Navigating the ESV vs. NIV 2011 Debate

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.

Some Preliminary Conclusions to the Debate:

My own assessment of the different positions described is a mixed one. If you only heard one side of the story, it would be very easy to come to just one conclusion. But having heard both, I can to see advantages to both viewpoints. Dr. Grudem’s point is well-taken that the NIV 2011 in numerous places makes a decision to render a passage in a gender-inclusive manner which does introduce unnecessary confusion into the text. However, he fails to bring out the point that pastor Whiting showed where in other places the NIV 2011 does bring out a more clear and accurate rendering of the text, without any directly identifiable ideological bias, whereas the ESV got stuck in needless and confusing gender distinctions. Neither translation is perfect.

On the whole, I agree with the conclusion brought out by D. A Carson in The Inclusive-Language Debate: A Plea for Realism.  “All translation is treason,” to a certain extent, but without translation we have no access to God’s Word. Those who push the anti-feminist rhetoric who are tempted to blame the NIV 2011 for the collapse of Western civilization need to cool it. The fact that there are a number of complementarian scholars on the NIV translation team who oppose the concept of having women as church elders should be sufficient enough reason to demonstrate that the NIV 2011 does not have an inherently feministic bias. That is just a bunch of hooey.

At the same time, I concur with Dr. Grudem that a more literal, word-for-word translation is preferable to a more thought-for-thought translation when doing serious Bible study. The word-for-word translations have more staying power. The reason why the KJV has endured as long as it has is because of its preference for the traditional word-for-word approach. In my view, the ESV clearly stands within that more enduring tradition.  The current English Standard Version will surely outlive the current NIV 2011. So if I had to make a choice between a more enduring translation as opposed to a more understandable translation that has to be adjusted continually over time, I would go for the ESV.  The ESV will last you a lot longer than the NIV 2011.

But when it comes to having a pew Bible, specifically, it really is a toss up. I would generally lean towards the NIV 2011 only because the NIV 2011 would be more accessible than the ESV to the non-churchgoer that enters your church for the first time. But then, you might have to replace your pew Bibles more often with the NIV. If someone is that bothered by the NIV 2011 or the ESV, they should be mature enough to be bringing their own Bible to church anyway.

Additional Resources:

First, for some more background, I found this post by Andy Naselli referring to some posts by scholar Daniel Wallace in his review of the NIV 2011 to be exceptionally helpful, as well as this earlier article by Daniel Wallace (including a review of the NET Bible).

Here are a few notes of ideas I took away from each talk.  Regarding the enduring power of words, there are archaic words like behold that have drifted out of normal English vocabulary. However, modern substitutes like look lack the same sense of awe and amazement, such as in John 1:29:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (ESV)

Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (NIV 2011)

I will take the more eloquent ESV rendering over the flat reading in the NIV 2011 any day. Grudem makes a good argument here.

What about this one? The word walk conveys the metaphor of the Christian life as a spiritual journey, as in 2 Corinthians 5:7:

…for we walk by faith, not by sight. (ESV)

For we live by faith, not by sight. (NIV 2011)

The NIV 2011 choice of live makes more sense to the modern reader. However, the idea of the Christian life as a journey is lost in the NIV 2011 rendering of this verse.

On the other hand, some rather archaic terms in literal Bible translations can be misleading. Take saints for example. The English saints comes from the Latin sanctus which literally means “to set apart” or “to make holy.” The context of saints in the New Testament refers to the community of believers, where people are on all different stages of their spiritual journey, not some spiritual elite. But today, saints has acquired a slightly different meaning. I can think of saints as a football team, or as a bunch of highly respected dead, Catholic people, but does it clearly demonstrate saints as speaking of ordinary believers?

…To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi… (ESV)

…To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi… (NIV 2011)

In the above translation of Philippians 1:1, as well as in multiple other places that use the same Greek word, “haggios,” the NIV 2011 God’s holy people not only makes better sense, it delivers a more accurate meaning than the ESV. Thanks to pastor Whiting for pointing this out.

Anyway, there is the infamous “gender inclusive” issue to consider. Consider Nahum 3:13:

Behold, your troops are women in your midst. The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies; fire has devoured your bars (ESV).

Look at your troops– they are all weaklings… (NIV 2011)

In the ancient world, women typically did not serve as soldiers, an idea preserved in the ESV. It is not really clear from the ESV what the reference to women means in this verse. Does it mean that contrary to traditional practice, the troops actually included women?  Or is it that the term women is meant as a kind of insult comparable to the weaklings that the NIV 2011 chose?

