You probably heard what happened recently with the ESV, the English Standard Version of the Bible. In August, Crossway, the ministry that publishes the ESV, announced that “the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway.” In other words, the text had become permanent and would undergo no further changes for the rest of time. Controversy ensued and on September 28, Crossway reversed their decision. President and CEO Lane Dennis wrote, “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV.” Though I’m sure there were difficult meetings and tough decisions along the way, I believe Crossway should be pleased with the outcry. Here’s why: The ESV controversy shows that the ESV is not their Bible but our Bible.
The ESV controversy was based on two related issues—the permanence of the text and the final changes made to the text. I’ll briefly fill you in on each of them.
A Permanent Text
In their original announcement, Crossway announced that the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee had unanimously agreed to make the latest edition of the text permanent. They explained the decision by saying it would ensure that “people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”
The ESV has changed a number of times over its life and you can always check the small print on the copyright page of your Bible to see what version you have. I have sometimes been frustrated with the reality of a changing text. I find it distracting when someone reads aloud and I find that my ESV has different wording from theirs. Also, I love the idea of purchasing an heirloom Bible, one to read day-by-day, to preach from, and to leave to my children. But every few years the text changes and, especially when teaching or preaching, I feel the need to use the most updated version. How can I ever have that kind of heirloom Bible if I need to replace it every few years?
Yet I also know there is benefit in a non-permanent text. After all, while the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts, no translation is perfect or beyond improvement. To lock in the text is to freeze it even while scholars continue to come to better understandings of words, passages, and contexts. Not only that, but it does not allow the translation to change as the English language changes—as words come into use and fall out of use. To lock it is to date it.
Changes To the Text
As Crossway announced that the ESV text had become permanent, they also announced they had made a few final changes—52 words across 29 verses. While most of these changes were minor and unremarkable, at least 2 were quite significant: Genesis 3:16 was changed from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” while Genesis 4:7 was changed from “[Sin’s] desire is for you, but you must rule over it” to “[Sin’s] desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” Many opponents and proponents of the ESV found themselves united in their discomfort with this wording, concerned that it reflected interpretation more than translation—interpretation meant to support a complementarian understanding of the text. It was, after all, a unique and controversial translation (though, to be fair, older editions of the ESV did offer it in a footnote as a viable alternate, so it was not completely foreign).
This turned out to be a double-whammy. Not only was the text now permanent, but it also included a controversial and perhaps unsuitable translation of a key text. It quickly became clear that making final changes to the text at the same time as finalizing it was unwise. It allowed no room for debate or discussion. Even worse, it looked to some like a stealthy way of promoting a particular interpretation through translation. There was an outcry and Crossway revisited, then reversed, their decision.
You, Me, and the ESV
But I don’t think this should be at all discouraging to Crossway because the controversy shows that the ESV is not their Bible but our Bible. Millions of people have adopted the ESV, have come to love it, and have deep feelings for it. We’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours reading it, pondering it, memorizing it. For many, the ESV is the Bible, the only Bible they have ever known. For others it is the Bible that led them to salvation or that led them to a theological awakening. This is especially true of people who have been part of the modern-day Reformed resurgence. In many ways and for many of us the ESV is inseparable from our newfound convictions. We don’t just use the ESV, we are deeply connected to it, deeply invested in it. The outcry was aroused by our love for the ESV and our desire to see it continue as our most trusted companion. It’s our Bible, too!