NIV 1984 serves as the pew, pulpit, and study Bible of millions of Bible-reading Christians. It is the Bible of choice of a great number of avid Bible readers. There are two main reasons for this. (1) It is a traditioned translation: the choice of words in key passages ensures that the Bible says more or less what conservative Protestants want it to say.1 (2) It is highly readable. As Dan Wallace put it, it is “fresh and breezy” (a problem; discussion here).
NIV 1984 is one of the greatest publishing successes of all time. In 35 years, 400 million copies have been sold. Will NIV 2011, produced by and for English-speaking evangelical Protestants, find as much favor with Bible readers as NIV 1984 did?
To judge by its reception among (1) Southern Baptists (the delegates at this year's SBC convention disavowed it by a wide margin: go here and here) and (2) Wisconsin Synod Lutherans (they failed to endorse the new NIV at their synod last month; for the resolutions that passed, go here, here, and here; executive summary here), the answer is “no.” In this post, I reflect on the resistance NNIV has encountered among Wisconsin Synod Lutherans.
The issue of whether or not to adopt NIV 2011 was forced on WELS Lutherans by the copyright owners of NIV. The copyright owners, beginning in 2013, will disallow the use of NIV 1984 in Sunday school materials and other official publications of denominations which have, until now, paid hefty royalties for that privilege. WELS Lutherans would have gladly continued to adopt NIV 1984 as its official translation, and paid in order to do so.
Zondervan’s decision to market a new and improved edition of NIV to the exclusion of the older edition was bound to trigger defections from the brand. People do not like change they feel no need of.
Among WELS congregations, it is not yet clear how broadly based the move away from NIV will be. Each WELS congregation, as is true of congregations in Protestant denominations in general, is free to adopt the Bible translation of its choice, apart from the translation adopted in the denomination of reference’s official publications. What is not yet obvious: the alternatives to NIV 2011 that will be adopted.
The market share of NIV 1984 has been under pressure from all sides for some time. NLT, NASB 1995, ESV, HCSB, NLTse, and ISV represent conservative Protestant alternatives to NIV 1984, with HCSB just as readable as NIV – a big selling point. ISV and NLT are more readable. The new and very readable CEB represents a liberal Protestant alternative to NIV. NAB and now NABRE, a Catholic translation, clocks in at the same level of readability.
For a helpful chart of major English translations on the literal-to-free spectrum published in How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss (p. 28), see Phil Vander Ploeg’s blog here. Freer translations are written in relatively clear, natural English. More literal translations that strive for concordance across key passages are slower reads. They demand attention to the kind of fine detail they seek to carry over in translation.2
Scholars who read the Bible in the original languages will point to numerous passages in NIV 2011 which mark an improvement over NIV 1984.3 The improvement often involves a more stringent application of the “literal as possible, as free as necessary” rule.
Still, most Bible readers, including WELS pastors who, though they learn Hebrew and Greek in seminary, do not necessarily dust off their Hebrew and Greek very often, are not going to notice.
There are other grounds on which Bible readers form an opinion of particular Bible translations. There are two main reasons why the new NIV encounters resistance among WELS Lutherans, and other conservative Protestants, for whom the old NIV passed muster.
(1) NIV 2011 seeks to thread the needle on gender-in-translation issues. Its approach is more conservative than that of the liberal Protestant NRSV and CEB (2011), but less conservative than NASB 1995, ESV, and HCSB. Still, many people are in no mood for compromise on gender-inclusive language. If they expressed themselves in the language of the Democratic wing of the Democratic party – most of them do not - they might describe NNIV as a “Satan sandwich” with “Satan fries on the side.”
Among evangelicals, that’s how heated the discussion around gender-in-translation is. The same issue divides Catholics (go here for background).
(2) NIV 2011 translates the Old and New Testaments with little regard for the canonical unity of the whole. Christians have always read the Old Testament in terms of its fulfillment in the New. NIV 2011 translates the OT for its own sake and on its own terms, apart from its fulfillment in the New – the “this is that” of Acts 2:12. Put another way, the NIV 2011 Old Testament does not give us the Bible as it was understood, say, among first century Jews and Christians; it seeks to give us the Hebrew Bible as it was understood before that (though it is based on a Hebrew text that was not fixed in all details until the 2nd century AD or later). It does something similar in the case of the New Testament: it translates the earliest recoverable form of the writings of the New Testament, before subsequent textual development and before they were integrated into the canon of the New Testament in the strict sense, the outer limits of which were not established until the fourth century of this era.
As Rodney Decker puts it in an excellent essay (HT Andy Naselli) – Decker was a defender of TNIV and now writes on behalf on NNIV – it’s all about the “hermeneutical autonomy of the OT” and the rejection of “any hermeneutical approach which uses the NT to re-interpret the OT” (p. 15, note 40 of Decker’s essay).
