A few centuries ago, Bible translators faced the possibility of being burned at the stake. These days, they are more likely to face a commercial boycott and hostile websites.
While new Bible translations seem to have been popping up like rabbits in recent years, this is the year when evangelical Christians paused for some serious discussion — some of it pretty hostile — about what we expect from such products, particularly in the use of gender-neutral language. A battle that raged in universities a generation ago has come to church.
Why should it make any difference to preachers? The debate now underway raises significant questions about the kind of Bible translations that people in the pew will be reading for years to come. If those translations represent any kind of theological or cultural shift, then those who proclaim the Word week after week need to let their own voices be heard — but only after gaining a clear understanding of the real issues involved.
To ‘he’ or not to ‘he’
In 1997, World magazine led the charge against the New International Version – Inclusive Language edition (NIVI) that was being sold in Britain. A series of Christian leaders blasted what they decried as a “unisex” Bible which, they feared, represented political correctness more than careful scholarship.
Five years later, that debate has reignited with the release of the New Testament section of Today’s New International Version (TNIV) this spring. (The Old Testament will be available by 2005.) According to Zondervan, publisher of the NIV and TNIV, approximately 7% of the text is changed from the last American revision of the NIV, published in 1984. A little less than 30% of these changes involve inclusive language for humanity — using “brothers and sisters” for “brothers” when a mixed audience is clearly meant by the biblical terms, or “human beings” for “men” or shifting to a third-person plural or a second-person pronoun to avoid a generic “he,” and so on.
While inclusive-language may constitute only 30 percent of the changes, it has constituted 99.99 percent of the controversy surrounding TNIV. Each side has its own websites (such as http://www.no-tniv.com/ for the anti-TNIV forces and http://www.tniv.info/index.php for the pro-TNIV side) and its own list of Christian-celebrity endorsers.
The pro-TNIV group, which includes John R. W. Stott, Timothy George, Jim Cymbala, Ben Patterson, Stuart Briscoe, Jay Kesler and others, is swamped in star power by the anti-TNIV list, which includes James Dobson, Charles Colson, Chuck Swindoll, D. James Kennedy, Jack Hayford, John MacArthur, Erwin Lutzer, Josh McDowell, Jerry Falwell, R. Albert Mohler, Jack Graham, R.C. Sproul, Pat Robertson, Adrian Rogers, John Piper, and J.I. Packer.
The debate has also divided serious New Testament scholars, who have lined up for and against. As D.A. Carson has observed, “In quieter moments, one wonders if any conceivable damage that could be done by the NIV or TNIV could be any worse than the division, bitterness, and strife stirred up by those who have made this a dividing issue.”
Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary points out that, “The TNIV consistently improves the NIV in the comparatively small number of places where the NIV really was not a terribly good translation. One could have hoped that even those critics who disagreed with the TNIV’s gender-inclusive language policy would have noted these improvements and given the new translation due credit in more balanced reviews.”
On the issue of inclusive-language, Blomberg defends the TNIV as appropriately reflecting changing language patterns without changing the meaning of scripture. He says, “We may wish the English language had not changed. We may point to places where it still has not changed. But it is indisputable that it has changed substantially and continues to do so, particularly outside of the Southern United States. If we really want an authoritative, accurate koine English translation, we must throw our support behind ventures like the TNIV and not establish such adversarial stances that we cannot help them in their further revision of parts we think can still be improved.”
Likewise, Grant Osborne of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School asserts, “While it is true that the ‘feminist’ agenda launched the protest against the inclusive he, the issue has gone beyond ideological boundaries. The public as a whole, whether sympathetic or not to the feminist cause, is reluctant to use he or man when referring to all people. In the public schools, he has not been used for years to speak of both men and women, and most young people under 30 have not grown up with its use…. If the biblical author is referring to both men and women, it is more accurate to state such in the translated text. If man and he refer to all people in the original text, then the principle of accuracy favors rendering them as person or they in the translation.”
While the official TNIV website insists that “The gender-related changes made in the TNIV do not have any doctrinal impact upon the text of Scripture,” others strongly disagree. The Statement of Concern About the TNIV — representing the Dobson, Colson, et al group listed above — says that while the signers “agree that it is appropriate to use gender-neutral expressions where the original language does not include any male or female meaning … we believe the TNIV has gone be yond acceptable translation standards in several important respects.”
Among their objections:
– “The TNIV translation often changes masculine, third person, singular pronouns (he, his and him) to plural gender-neutral pronouns…. In hundreds of such changes, the TNIV obscures any possible significance the inspired singular may have, such as individual responsibility or an individual relationship with Christ.”
– “The TNIV translation obscures many biblical references to ‘father,’ ‘son,’ ‘brother,’ and ‘man.'”
– “The TNIV translation inserts English words into the text whose meaning does not appear in the original languages.”
