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.


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)

Join the Conversation


  1. The essay by Grudem is well-done, zeroed in on the issues, and most appealing in its firm responses to the dynamic equivalency approach. One can hardly read our Lord’s comments in Matt. 22 and not feel the impact of His elucidation of Scripture as God-breathed and relevant to people generations after it was first spoken and written: “Have you not read that which was spoken to you by God!” He then provides the concrete foundation of verbally inspired words in the communication from the Burning Bush, “I am the God of …? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (22:31,32) And “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then called him Lord, how is he his son?”(22:44-45).. It has now been almost fifty years since I read L. Gaussen’s comments on that text in Theopneustia, and no amount of historical critical approaches in seminary ever took those two pericopes as seriously and reverently as the plain grammatico-historical approach which respects the biblical writers own view of what they wrote and evidently, if one respects the reliability of the textual reports, so did our Lord view what they had written. The real issue and problem with Scripture is the lack of intellectual power to grasp what is essentially a very intellectual message directed at the heart of man through and by means of his brains. Forty some years ago I started looking at the Bible as being inspired by the Omniscient God as it claims, and I began to look for that depth of profundity that would be commensurate with such an inspiration. there is no doubt in my mind that we need a whole new way of approaching Scripture, one that is leagues beyond our present paralysis of analysis methodology which is really flawed by Enlightenment skepticism. We need an intellectual, analytical, experimental, synthetical method that can handle disparate and apparently contradictory ideas which actually, when taken together, make a Divine truth, one designed to enable the believer to become balanced, flexible, creative, magnetic, and enduring.

  2. “When explaining, dynamic equivalant to your heart’s content.”

    Nice verb.

    I heard a quote once, and I can’t find the correct attribution anymore, but it fits: “All translations are a commentary.”

    With literal translation, I don’t know that it’s a significant factor; with dynamic equivalence, it is certainly significant, or to Schaefferize the description, it is significantly significant. There’s no better example of this than the current controversy over the NIV2011.

  3. I personally use both dynamic equivalence and essentially literal Bibles. I find that Bibles like the NIV and NLT really help me understand the point of a passage and especially of an entire book.

    I like the essentially literal Bibles if I am really breaking down a passage, looking at commentaries and looking at the Greek and Hebrew. These versions help me see little nuances and ideas that are really interesting.

    Sometimes, I think that the whole debate must not be that important in God’s mind or else He would have made sure everyone speaks Greek and Hebrew and He would have preserved the exact words of Scripture more carefully.

    I think I will just continue using both types of translations because they are both super-helpful to me.


  4. Thanks for posting this Jim. It is a very helpful argument. When one considers where the NIV has gone from its inception, more caution should be applied to the DE method.

  5. Grudem makes many effective comparisons showing the shortcomings (in practice) of the DE view and also the degree to which non-literalness is required, in places, in intentionally literal translations such as the ESV.

    Where his argument grows thin is in seeking to find support for one translation approach or another in particular views of inspiration. The plenary view of inspiration, whose heyday was the eighteenth century, was far more elastic a view of how inspiration operated than the verbal inspiration view (for which Grudem is actually pleading, though he uses the terminology of ‘plenary’). It was the verbal view that insisted during the eighteenth but especially the nineteenth century on the individual inspiration of each word of the Bible. After 1840 champions of this latter view grew very censorious towards evangelicals of the other view, even though both had co-existed for the best part of 200 years and even though both had maintained that the Bible had been kept from error. To my knowledge, the last great champion of the plenary view was Archibald Alexander, Princeton’s professor of theology from 1812. The plenary view of inspiration is that it is comprehensive, i.e that the Spirit of God superintended “the whole”; a major attraction of it was that it left more ample room for understanding the individuality of the writer and the various genres of biblical literature. Grudem’s view is in fact the outworking or a more atomistic idea of inspiration; while it does not eliminate the writer’s individuality or smooth out the difference between genres, it maintains that in every case, each word was provided individually under inspiration. All I will say is that this has not necessarily been the standard belief of historic evangelical Protestantism.

    Since the ‘reign’ of verbal inspiration has been far from universal within classical evangelicalism over the centuries, there is no need to accept it as inevitable or necessary for the classical evangelical of today — or the inevitable superiority of translation methods which claim support from it. Those who wish to investigate this question more fully can consult the two articles by Vancouver’s Dr. Ian Rennie on inspiration (‘Verbal’ & ‘Plenary’) in the Walter Ellwell, ed. _Evangelical Dictionary of Theology_ (Baker) or my own essay “The Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture 1650-1850” in the 2008 volume _The Advent of Evangelicalism_ (B&H).

    There is no doubt a connection and an interplay between articulations of the doctrine of inspiration and translation theory. But it seems to me that the phenomena of Scripture, encountered in the work of translation probably lend more support to the more elastic or embracive understanding of inspiration historically called ‘plenary’ than the reverse.

  6. Grudems essay, to me, does not accomplish it’s goal. I find that all of Grudems arguments point to a reader needing to know Greek and Hebrew, not toward having to translate the text into a word for word translation.

    Also, I find it very unhelpful to say that those who hold a dynamic equivalence theory of translation are giving in to secular linguistic theories. I am a believer and have been taught by believers that these linguistic theories are correct. That is what linguist’s have discovered about language and cognition are actually correct.