Is what the NIV 2011 does here really necessary? The problem is that the NIV 2011 over-interprets the verse to the reader, putting forward a particular interpretation that is not definitely required by the text, all in the name of being “gender inclusive” in accordance with contemporary English usage. It would have been better if the NIV 2011 included the reference to weaklings in a separate explanatory footnote, as opposed to imposing it within the text of Scripture. The fact that the ESV leaves some interpretive ambiguity in the text is more desirable. It forces the reader to consider the possibility of a variety of alternatives in understanding what is being read. The temptation to impose a particular interpretation within the text is a real problem for any translation that adopts a thought-for-thought philosophy, such as the NIV 2011.

On the other hand, holding to a traditional rendering can be confusing. The literal translation from the Greek of brothers is what you would normally think: brothers. But  it is also appropriate to affirm that it could mean brothers and sisters, as the NIV 2011 does here in Hebrews 3:12.

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God (NIV 2011).

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God (ESV).

Yes, the NIV 2011 takes a broader, more inclusive view, but this puts the ESV in a rather odd position. Does the ESV imply that somehow the sisters were “off the hook” when it comes to an unbelieving heart leading you astray? That would be rather silly, but the ESV seems to naturally raise that absurdity.

What is the point here? Again, to summarize: All translations have their advantages and disadvantages. None are absolutely perfect. If at all possible, try reading in multiple translations instead of just one. I like both the ESV and the NIV 2011. But if you had to pick one, particularly for a pew Bible, then pick whatever suits the needs of the community. If readability is the aim, go for the NIV 2011. If in-depth study is the aim, go for the ESV.

Otherwise, if you can not decide on a pew Bible, I guess you could just run around and stockpile old copies of the NIV 1984 🙂

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

13 responses to “Navigating the ESV vs. NIV 2011 Debate

  • John Paine

    I’ve been really enjoying the online version of the NET Bible (at net.bible.org). It is extremely well done, faithfully rendered, and transparent. The notes are particularly helpful when putting the words of the Bible under the microscope. Great post. Thanks!

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  • dwwork

    Clark, I agree that we need to read more than one translation as any translation needs to make choices with the English words used to translate the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic words. As to the best translation, I feel it is the one a person will read. No translation does any good sitting gathering dust. Have a blessed day, David

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    • Clarke Morledge

      Thanks, David: Like I tell folks, people should use whatever they feel comfortable with, and yet I still encourage them to find out about the different options available, understanding the various strengths and weaknesses.

      Like

  • dwwork

    Reblogged this on Reasons For The Hope Blog and commented:
    A great look at Bible translations and Bible translation from the guys at Veracity. Enjoy, David

    Like

  • davidmcdonnoughfaithblog

    Clarke,
    Thanks for what had to be time-consuming work on your ESV/NIV article. I agree with you regarding the use of the translation you’re most comfortable with. I’m a whole lot more interested in folks just reading their Bible, period.

    For what its worth, I recommend seekers use the NLT, and more mature Bible-students pick a more formal equivalency translation such as the ESV or NASB. I’m partial to the ESV largely because Bill Mounce was also my seminary resource for Koine Greek. Well done!

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    • Clarke Morledge

      David, thanks for dropping by Veracity.

      Bill Mounce is great. I am mostly familiar with him through his work with BiblicalTraining.org.

      I would agree with your recommendations. At first, I was a bit prejudiced against the NLT because it was the “Son of the Living Bible,” which in my view has an overwhelming dispensationalist/Arminian bias to it (I tend to read the Living Bible more as a commentary from that perspective), but I have been really impressed at how much more irenic the NLT is, still acknowledging that it is less literal than the ESV/NASB flavors. I am partial to the ESV, too. It remains to be seen if the ESV has enough momentum going for it to supercede the NIV.

      I have thought about this a lot, since until the last ten years or so, the NIV has pretty much been the “default” translation in most evangelical circles I travel in. But the explosion of new translations, while it has the prospect of helping people become more aware of the challenges faced by Bible translators, I think it also could lead to more fragmentation within evangelicalism, which in my view is a serious problem.

      Clarke

      Liked by 1 person

  • davidbrainerd2

    NKJV is better than both NIV and ESV.

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    • Clarke Morledge

      David, Thanks for visiting Veracity.

      Why do you say that NKJV is better than both NIV and ESV?

      I am curious.

