Word games

Why we cannot abide tinkering with the Word

Issue: "The Mormon Olympics," Feb. 16, 2002

"Why," a good friend asked me on the phone, "is this such a big deal to you folks at WORLD? Why can't you let go of this Bible translation issue?"

"Why," my friend continued, "when WORLD magazine is primarily about the broader culture, do you think it's so important to focus on what seems like a mostly religious issue? Isn't the question of how the Bible gets translated mostly a religious issue?"

To which I can only say: For those of us interested in the direction of our culture, few issues are more basic than how the Bible gets translated.

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The Bible, we believe, is our only ultimate rule of both faith and practice. It tells us what we are to believe about God, and it tells us the rules He has established if we are to live happily and productively with each other.

The Bible is what keeps us from being relativists on all those issues. The Bible is what tells us that racism is wrong, that treating the poor with compassion is right, and that God has ordained distinctions between male and female for the good of His creation. It's from the Bible that we learn that cheating and adultery and drunkenness are destructive, and that a servant spirit, honoring your parents, and thriftiness will be rewarded.

Any Bible that purports to tell you all those things had better be accurate and consistent. It can't take one position on a theological or cultural or social issue this year, and then do an about-face on the same matter in the next edition.

That was the crux of the issue five years ago when WORLD grabbed the attention of the evangelical world with a series of major articles about the New International Version of the Bible. WORLD made three major points: (1) Plans were afoot to publish a revised NIV that would make a point of using "gender-neutral" language; (2) the language in mind was strongly influenced not just by translation principles, but by feminist ideology; and (3) the effort was being clothed in secrecy.

Immediately, those behind the new translation denied all three assertions. But within two months, all three assertions were proven true. The publishers publicly withdrew their plans, and publicly announced: We won't go there after all.

Now, amazingly, they have gone there again. And incredibly, our Bible story this year has the same three points: (1) The International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House are indeed publishing a gender-inclusive Bible; (2) the changes betray a strong feminist bias; and (3) the project has been carried out in secret.

This time, at least, there's no debate over whether such a project is in the works. IBS and Zondervan have made clear their intentions; the New Testament of Today's NIV will be out in a few weeks, and the whole Bible in a year or two. And the publishers make no bones of the fact that one of the distinctives of the new edition is its gender-inclusive language.

They do bristle at the second assertion-that many of the changes spring from a feminist bias. While WORLD will continue to document the validity of that charge, let me offer here one quick but conclusive example. The publishers argue vigorously that they would never change any masculine references to God or Jesus. But where John 6:33 in the original NIV says quite directly, "For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world," the TNIV changes a couple of crucial words: "For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." A footnote to the words "that which" explains almost too revealingly: "The Greek for that which can also mean he who." So, since the reference is so clearly to Jesus, why the need for eliminating the masculine pronoun? The evidence is overwhelming. The editors of this Bible have a preoccupation with doing away with anything masculine. It happens dozens and even hundreds of times-and you don't have to be a scholar to see what's going on.

All this has been done in extraordinary secrecy. Given the disagreements over the issue five years ago, why should it have been so difficult for IBS and Zondervan to approach some of those they knew were most troubled by the earlier effort, saying: "We still think such a contemporary version is important. Would you help us find the best and most balanced approach?" Instead, the sponsors of the effort have behaved as if the Bible were their proprietary possession. Even if the claim is true that the initial distribution of 40,000 copies is meant not as a final version but to invite serious critiques, that seems a strange way indeed to build the trust of the Bible-buying public.

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