Information on the 2011 NIV

By T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 2011 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

The year 2011 was a time when the New International Version of the Bible had a subtle makeover, one which many Christians probably missed unless they were paying close attention or, like myself, stumbled on the information. In February of 2011, I saw a blog post from that noted that “Zondervan recently published a brand new edition of the NIV, replacing both the 1984 NIV and the TNIV.” That caused me to do some digging and produce a series of posts for my own blog during that month, and it seemed a good idea to bring most of that information together and make it available here.

Previous NIV rewrites


For those who may not know or remember the history of the NIV after its publication--we can forgo for the purposes of this post its history up to that point and the criticisms leveled against its now decommissioned incarnation, including some very hard-to-dismiss critiques from Leland Ryken--, it would be well to recap. It was in 1995[1] that a full revamp of the NIV appeared, called the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition and published only in the United Kingdom. The problems with this revision were noted early by the Trinitarian Bible Society, but a March 1997 piece in World Magazine by Susan Olasky threw the issue into high relief with this opening:

"Say goodbye to the generic he, man, brothers, or mankind. Make way for people, person, brother and sister, and humankind. By the year 2000 or 2001, if the 15-member Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)--the NIV's controlling body--has its way, the 35 percent of American Bible buyers who prefer the NIV will not be able to buy a new copy of the version they trust."

Writing in Christianity Today a few months later, Doug LeBlanc quotes the outraged Kenneth Barker, NIV translator and secretary of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), saying he would "never consent to another interview by Susan Olasky or anyone else connected to World magazine," on the grounds that they had "simply done too much unwarranted damage to the NIV, the CBT, Zondervan, and IBS [the International Bible Society]." However, Mr. LeBlanc reported, the IBS responded to "hundreds of complaints about proposed gender-related revisions to the New International Version" by canceling all its revision plans.

Of course that seems to have been a temporary truce, judging from the fact that TNIV, or Today's New International Version, had its New Testament published in 2002 and a complete Bible in 2005. To say that it was greeted with something less than acclaim would be quite the understatement, despite heavy promotion. It too was condemned for "gender-neutral alterations." Nevertheless, it did find a loyal readership, which are apparently going to be left high and dry by the newest NIV, since Biblica, the "worldwide publisher and copyright holder" over NIV/TNIV, has announced that they "will not be releasing any new products in either the 1984 or TNIV texts after the updated NIV has been published."


Many, many “mistakes”


Oh, but have they ever learned their lesson, they now say. Of course they did say they learned their lesson back in 1997 when Dr. Kenneth Barker, NIV translator, signed the Colorado Springs Guidelines alongside Dr. James Dobson. And in 2002, when the CBT's Ronald Youngblood said, "The purpose of CBT is to translate the Bible into contemporary language....We are not catering to any group. We do not have any kind of social agenda." But now they really get it. From Christianity Today's Live Blog, Sept. 1, 2009:

"In announcing a major revision of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society and Send The Light, or IBS-STL) CEO Keith Danby said decisions surrounding the release of the NIV inclusive language edition and the 2002 revision, Today's New International Version (TNIV), were mistakes.

"'In 1997, IBS announced that it was forgoing all plans to publish an updated NIV following criticism of the NIV inclusive language edition (NIVi) published in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly, some of the criticism was justified and we need to be brutally honest about the mistakes that were made,' Danby said. 'We fell short of the trust that was placed in us. We failed to make the case for revisions and we made some important errors in the way we brought the translation to publication. We also underestimated the scale of the public affection for the NIV and failed to communicate the rationale for change in a manner that reflected that affection.'"

Of course the list of "mistakes" the CEO then provides might give the objective reader pause:

"'The first mistake was the NIVi,' Danby said. 'The second was freezing the NIV. The third was the process of handling the TNIV.'"

Call me cynical, but this makes about as much sense to me as a manufacturing company's CEO announcing, "Let's be brutally honest: our first mistake was to build our factory in Anytown. The second was moving our factory from Anytown. And the third was thinking we could build it anywhere but Anytown." One could reasonably say either that it was a mistake to go forward with the NIVI and TNIV--or that it was a mistake to react to their poor presentation by freezing the NIV text--but saying both classes of decision were mistakes, especially while trying a third time to get gender-inclusive language into the text, is at best rhetorically incoherent. (One could also consider it risible to term such a statement "brutally honest," but I want to be as charitable as I can here.)

Zondervan CEO Moe Girkins is also quoted as saying that "Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community," so "as we launch this new NIV, we will discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV....We are correcting the mistakes in [sic] the past." (Did she possibly mean "the mistakes of the past"? Unless, of course, you can borrow the DeLorean from Back to the Future to actually correct mistakes in the past!) She further said, "Being as transparent as possible is part of that."

