Transforming Language: The CSB’s Use of Words

Bible translations offer a massive debate in the Christian world. The fact that we even have the opportunity to argue over Bible translations is indicative of just how blessed we are considering some languages only have one option or none at all. Therefore, before ever coming to a point of discussion, Christians who have multiple translations must reflect on the privilege they have been given.
With that said, one can understand why there is discussion about the best translations and best translation methodology. Debate wages between those Bibles that choose a more literal translation (i.e. New King James and New American Standard versions) and those that will deviate slightly from the literal in order to convey concepts in a more readable manner (i.e. New International Version). Of course there are some who prefer Bibles that simply utilize paraphrasing, however, I rarely consider/recommend these because I have found that people tend to not understand that it is a paraphrase and thus come to conclusions that really cannot be made from the actual text.
Just last week Bible readers were treated to the revelation of a new version, the Christian Standard Bible. Using what translators call optimal equivalence, translators try to utilize both methods, keeping the literal text when possible but being free to change word orders for the sake of readability. Of course, this translation is not really new at all, but a rebranding of an earlier one.
Translators have worked hard to update the version from its original release and chosen to remove the Holman designation (which is a good thing) though it is still published by Holman Bible Publishers. In the midst of this updated translation, the publishers have chosen to more heavily market this new version. I have always lamented the fact that the Holman Christian Standard Bible was not more widely used. Few people knew of its existence and it has never achieved the same ‘status’ as other popular versions because of the lack of marketing. Therefore, this new emphasis on marketing, which has culminated in the new Christian Standard Bible website, is a great thing.
With the release just a week ago though, an initial review of the text gave me some disappointment to learn that translators chose to conform to other translations with their translation of doulos (δουλος). While most translations chose to use the word servant, the Christian Standard Bible translators previously chose to use slave. Among many good qualities of the translation, it was this aspect that pushed me to use the translation more than others. However, to my dismay, the latest revision includes conforming to the use of servant in place of slave (unless the direct context is in regards to slaves and slavery, then it remains unchanged). In discussing this change co-chair of the translation oversight committee, Dr. Thomas Schreiner says the following:
In many cases we made a change where the word rendered “slave” in the HCSB is rendered as “servant” in the CSB. In our context, the word “slave” primarily brings to mind our history of race-based slavery. The theologically appropriate connotation of the word is lost on most readers. In light of this obstacle, it seemed best to the Translation Oversight Committee to choose a word that is less apt to cause distraction and misunderstanding (1).
 I understand the concern here and certainly a Bible should capture the meaning intended without distracting one from a deeper study. However, there are three things that I think warrant consideration in this discussion:
  1. Deeper Meaning: The word slave conveys a much deeper meaning than servant. So enriching is that meaning that it warrants our attention to its detail.
  2. Deeper Teaching: Rather than avoiding a term simply because we don’t like its history (which is the same reason most other translations do not use the word as well) our use of it should provide an opportunity to deeper teaching (and deeper study) of it.
  3. Deeper Commitment: The deeper meaning of the word slave can have a greater impact upon a person about the Lord’s desire of those who follow him and thus provokes a deeper commitment.
One of my favorite passages is James 1:1. It’s a simple passage that introduces us to the author and audience, as is typical style. There James writes: “James, a servant (slave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: to the twelve tribes in the dispersion. Greetings.” Reading that verse we typically overlook the commitment level of James here, because we see servant simply describing the status of any believer. The word conveys simply one who works for the people on behalf of the Lord. However, if we read it as slave, we see something far more grand because not only does it convey James’ work is oriented towards a deep service for the Lord, but that it envelops his entire existence. This is further staggering when we recognize that James is the half-brother of Jesus. Rather than call attention to that point, as many of us would do if that were the case, James tells readers that who He is has nothing to do with Him at all, but everything to do with Christ. Can one bring out this point with the word servant? Sure, but the impact is far greater when we read it from the initial outset as ‘slave.’
No other ‘usable’ translation uses the word slave here, so if this was the only deciding point on using a particular version, I would have no where to go. That’s not the case though. In fact, I still think the Christian Standard Bible is a great translation and would highly recommend it. I use my Holman Christian Study Bible and/or the Holman Notetaking for my devotions on a regular basis (this says nothing about the content of the notes, but in terms of sheer beauty, the Holman Christian Study Bible is the most beautiful Bible I have ever used). So while I wish they would have kept with their original translation of doulos, I would urge you to consider using the translation yourself. Unfortunately because the translation was just released, publishers are still in the process of printing new Bibles with the text, however in the links below you can read the new text online, compare it to the previous version, and even take a look at the Bible set to release (I’m especially excited about the Spurgeon Study Bible edited by Allistair Begg set to release in October). Take a look around and enjoy!
Some Resources to Consider (click the titles to link to the resources):
  1. Slave by John Macarthur: Dr. John MacArthur deals with the usage of slave in the Bible at a deeper level than what we have time to explore here.
  2. Read the Christian Standard Bible Online
  3. Check out the upcoming Bible releases
  4. Holman Christian Study Bible (previously released version mentioned in this article)
  5. Holman Notetaking Bible (previously released version mentioned in this article)
(1) This quote was taken from an interview Logos Bible Software conducted with Dr. Thomas Schreiner and can be read by clicking here.