The NIV controversy, part 1

It’s not unusual for the release of a prominent, new translation of Scripture to cause controversy. At the beginning of the 5th century, a scholar named Jerome produced a new translation in common, everyday Latin. This translation was called the Vulgate because it was rendered in the “vulgar,” or common, language of the people. Jerome was the first Christian scholar to produce a common version of the Bible by translating the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew manuscripts rather than from the traditional Greek version. This resulted in some readings that sounded strange to the people. For instance, instead of God providing a “gourd” for Jonah, Jerome translated this more specifically as a “castor-oil plant.” The reaction? Rioting in the streets! The people didn’t appreciate anyone messing with their familiar readings of Scripture. [James R. White provides a helpful overview of this history in his book The King James Only Controversy.]

Ironically, over a thousand years later the Vulgate was itself firmly entrenched as the common Bible of the Western world. It was also badly in need of revision. In the early 16th century, Erasmus printed a Greek New Testament, based on the best Greek manuscripts he could find. Alongside the Greek text, he provided a brand new, up-to-date translation in Latin. As you might guess, this new translation faced great resistance. How dare Erasmus change the accepted Word of God that had been the authorized version of the Catholic Church for over a thousand years!

This new scholarship by Erasmus and others was used by the translators of the King James Version, which was published in 1611. It may come as a surprise to many that the King James Version itself faced vehement opposition when it was first released. For over fifty years, many people resisted this “new innovation.” Prominent church leaders decried it as a perversion of the Word of God. This translation, which is now widely hailed as one of the most beautiful works of English literature, was considered by many to be unfit for public worship or personal study. The Pilgrims, who used the Geneva Bible, refused to allow the King James Version on board the Mayflower.

Of course, the King James Version withstood this opposition and went on to become the dominant version of the Bible for over 300 years. But by the late 19th century, many Bible scholars realized there was a great need to revise the King James Version. Not surprisingly, this Revised Version faced withering criticism. Many people felt that anything other than the reassuringly familiar King James Version simply wasn’t the Word of God. To this day, there are some who teach that it is wrong to use any Bible but an “authorized” King James Version.

In 1978, the New International Version (NIV) was published. Despite sometimes stiff opposition, the NIV became the preferred version of Scripture for the vast majority of evangelical Christians. Because of an ongoing commitment to provide a translation of the Bible in current, up-to-date language, in 2005 the translators of the NIV released a new translation, Today’s New International Version (TNIV). And once again, the church went through a firestorm of controversy regarding a new translation of Scripture.

While a large number of highly respected, eminently qualified, solidly conservative scholars praised the accuracy and quality of the TNIV, its critics waged an all-out campaign to bury this new translation.  Accusing the TNIV translators—many of them well-known, conservative scholars themselves—of stealthily promoting a liberal, feminist agenda, they appealed to the suspicions of Christians who were mostly ignorant of the process of biblical translation. Many people began signing protests and complaining to Christian bookstores and churches about the TNIV without adequately understanding the underlying issues.

Generally, when a Bible publisher releases an update of a translation, they stop selling the older version. But Zondervan, the publisher of the NIV and the TNIV, faced a tough choice. They were publishing a brand new translation that many saw as the rightful heir to the NIV; but the NIV (which hadn’t been updated since 1984) was still a bestseller, and they apparently didn’t want to kill the golden goose. So they decided to advertise the new TNIV while continuing to offer the familiar NIV. In actual practice, most of their energy and resources were dedicated to supporting the money-making NIV. Many observers felt this strategy was a mistake, effectively eliminating any possibility for the TNIV to succeed. The TNIV quickly got a reputation as ‘the best translation no one will ever read.’

In 2009, Zondervan sought to rectify this situation by announcing that a new edition of the NIV would be released in 2011, which would replace both the TNIV and the 1984 version of the NIV. Dubbed the NIV 2011, this latest version of the NIV was released to the public earlier this year. Soon after it was released, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a strongly-worded resolution opposing the new version. The reaction of many evangelical Christians was a weary, ‘Here we go again.’ Christianity Today published an editorial in response to the SBC resolution, titled Battle for the Bible Translation. The editorial was well-written, clearly explaining the relevant issues, and rightly decrying the divisive and unnecessary stance of the SBC.

