How Should We Translate the Bible? – The Word of God and Bible Translation Principles (2)

A Literal Translation?

Jay N. Forrest

„Man shall not live by bread alone, but by EVERY WORD that proceeds from the mouth of God“ (Matthew 4:4).

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. Only the Bible in these original languages can truly be said to be inspired by God. Translations of the Bible are not divinely inspired in and of themselves. They may convey the inspired message only as far as they accurately convey God’s intended meaning as recorded in the original language.

This then applies to their inerrancy as well. As the great Baptist theologian Millard J. Erickson points out, „The doctrine of inerrancy applies in the strict sense only to the originals, but in a derivative sense to copies and translations, that is, to the extent that they reflect the original.“[1] Therefore picking a method of translation is vitally important.

Three Ways of Translating

There are three basic ideas on how to translate the Bible. First, one can translate word for word. Such a translation is called a literal translation. Secondly, one can put the meaning of a passage into ones own words. This type of translation is called a paraphrase. And thirdly, one can translate meaning for meaning. This type of translation is called a dynamic equivalent.

Most of the differences between various translations is the result of which translation method is used. As Lewis Foster points out, „The main difference among translations exist not because of a difference in text, but because the type of translation work is either literal or free.“[2]

I believe that the objective of any good translation of the Bible should be to produce the most literal translation possible in the most readable way. This would be called a literal translation, by which I mean that it seeks to follow or represent the exact words of the original Greek New Testament in a word-for-word equivalence. R. C. Sproul once said, „The only way to believe anything in the Scriptures is to believe it literally because the word literal means ‚as it is written.'“[3] Likewise, I would add, the only way to translate the Scriptures is to translate them literally.  To translate the Bible literally means to translate it „as it is written.“ I believe that this literal word-for-word method of translation is the most useful and accurate way of translating the Bible. The following is offered in justification of this belief.

Dynamic Equivalency

A dynamic equivalent, which is a thought-for-thought translation, must first discover the meaning of a passage before it translates it, therefore it is partly based upon the translators understanding and interpretation. The concept of dynamic equivalence, notes Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, „is a highly questionable way of translating the Scriptures. By giving the meaning of the text rather than a translation of what it literally says, the translator goes beyond his role and becomes an interpreter.“[4]

It is highly questionable for many reasons. Philip W. Comfort points out one such reason, namely that „the translator must enter into the same thought as the author – and who can always know with certainty what the author’s original intended meaning was?“[5] He readily admits, although a supporter of dynamic equivalency, that this „requires that the text be interpreted.“[6]  And what does this mean? It means that translating in this way opens up the translation to reflect „personal subjectivism.“[7] In other words, this translation theory opens the translation up to distortion and mistranslation.

Even D.A. Carson sees the danger, admitting that „it is no doubt true that the closer one stands to the ‚loose‘ end, the greater the chances of subjective bias.“[8] It must of necessity follow, that the closer one stands to the „literal“ end, the less change of subjective bias. What K. C. Hinckley says concerning a paraphrase can also apply to a dynamic equivalent translation, they „can be helpful as a commentary on the text, but you should go first to a literal translation.“[9]

Standard of Comparison

There is a real need for a literal translation for the sake of comparison. Many freer translations already exist, many with vary different renderings. Only a literal translation can enable the English reader to judge, in some measure, the foundation of the various translations and interpretations of Scripture. A literal translation makes it possible for anyone to make an accurate check on all new Bible versions. In fact, many hard to understand verses are actually cleared up by a more literal translation.

Objective Standard of Appeal

A literal translation will be found to form the best, and indeed the only, safe and solid basis for theological deductions of any kind. Arthur S. Way, a translator from Moody Bible Institute, remarks: „These versions giving the literal rendering as they do, constitute a court of appeal in matters of faith, the only possible one. It is also the only form of translation about which there can be anything like the general agreement. . . . The perfect literal translation is indeed indispensable.“[10]

Who doesn’t know that there is little agreement among the many translations on the market today. This is because each one gives their interpretation of the Scriptures. In an actual study of several literal translations it was found that they were in almost complete agreement. A simpler comparison of several modern translations would not even come close to this.

