Sometime soon every church that uses the New International Version for their public reading and preaching of Scripture will have to decide on a new English version.
As most people now know, the NIV has been updated by their Committee for Bible Translation. The new NIV text (hereafter NIV11) has been available electronically since late 2010, and in new hard copy editions since early 2011. The NIV copyright holder Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society) and Zondervan (the exclusive North American publishers) have decided that now the NIV11 has been published they will no longer print further copies of the 1984 NIV, nor of the controversial and divisive TNIV.
Over the next couple of years it will become progressively harder to purchase the NIV84 (or the TNIV), unless you find a store with old stock. In my region of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney (where I serve), almost every parish has been using the NIV.1 So it affects lots of us.
It’s fine to use a variety of English translations for our own private study and edification. Also in some small groups of sufficient experience and educational level, the use of multiple versions can bring additional insight. But the big question is this: how do you decide which translation to go with at church? It’s a big decision, which we must live with for a generation, as we can’t afford to change every few years.
The first criterion I mention is readability, though not necessarily first in importance.
We are blessed to have many choices, and in the English-speaking world most options available come to us with high levels of scholarship, albeit with different translation philosophies. One of the prime matters these philosophies affect is readability.
In this article I’m especially addressing evangelical churches, where we place a high premium on the verbal inspiration—so accuracy matters in the translation of the words of the word of God—and where, by and large, we are fairly middle-class and book-friendly. I’m focusing on people who have been educationally and philosophically comfortable using the NIV84. What are the alternatives as it disappears?
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the ESV, even though it can be seen as more accurate and is certainly more ‘literal’ than the NIV.2 A key reason is readability. In the small groups, congregations, and conferences where I have heard both translations read, I hear people stumbling far more often when reading from the ESV than when reading from the NIV.
Clearly some congregations can cope with more literal translations like the ESV. Excellent, if this is your case!3 However, I caution that sometimes leaders in a church are at the higher end of the educational spectrum, and project their own ease with harder literary constructions onto everyone else.
We may wish general reading abilities were higher. But we need to work with reality. For me (and I serve a middle class parish right next to a university), my subjective judgement is that the ESV is an educational step too high for too many people in our congregations and among those we wish to reach in terms of reading ability. For this reason, I am not persuaded it’s a frontrunner for where we should turn.
In terms of an accurate translation which is sufficiently readable, I see two realistic and live possibilities: the NIV11 or the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible).
The HCSB is pitched at a similar level as the NIV11 in the spectrum between essentially literal and dynamic equivalence. My judgement so far—and I notice others have made similar assessments4—is that the HCSB is a little further along the spectrum towards the literal end than the NIV. Generally it follows Greek word order a little more than the NIV (but not always). But in terms of readability, it is definitely closer to the NIV than the ESV. I will make some more specific comments about both the HCSB and the NIV11 below.
But how should we make the decision between these two candidates (and any others you consider)?
Not in a rush, nor unilaterally
Don’t rush. Unless your church’s pew Bibles are just about to fall apart, and urgently need replacing, you have a year or two before deciding.
If you leave it much longer, the decision may be made for you, because everyone who goes to buy an NIV, which they know you use at church, will soon automatically be sold the NIV11.
But in the meantime, I advise you begin the educational process:
- Advise people who do public Bible reading at services which version
of the NIV (or other version) you want them to use
- Explain that people purchasing a new Bible may want to hold off
until the decision is made, unless they are content to use a version
that may not be the one chosen for public use at church.
But please don’t rush to the decision. And don’t make it unilaterally.
One of the strengths of Matthias Media’s ‘trellis and vine’ view of ministry is the high value it places on the ‘laity’. We value the ministry of all believers, and we often have a strong and educated laity. We do not believe our churches should be captive to the whims and potential idiosyncrasies of our pastors.
So pastors should share this decision with their church members, especially the lay leadership. (By contrast, I was shocked to hear of a pastor who changed his church over to the NLT with minimal notice or consultation, even with his church council.)
That said, Bible translation is not a simple matter. There are many complex subtleties. Knowledge of the original languages is a big help, so too is theological expertise. Therefore, as pastors invite others into the decision-making process, the influence of the theologically trained ministry staff is still going to
be very high.
But that complexity should make those with the training all the more aware that it is unwise to rush to judgement. Instead we should be aiming at thoughtful and mature assessment. My contention is that before any decision to change your church’s preferred translation for public Bible reading and preaching, the church’s pastoral staff and other key leaders should use and evaluate the potential new candidate for at least six and preferably twelve months. Even if the pastor takes the most responsibility for the decision, he gets to notice how the translation is working for others.