CT’s editorial was posted online, and quickly began receiving comments in response. Unfortunately, these responses tended to reveal the ignorance and hostility of many of the critics. Despite a few commenters who oppose all functional translations (including the original NIV), most of the new NIV’s opponents showed through their comments that they have a naive and overly simplistic concept of Bible translation. Though some of these commenters seemed well-intentioned, many had an almost superstitious perception of how Bible versions are produced. Few seemed knowledgeable of the complexities of real translation. While a few critics expressed themselves graciously, others apparently felt no qualms about slanderously attributing erroneous motives—sometimes in shockingly mean-spirited language—to men who had dedicated their lives to serving the body of Christ.

After teaching from the NIV for years, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the TNIV, feeling that it was an excellent translation. My enthusiasm didn’t wane until I became discouraged by Zondervan’s surprising lack of support for their new translation. Happily, this discontent led me to examine the New Living Translation, and I’m now even more enthusiastic about this translation. While I refer to many versions in my studies, my primary reading Bible is the New Living Translation, and our church uses the NLT. I wish the NIV 2011 great success, but I don’t foresee ever returning to an NIV-family text as my go-to Bible for reading or teaching.

So I have no personal stake in this debate. But I am dismayed to see this kind of hostility expressed toward fellow believers, and for evangelical Christians to be so unknowledgeable and naive about the translating of Scripture. Such paranoia and religious McCarthyism have no place in the body of Christ and must be strongly opposed. Those who follow the way of truth must not fall prey to sensationalistic conspiracy theories. And it’s the responsibility of evangelical pastors and leaders to speak out.

I’ve already addressed the need for Christians to handle controversial issues in a loving, Christlike way. (Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) The translation of God’s Word is obviously of extreme importance, and it’s appropriate for us to discuss issues related to Bible translation vigorously. But we must also do so with Christian love and with fairness. And we must do our homework first so we truly understand not only what we’re opposing and why, but why fellow Christians disagree with us. My next post on this topic will explore the specific characteristics that some people find questionable about the NIV 2011.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 2

Which Bible version should I use?

15 thoughts on “The NIV controversy, part 1

  1. I’m all about the most literal in terms of readability. Often, I will read two different Bible translations side by side in my studies. I love the NASB and I love the NLT as well. Well written article on the topic, as Christian should be able to detect false or overly interpretive biblical text…although NIV does take some interpretive liberties, they do add footnote when they do. Once gain as long as the original language is included in footnote, and the reader is made aware I think there are many Bible useful for study.

  2. Thanks, Jessica. I use multiple translations in my studies too, and the NASB is excellent for this purpose. I agree that good footnotes can make all the difference. I didn’t always feel this way, but I’ve become a proponent of having the most clear reading in the body of the text, with any nuances included in the footnote for clarification. Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Jessica, unfortunately the NIV 2011 does not always offer footnotes disclosing alternative and more literal readings of contested gender-related passages. In fact, it has dropped a number of such footnotes that did appear in the TNIV.

    Curt, I’m wondering if you read Denny Burk’s article in the Spring 2011 issue of The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: “The Translation of Gender Terminology in the NIV 2011”. If so, do you find fault with his analysis? Thanks.

  4. Hi, Cale! I hope you and Merlene had a great Christmas. Kelley and I are in Southern California right now with her family. I’ve been meaning to get the follow-up to this post written for some time; hopefully I’ll be able to get it done soon.

    In the meantime, no, I hadn’t yet read this article. I’ve tried to read most of the major writings on this issue—on both sides—including the full-length books written. (Have you read the books or articles by DA Carson, Craig Blomberg, Mark Strauss, Doug Moo, Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, etc.?) I’ve just found those who support the TNIV/2011 NIV to be more balanced, credible and convincing.

