Form or function? (Choosing a Bible, Part 2)

When discussing philosophies of Biblical translations, there are two main classifications: formal equivalence and functional equivalence.

Formal equivalence attempts to maintain the “form” of the original language inasmuch as possible. This can also be described as a word-for-word translation (although that descriptor isn’t always technically accurate.)

Functional equivalence attempts to maintain the “function” of the original language inasmuch as possible. This can be described as a thought-for-thought translation. Functional equivalence is also sometimes termed “dynamic equivalence.”

The following chart summarizes a few of the differences between formal and functional equivalence in translation:

Formal Equivalence Functional Equivalence
Word-for-word Thought-for-thought
Words more “true to original” Tone more “true to original”
Syntax often more awkward Syntax often more natural
Generally higher reading level Generally lower reading level
Examples: NKJV, NASB, ESV Examples: NIV, TNIV, NLT

Why you should choose to use formal equivalence:

  • Lends itself well to deep personal study and rich word studies
  • Less opportunity for interpretation in translation
  • Generally uses more traditional terminology
  • May be more “poetic” (“Grace of God” rather than “God’s grace”)

Why you should not choose to use formal equivalence:

  • We’re not all scholars (especially not of Greek and Hebrew)
  • We’re not all readers (and formal equivalence does require more work to read and understand)

Why you should choose to use functional equivalence:

  • Easily read and understood
  • Lends itself well to devotional and evangelistic reading
  • Better captures tone of the original (which, since we aren’t all scholars, we might not be able to understand from a formal equivalence translation)

Why you should not choose to use functional equivalence:

  • It’s worthwhile to stretch our minds in the study of the Bible
  • The text is more likely to contain interpretation by the translator

Ultimately, both formal and functional equivalence can be useful modes for Bible translation–and are acceptable for use. I think it would benefit most believers to have at least one translation from each camp. Which type any given individual uses routinely and which type one uses as a reference probably varies a great deal based on one’s personal inclination towards cerebral or psychosocial expression. (Whether one is a “thinker” or a “feeler”, to use Myers-Briggs typology.)

On Choosing a Bible (Part 1)

A dozen and a quarter years ago, I was beginning my teen years and was in need of a good, hefty Bible to make me feel like a good, proper Christian.

An NIV Life Application Bible fit the bill–weighing in at approximately fifty billion pounds, it was my constant companion and sure proof of my spirituality.

Then, in my senior year of high school, I grew disillusioned with what I felt was the childish tone of the NIV. It just so happened that the Bible program I was in had me purchasing a number of different Bibles, so I found myself with a NASB Life Application Study Bible, a (second) NIV Life Application Study Bible, and a NKJV Thompson Chain Reference Study Bible.

The NKJV became my companion, probably for the sake of the non-applicable study notes.

Imagine, a study Bible that actually was about studying the Bible? (Do I sense some bitterness towards the–count them–three identical, expensive, and utterly useless Life Application Study Bibles?)

When I needed a smaller Bible for my trip to Sweden less than a year later, I chose a leather-bound NKJV.

A bit of a word-study nerd, I’d come to love the formal equivalence and old-fashioned syntax of the New King James. I was an NKJV girl, I proudly declared.

We had our little family squabbles over translations.

Half of us were squarely in the formal equivalence camp, favoring the translations that anal-retentive geeks everywhere adore. The other half didn’t really enter into the Bible translation conversation.


That was our big argument.

Abridged or unabridged.

Until Dad (up to that point a true NASB lover) turned tails and suddenly started using the TNIV.

We were all aghast.

Not only was he going for a dynamic equivalence instead of a formal equivalence, he was choosing the infamous gender-neutral Bible.

Why would he do such a thing?

I contemplated getting another Bible off and on for about a year.

My Bible was getting a bit bedraggled. It had been dropped in the bathtub several times, dropped in the toilet once (was that TMI?), and squished into my shoulder bag more times than could be counted.

I started reading up on textual criticism and the pros and cons of the NU text versus the Majority Text. I became sold on the NU Text even as I appreciated how the additions made in the Majority text have (by the grace of God) little impact on things of doctrinal importance.

I started reading Reformed bloggers and started attending a solidly NASB church.

But spending money on a new Bible when I already had five or ten at home seemed wasteful–especially if I was purchasing a translation I already owned.

I held off. No new Bible for this girl.

That is, no new Bible until the second to last day of July, when I sat at my parent’s kitchen table, puzzling over the “so then” in James 1:19–

“So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath;” (NKJV)

The “so then” clearly indicated that this command was related back to what the author (James) had just said. But I couldn’t find any reasonable connection between the previous statement and the current command.

I read it over and over and over again.

I set down my Bible and paced a bit, took a bathroom break, got some cereal. I picked the Bible up again and re-read some more.

I got frustrated. James was just the most confusing book. I’d been struggling all week to figure out its theme.

My dad’s statement that James is like a New Testament Proverbs helped me quite a bit in interpreting the book altogether–but with that “so then” in there, there had to be a connection. Dad’s “Proverbs” trick couldn’t get me out of this one.

That’s when I saw the footnote: “NU Text reads Know This.”

There wasn’t a connection. There wasn’t supposed to be a connection. The “so then” doesn’t exist. That was a Majority-text addition not included in the best (NU-text) manuscripts.

I was getting a new Bible.

Lest you be completely confused by this post, have no fear. I intend this to be a lead in to several articles about choosing a Bible. My intent is to explain some of the jargon (and jokes) I’ve used in this article, hopefully in a way that will help you to understand some of the thought process that goes into wisely selecting a Bible translation (and a study Bible).

Thankful Thursday: The C(K)athys

When I first started traveling to Columbus, I was pleased that I would find myself in Columbus over Wednesday nights–the night the C/Kathy’s hosted their young professional’s Bible study. I eagerly rushed from work to Kathy’s, where the whole set of us transplants fellowshipped and were challenged and grew.

After a long Christmas break from Bible study, I was glad to get back into the swing of things last night…and it turned out, Bible study was even better than I’d hoped for.

Thankful Thursday banner

Today I’m thankful…

…for Cathy’s rave reviews of The Pioneer Woman’s blackberry cobbler (which I’d prepared for the Bible study crowd)

…for Kathy’s thoughtfulness in having a selection of teas available for us to enjoy (including several herbal varieties)

…for both K(C)athy’s encouragement that I share my shocking secrets with the newest member of our crew

…for Kathy’s reminder that “You will get done exactly what God wills you to get done.”

…for Cathy’s exhortation: “Have you considered taking a technology break?” And her follow up: “Don’t do it because I suggested it. Ask God what He would have you do.”

…for how God has used both of these women to bless me, to challenge me, and to conform me into the image of His Son.