Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ryken and Functional Equivalency

The blog world is abuzz today with rave reviews of Leland Ryken’s new book, Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach, and I must cede to formal equivalence theorists their day in the sun. Of course, if you’ve paid attention to my blog you’ll recognize from my choice of translations that I’m not completely convinced of the thesis of Ryken’s book. My position seems a bit out-of-vogue in today’s milieu, what with the fiasco of the TNIV and Zondervan’s public humiliation on the gender issue. I’ll frankly concede my disappointment with the avant-garde path that the NIV has taken in the past few years, and am hopeful that its chastened translators will return to the task of accurate translation rather than political expediency.

That being said, I remain convinced of the propriety of the functional equivalence theory of translation--not because it is simpler or easier to read (though it is), but because I have become convinced that this theory has the potential to produce the very most accurate translations. And as an inerrantist, I am extremely interested in accurate translation.

A few years back Rod Decker published an article on this topic that confirmed me in this understanding, and I’d like to take a few moments to point out a few of his arguments (mixed together with a few of my own):

(1) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for idioms (not that formal equivalency has no answer to this problem, but their answer is simply to say this is an exception).

(2) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for the extremes of highly paratactic languages (long strings of independent clauses connected by “and,” such as is common in Hebrew) and highly hypotactic languages (long strings of dependent clauses connected by a huge variety of logical connecting devices, such as is common in Greek). This discovery satisfactorily addressed (for me at least) my last lingering concern with functional equivalence (viz., that functional equivalency translations do not translate all the words), though I freely admit that a number of very great minds are not so convinced as I.

(3) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for the problem of non-SVO languages (subject-verb-object) without producing translations that sound faintly like Yoda from Star Wars narrating the Bible.

(4) Functional equivalence most successfully accounts for the problem of non-corresponding vocabulary sets between transmitter and receiver languages without opting for obscure terms that average readers do not recognize.

(5) Functional equivalence, in summary, most successfully accounts for the principle that the basic unit of propositional thought is not properly the word, but the clause.

My point here today is not to criticize formal equivalency in Bible translation. Throughout my professional career I have made it a strict point never to criticize any translation of the Bible, no matter how humorous, wooden, or Jonathan-Edwards-sounding a given reading may be. Every translation of the Bible is the Word of God, and I treat every one with due reverence as such.

Nor do I have any devices about ridding the church of formal equivalence. As some have pointed out, those who know Greek and Hebrew can often "see" the original languages bleeding through formal equivalency translations, making it easier to reconstruct the original an interpret it. For this reason I use and promote formal equivalency translations regularly and with great profit.

Nor do I have any tension using and preaching from a formal equivalence translation in the many churches where I attend and fill pulpits. I am deeply indebted to countless such churches and church leaders who use formal equivalence translations and I am far from suggesting that church life is damaged by their usage.

But I do think that one can construct a legitimate, valid defense of functional equivalency today despite the growing aggregate of arguments against it. And I hope that this post contributes to it.



greglong said...

Thank you for this post, Professor Snoeberger. Although I am generally theologically conservative, I too have never been thoroughly convinced of a completely literal (or even "essentially" literal) approach. Then again, even though I have an M.Div. I am no linguist and have not even read Ryken's book.

But again, your post is very helpful.

Frank Turk said...

Prof Snoeberger --

Your post here is, of course, well considered as far as it goes. But consider this passage:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Why wouldn't a translator, using your methodology, come up with this:

Therefore a person shall leave father and mother and hold fast to his other one, and they shall become one flesh.

And the justification was that in Ex 26, the word historically translated in Genesis as "wife" is clearly can mean "the other of a matching pair" (Ex 26:3,5)?

You know: because the statement there is a generalization, and in that generalization it is talking about monogamy in general, and not just hetero monogamy.

The answer to that objection will (in my opinion) underscore why a methodology of "essentially literal" translation is not only necessary, but the appropriate default setting for handling the original texts.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

Mark Snoeberger said...

Frank, I must be missing something very obvious here, because I can't seem to see your point. All the translations I can find (formal and functional alike) translate this verse in basically the same way.

The underlying Hebrew term here has a semantic range--it could be "the other of a matching pair," "wife," or a few other options. The context, though, calls obviously for "wife." To me there's no difference in the decision-making process of the formal equivalence translator vis-a-vis that of the functional equivalence translator on this particular point.

Honestly, though, if I wanted to be as brutally and slavishly literal as I possibly could be, I would choose the most generic gloss possible, say, "counterpart," and let the reader interpret the term for himself from the range of available meanings.

Of course, nobody is that literal (for which we can all be thankful), but I would contend that the more likely candidate for adopting this highly wooden translation would be the formal equivalence translator, not the functional equivalence translator. What am I missing here?


Bob McCabe said...


I appreciate your post. Like you, I thought Rod Decker's argumentation in the paper you referenced is convincing. In addition, like you I think there is a place for both a formal equivalence translation and a functional equivalence one, as Dr. Decker argues for in his paper. On the one hand, there is value in using a formal equivalence translation, like the ESV or NASB, when studying the Hebrew and Greek text. On the other hand, there is a welcome place for a good functional-equivalence translation, such as the NIV (I agree that the TNIV went too far).

Nevertheless, the ESV Study Bible has taken the evangelical world by storm. The notes in this study Bible may be the best I have read, looking past its neglect on dispensationalism. I regularly use the online ESV Study Bible. I am thankful for the ESV, but it has not taken me by storm. IMNSHO, the ESV as a formal equivalence translation does not read the overall message of the OT narratives and poetical sections as well as the NIV. In any event, a good paper was given last year at ETS by Mark Strauss, from Bethel Seminary in San Diego, entitled "Why the English Standard Version (ESV) Should not Become the Standard English Version." Strauss has some great examples. The paper can be downloaded from

This is a paper that I think many should read.

Bradley said...

Mark, I wonder if you've read Marlowe's comments at

Took me a while to wade through it, but I found his arguments hard to resist.

Brad Anderson, Antigo, WI

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After growing up in the great state of Pennsylvania, I settled down in 1994 with my new bride, Heather, in Allen Park, Michigan, and have been here at Detroit Baptist Seminary ever since (with a bit of time away for doctoral work). Since 2007 I have been privileged to be a part of the systematic theology faculty here. I love teaching, researching and writing, hunting with my two boys, and enjoying any little bit of God's unadulterated creation I can find (which means I occasionally have to get out of Detroit). But all these things matter to me only because theology matters. For it is God himself who gives all men life and breath and everything else (Acts 17:25).