In March, a group known as the Committee on Bible Translation released a new edition of the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible.
The first edition, released in 1984, has been one of the best-selling translations of the Bible in centuries – second only to the King James Version from 1611. Endorsed by Billy Graham and other evangelical luminaries, the NIV has sold more than 400 million copies in the past 20 years.
But translators know that from time to time translations need to be updated. Biblical scholarship helps us better understand the meaning of ancient words. And the English language (when that is the translation at issue) continues to evolve and change.
In order for a biblical translation, or the translation of any ancient text, to continue to be understandable, it must occasionally be updated.
Now for those who adhere to a theological view that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, these updates present a bit of a problem. This has been particularly true for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Their massive bookstore outlet, Lifeway Books, has for the time being decided not to carry the updated NIV. They contend the new NIV has fundamentally changed the meaning of the biblical text – altering God’s Word to conform to cultural expectations.
For example, consider these words from John 14:23. The King James Version reads: “If a man loves me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and will come unto him, and make our abode with him.”
In the world or inerrancy and infallibility, does this mean that only men are subject to God’s grace?
The same verse in the 1984 edition of the NIV reads: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and will come to him and make our home with him.”
Still sounds like only men get to have the blessing of God’s presence.
Here is how the 2011 translation of the NIV handles this verse. “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
By changing “him” to “them,” some conservative Christians have accused the Committee on Bible Translation of altering the Word of God.
By suggesting that the Scriptures should be inclusive of both men and women, they claim the original meaning has been distorted.
Simply because an ancient translation in a male-dominated society used the word “brethren,” does that mean that women believers are not included in God’s promises?
In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” there is a scene where Alice and Humpty-Dumpty have a conversation about words.
“When I use a word,” Humpty-Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty-Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
This is clearly the question for our time: which is to be master. Who gets to decide what the words mean? It makes a difference.
Words are how we build our world and how we tear it down. Words make our laws and our lawlessness. Words form our blessings and our cursing.
Words matter, but which is to be master? Who tells us what our words will mean?
James L. Evans is a retired Baptist preacher living in Alabama. Over 35 years, he served churches in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. In support of his pastoral work, Evans published 5 books including “First and Second Corinthians: Immersion Bible Studies” (Abingdon Press (2011).