Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Revision of NIV is good, but still controversial

In March 2011, the copyright owners of the most popular modern translation of the Bible in English, the New International Version (NIV), will publish the first revision of the NIV since 1984.
As a pastor who did not like the over-reaching political correctness of the Today's New International Version (TNIV, copyright 2002), I was concerned when I heard that the NIV itself was going to be revised. But after studying the digital early release version in numerous passages, I have been pleasantly surprised. The revision is more accurate than the 1984 NIV, while maintaining the readability that has made the NIV the most popular modern translation of the Bible. However, at the same time the revision continues to be controversial.
The new NIV retains 95% of the words of the 1984 edition, but where there are changes, it communicates the original meaning better to modern readers and more accurately than before.
Let me address several issues: gender-neutral language, omission of words, and accurate translation of words.
First, the most controversial issue of the TNIV (the earlier failed attempt to revise the NIV) was its gender-neutral language. Where the text often used the male plural "brothers" to refer to all Christians, the TNIV had "brothers and sisters." But it went even farther in Hebrews 12, where scripture speaks of God disciplining us like a father. The TNIV changed "father" to "parent." This was highly controversial, as it implied that God was a gender-neutral "parent" rather than our "heavenly Father." I'm glad to report that the new NIV has "father," just as the 1984 edition had. However, the new NIV, like the TNIV, does use gender-neutral "brothers and sisters" when the context clearly means all believers. Since modern English speakers use both genders, "brothers and sisters," when addressing all believers, not just the masculine "brothers," it makes sense that the Bible they are reading do the same. However, this may not be acceptable to all readers, particularly in passages like Psalm 1, where the masculine pronoun is often associated with a reference to manhood. In the 1984 NIV, Psalm 1 says, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked... He is like a tree planted by streams of water..." but the 2011 NIV renders it, "Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked...That person is like a tree planted by steams of water..." Some other examples that the revision may have gone too far are in Malachi 4:6 where "fathers" is changed to "parents" and Ezekiel 22:30 where "I looked for a man who would... stand before me in the gap" was changed to "I looked for someone who would... stand before me in the gap."
The revised NIV also continues to say "sons" in Romans 8:14 and "sonship" in Romans 8:15 in a discussion of spiritual adoption which refers to the male heir. Thus it does not use gender-neutral language in places where it would impact theology. The revised NIV also continues to maintain clear sexual distinctions between the genders in passages like Genesis 1:27, which reads, "So God created mankind in his own image...male and female he created them."
The second translation issue is the omission of words. One of the biggest criticisms of the 1984 NIV was that sometimes words in the Greek text simply were not translated. The most notorious example was the Gospel of Mark, which makes frequent use of the Greek word euthus, "immediately." For some reason, there were many verses in the 1984 NIV that simply ignored this word. But the 2011 NIV is careful to translate it as "immediately" or "as soon" etc. in every place where it is used. I have been doing a verse-by-verse study of Romans in the Greek, and comparing the old and new versions of the NIV, I found that where the old NIV omitted the word "or" at the beginning of Romans 3:29, the new NIV restored the word. And in Romans 4:1, the old NIV omitted the words "according to the flesh," but the new NIV put the phrase back in.
The third translation issue is the accurate translation of words. In an attempt to be easy to read, the NIV has been less precise in translating words and phrases. It's a difficult balance for any translation, but sometimes the NIV went too far, by paraphrasing in places that caused the reader to miss the technical point that the Biblical writer was making. For example, the 1984 NIV translates Romans 3:28, "observing the law." But the 2011 NIV translates it, "works of the law." The Greek phrase is literally, "works of the law."
In Romans chapter 8, Paul uses the word "flesh" as a metaphor for the sinful nature. The 1984 NIV translates it "sinful nature," which gets the idea across, but thereby obscures the deliberate play on words in Romans 8:3 when Paul says that when we were weakened by the flesh, God sent Jesus in the flesh. The 1984 NIV has "sinful nature" in these verses, but the 2011 NIV uses the literal word "flesh."
In Romans 8:4, the 1984 NIV says that Jesus' sacrifice satisfied the "righteous requirements" of the law. However, the Greek word translated "requirements" is singular. The 2011 NIV changes it to the singular "requirement." This might seem a minor distinction, but theologically the singular implies that God covers the entirety of our sin, not just some sins.
In Romans 10:4, the 1984 NIV reads, "Christ is the end of the law..." The Greek word used is telos, which means completion. Paul does not mean the law will stop, but that it will be fulfilled. Thus the 2011 NIV reads,"Christ is the culmination of the law..."
Another example is Galatians 5:22, where the 1984 NIV lists "patience" among the fruit of the Spirit. The problem is, that there are two Greek words for patience: one word means patience with circumstances, and one word means patience with people. The word used in Galatians 5:22 means patience with people, so the 2011 NIV translates it "forbearance."
Different readers will have different opinions about the appropriateness of gender-neutral language in the revised NIV. Some will like it, and others will not. Many will feel that it goes too far at times. It is unfortunate that this issue may cloud the discussion of this revision, which is otherwise more accurate than before. People who love the NIV and do not object to saying "brothers and sisters" and other gender-neutral changes should embrace this revision with even more confidence in its accuracy, and people who have preferred more literal translations like the NASB and ESV may want to give the revised NIV a new look.


Anonymous said...


I have a question for the webmaster/admin here at brotherbobsblog.blogspot.com.

Can I use some of the information from this blog post right above if I give a backlink back to your site?


Dr. Bob Rogers said...

Yes, Oliver, that will be fine.