Sunday, August 11, 2013

I want my, I want my NIV!

Technology changes society — often in unexpected ways, and sometimes not in good ways.

In 1981, the music industry was changed forever. MTV premiered on cable channels, and all of a sudden consuming music wasn’t just listening, but watching. (As Dire Straits famously proclaimed: “I want my MTV.”) Major acts ended devoting up to half their production budget for video promotions — videos for which they don’t receive a penny.

Today, people are shifting to electronic books for their tablets. When visitors come to our house for the first time, I point out the bookshelves in my office (custom-built last year) and joke that my grandchildren will ask: “Grandpa, why did you need so many shelves to store books on your iPad?” Others may use online services, such as

This brings me to the February decision (which I only recently noticed) made by the NIV copyright owners (and its allies) to discontinue availability of the 1984 NIV and only offer the 2011 edition. While I’m more of an RSV/ESV kinda guy, we did give our eldest a pocket 1984 NIV for confirmation and expected it would get decades of use.

The copyright owner is Biblica (née the International Bible Society), the translation was developed by the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), while the publisher Zondervan has exclusive North American rights.

The 2011 translation is controversial mainly (but not entirely) because it substituted inclusive language for male nouns and pronouns. The language is a compromise between the original 1984 NIV and the (even more aggressively gender neutral) TNIV, but it appears it’s more like the latter than the former.

I found summaries of the controversy on Diane Montgomery’s blog and Michael Marlowe’s Bible Researcher site. In June 2011, the largest US Protestant body (the Southern Baptist Convention) disapproved the new NIV for its members and (unsuccessfully) for its LifeWay bookstore chain:
WHEREAS, Many Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople have trusted and used the 1984 New International Version (NIV) translation to the great benefit of the Kingdom; and

WHEREAS, Biblica and Zondervan Publishing House are publishing an updated version of the New International Version (NIV) which incorporates gender neutral methods of translation; and

WHEREAS, Southern Baptists repeatedly have affirmed our commitment to the full inspiration and authority of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-16) and, in 1997, urged every Bible publisher and translation group to resist “gender-neutral” translation of Scripture; and

WHEREAS, This translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language; and

WHEREAS, Although it is possible for Bible scholars to disagree about translation methods or which English words best translate the original languages, the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards; and

WHEREAS, Seventy-five percent of the inaccurate gender language found in the TNIV is retained in the 2011 NIV; and

WHEREAS, The Southern Baptist Convention has passed a similar resolution concerning the TNIV in 2002; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 14-15, 2011 express profound disappointment with Biblica and Zondervan Publishing House for this inaccurate translation of God’s inspired Scripture; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we encourage pastors to make their congregations aware of the translation errors found in the 2011 NIV; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we respectfully request that LifeWay not make this inaccurate translation available for sale in their bookstores; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we cannot commend the 2011 NIV to Southern Baptists or the larger Christian community.
Don’t get me wrong. We live in a free country. Publishers should be allowed to distribute and preachers and laity are entitled to use whatever worship resources they desire.

What bothers me is the discontinuation of the previous edition. In January, blogger Zania, a Christian computer scientist from New Jersey, highlighted the problem:
The NIV 1984 Bible is all but gone. I don’t know if it’s a homicide or suicide. I don’t know if I should phrase that it started falling ill in 2010 and now died at the end of 2012. I don’t know if we intentionally or unintentionally let the enemy change an integral translation that fed the souls of many for 28 years. Its traces can still be seen on and in popular mobile Bible applications such as’s Youversion. You can also snag one from’s NIV 1984 Closeout sale. But it’s all but gone from giant online retailers like and when I visited my local brick and mortar Christian book store last week they told me that NIV’s United States publisher, Zondervan, ordered them to turn in all 1984 versions in exchange for 2011 equivalents. As one of my beloved translations of the Protestant’s Bible I will miss it.
Worse, Bible Gateway — which a year ago offered the 1984 NIV, TNIV and 2011 NIV on its website — in February was forced by Biblica to discontinue offering the two older editions:
The NIV remains the most popular English contemporary translation, with more than 450 million copies distributed since it was first published in 1978. During the transition to the most recent edition of the NIV (first published in 2010), the older 1984 edition and the TNIV were made available for more than two years on Bible Gateway to make it easy for people to compare the upgrades in the text as they transitioned to the current edition. This transition period mirrors the earlier two-year transition from the 1978 version to the 1984 version. Now that this transition period is over, the NIV’s worldwide publisher, Biblica, has requested that we remove the older 1984 and TNIV editions from Bible Gateway, and we are complying with their wishes.

