In Which I Disagree With Mark Driscoll (and it has little to do with women)

Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill recently posted a blog over at The Resurgence on Why Mars Hill uses the ESV Bible. He starts with 6 theological reasons behind choosing the ESV (or why the ESV is the King of all Bibles).

I have my own qualms with the ESV (one of which he mentions, although he sees it as a plus) but I do own an ESV bible and use it at times when I need to read an English text. I consider it to be one among many readable translations. However, I found Driscoll’s six theological reasons for choosing the ESV highly problematic from a linguistic perspective.

What Driscoll puts forward as obvious truths I see as common misconceptions concerning Bible translation, interpretation, and hermeneutics that I hear quite often in the church.  The original post is rather long so I won’t quote it all here, but I did want to take a look at Driscoll’s third point and his reasoning behind it.

“The ESV upholds the truth that words carry meaning

Some scholars will argue that thought-for-thought and paraphrase translations do not change the meaning of Scripture, just the words of Scripture in an effort to clarify the meaning of Scripture. But this reasoning is misguided because meaning is carried in words. So when we change the words of Scripture, we are changing the meaning of Scripture.

There are a couple of problems with Driscoll’s reasoning here.  For one, linguists and other language scholars have argued the very opposite — that meaning is not carried in words.  I learned early on in my language studies that “words don’t have meaning.”

Fellow HBU graduate Kris Lyle has a great post (go read it!) on this very subject – Do words have meanings?  Kris points out the importance of CONTEXT in determining meaning because words do not come “pre-packaged” with meanings.  Linguistic research, particularly in the areas of semantics and pragmatics, has corrected this false idea that “meaning is carried in words.”

Kris provides a great excerpt from an article by linguist Vyvyan Evans (Evans, V. “Lexical concepts, cognitive models and meaning-construction,” Cognitive Linguistics 17:4 [2006], p. 492):

“That is, the ‘meaning’ associated with a word in any given utterance appears to be, in part, a function of the particular linguistic context in which it is embedded. Put another way, word ‘meaning’ is protean, its semantic contribution sensitive to and dependent on the context which it, in part, gives rise to (Croft 2000).

To illustrate consider the following ‘meanings’ of fast.

(1)   a. That parked BMW is a fast car.

b. That car is travelling fast.

c. That doddery old man is a fast driver.

d. That’s the fast lane (of the motorway).

In each of these examples the semantic contribution of fast, what I will later refer to as its informational characterisation, is somewhat different. In (1a) fast has to do with the potential for rapid locomotion. In (1b) it has to do with rapid locomotion. In (1c) it relates to ‘caused’ motion beyond an established norm: a speed limit. And in (1d) fast concerns a venue for rapid locomotion. Examples such as these show that the view of open class words, as possessing fixed meanings, is untenable on closer scrutiny. The precise semantic contribution of any word is a function of the utterance context in which it is embedded, and, moreover, the sorts of (conceptual) knowledge these lexical entities provide access to, as I shall argue in detail. In other words, words don’t have ‘meanings’ in and of themselves. Rather meaning is a function of the utterance in which a word is embedded, and the complex processes of lexical concept integration, an issue which is developed below.

Second, Driscoll argues that thought-for-thought translation changes the words and meaning of scripture by adding additional interpretation and commentary whereas a word-for-word translation does not.  Earlier in his post, Driscolls writes:

“A word-for-word translation (like the ESV) best enables this to occur by seeking, as much as possible, not to insert interpretive commentary into the translated text of Scripture.”

The problem here is that there simply isn’t an exact one-for-one correspondence between languages.  What I mean is, there isn’t one word in Greek that is perfectly and always represented by another word in English.  It is inaccurate to say that δικαιοσυνη means ‘righteousness’.  What we can say is that ‘righteousness’ is one of the English words that we can use in some instances to represent the Greek word δικαιοσυνη (depending on the context!)  Choosing a word from one language to represent a word from another language always involves a choice.  The truth is all translation involves interpretation, whether you employ a formal equivalency method (which Driscoll assumes is almost completely devoid of interpretation or commentary) or a dynamic equivalency method.  Formal equivalency translation seeks to represent as closely as possible the grammar and syntax of the original Greek or Hebrew while dynamic equivalency is concerned with representing the meaning or intention behind the original Greek or Hebrew as closely as possible.  (It’s interesting to see that both methods were employed by translators of the LXX throughout different books of the Hebrew Bible!).

