Why I Chose the HCSB over the ESV

Posted in book review by Nathan Creitz on March 6, 2009

Be sure to read this 3/31/09 update!d231828fd7a04b0a79a15110l

I think I’m tired of hearing about the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. Let me be clear, I’m grateful we English speakers have so many versions of the Bible to choose from, but when a version is elevated to cult like status something’s wrong. I skim through a lot of blogs and people are always writing posts saying “Mark Driscoll said ‘x'” and “John Piper said ‘y'”. Since they are ESV users, all the Christian bloggers seem to jump at the chance to be like their hero.

The ESV-Only Crowd

I like Mark Driscoll and I like John Piper and I’m grateful for the ESV. However, I don’t think it’s the best English version of the Bible out there today and the only reason it is outselling the others is because of its cult-like following. I’m afraid that in 100 years when it’s time to move on to a fresher translation people are going to be “ESV-only” fanatics. People will be saying, “Don’t you know that when Moses received the Ten Commandments, they were written in ESV English?”

To be honest, the ESV is a “formal equivalence” or word-for-word translation that is too rigid and literal. I don’t see how ESV lovers see a difference in the ESV and the NASB (again, I like the NASB as much as I like the ESV – I just think they are too literal and hard to read). The only thing I’ve heard that is different about the ESV is that it seems to use less words to say the same thing as the NASB, so it is a simpler translation by comparison and therefore seems easier to understand.

That’s What I Thought!

On the opposite end you have the NIV. The NIV is a “dynamic equivalence” or thought-for-thought translation. The NIV is very readable but it looses a lot of the precision of a word-for-word translation. They both have their problems. One is too literal and rigid for an idiomatic language such as Greek. The other is too loose with its interpretations of the thought of the original author. Sometimes the NIV makes a decision about what the author intended that other scholars disagree with. But when you commit to a thought-for-thought you have to claim to know the exact thought the author intended.

Optimizing the Translation

Enter the only “optimal equivalence” translation – the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). Now, before I sound like other bloggers who think the ESV was handed straight to them while they were hiking up Mount Sinai one day, let me say that the HCSB also has its theological slants just like all translations. I’ve done lots of comparisons on a verse-by-verse basis between the Greek text, the HCSB, the NIV, and the ESV (especially in the New Testament) and I can tell you that there are some translations that will occasionally translate a verse better (in my opinion) than the HCSB. But time and time again I think the HCSB puts the verbage in a way that is both more precise than the ESV and more readable than the NIV.

Basically, “optimal equivalence” is a marriage between formal and dynamic equivalence translation. It’s the best of the ESV AND the NIV styles. The HCSB approaches translation with a word-for-word mentality, but when that just doesn’t quite get the essence of the meaning the translators used the phrase-for-phrase method. If there is something idiomatic in the text, the HCSB translators have the freedom to deviate from a literal interpretation and capture the sense of the author’s intent.


The HCSB is the best English translation for both the understanding of the author’s original meaning and for modern English speakers. It is a bridge between the ancient world and the modern world. It is the translation of choice when I give a Bible to an international student who might be learning English.

Let me conclude by saying, I’m not in love with a translation. However, I felt it wise to push back against the cult-like following of the ESV and say that there are other options for people who don’t do everything Driscoll and Piper tell them to do. Our translations will always have a minor problem here or there and we should always strive for the best but let’s not get involved in translation wars. Whatever you’ve chosen as your translation (remember, The Message is not a translation) spend time in it, hide it in your heart, let it draw you closer to God. For those of you who are ESV users I’m grateful that you’ve found it helpful and understandable.

Note: Here is a great information source that includes video and history of the HCSB translation.

Update: The Christian Booksellers Association lists the HCSB as the 6th most popular Bible as of March 2009. The ESV is #5 and the NIV is #1.

You can buy the new Holman Christian Standard Bible here.


12 Responses

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  1. Nathan Creitz said, on March 6, 2009 at 11.14 am

    By the way, I know in advance that not everyone who uses the ESV is an ESVangelist or an ESV cult leader. It’s a great translation…I’m not knocking it. I like it and I use it frequently.

  2. John Meche said, on March 6, 2009 at 3.44 pm

    hmm…I wouldn’t call the NIV functionally equivalent. The NIV lies somewhere between a purely funtional translation like the NLT and the formal NASB. The ESV and HCSB are both excellent and essentially literal translations and I would put them both roughly equal in formal vs funtional level and put them squarely between the NIV and NASB.

  3. Tim said, on March 6, 2009 at 7.01 pm

    I’m an ESV guy myself. I was a NASB guy in College since the Greek and New Testament always touted the literal accuracy of the NASB. I also got my first taste of the HCSB there as well, my Hebrew and OT professor was one of the translators, so he always encouraged students to buy it, and told us every Monday how it was climbing the Bible bestseller list.

  4. Greg Bolt said, on March 7, 2009 at 10.47 am

    What are your thoughts on the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)? I have never seen the HCSB and very limited exposure to the ESV, but I have found that the NRSV, for me is certainly better than the NIV. (In most cases)

    The NRSV is also, if I remember correctly, the translation of choice for the WCC. Just be interested to hear your thoughts.


