Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Thoughts on NIV2011

When I first saw that TNIV was being discontinued and replaced by an updated NIV in 2011, I was disappointed. However, upon thinking more about it, I'll admit I'm cautiously excited about the whole development. While I lament the failure of the TNIV to ever really take off, I think this presents a wonderful opportunity for the Committe on Bible Translation and the church at large. Here are my thoughts:

1) The unfortunate saga of the TNIV has certainly been educational for anyone working in Bible translation. It seems the NIVI/TNIV translators genuinely underestimated the negative response to the "gender accurate" translation policy. A few factors probably contributed to this:

Bible translators spend their days immersed in the study of linguistics. They deal day in and day out with the complexities of language and the challenges of transferring meaning from one language to another. Linguistics and translation theory are second nature to them.

On the other hand, the majority of pastors, let alone laypeople, have neither the time nor the training to think on this level consistently about nuances of language. They justifiably rely on English translations to understand the Bible. When a new translation, no matter how linguistically warranted, sounds "different from how I've always read it", it's understandable that many readers could get nervous.

Translators need to be constantly aware not only of the linguistic merits of their translations, but also of how changes to familiar renderings are likely to be received by everyday readers (yes, I realize the irony, in that this was the very concern that drove the production of the TNIV in the first place). Now, I for one think that the gender policy followed by the TNIV is appropriate. However, many readers (and a good number of pastors and scholars) did not. In retrospect, perhaps the CBT and Zondervan should have done more to anticipate the negative response that followed, and worked more to educate pastors, scholars and everyday readers about the rationale for the changes before moving ahead with the translation.

2) While many have interpreted the today's announcement as a concession that the TNIV and its translation philosophy were a mistake in themselves, I don't think that's at all what Zondervan or the CBT meant.

Let's analyze the thrust of the statement. According to Biblica CEO Keith Danby:

"The first mistake was the NIVi. The second was freezing the NIV. The third was the process of handling the TNIV."

First, the release of the NIVi was a mistake, according to Danby. That may well be - I'm not really competent to comment on it. I haven't read much from the NIVi, though I admit to being less than comfortable with some statements in its preface. It seems that the NIVi was what really touched off the firestorm (for example, see Grudem & Poythress' The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Words). However, whatever one's view of the NIVi, it was not the TNIV.

Second, according to Danby, the freezing of the NIV was a mistake. To which I give a hearty amen! Zondervan and the IBS (now Biblica) should never have allowed the NIV to become forever stuck in 1997 (actually, 1984, the date of its last previous revision). It's now been 25 years since last NIV revision, and a lot of developments have occurred in the areas of Biblical languages and archaelogy. The NIV needed revision in 1997, and it needs it even more twelve years later.

Third, notice what Danby did not say. He did not say that the TNIV was a mistake. He said that "the process of handling the TNIV" was a mistake. And on any account, mistakes were made. It could have been introduced more tactfully. It could have been presented as a more accurate Bible for all demographics (along with the inclusion of more "grown up" bindings), rather than being marketed primarily as a niche Bible for the 18-34 year old crowd. Zondervan could have ceased pushing the NIV and marketed the TNIV as its replacement. In hindsight, I'm sure that Zondervan and Biblica would say things could have been handled more skillfully in regard to rolling out the TNIV alongside the "frozen" NIV and in regard to the ill-fated negotiations with the Colorado Springs folks (though they felt, it would seem justifiably, backed into a corner).

3) The Committee on Bible Translation has its work cut out for it. They have to walk a razor's edge in updating the NIV. Douglas Moo, head of the CBT, implied that the 2011 NIV would probably incorporate around 90% of the NIV and 95% of the TNIV. On one hand, if the updated NIV rolls back all the gender-related changes introduced in the TNIV, the anti-TNIV crowd will be happy, but many TNIV supporters will likely feel betrayed and jump ship (presumably to the NLT or NRSV). Not only that, but such a move would call into question the need for an update at all. Personally, I doubt this will be the direction taken by the CBT.

On the other hand, if the 2011 NIV is seen by TNIV opponents as keeping too closely to the TNIV in regard to gendered language, it risks tipping the balance once and for all against not only the NIV, but against the concept of dynamic equivalence as a whole. The anti-DE voices have been swelling for a while now (witness the popularity of John Piper's "Get a Bible with All the Words in It" video and Leeland Ryken's The Word of God in English), and combined with a growing informal ESV-onlyism, could signal the death of the legitimacy of dynamic equivalence in evangelical circles.

Regardless of your stand on translation philosophy, the CBT deserves our prayers.

4) Whether you loved the TNIV or loathed it, give the new NIV a fighting chance! While there's lots of speculation about just what the updated edition will look like, the truth is nobody will really know until 2011. TNIV-lovers need to be willing to give the new NIV a fair reading, without reading it through a lens of assumed misogyny in the wording. TNIV opponents need to be willing to give it a fair reading as well, without imposing their feelings or objections about the TNIV onto this new work.

While he and I would hold different views on the TNIV, Al Mohler provided a generous response to the new development, noting:

"In the end, the update of the NIV to be released in 2011 will have to stand on its own... When released, the updated NIV will deserve and require the attentive study and review of all committed evangelicals."

In summary, I'm cautiously optimistic that the 2011 NIV will incorporate the best of the TNIV, but be more palatable to those who were never going to embrace the TNIV. Let's pray so.

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