The Lutheran denomination has a strong tradition of reading and preaching the Bible. Since the time of German Reformer Martin Luther, church leaders have worked to give all people with access to Scripture in translations that they can understand. So what Bible translation do Lutherans use?
Lutherans use the New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible. Lutheran leaders, like Bible scholars and ministers, favor the NRSV because it is faithful to the original languages of Scripture and while it is a word-for-word translation, it also allows for reasonable flexibility when necessary.
In what contexts do Lutherans use the NRSV translation? How does it compare to other translations such as the NIV or the ESV? Can members of Lutheran churches read other translations if they want? Read on for answers to these questions and others.
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How Lutherans use the New Revised Standard Version
Martin Luther, the pioneer of what became the Lutheran church, believed that all Christians should be able to read the Bible in their own language. Because of this, Lutherans prize the daily reading of the Bible.
Instead of relying on a priest or pastor to interpret the Bible for them, individual Lutherans often study the Bible on their own or with other believers. They study the NRSV translation in formats such as:
- Daily devotions: Many Lutherans read the NRSV in their daily devotions and in their study of scripture during a small group or Bible study. The NRSV fits this purpose well because it’s easy to read and employs a word-for-word translation philosophy. (Also see Lutheran Bible vs Catholic Bible: What’s the Difference?)
- Church services: Lutherans also use the NRSV in their liturgy during Sunday services. This is especially true in churches that belong to the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
- Bible study resources: The ELCA includes a wealth of resources on their website, including liturgies, devotionals, and daily Bible readings. These resources overwhelmingly utilize the NRSV when referencing the Bible.
- Study Bible: The publishing arm of the ELCA, the Augsburg Fortress, has put out their own Study Bible, which along with study notes by Lutheran scholars, includes the NRSV Bible translation. 
- Colleges and seminaries: Lutheran Bible scholars use the NRSV in their studies in universities. In general, the NRSV lends itself well to scholarly study for reasons this article will give below. Christians of many other denominations such as Presbyterians or Methodists also use the NRSV at their respective universities.
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How does the NRSV compare to other Bible translations?
The NRSV adheres to “formal equivalence” as its translation philosophy. Formal equivalence means that translators try as much as possible to translate biblical passages word for word.
|NRSV Romans 6:23|
|“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”|
|ESV Romans 6:23|
|“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”|
|NRSV 2 Corinthians 5:17|
|“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”|
|NIV 2 Corinthians 5:17|
|“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”|
|NRSV Galatians 2:20|
|“and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”|
|NKJV Galatians 2:20|
|“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”|
Other translations that utilize formal equivalence are the English Standard Version, the King James Version, and the New American Standard Bible. In contrast, the New International Version and the Message utilize dynamic equivalence, which means that the translators translate phrase by phrase.
However, differences exist within each of these categories. Because Greek and Hebrew (the original languages of the Bible) are grammatically different than modern English, strict word for word translations often sound clunky and at worst are unreadable. (Also see Do Lutheran Speak In Tongues?)
Accordingly, every translation, including those that pursue formal equivalence, must make difficult decisions as far as the phrasing of each verse. Some would describe the NRSV as having an academic tone.
In fact, many biblical scholars tend to use the NRSV. This might be because the NRSV attempts to balance faithfulness to the original text with readability. This stands in contrast to the New American Standard Bible, which some have criticized as difficult to understand because of its unrelentingly literal translation. 
The NRSV is also notable because of its replacement of gendered words and pronouns with gender-neutral phrases. The translators did not do this in all cases, but only in situations where they believe that the Bible intends to be referring to a person of any gender. (Also see Do Lutherans Believe in Predestination?)
In order to remedy this the NRSV sometimes replaces masculine pronouns with gender-neutral words, and in other cases changes the syntax of the entire sentence. This fits with the general philosophy of the NRSV which is to be “as literal as possible” and “as free is necessary.”
In this case, the translators decided that sticking to masculine words and phrases would confuse rather than clarify the meaning of the original text. (Also see Lutherans vs Baptists: What’s the Difference?)
However, some people of a more conservative theological understanding view this as giving into liberal theology and the feminist movement. These people would argue that the NRSV includes a theologically liberal bias based upon the theologically liberal views of the translators.
The NRSV is somewhat unique in that both Protestants and Catholics took part in the translation. 
What other translations do Lutheran churches use?
Although churches associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America predominantly use the NSRV, other Lutheran individuals and churches use other translations.
This includes those belonging to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). Although the LCMS does have an official translation, the churches who belong to this denomination tend to be more conservative theologically. Because of this, it is likely that LCMS churches would avoid the NSRV because of its gender-inclusive language.
As an alternative, some Lutherans use the English Standard Version which utilizes a literal word-for-word translation while retaining all the masculine pronouns and language from the Greek and Hebrew text.
The ESV also translates certain Old Testament texts in a manner that foreshadows the divinity of Christ. The NSRV in some situations does not do so, instead translating words in light of how the Old Testament would have interpreted scripture. (Also see Are Lutherans Born-Again Christians?)
Many Lutherans use the New International Version, not because it is particularly Lutheran but because it is one of the most widely used translations of the Bible today.
The New International Version is a phrase-by-phrase translation (also called dynamic equivalence) and the phrasing of each passage is easy-to-read and suited for a modern audience. Due to this fact, some Lutherans use it for their daily Bible study or corporate readings in church services. (Also see Lutheran vs Non-Denominational: What’s the Difference?)
The third largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod supports no one translation, but their publishing arm uses the NIV, the ESV, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible in their publications. 
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