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Bible society ends NIV revision; Baptist leaders laud about-face

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A surprise announcement by the International Bible Society May 27 to “forgo all plans” to revise the New International Version Bible translation prompted a wave of positive reactions among Southern Baptist leaders.

The Colorado-based International Bible Society (IBS), in its May 27 statement, also committed to revising its New International Readers Version (NIrV) Bible “to reflect a treatment of gender consistent with the NIV.” The NIrV is a gender-neutral translation already used in a Zondervan Publishing House children’s Bible.

Morris H. Chapman, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said, “The sensitivity of the IBS to the concerns of the evangelical public is commendable, and we believe very wise. I expect the decision to be applauded by all those who hold a high view of Scripture. The NIV has enjoyed a very high level of confidence and acceptance among evangelical Christians, and this decision should serve to bolster that confidence.”

James T. Draper Jr., president of the Baptist Sunday School Board, commended the IBS for its “sensitivity to the desires of Christian people to have a translation that adheres to the original languages of the Word of God.”

Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, greeted the IBS announcement “with gratitude to God for the wise decision and with increased appreciation for those who demonstrated this kind of sensitivity to evangelical concerns.”

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the IBS action “indicates that the believing church stood up and said, ‘This agenda we will not accept. We want the translation to be word for word insofar as possible and not serving an inclusive-language agenda.’ Faithful translations should be as inclusive as the original text and no more inclusive than in the original text.”

Mark Coppenger, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “This episode is reminiscent of the Southern Baptist ‘conservative resurgence.’ Some scholars and administrators misread the depth of grass-roots conviction and were called to task for their ‘progressivism.'”

Victor L. Oliver, chairman of the IBS’ 18-member board, said in the IBS statement: “The NIV doesn’t belong to IBS or our licensed publishers, it belongs to the people.

Virtually all other contemporary Bible translations already reflect gender treatments consistent with the language of today. However, the NIV has essentially become the Bible of the evangelical church, which has come to trust in and depend upon the NIV’s current accuracy, clarity and readability.”

Lars Dunberg, IBS president, acknowledged in the statement “it was not until the evangelical community became aware of a possible revision that we realized the beloved place this translation occupies for the Bible-reading public.”

That awareness initially came through the evangelical magazine World, based in Asheville, N.C., which reported on decisions that had been made to produce a gender-neutral NIV for the U.S. market by 2001. World’s articles appeared in its March 29, April 19 and May 3 issues.

The reports sparked theology-related objections among a number of U.S. evangelicals to changes in various passages where the words “he,” “man,” “brothers” and “mankind” typically are replaced by “people,” “person,” “brother and sister” and “humankind.”

Additionally, concerns and questions of Baptist Sunday School Board officials and Mohler were aired May 19 to representatives of the IBS, Zondervan and another organization, the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT).

The IBS is the NIV’s copyright holder; Zondervan is the NIV’s U.S. publisher; and the CBT is a 15-member group of scholars with authority over the NIV translation and the revision of the text into gender-neutral language.

The Sunday School Board uses the current NIV text in many of its Sunday school and discipleship resources and in various Bible texts and commentaries. First published in 1978 and revised in 1983, the current NIV holds a 45 percent share of all Bibles sold in the United States.

Speculation had surfaced that Southern Baptists might address the NIV controversy in a resolution at the convention’s upcoming annual meeting, June 17-19 in Dallas.

The IBS statement resulted from May 22 and 24 meetings of its six-member executive committee and a May 26 teleconference of its 20-member board of directors.

The board adopted a four-point resolution:

“1. The International Bible Society (IBS) has abandoned all plans for gender-related changes in future editions of the New International Version (NIV).

“2. The present (1984) NIV text will continue to be published. There are no plans for a further revised edition.

“3. IBS will begin immediately to revise the New International Readers Version (NIrV) in a way that reflects the treatment of gender in the NIV. IBS is directing the licensees who publish the current NIrV to publish only the revised NIrV edition as soon as it is ready.

“4. IBS will enter into negotiations with the publisher of the NIV in the U.K. on the matter of ceasing publication of its ‘inclusive language edition’ of the NIV.”

A gender-neutral text already completed by the CBT was published last year in England by Hodder and Stoughton.

