reviewing cbmw’s review of the 2011 niv

CBMW (an organisation which stridently opposed the TNIV) has posted a preliminary evaluation of the 2011 NIV. Unsurprisingly they conclude that “we still cannot commend the new NIV(2011) for most of the same reasons we could not commend the TNIV.” However, I think there are a number of problems with their analysis which I’d like to raise here in order to provide a little perspective.

A major portion of the review discusses Rev 3:20 in the three editions of the NIV (the original, the TNIV, and the 2011 NIV). A number of the points raised in the review are observations upon which comments and criticisms are based. I’ll address myself primarily to those criticisms.

3. This is still going to leave pastors and teachers with the rather onerous task of repeatedly advising the flock: “that is a singular ‘they’” or “that is a singular ‘them.’” And in many important verses, a reader will not be able to tell if “they” is meant as singular or plural from the new NIV(2011) English text alone (see John 14:23 for example).

In light of the fact that the number of the pronouns in John 14:23 is not actually ambiguous, this objection appears to be, at best, an overstatement. Consider the supposedly problematic John 14:23 in the NIV(2011):

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

The antecedent for the italicised pronouns is clearly “anyone” which is not a plural. In contemporary English, the singular “anyone” effectively disambiguates the ambiguous pronouns (just try saying “anyone who are going…” — it clearly doesn’t work with the plural verb, does it!).

These same objections could have been raised to the dropping of “thee” and “thou” and the expansion of the use of “you” in English in times past. How often do we hear pastors/teachers suffering under the onerous task of having to explain the number of every second-person pronoun in the English translation they’re using?

4. Furthermore, ironically but importantly, “that person” has a very cold, impersonal feel in comparison to both “them” and “him.” That is not how we speak when we want to maximize the warmth and intimacy of our relationship with someone in English. “That person” is how we speak about someone we don’t know. The new NIV(2011) is going to struggle with that, regularly.

I agree — “that person” is somewhat impersonal and so fails to adequately reflect warmth where warmth is implicit in the original. However, the problem reflects a deficiency in early 21st century English — whereas “that person” sounds cold, for many readers “he” lacks the inclusivity today that it once had (and often has in the original). We either leave everyone feeling cold or give everyone the impression that women are excluded. I don’t think there’s currently a satisfactory solution in English, so whichever way the translator goes they’re going to have to compromise (as translators ever have!).

Fourth, there are some significant problematic passages in the new NIV(2011) that have been retained from the TNIV, not the least of which is the deliberately ambiguous rendering of authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12 as “assume authority.”

Although the review mentions problematic passages (plural), only the rendering of this one hapax legomenon in this one passage is explicitly identified. Obviously this is the watershed passage for CBMW and, I suspect, their evaluation of the worth of a translation rests largely on how it renders this one passage.

And then there are passages where the familiar and beloved poetry of a half-millennium of the Bible in English are lost, Psalm 23:4 being a prime example. “Darkest valley” (an unfortunate holdover from the TNIV) is just never going to be able to compete with “valley of the shadow of death.”

NIV(2011) is not alone in adopting this rendering — NLT, NET, and HCSB all render בגיא צלמות “darkest valley.” HALOT suggests that the LXX rendering σκιὰ Θανάτου probably derives from “popular folk etymology” which understood צלמות as a combination of צל ‘shadow [of]’ and מות ‘death’ (note that the LXX reading makes no specific reference to a “valley”). HALOT prefers (probably correctly) to see the term derived from a Semitic root they designate צלם II meaning ‘to be dark, gloomy’ (cognates are found in Arabic, Ugaritic, and Akkadian). So from the lexical viewpoint the NIV et al. are employing a legitimate reading of the Hebrew which differs from the “traditional” reading primarily because it seeks to reflect the lexical semantics more precisely. CBMW thus criticise the new NIV when it is insufficiently “literal” in some places and then criticise it when it is more literal elsewhere. I get the feeling there’s no way to win here!

Our initial analysis shows that the new NIV(2011) retains many of the problems that were present in the TNIV, on which it is based, especially with regard to the over 3,600 gender-related problems we previously identified.

Their previous analysis of the TNIV is pertinent at this point:

“he” is changed to plural “they” 271 times (and to so-called “singular they” 112 times), “he” is changed to “you” 90 times, to “we” 9 times, and simply omitted 48 times. “Father/fathers/forefathers” are removed 39 times. Singular “brother” is changed to “brother or sister” or something like “believer” 43 times. “Man” (when translating the male-specific term aner) is changed to things like “people” or friends” 26 times. In each case these changes remove details of meaning that are there in the Greek text.

The underlying problem here is that CBMW appears to assume that there is a simple semantic equivalence between the original languages of the Bible and English. However, in some instances, when the original languages use a term inclusively (e.g. ἀδελφός; cf. Rom 14:21), translations which opt for non-inclusive English actually alter the meaning of the text! This means that, for many such passages, versions like the ESV are potentially less accurately conveying the meaning of the original than the 2011 NIV. Hence “the over 3,600 gender-related problems” misrepresents the significance of the translation choices. Many of these changes represent a more accurate communication of the meaning of the original than strictly “literal” translations.

That is, of course, not to say that there are no problems with inclusive language in some places, and the 2011 NIV has sought to address such problems in the TNIV.

The 2011 NIV is not a perfect translation — there is no such thing. But perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as some make out.

For a balanced and more comprehensive review of NIV2011 see Rod Decker’s article in Themelios.

