Evaluating a new English translation of the Bible can be quite difficult. We have such a wealth of options already accessible in our language that any new offering seems superfluous; we are jaded by the abundance. Likewise, some have a cynical view that attributes all such productions to the publishers’ greed. Then, too, translations are often controversial due to theological or social issues.

New translations often face considerable opposition if they attempt to replace long-cherished traditional versions. The KJV was bitterly opposed in 1611 by many who clung to the Geneva Bible (witness the Mayflower pilgrims!) or the Bishop’s Bible. Revisions of existing translations sometimes experience the same fate. “Keep your hands off my Bible!” is a common perspective—and perhaps for good reason in some cases. At best, this attitude could reflect long years of memorization and meditation on words that have become so ingrained in readers’ minds and hearts that they seem second nature, in contrast to which different words and phrasing seem out of sorts. However, this attitude may also simply reflect an obstinate resistance to change. Change in itself is not necessarily good. But when change can result in greater accuracy and more ready comprehension of the Word of God, at that point, inflexibility serves not to protect fidelity to Scripture, but to hinder effective discipleship and ministry.

The current occasion for such discussion is the recent release of the 2011 revision of the New International Version (NIV11). The NIV New Testament was first published in 1973 and the complete Bible in 1978. It was the only “modern” translation of the time that became widely accepted in conservative circles. In more recent years there have been many more versions, though few have achieved the widespread popularity of the NIV. The NIV was revised in 1984, making the 2011 revision the third edition.

The NIV has always been an attempt to balance transparency to the original text with ease of understanding for a broad audience, that is, a balance between formal and functional equivalence. Doing so inevitably results in some loss of transparency to the structure of the original text, but it is more than compensated by the resulting access to the meaning. According to the translation committee, “the NIV is founded on the belief that if hearing God’s Word the way it was written and understanding it the way it was meant were the hallmarks of the original reading experience, then accuracy in translation demands that neither one of these two criteria be prioritized above the other.” This has not changed in the new revision, the committee says, reporting that the vast majority of the text is unchanged from the existing NIV. Only about 5 percent of the text has changed, and most of this “involves comparatively minor matters of vocabulary, sentence structure and punctuation.” Someone who knows the wording of the NIV quite well can read large chunks of the new edition without noticing any differences whatsoever.

From our location on the timeline of English-speaking history, we can observe, if we can look past our familiarity, that our older translations do not communicate God’s inspired, inerrant revelation with the freshness they once did. This is not due to deficiencies in the translations themselves. The KJV translators sought to make their words speak directly to Tyndale’s plowboy. In their own words, “We deſire that the Scripture may ſpeake like itſelfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee vnderſtood euen of the very vulgar” (i.e., even by the uneducated).

But English stops for no one; our language has continued to change—much more rapidly during the past hundred years than it did in the 17th century. Our language has changed. That is undeniable. It is for that reason new translations appear periodically and older ones are revised. The KJV was updated a half dozen times in its first two centuries. The NIV has now been revised twice for the same purpose.

Changes in English may involve changes in English word meanings or improvements in word choice. For example, in the earlier NIV the word “alien” occurred 111 times, but that has come to be used most commonly in English to refer to an extraterrestrial being. As a result, the new NIV now uses “foreigner” (or a similar expression; e.g., Genesis 19:9). An archaic choice of wording in Isaiah 16:6 has been improved considerably by replacing “overweening” with “arrogance.” Progress in scholarship has also prompted some changes in the NIV11. For example, in Philippians 2:6 the word harpagmos was translated as “robbery” in the KJV and “something to be grasped” in the original NIV. More recent study, however, has shown that we should understand this text as it is now given in NIV11: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.

Clarity has been the aim in Philippians 4:13, where a common misunderstanding is avoided. The original NIV said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” The revision now reads, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Paul’s claim is not of an unqualified ability to do absolutely anything, but is a reference to what he has just talked about in the context, that is, being content in all circumstances.

Other systematic changes were made throughout the text. These include the use of “Messiah” for the Greek word Christos when used as a Messianic title and “God’s”/“the Lord’s” people (or something similar) in place of “saints” to avoid the usual connotation of special holiness (especially in a Roman Catholic sense). The conjunction gar, “for,” is more often included in the text now compared with the earlier NIV, which often left it untranslated for reasons of English style. The vast majority of the sort of changes illustrated here are, in my opinion, very good ones that contribute to understanding the Word of God in English.

