The New NIV and the Bible Translation Debate

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

The gender-inclusive debate often alarms me. I have seen this debate from both sides. I believe the effort to fundamentally change the way we speak about God is fraught with some rather serious theological problems. Several great books addressed this problem fifteen or twenty years ago when it first broke on the scene in the mainline denominations rush to revision in God-language. I am not interested, in this post, in refuting these mistakes. A number of first-rate scholarly books and monographs have addressed these concerns, as I said. I believe there is sufficiently good reason for retaining the Bible’s language regarding God. (I freely grant that there are feminine images of God given to us in Scripture and these should not be easily overlooked!)


I am more concerned, at this moment, about the continued debate over the New International Version (NIV, 1984) and the subsequent TNIV (2002). For those who do not recall the details this debate came about because the International Bible Society began to revise the most widely used version of the Bible (NIV) in the late 1990s. After major criticism of this translation effort was launched by a number of widely known conservatives the attempt to revise the NIV got shelved. The result was the TNIV, a translation that was sold as an updated NIV. The TNIV came out in 2002 and was called, by World Magazine, “The Stealth Bible.”

When the TNIV was launched I was asked to read it and to write an endorsement. I was reticent to do this because I had enough controversy in my life at that time. This would become another battle, as I saw it at the time, and the Lord knows I didn’t need more battles. But a friend at Zondervan urged me to take a look at the finished product and when I did I gladly endorsed the new TNIV. I eventually began to use it for study and preaching. I love it. It is not a “radical” translation but is it fresh and readable modern English version. It is a much improved NIV, exactly what IBS and Zondervan promised they would give us. But here is where the problems began all over again.

World Magazine, the publication that had originally stoked the fires of this controversy, did a cover story on the TNIV. That story was, in my view, an inaccurate and, at times, inflammatory account. I wrote a fairly brief letter to the editor. They published only a part of that letter. The end result was that I was made to look worse for my written effort. The result of this was to generate more mail, a great deal of it angry and accusatory. 99% of those who wrote to me did not know me and were not friends of this ministry. Most made assumptions and many called me names and expressed their horror at my departure from the faith. It was not very edifying stuff I assure you. At the time I was not prepared for this emotionally. And it didn’t help to get this avalanche of this kind of response. For about a month this barrage was non-stop.

Bible Experience

So when Zondervan recently announced that it was going to take the TNIV out of print I was chagrined. Seven years after I stuck my neck out it all comes to nothing. I still wonder why. This much I know—both the IBS and Zondervan announced a few weeks ago that a new NIV was going to come out in 2011 and the old NIV and TNIV would no longer be available. All of my personal investment in Bibles, and related study tools, are once again down the drain. Frankly, I am unhappy with this decision. I will explain why in just a moment.

Zondervan president Moe Girkins said, “Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community.” What? The TNIV did not divide the evangelical community, this controversy did. And this controversy played on fear and innuendo to stoke a huge conflagration. As a result the TNIV never sold as Zondervan expected. I am aware enough of Bible publishing to know that sales are so important that unless projections are reached a version will likely die. When translations are linked to profits then they can get lost in the ebb and flow of events. Moe Girkins added, “We are correcting the mistakes in the past. Being as transparent as possible is part of that. This decision was made by the board in the last ten days.” The goal she added was to overhaul the NIV “in a way that unifies Christian evangelicalism.” My response is, no pun intended, “Good luck!” Evangelicalism is so divided that publishers and magazines will never unite it. That is a pipe dream. The only thing that might unite us is a common vision of the supremacy of Christ, a new commitment to core orthodoxy and a new loyalty to the missional mandate of Jesus Christ. This is not happening so we are inclined to think that a Bible translation will do what we have not done in being faithful to Christ.

Look, what has divided us is politics, secular and ecclesial. This is really all about politics. Can we agree that the role of men and women in church leadership is not a “core” doctrinal issue? Can we agree that referring to men and women in public speech, in a way that is careful and wise, is important? I can hold my own views about what is appropriate to women in the church but it seems the far left and far right cannot accept me, or people like me, since they are unwilling to pursue peace on the basis of Christ and core orthodoxy. So evangelical politics again rises to the surface and the debates rage on. The losers are Christians who will not listen and learn from other Christians.