A new bible translation makes a break with its predecessor. It uses plurals to avoid man and brother where the text is not gender-specific. It changes Jews to Jewish leaders in parts of John's gospel. But when the 1996 New Living Translation made these adjustments, hardly any evangelicals raised a fuss. In fact, they rushed to bookstores: the NLT now ranks fourth in Bible translation sales. The King James and New King James versions outstrip it, and the New International Version (NIV) sits atop the chart.

Today's New International Version, an independent update of the NIV (not a revision—the NIV will remain available), has not met with as much enthusiasm. "No one is authorized to treat the Bible like Silly Putty," said Southern Baptist leader William Merrell. People who objected to the British inclusive-language NIV in 1997 now declare that the changes in the TNIV "violate the Word of God."

Why so much anger against the TNIV? In part, we attribute it to the special place the NIV holds in the evangelical world. It was created, in fact, to be the premier evangelical Bible. Though many evangelicals applauded the Revised Standard Version, many others criticized it as theologically liberal. As Peter J. Thuesen wrote in his book In Discordance With the Scriptures (1999), "The NIV finally offered evangelicals an ideologically safe alternative to the RSV, despite NIV committee members' occasional denials that their translation was specifically 'evangelical' rather than simply faithful to the originals."

NIV's Continuing Tradition

Actually, being faithful to the originals was crucially important to the NIV's translators precisely because of their evangelical commitment to Scripture. All involved in the project had to agree that the Bible was the Word of God and inerrant in the original manuscripts. The NIV was created not only as an evangelical response to the RSV, but also as an evangelistic superseding of the King James Version. "Unless Christian families and churches use the Scriptures in modern English form, more and more of our young people are going to be strangers to the Gospel," said Burton L. Goddard, one of the main NIV translators.

These two driving forces behind the original NIV—evangelically driven accuracy and evangelistically driven clarity—remain behind the TNIV. "There is a growing need to reach today's generation with language they can understand and relate to," says the translation's Web site. "As English language usage changes, the Scriptures must be presented with unwavering accuracy in a way that clearly and accurately communicates in today's language."

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Since its publication in 1978, the NIV has largely become the new "authorized version" for conservative Protestants, many of whom joke that the acronym stands for Nearly Infallible Version. (When the NIV was released, ct recommended that "no version should be the 'standard.'" If the NIV had not become an evangelical standard, this controversy might not be nearly so fierce.)

The TNIV's opponents claim the translators have been driven by a political agenda. But the translators are neither homogeneous feminists nor ideologues.

"Most (but not all) of the committee that translated this volume are not egalitarian (i.e., they do not believe women can do everything in ministry or can occupy every office)," says Dallas Theological Seminary New Testament professor Darrell Bock.

Translators make an important distinction between "dynamic/functional equivalence" (i.e., thought-for-thought) and "formal equivalence" (word-for-word) translations. Bock argues for another distinction—between gender-sensitive translations made for ideological reasons (to counteract perceived patriarchalism in the original text) and those made solely to communicate the meaning of the original text ("translational" reasons). The TNIV's translators have been forthright in their approaches: they lean toward dynamic/functional equivalence and translational readings.

In keeping with this approach, however, the translators may want to take a second look at 1 Timothy 3:11. The TNIV's translation, "women who are deacons are to be worthy of respect," seems more ideologically driven than "[deacons'] wives are to be women worthy of respect" (from the British version in 1997). Why not just translate it as "women are to be worthy of respect" and let the text speak for itself?

The TNIV's translators have been forthright for years about their efforts to create such a translation. In 1997, a group consisting mostly of opponents of the inclusive-language niv met in Colorado Springs and announced "Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture." John Stek, chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation, the body responsible for the niv text, told Christianity Today that the CBT did not consider itself beholden to the document, although two of its members had signed it. Under extreme pressure, the president and CEO of Zondervan also signed the document, as did the then-president and the current board chairman of ibs. The IBS says it withdrew its endorsement because the guidelines were too restrictive. But having buckled to bullying, IBS and Zondervan opened themselves to charges of betrayal.

