A Letter to Tim: thoughts on the brouhaha over the origin of the ESV

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Dear Tim,

I suspect Wayne Grudem's claim that the ESV's origin had nothing to do with the TNIV (in his response to Ben Witherington's blog attack on the ESV) amounts to a careful parsing of the truth--casuistry rather than flat falsehood. Literally taken, Wayne's claim is accurate. Of course, it conceals more than it reveals....

Wayne writes in his response to Witherington:

I have only met with the CBT once in my life, the evening of July 12, 2000. That meeting was at their initiative, not mine. But the ESV translation project began in 1997, the contract to buy the rights to the old RSV was signed in 1998, and our Translation Oversight Committee had its first meeting in Orlando in November, 1998, and worked throughout 1999, 2000, and 2001....

July, 2000 (two years after the ESV was well underway): I met once with the NIV's Committee on Bible Translation at their initiative.

October, 2001: ESV was published.

I mention this history simply to say that the controversy over the TNIV was not the driving force behind the creation of the ESV. The ESV would have been produced whether there was any TNIV controversy or not.

Strictly interpreted, Wayne's telling the truth. The process that led to the ESV began well before Wayne's meeting with the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) or CBT's announcement of the TNIV. But what is obscured in Wayne's careful statement is the fact that it was the TNIV's unnamed predecessor, the canceled revision of the NIV based upon the NIVI (NIV Inclusive) published by Hodder & Stoughton in Great Britain, that provided the impetus for the ESV.

Several of us had advocated a non-commercial, patron-sponsored essentially-literal version of Scripture well before World's "Stealth Bible" story broke the gender neutral NIV controversy. In fact, it was your awareness of the UK's NIVI and the CBT's plans for a revision of the NIV that brought WORLD's attention to the story. Thus, there was significant concern over compromised Bibles within segments of CBMW's leadership well before WORLD focused public attention on the "Stealth Bible."

In the days surrounding WORLD's story I broached the idea of a new translation with Wayne. Wayne rejected it as impossibly expensive--depite my assuring him of the existence of potential patrons. I specifically remember Wayne's disdain for the idea because it seemed strikingly at odds with his championing of a Crossway-published revision of the RSV some months later.

It wasn't until after Dr. Dobson called the Colorado Springs meeting (by which time the issue had gathered a great deal of steam) that the idea of an RSV revision popped into view. Unfortunately, Wayne, et al, immediately sought to place the project under the umbrella of Crossway without considering a non-commercial version.

Wayne told me it was impossible to complete the project without the resources of a commercial publisher. Perhaps. Perhaps as well it was easier and more rewarding to all concerned.

So, I think Wayne is speaking carefully in what he has written. And if we judge him only on the basis of what he literally says, his story comes close to the truth: the TNIV had nothing to do with the ESV. It couldn't. The TNIV followed the ESV, though the ESV certainly followed World's "Stealth Bible" issue. Crossway's blog is more of a stretch. Certainly Lane wanted a Bible to compete with Tyndale's NLT. But to claim that a revision of the RSV was a long-standing goal of Lane's is, well....

The irony is, when we wrote years ago in WORLD that the ESV sprang from the Stealth Bible controversy, I didn't realize how fiercely that statement would be attacked by Lane and Crossway. I didn't like the decision to produce a commercial Bible, but I still thought Crossway a good choice if a commercial Bible had to be produced. In fact, I actually thought Wayne and Lane (along with John Piper, Kent Hughes, JI Packer, etc.) would be proud to have their translation known as one that didn't mute Scripture's essential patriarchy.

In the end, the core problem in all that's transpired in Bible publishing over the past fifty years has been the commercialization of God's Word. Money drives the entire mess. The desire to increase--and fear of decreasing--sales has consistently led to sad and sinful behaviour.

I'll never forget an honest member of the CBT in the days immediately following the "Stealth Bible" story telling me that Hodder & Stoughton requested the first inclusive NIV (the NIVI, published only in the UK) because the regular NIV was being hurt in the UK in the early 90s by sales of the inclusive NRSV. Of course, just weeks later, when the marketing arms of IBS and Zondervan got involved in a campaign to stop the bleeding, their incessant claim was, "Marketing concerns have never played any role in our translation of God's Word." Right.

They've got their principles straight. God's Word should never be a commercial commodity. But can you really imagine money-making companies refusing to think of money when they translate and publish God's Word?

The influence of publishing companies and money-seeking scholars over the Word in our era has proven nearly as baleful as the chains of Rome and Rome's refusal to publish the Word in the vernacular prior to the Reformation.

Ultimately, I believe a quality non-commercial version of the Bible is inevitable--a version that will finally put to rest all the corrupt commercially-owned Bible versions.

God's Word does not belong to man.