Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

To TNIV or Not to TNIV?

The issue isn't simply what one translation may say, but where an unchallenged method may take us.

Why did a nice boy like me even bother? Why did I add my name to the list of more than 100 nationally recognized spiritual leaders who feel concern over Today's New International Version (TNIV) of the New Testament? To answer that, allow me to first make a few points as a preamble:

**I have never opposed a translation of the Bible. God's Word is too precious to fight over, regardless of what a translation may render.

**I am opposed to issues like this being used to draw a line in the sand, as though righteousness lay on one side and unrighteousness on the other.

**I see as commendable that this translation has pursued a gender-sensitivity where the original text allows for neutrality or inclusiveness.

**It bothers me that too many leaders could be un-bothered by a deeper, more central issue inherent in the small controversy the TNIV has stirred.

For me, the issue is less at the point this translation takes us, but rather where a method of translation seems to be pointing. Let me offer a historical perspective in the light of two earlier translations: first, the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which debuted more than 50 years ago; and second, the New International Version's (NIV) first edition about 25 years ago.

A vicious vilification. In 1948, the Board of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches first published the RSV. Since I began my studies for ministry in 1952, I was introduced early on to the angry debate surrounding this translation--one which popularly vilified the RSV as "the Bible of the Anti-Christ"!

The eye of the storm was Isaiah 7:14, where the RSV had translated the Hebrew word almah to read "young woman" rather than "virgin." Technically, it was correct, since the Hebrew meaning allowed a translator's option.

Nonetheless, the lid of protest quickly blew off. Thunderous assaults resounded, accusing the RSV of denying the virgin birth, notwithstanding the fact that truth had been faithfully secured in its rendering of Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27, where "virgin" occurred at the most pivotal texts on the subject. But the war of words marched on, and anyone itching for a fight over the Bible squeezed the case for theirs from the RSV's Isaiah text.

Point: I hope the very worthy and serious questions about the TNIV that have been raised by myself and others is neither interpreted as or degenerates to anything like that earlier fisticuffs. My acknowledged upset seeks neither to accuse or to divide; rather to register a call to caution, in view of an issue I'll define: "Reverence." But before that, a second point in recent translation history.

A translation 'in time. ' In 1973 (New Testament) and 1978 (Old Testament) the original NIV appeared--a publishing event that was remarkably "in time" and initiated its still-widening usage.

At that time a global revival among youth (the Jesus Movement) and the global impact of the charismatic renewal on the whole church provided millions of spiritually hungry youth and adults as fertile soil to receive the seed of any new, scholarly translation of the Bible.

Until then, the old King James Version--loaded with archaisms and seemingly out of touch with the times--had been dominant as the most widely regarded international option. But suddenly, the timely appearance of the NIV provided a contemporary, international English translation, and it immediately won the day in terms of Bible-publishing success. (I emphasize "international" because the New American Standard version, released about the same time as the NIV, proved to be restricted by the seeming nationalistic label, notwithstanding that to this day many scholars regard it as superior to the NIV.)

Unforgettable to my mind and a shock to many at that time when the first edition of the NIV appeared was that both John 7:53-8:11 and Mark 16:9-20 only appeared as virtual footnotes in the Bible, set in minuscule type. While a legitimate debate exists over the textual evidence for those two passages, it struck many as presumptuous, if not preposterous, that such liberties would be taken by a Bible publisher.

Other shorter passages "disappeared" by translator's choice, and later editions of the NIV soon granted an equal type-size to at least the two above passages, returning them to apparent equality with the rest of God's inspired Word.

Point: Since its inception, an apparent disposition of NIV translators has resulted in "pushing the envelope" where textual alternatives exist or where the interpreter's choice might be applied in Bible translation. Others like myself, informed and appreciative of the values of conservative biblical literary criticism, feel a special concern over the degree to which some portions of the NIV (and now the TNIV) have applied the translation philosophy of dynamic equivalency. And it is, to my view and to others, the extrapolation of this philosophy that prompts my feeling that a misplacement of "reverence" has taken place, which, if tolerated in silence, paves the way toward an inevitable drift in what the public receives as the Word of God.

Here I am not referencing anyone's reverence for God. Neither am I announcing a belief that any part of the NIV or TNIV is the fruit of a calculated recklessness toward His Word. However, I do believe that the issue of "reverence" is a problem if an approach to translation becomes so highly revered it encroaches upon a healthy fear of the Lord's word about His Word.

The philosophical approach of dynamic equivalence, applied by NIV translators, is not of itself unworthy at all, but scholars who apply it themselves admit it must be constantly kept in check.

To define, "dynamic equivalence" is a recent procedure in Bible translation that commonly results in paraphrasing where a more literal rendering is needed to reflect a specific and vital sense. In comparison, complete equivalence translates fully, in order to provide an English text that is both accurate and readable.

My comparison is not an argument against the relative value of dynamic equivalency, but to note its vulnerability to being carried one or a few steps too far. It's too easy for a translator's "reverence" to move from the actual words of a text to what he or she "feels the 'sense' of a text to be" to make it "dynamic" in the "receiving" language or culture.

At the bottom line, "reverence" in approaching translating must be dominated by a biblical conviction historically held by all evangelical believers: faith in the plenary verbal inspiration of the holy Scriptures. We believe that not only is the whole Bible inspired by God, but that every word of the Scriptures in the original text has been "breathed" by the Holy Spirit (that is, His "word choice"). Accordingly, every word in the Bible--including its tense, gender, mood, voice or construct, as well as its actual meaning in the cultural context of the time it was written--has limited flexibility for adjusting it to suit a culture "for the sake of communication."

I answered a friend who asked about my reticence toward the TNIV as follows: "As valid as many of the changes are, where gender neutrality may justly be applied, I oppose translation decisions that make changes on the basis of the translators' 'sense' of what may be meant, rather than a more precise commitment to the original text. I am far more ready to trust the Holy Spirit's eternal perspective in His giving of the Word, than I am the transient opinion of translators who see it their privilege to interpret God temporally by changing what His Word in fact says specifically."

I continued: "I realize the value of, and am accepting toward, that disposition (of the translation) that has sought to make appropriate adjustments." (Insensitivity to gender inclusiveness has characterized many past habits of translators.)

"But I am far more comfortable with complete equivalence than with dynamic equivalence as a guiding approach to translation. The latter, however well-intended (and given the best possible face on the motivation of those doing the translation), is always at risk of becoming too interpretive."

I have no question about the intent of the TNIV, but I do feel concern for the extent to which one approach to translation has brought it. To assume a translation may take the liberty of changing what the Bible actually says on the presumed grounds the translators know better what it currently means is beyond acceptable limits. Scholars far exceeding my capacities have cautioned us that the TNIV has, in too many places, done this.

I do not believe that damns its value any more than I believe it devalues the laborers who produced it. But I do believe we are near reverencing a philosophy of translation more than the words of the Scriptures themselves. That's too close to the edge for me.

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