I personally recommend the ESV be used as the primary translation in WELS congregations, much like the NIV84 is today.
I am not a pastor, nor do I understand Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. As a layman, I have picked up from my faithful pastors a smattering of some of the above for use in understanding turns of phrase which do not translate well, as well as important terms on whose proper exegesis crucial doctrine hangs. However, I have no credentials whatsoever for comparing the available translations as they relate to the source text. I must depend on the wisdom and experience of those in the ministry with such gifts and training.
I am not arguing for the ESV from a translation perspective. The arguments I have heard regarding translation seem to say that the NIV2011 and ESV are close enough for the argument to be which weaknesses one holds in higher relief. To put it colloquially it is six on one hand, half a dozen on the other. My argument is different and does not encompass this. There are three parts: catholicity (not Roman), textual tradition, and consistency.
Catholic is a term which the church has used to refer to the ‘One holy Christian (orig. Catholic) and Apostolic church’. We use catholicity to refer to unity in doctrine and practice within the church across the centuries. Catholicity refers to our continued use of the Kyrie, Gloria, Creeds, and other universal, orthodox texts. Catholicity also refers to unity in the present day. We are embracing catholicity when we publish a common hymnal and follow it closely across our churches. We are embracing catholicity when we use a common lectionary and synchronize the church year. Catholicity in practice proclaims catholicity in doctrine.
The other major confessional Lutheran synodical bodies (LCMS and ELS) have either rejected the NIV2011, embraced the ESV, or both. For us to then adopt the NIV2011, even if their concerns are ill founded, would be to create a major difference between our churches. We no longer would have a common vocabulary of Holy Writ, and our capacity to worship together would be hindered. A barrier to sharing materials, books, curricula, et cetera would be erected. We in the WELS would be unable to use CPH materials freely. In the ELS, they would be hindered from using NPH materials.
Perhaps this could be overcome. However, why cause this division in the first place. Given two equally good options (which I am not sure they are, but for the sake of argument), why would we choose the option which is not the choice of our sister synods. This is the argument from catholicity. Where doctrinal issues are not present, let us strive for uniformity so that we may better work together towards the goal of confessing the Gospel in this dark world.
Sidenote: Yes, I am entirely aware of our lack of fellowship with the LCMS. It is my prayer that we may come to agreement on doctrine and rejoin fellowship. They have much which would strengthen us. They have been fighting enthusiast doctrine and practice in their midst for many years, a fight on which we are newly entered and I fear are losing the initial salvos. We would be stronger together. Not by glossing over the doctrinal difference. But with mutual study and agreement on the clear Word of God. With this goal in mind, why would we not utilize the excellent resources which they have made available, especially The Lutheran Study Bible.
Textual tradition is the argument that since we have used the NIV84 for so many years, our best option is to continue in that tradition with the adoption of the NIV2011. I personally believe that textual tradition is an excellent argument for abandoning the NIV. The NIV84 got lucky in being adopted by many churches after concerns were raised regarding the NIV78. There are still those who believe that the NIV84 was a poor choice at the time, and that the NKJV or some other translation would have been better.
What has happened since? Three incidents in particular come to mind. The release of the NIVI, the TNIV, and the copyright withdrawal of the NIV84 after the release of the NIV2011. The International Bible Society/Biblica has evidenced in the NIVI and TNIV a clear preference for imposing cultural norms upon Scripture, even when Scripture stands opposed to these cultural norms. The doctrine most in question is the roles of men and women. This is continued, although improved in the NIV2011. Even if the NIV2011 is a good translation in and of itself, is this something we should trust? Or would it be more prudent to cut our ties to the NIV entirely at this time. The ESV is of a different textual tradition going back to the KJV. It is likely to be familier to those who grew up with the KJV. It is also probably a better textual tradition going forward due to the non-ownership of the tradition by an individual group.
Biblica has also shown a willingness to withdraw the copyright when they release a new version. If we were to adopt the NIV2011 as a satisfactory translation, what happens when a theoretical NIV2020 is released as a ‘minor update’ and the copyright to the NIV2011 withdrawn? The ESV does not help the copyright issue. I would highly recommend that if NPH is directed to utilize the ESV, they attempt to secure a license which cannot be revoked. If this can occur, it is my hope that the ESV can serve for many generations as the de-facto Lutheran translation. A translation which I can memorize and teach to my children and grandchildren.
Issues remain with the ESV. There are questionable passages, and some concerns about the flow of the language. For this reason, the question has been raised as to whether we can create our own translation. I would highly support such an effort. I believe that fellowship with the LCMS should be restored first, as we would want their best scholarship in the effort. The goal of such an effort would be the creation of a Lutheran translation which stands for the ages as an example of good translation practice with scripture interpreting scripture and which could be used for public reading, private study, and family instruction. This is a massive undertaking. But it would be one of the greatest accomplishments of the English speaking Lutheran church.
Regardless of the choice, I would submit that an eclectic approach is the worst possible option. Even if we went with a mess like the ‘Message’, we would have the capacity to catechize our members as to its weaknesses. With an eclectic approach, each congregation is entirely at the mercy of the pastor and his language skills. I would hope that every pastor is skilled and faithful such that this would not be an issue. However, history teaches us the importance of a trained and catechized laity to keep the torch of doctrine alive. The laity needs a consistant, reliable text. If the pastor is constantly switching texts, even assuming that the pastor only switches when the text is actually better, how will the laity trust the written word? There will always be a question of whether what I am reading is actually worthwhile. And why would we expose the Lutheran pastor to the temptation to which many Evangelicals have fallen, that of utilizing translation flexibility to twist God’s Word to their own ends.