Draper said the four-point IBS action “addresses the concerns shared with them in the May 19 meeting here at the Sunday School Board. This decision reflects their responsiveness to those who have been most supportive of this translation. I am particularly grateful for these actions in light of our long and positive relationship with IBS.”

The IBS statement noted: “The four-point IBS policy statement effectively eliminates incorporation of gender-related language revisions in any NIV Bible licensed by IBS to Zondervan Publishing House (ZPH), North American publisher of NIV, and Hodder & Stoughton, publisher of the NIV in the U.K.”

The IBS statement said the IBS action “includes IBS entering into negotiations with the U.K. publisher of the NIV regarding cessation of its inclusive-language edition of the NIV, of which 5,000 copies are currently in print.”

The statement quoted IBS board chairman Oliver, however, as saying, “Because our relationship with independent publishers in the U.S. and in other countries is contractual, we can request, but not dictate, that they respect our sense of responsibility as caretakers of this rich translation.”

IBS President Dunberg noted in the May 27 statement: “We deeply care about the concerns of church leaders, scholars and Christian readers who favor gender-related language changes. However, this decision comes from our internal conviction that to move ahead would cause division within the body of Christ and therefore compromise our mission to serve the Church in the U.S. and abroad.”

Also in the IBS statement, Bruce E. Ryskamp, Zondervan’s president, was quoted as saying he nevertheless believes in the NIrV. “We stand behind the NIrV as the most accurate translation available today for children and for adults for whom English is a second language,” Ryskamp said. “We respect IBS’ decision, as the issue is one of language preference. It is a distinction without a difference in meaning between Bible versions. The NIrV we publish gives clear, accurate and easily understood expression to the timeless truth of God’s Word.”

A spokesman for Zondervan was unavailable for comment May 27 on whether the publisher still might use the NIrV in its children’s devotional Bible.

As late as May 14 in a joint statement, IBS and Zondervan said they were planning to “continue to move forward with plans for the possible publication of an updated edition of the present NIV,” while also remaining “unequivocally committed to continue to publish” the current NIV text “without any changes or revisions.”

Zondervan and IBS said May 14 they “never have considered, nor ever will consider, any changes in the NIV text that would use feminine pronouns to describe the deity or deny the masculinity of Jesus. Nor would we approve any changes that would diminish or eliminate the divinely ordained uniqueness of men and women. No changes will be approved that are contrary to the original biblical text in any way.”

The Zondervan/IBS statement at the time also volunteered a “rigorous review process will include consultation with biblical scholars, theologians and church leaders representing the evangelical tradition and will be subject to final approval by the Board of Directors of IBS.”

Southern Seminary’s Mohler, reflecting on the controversy, underscored “the trust of the church in Bible translations.

We recognize that the Bible was written in Hebrew and in Greek. But we should be able to have confidence in those translations which seek most faithfully to translate the original language into the contemporary language without serving these other agendas. … There are issues of translation in which we can look to a text and ask the question, ‘What does the original text really intend to say here?’ But that’s been going on for centuries.”

The current debate, however, “was looking to those texts where masculine words are used and saying there are those who believe that we ought to include women here in the text, or we ought to avoid any gender specificity whatsoever,” Mohler said. “There will always be serious translation issues related to how exactly a passage should be translated. The issue here was intentionally designing a translation to serve this politically correct purpose. Now I also think I need to say that Zondervan and IBS made very clear that their motive was not to serve that agenda. But my concern all along has been that whatever the motive, the effect was to serve that agenda.”

Mohler added, “There are those who say there is a great cry out there for these inclusive-language translations. I simply do not believe that crowd exists. I think it is very small.”

Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations for the SBC Executive Committee, observed, “By definition, translation requires that thoughts and ideas be taken from one language into another. The integrity of the process is threatened by the intrusion of hyper-sensitivity and political correctness. The spirit of the age can be quite alluring, but the transcendent truth of Scripture must never be held hostage to passing fashions. Bible students and readers need to have confidence that translation decisions are driven by solid textual and linguistic principles, not by politics, nor by marketing impulses.

“The translators appeared to have opened themselves up to the charge that they had permitted political considerations to intrude,” Merrell said. “This decision by the International Bible Society has demonstrated a refreshing and reassuring level of sensibility. The concerns that were raised in the World magazine article, and subsequently, have been heard, and are being acted upon, presumably in good faith. We expect that this episode will be beneficial for the whole body of Christ.”