The NIV and Translation Theory

To paint with broad strokes, there are two general approaches to translation: formal equivalence and functional equivalence. Formal equivalence is a translation approach that seeks to reproduce the grammatical and syntactical form of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language. Thus, for each word in the donor language, the same part of speech is used in the receptor language and, as much as possible, in the same sequence.

Functional equivalence, by contrast, focuses on the meaning and attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, even if doing so requires the use of different grammatical and syntactical forms. Although the form may differ in functional equivalence, the translation functions the same as the original in that it accurately communicates the same meaning.

These two approaches are not to be thought of as mutually exclusive categories. All translations include both formal and functional equivalents; there is a spectrum with formal equivalence on one end and functional equivalence on the other (see the diagram on the next page). Any individual translation may be judged to use a greater or lesser degree of formal or functional equivalence and thus fall on a different part of the translation spectrum. The diagram shows one possible view of such relationships among translation philosophies.

The NIV attempts to balance both approaches, occupying a middle position between formal and functional. The NIV11 does not appear to differ significantly from the 1984 edition in this regard. The two most popular alternative translations in the marketplace, the ESV and NLT, take their respective positions closer to either end of the translation spectrum relative to the NIV. The ESV is somewhat more formal, the NLT much more functional.

Due to the advocacy of the ESV by both its publisher and some well-known users who promote it, the ESV is sometimes viewed as more accurate or more reliable than other translations due to its supposed use of formal equivalence. But there is a surprising amount of functional equivalence in the ESV, far more than one would suspect from reading the publisher’s PR material. Indeed, some of the best features of the ESV are those places where it has done just that. (See my review of the ESV in the Baptist Bulletin, May/June 2009.) Advocates of formal equivalence argue their view is more consistent with verbal inspiration, but this misses the point that verbal inspiration is important to ensure that God’s revelation was accurately inscripturated. No translation is able to match the words and syntax of the original because English communicates meaning very differently from Hebrew and Greek. Translations can communicate the meaning accurately, but they are not inspired; that is a characteristic only of the original text.

If every association or denomination produced its own translation, the matters discussed in this article would be quite different. English translations, however, have not been done that way. They have always been produced for large swaths of the church. Over the past century this has typically been for Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, or evangelical use. Relatively few “one-person” translations have been published in English. None of these have ever become a “standard” translation, and they have seldom been used by churches. Instead our English tradition has been that of translations by committee—committees deliberately comprised of a range of denominational and theological perspectives. Every major English translation that has been widely used during the past 400 years has been prepared by just such a committee. The intent of such a structure is to produce a translation that is usable by a majority of churches and that does not cater to one particular perspective. This has proven to be a wise approach. I might like to have a Baptist translation (one that makes the Biblical basis for my Baptist heritage very clear!), but some of my gospel-preaching friends in other traditions would surely prefer one with Methodist or Presbyterian distinctives!

This background is relevant to the discussion of the NIV11, since we must ask, For whom is this translation intended? The Committee on Bible Translation, responsible for the NIV, is comprised of a multinational, multidenominational group of 15 scholars who represent a wide spectrum of conservative evangelical theology. Yet within this group are premillennialists and amillennialists, Calvinists and Arminians, Reformed and Baptist, etc. In any of these doctrinal positions there are texts that could be translated in such a way as to make the preferred interpretation appear to be the only (or at least the more likely) conclusion. We may like to think that our own theological system is certainly the correct one, but more careful reflection suggests that such a conclusion is inevitably overstated. It is therefore wise to prepare our standard translations so as not to prejudice disputed questions.

If a translation is intended to serve conservative, evangelical Protestants, then it is only fair that all major positions have a balancing input. We have recognized this in terms of millennial systems, denominational polity, and even soteriology. We draw the line when a position becomes nonorthodox. The question comes where other positions are judged to be in relation to the evangelical constituency. Is it possible to hold with integrity to the inspiration and authority of Scripture and not agree with, say, the doctrinal position of the GARBC? Since we are not, so far as I know, proposing to prepare our own Regular Baptist Version, we need to expand our doctrinal criteria for what is considered acceptable in a translation beyond the GARBC Statement of Faith. Since we recognize as bona fide Christians others who would not be comfortable as part of our fellowship, the potential doctrinal positions that should be allowed input to the translation process must be a wider circle than our own.

