Friday, 17 June 2011

Southern Baptists, Bible Translations, and the Condemnation of the NIV

A majority of the men at the Southern Baptist Convention today condemned the New International Version on the basis that it is not a faithful translation of the word of God.

At issue is whether men must translate with something like “goodwill to men” rather than “goodwill to people,” or whether men must translate that God wants all men to be saved rather than all people, or whether we must always refer to the Israelites as the “sons of Israel” instead of “children of Israel.”

In formal Greek linguistic categories, the nouns and pronouns in question are in the masculine, but nonetheless convey the inclusion of women. The NIV does not always render these nouns and pronouns with their corresponding masculine forms, but rather with English words which convey the same meaning as the Greek.

Because of NIV’s tendency to render the meaning of the Greek rather than slavishly reproducing formal masculine linguistic categories, certain influential men brought their case against the NIV before the Southern Baptist brethren. The resolution narrowly passed by the votes of a few men.

Ironically, the version most closely associated with Southern Baptist is the HCSB which translates many of these same passages similarly as NIV.

The fault lies with a handful of men, sometimes scholarly ones, who innocently say, “I prefer a more literal version such as the ESV.” Well intentioned laymen and pastors combine this innocent statement with their rightly placed belief in inerrancy, and conclude, mistakenly, that literal versions are theologically preferable, while anything less is liberal.

Let those men who study these issues be more cautious about how they promote certain Bible versions. There’s no such thing as the one best version. There is, however, such a thing as the best version for a particular need:

  • literal versions are to be preferred for exact and detailed study involving vocabulary and syntax (ESV ASV NASU)
  • dynamic equivalent versions are to be preferred for lengthy or protracted or speed reading, such as reading-the-Bible-in-a-year programs, or for evangelizing men (NLT TEV)
  • middle-of-the-road translations for Bible memorization or for public reading (NIV NRSV)

We men who teach the Bible need to stop saying that “literal translations are best for those men who believe in inerrancy.”

Scholarly men need to stop providing fodder for the demagoguery of translation theory, because what they say will produce misguided resolutions such as what was passed at the Southern Baptist Convention today. This is so unfortunate because misguided resolutions trivialize other resolutions that good men might pass at the convention. For example, the men of the Southern Baptist Convention rightly reaffirmed their belief in hell, but they did so while condemning the NIV. How can men take one resolution seriously when the other is so unfounded?

Another unintended consequence of this misguided resolution is to reinforce the KJV-only laymen and churches in their suspicion against “untrustworthy” versions. The resolution sets back churches at least a year or two in the effort to get into the hands of our churchmen a more accurate translation than the 400 year old linguistically outdated KJV.

Just for clarification, all of my aforementioned references to “men” are meant to imply women as well and are included to illustrate that men don’t talk the way that the authors of the resolution expect men to translate.


Anonymous said...

I think instead of NASU, you may have meant NASV in the list of literal versions.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

NASU = NASupdated = NAS95

Steve Lemke said...

Let me begin by acknowledging that you're a much greater expert than me on translation issues. I didn't vote on this resolution, however, I'm not a fan of the translation theory of the new NIV, either. (I recognize that one of your heroes was involved in this translation --sorry about that). In case you're not aware of it, resolutions at the SBC have approxmiately zero force -- i.e., they're just the expression of opinion of a particular convention meeting. In this case, the resolution didn't even come from the Resolutions Committee, but from the floor by a small church pastor from Indiana.

To be a little more precise, the resolution did not "condemn" the TNIV, but rather expressed "profound disappointment" about the gender neutral language in the new translation. Since the SBC had a resolution against the TNIV is 2002,this should hardly be a surprise. I imagine that some would be conccerned that gender neutral language about persons could easily lead (and why not?) to gender neutral language about God.

I do share the concern that the translator's theological presuppositions get read into such looser translations. We've had this conversation before, but since I am very interested in biblical anthropology, I notice it in words like "soul" and "spirit" being translated as "person," rather than showing the reader the lieral meaning of the word. It may be that "soul" is representing the whole person from a soulish perspective, but at least I can see that and infer that myself rather than being told what it might mean, depending on whether the translator affirms a trichotomous, dichotomous, or psychosomatic unity perspective on anthropology. In this area, I would rather see the more literal translation than the product of the translator's theological presuppositions.