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    • davidbrainerd2

      The ESV I think has two major flaws: (1) its inconsistent stylistically, part RSV part KJV, part NRSV/NIV type paraphrase. Its very hard to read because I feel like its a hodgepodge of multiple translations (a work or plagiarism really). The NKJV has a consistent style. And that style is superior to the NIV, in that I absolutely hate how the NIV does the gospels. I hate the novel style of introducing quotes. Stuff like “Why do your disciples” exclaimed a Pharisee, “not wash their hands before eating?” Ugh. Annoying. I like the style of introducing the speaker first. It works a lot better for reading in the pulpit, but its also less distracting when reading in general. (2) the ESV is a more liberal RSV. Why they based it on the RSV I don’t know, but its not a more conservative RSV but a more liberal one. Yes the RSV was “liberal” in some translations of verses where it chose the less Trinitarian variant and the ESV has changed that (but so has the RSV Catholic Edition). But the RSV didn’t have gender neutral language, and the ESV does, so its a light revision of the RSV for the purpose of (yes bringing Trinitarianism back in a few places, but also) introducing gender neutral liberal language. NKJV does not suffer from this defect. Then (3) there is the fact that I like having all the verses. Thank you very much translators but I’ll determine which variants are right or wrong myself. And the NKJV has fairly extensive footnotes noting the differences between the Textus Receptus, Majority Text, and UBS texts. They don’t mention them all, but almost all of the truly major ones. Its the only translation where you can basically have all 3 Greek texts represented in one English translation; its like having a slightly abridged UBS apparatus in English. No other translation does that.

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    • davidbrainerd2

      For me another point against the NIV and ESV would be the lack of capitalizing the word LORD when it occurs in the NT inside OT quotations where in the Hebrew it is the Tetragram.

      Like for example Matthew 22:44. In the KJV/NKJV “The LORD said to my Lord…” NIV/ESV “The Lord said to my Lord…”

      I realize they can justify it by saying “Well, the Greek just says Kurios and Kuriw” but typically Bible translations have been expected to be more scholarly and take the OT into account. I’m certainly not fond of this dumbing down of the Bible, this rejection of Biblical literacy, and almost Marcionitish treatment of the Old Testament in the NIV/ESV. (We have the LORD in the OT, but just Lord in the NT, what, is this Marcion’s two gods or something?) In this case even the NLT beats the NIV/ESV.

      On the other hand, I don’t particularly like how the NKJV capitalizes pronouns when they think they refer to deity. And its not a case of disagreeing with their choices so much as it just being annoying, since when I see a He my brain tends to think its a new sentence for a moment. I do read the NIV sometimes, in the Old Testament mostly because it would annoy me too much in the New Testament…but the ESV, I don’t see the point…might as well just read the RSV and correct it back to KJV-ese myself if I want.

      If the ESV had been a true modern updating of the ASV, I would have liked it. The NASB of course claimed to be that, but wasn’t. Its a new translation. It It claimed to be to keep the waning ASV in memory by updating it. But then it changed Jehovah back to LORD in the Old Testament whereas the ASV had used Jehovah consistently. It reverses many of the text critical decisions of the ASV back to the TR…the NASB was very ill conceived with respect to its claims to being the ASV updated into modern English. The ESV could have been precisely that, but like the RSV before it, they were power mad with changing things that didn’t need to be changed…maybe that’s why they used the RSV as the base to begin with.

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  • Peter

    The author’s the slight confidence in the staying power of ESV over NIV is based purely on the translation philosophy and not on what people buy and use. The KJV has been a gift to the English speaking world; however, I think its endurance should not be credited primarily or solely with its translation philosophy! Certainly there are other very significant factors for its endurance.

    The NIV began with a NT in 1973 and then with the whole Bible in 1978, and was unchanged from 1984 to 2011. The ESV came out in 2001 with significant updates in 2007 and 2011. At home I read the NIV because the language and syntax are generally clearer. I sometimes take my 2011 ESV to church and hear my pastors teach from an earlier version of the ESV. The NIV has been the top selling Bible worldwide for decades now. Nevertheless both the NIV and ESV are beaten out by the KJV not in sales but in use. To me a good translation is faithful and is one people can understandably read, listen to, believe in, and obey and then teach others to understandably read, listen to, believe in, and obey.

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  • Clarke Morledge

    Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:

    My local church here in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Williamsburg Community Chapel, recently announced that we will be moving to the English Standard Version (ESV) for our pew Bibles, by this coming summer. A lot of people love their NIV (I still do!), but with the unavailability of the 1984 edition of the NIV, it forces a lot of churches to make a difficult decision. I am reposting my research on this very important and timely topic….

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