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Bailing Out of the Stealth Bible

Facing a revolt in pulpits and pews across the country, Zondervan Publishing House and the International Bible Society abandoned changes in the NIV--all the while maintaining the gender-neutral translation would have been more accurate.

In a surprise development, the board of the International Bible Society announced at 7:00 a.m. on May 27 that it will preserve the current New International Version Bible and discontinue all plans to develop a new, gender-neutral version of the NIV. The IBS board also ordered a revision of its inclusive-language children's Bible, the NIrV, to bring its gender usage into line with the current NIV, and said it would ask a British publisher to yank the NIV inclusive-language edition (NIVI) now being sold in Britain.

Later that day, at a meeting of scholars and publishing executives called earlier by Focus on the Family president James Dobson, presidents of IBS and the Zondervan Publishing House agreed to a statement criticizing "many of the translating decisions" made in the NIVI. The statement also indicated regret that Zondervan did not notify parents that the NIrV had gender-related changes, and noted that Zondervan would refund the purchase price of any NIrVs bought to date.

The decisions essentially repudiated much of the work of the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), which has been working on gender-related NIV revisions since 1992. John Stek and Ken Barker, CBT chairman and secretary, both told WORLD they were not informed of the IBS board decision before the announcement. Mr. Barker and another CBT member, Ron Youngblood, were two of the theologians present at the Dobson meeting, along with Wayne Grudem of Trinity Seminary, Vern Poythress of Westminster Seminary, Ligonier Ministries head R.C. Sproul, Minnesota pastor John Piper, and Indiana pastor Tim Bayly, who is also executive director of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

The decisions came none too soon for Zondervan and IBS. The groups had been trying to ride out a controversy that threatened not only the NIV but the reputations of the organizations themselves. Ever since WORLD reported (March 29) that the CBT had undertaken to make substantial changes in the NIV, weeding out masculine nouns and pronouns and replacing them with neutral substitutes, Zondervan and IBS had been sucked more deeply into a public relations quagmire, and were expressing more and more anger at WORLD for having attracted public attention to their activities and plans.

When the controversy spread to the Southern Baptist Convention, Zondervan and IBS plans to contain the damage started to unravel. Speculation centered on the Baptist Sunday School Board (BSSB) and whether it would continue to use the NIV in its curriculum and sell the NIV in its bookstores. The issue was whether the BSSB would continue to support a Bible translation that, in the words of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler, seemed to have been revised "in order to meet the demands of political correctness and gender inclusivity that we hear called for so much in modern culture." Some Baptist officials speculated that there would be a cautionary resolution passed at the denomination's annual meeting in June.

Here's some significant chronology: On May 19 representatives from IBS and Zondervan flew to Nashville to meet with representatives of the BSSB to try to allay the Board's concerns and restore trust in the NIV. According to Baptist Press (IBS refused to answer WORLD's questions about dates), the IBS executive committee met on May 22 and 24. In an unusual Memorial Day teleconference, the 20-member IBS board of directors voted to issue the statement of withdrawal at 7:00 a.m. the next morning (see sidebar).

The other development unanticipated by Zondervan and IBS crisis managers was the intervention of Focus on the Family. James Dobson first wrote a column in WORLD (May 3) warning against "injecting feminist bias and language into the inspired text." Then, when Focus discovered that its own Odyssey Bible for children had gender-neutral language, Focus decided to withdraw that edition immediately and refund the purchase price. Mr. Dobson then asked the theologians and publishers to meet in Colorado Springs.

As the IBS board was deciding to make its dramatic announcement, the critics of unisex language were holed up in a Colorado Springs Marriott-not far from IBS headquarters-to plan how to convince IBS and Zondervan to change their ways. Mr. Grudem and Mr. Piper bore laptop computers equipped with Greek and Hebrew fonts. They and the others-Mssrs. Sproul, Poythress, Bayly, and WORLD publisher Joel Belz-sat down Monday afternoon and compiled a 10-page list of NIVI mistranslations, a set of translating guidelines for gender-oriented language, and a list of desired publishing commitments. Their goal was for IBS and Zondervan to cease work on the unisex version and to acknowledge that they no longer consider the NIVI and the NIrV to be accurate translations of the Bible. By the time the work was finished it was 2:00 in the morning.