    For example, in my linguistics calss taken at a conservative christian university my professor told us often that “words do not have meaning.” He would then go on to tell us that words have different conotations depending on the way that a speaker uses them and on the context which they are used. This linguistic theory accounts for metaphorical extention and idiomatic phrases which all languages contain as well as more strait forward usage.

    For me, a dynamic equivalence takes into account what has been discovered about how humans process language and also what language is used for.

  7. I am largely convinced by Dr Grudem’s article in terms of his preference for essentially literal over dynamic equivalence.

    I have a question about how to integrate the observation that the LXX, which the inspired NT writers sometimes quote, sometimes translates very loosely from the original Hebrew, certainly not in a manner that could always be described as essentially literal.

    However I have one very serious objection to his article.

    His article demonstrates the problem with dynamic equivalence translations, by illustrating their tendency to miss key words or to add ideas not in the original words.

    He also admits there is a spectrum of translations, and says that the NIV falls in the middle, firmly separating it from KJV, RSV, NASB, ESV, HCSB, NET, on the essentially literal end, although “not a thoroughly dynamic equivalence translation” (p49).

    He then asserts that, “there is so much dynamic equivalence influence in the NIV that I cannot teach theology or ethics from it either” (p 49, like he says about the fully dynamic equivalence translations he rejects such as NLT, NCV, CEV, Message).

    Dr Grudem testifies that he tried one semester but gave up after a few weeks because time and again, the NIV lacked a specific detail he needed from the original Greek or Hebrew.

    The problem is that he provides next to no evidence for this in his article.

    He gives 9 examples where dynamic equivalence translations miss out a word from the original Greek or Hebrew. For some reasons, he does not always report on what the NIV does. But I checked every example, and NIV gets it right (as he sees it) on the essentially literal side of including the word 7 out of 9 times. And in fact, NIV2011 improves to getting it right 8 out of 9 times.

    In one case, NIV is more literal than ESV, where it translates Rom 13:4 as “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Here ESV translates the last phrase as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” However there is no genitive “of God” in the Greek in association with “wrath”! Yet, Dr Grudem uses the phrase “God’s wrath” to refer to the missing term all through his point on this verse. It seems certain the “wrath” referred to is God’s. But nevertheless, the ESV is making an addition to the text at this point!

    Dr Grudem also gives 4 examples where dynamic equivalence translations add in an idea not in the original text, which is faithfully represented by the essentially literal translations. In each of the 4 cases, NIV gets it right, and goes the essentially literal route.

    In other words, in 11/13 examples, NIV sides with the essentially literal side like ESV and HCSB (12/13 for NIV2011).

    Nowhere does Dr Grudem acknowledge this. Instead he uses personal anecdote to effectively damn the NIV as totally inadequate for teaching theology.

    But on his own evidence, the NIV is very close on the spectrum to the other essentially literal translations, and nowhere near being like the dynamic equivalence ones such as CEV, NLT, Message.

    I am convinced the latter are not very useful, except with people with very poor English literacy levels (and even then, not the Message).

    However I think the NIV has been done a disservice in this article by being unfairly lumped in with the translations Dr Grudem dismisses as dynamic equivalence and failing to faithfully translate the truth of every word of the original Scriptures.

    To substantiate this case, there should be better evidence supplied. His own evidence does not seem to support his case.

    1. Thanks for this note, Sandy, and for your careful analysis!

      On the LXX, one thing I would point out is the fact that the Old Greek translation of Daniel was more loose, more dynamic, and that rendering seems to have been rejected by the authors of the NT in favor of the translation by “Theodotian” that was more literal. It also seems to be the case that in general there was a tendency to revise the Greek translations of the OT that were more free to bring them closer to the Hebrew.

      As for your comments on the NIV, I can’t speak for why Grudem doesn’t cite examples on it. Perhaps he was in part responding to the TNIV when that essay was written. At this point, the acceptability of the 1984 NIV is a moot point since Zondervan won’t be continuing its production. For my part, 1 Tim 2:12 in the NIV 2011 is unacceptable. I know the translation committee protests that the rendering they have chosen is “neutral,” but it’s the rendering that Philip Barton Payne argues for in his case for egalitarianism! So whether they see it that way or not, the committee has given the egalitarians what they want.



      1. Doesn’t make much sense to me why you would dismiss & decry a translation on the basis of 1 verse. In fact, that’s never made sense to me. Why do evangelicals consider a select few verses litmus tests for “good” and “acceptable” translations? One verse is translated a way you don’t like, and all the sudden it’s “liberal,” “giving egalitarians what they want,” and “succumbing to the ideology of feminism.” Silly some of the things I hear evangelicals say I tell you; just downright silly…

  8. Too bad, that so few have been taught an intellectual approach. After all, the Holy Scripture was given to address the heart through the mind of man, and that means it is of the highest intellectual nature. Being inspired by Omniscience, it does reflect that profundity of depth along with the subtlety that accompanies such a work that it defies human comprehension. Even the perspicuity of Scripture is a problem, being over the head, defying the utmost of man’s understanding. Although a child often easily grasps what the learned scholar cannot.

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