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Paul L. Newby II/The Grand Rapids Press/AP

Refreshing reversal

Zondervan takes a step in what may be a very good direction

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

There's wonderful irony in the news that it took a woman to produce a breakthrough in the battle over gender-inclusive Bibles.

Moe Girkins, who early in 2008 became president and CEO of Zondervan Publishing Co., quickly developed a concern about the collapse over the last decade of Zondervan's worldwide dominance in Bible sales. Since the introduction of the New International Version of the Bible in 1978, Zondervan had enjoyed a virtual monopoly on both NIV Bibles and NIV-licensed products. Toward the end of the 1990s, Zondervan could claim that nearly 300 million NIV Bibles were in print around the world-a staggering number that eclipsed all other modern translations and justified the claim that the NIV had become the contemporary replacement for the venerable King James Version of the Bible.

But then, in a series of decisions that puzzled many throughout the evangelical world, Zondervan-in close cooperation with the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) and the International Bible Society (IBS)-began replacing the traditional NIV with revisions that lit a firestorm of controversy. Specifically, the changes included extensive use of so-called "gender-inclusive language," which many evangelical scholars argued went beyond a faithful rendering of the original texts. Whole denominations protested the changes, and thousands of Bible buyers began looking for a suitable replacement for the NIV.

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Zondervan and the NIV never lost their lead position in Bible sales. But as the evangelical family feud continued, they did take a hit. By some accounts, the NIV, which had enjoyed as much as a 50 percent market share, may have slipped to not much more than half that figure.

That's the situation Moe Girkins inherited when she took over the 75-year-old Zondervan early last year. Coming as a seasoned corporate executive but a relatively new evangelical believer, she impressed many with her ability to pick up the nuances necessary to operate in the complex evangelical milieu. Indeed, she had already personally taken on a graduate degree program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. So it didn't take her long to appreciate that some serious issues needed to be addressed. "It's not just the sales," Girkins told me on the phone late last year. "I'm concerned that we have Christians who are still upset and even angry at each other over 12-year-old issues that ought to have been resolved." I could tell she meant business.

I'm not privy to exactly what happened since then at Zondervan, Biblica, and CBT. But together earlier this month, the three entities surprised both the publishing industry and the evangelical world at large with their joint announcement that the controversial versions will be set aside (probably over the next two years) and replaced with yet another revision in 2011 that will avoid some of the earlier missteps. "Quite frankly," said Keith Danby, CEO of Biblica (which used to be the IBS and Send the Light), "some of the criticism was justified, and we need to be brutally honest about the mistakes that were made. We fell short of the trust that was placed in us. We failed to make the case for revisions and we made some important errors in the way we brought the translation to publication."

Not spelled out in the big announcement were details about what will happen to all the gender language that produced the brouhaha in the first place. Doug Moo, spokesman for the CBT, said his group will undertake "a complete review of every gender-related change we have made in the TNIV," and that CBT is "actively seeking scholarly input" from anyone who would like to send it.

Wayne Grudem, professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona and a frequent critic of early NIV revisions (see "Changing God's words," Feb. 25, 2005), praised the new action-while also noting that he hopes over 3,600 "unjustified changes" in the TNIV will be dealt with to get the NIV in synch with the original Hebrew and Greek sources.

Here at WORLD, where the story of the NIV revisions was first given public attention in a 1997 cover story (see "Femme Fatale," March 29, 1997), I too am grateful for the straightforward humility and grace modeled by Zondervan, Biblica, and the CBT-even while noting that I may still disagree on some key issues. In the press conference, Girkins sidestepped a specific question about whether WORLD had been right in calling the first revision a "stealth Bible." "We're not saying the TNIV was a stealth Bible," she said. "But the ways it was brought to market weren't transparent." Transparency, she said, will be a dominant goal from now on "in a way that unifies Christian evangelicalism." I applaud that refreshing commitment.
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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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