The NIV Bible Translation Debate 2011

John ArmstrongUncategorized

What is a person who is not a translator, who does not understand Greek and Hebrew, and who does not grasp the ways in which a text can (should) be translated, do when Bible translation debates begin?

One response, which is all to common, is to ask your pastor. Honestly, this is not a very good response in most cases. Most pastors, if they are honest, have opinions about translation but they are not competent to translate. And most of the pastors who hold passionate views about this process are biased in one form or another. Someone has shaped their view just like your own and they depend on what they know and don’t know just like you and I do. When sheep think their human shepherd has all ability in all such matters it is not a sign of health in the church. Pastors who act like they can settle these issues should, in most cases, be more honest. And people who look to them to solve their problems (here and in many other areas) should stop. It strikes me as odd how evangelicals do this while they criticize the Catholic Church so strongly for its role in interpretation.

NIVBanner Another response is to turn to an advocacy group to make a decision about the Bible. When it comes to the debate about the NIV 2011 this is precisely what people do most of the time. They listen to groups like the CBE (Council on Biblical Equality) or the CBMW( Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). The first group likes the new translation and the second does not. These advocacy groups have, in effect, had a huge influence on the present debate about gender neutral language. If you calmly study the question you can hold to the most conservative view of both Scripture and the role of women in the church (leadership in particular) and still not be too bent our of shape by these arguments against the NIV 2011.

Behind all of this debate there are just too many mistaken ideas:

1. Gender translation decisions are always motivated by theology, a theology that drives the church to a correct conclusion. The fact is that one side in this contentious debate takes on the other and the loser is the reader.

2. Modern English translations should not reflect modern English speech and use. This is impossible if you do a serious translation.

3. Guilt by association is often employed in this debate. The NIV is led by “feminist” interpreters (this is patently false) thus it will always get the text wrong. The truth is that the NIV committee on translation includes people on both sides do the man-woman debate.

4. There is only one right way to translate a text. This is the argument used against what has been called “dynamic equivalence.” It can be used well (when used with care) but generally it is a shoddy response. To a certain extent all translation requires this approach.

5. The appeal to word meanings in translation is very often mistaken. Critics will say that the translators got a particular word wrong. The problem is that a Greek or Hebrew word may have a range of meanings and picking the best modern English word is never simple or easy. This is a great reason for using several different kinds of versions.

6. The NIV 2011 avoids the use of the word “man” intentionally. This is not only false but it is, once again, misleading to the extreme. Over 700 references to “man” or “men” are dropped by the ESV, a translation loved by the critics of the NIV 2011. Yet the NIV 2011 is being singled out as if it is the only version that modernizes the use of “man” and “men” in texts that are less specific about gender.

We live in a time when there are so many Bible versions in English that the ordinary person is confused. The NIV has been a popular version of the Bible. It has been, for several decades, the leading English version, at least in sales. This is changing. At the same time the NIV needed revision. Almost everyone agreed about this need. But when the changes were made some clumsy decisions ensued and the process broke down in a storm of controversy. This led to the NIV 2011. The end result seems very satisfactory to both scholars and ordinary people. I like it, so far as I’ve used it. I did not think that I would but I had to change my mind when I saw the finished product. You can check it out for yourself online.

Meanwhile, do not let the Bible translation wars keep you from reading and learning the Bible. This great treasure is available in your language. It would be far better if we stopped fighting over translations and gave more time to actually reading and praying over the Bible itself. I, for one, am thankful for the various ways we are allowed to get into the text of Scripture. This is a unique Christian blessing and one we do not give thanks for as we should.