9 thoughts on “reviewing cbmw’s review of the 2011 niv

  1. Hi Martin

    Good to ‘see’ you again after those Syd Ang forum days!

    Thanks for this. I think you’ve highlighted something quite revealing: that what’s at issue here has little to do with gender language and a lot more to do with translation philosophy at large.

    Although CBMW sees the NIV translation of 1 Tim 2:12 as lending itself “to a common current egalitarian misinterpretation of this passage”, they are actually taking issue with other complementarians, in this instance Craig Blomberg.

    More than that, though, CBMW’s complaint is a much broader one, taking issue with evangelical thinkers like Grant Osborne (who helped develop the NLT), who argue that dynamic equivalence is the more ‘accurate’ and useful approach to translation.

    CBMW’s initial reflections on Rev 3:20 seemed bizarre at first glance, but make sense in light of what you’ve identified — an assumption of basic semantic equivalence. Although I’m still a bit mystified by their recommendation of the NKJV over the NIV!


  2. Hi Arthur. Ah, the good-ole days of the Syd Ang forums. Fun times indeed! Discussions do continue over there, but in much modified form, and now there’s also the Sola Panel (which has recently been spending lots of time discussing 1Tim 2 and gender issues).

    I’d not want to write off the significant weight CBMW give to a translation properly supporting their perspective, but I do think translation philosophy has a lot to do with things as well. I’ve covered the topic a little in the past.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Perhaps you didn’t read the full review. Revelation 3:20 was given as an example of how the NIV 2011 had improved upon the TNIV but still retained some of the singular/plural issue that is created by intentionally eliminating male references that are in the original languages.

    In fact the NIV 2011 intentionally mis-translated nearly 3000 verses to eliminate masculine references (father, son, brother, he, him, his) that are clearly in the original.

    Shouldn’t translators just translate what is there and leave the interpretation to others? Are they so convinced that God has changed His mind they feel comfortable changing it unbeknownst to most of their readers? Does the end justify the means in that they deceive their readers by representing it as accurate and unchanged for the ‘greater good’ of eliminating any gender distinction in the church?

  4. Thanks for your comment, Brett.

    I’ve addressed the issue of singular/plural references in Rev 3:20 above. The difficulty modern translators face is that there is no entirely satisfactory solution (as is so often the case in the work of translation). As I said, “We either leave everyone feeling cold or give everyone the impression that women are excluded.”

    The real problem, however, is that assertions such as “the NIV 2011 intentionally mis-translated nearly 3000 verses to eliminate masculine references” and your last paragraph is that they are either ignorant or else intentionally designed to deceive. This applies to much of the CBMW’s assessment of the translation.

    The reason I say this is because the actual situation cannot be so easily or neatly presented. If you translate from a context (and by that I mean historical, cultural, and literary context) wherein the use of a masculine reference was understood to be inclusive (i.e. including men and women) to a context where it becomes exclusively a reference to men, you have then offered an implicit interpretation of the original. In other words, at every point where a translation chooses to an exclusively masculine term in English it has made a deliberate interpretive decision. And if the original use allowed for the inclusion of women but the modern use doesn’t, it could equally be claimed that such a translation has deliberately mis-translated these texts.

    In the end translators cannot escape making interpretive decisions at some points.

  5. The supposed necessity for more inclusive translations is a red-herring. I have had no difficulty whatever reaching modern sincere seekers using the NASB, NIV 1984, or any number of “non-inclusive” translations. In 15 years of ministry I never had a single person state that they were offended by non-inclusive language. In fact it is still the case that female readers automatically and appropriately understand when the passage is inclusive or exclusive. I can’t believe this is a real translation issue but rather a political correctness issue. I’ve recently worked with several early 20’s with no Christian background. They need knowledge and background for every aspect of what they are learning in the Bible. They need explains for nearly everything and gender inclusion is simply a non-issue. I really think this is an over-reaction to popular culture and not a truly academic stride forward in the field of translation.

  6. I would also like to comment on the “valley of the shadow of death.” “darkest valley” does come across as far too weak. You complain about those who complain about the NIV2011 or the TNIV being too literal in one place and not literal enough in another–as us not allowing them to win. I feel we are exactly right to be worried that they are literallizing poetic verses and and non-literalizing theological and narrative sections. “Darkest Valley” evokes almost no dread or fear. There are many appropriate lexical approaches to this very poetic word. “deepest gloom”, “oppressive darkness” and yes “valley of the shadow of death” is still much better at evoking the feeling of the original Hebrew.

  7. @Jason Carnley, you argue that “valley of the shadow of death” is “much better at evoking the feeling of the original Hebrew,” but indications are that it is not the best understanding of the Hebrew. This seems paradoxical. The traditional English translation may be more evocative, but that in itself doesn’t make it right or a better translation. I don’t think that a translation can be assessed on how it makes you feel!

  8. @Jason Carnley, thanks for sharing your experience. One difficulty faced in English Bible translation is that English is so diffuse — it is difficult to universalise experience in one place across the globe with any reliability. The experience of readers in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the USA will all vary to some degree. This highlights the difficulties faced in producing a translation targeted at all these people.

    In light of that, the question becomes “is inclusive language more or less likely to be understood by anyone”? If a translation says “men should…” when it means “men and women should…” it is more open to being misunderstood than one which actually says “men and women should…”. While the people you’ve come across may get the meaning, will they misunderstand if it says the latter? I doubt it!

    Thus inclusive language translations are, in most places, more faithful to the original languages and less prone to misunderstanding across the English-speaking world.

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