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Concerns by Baptists remain over gender revision of NIV

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Concerns of a number of Southern Baptist leaders in a controversy involving the New International Version translation of the Bible were unchanged by a May 14 announcement by Zondervan Publishing House that it is “unequivocally committed to continue to publish” the current NIV text “without any changes or revisions.”
A joint statement by Zondervan and the International Bible Society (IBS), publisher and copyright holder, respectively, of the most popular modern English translation, responded to a rising tide of criticism from a number of evangelicals of a gender-neutral translation Zondervan is expected to introduce in the United States by the year 2001.
“I am encouraged by the decision that has come from Zondervan to maintain the present NIV,” stated Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson. “But I continue to be totally baffled both by their determination to push the inclusive-language NIV in the next century.”
While committing to continue publishing the current NIV, Zondervan and the IBS in their news release acknowledged they will “continue to move forward with plans for the possible publication of an updated edition of the present NIV.” It is that edition that prompted World magazine to report on the efforts of the 15-member Committee for Biblical Translation (CBT) to revise the NIV to allow for gender-neutral language.
An NIV Inclusive Language Edition is now available in England from the NIV’s British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton. In that edition, the words “he,” “man,” “brothers” and “mankind” are typically replaced by “people,” “person,” “brother and sister” and “humankind.”
The Baptist Sunday School Board uses the NIV text in many of its Bible commentaries and study resources, and Ted Warren, its executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a May 15 statement, “We are concerned about the proposed gender-neutral version. We are in the process of gathering facts and identifying their implications before we consider options about the continued use of the current NIV.”
Though the NIV has been the pulpit choice of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Mark Coppenger since 1983, he said he is sorry to see Zondervan making gender-related revisions. “In my judgment, the NIV has held up well in the study and communicated pointedly and gracefully in public readings. I’ve trusted the translators, some of whom were my colleagues at Wheaton,” said Coppenger, a former faculty member at the Illinois college.
“Now my trust in the curators is eroding,” he stated. “However pure their motivation, it seems that they have sought to improve on God’s communication skills, making his speech less awkward and more fetching.”
Coppenger said he believes human limitations prevent mortals from writing the Bible just as it was written. “We would have tidied it up one way or another,” he suggested. “This impulse to tidy seems to have seized the Committee on Bible Translation. I would urge them to sit quietly until it goes away.”
Zondervan and IBS claim to be committed to “the faithful communication of God’s Word,” noting the NIV was introduced in 1978 and revised in 1983 “to improve accuracy and readability of the English rendering of the original texts, reflecting new archaeological findings, current biblical scholarship and shifts in English language use.”
The news release said Zondervan and IBS “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.”
Patterson, however, said he views the information provided by Zondervan and IBS as “apparently inaccurate,” noting there is no need for speculation since the British edition provides evidence of their approach in translating passages relating to deity.
Citing changes in the translation of 1 Timothy 2:5 which says in the present NIV version there is “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” Patterson quotes the British inclusive-language edition as stating, “There is one mediator between God and human beings, Jesus Christ, himself human.”
“Apparently Jesus’ manhood is now offensive to the translators,” Patterson said, describing the change as reflecting what he sees as Zondervan’s reputation for “championing the feminist cause.”
Noting the British publisher of the gender-neutral edition of the NIV is independent of Zondervan, the statement by Zondervan and IBS said the British version will not be published in North America.
The Zondervan/IBS statement 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.”
Zondervan’s U.S. release of a devotional Bible for children last year nevertheless may give a clue as to how the publisher will proceed in revising the popular NIV edition. In the New International Reader’s Version (NIrV), more easily understood words were substituted for the 6- to 10-year-old market. Though the CBT did not produce the NIrV, several members are credited with making it possible.
Zondervan’s introduction to the NIrV says the publisher wanted it to say “just what the first writers of the Bible said,” utilizing the best and oldest copies of Hebrew and Greek texts for reference. Nowhere in the children’s Bible or the promotional literature is a reference made to gender-neutral language being used.
Instead of referring to God as making “man in our image” in Genesis 1:26-27, Zondervan’s NIrV quotes God as saying, “Let us make human beings in our likeness.” And while the Hebrew word “adam” is properly translated “man” in Genesis 5:2, the NIrV again prefers “human beings.”