This was my criticism of some in my area who decided to change to the ESV almost as soon as it was published, within a month or two in some cases. Most churches could not—in such a short time—have been relying on extensive assessment, by a variety of church leaders, across a range of public and private uses, with satisfactory time for reflection and second thoughts.
It’s fine to critique a new translation almost immediately if you are properly across the issues involved. But sometimes, if critiques and endorsements immediately start flying—some legitimate, some knee-jerk and half-baked—it can cloud a mature reflection process.
Ten key steps
Putting it positively, here are ten key steps for a church’s pastoral leadership in making a decision:
1. Don’t rush
At the risk of repetition, a decision as crucial as your translation for public Bible reading and preaching should not be rushed. Allow twelve months for your church to decide.
2. Narrow down the live options
For me the options are the HCSB and the NIV11 as a good balance of accuracy and readability, unless someone persuades me soon to add to that list.
3. Use both translations side-by-side
Use both translations (and any other candidates) side-by-side and start to form impressions. Take notes on key observations from your personal Bible reading, from Bible study groups, from hearing it read and preached at church.
This means that even though I did not need another copy of the Bible, I have forked out to buy copies of both the HCSB5 and the NIV11.
4. Involve others
Involve others in your church, especially lay leaders, since it should not be the pastor’s decision alone. Educate them on the options. Invite them to start thinking it through. This increases ownership of any eventual change, which is so important since our translations can be very dear to us.
5. Trial the options for public reading
Remember a church Bible translation is for reading aloud, so ensure your candidates get trialled for public reading, not just silent study. A pastor might use the HCSB for one series and then the NIV11 for the next. You would supply the text week by week in the weekly bulletin (or on the projector). It means that his preparation will (hopefully) be grappling with the Greek or Hebrew behind the English, and everyone will be grappling with how it sounds as a spoken text. At our church, we are also trialing both translations for the non-sermon Bible readings.
6. Trial the options in small group study
You could also trial each translation for a series of Bible studies in small groups. Alternatively, members of suitably literate small groups could try both candidates at once, perhaps half using one, and half the other. Doing so would help people notice the similarities, differences and potential eccentricities.
7. Search out reviews
Search out reviews—proper academic ones too, and not just blogs—on both the NIV11 and HCSB. In brief I have found Rod Decker, Professor of Greek and New Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary, most helpful on the NIV11,6 and Thomas Nass, Professor of Hebrew at Martin Luther College, most helpful on the HCSB.7
And please don’t just rely on celebrity endorsements (or criticisms). Much as we respect them, we are in a dangerous situation if we simply rely on what favourite pastors or admired theologians say. It is not always the case that celebratory endorsers have read the whole book carefully and studied it in detail.
8. Consult others and consider portability
I am not sure a radical congregational individualism on this matter is any more praiseworthy than radical personal individualism. So consult others in your circles to find out what they might be doing.
Portability across congregations is an advantage, given the high mobility of our society. One of the good things about the NIV was its very wide acceptance among evangelicals. So it might be a pity to decide to go with one of these new translations only to find out that most others in your circle have decided to go another way.
9. Weigh the value of continuity
Some have rushed to reject the NIV11. One of the reasons I have discouraged this is that the NIV has been the Bible translation that a couple of generations of Christians have grown up with across the evangelical world. So the NIV provides the verses people have memorized, and the biblical phrasings that echo in their minds.
Therefore, if wisdom judges it legitimate on other grounds, one big factor in favour of adopting the NIV11 is in allowing people to keep continuity in their Bible translation, since NIV11 keeps 95% of the text the same as NIV84.8 Weigh the value of continuity.
10. Don’t make gender the only issue
The HCSB has a fairly mild gender inclusivity, just like the ESV has (e.g. using ‘person’ or ‘one’ for ‘man’, where it’s generic, e.g. 1 Tim 2:1, 4).
The NIV11 is more gender inclusive than the HCSB or ESV, but not as radically as TNIV. This time, the NIV11 argues its case for its approach on the basis of careful research by Collins on current English use, including in evangelical literature.11
Resist making a shibboleth out of one verse. I am thinking of 1 Timothy 2:12 and the NIV11’s adoption as “assume authority” as the translation of authentein. The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood believe this translation inevitably pushes an egalitarian understanding of this crucial verse, and is enough to torpedo the NIV11.12 However, as a definite complementarian, I (and others) would counsel a little more caution.13 Everyone will find somewhere they think a particular translation gets a particular verse wrong, but it seems unwise to dismiss a translation just because of one contested verse.