Now as I said, the quotes immediately above date from September 2009 and possibly a few things have not remained quite the same in the intervening months (including Moe Girkins' status, since she's now the former Zondervan CEO--hmmm). Still, I think the claims of being "as transparent as possible" are rendered ludicrous by the planned disappearance of the NIVs in print now and their replacement by an identically entitled version. Um, no--"transparent," or at least more transparent, would be what was done in 2005 with the TNIV, where you had a clear distinction between two separate publications. As stated in TNIV's "A Word to the Reader" (emphasis mine):

"There is a sense in which the work of translating the Bible is never finished. This very fact has prompted the Committee to engage in an ongoing review of the text of the NIV with the assistance of many other scholars. The chief goal of this review has always been to bring the text of the NIV abreast of contemporary biblical scholarship and of shifts in English idiom and usage. Already in 1978 and again in 1984 various corrections and revisions to the NIV text were made. In the TNIV the Committee offers to the reading public the latest fruits of its review."

That's plain enough, and the "reading public" had a clear choice between NIV and TNIV (and it's fairly obvious what they chose). So now the public is going to be given what the publishers think they should have, a new product under an old name, in pursuit of being "as transparent as possible."

They'll also be pacified with talking points such as "In this update, about 95% of the text remains exactly the same as the 1984 NIV that it replaces." (Meaningless statistic. You could just as well say Exodus 20:1-26 are more than 95 percent the same between a standard KJV and the so-called "Wicked Bible" of 1631; it's just those three little letters in Exodus 20:14 that are missing in the latter.)

And "the CBT has a larger responsibility to the original NIV charter that requires them to monitor developments in biblical scholarship and changes in English usage and to reflect these changes in periodic updates to the text." (Oh, really? So why did it take you a quarter century to determine that this "larger responsibility" obliged you to give the new text the old text's name? Why is it that somehow you missed this "larger responsibility" when you brought out TNIV as a separate edition, "the latest fruits" of your NIV revisions?)


The mysteriously missing “mandate”


Part of the stated rationale from Biblica, CBT, and Zondervan appeals to a “mandate” that supposedly demands periodic revisions of the NIV. In the preface to the new 2011 text, for instance, we are told that

"The work of translating the Bible is never finished. As good as they are, English translations must be regularly updated so that they will continue to communicate accurately the meaning of God’s Word. Updates are needed in order to reflect the latest developments in our understanding of the biblical world and its languages and to keep pace with changes in English usage. Recognizing, then, that the NIV would retain its ability to communicate God’s Word accurately only if it were regularly updated, the original translators established The Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)....In obedience to its mandate, the committee has issued periodic updates to the NIV. An initial revision was released in 1984. A more thorough revision process was completed in 2005, resulting in the separately published TNIV. The updated NIV you now have in your hands builds on both the original NIV and the TNIV and represents the latest effort of the committee to articulate God’s unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today."

The idea that the NIV text was always going to keep changing due to some “mandate,” and that the older text was going to be phased out--especially the latter idea--, seems to me a relatively new development. Although I am fairly well read in the history of Bible translations, I remembered nothing like this being claimed before now, so I spent some time looking for some kind of historical provenance for any such “mandate.” A User's Guide to Bible Translations by David Dewey, published in 2004 by InterVarsity Press, gives not the slightest hint of a suggestion that the NIV text itself (as opposed to separate editions like TNIV) is expected to be changed. Most interesting of all is the book God's Word in Our Language: The Story of the New International Version, written by Richard Kevin Barnard and published by "Lamplighter Books" (a division of Zondervan) in 1989, an extended sympathetic look at the making of NIV from its inspiration from the efforts of engineer Howard Long to its publication, including quotes from many of the translators. Surely, here would be some kind of mention of this “mandate” had it existed before the 21st century, right? Well, in fact, no. And in fact the so-called 1984 “initial revision” cited in NIV 2011’s preface isn’t even recorded in Barnard’s book!

I'm not saying, of course, that there was no changed edition of 1984. But I think we can fairly conclude that it was relatively minor, perhaps concerned with the tidying-up of typos and small inconsistencies that had been found in the 1978 complete NIV Bible. Had it been anything more, we surely would have seen it included in Barnard's 1989 account. I have to suspect that the importance of 1984 is being rather overemphasized (to put it kindly) in NIV 2011’s preface, in order to bolster the idea—unsupported, as far as I can see, by contemporaneous documents—that the NIV text was always going to be changed on a regular basis.

At least the New American Standard's revision clearly labels it as "New American Standard Bible, 1995 update" to distinguish it from the 1977 version--which is by the way still available! Now that is "transparent." In contrast, I’d submit that what Biblica/CBT/Zondervan is doing regarding the NIV 2011, rationalize it as they will, does not meet this standard. The withdrawal of the old NIV text despite previous promises to keep it in print, and the corporate-speak of Mr. Danby and Ms. Girkins quoted above, leave a particularly bad taste behind.

