The NIV controversy, part 2

It sometimes comes as a surprise to students when I quote approvingly from different Bible translations. They seem to think that, since our church uses the NLT, this must be the authoritative text for us. There are definitely churches that follow such a rigid adherence to one Bible version, whether it’s the KJV or ESV. But an obsessive insistence on one translation is actually a strong indicator a pastor or teacher doesn’t really know much about the translation of Scripture. The truth is there is no perfect translation. No matter how much you may love a particular Bible version, if you continue studying, you’re bound to run across places where you prefer a different reading.

Though I now teach from the NLT, I still love the NIV’s rendering of “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16. (I think the rest of the verse is even more clear in the NLT though.) In my opinion, the NET communicates the clear meaning of John 3:16 when it begins the verse: “For this is the way God loved the world . . .” rather than the traditional “For God so loved the world . . .” (The HCSB and God’s Word Translation have similar readings.) I appreciate the way the TNIV and the updated NIV clarify Philippians 4:13: “For I can do all this through Christ who gives me strength [emphasis added].”

So we shouldn’t seek the one Bible translation that has no issues and gets every reading perfectly; this is simply not a realistic expectation. And we need to understand that if we put any Bible version through an in-depth examination, we’re going to find readings on which scholars disagree and which we may not prefer. Most of us aren’t accustomed to such meticulous analysis of a popular translation. Before we begin, we need to remind ourselves that, though the wording may differ, the various translations of Scripture all communicate the same gospel and faith in Jesus Christ. So just what are the differences in the 2011 NIV?

Updated language
The NIV was last revised in 1984, and some of the wording sounds dated or has different connotations now. For instance, the word “alien” today tends to conjure up visions of beings from outer space, so the 2011 NIV now uses the word “foreigner.”  We normally don’t refer to a woman as being “with child,” so the NIV now describes expectant mothers as “pregnant.” Because of increased knowledge of Greek, we can now specify when Jesus faced opposition from the “Jewish leaders” rather than implying that all of “the Jews” resisted him. These kinds of improvement haven’t provoked much criticism.

More formal readings
One of the criticisms of the more functional translations (including the NIV) is that they are sometimes specific when the original language is not. [For an explanation of what we mean by formal and functional translations, see Which Bible version should I use?] Some feel translations should leave the wording more ambiguous and allow the reader to decide how to interpret the word or phrase. In the 2011 NIV, the translators more frequently opted for such formal readings. For instance, Romans 1:17 no longer tells us that in the gospel “a righteousness from God is revealed,” but that “the righteousness of God is revealed.” In many of the places where the 1984 NIV spoke of the “sinful nature,” the 2011 NIV relies on the more ambiguous, traditional reading of the “flesh.” While some applaud this change, others feel this is actually a step backward in clearly communicating the meaning of the text. Regardless, these kinds of changes have not been controversial. The lightning rod for critics of the 2011 NIV (and the previous TNIV) has been the changes regarding gender—how we refer to men and women. Let’s take a closer look at this issue.

Changes in gender references
Language is constantly changing. This is the very reason why new versions of the Bible are sometimes needed. Remember the purpose of a Bible translation is to accurately communicate the Word of God in the common language used by the people so they can readily understand it. Whether we like it or not, the way we use words related to gender has changed. One can still find old books that refer to Queen Elizabeth as a “man of distinction.” * This sounds silly to us now. If I were to stand up in church and ask, “Will all the men please stand,” how many women do you think would rise? None, of course. Why is that? Because most of us no longer hear the word “men” as including both men and women, but as being exclusively male.

The current translators of the NIV are not advancing these changes, but they must take them into consideration in order to provide the most accurate translation possible. Indeed, some have suggested it is irresponsible not to. If a large percentage of readers think masculine terms such as “men” or “brothers” specify males only, then these words no longer accurately convey the meaning of Scriptures where both men and women are intended. No one is claiming these language changes are universal; one can still find examples of the term “man” being used for people in general. But it’s hard to deny that such usage is becoming continually more rare, particularly among the younger generations and in more urban areas.