Tension was high by 9:00 the next morning as the group gathered in the lobby of Focus on the Family headquarters. Mr. Barker and Mr. Youngblood from the CBT, along with Lars Dunberg, president of IBS, and Bruce Ryskamp, president and CEO of Zondervan, were being welcomed by Focus's executive vice-president, Charlie Jarvis, who guided the awkward introductions. As one participant said, "It was more like 'hello' than 'nice to meet you.' The tension was very deep."

But a providential social mixer put the tension in perspective. As the main elevator filled to take the group to the third-floor executive conference room, several men held back, wondering if the crowded unit wasn't already too full. "No," the folks on the elevator said, "we'll squeeze." So all 11 men entered, "standing closer than you like to stand with friends," as one put it; "except we weren't all friends just then."

The elevator groaned with its overload, and then inched slowly upward. Inside, eyes watched nervously as the indicator finally registered the third floor-but the door refused to open, and the elevator car shook on its cables. After a warning light flashed, host Jarvis repeatedly pushed the alarm button until the car lurched into motion for a slow ride back to the first floor, where the doors finally opened.

Climbing the stairs to the Focus boardroom, the newly bonded group was perhaps readier than it would have been otherwise to address differences. There was still "a sense of tension and woundedness," Mr. Piper said. "Some of that hurt was expressed" in a time of "free give and take," which was followed by prayer. Then Mr. Piper presented examples of serious mistranslations that he and his colleagues had found in the NIVI and the NIrV.

Presenting first the NIV translation and then the unisex version, he showed changes from the singular to the plural:

"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" (Rev. 3:20, NIV).

"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 them, and they with me" (Rev. 3:20, NIVI).

He showed changes when the groups described were obviously men:

"Every firstborn male in Israel, whether man or animal, is mine"(Num. 8:17a, NIV).

"Every firstborn male in Israel, whether human or animal, is mine ..." (Num. 8:17a, NIVI).

He showed changes that could contribute to confusion about who was eligible to be an apostle:

"Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us" (Acts 1:21, NIV).

"Therefore it is necessary to choose one of those who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us" (Acts 1:21, NIVI).

Although Zondervan and IBS continually said that "references to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit will remain in the masculine gender," Mr. Piper showed changes that called that commitment into question:

"... it is better for you that one man (anthropos in Greek) die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50, NIV).

"... it is better for you that one person die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50, NIVI).

There were other examples as well of how Christ himself was de-gendered:

"For since death came through a man (anthropos), the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man" (1 Cor. 15:21, NIV).

"For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being" (1 Cor. 15:21, NIVI).

The result of the presentation and the discussion afterwards was gratifying to the critics. Wayne Grudem praised the "spirit of the meeting" and the "open and honest discussion" which resulted in "substantial agreement on matters of concern to us." With the IBS board having made its announcement, the way was clear at the meeting for an agreement that "stunned us, frankly," in Mr. Piper's words.

The group's communique, signed by all participants, including those from CBT, IBS, and Zondervan, acknowledged "that many of the translation decisions made by those who produced Hodder and Stoughton's New International Version Inclusive Language Edition in the United Kingdom were not wise choices." The statement called "regrettable and sadly misleading" the phrase in the preface to the NIVI that says "it is often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language." The statement also said it was "regrettable that the NIrV (released also as The Kid's Devotional Bible) was released with a Preface which did not explicitly notify parents that gender-related changes were made in this version."

In addition to admitting problems with the NIVI and the NIrV, the statement agreed that Focus on the Family will immediately stop all usage of the gender-neutral Odyssey Bible, which is based on the International Children's Version published by Word (of Nashville), and will reimburse parents who ask for a refund. "It is our desire, of course, to place the Word of God into the hands of as many people as possible. But our zeal toward that objective will not override our concern for accuracy in biblical translation," said Focus on the Family president James C. Dobson. "We must resist even the subtlest forms of language which would serve a particular cultural agenda."

Zondervan agreed to refund the purchase price of any NIrVs that have been purchased to date, but Zondervan's Jonathan Petersen told Christianity Today, "We don't think it's necessary to recall it.... Our plan is to sell through the current version and then to sell the revised version." Zondervan refused to respond to inquiries from WORLD about the number of copies in print, or how it intended to inform buyers of the current NIrV that it contains inclusive language.

The signers of the statement affirmed crucial principles of Bible translation, including maintaining the generic use of he, him, his, himself, a concession Wayne Grudem says is vital: "It affects thousands of verses." The group also agreed to use "man" to designate the human race, and not to change singulars to plurals, all practices that the NIVI had employed. "I hope that the defenders of the inclusive-language version will not go on saying the NIVI is more accurate in its translation of gender terms," Mr. Grudem said. "It simply is not."