In many conservative circles formal equivalency is often seen as ‘pure’ and ‘more accurate’ while dynamic equivalency is seen as ‘muddied’ and ‘less accurate’.  The truth is both methods have their strengths and weaknesses and both methods involve interpretation.

I imagine Driscoll’s post could generate a lot of discussion on Bible translation and the nature of language and it’s unfortunate that the blog does not allow comments.  What about you?  Did you find Driscoll’s reasons convincing?  Why or why not?  Is a word-for-word translation better than a thought-for-thought translation?

37 thoughts on “In Which I Disagree With Mark Driscoll (and it has little to do with women)

  1. Great post Jessica. Ironically, the last I checked (about a year ago), Driscoll had not done even seminary level Greek or Hebrew. He must be parroting someone else because unless my informant is incorrect (which I doubt), or he has suddenly entered into an intensive language training program (which I doubt), he is completely reliant upon English. As I’ve seen others mention elsewhere, it seems that this is a new form of KJV-Onlyism. Now it is the ESV, the Reformed, conservative, “orthodox” translation of Scripture. The only reason people will listen to Driscoll on this matter is because of the cult of personality. The church would be a clearer thinking community if people would listen to those like yourself, or Jimmy, of Michael Aubrey, or Steve Runge, who have dedicated time and energy to correctly understand the text, the languages, and linguistics who also are willing to share their knowledge online. If only…

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    1. Thanks Brian! I think you’re spot on about the new KJV-onlyism. I myself used to be an ESV-only proponent and had a negative view of other translations, especially dynamic translations. That’s partly why this issue is important to me – the more I learn about language, meaning, and translation, the more I realize how wrong I was.

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      1. And it’s precisely in these situations that language ought to humble us.

        I’ve been thinking about Brian’s comment (and also your follow-up) for a few days now. The oddest thing about this movement is the ESV itself. At its heart, it’s really a revision of the RSV, which was the translation that opened up the world to an alternative to the KJV. Perhaps the ESV sees itself as following in that lineage after the long-standing popularity (or stranglehold, some might say) of the NIV. It also follows the linguistic choices of the RSV, which offered a sort of English deemed more common than KJV. I think the ESV probably views that as preserving the heritage of that sort of English.

        All three translations, necessarily, like every translation, have some ratio of formal and functional equivalency. The ESV acknowledges this. All three translations do so because they share a goal of using common language. The use of Koine Greek, Latin, and English testify to this in their own ways. Further, the (de-)evolution of the English language is visible through translations like the KJV, RSV, and NIV.

        All of this really just makes me think of something Dr Hatchett once said, “Clarity is not simple.” It has stayed with me since I first heard it, like many things he’s said. And I think this is so because language mirrors our own complexities. It mirrors our interdependence. It resists univocality. The pursuit of clarity is a worthwhile goal but it is a target prone to wander. And that ought to humble us.

        (Sidebar: I always thought the NASB was more formal.)

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  2. Wonderful post! It’s always the bittersweet truth for an English-major to admit, but “meaning” is, as you say, dependent upon context. “9/11” meant next to nothing prior to the terrible events of September 11th, 2001. But we now use “9/11” assuming everyone knows what we’re talking about (and we’re only using numbers!). So yes, context is king; not the ESV (or any other beloved translation).

    Thank you for your thoughts!

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  3. This is a great post. I would agree with you on many of your points, although I do own an ESV bible and use it quite often. I do not know biblical languages which I would say hinders my reading of the scripture. I would agree with you in that words by definition don’t have meaning. It is all about the context that surrounds the phrase. Not only other words but historical events and things of that nature have an effect on how the scripture was written. However I would rather not bash one translation or another because of the amount of work that was done on our behalf to get the bible into English. The one point I would like to make is that I see a need for a one-world language. When the new testament was written Greek was spoken around the world (that is, Europe). If not a modern one-world language I would push for every Christian to learn biblical languages. It is something that I plan on doing. And I would rather read the bible in the language that it was originally written in due to the room of interpretation left for those who translate the bible.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! While I would LOVE if everyone in the church learned to read Greek and Hebrew, I realize that’s likely never going to happen. I think that’s one reason it is important to read scripture in the context of community. We’re all gifted in different ways and that’s a good thing. Even if we all learned to read Greek and Hebrew (and Aramaic), we’d still have different ideas about what’s going on in the text. Communication is a very interesting, complex, and sometimes messy process. It’s amazing how God has communicated through numerous texts and translations throughout the history of the church. (God is faithful!) Best wishes in your future language learning – learning Greek and Hebrew is lots of fun (and hard work)!

