It may seem unlikely that Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson and Rolling Stone Magazine would have much of anything in common. Sure, both are seeking to make an impact upon American culture by communicating particular messages and beliefs. But that is like saying that Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush are similar because they both desire to motivate and persuade a particular group of people.
Granted, it has been for very different reasons, but James Dobson and Rolling Stone have found at least a bit of common ground in that both recently have been at odds with the relatively new and somewhat controversial TNIV. “The TNI…what?” was the response I received most when attempting to gather thoughts and opinions from Presbyterian friends. I have to admit, upon first hearing of it, I thought the T stood for “Teen.” It doesn’t.
The TNIV is Today’s New International Version of the Bible, an update (though even the use of the word “update” seems to be somewhat controversial as it relates to unfolding drama of the translation) of the “most widely read Bible in the English speaking world,” the NIV. “The committee that prepared the TNIV was not at all at work attempting to put out a new version. We were simply attempting to do an update of the NIV,” says John Stek. Stek is the chair of the CBT, The Committee on Bible Translation, responsible for the older NIV and for the new TNIV. The NIV was first published in 1978 and previously had been updated twice. This most recent update, according to Stek, meant, “bringing [the NIV] up to date in terms of scholarship and language shifts that have taken place over the past fifty years or so.”
Updating shifts in meaning and language is not unique to Bible translation. In the ten years between 1993 and 2003 Webster’s Dictionary made more than 100,000 changes and added more than 10,000 new words and phrases. One has only to think of such words such as icon (religious image or computer term?) to realize that these updates are necessary in order to effectively communicate with a changing world and a generation being raised in the midst of the newer, rather than more traditional, meanings.
One of the primary goals in this update, according to Zondervan, publisher of the TNIV (as well as the NIV), is to reach 18-34 year olds, who are purported to be leaving the church in record numbers. A recent study by the Barna Research Group suggests, “despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years — and often beyond that.”1 According to the study, “twentysomethings continue to be the most spiritually independent and resistant age group in America.” That spiritual independence is demonstrated in, “significantly lower levels of church attendance, time spent alone studying and reading the Bible, volunteering to help churches, donations to churches, Sunday school and small group involvement, and use of Christian media (including television, radio and magazines)” according to the Barna study.
In the TNIV “we believe we are going to deliver to [18-34 year olds] a translation that speaks clearly and accurately without dumbing down the Bible, in their language and in a way in which they’ll connect with the Bible and, in turn, connect with the living God” said Paul Caminiti, Zondervan’s vice president and publisher of Bibles, on a PBS segment on the TNIV Bible.
“English is always changing. As a result, we must continue the work of translation to guarantee that the Bible is accurately communicated in the language of the day,” explains Dr. Ronald Youngblood, one of the original NIV translators, retired professor of Bethel Theological Seminary and one of the translators of the TNIV.
Of the eleven current members of the CBT one is a woman. All are either current or retired professors of such respected centers of evangelicalism as Wheaton College Graduate School, Westmont College, and Calvin Theological Seminary. Five of the members were translators of the original NIV.2
So it may come as a surprise that during the past ten years of its journey, the ride of the TNIV has been anything but smooth. Critique did not come from outside, however, but from among the very ranks of the NIV faithful.
One of the chief scholarly critiques came from Wayne Grudem, research professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary, who formerly spent 20 years teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. “I do not consider the TNIV a trustworthy Bible translation because of its policy of using gender-neutral terms in English to translate male-specific terms in the original Greek and Hebrew texts” Grudem stated when asked to comment on the TNIV. “This removes meaning that God intended us to see in his Word, and it pluralizes thousands of verses that talk about individual responsibility before God and individual relationship with God.”3
A statement released by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson argued that though being “neither a theologian nor a linguist,” and therefore unqualified to make his own assessment of the TNIV, he had “sufficient feedback from a large number of evangelical scholars” to conclude that “this new work is a step backward in the field of biblical translation.”4
What began as response by 36 Christian leaders opposing the TNIV grew into a joint statement by 100 Christian leaders including such well-known names as James Dobson, Charles Colson, Jack Hayford, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul.
Seeking to respond to these critics who accuse it of being “hijacked by liberal feminism,” Zondervan describes the TNIV as a “gender accurate” translation as opposed to a “gender neutral” translation. This means that the TNIV “uses generic language only where the meaning of the text was intended to include both men and women.”5 Seeking safety in numbers, the TNIV defense further states, “half of all major Bible translations use some gender-accurate language.”
According to the International Bible Society and Zondervan officials, there is only a seven percent change between the NIV and the TNIV, with much of that found in the updating of the words and phrases to more modern English. Because of that, Stek continued, “it is a bit embarrassing to present it as if it were a new translation. It is not. It is simply a revision of the NIV.” It was “the shift to inclusive language–which is happening across the board, that was simply a part of our updating the language–that’s what got all the attention.” It got so much attention, in fact, that instead of replacing the NIV with the newer edition. Zondervan and IBS have committed to continue to publish the NIV without change.6
Not all evangelical voices are opposed to the TNIV. The TNIV Web site (www.tniv.org), on an entire page dedicated to positive reviews, provides responses from such respected voices as John Ortberg, author and teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, author Phillip Yancey, preacher, evangelist and author John Stott, Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford and Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
That same desire to reach today’s young people with the life-changing message of the gospel was what brought Rolling Stone Magazine into the fray–and what turned out to be a publicity boon for the TNIV. As part of its $1 million dollar advertising campaign for the release of the TNIV, Zondervan had purchased ad space in Rolling Stone Magazine. However, just weeks before the ad was scheduled to run, Rolling Stone backed out. The rationale behind the decision was based on the magazine’s assertion that it is “not in the business of publishing advertising for religious messages.”7 The ad itself did not use the word ‘God,’ but featured a twentysomething guy, seeming to ponder life, and the tagline, “Timeless Truth; Today’s Language.”
But two weeks later, Rolling Stone changed its mind again and agreed to run the ad, stating an internal miscommunication as the basis for the previous misstatement.8 Rather than having a negative impact, the Rolling Stone controversy caused such an increase in demand for the TNIV that Zondervan actually pushed up its release date. When was the last time you saw people lining up outside a bookstore to get a Bible?
“The TNIV represents an important step in the ongoing effort to help the Scriptures speak with power to the present generation,” says Princeton Theological Seminary’s Ross Wagner, assistant professor of New Testament. “The TNIV will be a great gift to the church, particularly as we seek to reach today’s young people with the life-changing message of the gospel.”9
May it be so.
Erin Dunigan is in the midst of waiting to see where God’s call leads next. In the meantime she is part writer, photographer, and website developer who takes every chance she gets to travel the world but otherwise lives in Newport Beach, Calif.
1 www.barna.org , “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years”
2 Based on info found at http://www.tniv.info/story/cbtmembers.php .
3 Grudem points to a categorized list of 3,686 examples of inappropriate translations in the TNIV in his booklet, Why Is My Choice of a Bible Translation So Important? (available from www.cbmw.org ) or posted at www.GenderNeutralBibles.com .
4 www.family.org/welcome/press/a0019505.cfm , Today’s New International Version (TNIV) of the Bible, Press release from February 6, 2002.
5 www.tniv.org , “Common TNIV Bible Questions and Answers.
7 “Ad for a Bible doesn’t fit,” by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, Jan. 17, 2005.
8 From statement to USA Today January 24, 2005, made by Lisa Dallos, spokesperson for Rolling Stone’s parent company.
9 From the Positive Reviews section of the TNIV Web site, www.tniv.org.