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The Proper Use of Scripture in Books

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As you may well know if you spend much time around these parts, I read a lot. A whole lot. In my reading I have noticed a disturbing trend in the way authors use the Bible to prooftext their books. This concern has led me to write this article in which I will suggest some guidelines for the proper use of Scripture in Christian books.

Before we go any further, let’s establish the purpose of using the Bible in a book. The goal in prooftexting or quoting from the Bible is to accurately represent and interpret God’s Word. We do not use the Bible to prove what we want it to say. Rather, we turn to the Bible to learn from God Himself, and then share what we have learned with others. We must have our priorities straight.

Let’s review the different types of Bibles available to us. They fit into three broad categories.

Paraphrase (also known as Free Translation) – Paraphrases attempt to translate ideas and concepts from the original text but without being constrained by the original language and words. They also seek to contextualize the Bible to the contemporary culture, eliminating the historical distance between the time the Bible was written and the time in which it is read. This allows them to be easy to read as they do not need to conform to the sentence structures of the original languages. However, they are also less-literal in their translation. The most widely-read paraphrase is The Living Bible, though in recent days The Message has become exceedingly popular.

Dynamic Equivalence (also known as Thought for Thought) – Dynamic equivalency attempts to create a consistent historical distance between the text and the reader so that the text has the same impact on the contemporary reader as it did on the original reader or listener. Because the translation does not need to be constrained to the original language and sentence structures, the text can flow smoothly, allowing it to be easily readable. However, dynamic equivalence requires some degree of interpretation as the translator attempts to discern not only the words of the author but also the author’s intent and meaning. The most popular dynamic equivalent translation is the New International Version.

Formal Equivalence (also known as Word for Word, Literal Translation or Essentially Literal) – Formal equivalence attempts to represent each word of the original language with a corresponding word in the English language. This allows the reader to know, as closely as possible, what God actually spoke through the authors of the Bible. The merit of this method is that it allows intimate access to the originally inspired words for those who do not speak the languages the Bible was written in. The downside is that it is possible for these translations to be awkwardly worded and follow difficult sentence structures. Examples are the New American Standard Bible and the English Standard Version.

The lines between these categories are sometimes blurred. For example, some would consider the New International Version to be a literal translation and others consider it closer to a paraphrase. There are other translations were parts are paraphrased and others are more literal.

Here are four guidelines for translating the Scripture. They are adapted from the writings of Leland Ryken which have had a profound influence on the way I understand the job of a translator.

  1. We must never lose sight of the fact that it is God’s Word that is being translated. These are not the words of fallible men but of a Holy God who is giving these words to direct our lives.
  2. The text must be translated as accurately and faithfully as possible from the original language to the receptor language.
  3. The translation must be readable so that it adheres to rules of English vocabulary, syntax and grammar.
  4. The translation must not seek to bring clarity to what is difficult in the original text. The interpretation must stay separate from the translation.

Based on this information I would like to propose the following as guidelines governing the use of Scripture in Christian books.

Use a default translation that is essentially literal.

Almost every Christian book has a notation a page or two from the front cover indicating what translation the author prefers to use. This will be the default translation throughout the book. The notation generally reads similar to this: “Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations in this publication are from the [insert translation here]). Authors should ensure that their default translation is essentially literal – a translation that attempts to accurately represent the original languages. Some examples of this type of translation are ESV, NASB, NKJV, KJV, RSV. The NIV is a good choice as well.

Use translations that are familiar to readers

Quote the familiar before the remix. Sometimes it is more valuable to quote a passage that is well-known but is poorly translated and then explain why it is a poor translation rather than simply quoting an unfamiliar translation. This allows people to read the author’s explanation within a context they understand. Think of Jesus who often said, “You have heard it said that…” He gave people the context of what was familiar before telling them what was more accurate.

Use paraphrases sparingly

Only use a paraphrase or translation that is not essentially literal when the new translation is more faithful to the original language than the primary translation. Be attentive that we do not allow the Bible to say what we want it to say, but what it really says! When you do use a paraphrase, indicate within the text that this is a paraphrase and not a literal translation. Indicate that this is an interpretation, not a translation.

Check your work

Just because a particular author or commentator says one translation of a passage is accurate, does not necessarily make it so. Before providing a new spin on an old passage, ensure that your new interpretation is correct. As R.C. Sproul indicates, if you are the first person ever to interpret a passage in a particular sense, chances are that you are wrong. When in doubt, check with other commentaries or authorities on translation. There are many online commentaries that may have all the information you need.


We live at a time when we are privileged to have available to us more translations and study tools than at any other time in history. But as much as these can be a great blessing, they can also do great damage if used incorrectly. Use translations carefully, always remembering that we are dealing with the Holy Word of God. Seek the Spirit’s help in presenting the Word accurately, seeking to to mold our lives by the Word, and not making the Word conform to our flawed beliefs.

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