In this post I will argue, first, that the NIV 2011 more accurately reflects the original biblical manuscripts. Second, that reactions to the NIV 2011 are mostly rooted in a deep-seated reverence for the NIV. Third, that concerns about gender-neutral language is overblown and fourth, that the NIV 2011’s rendering of Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2 is to be preferred over the 1984 edition.
INTRODUCTION: REACTIONS TO THE NIV 2011
I’ve been telling customers for years now that the NIV is the most popular translation in the English-speaking world. But that may be changing as more and more individuals, pastors and organizations (viz. Christian schools, churches and whole denominations) are switching to other translations such as the ESV or the Holman Standard.
After explaining what I thought about the new NIV and about people’s reactions to it my pastor’s wife pointed out (always the optimist) that the real issue, she believes, is ignorance. People really just need to be shown what the changes are and why they were implemented. She confessed her own knee-jerk reaction when learning that they “changed” the NIV to make it more gender neutral. Her hope is that, armed with a little fact-checking information, people will stop fearing, boycotting and rejecting the NIV 2011 edition.
So that’s why I decided to write this post. To see if she’s right. So let’s find out.
AND THE BEAT GOES ON
“Will there someday be an ‘NIV Only’ movement? We can only hope not.”
That quote by James White comes on the heels of a quick survey of people’s reactions to new translations throughout the history of the Church. For example, in the centuries leading up to Christ the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek (known as the Septuagint). Some five hundred years later Jerome translated the scriptures into Latin. Listen to how Augustine reacted to Jerome’s new translation.
“My only reason for objecting to the public reading of your translation from the Hebrew in our churches was, lest, bringing forward anything which was, as it were, new and opposed to the authority of the Septuagint version, we should trouble by serious cause of offense the flocks of Christ, whose ears and hearts have become accustomed to listening to that version…” (p.12, The King James Only Controversy)
Notice, first how Jerome’s Latin translation is not compared to the Hebrew (even though it was translated from the Hebrew), but rather it is compared to the Septuagint. This is similar to how people are comparing the NIV 2011 to the NIV 1984. Like the Septuagint, the NIV 1984 is automatically assumed to be the authority. Then any differences, Augustine is concerned, will cause Christians serious offense because they have become “accustomed” to the Septuagint (read, NIV 1984). People don’t like it when their customs are messed with, especially when we are dealing with a sacred text, like the scriptures.
To run through the next 1,500 years: Though in Augustine’s day people had become “Septuagint Onlyists,” eventually the Latin translation would become the primary source for the next 1100 years until Erasmus created a new Greek edition that would become the basis of the Geneva Bible and KJV. But he underwent a certain amount of persecution for daring to suggest that the Latin version was not good enough. Then, in the English world, the Geneva Bible was produced and reigned as the primary Bible of the English-speaking world and it took the KJV some 200 years to beat it out. Soon the KJV would find a place of veneration – with KJV Only advocates still fighting for their Bible – until the NIV 1984 would beat it out as the number #1 selling translation in the English-speaking world.
Have we reached the point today that White hoped we’d never see back in 1995 when we wrote The King James Only Controversy?
No, I don’t think so. At least not exactly. Zondervan discontinued the NIV 1984, effectively guaranteeing to cut-off any hints that an NIV cult might emerge, forcing those with an allegiance to the NIV to find another, less preferred, translation (ESV, Holman). I think we are facing an NIV Supremely movement. People who know that the NIV is not a perfect translation, but who also feel that it is good enough and that it shouldn’t be messed with.
THE REAL ISSUE IS DOCTRINAL (HE/SHE/CHRIST?)
I think most NIV‘84er’s will object strenuously to what I just suggested. The real issue for them is its gender neutrality and its rendering of Psalm 8. This seems to be the pivotal reason why the Southern Baptist Convention as well as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (note, not to be confused with other Luther churches) have sought to ban the translation.
This is where my pastor’s wife suggests that people’s concerns will be alleviated if they are armed with some knowledge and a little critical thinking.
In moving forward let us keep one very important thing in mind. The purpose of a translation is to make the message of the Bible understood and accessible to a people from a different culture, time and language.
That is why new translations must be made and old translations must be updated. There are no perfect translations. And the NIV 2011 is certainly an improvement in it’s use of pronouns than the NIV 1984 edition (as we’ll see).