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    2. I would say that when the New Testament was written, Latin was spoken around the Mediterranean world too. Also, most of the action in the Bible takes place in western Asia and northeastern Africa. I too would rather read the Bible in its original languages, but I feel a shudder at the thought of a one-world language; what God hath confounded, let no man refound, I think.

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    3. The idea of one world language is probably very unhelpful in the field of Bible interpretation. The fact is that every language has concepts that are unique to that language eg there is no English equivalent for the French concept of deja vu. And when the Chinese talk literally about “hot air”, it does not mean what we would think it does in English (in either the literal or metaphorical meaning), instead it is talking about a concept that exists only in Chinese thought.

      Similarly in Greek and Hebrew there will be concepts that English does not have a word for, and in some cases, can’t even be explained in a few words.

      I do think that in the English language we are extraordinarily blessed to have many different translations, and that affords those who don’t know Greek or Hebrew a way to get a feel for the meaning in the original languages, simply read many different English translations.

      I can understand a church having a policy of usually using a certain translation, to make it easier for everyone to follow along on the same page, but the wealth of Scripture in the English language is not limited to any single translation, but is instead only truly apparent in the vast number of translations.

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      1. Yes there are many concepts that are ingrained in the context and culture of one language group and sub-groups within those language groups that can’t be defined outside that language, because the concept doesn’t exist. For example, my husband and I live in Tokyo and I teach TESL. He is involved in a Bible-study group and used the phrase “stick to your guns.” The problem was – of the other guys in the group, though English speakers (British, Indian, Australian, New Zealander and one South African) only the South African guy understood the phrase. Gun idealism is an American concept and so are most of the euphemisms that go with it.

        I speak English, Spanish, Mandarin and some Japanese. I find myself sometimes hunting for words in English, wishing I could use pieces from each in general conversation. There is no good translation for “Daijobu” or “Mei Guanxi,” or vacilando. No way to translate the aritstic vagueness of Mandarin that obscures and reveals at the same time, and as such, without Mandarin, there would be no way to understand the concepts that drive the culture as a whole.

        There are whole creative concepts and thought processes missing from English that exist in other languages. A one world language would destroy that beautiful tapestry that allows us to grow, create and learn.

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  4. I recently stumbled on an article by Lübbe (2002) that gave me a clearer picture of this weird interplay between words, context, and meaning. I know in my post you reference I said “words don’t have meanings, meanings have words”—and while I still stand by this—I think some qualifications are needed if you want to get more technical in understanding this reciprocal contingency between words and their contexts. Here’s what Lübbe (2002:250) has to say:

    “Lexicography aimed at the meaning level of the word is from a theoretical perspective somewhat artificial—if it is true that words have meaning only in context. That is to say, lexical semantics is, in a sense an imposition, an extralinguistic operation. [We agree with these latter statements] But that words cannot be easily interchanged without affecting the meaning of the context must mean that individual words do make their own discrete contribution to a context. [And there’s the kicker that must be wrestled with] It should consequently be possible to define the boundaries of a word’s meaning and, if this is correct, it is essential for lexicographical purposes that the contribution of the individual words constituting a syntagm should not be confused and that no part of the implied meaning of the syntagm should be attributed to the word that is being investigated.”

    While I agree with the first half, after “it should consequently” I think he loses me. It seems he is trying too hard to draw boundaries that will always be fuzzy and extremely dynamic. I highly doubt we could ever demarcate such theoretical parameters of a modern language, much less of an ancient one. Though the aim is good, to try and separate the “lexical meaning” against the flavors that arrive when implanted in context, in praxis this is too hard (impossible?).

    That said, as people who are interested in lexicography (and necessarily lexicology), I think we MUST start using some established principles to guide our assessment of a lexeme’s semantic potential. For too long biblical language lexicographers have done their work without an explicit criteria—that’s available to a reader—which guides and motivates their analysis. With an accepted criteria we could (despite the theoretical fallacy) arrive at distinct meaning units for a lexeme and then gauge the amount of contextual coloring present in a given usage. I think this is a fallacy we must accept if we intend to explain the dynamic relationship between words, meanings, and contexts in a lexicon.

