The 2011 NIV: Challenge #2

The New International Version of the Bible is in the midst of a revision that will be released in 2011. There are three significant reasons why the team responsible for this revision, the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT), will probably not be able to publish a product that can continue the success of the current edition of the NIV. Yesterday I presented the first reason: increased competition. Today I present the second reason:

2. GENDER-NEUTRAL DEBATE – 1984…the good old days when gender language debates were not on the general evangelical radar. But by the early 1990s things had changed. In the mid-90s the International Bible Society (owner of the NIV copyright) commissioned and released two new NIV revisions: in the U. S. the Zondervan Kids Bible and in Great Britain the New International Version: Inclusive Edition, both employing gender-neutral language.1 Both caused minor waves of controversy and were vocally opposed by conservative Christians, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family. The opposition was effective, causing Zondervan to revise the Kids Bible in 1998, removing gender-neutral language. This version is still on the market as the New International Readers Version (NIrV). The NIV Inclusive Edition never made it across the Atlantic to the United States.

In 2002 Zondervan and the International Bible Society released a new gender-neutral version of the NIV called Today’s New International Version (TNIV), which was updated in 2005. While the previously mentioned efforts of the mid-90s caused some minor waves, the TNIV created a tsunami of controversy. Many influential evangelicals opposed the new translation, some using vitrolic language to describe the dangers associated with “changing God’s Word.”2 The general evangelical reaction to the version was rejection and, in some cases, outright castigation. Christian bookstores were threatened with boycotts should they choose to carry the new version. From a commercial and public relations standpoint, the TNIV was a disaster for Zondervan.  By 2009, just seven years after its release, the TNIV was, for all practical purposes, thrown overboard and is now being left to sink into oblivion. As expected, TNIV critics rejoiced while TNIV fans were disappointed.

I give all this history to show you that the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) of the NIV has a daunting task ahead of them as they seek to navigate the politically charged waters of the gender-neutral debate. If they make no gender adjustments in the 2011 revision the egalitarian crowd will be disappointed and probably switch over to the New Living Translation (NLT). If they make too many gender adjustments the complementarian crowd will be disappointed and probably shift over to the English Standard Version (ESV) or the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), both of which seem to please those who favor the Colorado Springs Guidelines when it comes to gender language.

This division of opinion on the gender issue reveals a deep schism that could be developing within evangelical Christianity regarding the Bible.  For well over 300 years almost all Christians and churches used the same Bible: the King James Version. Only with the modern versions have evangelical Christians begun to choose versions based on theological preferences. The gender-neutral issue might become a line in the sand that separates Christians even more, based upon whether they are complementarians (men and women are equal in grace, but unique in roles) and egalitarians (there should be no role differences based upon gender). Up to this point these two groups of Christians have only been separated by their theological disagreement. Soon they could also be separated by the fact they use different Bible versions, which will increase the gap. Therefore much is at stake in this issue. Previously these two groups would probably both use the NIV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, or nearly any other legitimate version. But in the next decade clearer lines may be drawn.

Those revising the NIV are making key decisions that will probably isolate one side or the other. They could try to land somewhere in the middle, which, of course, will increase the risk of getting shot by both sides. It will be interesting to find out. My guess is that they will lean toward conservatism because liberalism is dying and is less commercially viable.

In my next post I will present a third challenge facing the CBT with the upcoming NIV.


1. In case you are wondering what I am referring to when I speak of gender-neutral language, I am referring to changing masculine language to neutral language when deemed appropriate. For example, one might say “people” rather than “mankind” or change “brothers” to “brothers and sisters.”

2. Below is an example of the differences in gender usage between the beloved, and bestselling, NIV of 1984 and the TNIV of 2002/2005. I have highlighted the words relevant to our topic:

Matthew 18:15-21, NIV:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
… Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?

Matthew 18:15-21, TNIV:

If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you alone. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they refuse to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
… Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?

Some Christians, opponents of the TNIV, say that this is an unnecessary compromise, a changing of God’s unchanging words. They point out that it is not our responsibility to change the contents of God’s Word to match the mood of the culture. Other Christians, proponents of the TNIV, say that this is a necessary adjustment to the way we talk today and does not in any way change the meaning of the text.  They would say these changes are being faithful to the Word of God by putting it in the common language of the people. We don’t speak in these masculine terms anymore so our translations should be in our language.

6 thoughts on “The 2011 NIV: Challenge #2”

  1. Hey Brett,
    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. Why do you think the NLT hasn’t caused nearly the same kind of ruckus as the TNIV? Personally, I like to use the ESV, the NLT, and the NIV in my daily Bible study time. However, I have to admit that the NLT does include “gender neutral” language in various areas(including the Matthew 18:15-21 passage you mentioned).

    Look forward to getting your opinion,
    Tim in Korea

  2. I should add that I found it interesting that Fee and Stuart note, “We would venture to suggest that the TNIV is as good a translation as you will get.” (How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth, 3d. ed., 52). Were you aware of their perspective? (I thought this was one of the best texts I used in seminary.)

  3. Tim, thanks for commenting. Hope you are doing well. Yeah, I am also perplexed about why the NLT was not causing a ruckus as well. Could be that the scholars behind the NLT were more conservative as a whole and perhaps more careful about the specific choices with the gender issue. I’m not really sure.

    The Fee and Stuart recommendation doesn’t surprise me at all since Fee is an egalitarian. Also, if I remember correctly they seemed to argue for a preference for functional translation theory, and those who prefer that theory over formal theory usually champion the TNIV.

    I really appreciate their book and its contribution, but as you can probably see if you read my previous posts on the subject, I prefer formal translations for in-depth study, preaching, and teaching and prefer functional translations for prolonged Bible reading, children, ESL, and outreach.

    Thanks for posting your comments and tell Ghana we said hi.

  4. Unfortunately, at least one of these updates changes the meaning: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?” “Someone” implies anyone. “Brother” implies a Christian.

    So if someone quoted this verse out of context, the meaning of it is changed. Having changed “Brother” to “Brother or Sister” would have preserved that meaning.

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