A two-year stalemate broke open on May 14 when the International Bible Society, faced with a statement from its vice president for translations that contradicted its official position, had to acknowledge that it is considering publishing a new English-language "rendition" of the Bible.
If the IBS announcement is greeted warmly over the next month by key Christian leaders, that will be good news for those wanting a regendered translation stylistically similar to the New International Version (NIV), but bad news for those who care about biblical accuracy. The trial balloon also provokes questions about whether IBS is sticking with its own policy statement and the Colorado Springs agreement reached two years ago, or whether it is parsing the English language to evade an agreed-upon covenant.
Here's the crucial background: IBS, copyright holder of the NIV, became embroiled in controversy in March 1997, when WORLD reported its plans to remove words like he and man from the NIV in hundreds of places. After denying for two months that it had such plans, IBS forestalled potential boycotts by issuing a statement on May 27, 1997 (see p. 16) finally acknowledging the plans but disavowing them and pledging to keep the 1984 NIV text in print.
An IBS press release that accompanied the statement said, "The four-point IBS policy statement effectively eliminates incorporation of gender-related language revisions in any NIV Bible licensed by IBS...." From the beginning, however, critics of regendered translations wondered if IBS would keep its word, or was merely waiting until evangelical guards were down.
Publicly, IBS for two years said it was standing by its commitment to the May 27 board statement. But all through that period the Committee for Bible Translation (CBT), the IBS-financed group responsible for the actual words of the translation, continued to meet and prepare for a regendered American text.
As late as May 11, 1999, IBS director of communications Steve Johnson was telling WORLD, "[The 1997] statement still stands." But the next day, WORLD faxed Mr. Johnson a letter that called into question the accuracy of his words. The letter, sent to WORLD by the head of a Bible ministry, was written by Eugene Rubingh, IBS vice president for translations, on March 19, 1999. It stated, "I, the CBT and practically everyone involved, thoroughly support gender-accurate language [the IBS expression for regendering]. The matter is one of timing, of finding the appropriate hour to move ahead."
WORLD asked IBS to comment on the letter. On May 13, Mr. Rubingh faxed a response to WORLD: "IBS holds to its plan to continue to publish the 1984 NIV without alteration." But on May 14 IBS faxed to WORLD a statement acknowledging for the first time since 1997 what its critics had long suspected: "IBS continues to explore its options with respect to additional Bible publishing in the English language."
The press release stated that the current NIV would continue to be published and that a regendered version of it would not be. But note: The CBT was created to develop the NIV. It is now charged to create not a revised NIV (that is obviously out of bounds, given the 1997 IBS statement) and not a brand-new translation, but a new "rendition," as the IBS website states.
Does that violate the 1997 IBS statement? The issue, and the reception to the IBS trial balloon, may hang on definitions: Is a new rendition a new translation or a revised edition? Do words like "abandon" and "there are no plans" have any ethical force, or are they merely relevant on the day a statement is made?
It's sad that what appeared to be an agreement is now effectively shredded. Only two years ago, under the prompting of James Dobson, IBS signed onto a statement that opposed the influence of "political or ideological agendas" in Bible translation and noted that regendering "can easily become-and because of over use in too many cases, already has become-an instrument of distortion of the biblical text."
It seems that IBS will continue to publish the NIV in its current form as it promised to do in 1997. But by giving the go-ahead to CBT for another English-language Bible product, IBS is able to say that it is not "making any changes in future editions of the NIV" only because it won't call the new product "the NIV."