Problems With the NIV 2011 Translation?

In our world of digital Bibles of every translation and style, the choice of translations might not seem like a big deal. If you find you’re not really getting into a particular translation, just switch to a different version. And there are an awful lot to choose from: KJV (King James Version), ASV (American Standard Version), CEV (Contemporary English Version), The Message, ESV (English Standard Version), RSV (Revised Standard Version) and the NIV (New International Version).

Each translation stems from the different approaches to translating the original Hebrew or Greek text. Some like the RSV, ASV, KJV and ESV strive to be a very literal translation, what’s called Formal Equivalence. Others like the NIV and CEV use Dynamic Equivalence, trying to convey the thoughts and ideas of the text. And then there are paraphrase versions like the Message and The Living Bible which use modern language to capture the emotion the original readers felt.

While it may seem like personal preference, the choice of translation is important. If you’re doing serious Bible study, it’s best to stay away from paraphrased versions. You’ll want to find a version that stays as true to the original translation as possible. But how do you know which ones are best?

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s (LCMS) Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) recently released a statement regarding the popular NIV 2011 translation. The NIV translation has been one of the most widely used translations, and the 1984 edition is one of the most popular (even making it into the 1980s LCMS Lutheran Worship Hymnal). But the recent 2011 revision of the NIV has apparently raised some concerns. Their four-page statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, focuses on the revision’s use of “inclusive language,” or plural pronouns in place of singular masculine pronouns (man instead of mankind, them instead of him, etc).

As an example,

Psalm 8:4-5 in NIV 2011 reads: “What is mankind [collective noun substitution for “man”] that you are mindful of them [plural substitution for “him”], Human beings [plural noun substitution for “son of man”] that you care for them [plural substitution for “him”]? You have made them [plural substitution for “him”] a little lower than the angels and crowned them [plural substitution for “him”] with glory and honor.”

Once again, the rationale for the translation changes seems to be the desire to emphasize a universal truth about all humanity—that humankind has received glory and honor as the crown of creation. The translation decisions, however, obfuscate other things. First, and most importantly, the decision to use plurals here vitiates the Messianic meaning of this psalm, its particular application to Christ. Hebrews 2:5-9 quotes Ps 8:4-5 and notes that these verses testify to our Lord Jesus. He is the Man to whom the Lord gives all glory and honor; the Son of Man to whom all creation is subject. He is the One who exceeds the angels in glory and honor, even though he was made to be lower than them for our salvation.

Second, we should note that the substitution of a generic term like “human being” or “human beings” for “son of man” (a consistent pattern in NIV 2011), impoverishes the understanding of “Son of Man” as the self-designation our Lord uses throughout the Gospels. Jesus uses a term (a particular idiom, “son of man”) from the Old Testament that indicates full humanity and refers it to himself. This is of great importance, especially when it is seen in the light of Daniel 7:13-14. There that same term, “son of man,” is used in a prophecy of our Savior’s incarnation, where “one like a son of man” is “given dominion and glory and a kingdom” in which all nations are included under a rule that shall never be destroyed.

The use of inclusive language in NIV 2011 creates the potential for minimizing the particularity of biblical revelation and, more seriously, at times undermines the saving revelation of Christ as the promised Savior of humankind. Pastors and congregations of the LCMS should be aware of this serious weakness. In our judgment this makes it inappropriate for NIV 2011 to be used as a lectionary Bible or as a Bible to be generally recommended to the laity of our church.

While the LCMS CTCR has in the past declined to officially endorse a particular Bible translation, they have recommended the ESV, the NASV and the NKJV versions as being preferable and recently, the LCMS has published the Lutheran Study Bible in ESV.

I grew up reading the NIV 1984 version in school and church and started reading the NIV 2011 when it was released last year. I hadn’t given much thought to the issues raised in the CTCR document. In fact, I probably could have continued reading the NIV 2011 for years to come and probably not notice. But then, I am by no means a theologian. When you stop to look closely at a text and the theological implications it contains, the choice of translation matters a great deal.

What I’d really like to know is, especially from other worship leaders and pastors out there, what translation(s) do you use and why? 

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

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