The NIV and Gender Language

Another group of changes in the NIV11 involves gender language. Changes have taken place in English in this regard. Some originated from feminist pressure and others did not. Some of these have prompted strong reactions. We joke about “politically correct” language, and some English teachers campaign against other changes. Regardless of how the change has come about, however, our language has changed. The feminist advocacy for such forms as “s/he” have not found a place in our language, while other changes have become a regular part of the English language, even the awkward use of “he or she.”

Almost all recent translations, including ESV, HCSB, and NET, have begun to reflect these changes. Here are a few examples. The ESV includes a marginal alternative for most instances of “brothers” (adelphoi) in the Epistles: “or brothers and sisters” (e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:8). The HCSB translates 2 Timothy 3:13, “Evil people and impostors will become worse”; the Greek text has anthrōpoi, traditionally translated “men.” The NET Bible in John 6:31 says that “our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness,” in contrast to older translations, which typically refer to “fathers” or “forefathers” (hoi pateres). The NIV in the 2011 revision has begun to use the same type of language.

Bible translations that make such changes may be suspected of complicity with the feminist agenda. The CBT has been clear on its motivation for changes in the NIV11. The group points out that 95 percent of the NIV11 is identical with the 1984 NIV. Where there are changes, they are due to one of three factors: changes in English, progress in scholarship, or concern for clarity. If we take the CBT at its word (as we should), concern for a social agenda is not indicated. When change in gender language is involved, it almost always involves the first item: changes in English. Why English has changed is not the issue; rather, the CBT has made such changes only where it has determined that English has, indeed, now changed. These revisions are not an effort to influence change or to appease a feminist agenda.

How was change in English usage determined? With the NIV11, the translators have taken special pains to address this question. Rather than relying on personal observation or recommendations of various style guides, they commissioned a study of gender language by Collins Dictionaries based on the Collins Bank of English—a 4.4 billion word database of English usage worldwide. By doing so, they have been able to document the actual changes that have taken place in general English usage. Where there have been clear shifts in usage, the CBT has made similar shifts in usage where it is appropriate to accurately reflect the meaning of the original text.

The principle involved in the NIV11, as is the case with a number of other evangelical translations, is that wording in the donor language that is not gender specific should not become gender specific in the receptor language. The issue involved is not if some form of inclusive language should be used, but what specific types of language are legitimate and how extensive they should be. I suspect that all translators would agree in principle that the goal in translation is to represent the reference of the donor language in regard to gender language as accurately as possible in the receptor language. That is, if the Bible makes a statement that refers to men and women, the translation should do the same to the extent possible. The rub comes not in agreeing with the principle, but in deciding exactly where such reference is used.

Some decisions in this regard by translators have proven controversial. The use of “they” or “their” as a singular form in place of the traditional “generic he” is one such change that has drawn criticism, but the Collins Report has documented that the use of “they”/”their” is now far more common usage in English than “he” when used generically. English teachers shudder, but the average English speaker appears to have shrugged off those dictates and gone happily on their way. (Did you even notice the pronoun I just used? If you are an English teacher in the Boomer generation or older, you probably did, but your younger contemporaries likely didn’t even bat an eye!)

A similar issue has been raised regarding the use of “people” or “human” in place of “man” or “mankind” in generic contexts (usually as a translation of anthrōpos/oi). The Collins Report shows that this usage predominates by 70 percent versus 10 percent. Consider Romans 5:12 in NIV11: “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” You will notice that “man” occurs once when the reference is specific to a male (Adam), but that “people” is used when the reference is to both men and women. The goal is to make the translation as general or as specific as is the original text. Some have argued that this is legitimate only when the Greek word is plural and that singular forms must always be translated as “man, but that is a rule that makes consistency quite difficult. (Try it in 1 John 3:13–17!)

The translation of gender language in Scripture in recent evangelical translations, particularly in the NIV11, is an attempt to express accurately the meaning of God’s revelation. Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss (two members of the CBT) make this point in How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth, noting that the NIV does not advocate “the blanket replacement of masculine terms with inclusive language. This is not about gender ‘neutrality’ (as some have claimed), but about gender ‘accuracy.’ The goal is not to eliminate gender distinctions in Scripture, but to clarify them”—“to reflect as accurately as possible the original meaning of the text. Gender accurate versions seek to introduce inclusive language only with reference to human beings and only when the original meaning included both sexes.”

Criteria for a Good Bible Translation

What makes for a good translation? We might evaluate such a question on the basis of accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and appropriateness.