A literal translation supplies the need for objectivity. If one does not translate literally, then objectivity is lost to the extent that one departs from the literal sense. Clearly it is much safer to translate literally then it is to permit our private interpretations to taint God’s word.

Biblical Interpretation

Most of our conservative scholars tell us, „A good rule to follow is to try to interpret it literally.“[11 This Tim LaHaye calls „the Golden Rule of Interpretation.“[12] As Paul Little explains, „This is the same principle one employs when reading the newspaper.“[13] Since we seek to interpret the Bible literally, it only makes sense that we would want it translated literally. We do not want a translation that is already interpreted for us, because we cannot test their interpretation. The translators interpretation might be in error. And one is unlikely to get a correct interpretation from a wrong translation. As D. R. Dungan states, „A correct translation would conduce towards a reliable exegesis.“[14]

The type of translation one uses is so important in interpreting the Bible correctly that Clinton Lockhart, author of Principles of Interpretation, makes it one of his rules of interpretation, stating, „If a translation be used, it must be an exact equivalent of the original, or the difference must be noted by the interpreter.“[15] Only a literal translation is an „exact equivalent.“

Walter Henrichsen and Gayle Jackson state that, „The literal interpretation in context, therefore, is the only true interpretation. If you don’t take a passage literally, all sorts of fanciful interpretations may result.“[16] I believe the same can be said of translations. The literal translation is the only true translation. If you don’t translate a passage literally, all sorts of fanciful readings may result. And this is exactly what we have seen.

Why should you be concerned if a translator moves into interpretation? Because, as Winkie Pratney explains, he „may put in what he thinks something means. Sometimes he will be wrong.“[17] Imagine memorizing a verse, having that verse greatly influence your thinking, only to discover years later that you misunderstood it. And you misunderstood it only because you used a translation that had mistranslated it. Wouldn’t that upset you? It would me.

Historical Clues

Context helps determine the interpretation of a passage. If you update the passage to a modern context, you have removed a key rule in properly interpreting the Bible. Eugene Nida points out that „by close attention to literal wording and formal correspondence one can be transported back to an earlier culture.“[18] It is only within the context of the original culture that we can begin to understand the Scriptures correctly. This can only take place from a „literal“ translation.

There can be no doubt that there is a gulf between the culture of the Bible and modern culture. It is unfortunate that translators bridge this gulf, not by transporting readers back to Biblical culture, but by transforming the text into current modern culture. As Paul K. Jewett observes, „It is the gulf between the culture of the original authors and that of their contemporary readers that compels the translator to become an imperfect interpreter and so risk a loss or change of meaning.“[19] This risk is real. „While loss or change of meaning is inevitable in translation,“ notes Paul K. Jewett, „this does not excuse the way specific translations sometimes reflect a manipulation of the text.“[20] Unfortunately the dynamic equivalency theory of translating does just that, excuses a manipulation of the text.

The Inspired Word

„The Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture,“ states D.A. Carson, „equally inspired the syntax and the idioms.“[21] Therefore the syntax and idioms should be literally conveyed, rather than replaced with some contemporary substitute. Carson goes on to warn, „there is certainly a danger in trying to concoct a translation that is simpler than the Greek text itself.“[22] Yet this is exactly what many translators do.

It is hard to escape the logic of A.S. Worrell’s statement, „If these Scriptures are truly inspired, they must have been verbally inspired; and, if verbally inspired, the tense of every verb must have been inspired; and, being inspired, every tense ought to be duly translated.“[23] Robert Young says, concerning translations, that „to the extent that they vary from the original, the doctrine of verbal inspiration is lost, so far as that version is concerned. If a translation gives a present tense when the original gives a past, or a past when it has a present; a perfect for a future, or a future for a perfect; an „a“ for a „the“, or a „the“ for an „a“; an imperative for a subjunctive, or a subjunctive for an imperative; a verb for a noun, or a noun for a verb, it is clear that verbal inspiration is as much overlooked as if it had no existence. The word of God is made void by the traditions of men.“[24]

