3 Reasons Why I Love the NLT
I once heard about the guy who explained his experience in Bible college as “three years of study to find out what the KJV meant in English!”
Bible translation and textual criticism are important to me. I was raised on the KJV and then switched to NASV the year it came out, then to NIV as soon as it was available—one can see my trajectory (nice term, mmm). For about five years now the New Living Translation has been my Bible of choice. People have asked me why. This blog is an abbreviated explanation.
The original Living Bible paraphrase by Ken Taylor was published in 1971 and sold over 40 million copies. It was the number one selling book in 1972 and 73. I remember asking my sports crazed friend what he did that Sunday afternoon and he said he got started reading the Living Bible and couldn’t put down. (You hear about the guy who was reading the book on anti-gravity and couldn’t put it down?) Many people assume the NLT is just an update of that old paraphrase and so haven’t taken a serious look at it. It is true and in the earlier versions of the NLT there was considerable carry over. The NLT that I use is the 2015 model. I encourage my students to use the latest edition.
What a person needs to do when evaluating a translation of Scripture is to read its preface. One finds out about the goals, methodology, rationale, and in some cases, the scholars who did the translating (as in the NLT).
The NLT is the Bible I have been waiting for all my life. Here’s why:
The NLT encourages Bible reading
This is first because I think it is a desperate need among Christians. Several decades of teaching college freshman makes a trend obvious: we are becoming ignorant of basic Biblical truth. Anything to help remedy this is very important to me.
There are two basic ways to get at the truth of Scripture: one is archeology in the text (digging deep) and the other is flying over the whole landscape (wide reading of the text). Academia has championed the first. It seems to me that God has intended the second. It is theologically safer and is available to all who can read. In a time of biblical illiteracy, more readable, and more accessible should be a priority.
The church has a long history of withholding access of the Biblical text from the average person. It is possible for us to inadvertently do the same thing by encouraging the use of an English translation that has to be explained by an expert. We get comfortable with a translation and come to understand it but we forget what it is like for a person to read Scripture for the first time.
Giving the impression that to really understand the New Testament one must know Greek can do the same thing. There is no shame in using a Bible translation. Jesus and the apostles most often used a translation (LXX) even though they had studied Hebrew in synagogue school. The NLT is readable and understandable …I resonate with the NLT translators’ goal: “clarity” of the message.
Some argue that an English translation should not be clear unless the Greek is clear. For example, the NASV intentionally translates phrases that are unclear in the Greek as unclear in English (according to the NASV preface). I respect that but it is, in my view, much better to have a group of scholars who have the evidence and information make a decision as to the meaning of the text. The footnotes in the NLT point out when there are textual or clarity questions for those of us who want to know.
The NLT is accurate
I firmly believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture. Some have thought this means that we should use a word for word translation. The reality is that it is impossible to have a translation that is both literal (word for word) and readable. Pick up a Greek interlinear and try reading it!
The best translation expert I know said that a translator must have the freedom to use phrases instead of words and be able to change the word order to accurately communicate the meaning of a text being translated. It is interesting that we sometimes think that the general rules for good translation don’t apply when it comes to Scripture!
In my opinion (Della reminds me to say that more often!), word studies are somewhat overrated. Context determines how a word is being used. When it comes to translations, "more literal does not equal more accurate.”
The NT was given in the common, everyday Greek of the day. That’s what I want: a translation that is in my normal language. I need to be thinking “How I should change?” when I read Scripture, not, “There has to be an easier way to say that.”
Context has rightly been taught as critical when interpreting Scripture. I am often amazed about how the NLT helps me notice the flow and continuity of the passage. The NIV was the first to popularize paragraph format. Few of us could ever imagine going back to a Bible with verse format even though we still tend to think of Scripture as somewhat isolated truths. NLT takes it a step further by adding pivotal connective words to remind the reader what has already been said.
The NLT is unbeliever friendly
Della and I travel a wee bit in the USA. I have mixed emotions when I open the motel room drawer and see a KJV. My first response is joy to see a Bible. My second is wondering how an unbeliever would respond to seeing it and if they might pick it up and start reading.
What if they wanted to know God better but the archaic or awkward English put them off? What a missed opportunity. Certainly, the KJV is much better than nothing! But I am thankful that Gideons Canada wisely distributes the NLT.
Christians sometimes forget that God’s desire is for everyone to enjoy the benefits of His Kingdom. I remember the day when I asked an outspoken student in my class how he became a Christian. It was evident that he didn’t have a church background. After some prodding, he admitted that he stole a Bible from a motel and started reading it! I don’t hesitate to encourage unbelievers to read Scripture (start with Mark).
It is easy for Bible study to become an end in itself. Indeed, it can be enjoyable, invigorating, and life changing. But we can’t be satisfied with that. God wants people who are not yet believers to read it, too. The more complex the translation, the more likely unbelievers will think they cannot understand what is being said.
The NLT has been refreshing to me personally, even though it is embarrassing not to be able to flip my NIV bible open to the exact passage I am looking for. When using the NLT in class, the questions are not so much “What is the author trying to say?” as “How does this work in a person’s life?” Of course, it is also very helpful for everyone to have the same translation when reading long passages of Scripture as a group.
I appreciate the KJV, especially the Proverbs, and still go back to my NASV on occasion. My twice-rebound NIV of 35 years still reminds me where specific verses are on the individual pages of that marked-up Bible. That was convenient, but my real desire is that the “Word of God would spread” (key phrase in Acts, NIV) everywhere and to everyone. The NLT fits best with that goal.
To read more from Carl, check out his blog, "Many Hats, Many Benefits."