In public statements, however, despite the IBS board statement and the agreement that IBS and Zondervan executives signed-a statement that acknowledges serious problems with the translating approach employed in the development of the gender-neutral NIV-IBS and Zondervan officials have continued to defend the accuracy of the NIVI and the NIrV. On May 27 IBS board chairman Victor Oliver depicted the battle as one of readers versus experts: "It has become very clear that many people in North America don't want the NIV changed, even if many Bible scholars feel a revision could more clearly reflect shifts in English language usage and more precisely render the meaning of the original texts."

Zondervan president Bruce Ryskamp asserted that "the NIrV we publish gives clear, accurate and easily understood expression to the timeless truth of God's Word."

IBS vice president and publisher Dean Merrill wrote on May 30, "We had to ask ourselves if our longstanding quest for precision should give way to our larger mission to serve the church. This, in our view, has not been a question of good Bible versus bad Bible. It has been a question of small degrees of language precision, and of language preference. To defer to the preference of a large number of readers is not to admit error in another preference."

Contributing to the confusion is a ten-page ethics complaint sent by Zondervan executive Jonathan Petersen to a committee of the Evangelical Press Association complaining about WORLD's series of articles on the NIV.

The twin statements of May 27, while they represent enormous progress in the battle for the Bible, do leave some questions unanswered. For instance, what does the IBS action mean for the Committee on Bible Translation, which has legal control over the text of the NIV? CBT Chairman John Stek expressed disappointment with the IBS statement and said, "It raises new questions about how we relate to IBS, which we will have to talk through and resolve." He said he "wouldn't be surprised" if there were resignations from CBT, but added, "I can't predict what others might do."

CBT secretary Ken Barker also would not speculate to WORLD about whether there would be resignations. During a half-hour conversation Mr. Barker said, "I fully support the IBS news release and everything in it." He also said he "fully supports the three-page statement which came out of the [Focus] meeting." He said that CBT would meet this summer as scheduled to "continue our ongoing process of review." Mr. Barker stipulated that WORLD could quote him only if it were noted that he refused to characterize the conversation as an interview; he said he did not "want to be part of a self-contradiction" for talking to WORLD, since Christianity Today had quoted him as saying, "I will never consent to another interview by Susan Olasky or anyone else connected to WORLD magazine."

IBS refused to answer WORLD requests for clarification about the role of the CBT in light of the IBS board's insistence that "The present (1984) NIV text will continue to be published. There are no plans for a further revised edition." But if the CBT's role is to review the NIV text with an eye toward revision, why authorize more review if there are no plans for revision? IBS refused to answer any questions about CBT or who will pay for its work. Questions regarding CBT are crucial because, as Mr. Piper said, "Everything will hang on how the CBT responds to this statement of agreement.... That's a pretty significant unknown, whether the convictions of the Committee will be in accord with the convictions of those present."

Nevertheless, the surprising turnabout outweighs, at least for now, uncertainty about details. Baptist seminary presidents R. Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, and Mark Coppenger, all of whom had pungently criticized the proposed NIV revisions, praised the action of the IBS board of directors. Meanwhile, supporters of the unisex version were disappointed. Cathy Kroeger, president emeritus of Christians for Biblical Equality, said, "The decision is not a good one and I think it is inconsistent with the protestant ... tradition of making the Bible available in the common language and in such a way that the message is made accessible." Ms. Kroeger noted, "If people want an inclusive-language Bible they can get it."

That statement is true. Although Zondervan and IBS have agreed to stop work on an inclusive NIV, Zondervan still publishes the New Revised Standard Version, which violates the translating guidelines agreed to by Zondervan president Bruce Ryskamp in the Focus meeting statement. According to that statement, other publishers have also put inclusive-language translations on the market. Thomas Nelson/Word publishes the New Century Bible, the International Children's Bible, the Contemporary English Version, and the NRSV, which are all gender-neutral. Word is cooperating with Focus to revise the Odyssey Bible. Tyndale House puts out the New Living Translation; and World Bible Publishers has God's Word and the NRSV, all gender-inclusive.

Recognizing that Zondervan and IBS reflect only part of the publishing world, the Focus meeting statement concluded with a call for these publishers "to issue similar public statements demonstrating similar reappraisals of their translation principles."

The battle for the Bible is not over. Pastor John Piper said, "This statement is certainly not the end of the issue. It is auspicious for improvements in translation."

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.