Lewis Foster notes, „the individual who has high regard for the inspiration of Scripture is interested even in the smallest detail of God’s inspired Word. In fact, he is anxious to duplicate each detail as far as possible in his translation work so that the person who cannot treat the original itself will have as close a facsimile as possible to work with.“[25] Unfortunately, as A.S. Worrell points out, „Many translators seem to have had in their minds just what ought to have been said, and they often disregard the Greek tenses to sustain their antecedent assumptions.“[26]

Basis of Bible Study

Those who depend upon a translation to study God’s word should want an accurate one. A paraphrase and a dynamic equivalent already interpret the Scripture for you. You are cornered into following the theological bias of the translator. Without a literal translation you have no way of testing the translators interpretation. You could believe a falsehood and never discover it.

The Final Authority

It is the general consensus of conservative commentators that the literal meaning is the basis for interpretation. Commentator after commentator regularly refers to the literal meaning, clearly indicating that ultimately it is the literal meaning which holds final authority. To disregard the literal meaning would incur the charge of liberalism or cultism. Nearly all Evangelical scholars, commentators, and educated preachers appeal to the literal meaning. Why do they do this? Because they recognize that the literal meaning is the only truly authoritative base for any interpretation they may make. And why is it authoritative? Because it best represents the Scripture’s meaning, without the subjective bias of theology, culture, ideology, or other extra Biblical influences.

Readability or Accuracy?

Many modern translators feel that „word-for-word literalness“ is „unacceptable to the modern reader,“ and therefore they „change“ it. Any such change, though, must be based upon the translators interpretation of what they believe the literal words mean.

We, in opposition to most modern translators, agree with Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, „Even difficult expressions are to be translated accordingly, or the product becomes a commentary instead of a translation. Some readability may be sacrificed in avoiding paraphrasing, yet accuracy always should take precedence over readability.“[27]

But for many translators readability is the most important rule of translation. J.B. Phillips, in the introduction to his paraphrase, makes readability the „essential“ principle of translation, calling it the „fundamental test.“[28] „This passion of mine for communication,“ notes Phillips, „has lead me sometimes into paraphrase, and sometimes to interpolate clarifying remarks which are certainly not in the Greek.“[29] He said that he had inserted „many extra words which do not occur in the Greek text at all.“[30] He fully realized that there can be „a manipulation of the words of New Testament Scripture to fit some private point of view.“[31]

Concerning the Gospels, E.V. Rieu once said: „Then again we have to consider whom they were written for. I came to the conclusion very soon that they were written, not for the man in the street, whose existence I do not really believe in, but for the man in the congregation, and that we must not write down to him, that he will not thank us for writing down to him. . . . the Greek Gospels. . . . are majestic, and I think we must strive to convey this effect in the best contemporary English at our command and never write down.“[32]

Literal translations have a long and fruitful heritage. From the venerated King James Version to John Wesley’s translation, to Alexander Campbell Living Oracles, to Joseph Rotherham Bible, to A.S. Worrell New Testament, to John N. Darby translation, to the New King James Version, to the New American Standard Bible. Lewis Foster’s comment should speak volumes, „The literal translations of our own day are produced for the most part by conservative, Bible believing scholars.“[33]

Basis of Sound Preaching

A literal translation is needed for preaching. Preaching begins, or at least ought to begin, with correctly interpreting the Bible. Now a correct interpretation of the Bible depends upon a correct translation. This is why T. Harwood Pattison, as while as many other homiletics teachers, insist on the preacher choosing a translation „which seems to come nearest to the original.“ [34] Nearly all of them seem to suggest that a literal translation be used.

Verbal Accuracy

I believe that translation accuracy should be approached as a constraint to make as many details in the translation match the original. The translator should never try to make the message clear by sacrificing detail. Every detail sacrificed limits the readers ability to accurately interpret God’s message. In translating the Scriptures, I believe faithfulness to the Hebrew and Greek original is more important than easy understandableness. Understandableness can be compensated by the commentary.