Responding to those accusations, TNIV supporters argue that what objectors call “inaccuracies” in fact represent valid interpretive judgments which are true to the original intent of scripture. Donald Madvig, a retired Bethel Seminary professor and vice-chairman of the Committee on Bible Translation — controlling group of the NIV and TNIV — argues, “the statement that ‘the TNIV obscures any possible significance the inspired singular may have …’ is not true. The words ‘they’ and ‘them’ are used with singular reference, a usage that can be traced back to Shakespeare, and this usage is on the increase in the contemporary world. It is heard commonly in everyday speech and is being used more and more frequently in print. The fact that in the TNIV the antecedent of ‘they’ and ‘them’ is the singular ‘anyone’ leaves no doubt that these words are being used with a singular sense.”
Further, says Madvig, “When dealing with the terms ‘father,’ ‘son,’ ‘brother’ and ‘man,’ the translator must ask whether they are being used in a generic sense — in which case ‘father’ includes ‘mother,’ ‘son’ includes ‘daughter,’ ‘brother’ includes ‘sister,’ and ‘man’ includes ‘woman.’ When this is true, surely it is no less faithful to express that inclusion in the translation.”
The debate continues, and will surely be revisited when the Old Testament TNIV is released in 2005. Some have questioned why similar objections were not raised when the New Living Translation (NLT), New Century Version (NCV) and other inclusive language versions were released in recent years. The consensus is that the current discussion reflects the pivotal role the NIV has assumed as the “standard version” among evangelicals today. Thus, we can expect to see this debate continue for some time to come, though we can hope it will include a little less heat and a little more light.
While you were out …
While the scholarly community has been embroiled in the TNIV debate, another translation slipped onto the scene: the English Standard Version (ESV), published by Crossway Books. (The ESV was mentioned in last year’s Preaching survey, though it was not yet available.) The ESV translators used as a starting point the language of the 1971 Revised Standard Version, then checked the text against the earliest available manuscripts and made changes for the sake of accuracy
According to the publisher, “The ESV is an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on ‘word-for-word’ correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.”
Although the ESV advisory group includes several who have been detractors of the TNIV, the ESV also adopts some inclusive language changes, though it does not go as far as the TNIV. For example, ‘anyone’ replaces ‘any man’ where there is no word corresponding to ‘man’ in the original languages, and ‘people’ rather than ‘men’ is regularly used where the original languages refer to both men and women. On the other hand, the ESV retains terms like “brothers” and “sons” at places where the TNIV has adopted gender-neutral language.
J.I. Packer served as general editor of the ESV team. The advisory council includes such Christian leaders as John Piper, R. Albert Mohler, Bryan Chapell, R.C. Sproul, Joseph Stowell, Carl F.H. Henry, and Max Lucado. If you’d like to learn more, visit the official ESV web site at http://www.gnpcb.org/home/esv/.
A growing favorite of many preachers is Eugene Peterson’s beautifully-written paraphrase The Message (Navpress). Joining the previously-published sections is this year’s release of the Old Testament History Books. As a result, the full Bible is now available in this delightful and helpful work.
Although Peterson worked from the original biblical languages, he “paraphrases” the original by using language that seeks to communicate the style and flavor of the original as it would have been heard in Bible times, rather than trying to achieve word-for-word correspondence.
Peterson’s own literary gifts make The Message a wonderful book for devotional reading, and his insights and expressive gifts make this volume often useful in the pulpit for trying to illustrate a biblical concept in an original way.
As always, publishers continue to release new products and repackage previously-released translations. For example, the New Living Translation is now available in The One Year Bible format (Tyndale). If you haven’t already discovered this approach to reading scripture, you’ll find it is a practical and functional method to guide people in reading through the whole of scripture in one year.
Commentaries and more
As if there weren’t enough choices in Bible translations, it might be said that “of the publishing of commentaries there is no end.” For the preacher and serious Bible student, that’s a good thing!
One of the finest and most unique resources available for biblical study is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press), for which Thomas Oden serves as General Editor. The ACCS will eventually be a 28-volume patristic commentary which draws on seven centuries of early Christian writers, from Clement of Rome in the late first century AD to the mid-eighth century. It offers a remarkable opportunity to study scripture through the eyes of the early church fathers.
The newest volume in the ACCS series is Matthew 1-13, edited by Manlio Simonetti, a scholar of patristic biblical interpretation who teaches at the University of Rome and the Augustinian Patristic Institute. Simonetti draws on a breadth of commentators as well as preachers such as John of Chrysostom and Augustine. What a privilege for the contemporary preacher to be able to see how these ancient giants interpreted and communicated God’s Word in their own age! IVP and the ACCS team do a valuable service to the church through their work on this series.
Three major commentaries on the book of Deuteronomy were released in the past year. Deuteronomy by Richard D. Nelson is part of The Old Testament Library published by Westminster John Knox Press). Nelson is on the faculty at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and his critical commentary covers the major themes of the book while arguing for multiple sources and compilation in the seventh century BC, during a time of Assyrian dominance over Judah..
