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.

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  1. Duncan July 5, 2011 at 8:47 am

    I am not sure why your blog comes up so near the top when I google “NIV 2011 controversy”, but I regret that it does. I do not find much insight in your attempt to provide clarity and reduce “fighting over translations”. Precisely because most people are not themselves experts in translation, we should welcome and participate in open discourse on the topic — and not disregard them as frivolous “wars”. Translations that go too far in interpreting the text at some point obscure the meaning and thereby cannot deliver on the claim that “this great treasure is available in your language” (cf. New World Translation). Responsible readers should seek to hold responsible translators accountable. I am confused how a responsible reader could review the bulk of the examples offered by Grudem & Poythress in their nearly decade-old book and conclude that the changes to the NIV are acceptable. I am confused how a responsible voice could dismiss this evidence and exhort others to simply read and learn — suggesting that reading distorted translations is fine for learning. (BTW – It is a shame that you would discourage readers from asking their pastors about the issue. It is even more a shame that you would include a qualifier (“most pastors, if they are honest…”). You seem to find it more acceptable for someone to read a potentially distorted translation than to consult with a pastor. I would have thought that we should use similar degrees of discernment in both cases. Moreover, a superior exhortation might be for your readers to seek a solid church with a sound pastor with a high view of Scripture — not discourage them from consultation, thereby implying, I guess, that a weak church with a weak (dishonest?) pastor is fine as long as you have the [NIV 2011] Bible to read.(!?))

  2. Larry July 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Is God limited by how people translate the original languages of scriptures? I personally don’t think so. While I am not convinced we need more English translations to choose from (seems too commercially driven for profit than necessary, really), I have to say that I think God can work through any translation. I doubt God cares much which translation we use, and cringes that we have these sorts of disputes with one another. These are man-made controversies IMO.

  3. Duncan July 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    No, certainly God is not limited by translations. At the same time, we have no reason to believe that we can rely upon poems by Walt Whitman, plays by William Shakespeare, or history books by David McCullough to present unambiguous statements of God’s truth. Though perhaps beautifully-crafted, and maybe even replete with true statements, poignant articulations, and reflections of Godly virtues (not to mention an occasional Bible verse), these works of men — translations of reality — cannot be reasonably regarded as “God’s Word”. Neither can the New World Translation so carefully delivered to us by the Watchtower Society. I am not sure why one would want to rely upon the truth that “God CAN work through any translation”, when it is also true that Satan can and does use mistranslation (cf. Genesis 3) to make his points. In fact, it seems that Satan leverages not just translation but re-interpretation that pretends to be translation. And Jesus responded to him with the Word. I interpret this reality to mean that we must diligently ensure that the word (and “truth”) that we are following is in fact what God said. Every generation can fall victim to being too casual about relying on God’s Word alone. Eve would have done well to have had a higher view of God’s Word — attended to the controversy of translation — when Satan asked “Did God really say?” (Gen 3:1) Later, in Gen 3:6, Adam would have done well to attend to the controversy. Later, Moses seems to highlight the value of direct confidence in the Word received (Deut 5:1-5), even if through an intermediary / translator. Similarly, the exhortations (e.g., Deut 4:1-2) and the calls to diligence (e.g., Joshua 1:7-9) emphasize that God COMMANDS us to uphold purity of translation. I do not see where God indicates that we ought to be casual in this endeavor. Priscilla & Aquila’s [successful] correction of Apollos’ teaching — rather than allowing a learned man to go on preaching with it kinda sorta right — seems to be more the expectation of the people of the Word.

  4. Adam Shields July 5, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    The problem is that there is not a lot of discussion about translation issues. There is a lot of polemic, but not much actual discussion. This vote is an example of polemics, I seriously doubt that many at the SBC convention has spent much time looking at the changes (although every single change is available to be browsed online). So this was not a forum that a discussion could occur. Very few pastors really have much skill in original languages and many seminaries no longer require more than a cursory introduction. Every scholar that I have read that has actually looked closely at the 2011 NIV has said that it is an improvement. A variety think that the changes are not far enough, some think that there were too many changes, I have not seen any serious translation expert say that the 2011 NIV is so concerning that they would not recommend it for any Christian use. But that is what the resolution said.

  5. Duncan July 5, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Yes, I agree that there is not sufficient discussion of translation issues. Regardless of one’s position on the quality of the 2011 NIV translation, it should not be surprising that organizations like the SBC vote in ways that demonstrate skepticism. Zondervan & CBT did not manage the controversy over the TNIV very well – either before or after publishing. They must recognize that they made choices – that they were free to make – that were not well-aligned with many Evangelicals. The evidence can be seen in their own wording on the 2011 NIV website: “every single gender-related change made from the 1984 NIV to the TNIV was reconsidered. Some were preserved, some were rescinded in favor of the 1984 rendering, and MANY were re-worded in a third, still different way” (my emphasis). Had they considered these same passages in the same manner and come to the same [2011 NIV] ‘third’ result ten years ago, the current translation could be evaluated on its own merits. As it stands, there will be many – perhaps some who are not very informed – who will be reticent about affirming today’s NIV which the even-less-informed could so easily confuse with Today’s NIV (i.e., recommending the new one implicitly supports the older one since people can so easily confuse them). (For example, I challenge you to test the usage / selection of the 2011 NIV over TNIV at BibleGateway.com by the uninitiated.) So, some might carelessly tar the 2011 NIV with the same brush as the TNIV, but surely we can agree that Zondervan / CBT were complicit in creating this environment of skepticism (through what felt like some degree of carelessness on their part at the time). In short, much of the caution / rejection of 2011 NIV is of Zondervan’s / CBT’s own making. Simply saying that the translation is okay – and that we shouldn’t fight about translation issues — is not going to be enough.