  5. Nathan Creitz said, on March 9, 2009 at 6.08 pm

    Thanks for the thoughts:

    John – the specific category of translation method that the NIV belongs to is the “dynamic equivalence” method. I don’t know what you mean by functional equivalence. The method the NIV uses to translate the Bible is not my opinion so I’m not sure what your comment means. The HCSB isn’t just somewhere between the NIV and the NASB, it is the best of the NIV and NASB.

    Tim – I know a lot of people get upset thinking the HCSB is a “Southern Baptist translation”. However, I think over 60 denominations were represented among the translators who contributed to the work and I think the general editor wasn’t even Southern Baptist. I’d have to check my facts, but I think I remember hearing that.

    Greg – I couldn’t give you too much opinion on the NRSV. I hear basically the same things you’ve just said but I haven’t looked into it for myself. I know the KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, ESV, and HCSB best.

    Thanks again for the comments and questions.

  6. Terry T said, on March 12, 2009 at 11.07 pm


    Thanks for your comments. I went through a similar process after being introduced to the HCSB and since then have used it as my translation. Not a “Kool-aid” drinker with it like some seem to be with the ESV, probably all get that way with their favorites, but I do love it. In fact, I have made a few more comparison readings through the NT and each time I return to the HCSB. It is so comfortable, plain language without “dumbing down” or slang filled and maintains the accuracy of the NASB.

    Think I’ll stick with it for the long haul.

  7. John Meche said, on March 31, 2009 at 10.08 am


    Sorry for the mix-up. By functional I meant dynamic. Some people say functional and some say dynamic. By the using the term functional I meant that the translators intended to translate in a pragmatic (read functional) manner to communicate the thought of a passage rather than the formal (read word-for-word) manner. Dynamic equivalence is just another way to say formal equivalence. I prefer to use functional/formal because of the alliteration.

    I would not place the NIV all the way to the left on a dynamic vs formal scale. There are many translations which are much more dynamic than the NIV, such as the NLT, CEV, GW, NCV, etc. That’s why I said that the NIV was in more of a mediating position (due to its accuracy in formal translation when compared to other dynamic translations even though its translation philosophy is dynamic). However some people like to call the NLT a paraphrase rather than a translation. If that is the view that you hold to, then the NIV would definitely be on the far left of a dynamic/functional scale.

  8. Nathan Creitz said, on April 1, 2009 at 2.17 pm

    I don’t place the NIV all the way to the left either. It’s just that in my post I was talking about the ESV as compared to the HCSB as compared to the NIV. The HCSB is squarely in the middle of those two. There are dozens of other translations that we could talk about but I’m not as familiar with all of them. I have used the NLT but beyond that those other dynamic equivalent translations are not for me. I think the NIV and the ESV and the NASB for that matter are good translations. I just think the HCSB is better for contemporary English speakers and scholars alike.

  9. Aaron L said, on April 18, 2009 at 1.05 pm

    Hey Nathan, thanks for the email the other day. It was good to hear from you and it got me back on your blog (it’s been a while). It sounds like you and I have similar passions regarding the local church – I look forward to bouncing stuff off one another.

    Thanks for posting this. I am aware of the ESV’s cult like following and its connection to the new Reformed movement, but I haven’t spent any time comparing it to other translations. Great to hear your thoughts about the different translations. Good stuff.

  10. Nathan Creitz said, on April 18, 2009 at 4.13 pm

    Thanks Aaron,

    It’s kind of funny but my posts about the HCSB and the ESV have become the most popular topic. I’m not really that passionate about it, even though I am really impressed with the HCSB. But, for ESV lovers or KJV lovers or even NIV lovers I see no reason why someone should change.

    We will definitely keep thinking together about the church and I also appreciate your insights.

  11. A.Admin said, on June 25, 2009 at 9.10 pm

    I enjoyed reading your post, but if you don’t mind me adding something,

    The purpose of the NIV isn’t to paraphrase like John Piper says. The NIV is more literal than it is functional. The NIV only moves in colloquially when the modern reader will not understand what’s being stated. Common misconceptions about the NIV are created by Piper, Crossway and Fundamentalist King James Only types. The NIV definitley doesn’t qualify as a fully thought-for-thought translation. If you don’t believe me, compare the NIV with a New Living Translation.

  12. Kevin said, on January 13, 2010 at 1.29 am

    The NIV is not a paraphrase, it uses the literal method where possible, but if it does not follow current english idiom, then it reorganizes the words to make sense. All translations add an additional word here or there. I know the NIV translators have taken some liberties where they should not have. The majority of the worlds translations are made idiomatic. Martin Luther made his idiomatic(and he took many liberties when he translated the bible) and his is still used today, even by amish groups in the USA. There are many places where the NIV translates better than the ESV or the NASB. I have a NASB which I use WITH my 2008 edition large print NIV study Bible. This study bible has a 200 page topical index, the best I have ever seen, and the notes are the best in any study bible (even the ESV), because if a divisive issue comes up (like tongues) it gives the pros and cons of both sides, so you can make a decision, it does not tell you what to believe, but it presents the info for you to make an educated choice. Any two translations beat any one translation anyday.

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