Of greater value to most preachers will be Deuteronomy by J.C. McConville, part of the new Apollos Old Testament Commentary imprint from InterVarsity Press. McConville is Senior Lecturer in Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He makes the case for Deuteronomy as a spiritual and social blueprint for God’s people, one that has continuing significance for today’s church. The work provides a translation, textual and exegetical notes, a discussion of forms and structure, and commentary and explanation for each section of Deuteronomy.
Also of great interest to the preacher will be the commentary on Deuteronomy by Doug McIntosh, part of the Holman Old Testament Commentary (Broadman & Holman). These volumes are designed specifically for the preacher-teacher, and provide practical interpretations and summaries of the text, along with useful outlines, illustrations and resources which will be of real value to the preacher. McIntosh is senior pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church in Atlanta.
How One Pastor Uses Various English Versions of the Bible
The Bible is the essential tool for preachers. It is as essential to us as a stethoscope is to a physician. The question that comes up often today is which Bible, which English Bible versions, are essential to preachers of the Word?
For me the answer covers three types of translations. First there are the essentially “literal” translations that I find are necessary for exegesis. Since I grew up with and was educated on the RSV, I continue to use this translation. This translation is “in” me like no other. It is very accurate and continues the rhetorical power of the KJV.
Recently I have enjoyed the English Standard Version, an excellent update of the RSV. I also make use of the NASB and NRSV when I am studying a passage. Literal translations tend to be transparent to the original, and that is a real plus for the preacher whether or not one knows Hebrew or Greek.
I also enjoy dynamic or literary translations. These translations are easier to read and understand than literal translations; their most common characteristic is clear, stylish English. Among my favorites are the NIV, NLT and REB. Of these three, I use the NIV most often. It has a very good English style, and the available resources based on the NIV are superb. Again, dynamic translations are more readable and are a great help when literal translations sound “stuffy”.
How a translation sounds when read aloud has become very important to me. This is a very personal matter of choice, but I prefer translations that are elegant or have a good clear English style for pulpit exposition. So I use either the RSV, ESV, NRSV, or NIV for reading a passage aloud during worship. For Bible studies, I use either the ESV or RSV.
Many of you will use these or make other decisions, but I do prefer the translations in the Tyndale/KJV tradition for public reading of the Scriptures. These translations continue the beauty and power of the KJV and are at the same time very accurate. On the other hand, there are times the clarity, dignity and contemporary English style of the NIV cannot be surpassed by other translations.
We are blessed to have so many translations of the Bible into English. They are essential tools in our preaching ministry. I wouldn’t want to do without any of them! (by W. Clay Knick, Hopewell United Methodist Church, Dry Fork, VA)
Another helpful series from IVP is The Bible Speaks Today, which offers extended expositions of books from the Old and New Testament. A new contribution to that series is The Message of Ezekiel by Christopher J.H. Wright, international ministry director of the Langham Partnership and former professor at All Nations Christian College. Wright’s volume is an outstanding treatment of the book of Ezekiel which will be an essential resource for preachers dealing with this fascinating prophetic book.
Yet another fine commentary series which continues to take shape is The New American Commentary (Broadman & Holman). Gerald L. Borchert is author of the volume on John 12-21. Borchert, who teaches at Northern Baptist Seminary, is an outstanding writer who provides a useful exegetical and theological exposition of this portion of the fourth gospel.
An interesting series from Baker Academic is Encountering Biblical Studies, which saw two new releases this year: Readings from the Ancient Near East by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, and Encountering the Book of Hebrews by Donald A. Hagner. The former volume is a collection of primary sources for Old Testament study, which is likely to attract the more serious biblical student. Hagner’s work is a unique exposition of Hebrews which is designed as a textbook but which could be of practical value to the preacher who is planning a sermon series from that New Testament book.
A series every preacher should own is the John Phillips Commentary Series from Kregel. Phillips is a gifted Bible teacher with remarkable insights into God’s Word, and these “Exploring” volumes contain the culmination of his life-long study of scripture. Recent volumes produced by Kregel include volumes on John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and two volumes on the Psalms. The books are filled with practical application as well as illustrations, outlines and other useful preaching resources.
The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans) is an excellent tool for any preacher whose sermon schedule is guided by the Revised Common Lectionary. These three volumes provide exegetical essays that cover every biblical text included in the three-year cycle. A wide variety of contributors (primarily mainline scholars but including a selection of evangelical writers) are involved, among them Elizabeth Achtemeier, Ron Allen, Gabriel Fackre, Sifney Greidanus, Martin Marty, Earl Palmer, and William Willimon. The series is edited by Roger Van Harn, a retired Christian Reformed pastor.
Finally, many individual commentaries are published from year to year, but one that may be of special interest this year is the 40th anniversary edition of the Epistle to the Philippians by Karl Barth (Westminster John Knox). Barth’s was one of the most influential theological voices of the past century, and this volume is one of the few examples of his interpretation of an entire biblical book. Preachers will find much of value in the insights contained in this brief commentary.
A few centuries ago, Bible translators faced the possibility of being burned at the stake. These days, they are more likely to face a commercial boycott and hostile websites.