The New NIV

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken June 9, 2002

Five years ago the International Bible Society produced a revision of the New International Version, commonly known as the NIV. The distinctive feature of the new translation was its use of gender-neutral language. Although the Bible was only published in Britain, there were also plans to release it here in America. However, under a storm of protest from conservative critics, the International Bible Society was forced to change its plans.

At the time, the Society published a statement that it had “abandoned all plans for gender-related changes in future editions of the New International Version.” That explains why this spring's release of Today's New International Version, or TNIV, comes as a shock. The Society seems to have gone back on its promise. As its name suggests, and as its editors admit, the TNIV is in fact a revision of the NIV.

Conservative Christians have been quick to attack the TNIV, partly out of a sense of betrayal. “Today's New International Perversion,” screamed one headline. Unfortunately, as is typically the case, many people have made up their minds about the TNIV without actually studying it. The question is, How accurate is the new translation? Although I have not yet reached a settled opinion, my initial impression is that while in some respects the TNIV is an improvement, some of its changes make it less than fully reliable for the church.

Curiously, although the main justification for the TNIV is its supposed “gender accuracy,” the “Word to the Reader” at the front of the Bible says little about this. It speaks vaguely about how “diverse and complex cultural forces continue to bring about subtle shifts in the meanings and/or connotations of even old, well-established words and phrases.” But the main thing that supporters of the TNIV talk about is its gender usage.

Here it must be said that in some cases, the TNIV is an improvement. One good example is Romans 3:28. The NIV says, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:28). Obviously, justification is not for men only, but for everyone who believes. So the TNIV is not wrong to say “a person is justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28; cf. Gal. 2:16).

There are some problems with the TNIV, however. In an effort to get rid of words like “man” and “men,” “him” and “he,” the TNIV often changes masculine, third person, singular pronouns into plural, gender-neutral pronouns. For example, whereas in the NIV Jesus says “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20b), the TNIV has this: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me” (Rev. 3:20b). This distorts the Bible's emphasis on personal responsibility, or on God's relationship with the individual Christian (see also John 6:50; Heb. 9:27).

As a general rule, the TNIV also replaces the words “son” and “sons” with “children” or “people.” This is also a distortion, because it removes the biblical emphasis on the rights of sonship, which in biblical times included inheritance (e.g. Gal. 4:5). At times the word “brother” is replaced with words like “someone” or “person,” and the word “father” is changed to “parent.” For example, the TNIV translates Hebrews 12:7 like this: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children [not ‘sons’]. For what children are not disciplined by their parents [rather than ‘father’]?” (Heb. 12:7). By eliminating the original metaphor, this translation alters the meaning of the biblical text.

Such changes unnecessarily accommodate biblical language to contemporary culture. There are many places where the Bible intends to use language in a gender-specific way, and in these places its intention should not be thwarted. Perhaps the most unfortunate example is Hebrews 2:6, where the TNIV asks, “What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” People who are familiar with this verse will recognize that “the son of man” has disappeared. But what about people who don't know the verse?

Other changes are not gender-related, but deserve to be mentioned. The word “saints” has been replaced with phrases like “God's people” (Rom. 8:27), which is true enough, but which loses the original emphasis on holiness, and also the connection with sanctification. If the word needed to be replaced—which is debatable—it might have been better to use “holy ones” as a substitute.

The TNIV sometimes changes the word “Jews” to “Jewish leaders” (e.g. John 19:12; Acts 13:50). This change is motivated by concerns about anti-Semitism, but again this is unnecessary. Matthew and John were hardly anti-Semites! They said “Jews” rather than “Jewish leaders” because they wanted to show the corporate responsibility of their own people for the Messiah's death, just as they wanted to show that their people could find salvation through his resurrection.

Much of the recent outcry over the TNIV has been all too hysterical. However, it must also be said that by suddenly going back on its former agreement, the International Bible Society has done its part to arouse the opposition. In the long run, the important question is whether the new version is suitable for Christians who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. While recognizing that no translation is perfect, I cannot give the TNIV my endorsement. In fact, I have recently signed a public statement that says: “In light of troubling translation inaccuracies—primarily (but not exclusively) in relation to gender language—that introduce distortion to the meanings that were conveyed better by the original NIV, we cannot endorse the TNIV translation as sufficiently accurate to commend to the church.”

I am especially concerned that people who use and trust the NIV will become confused. The TNIV is not the NIV, and has introduced some unfortunate changes. And as for the verses where the TNIV is an improvement, there is something you should know: many of the same improvements are already available in the English Standard Version (ESV). This is because the translators of the ESV were concerned to use gender-neutral language, with one important qualification: they would only do so where this could be done without losing significant aspects of the original meaning.

[For further reading, consult D. A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998); Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998; and especially Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Words, Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2000].

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