What’s different about the New International Version, 2011?

Over 25 years ago, the New International Version of the Bible made a real splash within Southern Baptist churches. I was a youth minister back then and saw many students struggle read the King James Version. Kids would read aloud during our Bible study times, stumble over unfamiliar words and construction, and then be unable to tell me anything about what they’d read. They had a much easier time with the NIV, as did their parents. It was a good piece of work and blessed a broad audience of believers.

Almost a decade ago, the NIV’s publishers produced a revision called Today’s New International Version. This work caused a different kind of stir as reviewers noted the thousands of changes related to the identification of gender in familiar Bible verses. “Son” became “child,” “father” became “parent,” “he” became “they,” and so on. The outcry was such that the TNIV failed to catch hold and was soon off the market. The span of time between the original NIV and the TNIV (15-20 years) was also quite short in terms of the life of a Bible translation (so is 25 years). It made some of us wonder what was so urgent about a new “today’s” version of the popular Bible.

The questions carried over when we learned that there would be a 2011 NIV revision. Has proper English changed so much in less than 30 years? An important piece of the puzzle is revealed when we discover that the 2011 NIV is very much (75 percent by one count) the same as the TNIV. Granted, some of the most controversial changes seen in the TNIV have been reconsidered for 2011, but there is a great similarity.

Among Southern Baptists, the issue came to our annual meeting when a messenger submitted an amendment to the resolutions committee report in 2011 so that a resolution criticizing the new translation was included and approved by an overwhelming majority. It’s rare to see an entire resolution added to the report from the floor. Christianity Today called our resolution “divisive, shortsighted, and something that brings us, and no doubt the majority of the Christian community, profound disappointment.” Were the messengers wrong?

Consider first that the NIV represents a significant percentage of pew Bibles and personal Bibles that our church members carry each week and read as often as they read Scripture. It is one of only three versions of the Bible allowed for use in Bible Drill competitions. The publishing of the 2011 NIV means the imminent end of the current, 1984 edition. Those who want to continue reading the NIV will soon be offered new Bibles that bear the same name but are quite a bit different. Some will not know the difference until they have begun reading their new Bibles. This is one reason why the change was of interest to the SBC back in June.

Next, think of the differences between the Bibles available today. Some have a reputation of being as close to literal as is possible and still maintain readability in English. This would include the King James Bible, the New American Standard, and the English Standard Version. They attempt to get as close as possible to what God says, even if contemporary or smooth style must be put in second place. Other popular versions of the Bible like The Message or the New Living Translation include more interpretation. The thoughts or message of the biblical languages are conveyed in these versions, rather than a more “what God has literally said” kind of emphasis. Two Bible versions important to Southern Baptists try to span the gap between these major approaches. The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the New International Version have worked to stay closer to what God literally says than a paraphrased Bible like The Message but also paraphrase when clarity demands it for modern readers. No doubt Bible translators would quibble with my descriptions here but simply, the span runs between very literal, as literal as possible while maintaining easy readability, and paraphrased “what God means” versions that many find most useful for devotional reading.

The thing is, many Christians do understand that a paraphrased version of the Bible includes some interpretive material in the text. I think of it as a Bible version where the translator or reviser has worked his personal margin notes into the text. It’s somewhat subjective but that works if you go into your use of the Bible expecting a bit of commentary. My problem with the 2011 NIV is that the translating committee appears to have changed the category of Bible they’ve produced without changing the name. What we will know as the NIV in the coming years includes quite a bit more paraphrase than the one we’ve formerly known.

Here’s what I mean: passages like Proverbs 15:5 and 1 Samuel 18:2 change the word “father” to “parent” and “family” respectively. Where I might expect the scholars behind my Bible to have asked “is the Hebrew word ‘father’ or something else?” this committee evidently did a bit more interpreting. The result was to miss the fact that the family residence was actually the “father’s house.” He was the head of the household, the householder. Grating as that might sound on the oversensitive modern ear, the actual words of Scripture are part of the message God is conveying. Psalm 8:4 says, in the old NIV, “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” The newer NIV says instead, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” In addition to freely switching singulars and plurals, the committee changed “son of man” to “human beings,” thereby interpreting out any kind of Messianic understanding of this verse. The translation committee’s interpretation here is defensible, their translation from Hebrew to English less so, unless they mean for us to understand their work to be of a different type than that of the 1984 NIV committee.

The examples of this sort run into the thousands. Some have called it agenda-driven but it needn’t be that to be objectionable. One of several philosophical lines the committee crossed was to decide that the loathsome singular/plural confusion was good English. John 14:23 is an example. The old NIV decided that English grammar needed no revision but the new work says, “Jesus replied, “Anyone (singular) who loves (singular) me will obey my teaching. My father will love them (plural!) and we will come to them (plural) and make our home with them (plural).” This horrible practice has become a part of nearly everyone’s speech pattern but that is no excuse. Authoritative style books, academic standards, most editors, and nearly all English teachers do not accept this as proper usage. It makes the Bible seem less serious, and it is not what the biblical manuscripts say. Gone are the days when reading the Bible will improve our grammar, I suppose.

I personally cannot recommend the 2011 NIV to anyone because the committee has paraphrased the words of Scripture with no apparent compelling reason in most cases. But should our LifeWay stores sell the 2011 NIV? Again, I’d say not. I believe the changes from the TNIV that persist in the 2011 edition make it such a different product that it is mislabeling, confusing to call it “NIV.” I cannot imagine conservative evangelical churches adopting this new version for corporate reading. Bible-believing pastors, a key constituency of LifeWay, will not likely use this for their preaching Bible—it requires too much explanation and back pedaling in too many passages. If it had a different name, a less respected and established name, the content of the new NIV would be less confusing, but neither would it sell much.

I don’t think this is a wicked Bible or a heretical one. The committee is made up of respected conservative scholars and I do not doubt their motives in any of this work. I do disagree with some of the foundational choices they made in translating and revising this version of the NIV. In our culture and in many of our churches, these choices are on the front burner. I can’t see that the significant interpretation into the message of Scripture that the 2011 NIV represents adds more to clarity than it does to confusion. Our denomination’s endorsement of this work, even a mild endorsement like selling the Bible, would not be a benefit to our church members.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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