LESS CONTROVERSIAL EXAMPLES
Here are just a few examples in the Gospels that are less controversial. Examples like these can be found throughout the NIV 2011 Bible. The point to note is that Greek words that are either plural or inclusive in their context have now, thanks to the NIV 2011, been translated accordingly to reflect more accurately the message of the Bible.
NIV 1984 — “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”
NIV 2011 — “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”
NIV 1984 — You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.
NIV 2011 — You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death.
NIV 1984 — Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”
NIV 2011 — Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
I don’t know how anyone could dispute the NIV 2011’s merits here. Certainly “men” here is not just a reference to “men,” but to “people”? Certainly Jesus meant to include “sisters” as well as “brothers” who will persecute Christians? Certainly it is not just men (“he”) who will be born of water and the Spirit, but everyone (“they”)? Clearly the NIV 2011 is a better translation in this regard and scores more like it. But at the end of the day, it’s not enough to compare the two translations. You must go back to the source.
I was blown away by Mary Kassian’s article titled 10 Reasons why the New NIV is bad for women. In that article she states:
“Gender inclusive Bibles imply that women are too stupid to figure out that in the Bible, the words “man” and “brothers” are inclusive terms.”
Yes, the words “man” and “brothers” are inclusive terms in the original Greek, but not in English. And that is exactly the point. In English “man” means “man” not “man and woman,” and “brothers” means “brothers” not “brothers and sisters.” If, as Mary Kassian says, “man” and “brothers” are inclusive terms in the Bible, then why not translate them as such when putting it into English? This is not assuming the stupidity of women (or should I say, women and men?), this is assuming (correctly so) that in today’s English, those terms are not inclusive. Hence, that’s why we call it a translation. It is in fact the whole point.
“SON OF MAN” OR “HUMAN BEINGS”?
The following two texts may be the single most important issue for many people.
Psalm 8:4-5 is usually understood as a messianic text quoted in Hebrews 2:5-9. The NIV 2011 renders the phrase “Son of Man” in Psalms 8:4 as “human beings.” There are two things to keep in mind.
1. The Hebrew word here could be either Son of Man or human beings. So the question is not a matter of translating the words incorrectly, but of translating their meaning. What did the original author mean to communicate in this passage?
2. The second thing to keep in mind – at least from a translators point of view – is that the goal of the translator is to translate the text independent of what another portion of the Bible might say about that text. In other words, it would be a mistake to say “here’s how the New Testament interpreted this passage, therefore, let’s translate the Old Testament to match.” If we trust the Old Testament to be inspired and the New Testament to be inspired, then we should trust that the Bible does not need our help to make the two Testaments fit. We should rather let the tension stand for the sake of accuracy to the sacred scriptures.
It should be pointed out, then, that Psalm 8 on it’s own may be understood as a reference to all of mankind:
“The point of the psalm is that even though humans are puny beings in comparison with God, we are God’s special creations with privilege and responsibility to rule over the rest of creation (v. 5-8). Both “man” and “son of man” refer to the human race, not to any specific person.” (Here)
When the author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2 the rendering in the NIV 2011 is radically different from that of the 1984 edition. The text is worth quoting side by side:
|NIV 1984 – Hebrews 2:5-9||NIV 2011 – Hebrews 2:5-9|
|“What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.”In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor 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. 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.|
Looking over the vast differences of these two translations, I realize now that another whole article is deserving of their attention. But let’s summarize what’s going on here and why it matters.
First off you’ll notice how in the 1984 edition Christ is the subject of the passage with the exception of the opening line “What is man” and the closing line “for everyone.” In the 2011 edition “mankind” is the subject of the quote from the Psalms, and in fact up to the part leading in to “But we do see Jesus…” signaling a key change in tone and triumph
In translating the way it did, the NIV 2011 is able to show a few significant things:
1. The author of Hebrews is not confused about what Psalms 8 says.
Usually it is suggested that Psalms 8 is a Messianic passage but that in it’s context it is referencing all of mankind. This would suggest that the author of Hebrews has taken a generic reference to mankind and changed it into a text about “the” son of man (which is possible). However, reading it as the 2011 edition suggests allows us to give the author of Hebrews more due credit; he quoted Psalm 8 as a reference to all mankind and applied it to all mankind consistently.
2. The 1984 edition reads somewhat confusingly.
By applying the whole passage to Christ it sounds like the author of Hebrews hailed from the school of redundancy. It reads like this: Jesus is a little lower than the angels, crowed with glory and honor and everything under his feet, but everything is obviously not subject to him, but hey Jesus! He’s a little lower than the angels crowed with glory and honor…” In the 1984 edition the passage is redundant and confusing. But as we’ll see, the 2011 edition tells a different story.
