The International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House jumped the gun by five days.
On Jan. 28 the two venerable evangelical institutions announced plans to publish Today's NIV, a gender-neutral revision of the NIV. The announcement coincided with the Christian Booksellers Association Expo, a trade show for Christian book retailers, and IBS handed out copies of its TNIV New Testament there (the whole TNIV won't be complete for another three years).
But that smooth product rollout became bumpy almost immediately, as the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood rolled into action. Suddenly, like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray is forced to relive the same Feb. 2 until he gets it right, proponents of politically correct language were once again locked in combat with defenders of straight-up, nonideological translation.
It was all reminiscent of the battles fought five years ago, beginning in March, 1997. That's when WORLD surprised IBS and Zondervan by breaking the story that the NIV was quietly going gender-neutral. IBS and Zondervan scrambled to get their side of the story out, taking advantage of the Internet to post open letters on their websites, and initially charging that WORLD got the story wrong.
Zondervan assured its customers that "we are in no way motivated by social or political agendas or pressures." IBS acknowledged some alterations but denied any feminist, anti-patriarchal reasons: "where a masculine, feminine, or neuter noun or adjective is changed, it can only be revised in order to be more unmistakably accurate."
But when WORLD conclusively demonstrated that both IBS and Zondervan had already published gender-neutral versions of the NIV and that many of the translating choices did not increase accuracy, the two organizations scrambled again. When WORLD quoted from the preface to the IBS-licensed, retranslated NIV that was already available for purchase in Great Britain-"it is often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender inclusive language" -IBS denials of feminist leanings rang hollow.
For two months IBS and Zondervan tried out new lines and leveled charges against WORLD, but in the meantime other evangelical organizations became involved. Southern Baptist leaders threatened to stop using the NIV in Sunday school materials. Focus on the Family President James Dobson came out against gender-neutral changes to the NIV, as did many other evangelical leaders.
By Memorial Day both IBS and Zondervan were ready to call it quits. On May 27 IBS announced that it had "abandoned all plans for gender-related changes in future editions of the New International Version (NIV)," and that "the present (1984) NIV text will continue to be published. There are no plans for a further revised edition." The press release went even further: "The four-point IBS policy statement effectively eliminates incorporation of gender-related language revisions in any NIV Bible licensed by IBS to Zondervan Publishing House (ZPH), North American publisher of NIV, and Hodder & Stoughton, publisher of the NIV in the U.K."
To underscore that pledge, the presidents of IBS and Zondervan, and representatives from the CBT-the Committee on Bible Translation that is responsible for the text of the NIV-met with defenders of nonideological translation in Colorado Springs at the headquarters of Focus on the Family. By the end of the day all the scholars present had signed an agreement outlining basic principles of translation to which all sides agreed.
Therefore when IBS and Zondervan announced plans for the TNIV last month, it was not merely a new product rollout. The two organizations were breaking well-publicized agreements that had seemed to deliver them from a public-relations quagmire. They were admitting that work on a gender-neutral Bible had continued despite IBS's pledge that it would not. So, despite the element of surprise in their announcement, by Groundhog Day five days later the battle was joined.
Many leading evangelical scholars -the number totaled 37 by Feb. 12-signed a statement expressing concern over "troubling translation inaccuracies" in the TNIV "that introduce distortions of ... meanings." The list of signers included Baptists such as Bruce Ware, Thomas Schreiner, R. Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, and John Piper; Presbyterians such as R.C. Sproul, Vern Poythress, Peter Jones, Daniel Doriani, and Ray C. Ortlund, Jr.; and Lutherans such as William Weinrich and Dean O. Wenthe.
J.I. Packer, while not signing that statement, said he was "in sympathy with it" and told the Baptist Press that the TNIV "is a retrograde move.... I find it to be a passing modern fad, frankly, to object to the inclusive masculine pronoun. To change the shape of biblical verses to fit this fad leads to a good bit of under-translation. The masculine pronoun belongs in almost every language of the world. The gains that this translation seeks to achieve are far outweighed by the loss. I appreciate the NIV, and I think they have taken a wrong turn."
The Groundhog Day mood deepened on Feb. 5 when Dr. Dobson came out in opposition to the TNIV, saying, "I am disappointed over the International Bible Society's decision to withdraw their endorsement from the Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture. These guidelines were formulated ... with the full participation of IBS.... It is particularly unfortunate that the IBS has now chosen to go its own way. In so doing, it risks dividing the Christian community again, as well as damaging its own reputation and undermining the wonderful work in which it has been engaged for more than 150 years."
On Feb. 7 eight of those who in 1997 traveled to Colorado Springs to hammer out the translating principles issued a statement "call[ing] upon the International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House again to reverse their announced direction, thus keeping their word and God's." Those at the 1997 meeting who did not sign the new statement all receive compensation from IBS or Zondervan.
During the first two weeks of February, despite extensive public-relations efforts by IBS and Zondervan-including a positive feature and a four-page cardboard insert (list price: $15,707) in the Feb. 4 Christianity Today-many reporters spotted egg on the faces of the two giants.
An Associated Press story distributed on Feb. 7 connected the NIV revisionists with theologically liberal efforts of the past. The story amply quoted Wayne Grudem's criticism of IBS and Zondervan- "They have broken faith with the Christian public"-and gave the seminary professor the last word: "If you don't have a Bible you can trust, it strikes at the heart of the Christian faith."
