Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Holy Bible: New International Version
Zondervan 1152 pages, $27.99

With more than 400 million copies in print, the New International Version is the most popular English Bible. First published as a full Protestant Bible by the evangelical Committee on Bible Translation in 1978, the new edition replaces both the slight revision of 1984 and the controversial, gender-inclusive Today’s New International Version of 2005. Roughly 95 percent of the 1984 text remains, but the other 5 percent reveals an evangelicalism married to modernity, and this is a problem for the translation itself.

The most salutary changes are renderings of crucial Pauline phrases where the new NIV sticks closer to the text. In a reflection of the influence that the “new perspective” on Paul and Judaism has exerted in recent decades, no longer does a rigid Protestant orthodoxy centered on a forensic conception of justification push Paul in theologically tendentious directions.

For instance, erga nomou is now “works of the law” instead of “observing the law” (e.g., Romans 3:28 and Galatians 2:16), dikaiosunē theou is now “righteousness of God” instead of “righteousness from God” (e.g., Romans 1:17), and sarx is now usually “flesh,” not “sinful nature.” No longer do readers encounter a Paul who teaches that the problem with the law is that it is impossible to fulfill and that faith alone causes God to count believers as legally righteous when in point of fact they remain sinners. Rather, the new NIV here makes it possible for English readers to discover a more Catholic or Orthodox or truly Lutheran Paul, one who teaches that the problem with the Jewish law is its ethnic and temporary character and that human salvation concerns our real sacramental participation in divine life, real transformation, and ultimate resurrection.

Problems that plagued the old NIV persist in the new, however, particularly in renderings resulting from the use of lively language at the expense of fidelity to the form of the original. For instance, the translators attempted to emphasize the Jewish nature of Jesus and early Christianity, employing, for example, the Hebrew-derived “Messiah” for the Greek christos in an effort to remind English-speakers that Jesus was in fact Jewish and not Norwegian. But routinely employing “Jewish leaders,” “leaders,” and “they” for John’s Ioudaioi (traditionally “Jews”) softens the severe sharpness of the conflict between Jesus the Jew and his Jewish antagonists.

Further, the commitment to translational dynamism often involves the use of different English words for the same original word, which effaces many intratextual connections and thus obscures much theologically freighted literary brilliance. In Mark, for instance, both hodos (“way”) and en tē hodō (“on the way”) signify the way of discipleship, but the NIV renders both randomly with multifold words and phrases, erasing the theme. Euthus (“immediately”) appears forty-one times in Mark, but the NIV translates the word seven different ways when it bothers to translate it at all, losing the profound urgency of Mark’s story.

In Matthew, readers miss an insight into the Passion because thorubos is translated with two different words, “riot” and “uproar.” Jesus predicts his death will indeed happen at Passover, while his enemies conspire to kill him at a time other than Passover lest “a riot among the people” arise. In the end, Pilate condemns Jesus at Passover precisely because “an uproar was starting.” Jesus’ words come true, while the reader is led to conclude that the conspiracy fails in its details. Matthew’s story suggests that Jesus orchestrates his Passion, but the needless use of two different words prevents the English-language reader from catching that.

Most controversial, however, will be the use of inclusive language for human beings. (God remains relentlessly masculine, as does Satan.) Masculine pronouns are avoided; Revelation 3:20 reads, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” “Mankind” finds frequent use, however, as in Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make mankind in our image”), considered inclusive on the grounds that the term is used to refer to humanity as such (but isn’t “man” inclusive as well?). Further, a stylistic canon within the canon abides, as various venerable verses evaded emasculation, such as “Man shall not live on bread alone” and “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Finally, for better or worse, passages addressing women’s roles are rendered in egalitarian directions on both linguistic and academic grounds. Phoebe now bears the title of “deacon” in Romans, while in 1 Timothy, in a passage dealing with qualifications for deacons, the translators changed the wording from “their wives are to be women worthy of respect” to “the women are to be worthy of respect,” implying that women deacons may be in view.

Christology sometimes suffers from these good intentions toward inclusivity. In the old NIV, the quotation of the Greek version of Psalm 8:4“6 in Hebrews 2:6“8 reads:

But there is a place where someone has testified: “What is man that you are mindful of him, / the son of man that you care for him? / You made him a little lower than the angels; / you crowned him with glory and honor / and put everything under his feet.” In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The new rendering effaces the Christological import of the passage:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, / a son of man that you care for him? / You made them a little lower than the angels; / you crowned them with glory and honor / and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus.

While Psalm 8 concerns humanity in general, the author of Hebrews finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, and thus deploys it in service of setting forth the most sublime Christology in a seminal section of his sermon. This the translators intentionally removed.

What might explain these often inconsistent, solecistic, and theologically problematic moves? According to the translators’ notes, the new NIV results from a commitment to linguistic descriptivism, the position that language is always in flux and that any concept of correct usage is relative to a culture; language is as language does. The committee used the Collins Bank of English, a database of more than 4.4 billion English words, to “remove . . . subjectivity” from the process of translation, as the Bank permitted them to consult “leading experts in computational linguistics” and use “cutting-edge techniques” to gain “an authoritative, and hitherto unavailable, perspective on the contemporary use of gender language.”

In short, inclusive language is supposedly scientific, its use necessitated by modern English. And so the epicene “they” becomes a neuter workaround, but “mankind” is employed, some allegedly sexist renderings are retained, and God and Satan remain masculine because this is how modern anglophones speak and think.

Why this commitment to descriptivism? The committee boasts that it has emulated both the biblical authors and the translators of the King James Version in employing “the language and idiom of ordinary people.” Except that they didn’t. Much biblical language is refined and elevated, and while many Englishmen were doubtless delighted to discover Pharaoh had a proper butler, the KJV often sounded artificial and abstruse to them because the translators frequently followed biblical idiom and syntax and not the language and idiom of their contemporaries. Far from appropriating the vernacular, the KJV was a major force in the forging of English.

Language is value-laden and bound to culture, and the academic and popular anglophone culture that the NIV subtly affirms desperately needs conversion, not affirmation. Instead of accommodating its usage”and so its ideas and assumptions”a translation of Holy Scripture should serve the end of conversion by employing principles that recognize Christianity as its own culture with its own language and practices, raising readers up and rooting them in a rich tradition of translation, transforming them through the creative rationality, beauty, goodness, and truth reflective of the triune God who speaks his Word.

Leroy Huizenga is director of the Christian Leadership Center and assistant professor of Scripture at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.