Vern Poythress and the NIV 2011

Posted: July 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

The SBC passed a resolution that was critical of the updated translation of the NIV only a couple of weeks ago.  I have been intrigued by the debate surrounding the issue since that time.  Bible translation is an interesting topic to study and one that is not without a level of complexity.  Which means there are a number of opinions that one must wade through.

When I saw that Dr. Vern Poythress had weighed in on the current debate, I was eager to read his thoughts.  He is a superb theologian and convincing writer.  I have benefited from a number of his books on difficult topics in the past and was confident that he would be helpful yet again.  I was not disappointed.  His analysis of the gender-neutral language in the NIV 2011 was most enlightening.

Dr. Poythress starts out by quickly tracing for the reader the history of the NIV.  Starting in 1973 and moving through today we have seen a number of updates and editions to the NIV translation.  The gender-neutral issue has come up before with this particular version of the Bible.  In 1996 a British edition known as the “New International Version Inclusive Language Edition” was produced.  A year later it seems that a similar version of the NIV was being explored for the United States edition.  However, according to Poythress, “A storm of protest ensued, and the International Bible Society (now renamed Biblica) and Zondervan Publishing Company backed away from their plans.”  In 2002 the issue would resurface as the TNIV (New Testament portion only) was introduced.  By 2005 we have complete Bible in the TNIV.  After more controversy, the NIV translator’s would yet again undertake a revision.  The result is the NIV 2011.

There are of course multiple issues that surround the new NIV edition.  The most prominent, however, seems to be the issue of gender-neutrality.  The newer NIV versions seem to be moving towards language that mutes the gender specific language found in the original manuscripts.  This is the issue that Dr. Poythress directs his efforts towards in this particular critique (although there are other issues I am sure he may want to raise).

Before moving into the critical part of his essay, Poythress first acknowledges that the NIV 2011 is an improvement over the TNIV that caused a ruckus back in 2002 and 2005.  Since the main issue centers on the use of masculine terminology in referring to human beings, that is where focus is placed throughout the essay.  Passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:28, Acts 20:30, Psalm 34:20, and others are shown to be places where the NIV 2011 improves on the TNIV.  For these improvements, Dr. Poythress applauds the work of the translation committee.

There are, obviously, many points of concern that Dr. Poythress raises.  The biggest issue is the “problem with plurals.”  A good deal of energy is spent showing the reader how the NIV 2011 presents inaccuracies and inconsistencies while undercutting the reader’s ability to understand the force of a number of passages.  A big concern surrounds the ability of the Bible reader to connect passages Christologically when gender-neutral language is employed. 

For instance, Dr. Poythress writes at length about the problem with Hebrews 2:4-8 in the NIV 2011.  In the newer version the gender-specific language is replaced with gender-neutral language.  This was immediately disconcerting to me as I see this passage in Hebrews, being a quotation of the OT, as a place where Jesus is clearly pictured.  When the language is muted it becomes almost impossible to clearly see Jesus and catch the intending meaning.  Not to mention the inaccurate rendering of the pronoun (“him” is changed to “them”).  A major concern is the undercutting of the Messianic expectation that Psalm 8:6 is pointing us towards.  The writer of Hebrews brings this out but is muted by the NIV 2011 and other translations that would follow the example.

Dr. Poythress goes on to show his concerns by giving more specific examples like John 14:23, Proverbs 16:17, Luke 16:13, and others.  He also shows how the translation committee’s translation notes within the NIV 2011 are not entirely accurate.  The NIV 2011 translation committee states that “using plurals instead of singulars to deal with generic forms was avoided.”  Dr. Poythress responds, “Yet all the verses from Proverbs that we have cited above involve exactly the kind of change that this quote describes and that it claims the NIV 2011 avoided.”  Poythress will go on to look at passages that use the phrase “that person” as well as challenging the statistical language data that was used by the committee in helping them decide the best word to use in certain situations.

Dr. Poythress gives a helpful summation of his thoughts in two paragraphs at the end of his essay.  Allow me to pull out a quote that makes his overall feeling of the NIV 2011 crystal clear.  “Overall, the NIV 2011 translation appears inconsistent or uneven…The result is a disappointment, and will not please those who want consistent accuracy.”

There is much study that I still need to do on this issue.  Bible translation and translation philosophy is not a simple subject.  I have not put the time into researching and studying the issue that I would like.  Therefore, I am unable to speak with any amount of authority.  I do however feel this way:  In a translation I want the text, the text, as closely as possible, that flowed from the hands of the inspired writers.  It does not seem to me (or others like Poythress, Piper, Grudem, Ryken, etc.) that a translation such as the NIV gives me that.  And when gender-specific language begins to be muted, when obvious pronouns begin to be cast aside, I take a cautious position about endorsing or personally using such a translation.

For me, I’ll stick with the ESV.   

NOTE:  One of the most helpful books that I have read on the issue (although it was written to defend one particular translation philosophy and punch holes in another) is Understanding English Bible Translation:  The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach

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