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There are such things as bad Bible translations, such as Oxford's 1995 New Inclusive Translation (with its "God the Father-Mother"). The TNIV is not one of them. Indeed, comments from a wide variety of pastors and Ph.D.s confirm that it stands firmly in the evangelical tradition. By their very nature, however, translations are not perfect. Might some miss the message of personal responsbility in a text that pluralizes words? Or might some women miss the personal applicability in a text that refers only to men?

The important lesson for all readers is to know well the Bible they are reading. Careful Bible study always involves careful engagement with the text, including the use of both "dynamic/functional equivalence" and "formal equivalence" translations. Knowing the theory behind your Bible's translation work and its relative strengths is nearly as important as knowing the message within the covers.

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:

TNIV Critics Blast Scripture 'Distortions'But evangelical backers of the new translation say gender changes are 'accurate.'
Which Version Should We Use?What we said when the NIV was first published. A Christianity Today editorial

For coverage of the TNIV debate, see these articles from Christianity Today:

Christian History Corner: Translation WarsSharp as debate over the TNIV may be, the version's translators are getting off easy compared to John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. (March 1, 2002)
Weblog: The TNIV Battle ContinuesDobson and others launch "Kept the Faith" to accuse TNIV creators of violating their word and God's (Feb. 11, 2002)
Comparing the Three NIVsHow does the TNIV treat verses that were earlier criticized as theologically incorrect? (Jan. 31, 2002)
Weblog: Southern Baptist Leaders So Upset About TNIV That Denomination May Abandon NIV (Jan. 29, 2002)
Revised NIV Makes Its DebutTranslators alter 7 percent of the text to update style and gender issues. (Jan. 28, 2002)
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The TNIV Web site offers the full New Testament text (in Adobe Acrobat format), a questions and answers section, endorsements, and other promotional material. Zondervan is also providing free copies of the translation.

Criticisms of the TNIV are available at KeptTheFaith.org and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Christianity Today coverage of gender-inclusive Bible translation includes:

The Battle for the Inclusive BibleConflicts over "gender-neutral" versions are not really about translation issues. (Nov. 15, 1999)
Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort Scripture?He Said, They Said (October 27, 1997)
The Great Translation DebateThe divide over gender-inclusive Bibles hides what unites us. (Oct. 27, 1997)
Hands Off My NIV!Bible society cancels plans for 'gender-accurate' Bible after public outcry. (June 16, 1997)
Bible Translators Deny Gender AgendaFocus on the Family yanks children's Bible; NIV translator loses seminary job. (July 14, 19997)

Previous Christianity Today articles on Bible translation include:

A Translation Fit For a KingIn the beginning, the King James Version was an attempt to thwart liberty. In the end, it promoted liberty. (Oct. 22, 2001)
The Reluctant RomansAt Douai in Flanders, Catholic scholars translated the Bible into English as an alternative to the Bible of "the heretics." (Oct. 22, 2001)
We Really Do Need Another Bible TranslationAs good as many modern versions are, they often do not allow us to hear what the Holy Spirit actually said. (Oct. 19, 2001)
Old Wisdom for New TimesThe International Bible Society is doing "spiritual archaeology" and retro-publishing to reach seekers. (April 23, 2001)
And the Word Came with PicturesVisual Bible International (VBI), is producing a movie version of the Bible book for book, word for word. (March 1, 2001)
New Bible translations help to preserve world's disappearing languagesThe total number of languages in which the Bible is available in part or in its entirety now stands at 2,233. (Feb. 28, 2000)
What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?What does the knowledge that Jesus used different versions of Scripture mean for us today? (April 26, 1999)
On the Shoulders of King JamesBarclay M. Newman has kept before him a question posed by the translators of the 1611 King James Version: "What can be more [important] than to deliver God's book unto God's people in a tongue which they understand?" (Oct. 27, 1997)
Confessions of a Bible TranslatorAs a stylist on a new translation of the Bible, Daniel worries over the effectiveness of the language into which the text is translated. (Oct. 27, 1997)

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