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Why has the English Standard Version become the Bible translation of choice in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod?

May 14th, 2009
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From time to time, I hear from pastors and lay people asking, “Why did the Missouri Synod decide to go with the English Standard Version in its new hymnal resources and now across most of its published resources?”

It has been a number of years, nearly six to be exact, since the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Worship issued their recommendation to The LCMS that as part of the process of adopting a new hymnal, the English Standard Version Bible translation be the translation of choice for all worship materials in the Missouri Synod. And since the hymnal and all companion resources was adopted by the Synod convention with an overwhelmingly strong majority, since the Commission on Worship surveyed the entire Synod’s pastoral roster relentlessly beforehand, and kept everyone fully aware and informed of all decisions about this, and all matters related to the hymnal, and then, in light of the fact that now nearly 70% of all LCMS congregations are using Lutheran Service Book, with an amazingly high level of satisfaction, and low level of complaint, it is clear that the decision to go with the ESV has been very well received and well accepted.

The ESV is now used in the campus chapels of both of our seminaries and most of our universities. In the process of selecting and recommending the ESV, a massive amount of consultation was done with both seminary faculties and our Commission on Theology and Church Relations.

I thought it might be useful to share the Commission on Worship’s statement on the choice to use the ESV Bible translation. Here then, from December 2003, is the Commission’s statement. Available at: http://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=5126

Bible Translation Recommended
December 2003

A statement from the Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

After careful study and consultation, the Commission on Worship is recommending the English Standard Version (ESV) as the primary Bible translation for the new LCMS hymnal and its companion volumes. The commission made its decision at its October 27–28 meeting. Their recommendation will go to the synodical convention next summer along with the rest of the Lutheran Hymnal Project proposal.

When the Lutheran Hymnal Project began five years ago, the Commission on Worship recognized that the selection of Bible translation would be an important decision that required careful deliberation. For this reason, a separate committee was formed to examine issues of translation and language usage. In early 2002, the Translations Committee issued an extensive comparative study of modern Bible translations. Later that year, the committee distributed an abbreviated version of this study to each of the Synod’s 35 districts, asking that all of the circuits in each district be encouraged to study the issue. Finally, in the spring of 2003, the committee requested an opinion from the Commission on Theology and Church Relations concerning the accuracy of various Bible translations.

In its opinion, adopted on September 15, 2003, the CTCR noted the following:

•          “On theological and linguistic grounds, the English Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New King James Version are preferable to the New International Version.”

•          “On text-critical grounds, the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible are preferable to the New King James Version.”

The CTCR went on to say that in principle it “declines to endorse officially any English translation of the Bible.”

No Perfect Translation

So why didn’t the CTCR give an official endorsement of a particular translation? Historically, our Synod has never adopted an official translation of the Bible. Among the various reasons for this precedence is the fact that no translation is perfect. Each has its particular strengths and weaknesses. As the Translations Committee and the Commission on Worship worked their way toward a final decision, they continually tested various translations against the original Hebrew and Greek, asking which versions were most consistent in faithfully translating the original languages of the Bible.

In the study materials accompanying its opinion, Committee II of the CTCR provided some examples from the New International Version (NIV) that demonstrated why they did not consider this translation to be preferable “on theological and linguistic grounds.” Here are a few of their citations:

Acts 3:21

The NIV translates this passage as “He [Jesus] must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything.” A literal translation of this passage is quite different: “Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoring.” While the NIV translation appears easier to understand, its paraphrase of the original gives the impression that Jesus’ body can no longer be present with us. Such a notion is in direct contradiction to the biblical teaching on the Lord’s Supper where Jesus promises that his true body and blood are given for us to eat and to drink.

Matthew 28:20

Here the NIV translates with the phrase “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The Greek word which is translated with “obey” has a much broader range of meaning, including the concepts of observing, keeping in one’s heart, faithfully preserving, and doing. The NIV’s use of the word “obey” here and in other passages tends to reinforce a Reformed understanding that focuses only on what the Christian “does.”

If no translation is perfect, it might be logical to conclude that no translation, certainly not the NIV, can be trusted. The Commission on Worship has no intention of making that claim.

While no translation may be perfect, one can be confident that reputable translations of the Bible do seek to be faithful. In most cases, the differences between translations are minor. Only occasionally is a doctrine called into question on the basis of a particular translation. It is for these reasons that our church body continues to insist that our pastors be trained to read and translate from the original biblical languages. Through their faithful study, they are able to guide us through the sometimes difficult labyrinths of Bible translations

English Standard Version

So why was the English Standard Version chosen? Before answering that question, it may be helpful to provide a little background concerning the genesis of this translation.

The ESV was released in 2001 after an intense period of development. It is published by Good News Publishers (CrossWay Books) in Wheaton, Ill., a privately owned Christian publisher that has been publishing Christian books and literature for 65 years.

The history of the ESV began a number of years ago when the editors at Good News approached the National Council of Churches (NCC) with a proposal to publish a conservative revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. The NCC owns the copyright to the RSV but no longer permits its sale. After the NCC agreed to the proposal, the editors at Good News assembled a team of Greek and Hebrew experts to begin the revision. During the course of their work, several LCMS biblical scholars served as reviewers of various biblical books.

The interest in the RSV was based on the recognition that it was generally a very fine translation of the Bible. First published in 1952, the RSV was based on the fruits of the latest research on the biblical manuscripts. In addition, its translators sought wherever possible to preserve the high literary quality of the King James Version. It was for these reasons that the RSV became a natural successor to the KJV, especially in many LCMS congregations during the 1960s and 1970s.

Like every translation, however, the RSV had its weaknesses, specifically, its liberal tendencies in certain places where Old Testament prophecies were denied. In one famous passage (Rom. 9:5) the divinity of Christ was even denied through the creative re-punctuation of the original text! Some of these weaknesses were retained and even broadened with the addition of unacceptable inclusive language principles when the RSV was revised and published as the New Revised Standard Version in 1989.

The primary criterion on which the commission based its choice of the ESV was that of accuracy of translation. Its overall assessment is that the ESV is a very reliable translation. Another key factor, however, concerns the language and style of the translation. Given that the ESV is based on the RSV, it preserves much of the linguistic style of the RSV-KJV tradition. Given that many of our congregations used these translations up until the 1980s, the commission believes that the ESV will have a familiar ring to it.

A “Primary” Translation

In its adoption of the ESV, the commission noted that this version will serve as the primary translation for the new hymnal and agenda. When, however, the ESV appears not to do as good a job as another translation, the commission will consider substituting the better version in that instance.

The commission believes that the concept of a primary translation also squares well with current practice in our Synod. Go into almost any Bible class in most of our congregations and you will likely find a variety of translations in use. While the use of a single translation has great benefits, especially as it aids in learning, it is also true that a variety of translations can be very helpful in the study of God’s Word. Far from requiring congregations to replace their current pew and study Bibles, the choice of the ESV as the translation for the hymnal project will offer our Synod the opportunity to delve even deeper into God’s holy Word.

Web Site Links

The commission has posted several resources on the Web site concerning Bible translation. Go to:


Click on “Lutheran Hymnal Project” and then again on “Bible Translation.”

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