Grudem’s Essay, “Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out By God?”

Crossway has generously granted me permission to post a free copy of an important essay by Wayne Grudem:

Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors ‘Essentially Literal’ Bible Translation

This essay was published in Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 19–56.

Grudem’s thesis is in the sub-title of the essay: Why Plenary Inspiration Favors ‘Essentially Literal’ Bible Translation.

Grudem writes:

‘I will argue in this chapter (1) that the Bible repeatedly claims that every one of its words (in the original languages) is a word spoken to us by God, and is therefore of utmost importance; and (2) that this fact provides a strong argument in favor of “essentially literal” (or “word-for-word”) translation as opposed to “dynamic equivalent” (or “thought-for-thought”) translation.’

One of the frustrating things about this debate is the way it seems people on different sides seem to be talking past (or perhaps not listening to) each other. (In the end, however, it may come down to a simple disagreement. If that’s the case, register me on the ‘essentially literal’ side of the spectrum.)

Grudem avoids the talking past/not listening to problem by giving patient, fair, careful definitions of what he means by both “essentially literal” (this is more nuanced, as the Leithart quote also shows, than the caricature often painted by opponents) and “dynamic equivalence.” Grudem’s final section before the essay’s conclusion is an insightful discussion of how Eugene Nida arrived at his positions. Here Grudem expresses appreciation for Nida, but weighs the method and finds it wanting.

If you’ve only read the other side of this discussion, you might be surprised to know that Grudem discusses the spectrum along which Bible translations fall. The surprise would be natural, since sometimes advocates of dynamic equivalence use things like definitions of “essentially literal” or “dynamic equivalence” or the reality that there’s a spectrum of possibilities like “gotcha” cards. Reading that side of the discussion might give you the impression that only an idiot would favor the “essentially literal” translation philosophy. That kind of argumentation scores rhetorical points, until someone compares those arguments (which are little more than subtle ad homimen attacks) with something like this essay by Grudem.

Preliminaries in place, Grudem dives into the biblical evidence. Here’s the full outline of the essay:

I. Introduction

A. Essentially Literal
B. Dynamic Equivalence
C. Translations Fall Along a Spectrum

II. The Argument from the Bible’s Teaching About Its Own Words

III. If All the Words Are From God, Then Translations Should Translate No Less Than the Original

IV. Dynamic Equivalence Translations Often Leave Out the Meanings of Some Words That Are in the Original Text

1. The Missing Sword
2. Removing the Wrath of God
3. The Missing Hands
4. The Lost Soul
5. The Lost Spirit
6. The Disappearing Rod of Discipline
7. The Lost Faces
8. The Lost Kiss
9. The Missing Heart and the Absent Holy Spirit

V. Dynamic Equivalence Translations Often Add Meaning That Is Not in the Original Text

1. Restrictions to What God Provides
2. Added Elders
3. Teachers Who Can Never Get Anything Right
4. Boasting About Being Wise as the Worst Kind of Lie

VI. The Result: Can We Trust Dynamic Equivalence Translations?

VII. The Theory of Dynamic Equivalence Is the Culprit Behind These Missing and Added Words

VIII. Conclusion

Thanks again to Crossway for the fact that you can download this important essay and read the whole thing:

Are Only Some Words of Scripture Breathed Out by God? Why Plenary Inspiration Favors ‘Essentially Literal’ Bible Translation.”

I think Dynamic Equivalence is a translation philosophy that should be rejected by those who hold to verbal plenary inspiration. Or perhaps it would be better to distinguish more clearly between translating and explaining. When translating, dynamic equivalence is inappropriate. When explaining, dynamic equivalant to your heart’s content.

Related:

Dynamic Equivalence: The Method Is the Problem

The Heresy of Explanation

Can Dostoevsky’s Translator Weigh in on Bible Translation?

Was Gender Usage in the English Language Shaped by the Old Testament in Hebrew?

The Word of God Is Living and Active (unless your translation philosophy emasculates it)

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