3. The 2011 edition is more theologically in tune with the biblical narrative.
Listen to how it sounds when translated as the 2011 edition has done: All of mankind was created with special care and made to have dominion over the whole earth; they were crowned with glory and honor and everything was placed under them (i.e. Adam and Eve at creation and in the garden). “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.” Oh-uh. Something went wrong. Christians tend to refer to this as “the Fall.” Satan is now the ruler of this world (Ephesians 6:12). We do not see things as they are meant to be. (That, by the way, is the low note) “But we do see Jesus!” (The high note that turns everything around.) Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while (hence, his incarnation) is now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death (has anyone ever read Philippians 2? Helloooo… sound familiar?). And he did this for everyone… full-circle so that what the author quoted of humanity in Psalm 8 can finally find its true fulfillment in Christ.
Here is a great irony. I wrote this post to defend the NIV, not because I prefer it, but because I think people’s reactions to it are overblown. In doing so I’ve found that the single strongest reason why some have chosen to abandon it (Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2), may be the single reason why I now love it. Hebrews 2 is a powerful kaleidoscopic and theme driven passage ranking up there with Philippians 2, 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 1. And the NIV 2011 helped me see it.
I would also point out that the NIV 2011 is clearer on issues of concern for Evangelicals than the 1984 edition was. A prominent example involves homosexual activity. 1 Corinthians 6:9 reads “homosexual offenders” in the 1984 edition. The 2011 edition clears that up a bit: “men who have sex with men.” Similar clarifications were made in Romans 1:26-27 and Leviticus 18:22 (here). The NIV 2011 should be a translation that the SBC and others should move to, not from. But, for course there are other issues that concern some people like the 2011’s rendering of 1 Timothy 2:12 for complementarians. But I see it as a non-issue. The phrase “assume authority” and “have authority” are not exactly the same thing. But “assume authority” may infer “have authority” allowing both complementarians and egalitarians to continue their discussion.
Is it a perfect translation? Not by a long shot. In my studies I’ve found a few faults with it. But faults can be found in every translation. And there is always a little give-and-take in the never-ending balancing act between the literal and dynamic translating process. In the New Testament, the Greek words anthropoi or anthropos and so on, depending on the context, are gender inclusive words (here). To not translate them accordingly makes for an inaccurate translation. Hence, the NIV 2011 is more accurate to the original manuscripts than the NIV 1984, ESV et cetera.
In sum, I agree with Dan Wallace:
“What can we say overall about the NIV 2011? First, it is a well-thought out translation, with checks and balances through rigorous testing, overlapping committees to ensure consistency and accuracy, and a publisher willing to commit significant resources to make this Bible appealing to the Christian reader. The commitment of the CBT, Biblica, the NIV translators, and Zondervan is truly stunning. A serious investment of money and manpower has produced this translation. And why? To encourage the believer in Jesus Christ to seek his face in the scriptures, and to grow in grace because of what he or she sees. The obvious dedication of all the principals to the Bible as God’s Word must not go unnoticed. This is a translation by believers for believers. And precisely because the translators represent various denominations and countries, as well as positions about the role of women in the church, the NIV 2011 has an incredibly strong foundation. The unity that is the NIV produced from such diversity speaks well for the health of the Church today. The translators model what believers are to be like.
Second, the scholarship that produced this version is excellent, both in text and translation decisions. The textual basis and rendering of difficult expressions in the original are bold features that warrant our gratitude. This is no fly-by-night operation. Unspeakable effort has gone into the production of this version of the Bible, with thousands of decisions being made by individuals and committees, all under the purview of the prime mandate of the CBT. For this, believers everywhere can and should thank God for the NIV, because it is what it purports to be: the eternal word of God in the language of English-speaking people today.
Third, there are problems with this translation, of course. But there are problems with every translation. Not a single one is perfect, though some are significantly better than others…. Although it is easy for people to become pseudo-informed about Bible translations through the Internet, a far more valuable exercise would be to find a good version and read it. And for readability, the NIV 2011 has no peers. Debates over which translation is better ultimately are a major distraction whose fire the Enemy loves to stoke. As with the handful of other exceptional translations, the NIV 2011 definitely should be one that the well-equipped English-speaking Christian has on his or her shelf, and one that they consult often for spiritual nourishment.” (HT)
So, was my pastor’s wife right? I guess that’s up to you.