    Ugh, I better stop here. I’ve gotten on a soap box. This arena is basically what my thesis was about so I could go on too long, and probably already have.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Kris! I really appreciate your input on this subject. I have been thinking on this point from your quote from Lübbe: “But that words cannot be easily interchanged without affecting the meaning of the context must mean that individual words do make their own discrete contribution to a context.” I think he’s got a point. I realize it is rather simplistic to say “words don’t have meaning.”

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        1. What is Docent???? Never heard of it, so had a look! I am shocked! It looks like sermon prep. has become a commodity! Oh My! This is really scary!

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  5. I honestly do not know why anyone would listen to Driscoll, he has shown time and time again that he does not know how to exegete Scripture.

    I am egalitarian and I use the ESV even tho it is a masculinist translation. Why? For one, I like that I can often reverse engineer their word choices and figure out what the Greek word is. For two, since I know it is a masculinist translation, I know that anything that has to do with gender in the ESV is suspect, so I can just ignore that aspect or even better use it as a reverse oracle to understand the text in an egalitarian way.

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  6. I think that Michael Horton from Westminster Seminary California said it best: “Words don’t mean anything, we mean things by using words.” Speech Act theory is not just audible.

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  7. I grew up in the KJV Only movement– and then went on to get a Master’s degree in English, study Greek and Hebrew… The reasons Driscoll listed aren’t that far removed from the KJV only argument, and it doesn’t surprise me that a man with a fundamentalist mental approach to theology (although it’s a fundamentalistic adherence to the neo-Reformed movement, instead of the fundamentalism I grew up in) finds these sorts of reasons appealing.

    There’s also a connection in his argument to the Inerrantist movement, and his statements echo men like Ryrie.

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  8. Great post. I studied Latin in college and know from experience that translation is as much an art form as it is a science. In reality, I’ve found real translators employ word-for-word and thought-for-thought translations simultaneously, and the best would fully admit that there are many words and concepts from ancient languages that English simply lacks the ability to properly express.
    I’ve run across similar things like this a lot with Driscoll. As someone who has studied ancient languages and classical history, it’s obvious that Driscoll’s issue is that he simply doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand translation, he doesn’t understand history. He just doesn’t understand. The problem, of course, is that he thinks he does.
    Thank you.

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  9. Great stuff! Thank you for this. I would think that Driscoll doesn’t allow responses/comments to his post because he’s afraid of the criticism; or he doesn’t want critiques such as yours to stain the self-made purity of his assumed intelligence in such matters.

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  10. I actually think Driscoll makes several good points. Yes, we can quibble about the extent to which translators interpret a passage. I don’t disagree that translation involves some interpretation, but do you really disagree with Driscoll so strongly? Isn’t it fair to say that if a reader wants to understand a passage according to the author’s meaning that a translation should as closely as possible match the original? One of the examples given is Psalm 24:4. I don’t think “those who do right for the right reasons” is as accurate as “he who has clean hands and a pure heart”. Interestingly, there are several words in English that simply did not exist until the Bible was translated, because the translators believed that new WORDS needed to be invented to convey the meaning of the original text.

    Having said that, I’m sure you know your stuff and I don’t care that much which translation a reader chooses to use. It’s just a bit perplexing why you would outright disagree with Driscoll on this issue.

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  11. I actually think Driscoll makes several good points. Yes, we can quibble about the extent to which translators interpret a passage. I don’t disagree that translation involves some interpretation, but do you really disagree with Driscoll so strongly? Isn’t it fair to say that if a reader wants to understand a passage according to the author’s meaning that a translation should as closely as possible match the original? One of the examples given is Psalm 24:4. I don’t think “those who do right for the right reasons” is as accurate as “he who has clean hands and a pure heart”. Interestingly, there are several words in English that simply did not exist until the Bible was translated, because the translators believed that new WORDS needed to be invented to convey the meaning of the original text.

    Having said that, I’m sure you know your stuff and I don’t care that much which translation a reader chooses to use. It’s just a bit perplexing why you would outright disagree with Driscoll on this issue.

