Does your church have a “pew Bible?” Through a generous gift years ago, an anonymous donor in our church gave hundreds of copies of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible so that everyone who comes to our church would be able to read from the Bible where they sit each and every Sunday morning for worship. What a great gift it is to have a copy of God’s Word at your fingertips!
The problem is that we use the 1984 edition of the NIV…. and the version’s publisher, Zondervan, is no longer printing copies of the 1984 NIV. So what is a church like ours to do if you want to get a new pew Bible?
Ah, so we enter into the world of contemporary Bible translation controversy. The controversy, though a bit nerdy for many in some respects, is important because lovers of Jesus are also lovers of Holy Scripture. We want to make sure we get God’s Word right!
Part of the philosophy behind the translators of the NIV is that the version should be re-evaluated over time to account for changes in the English language in order to make God’s Word more accessible to more and more people. Unfortunately, the English language has undergone some significant changes in recent years, and some efforts by newer versions in the NIV tradition have been met with resistance from some of the classic NIV 1984 original supporters. The current version of the NIV, completed in 2011, has now found growing competition from other newcomers to the English Bible translation field, such as the New Living Translation (2013, most recently), but primarily from the English Standard Version (2011, most recently). What is the story behind the controversy?
And In One Corner, Weighing 1.6 Pounds…..
A little history is in order. For many centuries, the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible ruled the roost when it came to English Bible translations. However, changes in the English language and the discovery of older manuscripts in the 19th century prompted efforts to revise the veritable KJV. After some early attempts at a new translation, in the United States in the 1950s, the National Council of Churches produced a major revision of the KJV, introducing the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. But while the RSV was well received among mainline Christian churches, many conservative churches resisted some of the changes that came along with the RSV.
The New International Version was birthed in this effort to provide a more evangelical alternative to the RSV that nevertheless would capture an interdenominational spirit behind the new translation. The NIV would also be a more flexible translation, having a more thought-for-thought approach to the text than a more literal word-for-word approach, yet without going as far as the rather free paraphrase versions of the Bible. Hundreds of conservative Bible scholars from a wide variety of churches and denominations spent years in developing the NIV. The first completed version of the NIV came out in 1978, with the last major revision in the 20th century coming in 1984. The NIV became a huge success, outselling all other contemporary English versions.
Nevertheless, there was another crowd that still liked the more literal tradition of the KJV and RSV, but they still thought that the RSV needed some tweaking to make sure that evangelical doctrine was being clearly upheld. In the 1990s, Crossway Publishers eventually gained permission rights from the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 edition of the RSV to serve as a base for a new English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV operates with a different translation philosophy from the NIV.
But ever since the efforts to seriously update the NIV began in the 1990s, opinions were split among evangelical Christians. Some have appreciated the NIV attempts to capitalize on newer scholarship and a better understanding of how the English language has changed over the recent years. Supporters of the newer NIV revisions consider the changes to be clearer and more accurate to the 21st century audience. On the other side, supporters of the ESV have thought that the NIV changes ironically have taken away from the accuracy of earlier NIV 1984. These supporters of the ESV have sensed that modern changes in language have become intertwined with ideological biases that threaten the integrity of Christian doctrine, thus undermining the intended efforts of the NIV 2011. In particular, the most controversial issue is over the claim that the NIV 2011 succumbs to a “gender inclusive” approach to language that tacitly approves of a feminist bias that is contrary to fundamental Christian belief.
Learning From the Debate
So, how does one evaluate the different positions regarding the ESV and NIV 2011 discussion among many Christians today?
In a clear and cogent fashion, it helps to hear the different sides of the debate regarding the various benefits and disadvantages of using the ESV vs. the NIV 2011. Along the way, you can learn about the philosophies behind different translations in general, not just the ESV and the NIV 2011.
Below are two excellent presentations that describe the issues very well. The first presentation is by Wayne Grudem, a theology professor at Phoenix Seminary, who is a scholar on the ESV translation team. He argues for the benefit of using more word-for-word translations, like the ESV, for use as a pew Bible and for personal study.
The second presentation is by David Whiting, lead pastor at Northridge Church in Connecticut, explaining why his church recently decided to use the NIV 2011 as a pew Bible instead of the ESV. Both presentations last about 50 minutes each.
For me, I like both translations, the ESV and the NIV 2011. People should read from a variety of translations whenever possible so that you do not get stuck in one particular approach, even if you find certain elements of another translation as being less appealing. Nevertheless, it can get cumbersome lugging around stacks of different translations to your small group Bible study! (Of course, you could just download multiple copies of different translations to your phone, tablet or laptop!)
Furthermore, having more than one pew Bible in your church can get pretty expensive. Picking a pew Bible is really important, so it is really valuable to take the time to hear both sides of the debate. After watching the presentations, I made a preliminary conclusion based on what I heard and took some notes that you might find helpful.