If we were to do that, we should perhaps reject the HCSB also. Mark Thompson from Moore College compliments the HCSB as a “crisp, fresh translation which wonderfully conveys the meaning of Scripture” at many points. But at the point of Philippians 2:7-8, he says, “the imperfection is so serious as to make it difficult for me to recommend it at all. In fact, at least at this point it opens the door to heresy”, namely that of docetism.14
If we are to reject a translation on the basis of a misleading translation of one word in one verse, arguably we’d be on firmer ground if we selected one which goes to the most central matters of orthodoxy—namely the person of Christ in his deity and humanity—over one on gender. Better still would be to avoid making one verse the standard by which a whole translation rises or falls, at least until you’ve had a long look at the merits of all the rest of it.
I repeat my advice that we should not rush to premature conclusions.
Some notes on the NIV11
The NIV11 varies from the NIV84 in only 5% of the total number of verses. [Update: this statement is incorrect and should read “About 95% of the text in the NIV11 is exactly the same of the NIV84 text it replaces.” In a comment below, Robert Slowley reminded me that a larger percentage of verses has changed, although quite often just a word or two, or punctuation. See his resources for details.]
The Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation gives a good overview of the rationale for the changes made.15
Leaving gender aside, where the NIV11 varies from the NIV84, it mainly reflects scholarly advances in semantics and syntax (the meaning of words and phrases) over recent decades, or an abandonment of language that is starting to sound old or obsolete. Many changes make the NIV11 slightly more ‘literal’ compared to the NIV84.
In the matter of messianic prophecy, the NIV84 capitalized references in some Old Testament passages which were recognized as direct prophecies of Christ in the NIV84. The NIV11 removes the capitalization, which means they can be read as ‘typical’ statements with immediate referents in history and ultimate prophetic fulfilment in Christ (e.g. ‘Son’ to ‘son’ in Ps 2:7, 12; ‘Lord’ to ‘lord’ in Ps 110:1).
Another good thing about the NIV11 is that they have restored some (but not all) of the connectives like ‘for’16 and ‘therefore’, which the NIV84 often left untranslated, and was a point of criticism when the ESV was being promoted.
Many people disliked the NIV’s translation of sarx as ‘sinful nature’ rather than ‘flesh’. The NIV11 restores ‘flesh’ in many places, and as far as I can see, only leaves ‘sinful nature’ in a couple of verses in Romans 7.
However, the change in the Gospels from ‘Jews’ to the interpretive translation ‘Jewish leaders’ goes the other way, for the sake of avoiding anti-semitism. Likewise, the NIV11 uses the ‘Lord’s people’ or similar in place of ‘saints’ to avoid Roman Catholic notions of the especially good person. I am also surprised that the NIV11 kept the erroneous translation of ‘Greek’ as ‘Gentile’ in Romans 1:16.
But overall, so far my preliminary judgement, leaving aside the gender related issues, is that many of the changes in the NIV11 seem like improvements over the NIV84.17
Some notes on the HCSB
Its stated philosophy of translation is ‘optimal equivalence’—trying to be literal where possible, but idiomatic where needed to convey meaning effectively. As I said earlier, like the NIV, it is more readable than the ESV, but like the ESV, it’s a bit more precise than the NIV to the underlying Greek or Hebrew.20 It certainly uses modern language and avoids archaisms.
It has a number of notable features, some of which may be considered quirky. For example, HCSB consistently uses ‘slave’ for doulos, not ‘servant’. It often uses ‘instruction’ for torah not ‘law’. Both of these decisions have some scholarly support.
It sometimes uses ‘Yahweh’ rather than ‘Lord’ to translate the Hebrew tetragrammaton for the personal name of God, but it is not always obvious why it does so in some verses but not others. It is not always even consistent within the same verse (e.g. Exod 15:3; 2 Kgs 3:11) or when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament (e.g. compare Joel 2:32 with Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:13)!
It also capitalizes pronouns for God and Christ (except for ‘who’), something I am not convinced about, especially given the original Hebrew and Greek texts did not have such markers.
It uses ‘Messiah’ as a translation of christos in many passages, which some scholars now think appropriate when the word is used in a Jewish context. The NIV11 also does this, but almost exclusively in the Gospels and Acts. However the HCSB often also does it in the epistles, but inconsistently (e.g. in Colossians, compare 1:27, the “mystery, which is Christ…”, and 4:3, “mystery of the Messiah”).
The HCSB uses lots of footnotes (more than the NIV and the ESV) and also bullet notes about 150 words or phrases that are defined or described in the appendix. One reason for this is that it also uses more traditional theological terminology than the NIV11, for example, using ‘propitiation’ instead of ‘sacrifice of atonement’ (Rom 3:25), and ‘saints’ instead of ‘God’s holy people’.
Another interesting feature of the HCSB is that it uses lots of contractions, like ‘don’t’ and ‘God’s’. Perhaps this helps explain why its overall word count is lower than the ESV or NIV or even the NASB.