    Burk’s article is in much the same vein as other articles from CBMW. [I find it unfortunate that they’ve lost their previous focus and taken on this crusade (I don’t use the word lightly). They’ve alienated many committed complementarians, such as myself, who can no longer support them.] I’ll write more on the specific translational issues later, but I disagree with just about all of his conclusions. He does avoid making pronouncements about the motives of the NIV translators, and I’m thankful for this. But he still uses prejudicial terms such as “feminist” translations and a “gender neutral” translation philosophy. And his stance on “essentially literal” translations would actually seem to exclude the 1984 NIV as well.

    After I wrote this post, someone referred me to Rod Decker’s review of the 2011 NIV in Themelios. It’s one of the best I’ve read, and I would recommend it:

  5. I was disappointed by this post. I had hoped to read an article that actually discussed some of the issues surrounding the controversy with the new NIV (or Bible translation in general). The author’s main message seems to be that those who opposed the NIV are ignorant and that we should be nice to each other.

  6. Hi, Larry. Welcome to the blog. There are two issues involved in this controversy. One is the specific readings of the 2011 NIV; the other is the nature of the opposition. This post is about the latter, along with some historical context. I should have the follow-up post online early next week, and hopefully that will address more of the issues that especially interest you. There are always evaluations of new translations, and these are worth discussing. There are going to be differing perceptions of any translation, including the new NIV. But the extreme campaign against the TNIV, and now the 2011 NIV, can be characterized as hysterical, condemnatory and unnecessarily divisive.

    The damage that has been done—to individual believers, to churches, and to our witness in the surrounding culture—is a serious concern to a great many evangelical Christians. As the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5:14-15:

    For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.

  7. I am using the NIV Bible since I am a bible school student in early 1980′s and until now I become a Pastor here in the Philiipines. I always recommended this translation to all my church members because I always use this Bible in all of my sermons. Many of my christian friends who are KJV followers told me that NIV was Satan’s translations. But I always defend the NIV against this kind of creticism. But when I purchased a NIV 2011 edition for my children then read it and compared to my NIV 1984 edition I believed now and concluded that it become now a Satan’s version. If they will not anymore published the NIV 1984 edition my decision will be is to use the ESV or NASV bible.
    With all due respect to Dr. Douglas Moo this is only what I can say to NIV 2011: “REJECT THE NIV 2011 AND BRING BACK THE NIV 1984 EDITION.

  8. Ferdinad, I pray for God’s blessings on your ministry in the Philippines. But, brother, your attitude—especially as a pastor—seriously troubles me. Not that you don’t like the 2011 NIV and prefer other translations. We’re all going to have our preferences when it comes to Bible translations. I myself prefer the NLT for teaching, and recommend it to our people.

    But it’s a far cry from disliking a certain translation to attributing it to Satan! With all due respect, this is an extreme example of the very attitude that I believe is indefensible and severely damaging to the body of Christ. Not even the harshest of the new NIV’s critics (such as Wayne Grudem) would say something this outrageous. Can you point me to anything in the 2011 NIV that is so egregious that it could be labeled Satanic? I encourage you to read my follow-up to this post: The NIV Controversy, Part 2 and the other sites that I link to there. Please make sure you truly understand the views that you’re opposing before speaking out so strongly. And you don’t have to label something as “Satanic” to vigorously oppose it. If your opposition is irrational and overly extreme, you’ll simply discredit your own argument.