That, however, is a problematic stance. Christians have always interpreted the OT in light of events and realities to which the NT bears witness. To this day, with relatively few exceptions, Christians read the OT in translations that reflect that interpretive stance. NIV 2011 itself continues to read “virgin” in Isa 7:14, a classic case. The move away from the univocal tradition is momentous and deserves to be undertaken, if at all, with greater care than has so far been the case.
A modern student of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament, if she is a Christian believer, will be committed to – for example - (1) the sense a book like Isaiah had, and precursors to the book of Isaiah had, in the late First Temple and early Second Temple periods; and (2) its resignification in the Christian tradition. An edition of the Bible that successfully captures both has yet to be produced.
It’s simple: NIV 2011 is just as readable but not as conservative as NIV 1984. Despite the fact that excellent evangelical scholars such as Darrell Bock and Dan Wallace have come to the defense of NIV 2011, it is possible that they are defending a sinking ship.
1 As noted in the Wikipedia entry, an excellent New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, refuses to endorse NIV: "When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses…. Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul's letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said. …[I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about” (N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision [Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009] 51–52). In my view, Wright vastly overstates his case. Still, there is some truth to his point. A translation that is uninterested in preserving a connection with the Protestant tradition of interpretation is NABRE. But NABRE doesn't move in the direction Wright wishes for either. Wright's comment says as much about his idiosyncratic understanding of Paul as it does about NIV.
2 According to Gideon Toury , the translator is always confronted with a "basic choice between two polar alternatives deriving from the two major constituents of  'value' in literary translation [...]: he either subjects himself to the original text, with its textual relations and the norms expressed by it and contained in it, or to the linguistic and literary norms active in the TL and in the target literary polysystem, or a certain section of it" (idem, Descriptive Translation Studies and beyond (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1995; idem, In Search of a Theory of Translation (Tel Aviv: Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, Tel Aviv University, 1980) 54; cited in an article by Anthony Pym, “On Toury’s laws of how translators translate.” 2007; online here). Literal translations tilt toward the first alternative, functional equivalence translations, to the second.
3 That does not mean NIV 2011 could not be improved further on questions of accuracy. For a roundup of critical reviews of NIV 2011 translation choices by biblical bloggers, go here.
The Preference of Some Conservative Lutherans for a “Median” Translation
There is a long tradition in the WELS of sympathizing with the translation technique of a great LCMS pastor and missionary, William F. Beck. His AAT is an example of what a Bible in Nidaesque common language would look like if crafted by an orthodox Lutheran. In many ways it is a marvelous translation.
From the point of view of Nida’s translation philosophy, AAT is to NIV as wine is to water. Nonetheless, in the context of WELS politics, NIV was the compromise solution, with KJV/ NKJV on the other extreme.
NIV 1984 was an excellent solution. The original NIV people were irenic and accommodating to the particular concerns WELS had in the process of putting the final touches on NIV 1984. NIV is now beloved by many WELS folk – virtually none of whom have cultural affinities with those behind the changes that led to the gender-sensitive revision known as NIV 2011.
WELS is in a bind. Despite the attempts of Moo and company to be just as accommodating this time around, a “Tea Party” movement within WELS against NIV 2011 has come into existence. By that I mean a bottom-up groundswell against the extent to which NIV 2011 made modifications in line with an unfelt need for gender-sensitive language. A groundswell of the kind that is limiting the acceptance of NIV 2011 among Southern Baptists.
As soon as it became clear to what extent NIV 2011 would depart from NIV 1984 in terms of gender-sensitive language – elimination of phrases like “God and man,” “man and beast,” avoidance of generic masculine pronouns, pluralizing of singular constructions in the name of the same priority – it became less likely that NIV 2011 would gain wide acceptance. The changes in and of themselves are not terribly significant (though I don’t mind saying I dis-prefer a sizable number of them). But they are easily understood as portending or promoting extra-textual changes of a particular kind.
One needs to keep in mind that WELS is old school on gender issues. Men only vote in assembly. Men only are ordained. The recommended marriage vows are the traditional “love/obey.” Same sex marriage: forget about it. If the wife of a WELS pastor divorces him, even if it is obviously on her, he is defrocked.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that women are oppressed in the WELS family. They don’t have equal “rights,” but that is not the same thing, viewed emically. If I had to say anything, I would say that WELS women tend to have a stronger and a more vital self-directed faith than do women in many so-called progressive environments.
Nonetheless, against this backdrop, it will be more than a little bit uphill for NIV 2011 among WELS Lutherans.