Should we adapt to these kinds of changes in language? Some would say no, that we should withstand cultural influences on our language. But then, how many of us would stubbornly insist on describing ourselves as “gay” when we’re feeling happy and lighthearted? By not using this word to describe ourselves are we advancing an ideological agenda? Or are we merely seeking to communicate clearly and unambiguously? Like it or not, language does change, and for a variety of reasons. We must communicate to people in the language they actually speak and understand. Let’s look at some examples:

men and women

The Greek words traditionally translated as “man” or “men” can mean either male persons or people in general. The meaning is determined by the context:

Matthew 16:26

1984 NIV
What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

2011 NIV
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

1 Timothy 2:3-4

1984 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

2011 NIV
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

brothers and sisters

If I were to announce Sunday, “Would all the brothers meet at the front of the church building after the service,” how many women do you think would show up? We commonly use the word “brothers” to indicate men today, rather than all of the people. We understand though the Greek word adelphoi often refers to both men and women.

Romans 12:1

1984 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

2011 NIV
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Colossians 1:2

1984 NIV
To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

2011 NIV
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

sons and daughters

The Greek word huioi can mean either sons or children, depending on the context.

John 12:35-36 (Jesus speaking to the crowd)

1984 NIV
The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going.  Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light.

2011 NIV
Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.

Romans 8:14

1984 NIV
because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.

2011 NIV
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

Out of all of these examples, which ones communicate most clearly that both men and women are intended? Remember, the goal is to accurately convey the meaning of the text. At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “So what’s the big controversy?” Let’s see what the critics are saying:

Common criticisms

“They’re changing the Word of God!”

It’s not uncommon, unfortunately, to hear this charge, accompanied by ominous warnings to those who would alter Scripture (e.g. Revelation 22:18-19). Surprisingly this accusation isn’t being made only by ordinary Christians who lack knowledge, but by those who should know better. Of course, unless we’re all going to read the Bible only in the original Hebrew and Greek, Scripture must be “changed” from the original languages into the languages that people now speak—for us, English. Does this mean we’re altering God’s Word? Not if we faithfully convey the original meaning. As we’ve seen in a previous post, woodenly formal translations often obscure the original sense of a passage. If the text conveyed the meaning of “men and women” to the original readers, then to use wording that doesn’t convey that meaning today—when we can easily communicate the actual meaning—is an approach that is more vulnerable to the charge of altering the Word of God. If the original reading meant “brothers and sisters” in their context, then to render this as “brothers” is to translate Scripture in a less accurate manner.

“They’re obscuring how Scripture applies to individuals.”

Finish this question: “Everyone likes pizza, ________?” * If you said “don’t they,” you would be using normal, everyday English. You also might be considered grammatically incorrect, at least by a small, diminishing number of English teachers. At one time, the proper way to say this would have been, “Everyone loves pizza, doesn’t he?” But no one speaks this way anymore—not even English teachers! It just sounds odd to the current English speaker. Virtually all of us use what scholars call the ‘singular they.’ This isn’t a new innovation (even Shakespeare used it), but it’s become universal in everyday speech and is being utilized even in formal English. When the context shows the text is not specifying males, the NIV translators frequently used a singular they rather than an exclusive “he,” “she,” or the ever-awkard “he or she.”

Matthew 18:15

1984 NIV
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

2011 NIV
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Now, the truth is most people use “they” in precisely the same manner the current NIV does in this verse and similar passages. Its critics, however, claim this reading obscures the fact that a sinning individual is being confronted. They say this now implies a group is involved. (This despite the fact the verse speaks of a “brother or sister”—singular—who sins, and specifies that one should point out their fault “just between the two of you”!)

If I told a class, “If anyone doesn’t have a book, they can see me after class,” would anyone infer I was referring only to groups of students who didn’t have a book? * God told Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 1984 NIV). Would anyone read this and assume it applies only to groups of people blessing and cursing, not individuals? In the English Standard Version, Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:6 as saying: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Because he used plural pronouns, does this mean we must hunger and thirst for righteousness only as a group, and can be satisfied only as a group? Did Christ himself remove any individual nature to this promise? Of course not. And neither do similar passages in the updated NIV.

