The Word of God in English – A Review

 Ryken, Leland. The Word of God in English. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002. (Clickable)

Before I begin this long bit of writing, I want to say what my words are and what they are not.

1. What I’ve written below does *not* mean that I think we should not have formal translations and only have dynamic or functional. We need both.
2. What I’ve written below *does* mean that I think Ryken’s arguments *against* DE are demonstratively wrong (though I don’t have time to deal with everything).

I also what to apologize if all of this is choppy, I wrote it in random chunks so please forgive the organization.

I find that Ryken’s reasoning for say that English shouldn’t have DE (Functional Equivalence is the preferred term to describe the NIV/TNIV) completely unconvincing. His words:

“In my view, much more thought should have been given to whether translation into the English language—a language in which the Bible had become almost a native book—should follow the same ground rules that prevailed with languages that had just been reduced to an alphabet and written form” (14)

are ethnocentric and would probably rather offensive to many of the peoples that have received translations in the past 75 years. And DE is based upon sound linguistic theory, not for translating into languages that just received alphabets, but for translation in general. The fact that the Bible has been in English for a long time has nothing to do with that. And the fact that the Bible in English is considered “almost a native book” (14) should not be considered a good thing at all.

I think that the little approval he does give of missionary translation for the use of DE for is in complete contradiction to just about everything he says in his “Fallacy #1” because nothing in what he describes in this fallacy has anything to do with how long a language has had the Bible in translation or how long its had an alphabet. Everything he says in this section is against DE as a whole.

And his reasoning behind this so called fallacy is flawed when he writes:

“The fallacy of thinking that a translation should translate the meaning rather than the words of the original is simple: There is no such a thing as disembodied thought, emancipated from words. Ideas and thoughts depend on words and are expressed by them. When we change the words, we change the meaning” (80).

He is correct of course that meaning is not disembodied from words, but his argument fails when one takes the time to consider what he is saying.

“When we change the words, we change the meaning”

I would ask, change the words from what? His argument makes it sound like the essentially literal translation is the original meaning and that DE changes the words from the essentially literal. But this is far from the case. *Both* translation theories change the words *from Greek* to English. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense to suggest (as he very much seems to be doing) that the essentially literal *translation* doesn’t change the meaning.

A second point is that different words can mean the same thing. There is no difference in meaning between “I will go to the store” and “I am going to go to the store.”

I get the impression that Ryken thinks a little to hard about the nuances of the text that might or might no be there.

Thus when we move to his examples in 1 Thess 1.3, I can’t help but wonder about how much actual difference in meaning exists between the “DE/FE” translations. He points out that they are translated differently, but says very little about what little difference in meaning there actually is. The NIV/TNIV and GNB have the same meaning and the NLT and CEV have the same meaning. *And* the difference between these two groups is very slight indeed.

And you have to admit that the typical English reader if asked what “work of faith” means would struggle to tell you, while at the same time, he could rather easily say what “work produced by faith” means. And if the reader struggles to understand what a phrase means, what is the benefit of it unless you have both kinds of translations together?

And there is also the fact that if you were to look at a Greek Grammar for this construction (which is a genitive), you would not see: “Genitives mean ‘of,’ anything else is an interpretation of the word ‘of.'”

Rather you would see a list like this:

Descriptive Genitive
Possessive Genitive
Genitive of Relationship
Partitive Genitive (“Wholative”)
Attributive Genitive
Attributed Genitive
Genitive of Material
Genitive of Content
Genitive in Simple Apposition
Genitive of Apposition (Epexegetical)
Genitive of Destination
Predicate Genitive
Genitive of Subordination
Genitive of Production/Producer
Genitive of Product
Genitive of Separation
Genitive of Source (or Origin)
Genitive of Comparison
Subjective Genitive
Objective Genitive
Plenary Genitive
Genitive of Price or Value or Quantity
Genitive of Time
Genitive of Place
Genitive of Means
Genitive of Agency
Genitive Absolute
Genitive of Reference
Genitive of Association
Genitive After Certain Verbs (as Direct Object)
Genitive After Certain Adjectives
Genitive After Certain Nouns
Genitive After Certain Prepositions

Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 765.

So to say that this phrase *must* be translated “of” to be literal is misleading since “of” isn’t in the Greek at all any more than “produced by” is. And nor should this list cause alarm in appearing that a genitive can mean just about anything because the majority of these are very similar in meaning and I think some of them are probably completely identical (the exceptions being those that are rather special usages, but 1 Thess 1.3 is is not such a case).

Thus when Ryken on page 19 says that Formal equivalence seeks to reproduce the “form” of the original, I can’t help but think to myself that he wrongly assumes that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the the form of the two languages, something that is completely false.

