News Articles

Gender-neutral NIV revision announced; Bible society drops translation accord

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A Jan. 28 news release announcing a “Today’s New International Version” of the Bible reports that the TNIV entails a “7 percent change” from the widely used New International Version, or NIV, published by the International Bible Society and Zondervan.

What the news release doesn’t report is that the Bible society is “withdrawing its endorsement” of 1997 Bible translation guidelines that resulted from a heated controversy over IBS/Zondervan plans at the time to revise the NIV with gender-neutral language.

At the moment, it is impossible to determine the nature of the TNIV’s gender-neutral wording. According to the IBS/Zondervan news release, “To introduce the TNIV, more than 50,000 copies of the New Testament are being sent to pastors, educators and other church leaders across the United States. Copies also are being distributed this week to retailers at the trade show in Indianapolis for Christian booksellers, CBA Expo.” Otherwise, “The TNIV translation of the New Testament will be available this spring, and the complete text with the Old Testament is expected in 2005.”

The IBS shift away from the 1997 Bible translation accord, known as the Colorado Springs Guidelines (CSG), was noted in a Jan. 18 letter circulated to various evangelical leaders, including R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

The IBS now has difficulty with the part of the CSG involving “some very specific guidelines [about translation of gender-related terms] that those present generally agreed with, or at the time were willing to endorse,” the IBS letter states, referencing a 1997 meeting convened by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson in Colorado Springs.

“However, upon further review and consideration, and in consultation with other evangelical scholars, IBS has determined that many of the technical guidelines are too restrictive to facilitate the most accurate possible text in contemporary English,” the IBS letter states.

The IBS noted, with little publicity in 1999, that it was continuing to work on a new “inclusive” Bible translation reducing the amount of masculine language utilized in the popular NIV. In its Jan. 18 letter, the IBS noted that its ongoing work has been conducted “in accordance with its own guidelines and the guidelines established by the International Forum of Bible Agencies,” which encompasses “18 of the leading global translation ministries, including IBS, Wycliffe Bible Translators, United Bible Societies, Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), New Tribes Mission and others … responsible for more than 90 percent of the translation work done around the world [and seeking to do] uncompromisingly accurate translations in contemporary language.”

The IBS letter did not list the other guidelines nor discuss whether those guidelines address gender-related translation issues.

Among the CSG Bible translation guidelines:

— “‘Father’ (‘pater,’ ‘ab’ in the original text) should not be changed to ‘parent,’ or ‘fathers’ to ‘parents,’ or ‘ancestors.'”

— “‘Son’ (‘huios, ben’) should not be changed to ‘child,’ or ‘sons’ (‘huioi’) to ‘children’ or ‘sons and daughters.’ (However, Hebrew ‘banim’ often means ‘children.’)”

The Jan. 28 IBS/Zondervan news release noted that the 1984 NIV “will continue to be published in its current form without change, making the TNIV an additional choice in translations alongside the NIV.”

Of the IBS/Zondervan announcement of the TNIV, James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, stated that “LifeWay is committed to biblical accuracy, as seen in our new translation, The Holman Christian Standard Bible. While the International Bible Society has not specified items from the Colorado Springs Guidelines it finds restrictive, our hope is that they will remain true to accepted evangelical scholarship. We have not seen their manuscript and will withhold judgment pending a review of the translation.”

Mohler, meanwhile, stated, “The International Bible Society’s withdrawal from the Colorado Springs Guidelines is very disappointing, but not really unexpected. Rumblings of IBS discontent with the guidelines started almost as soon as the [CSG] document was released. … Many of us feared that the IBS was simply waiting for the earlier controversy to die down so they could go ahead with their plans. It seems that this is the case. They are counting on concerned evangelicals to have short memories.”

Mohler described the IBS withdrawal from the Colorado Springs Guidelines as “a retreat from a worthy agreement.”

“Since the TNIV is not yet available for review, no immediate conclusions can be drawn about the translation,” Mohler stated. But, because the IBS cited the CSG gender-related guidelines in withdrawing from the accord, Mohler said “it is fair to assume that they intend to release a gender-inclusive translation.”

“The talk about gender-accurate translations is evasive,” Mohler said, “for no one who loves and respects the Bible would accept anything less than total accuracy as the goal of translation. The real issue here is a desire to update Bible translations to meet modern gender concerns. This is unavoidably ideological,” he said, noting that the Colorado Springs Guidelines “protected the interest of gender accuracy.”

“Evangelicals must respect the priority concern of accuracy in Bible translations. No one who understands the issue believes this to be easily accomplished,” Mohler said. “We all understand that language changes over time, and evangelicals are rightly concerned to have the Bible available in understandable translations. That is not the real issue here. It is surely no accident that those who champion a feminist agenda will cheer the announcement of the TNIV. The moment we begin to translate the Bible so that it will be less offensive to one group or another, we insult the very character of the Bible as the eternal, inerrant and authoritative Word of God.”

Ken Hemphill, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, also voiced caution about any attempt to bring Scripture in line with the ever-changing culture.

