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Why We Switched our Pew Bibles to the ESV

We want to extend a special thank you to the Open Church Foundation for generously donating new English Standard Version pew Bibles for our sanctuary!

Here’s a little more information on why we have pew Bibles, why it was time to update them, and why we replaced them with a different translation than what we had before.

Why do we have pew Bibles?

The Word of God plays a pretty significant role in our gathered worship on Sunday mornings. We always read from Scripture together, and the central part of our worship service is the preaching of God’s Word. The goal of the sermon is to hear from God in the Scriptures, and so we always encourage listeners to follow along in their Bibles.

If you’ve attended Westgate for a while, you’ve probably noticed that many people bring their own Bibles with them for just that reason. That’s not a requirement! But it is a good idea, and helps people follow along with the sermon in the Bible they regularly read or study from (especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to underline or jot notes in the pages of your Bible for later reference).

But not everyone owns a Bible, or always remembers to bring one. And so as a courtesy (especially to visitors) we have Bibles available in the pews. And we try to make sure the preacher is using the same translation as is in the pew, to make it easier to follow along with the sermon. (For similar reasons, we project the Bible passages on the screen above.)

Why did we replace our NIV pew Bibles?

There are two main reasons we felt it was time to replace our old pew Bibles. First, and quite simply, many of them were wearing out, and now held together by tape. But second, and more importantly, the NIV translation we were using is now out-of-print. The 1984 edition that we had can no longer be purchased in stores or online. It has been replaced with the 2011 edition, which has significant enough changes that in many places it reads like an entirely different translation (nearly 40% of verses contain some difference between the 1984 and 2011 editions). Perhaps you’ve noticed some Sundays during the Scripture reading that the translation being read is different than what’s in the pew or on the screen. That’s because if anyone is using an NIV that has been purchased since 2011, or pulls up the NIV on their phone or tablet or in a web search, they get the 2011 edition. Without updating our pew Bibles, this discrepancy would only increase over time.

Why switch to the ESV? (Is there something wrong with the NIV?)

I want to state up front that I have deep appreciation for the NIV translation, and spent my formative years in the faith meeting God through its pages. We are ridiculously blessed with English translation options today, and the NIV is a great choice. I personally know the chair of the translation committee for the NIV; he was one of my professors at Wheaton. He is a godly man and one of the best New Testament scholars in North America.

That said, there are several practical reasons why we switched to the ESV.

1. An “Essentially Literal” translation (like the ESV) is better suited for biblical exposition than a “dynamic equivalence” translation (like the NIV). There are two basic schools of thought when it comes to Bible translation. “Essentially literal” (sometimes called “formal equivalence,” or a “word-for-word” translation) seeks to translate an ancient text in such a way that captures not only the meaning but also reflects the words and structure used by the original authors to convey that meaning. For instance, an essentially literal translation will try to use the same English word to translate a Greek or Hebrew word, so readers can see the repetition. Or if a phrase is ambiguous in the original, they will try to reflect that ambiguity rather than making an interpretive decision for the reader.

The second school of thought is often called “dynamic equivalence” (or a “thought-for-thought” translation). Here the goal is to capture the meaning of the original text as clearly and concisely as possible in the translation, even if that means losing some of the precision of word usage or structure.

Both are faithful philosophies of translation, and I generally recommend that when studying the Bible, people use one of each. But for the sake of expositional preaching (the kind of preaching where the message and aim of the sermon is controlled by the message and aim of the biblical passage being preached—read more about that here), essentially literal is better suited because of its greater level of precision and transparency to the original.

For example, the Greek word menō, which can mean “abide, continue, remain, live,” is used 24 times in 1 John 2-4. Seeking to capture the thought, the NIV uses five different English words to translate those 24 occurrences, whereas ESV uses two (“abide” 23x; “continue” 1x). Both translations are faithful to the meaning, but the ESV does so in such a way that the emphasis and structure are more readily apparent—which is important for both interpretation and proclamation. Not only is it clearer, but as a preacher, the less I have to say “what the original text literally says” in order to help people see the structure or emphasis of a passage, the better for everyone.

2. The ESV is one of the best “essentially literal” translations in terms of balancing technical precision and modern readability. One of the problems with some essentially literal translations is that in their effort to be faithful to the original, they end up being pretty poor English. I have found the ESV to be a highly readable translation, that cares not only about accuracy and precision but good English.

3. ESV is the translation I have used in my personal study and preparation since 2001. This point is unquestionably a matter of personal preference, and were it the only factor, we wouldn’t have made a switch. But all things being equal, since one of my main responsibilities is preaching, and since the pew Bible is intended to assist congregants in following along with the sermon, it makes sense for me to preach from the translation that I’m most familiar and comfortable with, having used the ESV for over 11 years.

Does this mean I should go buy an ESV Bible to bring to church?
The ESV is a great translation, but just because we will now be preaching from it and using it in our pews, doesn’t mean we expect everyone to use it (any more than we expected everyone to use the NIV when we had our old pew Bibles). Again, we are blessed with many good Bible translations in the English language, and we don’t endorse any single translation at Westgate.

What about the Bibles in all the classrooms?
For the sake of consistency, we have purchased some paperback ESV Bibles to be used in our classrooms. We also bought enough that we can give these away to any visitors who don’t own a Bible. They can be found by the Welcome Tables in the foyer or the fellowship hall.

What will we do with our old pew Bibles?
The Open Church Foundation will distribute our old pew Bibles among prisons and to churches in Africa. We are so grateful to them, not only for their generosity to us, but in making God's Word available to more and more people.