I find his emphasis on the “primacy of words” to be much too narrow, restrictive, and reductionistic.
Earlier in the book, Ryken writes,

“Translation of course introduces an element of variability into the situation, so that we can debate whether this or that English word best captures the meaning of the original. But there remains a decisive difference between essentially literal translations that attempt to convey the exact meaning of the original words and other translations that do not feel obliged to reproduce the precise wording of the original” (32).

This issue of the primacy of words, as I said, bothers me. As I understand Ryken, he seems to believe that words are the essential element of meaning. As far as I can tell, any linguist would deny that statement. Because of this belief, we have translations in the ESV such as Psalm 1.1 (which is the classic example), “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;”

To “stand in the way” of someone means something *completely different* in English than it does in Hebrew. That is, in English standing in the way of someone is to prevent them from moving, while in Hebrew it means to follow and live the way they live. This can only create confusion for the English reader and contrary to the Ryken quote just above, *does not convey the exact meaning of the original words.*

The fact that translating the words, as Ryken says we must do, actually makes the meaning completely different thoroughly damages his translation theory. For the typical English reader to recognize that “stand in the way” means “live like they do,” they would need either a commentary to tell them, but doesn’t that destroy the point of the translation? Shouldn’t the meaning of the translation be self-evident? In this case, translating the form actually denies the reader access to scripture and in a sense, reversing the Reformation.

What if that layperson looses faith in the reliability of the translation because the commentary or pastor is always telling him that it means something else other than what the English text so very clears says?

Meaning is not found in primacy of words (and cannot), but in how words relate to other words, that is, at the discourse level, something anyone trained in linguistics will tell you. It is not merely an issue of which English word best represents the original word, but also which syntactic construction represents the original and how that construction or word fits within the flow of thought of the book or letter.

I would go as far to argue that what Ryken calls “literal” is in fact, not. What he calls “literal” is actually “traditional.” That is, the traditional way that we render syntactical construction X into English. I would also argue that DE is not necessarily not “literal,” but rather, is in unconventional. I think that what DE is saying is, “Hey, we think that rendering Y better represents the original.”

Anyway, I’ve ranted long enough, so to repeat what I said at the beginning:

1. What I’ve written does *not* mean that I think we should not have formal translations and only have dynamic or functional.
2. What I’ve written *does* mean that I think Ryken’s arguments *against* DE are demonstratively wrong (though I don’t have time to deal with everything).
3. What I’ve written *does* mean that I think we need multiple kinds of translations.

4 thoughts on “The Word of God in English – A Review

Add yours

  1. seems to me like it is just getting worse… have read the chroniles of narnia? its like the dwarves thinking they are hiding out in the dark shed when there is really light and truth all around them…

  2. Mike, I just found your review of Ryken’ _The Word of God in English_ and I think it is brilliant, fair as well and left me laughing out loud. I’ve been a Bible translation consultant for 12 years with another 11 years experience in cross-cultural church planting. I read Ryken and was just appalled at its unexcusably ignorant, obfuscating and elitist approach to handling the Word of God, as if long English acquaintance with the English language has automatically made simpler, more dynamic equivalence translations of questionable value. In our work we started out translating for the deaf community who needed a Bible in an English style that could be understood and used in deaf evangelism and discipleship. It was only later recognized that such a translation was helpful for the hearing community too, especially those who use English as a second language as the ERV (Easy-to-Read version). Later a permutation of our translation was liscensed as the NCV. It comes in for quite a bit of criticism in Ryken’s book. Now the ERV and NCV are used widely in prisons, street ministries an in outreach to immigrants who want to learn English. Most recently it has been taken up as the basic text for teaching English literacy to those who do not speak English. Too often those at the top of the educated world have a “let them eat (ESV) cake” without realizing such an approach would automatically exclude many from the chance of hearing God’s Word at all. As Paul said, at one time he “had a righteousness of his own” but he abandonned it in favor of faith in Christ. Since Christ is Lord of the world, an elitist approach like that advocated by Ryken, puts at risk those who will never be able to make sense of a literaly and literary text. In my view, those who have a Bible they do not understand, do not have a Bible.

    1. Thanks for you kind words and the history of the NCV. I wasn’t aware of its origins. I use it regularly in my reading. Back when I was a freshman in undergrad, nearly ten years ago now, I had a professor for our New Testament Survey course. One of the requirements was that we had to read through the entire NT–an excellent aim, to be sure. But he also required that the reading be done in either the NASB or the ESV because only they were “literal enough” for his tastes. I have always wondered how many of the students understood what they were reading at times…

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