It is astonishing to see prominent theologians like Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress vigorously disputing with fellow evangelical theologians like Don Carson and Craig Blomberg! Indeed, the dispute is supremely important as it pertains to whether the church should adopt the New International Version for preaching and Christian education. To avoid confusion, it should be stressed that the NIV in question is not the ‘classic’ NIV (1984), but the NIV (2011) which was published earlier in 2005 as the TNIV.
The dispute arose when scholars like Grudem and Poythress rejected the gender-neutral or gender inclusive language policy adopted by Biblica, the publisher of the NIV, on grounds that the policy often gives rise to translation that deviates from the original meaning found in the Hebrew and Greek texts. Biblica’s defence is to claim that modern (Western) readers find it offensive when words like ‘he’ or ‘man’ are used generically to refer to both males and females as this usage reflects patriarchal society which oppresses women. Biblica insists that recent social developments make it necessary for new Bible translations to avoid offence by substituting the generic usage of traditional for words like ‘he’ and ‘man’ with gender-neutral words such as ‘the one’, or the third person plural ‘they’, or some other equivalent paraphrases.
Presumably, a gender-neutral translation would find more receptive readers in the West. On the other hand, critics of the NIV (2011) protest that the gender-neutral translation policy exaggerates the possibility of offence and capitulates to pressures of political correctness. Such compromises are irresponsible in the light of the aggressive culture war waged against traditional marriage and the family institution in the West. More importantly, critics claim that the gender-neutral translation of the NIV (2011) ends up playing fast and loose with scripture. Readers may refer to the appendix given below for evidence of their claim.
As competent scholars are found on both sides of the debate, perhaps charity is in order. That is to say, one should not demonize any of the Bible translations in question. It should be stressed that there is no perfect translation. More importantly, despite the inherent deficiency of any translation of the Bible, there is undeniable evidence that readers still can ‘hear’ the living voice of God in all the translations of the Bible. In this regard, readers of the English Bible are blessed with multiple choices of good translations whose general accuracy and literary beauty cannot be gainsaid, such as the KJV, NIV and ESV. God forbid (an excellent phrase taken from the KJV) that any Christian should aggressively vilify (and sadly, some would say demonize) any of these translations.
How should we assess the vociferous debate among Christian scholars whose linguistic competence and Christian commitment is impeccable? It should be acknowledged that the NIV (2011) as a refinement of the NIV (1984) is a good translation. But the debate is not whether the NIV (2011) is a good translation, but whether it should be received as the ‘gold standard’ for pulpit preaching and serious study. In this regard the NIV (1984) was accepted by evangelicals as the ‘gold standard’ as it was judged to have optimized the requirement between adhering closely to the literal meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew texts while retaining the quality of clarity and readability. In contrast, the NIV (2011) is rejected by many evangelicals who view its moderate dynamic equivalence and gender-neutral translation as an unnecessary and unacceptable tampering with the meaning of the original texts. Indeed, many conservative churches and organizations such the Southern Baptist Convention, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Focus on the Family and Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, have publicly rejected the NIV (2011).
More misgivings arose when Biblica reneged its promise to continue publication of the NIV (1984) and proceeded to rename the NIV (2011) simply as the NIV. This is seen as misleading since the uninformed reader assumes that the NIV (2011) retains the translation policy of the NIV (1984). Not surprisingly, critics perceive Biblica to be covertly substituting the ‘gold standard’ Bible NIV (1984) with the controversial and contested Bible NIV (2011).
The debate would be more tempered if critics declare in what sense they find the NIV (2011) acceptable or unacceptable. First, the NIV (2011) has evident strengths. It facilitates smooth and easy reading as it assumes a lower reading competence than the KJV/ESV, while avoiding free rendering and dynamic equivalent translation of the NLT. Along with the New Living Translation (NLT), the NIV (2011) serves as an appropriate medium to reach out to modern Western readers influenced by the inclusive language ethos that is aggressively championed by the secular media and the academia. Both the NIV (2011) and the NLT are considered suitable for devotional reading and evangelistic purposes. The NIV (2011) would have garnered wider acceptance among evangelicals like the NLT except for the inevitable perception that it is a new initiative to replace the NIV (1984) as the new ‘gold standard’ translation.
Second, the NLT and the NIV may be suitable for devotional reading and evangelistic outreach but serious academic study and pulpit preaching requires an essentially literal translation with the following qualities: a word-for-word translation that gives transparency to the original text, minimum intrusive interpretation, verbal consistency with Hebrew and Greek words, clarity of expression and, finally a literary excellence which approximates the KJV minus its archaic vocabulary and sentence structure. In this regard, critics have found the NIV (2011) to be inadequate, much less be accepted as the new ‘gold standard’.
To be fair to the NIV (2011), it should be acknowledge that it is unlikely that any single translation can completely satisfy these requirements. Perhaps the best approach would be to study the Bible using together two translations with complementary strengths: the Holman Christian Standard Version (CSV) for its clarity and readability and the English Standard Version (ESV) for it literary beauty that approximates the KJV. Together, these two translations would get us as close as possible to the new evangelical ‘gold standard’ Bible.
Given below are examples why some scholars reject the gender-neutral translation policy of the NIV (2011).
