IntroductionThe Scriptures teach Calvinism. There should not be any particular surprise in this - it's the reason Calvinists believe Calvinism. That said, it has been alleged that the New Living Translation (NLT) even more clearly teaches Calvinism (link to allegation). In fact, the allegation at "Traditional"(FN1) Baptist Chronicles is that there is some kind of Calvinistic bias in the dynamic equivalent translation. My friend who provided this researched analysis of the NLT focused on what he viewed as verses that are frequently cited by Calvinists.
With that in mind, I thought I would examine some of the typical verses used by Arminians to support their contra-Calvinist positions.
Analysis of Some Typical Contra-Calvinist ProoftextsThe "big three" verses one hears are the following: Matthew 23:37, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9. A few additional verses that are typically cited are the following: 1 John 2:2, John 3:16, Romans 10:13, 1 Timothy 2:6.
The following is the KJV for those verses, followed by the NLT, with an explanation of the difference and the significance of that difference, if any:
Matthew 23:37 (KJV) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Matthew 23:37 (NLT) “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.
Both of the identified added words seem to be for purposes of clarifying the meaning of the verse, and they seem to be correct. I think the "city" substitution may help slightly, but the traditional non-Calvinist view of this verse seems to be based on confusing "you" and "your children," which is only slightly less likely in the NLT.
1 Timothy 2:4 (KJV) Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:4 (NLT) who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth.
This change may make the non-Calvinist misunderstanding of the text slightly easier, but it is almost the same.
2 Peter 3:9 (KJV) The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
2 Peter 3:9 (NLT) The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.
Here, the change would seem to make the non-Calvinist misunderstanding of the text much easier. In other words, it is not so clear that the "any" and "all" refer to "us," but rather it appears that "anyone" and "everyone" has no specific reference.
1 John 2:2 (KJV) And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 John 2:2 (NLT) He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.
There is some loss of meaning in this change, since propitiation is a specific aspect of the atonement. Nevertheless, the change does not seem to significantly affect the way that the verse would be mishandled by non-Calvinists.
John 3:16 (KJV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:16 (NLT) “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
The "only begotten" vs. "one and only" reflects a modern translation preference that I won't discuss here. The change from "whosoever" to "everyone" actually should reduce the non-Calvinist confusion over this verse.
Romans 10:13 (KJV) For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Romans 10:13 (NLT) For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Again, the change from "whosoever" to "everyone" actually should reduce the non-Calvinist confusion over this verse.
UPDATE: March 18, 2014: Added the following verses to the analysis of non-Calvinist prooftexts:
Hebrews 2:9 (KJV) But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
Hebrews 2:9 (NLT) What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.
The different way of attaching the suffering of death phrase is interesting, but does not affect the Calvinism/contra-Calvinism argument. The added "for us" does seem consistent with the context of Hebrews 2:9, but the "everyone" seems about as liable to non-Calvinist misunderstanding as the "every man." In both cases, the Calvinist will need to explain the verse in context.
2 Peter 2:1 (KJV) But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
2 Peter 2:1 (NLT) But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves.
The change from "Lord" to "Master" makes it slightly less likely that a reader will arrive at the usual non-Calvinist association of this Lord/Master with Jesus. Likewise, the change from "damnable" to "destructive" makes it slightly less likely that the reader will arrive at the usual non-Calvinist allegation that this refers to the people going to hell.
What about the Verses in the Allegation?My friend does seem to have a point that in a number of cases the NLT seems to prefer a dynamic equivalent reading that removes a possible non-Calvinist way of looking at the verse or makes the Calvinistic understanding more natural. For example, "uncircumcised in ears" (in many translations) is less clear than "deaf to the truth" (NLT at Acts 7:51). Still, it seems strained to me to suppose that this particular replacement of an idiom with a phrase designed to convey a similar meaning has any roots in preference for Calvinism.
Similarly, my friend criticizes the NLT at Romans 8:29 for "God knew his people in advance" rather than "for whom he did foreknow," which seems to be a fairly empty criticism.
Likewise, some of the examples seem to have almost nothing to do with Calvinism. For example, at Acts 1:21-23, the NLT has "we must choose a replacement for Judas," which my friend seems to think suggests that both the apostles and God chose Matthias, rather than that just God chose Matthias. It's hard to see the connection between that and Calvinism.
In other cases, the seeming advantage to a Calvinist reading is almost insignificant: at Romans 9:20 the thing is said to be "created" from clay rather than "molded" or "formed" from clay.
Still, in a few cases the NLT provides some explanation that is unhelpful to typical non-Calvinist views: at Romans 9:11, the text states "This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes," which does not fit well with the "God chooses a plan" view or the "God chooses nations" view.
Also, a number of the cases identified are places that relate to perseverance of the saints - an aspect of the five points that is shared by many non-Calvinists. So, for example, it is alleged that the explanatory phrase "nothing can ever separate us from God's love" in the NLT's Romans 8:38 is not a fair translation. However, of course, a "once saved always saved" view would be equally fond of this particular explanatory phrase.
Verses on Other Topics?After reading through the dozens of verses my friend identified, I wonder - is this method of translating something reserved for issues relating to Calvinism? Or is this just simply a byproduct of the dynamic equivalent methodology. It seems to be the latter. For example:
Mark 1:4 (KJV) John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
Mark 1:4 (NLT) This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.
That's clearly a lot of extra explanation and it avoids the misunderstanding that people were getting baptized in order to have their sins remitted by the baptism. Yet, at the same time, that's more explanation than is in the original Greek.
Philippians 2:12 (KJV) Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Philippians 2:12 (NLT) Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.
I won't even highlight all the differences, but I think you can see that the clarification avoids a misunderstanding of work's salvation.
I haven't done an extensive study to confirm, but my suspicion is that the translators have made these kinds of clarifications in numerous places - not just places that Calvinist and non-Calvinists may go when trying to discuss theology with one another. So, I don't think that accusations of Calvinist bias (intentional or unintentional) are correct.
ConclusionI am not a fan of translations that attempt to use dynamic equivalence to a large degree to make the text easy to read. There are certain aspects of translation that may require equivalence (for example, where different word order has different meaning in different grammars, or where periphrastic constructions are being used, or for similar conjugation issues). In general, though, a word for word equivalency should be preferred, if the translation is intended to be studied.
If you study or argue from a very dynamic translation, you can run into trouble. Imagine how frustrating it would be if your child was trying to explain the doctrines of grace to his friend and his friend pointed out that "This message shows that God chooses people" was not in the original text. That would be a legitimate comment even though the phrase does accurately characterize the meaning of the original.
If you choose a dynamic equivalent translation for your children to read, the NLT may be a useful choice (it doesn't seem to have a strong non-Calvinist bias). Indeed, it appears that there is a bona fide attempt to express the meaning of the text and to provide clarification in some harder to understand places. Nevertheless, you should carefully remind them of the difference between this type of translation and a more literal translation, like the KJV, NKJV, MKJV, NASB, ESV, etc.
Personally, I don't care for this style of translation. All translation has a degree of commentary in it, but the more dynamic the translation, the more commentary it has. Sometimes that commentary may be good and helpful (and I think my friend has identified a number of cases where it is such, although he disagrees).
I won't be switching from the KJV to the NLT, and I don't think the translators of the NLT intended the NLT to compete with the KJV. Rather the NLT is probably an excellent alternative a paraphrase like the Message or the like.
FN1: I think Founders Ministries might respectfully disagree that a non-Calvinistic approach is "traditional" for Baptists.