I am making a change in the Bible translation I use in preaching – from the New International Version (NIV) to the English Standard Version (ESV). I have used the NIV for about 25 years because it was widely considered the best combination of an accurate translation and easy to understand English. This is why the NIV was so well received by conservative Christians and churches of various denominations, and became the best-selling English translation. However, many individuals, churches, and denominations are now evaluating whether to continue using the NIV in light of recent changes that have been made to it.
The people responsible for translating and publishing the NIV have just released an updated version that is commonly referred to as the NIV 2011. The translation that has been used for the past 27 years is now being called the NIV 1984, but will no longer be published. In fact, as soon as this new NIV 2011 became available earlier this year, Zondervan (its publisher) began removing the NIV 1984 edition from bookstore shelves. The new NIV 2011 is now being marketed simply as the NIV. That means if you go into a bookstore today to buy an NIV Bible, you will be purchasing an NIV 2011, without any indication on the box that it is an updated NIV.
This new NIV 2011 has not been well received by many evangelical scholars, including Southern Baptists. This controversy comes on the heels of a 2005 update, called Today’s NIV (TNIV), which was so strongly condemned that Zondervan stopped publishing it in the USA. Most of the criticism has been aimed at the “gender-neutral” language of these updated versions. This refers to changes in how some masculine words in the original Greek and Hebrew are translated. For example, words such as “man” and “he” have historically been translated literally as “man” and “he” to describe people in general. But the NIV 2011 sometimes uses gender-inclusive terms such as “humankind,” “'human being,” “person,” etc. One example is found in Revelation 3:20:
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (NIV 1984)
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. (NIV 2011)
Critics point out that by using gender-inclusive language, the 2011 update makes that verse less personal. Also, the modern English usage of the singular “they” can be misleading. Of even greater concern is how the NIV 2011 fails to translate the Hebrew and Greek words literally, as the NIV 1984 did, and as most major translations do. Some critics have also expressed concern that the translators of the NIV 2011 appear to have been too concerned about being “politically correct” at the expense of translation accuracy.
I believe that some of the criticism leveled against the NIV 2011 has been too severe. All the translators of the NIV 2011 are conservative, evangelical scholars who believe in the full inspiration and infallibility of the Bible. Their stated goal is to be faithful to both the original languages and to current English usage. However, I agree that in some places they appear to have sacrificed translation accuracy in order to adapt to today’s emphasis on language being more gender-neutral.
The real controversy over the NIV 2011 is more about translation philosophy than anything. The ESV translators state their translation philosophy in the preface of each ESV Bible: The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as much 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. In contrast to the ESV, some Bible versions [such as the NIV] have followed a “thought-for-thought” rather than “word-for-word” translation philosophy, emphasizing “dynamic equivalence” rather than the “essentially literal” meaning of the original. A “thought-for-thought” translation is of necessity more inclined to reflect the interpretative opinions of the translator and the influences of contemporary culture. Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between “formal equivalence” in expression and “functional equivalence” in communication, and the ESV is no exception. Within this framework we have sought to be “as literal as possible” while maintaining clarity of expression and literary excellence. As an essentially literal translation, then, the ESV seeks to carry over every possible nuance of meaning in the original words of Scripture into our own language. As such, the ESV is ideally suited for in-depth study of the Bible. Indeed, with its emphasis on literary excellence, the ESV is equally suited for public reading and preaching, for private reading and reflection, for both academic and devotional study, and for Scripture memorization.
The NIV translators state their translation philosophy in the preface of each NIV Bible: The updated NIV you now have in your hands builds on both the original NIV and the TNIV and represents the latest effort of the committee to articulate God’s unchanging Word in the way the original authors might have said it had they been speaking in English to the global English-speaking audience today. The first concern of the translators has continued to be the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers. This has moved the translators to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts.
In light of the above stated translation philosophies, I believe that the ESV’s goal to be an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as much as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer will give us a more accurate translation than the NIV’s stated intent to go beyond a formal word-for-word rendering of the original texts by trying to discern how the original authors might have said it had they been speaking in English.
I want to emphasize that the NIV 2011 is still a good translation. I will read it and use it along with other translations as I study. It is important that we recognize that all translations of the Bible have value to Christians. John Piper is one of the most outspoken promoters of the ESV and critics of the NIV (all editions). But Piper believes all translations are the Word of God and of value: I would rather have people read any translation of the Bible—no matter how weak—than to read no translation of the Bible. If there could be only one translation in English, I would rather it be my least favorite than that there be none. God uses every version to bless people and save people. . . . But even though the weakest translation is precious, and is used by God to save and strengthen sinful people, better translations would be a great blessing to the church and an honor to Christ.
The ESV is becoming a great blessing to the church in the 21st century. It is the preferred translation of many evangelical leaders such as James MacDonald, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul. Southern Baptist endorsers include former SBC president Jack Graham, and current seminary presidents Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson. The ESV has become the most commonly used translation in many evangelical seminaries, including Southern Baptist’s Southern and Southeastern seminaries. It is also widely used in conservative Christian universities like Anderson and North Greenville of the SC Baptist Convention. In light of the growing popularity of the ESV, it may soon surpass the NIV as the most widely used and best-selling English translation of the Bible.
I am making the switch to the ESV because I think it is a better translation than the NIV. Some members of our church have been using the ESV for several years. Some are using the ESV Study Bible, which I recommended to our church a couple of years ago as the best study Bible available today. If you do not have an ESV Bible, I encourage you to get one and give it a try. It would make a great Christmas present for yourself or anyone on your gift list.
Please join with me in prayer that the ESV will be, in the words of John Piper, a great blessing to our church and an honor to Christ.