Changes that diminish the role of the father
The 2011 NIV incorrectly changes “father” to “parent” or something else
1) 1984 NIV Proverbs 15:5 A fool spurns his father’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.
2011 NIV Proverbs 15:5 A fool spurns a parent’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence. (same as TNIV)
ESV Proverbs 15:5 A fool despises his father’s instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent.
2) 1984 NIV 1 Samuel 18:2 From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his
2011 NIV 1 Samuel 18:2 From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home
to his family. (same as TNIV)
ESV 1 Samuel 18: 2 Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father‘s house.
The 2011 NIV incorrectly changes “son” to “child”
3) 1984 NIV Proverbs 13:24 He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to
2011 NIV Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their
children is careful to discipline them.
ESV Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to
Note how circumventing the word “son” affects the phrase – “son of man” in some verses:
4) 1984 NIV Psalm 8:4 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for
2011 NIV Psalm 8:4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care
ESV Psalm 8:4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for
The 2011 NIV incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” or to other non-family words
5) 1984 NIV Luke 17:3 So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents,
2011 NIV Luke 17:3 So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them;
and if they repent, forgive them.
ESV Luke 17:3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents,
The 2011 NIV incorrectly changes “he” and “him” to “they” and “them”
6) 1984 NIV John 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father
will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
2011 NIV John 14:23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father
will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (same as TNIV)
ESV John 14:23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father
will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
The 2011 NIV loses many more masculine singular pronouns than the “Translators’ Notes” suggest
7) 1984 NIV Proverbs 28:19 He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who
chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty.
2011 NIV Proverbs 28:19 Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who
chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty. (same as TNIV)
ESV Proverbs 28:19 Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows
worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
See also Romans 4:8; Matthew 10:24; Matthew 12:35; Matthew 18:15; John 6:40; Revelation 3:20
Awkward and confusing sentences with “singular them”
8) 1984 NIV Romans 4:8 Blessed is the man (Greek ’anēr – man) whose sin the Lord will never
count against him.
2011 NIV Romans 4:8 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
(same as TNIV)
ESV Romans 4:8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9) 1984 NIV Matthew 18:15 “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 Matthew 18:15 “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.
ESV Matthew 18:15 If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and
him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
10) The NIV (2011) changes “Women” to “weaklings’ in verses like Nahum 3:13; Isa. 19:16; Jer. 50:37; and Jer.51:30.
Summary: The NIV (2011) waters down or omits details that modern Western culture may find offensive – words like “brother,” “man,” “father,” “son,” and “he/him/his” are removed to teach general truths. The NIV (2011) changes some key verses on women’s role in the church so that they favor an evangelical feminist position, especially in translating 1 Timothy 2:12, Rom 16:1,7; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34.
Supporters of the NIV (2011)
D.A. Carson. The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism. Baker Books 1998.
Craig Blomberg – http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/todays-new-international-version
Roy Decker – http://ntresources.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/NIV2011evaluationJust.pdf
Critics of the NIV (2011)
Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress. The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy. B&H Academic 2005. An e-copy of an earlier edition is found at http://www.frame-poythress.org/ebooks/
This is the most sophisticated and detailed criticism of the TNIV, the earlier edition of the NIV (2011).
Useful scholarly resources critical of the NIV (2011) are conveniently collated by Michael Marlowe at Bible Research – http://www.bible-researcher.com/gender.html
Wayne Grudem, Leland Rykens et.al. Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation. Crossway 2005.
Andreas Kostenberger. Which Bible Translation Should I Use? A Comparison of 4 Major Recent Versions. B & H Academic 2012.
Leyland Rykens. The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translation. 2002. Crossway
Leland Rykens. Choosing a Bible. Understanding Bible Translating Differences. Crossway 2005.
KJV vs NIV Controversy
Finally, this post is triggered by the recent buzz in the social media on the KJV vs NIV controversy. I have focused on the NIV controversy since there is little support among scholars for the claim that the KJV is superior to all other translations. Two useful critiques of the superior KJV advocates are:
D.A. Carson. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Baker Books 1979.
James R. White. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? 2ed. Bethany House 2009.
Additional note: An often cited case of how the NIV translation affects the significance of the messianic texts found in Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2:
Note the chapter title for the Hebrew 2 passage for both the NIV 2011 and ESV say this is a reference to Christ.
NIV 2011 – 4-6 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? You have made them[d] a little lower than the angels[e]
and crowned them[f] with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their[g] feet:
NIV1984 – Ps 8:4-6 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
Ps 8:5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
Ps 8:6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet:
ESV Ps 8:4-6 what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
This is quoted in Heb.2:5-11. The context suggests this is a prophetic fulfillment of Psalm 8 in Christ which is consistently captured in the ESV
ESV 5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 6 It has been testified somewhere,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,..
NIV 2011 Heb. 2: 5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
8 and put everything under their feet.”
In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
Comment: Note how the inclusive language of the NIV 2011 messes up this sense of fulfillment of a messianic title, granted that son of man has several meanings in its semantic range. I assume NIV2011 translators/supporters can come up with an interpretation that this passage refers to both Jesus and humankind (not man or mankind). Hermeneutics can do wonders. But I think one would naturally keep to the simpler and more direct prima facie and literal translation of the ESV.
I guess the main concern here is how a prophetic/messianic text of the OT is watered down/muddled.