Steven R. Bratcher said...

I grew up in a Baptist church, I attend a Free Will Baptist bible college, both grandfathers were Baptist Deacons and so on.

I find it a little crazy that Baptists have to get together and affirm that they believe in hell, and spend time fussing about a translation of the bible that makes he into they or man into people.

There are so many lost, so many hurting and an enemy that has a plan for us just like God has a plan for us, but his is not so good. Why invest the time and effort to affirm what people have been aware of since the bible was written. There is a hell, we know this, go and tell.

I have a frind who said to me that religion is simply groups of people who get together and decide what part of the bible they are going to quit beliving in. I laughed at that, till I realized how true it was.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Regarding souls, I strongly disagree that our English word soul means exactly the same thing as the Greek word ψυχη. ψυχη means different things in different contexts, just as "soul" means different things in English contexts. So, there is no point in always rendering ψυχη as soul. Same with the word λογος--by no means does it mean exactly the same thing as the English word "word."

This fact makes "formal equivalent" translations impractical. Besides, even the HSCB which is so closely associated with Southern Baptists, is not consistently formal equivalent.

HCSB: "Unless those days were limited, NO ONE (σαρξ = no flesh) no one would survive."

Note that σαρξ (flesh) is feminine, but that HCSB not only demotes the noun to a pronoun, but switches its gender so that it is no longer feminine!

CharlieDale said...


I myself would have voted against the resolution for basically the same reason that Russell Moore stated, that is, it's not very important.

But just to clarify: The resolution was about the NIV2011, not the "old" NIV. I'm completely ignorant about the NIV2011. I don't know if the issue really is about "no ONE comes to the Father but by Me" or if it's about more important issues that actually should retain gender clarification. You would know better.

Curious, what's your opinion on the TNIV? Was the 2002 resolution against it justified?

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Pastor Charlie, I really don't care about gender issues in translation--so long as the translation conveys the meaning of the text.

The TNIV is trustworthy in that it conveys the meaning of the text, at least as well as any other modern translation, if not better. Some may fault it for not reflecting the grammatical categories of the Greek, but no translation is capable of doing so consistently. Some translations have a bent to do so, but TNIV will have smoother English in such cases.

I carry my TNIV to church, just because it is an $80 edition that I got for $20. :)

CharlieDale said...

You've been carrying the TNIV into our church???

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Heh, heh, heh. I figure it's more accurate than the KJV translation which we have in some of our Sunday School literature! :)

This being the case, one wonders if SBC will ever pass a resolution stating that it can no longer commend the KJV. ;)

Gary said...

Which Christian denomination today is closest to the Early Church of the Apostles?

I would suggest that you consider taking the following approach to answer the above question. Look at the doctrinal statement of each Christian denomination and ask these questions:

1. Do the beliefs/doctrines of this Church seem compatible with the plain, simple rendering of Scripture?

Any belief or doctrine that requires that the plain, simple rendering of multiple passages of Scripture be twisted/contorted and re-interpreted to fit with the Church's doctrine, is suspect.

2. Any Church which claims that multiple passages of Holy Scripture were poorly translated, in every major English translation of the Bible since William Tyndale, either due to unintentional incompetence or due to an intentional conspiracy to translate the Bible with a particular theological bias, should be considered suspect.

No Bible translator for the last several hundred years has been in danger of having his head chopped off for not translating the Bible in deference to the King's Church and the King's theological positions. Modern Bible translators are more concerned with "getting it right" than with angering/alienating a particular denomination. With the advent of the world-wide web, it is impossible for anyone to intelligently argue that a conspiracy exists today among ALL Bible translators to perpetuate the "lies" of past translators.

3. Compare the beliefs of each Church with the beliefs of the Early Christian Church. Are they similar or very different? Is it really possible that the entire Christian Church became apostate with the death of the last Apostle, so that ALL early Christian writings, save the Bible, are untrustworthy? Are the writings of the early Christians completely useless in determining true Apostolic doctrine and practice as some denominations assert?

I personally have used the above criteria to come to the conclusion that the Evangelical Lutheran Church comes the closest to the beliefs and practices of the Early Apostolic Christian Church. If you can prove to me, using the criteria above, that another Church/denomination is even closer...I am all ears!

Clayton said...
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