The NIV/TNIV: The Controversy That Keeps on Ticking

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

Yesterday, I looked at the announcement that a new NIV (2011) translation of the Bible will be published in two years. I looked at the background to this controversy and considered why this debate arose. Today we look more directly at the translation project itself.

Good Moo

Doug Moo (photo left), a frontline New Testament scholar and solid translator, is chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation that will work on the NIV (2011). Doug admits that the committee has not yet decided on how much of the gender-inclusive language will be included in the new NIV (2011). Since this is what primarily prompted the immense criticism of the TNIV in 2002 I wonder what this really means. He rightly admits that what the committee did then was right. He also says everything is back on the table. He even says, “[Members of the committee] feel much more comfortable about the TNIV” than the NIVi, which was its controversial British forerunner.

Those involved with the decision to redo the NIV, and thereby admit the TNIV was a mistake, talk about transparency and openness as important values in this new revision. I believe they are sincere. But does this admission mean World Magazine was right to call this version a “Stealth Bible” in its famous 1997 cover story?

I must remind Moe Girkins, and all of my good friends at Zondervan, that transparency in the midst of a fierce campaign against a new and important translation project was very difficult back in 2002. Some of us stood by Zondervan, even if they did not show the kind of transparency that they now say they failed to show. We did this precisely because we knew just how hard it was to get this job done and to get a really good translation on the market in an intensely political context.

So has the TNIV failed so desperately that we must do away with it and admit that it should never have been done in the first place? This is what troubles me about the whole story of this new revision and the removal of the TNIV from the market. Moe Girkins says the way the TNIV was brought to market was not “transparent.” I tend to agree based on what I know. The mistrust and acrimony of the time was terrible.

It is ironic to me that the TNIV is the number three selling version of the Bible on Kindle, behind the KJV and NIV. (I bought the TNIV for my iPhone and love it.) It is not among the top ten print Bibles but the revolution that is coming to print media, and the delivery of content to the next generation of readers via non-print means, is immensely important. I believe the TNIV’s popularity would have grown over time just as the readership of the Bible shifts to younger people.

So how will the more controversial issues in Bible translation actually be addressed in this new process?

Dr. Moo suggests that there are two issues at stake here. One is the translation philosophy. How closely will the translation adhere to the Greek and Hebrew text? Should the focus be on a word-for-word translation (“formal equivalence”) or a thought-for-thought translation (“dynamic equivalence”)? For those who do not understand the problems of translation this seems very simple. They want you to tell them what the words say and nothing else. If only it was that simple. Throw into this discussion the fears that some conservatives stir up about “tampering” with God’s words and you get the fuel for a huge fire. This has been going on since the release of the RSV back in the early 1950s. Bonfires for burning Bibles were all too common. We don’t burn them today but we print stories, with false accusations, and thus stir up strife in much the same way. 

A second issue at stake for the translation committee is how to deal with gender-inclusive language. When, for example, the Greek refers to brothers and sisters (but uses a male pronoun) should we translate this as “brothers and sisters” in English? Another example is in a familiar text like Romans 3:28 where the NIV says “a man is justified by faith.” Most modern versions have altered man to say “one” or “person.” The old NIV is very dated in this sense and Moo says he is unsure how the new revision will address this problem. If he does not know, and he chairs the committee on translation, what guarantees that the same old political battles will not break out all over again? In reading the comments of leaders from the CBMW on this issue I have no hope at all that the atmosphere has changed a single iota.

I must hand it to Zondervan and the committee on translation. Both say that their main object here is clarity and accuracy. Their goal is “the global English-speaking audience” says Moo. I agree with this 110%. The problem is that politics will very likely impact how much clarity and accuracy will finally be allowed. In the end I lose my TNIV, which frankly I came to love. (I sent my preaching copy to Mexico to get it bound in a beautiful leather binding!) More significantly, the evangelical world (whatever this is) is again embroiled in a major controversy. I simply do not like the feel of where this will go.


My response to all this is not firmly settled but I am very likely going back to the NRSV (and the NLT) and the “formally equivalent” NASB. In the first version I get a standard modern translation that uses dynamic equivalence quite responsibly. It also has the advantage of being a committee translation that comes out of a genuinely ecumenical context, not from an evangelical sub-culture publishing context where everything is measured by political debate and market. (This is not to say the NRSV doesn’t engage in some word choices that I strongly oppose.) In the NASB I get a solid and reliable word-for-word translation. The tragedy here, at least to my mind, is that more time and money will be spent on this new NIV (2011) and more controversy will likely be the end result of it all. People will pick sides, Bible sales will ebb and flow, and the church will be further divided. I see no other way this story can go unless, and this is a huge unless, we get back to the supremacy of Christ and stop centering our views on these issues that are simply not central to our real identity as God’s people.