Since the latest edition of the NIV was published in December 2010, over 11 million copies have been distributed and it has been adopted by thousands of churches, ministries, authors and other publishers around the globe. We understand your disappointment that the 1984 edition of the NIV is no longer available, but we hope you’ll grow to appreciate the updated NIV, as many other Bible Gateway visitors have done.
The justification by Biblica comes across as self-important at best and arrogant at worse:
It is customary for Bible publishers to focus their efforts on the most current edition of their translation, and to make available only the best, most up-to-date work of their translators. This is the case with the updated NIV, as it is for most other major Bible translations. For example, seven different editions of The Message have been published since 1993, but the only one available today is the most recent, published in 2002. The same is true for the NASB (last updated in 1995), the NLT (last updated in 2007), and the ESV (last updated in 2011).

There is only one NIV, which was commissioned by a broad coalition of evangelicals in the 1960's. The original charter of the NIV called for rigorous, ongoing attention to both the source languages of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, as well as the target language of English as it is spoken today. The current, updated NIV represents the best available NIV translation, and is thus the edition Biblica is committed to continue publishing and has chosen to make available on websites.
Biblica can't remove the two paper copies of the 1984 NIV from our house, and I just ordered a third. However, they can (and did) remove the Internet copies on and other websites. And since there is no vendor that offers used e-books, the e-book NIV I could have bought 8 months ago is no longer available. Biblica has also forced Bible software publishers to drop the old NIV, which from my own experience means previous customers who paid for it will be unable to access it when they buy a new machine with a new OS that doesn’t run the old software.

(This seems to be trend specific to gender-inclusive translations, although a quick visit to Amazon suggests that the NRSV has not completely extinguished the RSV. Still, TEC is happy to sell Hymnal 1940 to us bitter clingers.)

This is also ironic given the trends of the Internet towards making all versions of historic worship resources available to scholars and laity. Today, the 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1662 CoE prayer books are available online, as are the 1789, 1892 and 1928 US prayer books. But then current bible translations are treated more like commercial products — complete with planned obsolescence — than worship resources.

To me, this seems very much like the New Coke debacle. (A history lesson for millennials: after introducing New Coke in 1985, Coca-Cola first offered Coca-Cola “Classic” in parallel and then soon abandoned New Coke). However, Biblica doesn’t have the visibility of Coca-Cola and thus it’s less likely to prompt a public rebellion; many unsuspecting Christians will wander into their local bookstore and buy the “new and improved” NIV without knowing the controversy.

For the objections to the NIV to have meaning, the market share formerly held by the NIV will have to be replaced by other translations. The KJV provided a common understanding of the Bible for 300 years or so, when it was replaced by 3 or 4 20th century translations (of which the NIV was the most popular in the US). Perhaps this mark the end of the unity of the NIV (at least among American evangelicals) for some 30 years. As Trevin Wax wrote on The Gospel Coalition:
I am at a loss as to why the NIV 2011 will force the original NIV out of commission. Why not keep both in circulation? Goodness, we can still read translations like the King James which are hundreds of years old.

It’s ironic that the NIV 2011 revision is scheduled to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the King James Version, the most popular and most influential English translation of all time. Unfortunately, the launch of this new revision will have the opposite effect of the KJV. The King James Version united Bible readers around a common text. I’m afraid the NIV 2011 will speed up the growing fragmentation of evangelicals in regards to Bible translations.
Unless Biblica admits their mistake, my grandchildren won’t be reading the Bible that our eldest uses. But fortunately they will have many other fine translations to choose from.