“They’re obscuring references to Christ.”

This is a serious charge, and perhaps I should devote a follow-up post to examining the passages in question. (This post is getting too long already.) In each case, what is being emphasized is not the masculinity of Jesus, but his humanity. These references are included in a widely publicized list of thousands of supposed “inaccurate translations” in the 2011 NIV. What these critics fail to mention is that each of these “inaccurate” translations are supported by a broad range of conservative evangelical scholars—often by a majority of scholars! The detractors actually represent a tiny fraction of qualified biblical translators.

“This translation includes feminist readings.”

This small, but very vocal, group of critics are part of an association focused on issues regarding distinguished gender roles in the home and church. What you may not get from their flood of articles and blog posts is that many, if not most, of the NIV translators and supporters agree with them concerning these gender roles! Yet these critics insist on decrying the translation of certain passages as “feminist.” Here’s one example:

1 Timothy 2:11-12

1984 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

2011 NIV
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.

This is the only place in Scripture where the Greek word authentein is used, and the meaning is hotly contested. Some say it means to have any authority and others claim that it means to usurp authority. So the NIV translators sought a neutral term that didn’t strongly imply either meaning. The critics, though, believe they’ve given away the farm with this choice. They say “assume authority” is a feminist reading, insisting that it puts the nature of the authority in a negative light. I would challenge these detractors to Google the words ‘assume’ and ‘presidency.’ Are all of these references using the word “assume” in a negative connotation of inappropriately grasping power? When we’re told that “Ronald Reagan was the oldest man to assume the presidency,” does it mean this was a “self-initiated action” as is claimed about ‘assume’ in the current NIV reading? Can these critics see why others are perceiving them as hysterical and strident? While complaining that the 2011 NIV is ideologically-driven, it becomes clear they do want the NIV to be driven by ideology—as long as it’s theirs!

I don’t have space to go over each of the other complaints in detail. They are appalled that Romans 16:7 now identifies Junia (feminine) instead of Junias (male) and that 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 changes the referent for “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people,” despite the fact that a large number of complementarian commentators have supported these conclusions for years! Even though they admit women can teach children and other women, the critics are incensed that 2 Timothy 2:2 now instructs Timothy to entrust what Paul had taught to “reliable people” instead of only men. Apparently, for Timothy (and us) to teach women the actual content of what they were to teach others was beyond the pale. (Of course, there is nothing explicitly male in the original Greek.) As an unabashed complementarian, I would have no problem teaching from the 2011 NIV translation of these passages.

Unlike some liberal translations that have been motivated by ideological agendas, the NIV translators sought only to accurately translate the meaning of the text. Contrary to the terminology of their critics, the desire was not to produce a “gender-neutral” translation, but a gender-accurate one. Where men are intended in the biblical text, the masculine forms are retained. God is never referred to as “she” or “Mother,” and Christ remains the “Son.” The improvements made in the 2011 NIV do not alter in any way how we view God, and they do not endanger the scriptural views of the roles of men and women in the home or church. But when the Scriptures include both men and women, the translators sought to do the same.

As I expressed in my previous post, a disheartening aspect of this controversy has been the methods employed by many of the opponents of the TNIV and 2011 NIV. While it is very appropriate to publicly discuss and debate new Bible translations, this opposition has focused on highly questionable and misleading claims, and has often included prejudicial comments regarding the motivations of the translators. Not only have these detractors been wrong in their accusations, they have done real harm to the body of Christ.

While I personally use a different translation, I think the 2011 NIV is a fine Bible for personal study, public worship and teaching. It enjoys strong support from a broad range of well-known, conservative evangelical scholars who have great expertise in translating Scripture. I pray that this excellent translation will be widely used by the evangelical Christian community for the glory of God, the benefit of his people, and as a witness to the world.

* I’ve taken some illustrations from Mark Strauss (see below).

For an excellent, and far more detailed, review of the 2011 NIV, see Rod Decker’s review in Themelios.

Another insightful, revealing source is a debate between Wayne Grudem and Mark Strauss.

Related posts:

The NIV controversy, part 1

Which Bible version should I use?

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.

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?