  9. I”m very sorry for my outrageous or strong remarks but I am only speaking out of discouragement, disgust, displeasure and dislike what the Bible Translator Committee did to the NIV Bible that I believe was one the modern bible translation that God used for many years since 1973,1978 and 1984 for the lives of many Christians (Theologians, Bible Scholars, Seminary Teachers, Pastors, Evangelist Missionaries, Church Workers and Church members ) around the world and especially for my own christian life. We all know in fact that before many theologians, pastor, evangelist and teachers was used God, but now they their lives are used by Satan because they are adopting and accepting and teaching already wrong doctrine. I think that’s the same what happen with this NIV Bible Translator Committee, before they use by God in NIV 1978 and NIV 1984 but now they let their knowledge and gifts to be used by Satan buy updating the 1984 NIV Bible and they called it NIV 2011 edition just for the reason of changes in English language. This NIV 2011 edition it already departed from what is written in the Hebrew and Greek manuscript especially when they used gender-neutral application in that translation and I am totally against it because it is totally departing the verbal and plenary inspiration of the scriptures. When King James Version was updated to New King James version it was for the better, when American Standard Version was updated to New American Standard Version especially the 1995 edition, it was for the better. When NIV 1978 Edition was updated to 1984 Edition still for the better. But I was disgusted when the NIV 1984 was updated to NIV 2011 it was not for the better but it is for the worst. It is true that there is no perfect translation but I believe we christian who are serious in studying and teaching the Word of God have the responsibility to determine, examine and then recommend a Bible that translated nearest to the Hebrew and Greek manuscript which our basis for verbal and plenary inspiration and to condemned and not recommend those bible which are already poorly translated and already departing to the Hebrew and Greek manuscript because of the reason of accommodating the changes in English language. This poor translated bible become already a tool of Satan because those who used it will surely departed from the truth. Maybe we just have different conviction about bible translation that is why in your article you said that you use the New Living Translation in the church and you still defend the NIV 2011 edition. As the Word of God said in II Tim. 2:15 ” who correctly handles the word of truth ” ( NIV ), so the bible translation we used surely had an effect on word of truth we handled. God bless.

  10. Well, Ferdinand, I disagree with your conclusions. And I couldn’t be more opposed to, and troubled by, the extreme nature of your rhetoric. I encourage you to keep reading on both sides of this issue, including such solidly conservative evangelical scholars as DA Carson, Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace. Regardless, may God bless you and your ministry in the Philippines.

  11. Curt…really really appreciate your spirit and approach and balance. I’m beginning to see parallel lines in other controversies. …translation and Missiological issues and church polity and new forms of movements to Jesus. So often the negative rhetoric swerves into slander and character assassination. Seems to be a pattern.

    Thanks again for modeling speaking the truth in love.
    Kevin Higgins

  12. Thanks, Kevin. It’s all too easy for any of us to fall into these kinds of patterns. Sadly, though, that kills the possibility of real discussion and sharpening one another. I think these are dangers we all need to diligently guard against—and the more we’re convinced we’re right, the more we need to be on our guard.

  13. Some of these comments have been beyond disturbing as a women who is devoted to studying Gods word and who primarily uses 2011 NIV Bible. IT made me physically ill to read the comments I’ve read this week about 2011 NIV Bibles. How can someone be so stubborn and closed minded to call this Bible satanic. My Bible was given to me as a mother’s day gift by my 3 daughters after the death of my father and it is extremely personal to me and it is Gods holy word. Do you really think that the NIV(1984)print of 1Corinthians 8:3, “But the man who loves God is known by God” is this not accecptable in my 2011NIV which reads “But whoever loves God is known by God”. . Are we like the Pharisees or are we like Jesus. I’ve had a tough week having my eyes opened that there are people who think like this.I’m currently taking a class on what Baptists Really Believe and the SBC also disputes gender neutral translations. I’ve been a Baptist since 1974 and Ive never felt so hurt by fellow Christians.

  14. Karen, thanks for your comment. You show the personal side of this issue and that real people are being hurt by this unnecessary controversy. Of course, the overriding motivation for the translators wasn’t a desire to not offend or be politically correct. It was simply to communicate God’s Word as clearly and accurately as possible so it could be easily understood. But we need to remember this isn’t just an academic pursuit. The translators are real people (whose devotion to God and motivations are being impugned), and the readers of these translations are real people who are being needlessly hurt and confused. Karen, you should know that many, many Baptists do not agree with these condemnations of the 2011 NIV, including many Southern Baptists. But this is still a sad chapter for the church.

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