The Word of God in English by Leland Ryken

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The Word of God in EnglishWith so many Bible translations available, how do you make a choice between them? How do you even know what the criteria should be for making a choice?

As an expert in English literature and literary theory, Leland Ryken approaches the translation debate from a practical literary viewpoint. He believes that many modern translations take liberties with the biblical text that would not be allowed with any other type of literary work. Also, what readers are presented with as biblical text is actually far from the original text. In literature, a simplified version of Milton’s work is not Milton, and neither is an edition written in contemporary English. Anyone who is interested in Milton would find any version that changes his words unacceptable for serious study. Ryken argues that the same dedication to reproducing literature texts as closely as possible needs to be present in biblical translation. To do so it is necessary to take into account the difficulty of working with original languages. Only an essentially literal, “word for word” translation of the Bible, Ryken concludes, can achieve sufficiently high standards in terms of literary criteria and fidelity to the original text.

Ryken does not contest that many modern translations have been used for good, and he believes that there is a place for a range of Bible translations. His purpose is not to say that the only Bible available should be one that is essentially literal. Instead, he defines the translation theory and principles that would result in the best Bible for English-speaking people and for the English-speaking church as a whole. He believes that an essentially literal translation is the natural result of following these principles.

Along with a short history of translation, Ryken evaluates presuppositions that impact translation theory. He also examines a number of fallacies—about the Bible, about translations in general, and about Bible readers—fallacies that influence what translation decisions are made. Believing that those who undertake the serious work of translating God’s Word have an obligation both to God and to others, he assesses the theological and hermeneutical issues involved and the implications of these issues for modern Bible translation. Ryken’s literary expertise gives him the perspective needed to provide Christians with a standard for comparing contemporary Bible translations.


“Gripping! I could not put it down! It is also most disturbing, for Ryken argues that most modern Bible translations sell their readers short. They are not exact enough, and their style is not right for reading aloud or memorization. Everyone considering the choice of a Bible translation for use in private study or public worship should read this book. It will help you distinguish the wheat from the chaff.”
Gordon Wenham, Professor of Old Testament
University of Gloucestershire, UK
“A masterful and convincing argument for literal, that is to say, transparent translation of the Holy Scriptures.”
Dr. J. I. Packer, Professor of Theology
Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.
“What is at stake here is huge! Our children and grandchildren will rise up and call Dr. Ryken blessed, if his words (!) will be read and heeded by this generation. How odd to live in a time when biblical scholars labor over the very words of Scripture (in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) to understand Scripture’s meaning, and at the same time many of the same biblical scholars endorse a translation theory of the Bible in which the ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts’ of Scripture are used for translating Scripture’s meaning in another language. Ryken’s Word of God in English demonstrates clearly and forcefully that the widespread practice of ‘dynamic equivalence’ in translation takes us away from the path of careful, accurate, faithful rendering of the very words of God for English readers.”
Bruce A. Ware, Senior Associate Dean
School of Theology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.
“I highly recommend this book. It is my hope that it will convince many that there is scarcely any greater need in the church today than for an essentially literal translation.”
G. I. Williamson, New Horizons Magazine
“This is a very important book. The persistent, detonating logic of Lee Ryken’s pen will educate and convince any fair-minded person that the primary Bible for study and preaching must be an essentially literal translation.”
Dr. R. Kent Hughes, Pastor
College Church, Wheaton, Ill.
“Ryken’s winsome and unanswerable arguments are the best I have ever read. He carries the day for the ‘essentially literal’ method for translation of God’s Word in English.”
Dr. Niel Nielson, President
Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Ga.
“An important book—one for which many have long waited. Ryken’s central thesis… is ably and repeatedly defended, cutting through the fog generated by debates over contemporary Bible translation philosophy. His chapters on ‘Common Fallacies of Translation’ are worth the price of the book on their own.”
Dr. W. Bingham Hunter, Pastor of Adult Ministries
Harvest Bible Chapel, Rolling Meadows, Ill.
“Brilliantly convincing! This book stands alone on the subject of English Bible translation. Dropped into the muddy water of English versions, this tablet brings instant clarity.”
Pastor John MacArthur
Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, Calif.
“The best single-volume survey of these critical issues, offering a perspective that is both unique and invaluable. I found it so interesting I could not stop reading it.”
Rev. Paul T. McCain, Interim President
Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Mo.
“A sensible and crucial call to count on and relish a Bible translation that stays as close as possible to the original words God inspired. How refreshing to hear this new voice in the translation debate—from a distinguished professor of English literature who is a lover of words and of the inspired words of Scripture.”
Dr. Kathleen Buswell Nielson
Writer and Bible Study Teacher
“… my most important read of the century—or, for that matter, of the millennium…. [Ryken’s book] may do more to change how you view the Bible (and how you read it) than any book, preacher, professor, or other influence you have ever had…. It will increase your wonder for the very words God has used. It will draw you into closer personal fellowship with God Himself.”
Joel Belz, Chairman, World Magazine


Preface 9
Introduction: The Current Debate About Bible Translation 13
Part One. Lessons from Overlooked Sources
1. Lessons from Literature 23
2. Lessons from Ordinary Discourse 35
3. Lessons from the History of Translation 47
Part Two. Common Fallacies of Translation
4. Five Fallacies About the Bible 67
5. Seven Fallacies About Translation 79
6. Eight Fallacies About Bible Readers 103
Part Three. Theological, Ethical, and Hermeneutical Issues
7. The Theology and Ethics of Bible Translation 123
8. Translation and Hermeneutics 139
Part Four. Modern Translations: Problems and Their Solution
9. Ignoring the Literary Qualities of the Bible 157
10. Obscuring the World of the Original Text 173
11. Destabilization of the Biblical Text 187
12. Reductionism 199
Part Five. Criteria for Excellence in an English Bible
13. Fidelity to the Words of the Original 217
14. Effective Diction: Clarity, Vividness, Connotation, Ambiguity 229
15. Respect for the Principles of Poetry 243
16. Effective Rhythm 257
17. Exaltation and Beauty 269
Conclusion: What Makes the Best Bible Translation? 287
Appendix: Without Form, You Lose Meaning by C. John Collins 295
Index 328

About the Author

Leland Ryken (Ph.D., University of Oregon) is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, and is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society. Recently he served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.