The Bible is the Word of God and contains eternal truth and wisdom for our lives. As Christians, we are called to meditate on Scripture, allow it to transform our hearts and minds, and apply its teachings to how we live. Using paraphrases of the Bible can be helpful in some circumstances, but also has some potential drawbacks that are important to consider.
What is a paraphrase of the Bible?
A paraphrase of the Bible seeks to convey the meaning of Scripture in a more accessible, easy-to-understand language. Well-known paraphrases include The Message by Eugene Peterson and The Living Bible by Kenneth Taylor. Paraphrases aim to capture the essence of what the original biblical languages communicate, but do so through looser translations and more explanatory renderings. They are not strict word-for-word translations like formal equivalency versions such as the English Standard Version (ESV) or New American Standard Bible (NASB).
Potential benefits of using a Bible paraphrase
There are some potential benefits to using a paraphrased version of Scripture at times:
- Paraphrases can make the meaning of passages more clear and accessible, especially for new believers or those unfamiliar with the Bible.
- They can help communicate and illustrate the essence of what a passage intends to say in plain, straightforward language.
- Paraphrases may capture nuances or shades of meaning in a text not as apparent in more literal translations.
- They can spark fresh insights into familiar verses through their creative, expressive renderings.
- Paraphrases may be easier to comprehend and apply for personal study or group teaching settings.
For these reasons, consulting a paraphrase alongside more literal translations can provide helpful perspective at times. The freer style can breathe fresh understanding into passages you may have read many times before. Paraphrases also enable sharing the heart of Scripture with new believers or non-Christians unfamiliar with the Bible’s language and themes.
Cautions in relying too much on paraphrases
However, there are also cautions to consider regarding over-dependence on paraphrased versions:
- Paraphrases involve much interpretation and explanatory additions not in the original text. They are the work and commentary of an individual author, not a team of translators.
- Key theological terms, nuances, imagery, and word connections can be lost or altered in paraphrasing. The tighter you render the language, the more that gets filtered out.
- Paraphrases must not become a replacement for careful, in-depth study of what the biblical languages and more literal translations actually say. They are a supplement, not the primary text.
- Consulting only one paraphrase can skew your understanding of passages. It is wise to reference multiple translations when seeking to properly understand any text.
- Unlike formal equivalency translations, paraphrases are not suitable for Bible memorization or as the main version used during sermon preparation or public teaching. They lack reliability as a primary biblical text.
In essence, paraphrases involve tradeoffs. They gain in readability and contemporary relevance but lose in precision and fidelity to the original phrasing. They can be insightful but lack sufficient rigor for deep study. Consulting paraphrases is fine and even recommended at times, but they should not become your dominant Bible version. Use them selectively alongside more reliable and literal translations.
Guidance from Bible passage examples
Looking at a few example passages can illustrate both the value and limitations of Bible paraphrases:
ESV – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The Message – “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
The Message conveys the essence of this famous verse in straightforward, everyday language. It communicates the loving heart of God and availability of redemption well. But in doing so, it loses the original term “perish” and the important repetition of “only Son.” The paraphrase makes it accessible, but less precise.
ESV – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
The Living Bible – “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.”
Again, The Living Bible puts the truth of God’s faithful provision into plain words. But in simplifying the imagery, we lose the depth and richness of the Biblical metaphor of God as a shepherd caring for his sheep. Paraphrases often fall short in conveying key imagery meaningfully.
ESV – “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The Message – “Our lives are a long way from honoring God, but God treats us as if we had never sinned.”
In this case, The Message adds quite a bit of extra interpretation that is not in the text. It distorts the meaning rather than accurately paraphrasing it. This illustrates the danger of paraphrases straying too far from the intent of passages.
Looking at multiple examples like these reveals the strengths and weaknesses inherent in paraphrasing Scripture versus more literal translation approaches. Paraphrases serve a helpful function at times but lack the accuracy and reliability required for in-depth study of the biblical texts.
Guidance from trusted Bible teachers
Beyond analyzing example passages, it is wise to consider thoughts from trusted Bible scholars on the appropriate use of paraphrases:
“While paraphrases may be valuable for reading and understanding God’s Word, they should never displace more literal translations of the original languages in sermon preparation, memorization, theological work, or other in-depth study of Scripture. Paraphrases and literal translations complement each other—they do not compete.” – Dr. R.C. Sproul
“Paraphrases are not actual translations. They are interpretations of translations. For the most part they are unreliable and inaccurate. Sometimes they are useful for illustrating and clarifying verse meanings, but no one should make a paraphrase his primary Bible.” – John MacArthur
These wise teachers affirm that paraphrases can add perspective at times but should always be supplemented with more rigorous translations for accuracy. Relying solely on paraphrased versions is unwise and insufficient for deep understanding of biblical truth.
Key principles for appropriately using paraphrases
In light of these considerations, here are some key principles for when and how to use Bible paraphrases helpfully:
- Paraphrases can aid understanding of passages initially, but should always be paired with study of more literal translations.
- Consult multiple paraphrases rather than just relying on one rendition which may skew meaning.
- Remember that a paraphrase remains an individual author’s rendering, not the scholarly consensus of a translation team.
- Use paraphrases to supplement your study, not replace more rigorous Bible versions.
- Avoid basing important doctrine, theology, or spiritual practices solely on paraphrased versions.
- Use more reliable translations when memorizing Scripture or preparing Bible lessons.
- Let paraphrases spur meditation and application, while depending on literal versions for accuracy.
The key is maintaining a balanced perspective, knowing when paraphrases can provide value while recognizing their limitations compared to formal equivalence translations. Use them selectively rather than as your primary biblical text.
The priority and permanence of God’s Word
Ultimately, the Bible in all its translations and renderings still communicates the unchanging truth of God’s Spirit-inspired revelation to humanity. While paraphrasing seeks to make the meaning of Scripture plainer, God’s Word retains its power and authority even when translated literally word-for-word into other languages. As Isaiah 40:8 (ESV) declares:
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
And as Jesus affirmed the reliability of Scripture in Matthew 24:35 (ESV):
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The Bible stands unshaken as God’s revelation of truth and redemption to the world. Paraphrases may aid our understanding but do not share this divine permanence and authority. They must not become a substitute for prayerful study and meditation on Scripture itself.
As we seek to understand and revere the Bible, paraphrasing has its place among the range of translations and versions available today. But we must retain a priority focus on the literal meaning and permanence of God’s Word across centuries, cultures and languages. Paraphrases enlighten but should not displace this preeminent grounding in Scripture itself.