

Schreiner readily acknowledged the Study Bible’s Reformed viewpoint.

“The ESV (Study Bible) isn’t explicitly Reformed, but many Reformed scholars worked on it,” he said, “and hence it does have a Reformed flavor soteriologically.”

The ESV translation, too, is often recommended by Reformed theologians, but Christians of all stripes use and endorse it. Patterson represents one of the many examples.

“I do think Reformed Christians have gravitated more than others to the ESV,” Patterson said. “Though, I certainly do not think there is any exclusivity there. Many of those who were involved in securing this Bible to begin with were of the Reformed persuasion, but my own involvement shows you that was not entirely the case.”

Allen echoed what appears to be the consensus view of the ESV among Southern Baptists.

“As an evangelical revision of the RSV, it generally succeeds quite well in its attempt to split the difference between the more idiomatic NIV and the more literal NASB,” Allen said. “I predict the popularity of this translation will continue to grow in the years to come.”

Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern, also like the ESV because it is readable and lacks what he sees as theological compromises in the TNIV, though sharing Allen’s concern regarding portions of the Study Bible.

“I would encourage people to add new translations like the ESV and HCSB to their collections,” Yarnell said, though he finds the New King James Version (NKJV) and NASB remaining popular among both younger and older readers. However, he shares Allen’s concern about some of the ESV Study Bible’s notes favoring a Calvinistic viewpoint.

Criswell College Old Testament and Hebrew Professor David Brooks also finds the NKJV and NASB to be the most frequent choices of students at the Dallas-based school. “From what I have seen, the KJV is popular particularly among those who grew up reading the version and those who tend to take the Majority Text or KJV-only position. Younger people who are not in those camps find the language difficult or obscure.”

LifeWay does not release sales figures for their stores or curriculum, but spokesman Brooklyn Lowery said, “Traditional translations such as the King James Version remain popular with our customers, but newer translations, like the Holman Christian Standard Bible, are also popular choices among LifeWay Christian Stores’ shoppers. We really see a blending of people who prefer older translations with those who prefer more modern language translations.”

A 2004 survey by Ellison Research for LifeWay’s Facts & Trends magazine, showed Southern Baptist pastors evenly split between the NIV (26 percent), NKJV (25 percent, KJV (23 percent) and NASB (22 percent) in their translation preference.

NIV remains the preference of nearly half of the participants in Bible drill competition sponsored by the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention, according to Lucian Stohler, but he is noticing more churches preferring the Holman Christian Standard Bible. “That’s probably because of problems some leaders have with NIV translation and because their Sunday School curriculum utilized Holman so they want the children using the same one for Bible drill.”

Bible drill competitors from First Baptist Church of Lavon still favor NIV with leader Carol High explaining, “In memorizing Scripture I would think that the purpose is to have God’s Word in our hearts and mouths so we can use it in our every day walk. We do not talk like the King James, so it only makes sense to use a version that is spoken in our own language.

Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, which has a consistent record of seeing their students rank high in statewide competition, uses the King James Version in Bible drills, according to Bible drill leader Edna Penny, who said she also sees many families using NKJV when reading to their children.

With the 400th anniversary of the KJV translation coming up in 2011, the director of leadership and adult publishing at LifeWay Christian Resources said, “We’re going to make a bit to do about that, highlighting its history and how it was developed.”

While the Holman Christian Standard Bible translation is utilized throughout LifeWay’s curricula at every age level, the King James Version is the basis for Life Words, Bible Studies for Life.” LifeWay promotes the adult curriculum as “an accurate translation that is unsurpassed in literary beauty and in the contributions it has made to Western culture and to America’s rich Christian Heritage.”

“We use HCSB for everything, but we still have many churches that are very comfortable with KJV,” Robb said. He described sales of the KJV-based study as “very healthy,” along with the Herschel Hobbs Commentary offered since 1968 which utilized the KJV text.



Online Editor
Aaron Earls
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