  6. Adam Shields July 6, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    No one is suggesting that Whitman or Shakespeare should replace scripture. What is being suggested is that the 2011 translation of NIV is a better, more accurate translation than the original NIV. No one is opposed to someone correcting a translator. What John, and I and many others are opposed to is arguments that have nothing to do with the actual translation. The SBC vote, and your comments, do not actually raise any questions about the translation or the method other than being argumentative. Raise a real question, point to a real issue. Don’t just say that the NIV 2011 is bad and should not be trusted.

  7. Duncan July 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    I did point to a real issue: Zondervan and the CBT mis-managed their attempts to introduce changes with respect to the TNIV and their somewhat cavalier efforts have rendered the 2011 NIV less-acceptable to many Evangelicals who are familiar with the history of the TNIV. In the publishing world — as with so much of life — it is not who is the best, it is who manages public opinion (aka “marketing”) well. When one builds a better mousetrap but in the process sounds like Harold Camping to the masses, the mice continue to happily bell the cat (to somewhat mix, but not distort, metaphors).

  8. Adam Shields July 7, 2011 at 9:15 am

    So your concern is with marketing? How can you encourage people to not read a particular translation because you do not agree with its marketing? Isn’t that exactly the type of problem that John is pointing to in this article? When we raise up issues like marketing to be major problems with a translation, we do great harm to the church as a whole. How many people at the SBC were voting against recommending this translation to any Christian (which in the resolution is about theological and biblical issues), but were actually concerned about marketing. You have done more to support John’s position than anything else that I have read.

  9. Duncan July 7, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I don’t follow. No, MY concern is not with marketing. However, I believe that a large chunk of why the SBC voted to reject the 2011 NIV can be traced to ‘marketing’. I was offering this as an explanation and therefore a legitimate concern for translators (and those who are dealing with the issues) to consider. My concerns, as I expressed initially, are that 1) John’s original article seemed to depict some frivolity to the issues (e.g., “far better if we stopped fighting”), rather than acknowledging that responsible translation through open accountability ought to be an important commitment of the Church (I actually suspect that John believes this, but I don’t glean it from his article, perhaps because he is weary from the debates, some of which might result from non-translation issues — or maybe because he presumes that his regular readers already concur, regardless I highlighted that his page comes up early when googling, so many of the uninitiated could read and perhaps miss this); 2) John’s original post also seemed to downplay the historic concerns surrounding the TNIV and thereby ignoring the logical potential-guilt-by-association that would be carried into the 2011 NIV discussions (and the SBC vote seems to give evidence of this) (let me say here that regardless of one’s view on the TNIV, there ARE legitimate translation issues — i.e., items worth academic review — precisely because translation decisions were made that went in a relatively new direction, so even if everybody ends up happy with it, the topics were legitimate for inspection), so people even remotely familiar with the TNIV issues would not glean from the article where things stood, and I therefore expressed concern that John had gone straight to “read and learn” without much assurance that the NIV dealt with these (beyond “the end result seems very satisfactory” — which felt to me like John may have inadvertently communicated that he was not too fussed about the actual translation); 3) I still disagree with what appears to be one of the original article’s main points: that one should not ask one’s pastor about which translation to use (“to ask your pastor. Honestly, this is not a very good response in most cases”). I strongly advocate asking one’s pastor, and others, and reading articles & blogs, and considering it all with prayerful discernment. Pastors need to be held accountable for theological insights and congregants need to use discernment. Translations do matter. And the Body is plenty gifted to offer help to one another. And we are sinful enough to create sub-optimal translations that warrant open discourse. Let me be very clear: I googled the topic, came across this site and read the article. The article posed a direct question: “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?” And the article seemed to answer it thusly: ‘Don’t ask your pastor, there have been mistaken ideas, [who cares about the TNIV?] the 2011 NIV seems okay, read your Bible.’ I am not responsible for what the article said, but I regret that it did not say more and I did not derive a satisfactory answer to the question of what to do when debates begin.

  10. Duncan July 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    Adam asked: “How can you encourage people to not read a particular translation because you do not agree with its marketing?” This is not necessarily my view, but let me answer “how can ONE encourage…?” using an analogy:
    If McNeil announces a version of Tylenol that kills pain faster and the FDA determines that several batches of this Super-Tylenol might be laced with poison, so they ask for a recall of jus those batches, and then McNeil announces a New Super- Tylenol that is safer. Then, the American Pediatric Association announces that it cannot recommend New Super-Tylenol because some of their patients are not particularly savvy and might still have or buy Super-Tylenol and inadvertently poison children. Now, if you ask you doctor about it, she might say, “feel free to use New Super-Tylenol, just avoid using Super-Tylenol, and certainly not batches 25 and 26”. Meanwhile, doctors and parents across the country generally stop using ANY Tylenol. This example is a marketing issue: McNeil might have been better off renaming the pain killer altogether. It is their choice – but the concerns of misuse are legitimate, even if the New Super-Tylenol is clean and the best darn pain killer on the market.

  11. Adam Shields July 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I have read your comments a couple of times and honestly still am not sure what you are saying other than that you were offended by John’s suggestion that pastors are not necessarily the best person to ask about Bible translation. I understand your offense at the statement and I know some pastors that would be very good people to ask. I have friends that are pastors that served on the ESV translation committee, others that have taught biblical languages. I would trust those pastors. I also have pastor friends that never learned a biblical languages, others that have not been to seminary or even to Bible college. I think they are good pastors and gifted for their roles, but I would not ask them about biblical translations. That is not their area. That should be not really be all that controversial.

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