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    1. To be honest, I’m not even sure what point you’re trying to make, unless it is simply “Mark Driscoll is wrong!”

      Btw, I think his point about gender is somewhat overstated. I don’t see how it makes much difference between using “man” and “human”.

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      1. Her point was that word for word translation like Driscoll was advocating loses the meat of the meaning very often.

        As an example, I used to work on English-to-Mandarin, Mandarin-to-English translations in China. One of the restaurants I frequented, used word-for-word translation. Their handicapped toilet had a sign on the outside that read “Toilet for Retards.” While literally word-for-word, the translations was correct, there was obviously some problems with the understanding and concepts.

        What Driscoll is advocating is studying the Bible in such a way that people translate things “Toilets for Retards” and cling adamantly that that is the only way it could be translated – this is faulty. It disregards that the word “retard” is packed full of cultural connotations and that the meaning “bathroom with rails to make it easier” is captured better if phrased “Handicapped Bathroom.”

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  12. I was a pretty die-hard fan of word-for-word translations growing up. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. I don’t want some scholar telling me what Paul *really* meant; I want to read Paul’s own words and see what *he* says he meant.

    Then I took a Greek class.

    Suddenly, thought-for-thought made a whole lot more sense. Koine Greek simply doesn’t work the same way English does. Any translator who renders the text readable in English has to do some explaining, some selection, some judgment calls as to what that particular article or participle is meant to convey.

    I think both approaches to translation are valuable, and–particularly on tricky passages–it’s very helpful to read both.

    Perhaps it’s kind of ironic, though, that I have come to trust the ESV less because of the few places where I can clearly see how it has been translated in an intentionally Reformed way. I don’t think it’s a “bad translation”, but I have a pretty clear idea of where its bias lies. I prefer NASB for word-for-word, and I like NIV (and its variants) for thought-for-thought.

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  13. This is a great post! Have you ever read Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s ‘How to read the Bible for all it’s worth’? Your thoughts would be in agreement with what they had to say about translations. Driscoll’s post is dangerously misleading!

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  14. Awesome post Jessica! I have an MA in TESL, and linguistics are all our core courses. I can absolutely agree – from translating Mandarin to English, there is no word for word – in fact word for just ends up with all the funny Mandarin-to-English translation like “Grass Have life; Cherish” (Don’t walk on the grass) you lose so much of the meaning by focusing on the direct word-for-word. This has been my frustration with a lot of church just general for a long time – we rely way to heavily on the English translations rather than wrestling with the implications of a text that is ambiguous and multi-layered in meaning. Great post!

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  15. Hey Jessica, something important to think about that I forgot to mention in relation to the primary purpose of your post:

    Did you know that Driscoll has hired Docent to do the bulk of his research for him?(!) I wonder how much of this ESV backing is due to him regurgitating opinions he heard from some Docent scholar (I’m tempted to put quotes around the former word, but I don’t want to be that cynical!).

    Here’s the link where he endorses what they do: http://www.docentgroup.com/pastor_stories. He’s also on the front page of the site, testifying to his praise of Docent: http://www.docentgroup.com/.

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    1. I should add: I know nothing about the people Docent hires, so I’m really not trying to bash their credentials, I’m just pointing out the possibility that whoever Driscoll’s “personalized/customized scholar” is that was assigned to him may not be informed in translation theory, and thus offer poor advice to Driscoll in this regard.

      But hey, maybe Driscoll came to these conclusions on his own! 😉 (And I mean’t “latter”, not “former”! Oops)

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  16. Amanda B on August 26, 2013 at 3:55 am said: “I have come to trust the ESV less because of the few places where I can clearly see how it has been translated in an intentionally Reformed way. I don’t think it’s a “bad translation”, but I have a pretty clear idea of where its bias lies. I prefer NASB for word-for-word, and I like NIV (and its variants) for thought-for-thought.”

    I concur, especially when reviewing the ESV study notes.

    I think it is sad that there is so much disunity in the body of Christ as most of it stems from the strong differences held between various bile scholars (which I beleive are the basis for so many denominations and sects within Christianity). Take Romans 9:5 for example. The ESV and the RSV are not even in the same ballpark with that vers – and that is just ONE example. There are many many more that really change the meaning of the text.

    But I’m just a layman, not a scholar, so what do I know? Right?!? 😉

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