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The battle for the Bible

Zondervan, IBS claim concern over the "gender-accurate" Bible is merely a false alarm, but critics will not back down

Zondervan Publishing House has come a long way from its founding in 1931, when two brothers, Bernie and Pat Zondervan, decided to sell books from their mother's farmhouse in western Michigan. Now Zondervan is the largest publisher of Christian media products in the world.

The company's $13 million glass-enclosed headquarters is built on 20 scenic acres in Grand Rapids, Mich. Visitors to the 350,000-square-foot building are greeted by a life-size bronze sculpture in the building's lobby, depicting Jesus washing the apostle Peter's feet. Soaring two-story windows and skylights infuse the building's atrium and concourses with natural light. Zondervan says its sprawling headquarters required more than 16,000 square feet of windows, 10,000 square yards of carpet, and two miles of modular office partition walls.

Zondervan's 300 headquarters employees began enjoying the new facilities in 1992, 19 years after the company began publishing the New International Version Bible (NIV). A steady cash flow provided in part by that Bible made Zondervan an attractive takeover target. In 1988 HarperCollins bought Zondervan; HarperCollins is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's The News Corporation, which owns Fox Television, Twentieth Century Fox, TV Guide, and other media properties worldwide.

And the NIV is not the only Bible Zondervan publishes. Many mainline churches prize Zondervan's New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), even though theological conservatives have expressed concern about both the translation of key passages concerning Christ's divinity and the NRSV's unisex language.

Appealing to both evangelicals and theological liberals, Zondervan has licked the platter clean: Zondervan notes that its NIV dominates the "top 10" best-selling list of Bibles--and that doesn't include sales of the NRSV.

Clearly Zondervan is proud of, and committed to defending, the reputation of the name NIV. When WORLD reported in its March 29 issue that the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT)--the committee with exclusive authority over the NIV, and the group to which Zondervan is contractually bound--had decided to change the NIV to a unisex version, leading theologians and Zondervan both took notice.

Author J.I. Packer, after examining specific changes made by the CBT, stated that the "adjustments made by what I call the feminist edition are not made in the interests of legitimate translation procedure. These changes have been made to pander to a cultural prejudice that I hope will be short-lived."

Zondervan issued a statement that did not note any factual inaccuracies in WORLD's article but emphasized Zondervan's distinguished history, criticized WORLD's tone and methodology, and stated that "we intend in no way to advance a particular social agenda or stray from the original biblical texts" (see page 17).

WORLD called Jonathan Petersen, Zondervan's director of corporate affairs, to give him the opportunity to be specific about Zondervan's concerns:

nWhen asked to choose Zondervan's own name for the new version of the NIV--since Zondervan charged that the terms "inclusive," "unisex," and "gender-neutral" were unfair--Mr. Petersen said, "We would characterize it as the 'gender-accurate version.'" When asked whether calling the new version "gender-accurate" indicates that Zondervan's current translation is gender-inaccurate, Mr. Petersen said, "It's unfortunate that the English language is not as pinpoint as we'd like it to be."

nWhen asked whether publication of the new version was a done deal, Mr. Petersen said, "We don't have it in our production pipeline that we are coming out with a gender-accurate Bible." Generally, publishing industry production pipelines reflect books that are within a year of publication; the CBT doesn't expect its revision to be out for another three to four years.

nWhen asked whether that long-range decision had been made, Mr. Petersen said, "If the Bible scholars recommend that this whole gender issue needs to go in this direction, we will make a decision at that time." CBT members, however, have already made that recommendation--in 1992.

Although Zondervan has chosen not to say so publicly, at least three pieces of evidence suggest the company is philosophically committed to unisex language:

The first is Zondervan's editorial style sheet, part of which shows book authors how the publisher expects them to deal with language describing the sexes. When WORLD requested the style sheet, Mr. Petersen sent this one-sentence response: "Generally, masculine pronouns used by authors as generic placemarkers are suggested to be avoided whenever they are not specifically needed or germane to the author's content."

Yet, the section of the style sheet that deals with sex-specific language, which WORLD obtained from another source, begins with a statement about "the growing awareness of subtle sexist messages in language" and goes into three pages of dos and don'ts; for example, Zondervan writers are to use humanity, people, human beings, or humankind in place of man or mankind.

A second sign that Zondervan approves of "inclusive-language" Bibles: The company not only already publishes the NRSV but also puts out an easy-reader, unisex variant of the NIV, the New International Reader's Version (NIrV), which CBT secretary Kenneth Barker and other committee members helped to produce. Publicity for the NIrV, published last year, also provides evidence that Zondervan doesn't like to draw attention to the changes it has made.

The NIrV is described on Zondervan's website merely as "a simplification of the NIV." In a two-page press release announcing that David C. Cook was adopting the NIrV for use in its Bible-in-Life Sunday School materials for younger children beginning in September of 1997, Zondervan made no mention of the version's "gender-accurate" revisions. Nor is there any indication of the changes on the cover, title page, or introductory pages of the NIrV itself. "That was not the purpose of it, so why would we put it on the cover?" Zondervan spokesman Judy Waggoner argued.

The third piece of evidence, of course, involves Zondervan's contractual relation with the CBT, which is committed to what J.I. Packer calls the "feminist edition." The publisher is in an awkward position. The CBT, according to Dean Merrill, vice president and publisher at the International Bible Society (IBS), "created and continues to maintain the text of the NIV." The responsibility for revisions to the text is "their decision to make all the way." As the CBT's Larry Walker says, Zondervan must "take what we give them," a statement that Zondervan's Ms. Waggoner admits "in essence is true."