“We must always be careful taking the cultural climate of our day into consideration when retranslating Scripture because culture will change again. Our mission is not to make the Bible relevant to culture but to bring culture under the rubric of Scripture. It is the parameter under which we work,” Hemphill said. “If we as translators and theologians change our view based on what is politically correct, we are going to have Bible translation changes all the time, which, I think, is confusing to the reading public. I don’t think it would be a wise move to go against the guidelines evangelical leaders set in the past for translations.

“We believe very much in the authority of Scripture and the inerrancy of God’s Word,” Hemphill said. “We believe that the Bible was revealed by God to men, that it is verbally inspired, and that the very words are important. Those words, no matter what they are, are important to us.

“Obviously when gender refers to God, there is not an issue. We don’t change that. We don’t make it relevant. For us, God is not going to be addressed as ‘mother’ or in general as ‘deity.’ In times when Scripture says that God spoke to his sons, we understand that he is speaking to all those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Savior. That can certainly be communicated to an audience [of males and females] that God’s promises, his blessings, are for all of his children who come under the relationship with his Son. I don’t think it is as confusing as Bible translators want to make it,” Hemphill said.

As he has preached across the country in “chapels, small churches, large churches, college campuses … I never found this to be an offensive issue,” Hemphill said. “If you are sensitive to the audience, clear in your application of the message, and if there are restrictions in the text where male and female is mentioned, if you exegete it honestly, it will be clear. There are legitimate ministry opportunities for male and female. While we believe that there are certain restrictions, it doesn’t mean that God’s Spirit doesn’t pour out on all flesh.”

Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said, “I am appalled but hardly surprised at the revelation that the International Bible Society is pursuing its longstanding goal of a so-called ‘inclusive’ language version of the Bible.

“If you issued a ‘gender-neutral’ version of Shakespeare, it would be the imposition of ideology on what the English bard believed and wrote,” Patterson said. “To impose this ideology on the writings of Moses, Isaiah, John, Paul, etc. is to change what they wrote and often what they meant. It is fundamentally simply dishonest and grossly unfair to the writers of Scripture.

“Further, it is an insult to the English language and contributes to the continuing decadence of that language. Besides, what the world really needs right now is just one more Bible translation. Thankfully most evangelicals will not buy it,” Patterson said.

Concerning gender-related matters in the new TNIV, the IBS/Zondervan news release only stated, “Generic language is used where the meaning of the text was intended to include both men and women. For example, ‘sons of God’ becomes ‘children of God,’ and ‘brothers’ becomes ‘brothers and sisters’ when it is clear the original text never intended any specific gender reference.”

The Colorado Springs agreement involved leaders from the IBS, the NIV’s copyright holder; Zondervan, the publisher of the NIV; the Committee on Bible Translation, a 15-member group of scholars with authority over the NIV translation such as the revision of the text into gender-neutral language; and vocal critics of gender-neutral translation such as Dobson and leaders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Controversy erupted when World magazine, based in Asheville, N.C., reported that the IBS had decided to produce a gender-neutral NIV for the U.S. market by 2001 but had made no announcement of its plans. World’s 1997 articles appeared in its March 29, April 19 and May 3 issues. A storm of theology-related objections was raised by a number of U.S. evangelicals over changes in various passages where the words “he,” “man,” “brothers” and “mankind” typically were replaced by “people,” “person,” “brother and sister” and “humankind.”

The IBS, in an unexpected announcement May 27, 1997, said it would “forgo all plans” to revise the NIV translation. The Colorado-based 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 was a gender-neutral translation already used in a Zondervan Publishing House children’s Bible. And the IBS committed to negotiate an end to the publishing of a gender-neutral NIV text already completed by the Committee on Bible Translation and released in 1996 in England by Hodder and Stoughton.

Additionally, concerns and questions of LifeWay Christian Resources officials and Mohler were aired May 19 to representatives of the IBS, Zondervan and the Committee on Bible Translation. LifeWay has used the current NIV text in many of its Sunday school and discipleship resources and in various Bible texts and commentaries.

Also on May 27, 1997, key parties in the controversy found common ground in a joint statement and a page of suggested translation guidelines now known as the Colorado Springs Guidelines. “Specifically, we agree that it is inappropriate to use gender-neutral language when it diminishes accuracy in the translation of the Bible,” the statement, released June 4, noted, “and we therefore agree to the attached guidelines for translation of gender-related language in Scripture.”

Additionally: “We agree that Bible translations should not be influenced by illegitimate intrusions of secular culture or by political or ideological agendas.”

Among the statement’s 12 signers were Bruce E. Ryskamp, Zondervan’s president and CEO; Lars Dunberg, then-president of the IBS; Ronald Youngblood, now chairman of the IBS board of directors and a Committee on Bible Translation member; Wayne Grudem, then-president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; John Piper, a member of the council and senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis; and theologian R.C. Sproul, chairman of Ligonier Ministries.

Concerning the gender-neutral NIV already on the British market, the Colorado Springs statement noted: “… many of the translation decisions made by those who produced Hodder and Stoughton’s New International Version Inclusive Language Edition in the United Kingdom were not the wisest choices. Further, the statement in the Preface saying ‘it is often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language’ (Preface to the NIVI, vii) was regrettable and sadly misleading.”