on Bible translations (#1 )

In January I’m going to switch from preaching from the NIV to the ESV.  Keystone’s ESV fanboys and girls who have to translate on the fly while I read couldn’t be happier, but some of the NIV loyalists may need therapy.  Even my daughter is distraught because of the new NIV her mother and I gave her last year for her birthday.

The 2011 NIV has replaced the 2005 TNIV (Today’s New International Version), but I suspect it will also eventually replace my 1984 version.  Since I’m not wild about what’s just been published, I thought it might be a good time to make a change.

The new NIV did not swing the ax on all the masculine wording like the TNIV did, but it did enough to land it more in the gender-neutral class of translations (such as NLT and NRSV) than those which stick to the original rendering (ESV, NASB, HCSB).  Opting to regularly alter words from the original text is to interpret the text rather than merely translate it.  Admittedly, no translations can avoid some interpretation in what goes to print, but it’s a problem when a translation team brings an agenda to their efforts.  The result is an end-around play that violates the reader’s own interpretive conclusions and spoonfeeds him/her what the translators think. 

I’ll have numerous posts on the NIV and the ESV over the next few months, some of which will be articles by others.  The one below is by Dr. Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who is also preaching pastor of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.  His 2005 article–originally published in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood*, is about the TNIV.  Some of the same concerns appear to remain in the new NIV.

I Want My NIV: Gender Issues, Bible Translations, and the Rise of Evangelical Individualism
by Russell D. Moore

A gender-neutral Bible translation would never have flown in my home church. Actually, no Bible translation would have made it long, except one.  I grew up in a KJV-only church. It is not that my congregation defended the King James Version as the only inspired text. Nor did we disparage other translations as deficient. In truth, we did not really know there were other translations. Everyone had always used the old King James, from the five-year olds memorizing verses for “Sword Drills” to senior adult ladies crocheting texts to hang in their living rooms.

There were, of course, many drawbacks to this one common text, drawbacks that explain the need for contemporary translations. But in moving beyond this era, we must admit that we have lost something. A pastor could say “and the glory of the Lord shone round about them” in virtually any context, and the congregation would know exactly to what he was referring. As teenagers, we read and meditated on the same texts our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had worked through in the generations before.

That era is now long gone, and I do not really want it back. I do not usually preach from the King James Version (although I love it), largely because we now have translations that are more accurate, translating the original words of God into contemporary language that unbelievers and believers can understand. What I do want back, however, is the sense that the Bible forms the church, and, thus, that the Bible belongs to the community—not just to the individual.

My Own Personal Bible
This evangelical individualism explains much of what is going on in the current debates over “gender-neutral” Bible translations such as Today’s New International Version (TNIV) and The New Living Translation (NLT). For too long, we have assumed that the Bible is primarily about individual Bible study and personal devotion. Thus, our publishers give us niche Bibles in every possible variety—Bibles for sportsmen, Bibles for teens, Bibles for middle-aged women, even Bibles bound in leather, the color of one’s favorite sports team.

It is perhaps not insignificant that many of the more “gender-accurate” Bible translations originated in attempts to produce a children’s Bible version. For generations, evangelicals have sought to mediate the Scripture to children via “story Bibles” and even animated videos that convey the “important” nuggets of the Bible—often by robbing children of the narrative flow of Scripture itself. When this happens, the result is most often a Christian moralism tailored especially for children: “Jesus shared; you share.”

This phenomenon is grounded in an even deeper contemporary evangelical commitment to the individual as the locus of God’s saving purposes. Our understanding of the church so often seems simply like a place where individuals can learn how to be a better Christian, and where individuals can pool their money together for missions.

And so, supporters of the TNIV make the case that a “gender-accurate” translation is necessary so that little girls can see that the text is written to them—and not just to “men.” It is tempting for those of us who are opponents of such translations to focus only on translation principles, or on the theological implications of tampering with the meaning of the texts. But, beyond this, we must ask a more basic question: Where is the church in this discussion?

Reclaiming the Bible for the Churches
As evangelical Protestants, we do not believe that the Bible is formed by the church, but that the church is formed by the Bible. That is, the church does not invest the Scriptures with their authority. Rather, the church recognizes and is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20 ESV). Nonetheless, the church is given the responsibility to be “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15 NASB). Christ Jesus has given to his church pastors and teachers who are to guard the church from error and to protect the flock of God from dangerous wolves.

Contemporary evangelicalism, however, looks too often to parachurch ministries and publishers for this function, often corporations with accountability to donor boards rather than to churches. Thus, publishers flood churches with curricula—and the Bible translations to go with them—often then shaping the “personal Bible studies” of church members, with little or no accountability to the larger Body of Christ. The Christian individual then makes decisions about doctrine, and the words of the Bible itself, not on the basis of faithful teaching from the pulpit, but from the recommendation of a local bookseller. It is in this context, and only in this context, that the TNIV could emerge.

Thankfully, there is in some segments of evangelicalism a recovery of the church’s role in teaching and preaching, including in the arena of Bible translation. When the TNIV was released, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) immediately expressed concerns about the translation philosophy behind the new version. The SBC messengers, sent from churches all over the country, moreover, directed its LifeWay Christian Stores not to sell or recommend the TNIV.

This is a healthy development—and not only because it takes seriously the verbal plenary inspiration of the Scriptures and, thus, the importance of accurate Bible translation. It is healthy precisely because pastors and church leaders are talking about Bible translation. What must come of this, however, is not just a general denunciation of “gender-neutral Bibles.” Instead, we must get at why our people want gender-neutral Bibles—because we live in a gender-neutral society.

That means that churches must do more than simply warn against bad Bibles. We must instruct our people what the Bible is all about—what Jesus told us on the road to Emmaus: It is all about Christ (Luke 24:27). This is the reason, after all, that the apostle Paul speaks of the Roman, Galatian, and Ephesian believers—both male and female—as “sons” of God. They are “in Christ”—and find their identity in him. There is a reason why passages about the righteous “man” in the Psalms should not be translated in the plural—because there is no plural group of righteous ones, only one righteous Son of Man.

In order to drive our people back to the glorious truth of the Bible’s focus, we must stop treating our Bibles and our biblical sermons as though the individual believer is the sum and substance of Scripture. We do this with endless “how-to” sermons and moralistic lectures from Scripture. Instead of pointing believers to their identity in Christ, we point them right back to their personally tailored Bible translations with a personally tailored message for them. In this context, a gender-neutral Bible is inevitable.

If, however, churches take seriously the task of instructing believers in the importance of all the words of Scripture—and applying its meaning to the whole body of believers—then perhaps our churches will be less susceptible to whatever fads blow in from Grand Rapids or Downers Grove. This might mean that the Christian seeking a Bible might go first to his pastor’s study, and only then to the bookseller. And that would be a very good thing.

[*additional articles on gender issues from a biblical perspective are available at http://www.cbmw.org.]