CBT made the decision to go with "inclusive language" in 1992. By 1995 the CBT had finished work on the British version of an inclusive-language New Testament, and in 1996 the group signed off on the whole Bible. Both are now available in Great Britain, where they are published by Hodder & Stoughton under the name NIV Inclusive Language Version.

If Zondervan had a problem with the direction that CBT was going, the company could have made it known. But in 1995, after the "inclusive-language" revision was well under way, Zondervan extended its contract with the International Bible Society to publish the NIV for another 28 years. That contract commits Zondervan to its publishing partnership with the International Bible Society and CBT.

Zondervan now has to find a way to market the feminist edition in a way that will not alienate conservative evangelicals. John Stek, chairman of the CBT, and one of two remaining members who have served from the very beginning, said Zondervan is "hesitant about making [the "inclusive-language" version] widely known." According to Mr. Stek, Zondervan has been getting "one signal from one source, and one from another" about the acceptability of the changes.

Walking the tightrope between the desire of the CBT for a version "that speaks to the 21st century" and the desire of conservative evangelicals for an accurate Bible translation is a public-relations problem for the publisher more than it is for the scholars at CBT: "Scholars are not PR people," the CBT's Larry Walker said.

Zondervan continues to say, "No decision has been made to publish a gender-accurate version, or to publish two. We are in the process of doing market research." At the same time, fans of the feminist edition have pushed Zondervan to make its commitment explicit. The journal Priscilla Papers, put out by Christians for Biblical Equality, complained last fall, "There is in the United States a 'deafening silence' about [the British] edition of the NIV from both Zondervan Publishing House and also the copyright holder, the International Bible Society. Why?"

The controversy has rocked Zondervan--but CBT chairman John Stek says, "I'm not aware of it being controversial on the committee."

But George Knight III, a retired professor of New Testament hired by the CBT to respond to some of the proposed changes in Paul's pastoral epistles, argued in a letter to the committee, "We moderns tend to say that to translate without using inclusive language is to be insensitive ... virtually sinful.... Are we sensitive enough to what an insistence on inclusive language implies about the inspired text? Was God inspiring an insensitive use of language that borders on sinfulness? Surely we don't want to suggest that we are more sensitive than God is."

The committee overruled Mr. Knight's objections.

Why would the CBT, along with its publishing partners, IBS and Zondervan, risk the NIV's popularity? Why jeopardize the Bible that since 1986 has been the top-selling version?

According to the CBT's John Stek, there is only one reason: "Within our committee we're just concerned that we have a version that reflects the current state of the language." But when asked how the committee knows that the language has changed, he says, "That's a judgment that is made. It's a judgment based on all kinds of evidence."

Some of the evidence offered to the committee included examples of current English usage in modern literature. But as George Knight points out, many publishers have an "absolute and ironclad policy" requiring the use of unisex language. Usage in books put out by those publishers "gives the impression of a trend," he says, "but it is power brokers who are forcing a trend."

Mr. Knight says the change is driven by something other than concern for English style: "It's choosing an idiom that's politically acceptable," he says. The duty of a translator is "to be sensitive to the nuance the writer wants to maintain," and not merely to find a "word that communicates without reaction or distaste."

In its preface to the British "inclusive-language" NIV, the CBT lays out its translating principles. One of those principles suggests that Mr. Knight's depiction is accurate: "It was recognized that it was often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language when this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit."

Despite the marketing hazards, the CBT is going ahead with its language revisions in general. One CBT member said, however, that any particular changes made in the American edition are still revokable because the whole Bible has not been accepted by the committee yet. That means that individual verses may still be changed in response to criticism.

But deeper questions are raised in a thoughtful letter from Dean Merrill, the new vice president of the NIV copyright-holding International Bible Society. Mr. Merrill, hit by this controversy only two weeks after assuming his position with the IBS, said WORLD concerns were overstated, for the CBT had merely "decided there was little use arguing with the dictionary inside some readers' heads here in the late 1990s. If they were going to balk at the generic use of the word men, then the translators would find a different word to convey what Paul (and the Holy Spirit) had in mind."

Mr. Merrill continued, "Does such editing bring grave peril to the faith? Has the integrity of God's holy and authoritative Word been compromised? Has the grim shadow of a stealth bomber begun to steal over the evangelical countryside? Hardly.... But the slowly turning kaleidoscope of language means we have to keep adjusting the text of God's unchanging revelation, or modern readers will lose the trail. A translator's work, like a mother's, is never done."

Mr. Merrill asserts that great care is being taken in the translation and that "WORLD's fear that 'the result ... may be to cloud the uniqueness of men and women' or that the adjusted version 'is likely to transform understandings of how God views the sexes he created' is, frankly, a false alarm."

That is exactly the right question to ask: Is this a false alarm? Although both Zondervan and the International Bible Society downplay the significance of the CBT's proposed changes, John Piper, senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, says he has two concerns: "If you believe in the verbal inspiration of Scripture you really can't play fast and loose with the words the Holy Spirit chose to inspire." He adds a question: "Is there something about the leadership that God intends for men to have in the church and in the home that is reflected in that language?"

Wayne Grudem, a professor at Trinity Evangelical University, echoes Mr. Piper's concern about tampering with Scripture. "No one can foresee all the different understandings and applications that people will derive from any one of these changes. But what we can say is this: These revisions are not the words God originally caused to be written, and thus they are not the words of God. They are human words that men have substituted for the words of God, and they have no place in the Bible."

Regent College professor J.I. Packer concluded that the revisions are "blurring rather than clarifying the sense of the original. The loss is real and the gain is nil." Readers should examine the chart that compares texts and see for themselves whether Mr. Merrill or Mr. Packer is correct.

Susan Olasky

Susan Olasky

Susan is WORLD’s story coach and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband, Marvin, live in Austin, Texas. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.