Another quirk of the HCSB I noted was that in Romans 1, the HCSB flips between ‘good news’ and ‘gospel’ as the translation for the Greek word euangelion (and repeats this inconsistent translation at later points in Romans). Likewise, it is inconsistent in translating dikaioō, flipping between ‘declare righteous’ and ‘justify’ throughout Romans, even in the space of a few verses.21
I think both the NIV11 or the HCSB would serve us well if either was the only live option for a new recent English translation. We are privileged to have such excellent translations.
My aim at this point is not to push for either, rather it is to avoid us rushing to premature conclusions without a significant period of collegiate use and careful research and reflection on the potential candidates.
Lastly, I commend four suggestions from Don Carson’s research manager, Andy Naselli, on how to disagree about Bible translations.22 He suggests we should:
- Understand alternate positions, and their best arguments
- Accurately articulate objections to one’s own position
- Avoid blowing the issue out of proportion
- Not despise or slander an opposing position.
- In over 50 parishes, I found only one church plant using the ESV, and one church of one parish using the NLT; another parish had reverted from the ESV to the NIV84. ↩
- I think the ESV often falls short on its own stated terms, with too much archaic language and overly complex sentence structures. And despite its claims, it fails to use the same English term wherever possible to translate the same Greek term, despite the availability of computer searches to help achieve that goal. ↩
- If you have made a different judgement about the ESV’s quality and suitability for the church you serve, and have already changed over, I am not trying to change your mind. In fact, you don’t have the problem I am referring to. You can merrily keep using the ESV! ↩
- Rodney J Decker, ‘An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version NT’, pp. 5-6. ↩
- A tip here is to ensure you buy the current edition of the HCSB. The full HCSB was first published in 2004, but there was a second edition published in 2009/10. It’s not a major overhaul, but there are many little changes, notably a large increase (from about 75 to 500) in the number of times ‘Yahweh’ is used in place of ‘LORD’. (In a similar way, the NIV, first released in full in 1978, received a minor update in 1984.) ↩
- Decker, ‘Evaluation’, full details at note 4. ↩
- Thomas Nass, ‘An Introduction to the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)’. Rick Mansfield also reviews it. ↩
- This idea of continuity through revised translations is not novel. It features in the KJV, RV, RSV, ESV procession, as well as the NKJV, by a different route. ↩
- Daniel Wallace, Professor of New Testament and a complementarian, says, “… the gender-inclusiveness of the NIV 2011 creates some problems of style and even meaning in a few places”, but he concludes, “At bottom, I think the gender issue has been overblown”. ‘A Review of the NIV 2011: Part 3 of 4’. ↩
- Interestingly, Decker notes that Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology uses ‘people’ more frequently than ‘man’ for generic references (p. 21), and almost exclusively uses the term ‘brothers and sisters’ in place of ‘brothers’ (p. 22). ↩
- ‘Summary of Collins Corpus Report’, CBT. ↩
- ‘An Evaluation of Gender Language in the 2011 Edition of the NIV Bible’, CBMW, pp. 6-7, 9. ↩
- For example, Decker, ‘Evaluation’, p. 28 (noting he is a complementarian on p. 35). Or see the report for the complementarian Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (hereafter WELS) by Paul O Wendland, ‘Evaluating the NIV11’s Translation of authente in in 1 Timothy 2:12’, p. 4. ↩
- In a blog post, Thompson notes the HCSB of Phil 2:7d, “And when He had come as a man in His external form…” (my emphasis) inadvertently suggests the humanity of Jesus was something external only, just a ‘shell’. ‘Why I don’t like the Holman Christian Standard Bible’. ↩
- ‘Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation’, CBT. ↩
- E.g. in Romans 1:16, but not Romans 1:18. ↩
- The WELS Translation Evaluation Committee’s ‘Supplemental Report for the 2011 WELS Convention’ reports that the results of a book-by-book analysis by their scholars was that of changes from the NIV84 to the NIV11, “Significant improvements outnumbered the significant weakenings by a factor of nearly two to one, while modest improvements outnumbered modest weakenings by a factor of three to one”, p. 5. ↩
- You can read the publishers’ information. ↩
- Edwin Blum, ‘A Comparison of the HCSB with Other Major Translations’. ↩
- Nass, p. 7, gives a few examples where being more literal means it is not as smooth as the NIV11, e.g. 1 Cor 7:37, 12:23; Eph 1:10. ↩
- The NIV11 also does this, whereas the ESV is consistent with ‘justify’. ↩
- Andy Naselli, ‘How to Disagree about Bible Translation Philosophy’. ↩