Gender-neutral language is substituted along with forced pluralization throughout the NIrV, with phrases such as “blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” in the current NIV’s translation of Psalm 1:11 replaced with “blessed are those who obey the law of the Lord.”
The prediction of Christ’s crucifixion in Psalm 34:20 is changed from, “He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken,” to, “He watches over all of their bones. Not one of them will be broken” in the children’s version.
World magazine publisher Joel Belz said such revisions are “a clear example of an arbitrary change which deprives the reader of the richness of Messianic prophecy. Who knows how many other places this same kind of deprivation occurs?”
Although Belz credited Zondervan with showing restraint by stating its refusal to use feminine pronouns to describe deity, neuter the masculinity of Jesus or change the divinely ordained uniqueness of men and women, he maintained that such responses miss the mark. “The point is, they have changed other words not because the text demands it, but because a particular cultural agenda, in this case modern feminism, suggests it.”
Zondervan officials objected to World’s characterization of a revised NIV as having inclusive or gender-neutral language, calling such terms “negative and politically charged.” Zondervan’s director of corporate affairs, Jonathan Peterson, told World, “We intend in no way to advance a particular social agenda or stray from the original biblical texts. We have never identified with these phrases nor will we ever.”
Belz said, “While aiming in the right direction,” the Zondervan/IBS news release “still falls significantly short of satisfying what millions of people who have trusted the NIV for two decades really want to see its publishers do.”
Belz said Zondervan’s stated hesitation to publish an inclusive-language version of the NIV for adults is “confusing” when it has already published an inclusive-language version for children. “If it is wrong for R.J. Reynolds to hook teenagers on cigarettes and other tobacco products, which it is, it is even more wrong for a venerable company like Zondervan to market to children a version of the Bible it has qualms about marketing to adults,” Belz said.
Belz said Zondervan’s responses to World’s reporting “have been general in nature, but have totally failed to point to a single error.”
Since only two of the original 15 committee members of CBT remain since the translation work was begun in 1965, Belz has challenged “the officers of Christ’s church to act like the officers of his church” in setting standards for acceptable translation.
Adding the “statements should come with the authority of broadly based churches, not just from some other independent agency,” Belz suggested in a recent editorial the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America and other denominations rise to the challenge.
Speculation has surfaced that Southern Baptists may address such standards in the form of a resolution at the upcoming annual meeting of the convention in Dallas, June 17-19.
Zondervan officials have acknowledged finding themselves in a position of damage control as the issue of a revised NIV has gained widespread national attention. “It could certainly have a chilling effect on sales of NIV,” predicted Bill Merrell, vice president of convention relations for the SBC Executive Committee, in an interview with the Raleigh, N.C. News and Observer.
Larger issues also are at stake: “Nothing less than the integrity of the Word of God is at stake,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The issue is whether we accept the revealed, inerrant and infallible Word of God on its own terms. Or whether we, claiming modern sensitivities, will seek to revise the language in order to avoid offending persons on a number of issues.
“The Bible is not the only historic document we’re talking about here,” Mohler said, asking, “Are we going to do the same thing to the U.S. Constitution? Are we going to go back to the Declaration of Independence where it says that ‘All men are created equal’ and revise it to say, ‘men and women?’ … (A)re we going to go back and revise the entire canon of our literature and thus take away all of its specificity, take away all of its character, take away all of the romance of the language, take away all the poetry and prose, take everything out just in order to make sure that we don’t offend anyone … ?”
Mohler said he believes an underlying agenda is directed at the Bible because it is divine revelation. “What you have is persons claiming, ‘The only way this can speak to me is if it addresses me on terms I will accept.'”
Belz said, “What is enormously at risk is giving to the translator the freedom to change God’s words because of the pressure of any current cultural trend. Already there are evangelicals who want biblical justification for the right of two committed homosexuals to live together in a monogamous marriage. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a little further editing of the biblical text could be used for such a justification. Or for any of a long series of other behaviors that now seem totally improbable to us. That is why we say it is not, right now, primarily the issue of feminism which we are debating, but the issue of proper translation of God’s Word.”

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  • Tammi Ledbetter