It’s been over a month since the last post here, and that hiatus came about for several reasons. First, the holiday season tends to be busy for everyone; second, my attention has been repeatedly drawn to other things when I had set aside time to work on this; third, I was temporarily missing the creative spirit required to stitch together thoughts into a document someone might actually enjoy reading and benefit from; and fourth, unlike most of the topics I’ve considered in this blog so far, I wasn’t prepared to just sit down and write this one more or less off the top of my head.
You see, in contrast to what I’ve always (perhaps wrongly) thought of as the “Big Four” Bible translations—KJV, NKJV, ASV, and NASB—the NIV has never really been on my radar as a serious option. Some of that (ok, all of it) was due to the scorn and derision I saw heaped upon this translation from numerous sources when I was a kid, and even into early adulthood, when I first heard it referred to (only half-jokingly) as the Nearly Inspired Version, or more recently, the Nasty Incomplete Version. I often heard it written off nonchalantly as “Calvinist,” and seeing no need to replace whatever bible I was currently using anyway, I never bothered to scrutinize these attitudes. So, having admitted at the outset that I’ve never given the NIV a thorough vetting, I’ll proceed to tell you what’s what!
Not really, but we will look at some of the NIV’s history, the goals and reasoning of the people who created it, and some of the reactions and criticisms—fair and unfair—leveled at it.
In the 1950’s, it was pretty obvious that the English-speaking world would benefit from a new Version of the Bible. The old standby, the King James Version, was still the most commonly used, but its language was somewhat difficult, and it was increasingly clear that better manuscripts of the New Testament were available at this time than had been in 1611, as well as better Greek and Hebrew scholarship. The American Standard Version of 1901 had opened the floodgates on this (in the USA), but its English wasn’t much better than that of the KJV for the common man, and even in 50 years significant steps forward had been made in the various fields of Biblical scholarship. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version (perhaps the subject of an article to come?) was published, drawing wrath and acrimony from various denominations and their mouthpieces, who saw the RSV’s forward-thinking, almost radical departures from the accepted wording and translations of many passages as an abominable heresy, an insidious attack by Satan on all that was holy. Of course, these reactions were overblown, but the sentiment was nevertheless held by most conservative Christians.
So, another new translation was in order. A group of Biblical scholars started working on this in 1965, calling itself the “Committee on Bible Translation.” They soon gained the financial sponsorship of the New York Bible Society (which, following the pattern of grandiosity set by the CBT, later renamed itself the International Bible Society and, finally, Biblica, as it remains known today), and by 1978 the new translation was completed and ready for the presses.
Since then, the NIV has gone through several revisions and editions, most recently in 2011, when Biblica took the text of the TNIV (2002—the most noteworthy feature of this edition was its attempt to use gender-neutral language, a topic for later discussion) and updated it slightly to reflect improvements in the translation and to scale back slightly the gender-neutrality bent.
That’s how the NIV got to where it is today, ignoring most of the nuts and bolts. It is now the second most popular translation in the USA, with more than 600 million copies sold. But how good is it? Remember that the most popular English Bible, the KJV, has some serious shortcomings—how well does the NIV live up to its mission of improving upon the venerated standby?
Pretty well, but not magnificently. Again, keep in mind that I haven’t read the entire NIV, nor used it extensively, but I have read a fair bit from it in casual reading, and I’ve browsed the common complaints made against it, and I’ll share those with you and give an opinion on their merit. As with most major, inter-denominational, committee-based projects, the NIV, while it has flaws, is overall a good resource.
The most controversial aspect of the 2011 NIV (not shared by the 1978 or 1984 editions) is its attempt at gender-inclusive language. The Southern Baptist Convention was the most put out at reading “mankind,” “them,” and so forth in place of “man,” “him,” and so on, going so far as to request forcefully that its bookstores (LifeWay) not offer it. I can’t help but notice that the LifeWay website currently offers 574 distinct NIV Bibles, which would seem to indicate that the outrage has died down somewhat over the past six years. Most of the demonizing on this front is a little silly—I’m sure that the bent toward gender-neutrality was motivated at least in part by so-called “feminist” ideals and political correctness, but let’s not ignore that modern English speakers really do tend to use masculine pronouns less frequently now than 50 years ago when referring to mixed groups or vague generalities. Regardless of the reasons for that shift, it’s now a part of the language, and any attempt to produce a Bible in conversational English should naturally take that fact into account.