By Feb. 12 the Lexis-Nexis record included 39 stories on the TNIV in major newspapers and magazines, with the Los Angeles Times account among those noting the agreement five years ago and suggesting some sleight-of-hand: "The Bible society isn't quite abandoning its pledge because it is not discontinuing publication of the NIV."
The Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald pegged the TNIV's appeal: "The controversial new translation is clearly pitching itself at those egalitarian-minded, gender-relaxed Christians of the Third Millennium." And a business question rose to the forefront: Would IBS and Zondervan be able to sell the TNIV to theological liberals and to confused Christians, while at the same time retaining a large share of Bible sales to theological conservatives?
Industry sources told WORLD that, according to data from the book distributor Spring Arbor, the NIV had a 33.3 percent share of the evangelical market in 1996. That dipped to 30.3 percent-a 9 percent drop-in 1997, the year of the last Bible battle. The NIV recouped most of that loss during the past four years, and recorded a 32.1 percent market share in 2001. (Last year the King James Version had a 22 percent market share, the New King James 10 percent, and the New Living 8 percent. The New Revised Standard Version and Revised Standard Version together garnered 6 percent.)
Industry sources suggested that IBS and Zondervan were attempting the difficult feat of trying to retain broad evangelical support while introducing a new version that would largely appeal to liberals. An advertising line on the TNIV website fits that theory: "The NIV is an extremely accurate Bible text, the best the CBT could produce as of 1984. The TNIV is an even slightly more accurate Bible text, the best the CBT could produce as of 2001."
Zondervan and IBS also tried to mollify critics by downplaying the magnitude of the changes, saying that the TNIV was changing only 7 percent of the NIV text. They said they hadn't changed gender references to God or Jesus, although at times they had (see "Should we trust the TNIV?"). And the translators made some choices that go even further than those made by the translators of the liberal New Revised Standard Version. Their publicists used language displaying an attempt to have it both ways: The NIV is "extremely accurate," the TNIV is "slightly more accurate" than extreme accuracy.
By raising memories of 1997, Zondervan seems to be taking a risk with its venerable NIV, which has sold more than 150 million copies since its introduction. Isn't a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Why jeopardize NIV sales?
Neither Zondervan nor IBS would answer questions from WORLD, but industry sources speculated that Zondervan, now a division of HarperCollins, which is itself part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., is under pressure to expand its market share. Just as HarperCollins plans to bring out new Narnia books not written by C.S. Lewis but catering to some 21st-century tastes, as a way of expanding its Narnia sales, so it may bring out new Bibles with the same goal in mind.
But there's more to this than money. Those close to the process speak of the feminist sympathies of some in the Zondervan organization. Close observers also point to the genuine desire of many at Zondervan to increase Bible reading, and their belief that changing "insensitive" parts of Scripture will garner more readers.
IBS-watchers contend similarly that executives there may have deferred to several seminary and English professors who argue intensely that "patriarchal" understandings and "noninclusive" language are retrograde. The IBS evidently concluded that production of a TNIV would help evangelism, while providing an additional revenue stream that would help pay for translating the Bible into other languages.
Because neither executives nor translators are replying to WORLD queries, much is not known. What were the translation guidelines concerning when and how to revise gender-related words, even if that meant mistranslating the Greek (and in effect ignoring meanings in the standard lexicons)? Why encourage poor English grammar by using plural pronouns with singular antecedents, especially when the antecedent truly is singular? How did the translators resolve differences among themselves over how to render gender-related words in specific instances?
Those who influence Bible purchases should ask such questions. The NIV is currently used by many Sunday school curriculum providers, including Cook Communications, Group Publications, LifeWay (the Southern Baptist publisher), and even Cokesbury, a more liberal publisher. Their decisions will be key, as will decisions of bookstore owners. In 1997 John Kohlenberger, author of The NIV Concordance, was invited to give a workshop advocating gender-neutral Bible translations at the Christian Booksellers Association convention. This year, so far, the CBA has issued a statement saying "our member retailers will decide for themselves whether or not to carry the TNIV."
Retailers will have tough choices to make about which Bibles to carry. Bibles are expensive and many retailers will wait to see how these new versions sell. The TNIV editions will be competing against theologically conservative translations and also Tyndale's gender-neutral New Living Translation, as well as the New Revised Standard Version, used in many mainline churches.
Parents will have a Groundhog Day sense of needing to be very careful in buying children's Bibles, since Zondervan plans to issue the TNIV in many formats, including children's and youth versions. Zondervan's gender-neutral children's Bible in 1997 had nothing on it or in it to tell parents that the version was departing from standard translating principles.
A major difference from 1997, though, is that the TNIV will be entering the market at a time when evangelicals have two additional choices in Bible translations. Five years ago the New King James and the New American Standard Bible were the two major modern English alternatives. Last year, though, Crossway Books issued the English Standard Version, a conservative revision of the Revised Standard Version. In addition, Broadman Holman, publishing arm to the Southern Baptist Convention, has put out the Holman Christian Standard Bible New Testament; the Old Testament is due out in 2004.
Will those two new versions find large audiences? Seminaries, Sunday school boards, and other groups will weigh in, and so will individual buyers. If discerning buyers decide fidelity is important, the future of the TNIV and the NIV will not be decided in a HarperCollins boardroom or in the offices of IBS or Zondervan. Those in the pews will make their choices known.