„The freer a translation becomes,“ warns Lewis Foster, who helped translate the New King James Version,  „the more possibility there is for the ideas of the translator to be read into the passage.“[35] R.C. Sproul agrees, „The more a translation moves in the direction of paraphrase, the more manifest is the danger of distortion.“[36] He also notes that a literal translation, „seeks to follow the Greek (or Hebrew) text as closely as possible in a  word-by-word pattern. Here strict fidelity to the ancient language is stressed in a verbal way. The strength of such a method is obviously found in its verbal accuracy. The weakness is its inevitable cumbersome and awkward literary style. . . . Such translations are very useful for study purposes, but somewhat awkward for normal reading.“[37]

Legal Documents

Would we ever translate the Constitution of the United States using the theory of dynamic equivalency? Imagine the result of different people translating the first amendment as a dynamic equivalent. The first amendment of the Bill of Rights literally reads, in part, „Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.“ A person might, depending upon their political background, translate it as a dynamic equivalent in the following way: „Congress will make no law honoring or establishing any religion, or stopping the practice of it.“ Which is not what the forefathers meant.

All legal documents, if they must be translated, would of course be translated literally, word-for-word. If every single word is important in a legal document, how much more important is every single word in the constitution of the kingdom of God. Every word is sacred, every word important, every word breathed out by God.

Why Against a Literal Translation?

Why are some people so against a literal translation? Could their animosity be more than scholarly? I firmly believe that some people are against a literal translation because they don’t want to literally obey it. They rationalize their disobedience by mistranslating the Bible. That is the reason behind the King James Version reading which says that love „is not easily provoked“ (1 Corinthians 13:5). The word „easily“ is not in the Greek. This is just one example where the moral requirements of Scripture are softened by translators.

Another reason some people do not want a literal translation is because it does not fit their theological bias. A literal translation would go a long way in bringing unity to the church. It would eliminate fanciful theological fictions. Such people attempt to evade the clear intent of Scripture through eliminating the literal meaning.


  1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 239.
  2. Lewis Foster, Selecting a Translation of the Bible (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1983), p. 70.
  3. R. C. Sproul, in Practical Christianity, LaVone Neff ed. (Carmel, NY: Guidepost, 1987), p. 391.
  4. Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Reasons Skeptics Should Consider Christianity (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., 1981), p. 64.
  5.  Philip W. Comfort, The Complete Guide to Biblical Translations (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1996), p. 93
  6. Ibid., p. 91
  7. Ibid., p. 93.
  8. D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 89.
  9. K. C. Hinckley, A Compact Guide to the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1989), p. 80.
  10. Arthur S. Way, The Letters of Saint Paul (Chicago: Moody Press, 1950), p. ix.
  11. Tim LaHaye, How to Study the Bible For Yourself (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1976), p. 122.
  12. Ibid., p. 122.
  13. Paul E. Little, Know Why You Believe (Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press, 1987), pp. 54-55.
  14. D. R. Dungon, Hermeneutics (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., n.d.), p. 24.
  15. Clinton Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation (Kansas City: Central Seminary Press, 1930), p. 49.
  16. Walter Henrichsen and Gayle Jackson, Studying, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990), p. 180.
  17. Winkie Pratney, A Handbook for Followers of Jesus (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1977), pp. 60-61.
  18. Eugene A. Nida, Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964), p. 159.
  19. Paul K. Jewett, God, Creation, and Revelation: A Neo-Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), p. 110.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Carson, p. 90.
  22. Ibid., p. 96.
  23. A. S. Worrell, The New Testament of our Lord and Saviour (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, n.d.), p. iii.
  24. Robert Young, Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), Preface.
  25. Foster, p. 79.
  26. Worrell, p. iii.
  27.  McDowell,  p. 73.
  28. J. B. Phillips, Eight Translation New Testament: New Testament in Modern English (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1980), p. xxi.
  29. Ibid., p. xx.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., p. xxii.
  32. E. V. Riev, as quoted by Foster, p. 50.
  33. Foster, p. 79.
  34. T. Harwood Pattison, The Making of the Sermon (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1960), p. 41.
  35. Foster, p. 78.
  36. R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 115.
  37. Ibid.


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