There are times, to be sure, where it muddles the meaning of the text:
For example, the NIV 2011 translates John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” In reality, the pronoun translated, “them” is actually a singular “him.” The point of the verse is that God calls and regenerates individual people, but the NIV 2011 adds a corporate element by making the pronoun plural. The verse now seems to say that God is calling and drawing a people to Himself, which is true theologically, but not the point of this verse.
(A Fair Analysis of the New NIV, Si Cochran)
Ironically, Cochran’s agenda is peeking around the corner as he points this out, but his criticism is sound. In attempting to clarify that Jesus isn’t excluding women in this verse, the NIV has replaced the now-archaic generic “him” with the less definite “them”—explaining the gender by confusing the number! This takes a small portion of the semantic content of Jesus’ statement away. Not a huge deal, but nonetheless sub-optimal. There are many such instances of “they” and “them” in place of “he” and “him,” most of which will cause no offense, but occasionally it obscures the text for a reader who doesn’t know whether the pronoun is singular or plural (and cannot discover it from the context, as an astute reader could accomplish with Jn 6.44 above), and thus may be unable to rightly interpret the text. The question is, what would a better solution be? Reverting to the generic use of masculine pronouns is fine, but there’s always an opportunity then to wrongly conclude, whether out of ignorance of malevolence, that women are excluded from such statements. There’s no one “correct” translation of every statement in the Bible—each attempt comes with benefits and drawbacks.
Another set of complaints levied at the NIV is more properly directed at its textual bases (especially the NT). I had the misfortune to come across an article called, no joke, “New International PerVersion,” which is basically a list of places where the KJV has extra words that the NIV does not, in nearly every case due to the lack of those words in the best extant manuscripts. I suppose that author has his own reasons for trusting the leading Biblical scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries so much more than the leading Biblical scholars of the 20th and 21st, but at least his article provides a good example of the sort of silliness of which we become capable when we cling too tightly to our own subjective interpretations, and too little to Christ. For a pretty good discussion of the sort of “omissions” in the manuscripts that are at the center of the debate, see Graham Pockett’s “‘Omissions’ from the NIV Bible.”
There are other objections—while the first sentence of Wikipedia’s article on the NIV says, “The New International Version (NIV) is an English translation of the Protestant Bible,” would-be competitor Conservapedia’s article on the NIV begins, “The New International Version (NIV) is a translation of the Bible which purged numerous references to the unborn child, presumably to mislead many Christians into allowing abortion.” Oh, dear.
However ridiculous these complaints may be though, we should not forget that the NIV isn’t perfect. Its major shortcoming, hinted at above in the gender-neutrality debate, is a lack of precision. The Biblica website says that the NIV “doesn’t sacrifice precision for clarity or the other way around. It delivers both…” Frankly, that’s rubbish. It quite definitely prefers clarity, and sacrifices precision to that end routinely. Daniel Wallace makes this point in his lecture series, “The History of the English Bible,” showing how 1Pe 5.6-7, for example, was split into two sentences in the NIV, simultaneously making for easier reading and obscuring the connection between the main verb, “humble,” and the dependent participle, “casting.” Wallace remarks of the NIV, “readability seems to have been a higher priority than anything else.” There are plenty of other examples where a translation in the NIV is not exactly wrong, but is imprecise enough either to introduce into the text meaning that was never intended, or to remove meaning that was explicitly intended, purely in the name of easy reading. For someone using it the way it’s written, that’s not a significant problem; for someone who is closely studying the text and interpreting God’s will from it, this can be catastrophic. Jeff Hamilton’s article on the NIV has a pretty good list of such cases (although I disagree with Jeff pretty strongly about some of the other points he makes in that article, particularly with regard to the textual basis), as does Michael Marlowe’s article, “The New International Version.” Marlowe does a good job of looking past the what to examine the why, and his article is a good source for a broad picture of the NIV’s assets and liabilities. After examining the shortcomings of its translation of 1Jn 4, he sums up:
This passage is typical of the NIV. Occasionally one finds renderings that express the meaning better than the more literal versions do, but more often one finds that accuracy suffers for the sake of a contemporary and casual style. It is a very useful version for teaching novices, as a first exposure to the biblical text; but it is not to be relied upon for detailed study.
So, in backlash against a new translation (the RSV) perceived as somewhere between “rather liberal” and “the work of Satan,” a bunch of scholars produced an alternative that has been variously described as “rather liberal” and “the work of Satan.” It seems you just can’t win in this business. Remember—it’s usually more complicated than it seems; no single version of the Bible today is unquestionably perfect in every respect to the exclusion of all others; the main options we have today are all quite good; and if all you had was a KJV, or an RSV, or an NIV, when paired with a heart that genuinely seeks to please God, it would be sufficient to lead you to salvation.