Why I Dropped my NIV for an ESV

On my 16th birthday I received, by request, a new Thompson Chain Reference NIV Bible.  As a 16 year old, I had no insights- nor did I consider the need of them- concerning the integrity of the NIV translation.  I simply knew that my new NIV Bible was easier to understand than the KJV I had used up to that point.

As it turns out, by God’s grace, the NIV I was ingesting was actually a pretty good translation overall.  It is a good “middling” of two interpretational extremes.  As a ministry student, which I became just a few years thereafter, one’s translation is never one’s only translation; it is simply the translation one preaches and teaches from.  It is the translation one commits to memory.  I spent over twenty five years doing just that with my (1984) NIV. 

Through those years, several other good translations have come along; as have some poor ones.  One of the very best, in my opinion, was the English Standard Version (ESV) in 2001.  The ESV committed itself to formal equivalence (word-for-word accuracy) to the highest degree possible, the preservation of literary style and yet remains very readable and memorable.  The ESV was a continuation of a lineage of translations going back to the Tyndale New Testament (1526) which had been updated for the modernization of the English language: the KJV (1611), RV (1885), ASV (1901) and RSV (1952).  It utilized all reputable scholarly means to create as accurate of a translation as possible.

The ESV has since been heralded by the most respected conservative scholars in modern history.  I secured my own copy of the text, of course, but was still not committing myself to use it as my go-to translation.  I liked the ESV translation very much, but remained faithful to my NIV for one reason: I had been memorizing it for 25 years, and did not want to start over with a new translation.  It was like seeing someone else’s order being delivered in a restaurant and silently wishing I had been eating that instead of what was on my own plate.

However, during the same years the ESV was working on their intentionally-literal-leaning translation, my beloved NIV had begun to pursue the opposite course.  The TNIV (Today’s NIV) was released in 2002, which was committed to a path more oriented toward dynamic equivalence (thought-for-thought translation) and less literally accurate than before- particularly in areas of gender designation; a peculiar target for the work.  The committee, seemingly out of a desire to accommodate public opinion, intentionally rephrased many gender-oriented terms toward what were dubbed “gender inclusive” alternatives.  To that end, passages which read “man” may have been re-stated to read “people,” etc.

Obviously, many times when the scripture uses the term “man,” it is indeed referring to “mankind,” or, “people.”  However, there are also times when the scripture uses the term “man” as a gender-assignment.  The determination of which is being presented in a particular text, however, is the work of interpretation, not translation.  Interpretation is the job of the reader of scripture.  A translational team’s job is to “move” a work from one language to another as accurately as possible.  Truthfully, there will always be some amount of interpretation necessary in order for translation to be possible.  Not every Hebrew or Greek term will perfectly match to an English term.  Not every idea can be expressed specifically in English without some amount of interpretive work.  However, as a rule, there is a thin line in the sand that separates the minor “interpretation which is necessarily a part of translation” and the interpretation which goes beyond the text and into doctrinal idea baiting.

The idea that a translation team would do the interpretational work of the scripture on behalf of its readers did not set well with me at all.  It did not set well with evangelicals world-wide, in fact.  A steady stream of scholars and pastors such as John MacArthur, J.I. Packer, Josh McDowell, Albert Mohler Jr. John Piper, RC Sproul and others criticized the TNIV as did I.  There was a large public outcry against the proactive translational strategy which ultimately led to the failure of the translation.  It was pulled from store shelves in numerous cases and has had a paltry following to this day.

Through this difficult process, Biblica (the right holder to the NIV text) did not seem to learn their lesson at all.  Instead, they announced some months back a new 2011 NIV update that would replace both the (1984) NIV and the TNIV with a fresh version based off of the failed TNIV text.  That new update would be simply known as the “NIV.”  Suffice it to say, I was not pleased to learn that my long-serving NIV text was now going to be updated replaced by a warmed-over TNIV.

The new NIV translation was released for public scrutiny just last week.  It will be on store shelves beginning in March of 2011.  It actually seems to be a pretty scholarly work and is done very well in most circumstances that I have had time to investigate.  It has, however, a teeeeny tiny slippery slope attached to it:  two things, in particular, which have made it impossible for me to support the new version and continue my NIV tradition.

First, I cannot support a translational team that allows public sentiment to trump unwavering commitment to the preservation of scripture.  And, no one will ever convince me that gender inclusive language is about anything other than public opinion.  Somewhere, there are people who take offense at the use of “man” in scenarios where “people” would be a suitable alternative.  So, as if they were pushing elementary history books through the state adoption process, they simply adjusted the text to meet muster of the winds that blow money.  It is simply unavoidable at this point to acknowledge that public sentiment is now in the process of re-writing scripture to its taste.

Although it seems a minor area of concern at this very early point, once we go down this road there will be no end to the “negligible tweaks” that the public may demand.  If the public wants (and gets) gender inclusive language, what is to stop them later from wanting sexual-orientation “biases” to be removed in the 2020 update?  What about eradicating the term “Christian” from the text in order to market the Bible to Muslim nations?  While none of these issues are on the table, the principle is the same.  The Scriptures are theopneustos – “God-breathed” – and are not open for deconstruction by the public, or the publisher.  And, when I purchase a Bible, I am purchasing a commitment of a publisher to be doing as critically accurate of a translation as is humanly possible.  Throwing in a few bones for the politically correct fails that muster entirely.

Secondly, while the actual changes at this time are minor, they result in a continued shift in translational philosophy whereby the line between translation and interpretation is unnecessarily crossed.  While many of the gender-inclusive references in the new translation are actually what I would consider to be a fair depiction of the meaning of the text, the goal of translation should not be to create a rendition of the text, but to stringently translate as accurately as possible. There are times, as noted, when accuracy demands the use of dynamic equivalence, but such equivalent language should be limited only to those areas where suitable English terms are lacking.  Otherwise, should we not call such work a “paraphrase” instead of a translation?

For the record, I’m fully capable of reading “he” in the text and interpreting that in a given scenario, “he or she” is what is meant.  If I allow my translational team to begin interpreting such ideas for me, what will stop them from interpreting additional “truths” for me in the next update?  If a group believes that certain promises to Israel in the Old Testament refer forward to the church, shall we go back to the OT and change “Israel” to “church” in each of those texts, thus creating “The Replacement Theology Version? (TRTV)”  Or is it possible that at that point we’ve finally gone too far?

In conclusion, these issues are what have soured me on the NIV text for the foreseeable future.  I truly feel the NIV is joining the ranks of several others who are migrating toward a consumer-coerced text.  The next step is to send Rick Warren into the streets to ask people “what kind of Bible would you like to have in your church.”  While this does not surprise me, they will not use Jeff Kluttz’ money to finance it.  The last thing our market-driven church culture needs is an accompanying market-driven text.

With my plate now soiled by the addition of additives and “things that are not food,” it is now the perfect opportunity to switch to the ESV as my go-to version, as I have wanted, but not yet been properly motivated to do.

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