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Published Date: October 31, 1997

Published Date: October 31, 1997

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Which Bible to Use?

Shortly after the controversy over the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI) erupted, an older woman in one of my Bible classes asked me, “Are you in favor of changing our Bible?”

I knew immediately to what she was referring since she listens frequently to Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. I said, “Of course I am not in favor of changing God’s Holy Word. But I am in favor of correcting erroneous translations or English language that has changed so much it is no longer readily understood. Aren’t you?” She looked at me with some confusion.

Then I asked, “What translation are you using?” She held it up for me. It was the New Living Translation, one of the many translations that uses inclusive, gender-accurate language when the original text so indicates. I told her the fine translation she was using was exactly what she should have and that she need not worry that her Bible had been changed.

Although she is an intelligent woman, very knowledgeable about the Bible, she had been misled by those who wanted to imply that the plans of the NIV committee on Bible translation (CBT) to produce an inclusive-language edition was part of a “feminist seduction of the evangelical church” (headline used in World magazine, March 19, 1997).

Why should the effort to produce a gender-accurate Bible become the center of a storm of controversy? It is a sad story that has brought ridicule on evangelicals by all those who have some understanding of the translation process and the constantly changing English language. It is one of the few times in my life when I have been embarrassed to identify myself as an evangelical. And I have learned that many others feel the same.

The New International Version (NIV) was first published in 1978. The translators were respected evangelical scholars skilled in Hebrew or Aramaic (the Old Testament Languages) and/or Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. The group became known as the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT). In l984, the NIV came out with its first revision, carrying out the clearly stated goal of the CBT to keep the NIV up-to-date in light of current biblical scholarship and constantly changing English language usage. The translation committee kept on working, expecting another revision about the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, the British publishers of the NIV (Hodder and Stoughton) were urged by churches in England to have a more gender-accurate translation. The New Revised Standard Version (an inclusive-language translation published in 1989) was becoming widely used in the churches in England, both evangelical and mainline.

Why this interest in new translations? Because it is uncommon for (especially young) people, either in England or the U.S., to use the term “man” or “men” when referring to both men and women. In fact, for the last twenty years or so, writers of elementary and secondary textbooks in the United States have been urged not to use “men” or “man” when referring to people or humans in general. Many tests have been carried out to determine what boys and girls visualize when they read “man” or “men,” even when the context of the term clearly indicates both males and females are meant. Nearly all young people visualize males. Thus the use of “man” or “men” presents an erroneous picture of history, literature, and all other subjects where both men and women were involved.

Nearly all newspapers and magazines have changed to more gender-specific terms. Why has the majority of our literature moved in this direction? Is it a “feminist plot” as World magazine asserted? Of course not. It is because gender-specific terms (men, women, people, humans, etc.) are more easily and accurately understood. So the question becomes: Do we think it is important for people to clearly understand the Bible? Every devout Christian must answer “Yes.” The issue has nothing to do with feminism or a “feminist agenda.” It has everything to do with accurately translating the Bible so that Scripture is clearly understood.

I taught college writing for many years and, like most teachers, insisted that students be specific about genders. When some students insisted it would be easy to understand when “man” or “men” included both sexes, my favorite illustration was a hypothetical sentence that read “Jane Smith was the first man to swim the English Channel.” Everyone agreed that was not acceptable. It had to be “Jane Smith was the first person to swim the English Channel.” Nor would it be acceptable to say, “Many men entered the race” if the racers included both men and women.

When children read the NIV text of 1 Timothy 2:5-6 (“God Our Savior wants all men to be saved. . . For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all men” [emphasis added]), they will naturally visualize males and wonder, “Are women included?”

The NIVI renders the passage more clearly: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Which version would you rather give to your daughter or granddaughter?

Interestingly enough, Wayne Grudem, of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and who was very active in the campaign to suppress the NIV Inclusive Language Edition, used this verse as an illustration of the danger of making terms inclusive. He objected to using “Christ Jesus, himself human,” because, Grudem said, such a change obscures the truth that Jesus was a man. Actually, the word translated “human” (in verse 5) in the NIVI is anthropos, emphasizing Jesus’ humanity, and the NIVI still carefully points out Jesus’ male form by using “who gave himself a ransom for all.” Which edition of the NIV do you think is more accurate?

Unfortunately, the original NIV translators bowed to the “male preference” approach in many places. They translated Romans 16:1 “. . .our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea,” although the word “servant” is clearly “deacon” (diakanos) in the Greek text. A footnote indicates “deaconess,” which is also inaccurate, since there was no word for deaconess in the first-century church! Even the NIVI published in Great Britain retains that translation. Where is the exact wording here that the Greek text uses—as Grudem and friends say they want?

In this matter of suppressing the NIVI in the U.S. and trying to suppress it in the U.K., the story of how a small group of American Fundamentalists has tried to dictate to British and American Christians what Bibles they can publish is a disturbing one. I agree with author Richard Foster who said he had followed the debate with profound sadness. He wrote, “I am concerned that the long-term effects will be disastrous. When the translation scholars of the King James Version stopped revising it (as I recall it went through four or five revisions), they condemned it to becoming an Elizabethan relic. I would hate to see the same kind of thing happen to the NIV.”

So where does this leave us? What kind of Bible can we give to our friends, our children and grandchildren that is written in clear language they can understand? What Bible should churches give their young people at confirmation?

Obviously, it cannot be the NIV, which sometimes makes it look as though the Gospel is only for males. Instead, we can give the New Revised Standard Version, the International Children’s Bible (the Odyssey Bible) the New Living Translation, or other modern speech translations using gender-accurate language.

When you go to your bookstore to buy a Bible for a friend or relative, and you want to see whether it is gender-accurate, look at 1 Timothy 2:4-6. Does the version read, “This pleases God our Savior who wants all men to be saved… For there is one God and one mediator between God and men” or does it read “God wants all people to be saved… For there is one mediator between God and human beings,” or something similar. Then you’ll have a way of knowing what kind of Bible you are buying—one that makes the Gospel clearly accessible to men and women, boys and girls, or only to males? Ask yourself: Is it a translation that makes clear the concern and love of God for all people?

We are responsible for transmitting the Word of God in the language of the American people in the 21st century. How sad that one good translation on the verge of being brought up-to-date on American usage has been cancelled. The British translation of the NIVI is still available from CBE (for how long we do not know). Otherwise, take a careful look at any Bible you buy in a bookstore to be sure it will be understandable to the person to whom you give it.