If accuracy is defined as communicating God’s revelation in such a way that what God intended us to understand is, indeed, understandable as intended—the meaning is successfully conveyed—then I would rate the NIV11 (as the older NIV in its time) high in terms of accuracy overall. By taking a mediating position between formal and functional equivalence, the NIV has been able to produce a text that is clearer than many translations, especially those weighted more heavily with formal equivalence. If we are serious about making the Word of God a vital tool in the lives of English-speaking Christians as well as an effective tool in evangelism, then we must aim for a translation that communicates clearly in the language of the average English-speaking person. It is here that the NIV excels.

Is the language of the NIV11 natural? The questions of clarity and naturalness are related. Clarity asks if a text can be easily understood. Naturalness asks if the translation communicates in the receptor language using expressions that would be used by a receptor-language speaker. In other words, is this the way an English speaker would say it? This is what makes the NIV sound much more natural than many other translations.

Is it appropriate? I cannot give a simple answer here, since there are too many variables in any given church. Based on many years of using the NIV and my initial exposure to the NIV11, I would suggest that the new NIV is still one of the more versatile choices. It not only communicates the meaning of God’s revelation accurately, but does so in English that is easily understood by a wide range of English speakers. It is as well suited for expository preaching as it is for public reading and use in Bible classes and children’s ministries. I think a case could be made that a translation like the NIV11 is one of the better choices for an all-around tool for ministry, supplemented for serious Bible study by translations that flank the NIV on either side of the translation spectrum.

No Translation Is Perfect

Every translation of the Bible ever produced in any language is a human production, and is not perfect. No translators have been superintended by the Holy Spirit in the way the original writers of Scripture were. The original text was inspired; translations are not. Thankfully most translations are reliable and accurate, despite their differences. The differences are not usually matters of error, but of variations in how the meaning of the original text is expressed in English.

There are some warts in the NIV11. All translations have warts, in that some portions of any translation will disappoint us. Of course, what disappoints you may not disappoint me! Some of these differences are simply matters of English phrasing. New translations and revisions usually have some infelicitous expressions that are corrected in the next revision. (See Philippians 3:10 as a possible example of this in NIV11.) These are small warts.

Most translations have a few larger ones as well. The question then becomes, How many warts are tolerable? How big are they? Where are they located? It is possible that a single translation wart, if it is large enough and ugly enough, and especially if it is located dab on the front of the translation’s nose, could be judged serious enough to cause one to look for another suitor.

The bigger warts in the NIV11 include Romans 16:1 and 2, in which Phoebe is described as a deacon—potentially problematic in some churches, but that depends on the function of deacons in a particular church. Likewise, 1 Timothy 2:12 now says that a woman is not to “assume authority over a man”—a translation that goes back to the Reformation, but one that is different from recent English translations. In Romans 16:7 we find Junia (a woman’s name) to be “outstanding among the apostles.” Most warts of this sort involve difficult issues of word meaning (1 Timothy 2:12) or textual criticism (Romans 16:7). Most have marginal notes that give alternate translations.

In texts with multiple issues such as these, it is precarious for a translation to attempt to resolve all possible implications, and it is certainly not appropriate methodology to decide what is acceptable translation based on preconceived theological positions. As always, the text must determine our theology, not our theology the text. A recurrent problem with criticisms of the NIV11 is the expectation that a translation should do more than it is possible to do. Not all issues can or should be resolved by translation, especially one translation. Many of the questions raised are those of the Biblical languages and can best be discussed in that context. Readers without such ability dare not lean exclusively on any one translation. Even if a church has adopted a standard translation (and that is wise for consistency in ministry), readers must be taught that careful study of difficult issues requires the use of multiple translations. They need to know that all translations will have some warts. One of the pastor’s primary ministry roles, after all, is that of teacher. He must train his people how to think about such translation issues and how to compensate for them.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The results of the new revision of the NIV appear to me to be justifiable and in almost all cases helpful. Yes, there are a few warts (as any translation has), but I do not think they are of sufficient quantity or seriousness to detract from the far greater gains in clarity (in all areas) in the NIV11.

Is the NIV11 a viable, usable translation in Regular Baptist churches? My judgment is that the NIV11 is a usable translation in many situations, one that some of our churches will continue to use effectively. It continues the NIV tradition largely unchanged, though improved in many small ways across the breadth of the canon. It is not perfect. No translation is. Overall, however, it is an improvement of an otherwise fine translation.

Rodney J. Decker (ThD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa., and a member of Northmoreland Baptist Church, Tunkhannock, Pa. See a longer version of this review at the author’s website:  www.NTResources.com.