When “disco was king”


Although I am certainly no fan of the NIV, and never have been, I have a certain sympathy for the people who have trusted it for so long and who are now getting a sort of "New Coke"-style switcheroo, not because they want it but because someone else decides that's what they should have. In 2005, I wrote a satire pretending to be the work of an author writing against the “NIV Only” position (lampooning the “KJV Only” name-calling of James R. White), in which I included this tongue-in-cheek passage:

"However, as refreshing and different as the NIV once was, its English is not the English that we speak in the 21st century. The NIV was translated in another time, a day in which disco was king—when Fonzie was one of the most popular characters on television—a time when Jimmy Carter was president. Gold chains and platform shoes were everywhere. Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union with an iron fist. Music lovers listened to the Bee Gees on vinyl discs and 8-track tapes. The NIV, in short, is an analog-age Bible still being used in our digital world."

I meant the reader to see that as ludicrous, since no one needs a translator to understand Happy Days, or a Chaucer-like glossary to comprehend the NIV. Unfortunately, in hindsight, that looks like it could have been a paragraph from the promotional materials for this new-new-NEW NIV publication.


Solid opinions from Trevin Wax


Surely many who go into a Christian bookstore to buy a new copy of the NIV won't even notice that what they purchased two years ago and what they walked out with ten minutes ago are not the same book.[2] But regarding those that will, consider a November 2010 post by Trevin Wax giving his reflections on the 2011 NIV. This gentleman, incidentally, is not necessarily put out by "gender-neutral translations" and says he has read through TNIV often. But he goes on to make this observation:

"The problem I see with the NIV 2011 is that the publisher (Zondervan) seems to be putting churches and church leaders in a position where they are forced to make a choice. A few years ago, upon considering the resistance from some evangelicals toward the TNIV, Zondervan assured Bible-readers that the 1984 NIV would remain available. But no such assurance is given now. In fact, the publisher has expressly indicated the desire for the NIV 2011 to replace both the original NIV and the TNIV."

Mr. Wax notes that "most evangelical churches continue to use the 1984 NIV as their common text," but that this usage will probably start to fade because of the phasing-out of the current NIV and its replacement with NIV-2011:

"Many faithful NIV readers will not overlook the differences between the original NIV and this recent revision. I don’t foresee pastors and churches quickly updating all their literature and switching to the new NIV in the coming decade. Since the old NIV will eventually be out of print, pastors and churches will be forced to make a choice. Either make the move to the NIV 2011 or move to another translation altogether."


Constant changing


Nor was the NIV the only modern translation getting changes made this year; it also was announced that the English Standard Version would be getting what the president of Crossway, Lane T. Dennis, called “a small number of word changes” in new editions of this version.  This translation, which came out in 2001, already had a previous set of revisions made tacitly in 2007 which were documented by Rick Mansfield on his blog “This Lamp.”

Given such developments, NIV and ESV readers might in fact want to think twice about binding their new editions in anything as permanent as genuine cowhide or French Morocco leather, given the rate of change being pushed on their version. Maybe something in biodegradable plastic would be more appropriate? Or possibly it's even going too far to commit the text to paper; perhaps each reader should be issued an e-book with instant Internet updates, so that the Bible can be changed on the fly by a consortium of scholars. (One can even imagine a betrothed couple of the future: "But John, I can't sleep with you before we're married; the Bible says we're to avoid sexual immorality--at least it used to say that before the latest download....OK, my bad, should we do it at your place or mine?")

Perhaps that's a bit silly, but truly, isn't there something that Christians should find deeply offensive about the idea of the Bible--traditionally considered by Christians, on the basis of what it says about itself, to be God's unchanging Word--being so mutable, so much like the morning paper or even like those historical documents that Winston Smith in Orwell's novel 1984 was perpetually rewriting?

What would Paul the Apostle and the believers of his day have thought of this? What about those for most of Christian history, such as the folks of the Middle Ages, for whom having a complete copy of the Bible would have been an almost unimaginable luxury? What of those martyrs like William Tyndale who gave their blood to put the Word of God into as many hands as possible? What would they have said about a Christian church with what Baptist minister David Dewey aptly called an "almost immoral" range of choices in English translations?

Wouldn’t they have found it bizarre—maybe even shocking—that one translation had to be updated after only a quarter century and another after a mere decade--with their revisions falling in the same year as the four-hundredth anniversary of another translation (the KJV) that, strangely enough, a lot of people still understand?



[1] For purposes of this discussion, I am also intentionally bypassing the derivative New International Reader's Version (or NIrV), based on the original NIV but written in simpler language, which appeared in the mid 1990s.

[2] Another thing to consider: all the quotations from the NIV in the last three decades, in biblical commentaries and elsewhere, that are going to cause confusion as future readers see different wording in their 2011 NIVs and, probably not knowing the history of their texts, assume the citation they're seeing is inaccurate. (For my own part, except on parts of my site like my recently revised John 1:18 page where I specify which NIV edition I am quoting, it can be taken for granted that I’m quoting from the 1978/1984 NIV.)


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