Some time ago I wrote about choosing a Bible translation for public use in church. At my church, St Michael’s Cathedral in Wollongong, we’ve decided to go with the 2011 version of the New International Version (NIV11), recently published by Biblica (a.k.a. the International Bible Society). I’d like to follow up on my previous article to tell you about our decision, and why.
Why do we need to change translations?
Our current translation of our pew Bibles in the cathedral is the NIV, last published in 1984 (NIV84). This Bible translation has undergone a major overhaul, with 5% of the text changed in NIV11 from NIV84.
As a result, we are told the ‘old’ NIV will no longer be published. Already it is getting harder to buy NIV84 when you go to a Christian bookshop. In addition, our pew Bibles are gradually wearing out – thankfully from good use – as there are two and even three Bible readings at each of our four Sunday services. This means that sooner or later, churches will have to decide which English version they will adopt for our public reading and preaching of Scripture.
As a Cathedral church for the region, we could also argue we have an extra responsibility to set an example of how to think through this issue.
What was the process in coming to a decision?
The main aim of my previous article was to encourage ministers in particular to help their churches make a decision via a careful and proper process. Here were my points on how churches might choose wisely, which we have tried to follow.
- We decided not to rush, to take something like 12 months to decide. And I and others have now been thinking on this issue more than that.
- We narrowed down the options. For me it was HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) and NIV2011. Despite our church’s reasonably high education level, like many other churches, I have judged that the ESV (English Standard Version) is too hard for public reading, with too much archaic language and many clunky sentence structures. HCSB and NIV11 are a good mix of accuracy and readability.
- Pastoral staff used both options side by side and started to form impressions, from personal Bible reading, study and public use.
- I involved others, especially leaders in the parish, since it should not be the Minister’s (potentially idiosyncratic) decision alone. Certainly this became a frequent topic of discussion among staff and also others.
- Since a church Bible is for reading aloud, not just silently, we ensured the options got tried out for public reading. Both the morning and evening congregations got the chance to hear the HCSB used for all readings during one series, and then the NIV11 for the next, and we supplied the sermon text week by week in the bulletin. We gladly received feedback from members across the congregations. It is fair to say that there was no decisive weight of feedback one way or another.
- I searched out academic reviews, and refused to rely on celebrity endorsements (or criticisms). I found a range of helpful material on the internet, e.g. from Rod Decker, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, as referenced in my earlier Briefing articles. Since then I have continued to consult academic review material as it appeared. I have also personally consulted a number of faculty members of our own diocesan theological training institution, Moore College, for their advice.
- We considered portability. It would be good to select a suitable translation that gains wide acceptance around your circles, rather than another good option that only a few choose. This is a harder one for us, since we at St Michael’s have begun the process ahead of most others.
- We considered the matters of continuity. People get very attached to the Bible translation they have grown up with, and often even memorised. So if a new translation offers some continuity with that, all the better.
- We considered the important gender issue, but tried not to make it the only issue we used to assess the translations. Where the old NIV had none, the HCSB has a mild gender inclusivity, (e.g. ‘person’ for ‘man’, where it’s generic). The NIV11 is more gender inclusive than HCSB, but not as much as the controversial TNIV. Notably, it used research from the Collins Dictionary organisation to argue its case.
Why are you recommending the NIV11?
Leaving aside the matter of gender for a moment, from both the staff’s personal study and also from the academic reviews, it is widely agreed that NIV11 is an improvement on NIV84. Better lexicographical information has come to light from the ancient world, and better insights has arisen into the art of translation. Other improvements include such things as the restoration of some important little connective words, like “so”, “as”, “for”, or “then” left untranslated by the old NIV. In addition, some of the old NIV’s language from the 70s and 80s is out of date. E.g. an ‘alien’ then was a foreigner but is now an extra terrestrial from outer space! Although there is always an element of subjectivity, an extensive, book-by-book analysis by scholars of Wisconsin Evangelical Lutherans reported improvements out-weighed poorer choices by two to one ratio. So NIV11 is an improvement over NIV84.
In terms of the HCSB, we did see some idiosyncratic drawbacks, such as inconsistent translation of terminology like Christ or Messiah in the NT, Lord or Yahweh in the OT, good news or gospel in Romans, along with capitalization of pronouns for deity, etc.
However, we would be glad to see it (and the ESV) used at St Michael’s in personal work and study. And I completely respect those in other churches, who adopt either of these excellent translations as their ‘pew Bible’.
In terms of a comparison between HCSB and the NIV11 (and other translations), an analysis by evangelical Southern Baptist lecturer Dave Croteau over a wide variety of test passages and issues rated the HCSB and NIV11 as almost impossible to split and ahead of other candidates, (with ESV also close).
Evangelical blogger, Tim Challies, explained why he preferred a translation on the more literal end of the spectrum, such as the ESV, to one on the paraphrasing end. Now sometimes, the NIV has been spoken of as ‘dynamic equivalent’, moving some way along to the other paraphrase end of the spectrum. But notably, on Challies’ range of test examples, both the NIV84 and NIV11 were usually similar to the ESV, rather than CEV or NLT. It is fair to conclude that the NIV is a fairly conservative translation that is closer to the formal end of the spectrum.
On gender, I have written here before that, in general, I find the NIV11 to be a notable improvement over the controversial TNIV, and although at points I would prefer alternate renderings I find its use of gender inclusive or gender neutral language to be within the bounds of acceptability. It’s worth noting that a fair reading of the controversial verses in question, e.g. 1 Timothy 2:11-15—even in the NIV11—will still sound very strange and conservative to a newcomer brought up in the feminist modern world.
John MacArthur is a hugely influential North American preacher for several decades now, influential before John Piper or Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll. His preference for word-by-word exposition is well known. He also shares a conviction that the gender distinctions in Scripture are precise and deliberate and should be kept intact. But notably Pastor MacArthur was willing to publish his strongly selling Macarthur Study Bible notes in an NIV11 version.
“No matter what version of the Bible people are reading, I want to be able to help them understand the meaning fully and accurately. The NIV is the most widely used translation in the world, with millions of users. Some prefer it because they find it easier to read than other translations. All English versions of Scripture have translation problems and ambiguities. That’s one of the major benefits of a good study Bible. The notes and other tools built into the volume can highlight and clarify the proper meaning—or at least give a more precise understanding of what the original text actually says. My prayer is that these insights and explanations, together with the acclaimed readability of the translation, will help illuminate the true meaning and unleash the divine power of Scripture for NIV readers.”
John Woodhouse, Principal of Moore Theological College, gently suggested to me that perhaps I have been too scrupulous on this issue, placing too much emphasis on getting it exactly right which translation to use. E.g. MTC uses different translation each term in their chapel to emphasis to their students that a variety of translations are well within the bounds of acceptability. So we should not fall into the trap of thinking one is clearly better than all the others. So although for reasons of practicality and consistency in our public gatherings, we need to make a choice, his words reassured me as we selected a new pew Bible translation and encouraged me to praise God for several good options.
However, the NIV has been the Bible translation that a couple of generations of evangelical Christians have almost uniformly grown up with. So one very large factor in favour of adopting NIV11 is in the continuity it provides, since NIV11 keeps 95% of the text of the original NIV. Familiar memory verses and the scriptural echoes that rattle round in your head will normally be unchanged. So in the end, our research suggested that NIV11 was an improvement over the old NIV, of approximately equal quality to the HCSB, and that there were no features sufficiently poor to rule it out. It’s the NIV11 for us from here.