SBC a “One Issue Voter” on the New NIV

June 19th, 2011

In their annual meeting this week in Phoenix, the Southern Baptist Convention voted “not to commend” (and thus, not to sell in Lifeway bookstores) the new NIV Bible translation.

If this all sounds like déjà vu, you might recall that Zondervan released the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) in 2001, and the SBC rejected it the first chance they got, at their 2002 convention. This isn’t surprising, I suppose. Combine the TNIV’s gender-neutral language with the typically conservative audience of the NIV’s beloved 1984 version and you have a recipe for the marketing flop the TNIV turned out to be. Zondervan appeared to take that rejection into consideration when preparing the new NIV, reconsidering each gender-related word choice and less-traditional idiom of the TNIV.

Nonetheless, according to the SBC resolution, their reasoning for rejecting the NIV 2011 appears to be the same: gender-neutral language. Reads the resolution, “This translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.”

One such example is Luke 9:23, the passage blogger Paul Wilkinson brings up in his post on the issue:

NIV 1984: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

NIV 2011: If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

The issue at hand is whether the “gender specific details” really are dictated by the original language. The word anthropos is widely considered to be neutral in the plural, but some scholars dispute its neutrality in the singular, using that argument to defend the use of “man” when “person” would otherwise be more accurate. The SBC’s resident Bible scholars (or pastors and layfolk trusting those scholars) seem to be of that mind, and have made gender-specific language their shibboleth. The resolution makes no reference to any other reason for rejecting the NIV 2011. A translation’s gender-specificity or inclusivity seems to be the one issue driving the denomination’s acceptance or rejection of that translation.

Pastor and blogger Ron Edmondson makes no comment on gender inclusivity, but decided not to use the 2011 NIV for a different reason: the translation of Philippians 2:5, one of his favorite verses.

NIV 1984: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…

NIV 2011: In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had…

“It’s critical to understanding who we are to be in Christ, in my opinion,” says Edmondson. “According to the revision, I suppose I’m only to have the mind of Christ when I am dealing with other people. If I’m by myself I can have any mind I want.”

While one questions rejecting a translation over one verse, at least this reasoning carries some spiritual weight. (To any who may retort that using “man” over “person” is of great theological value, I would ask whether their reading of Luke 9:23, for example, exempts women from the command to deny themselves and carry the cross.)

As we’re headed into the 2012 election cycle, an appropriate metaphor might be the concept of “one issue voting.” While the occasional person makes their selection of a candidate based on one pet issue (and some reject a candidate based on only one issue), most people vote based on the candidate’s whole slate of positions, character, experience, etc. Why does the SBC insist on being a one issue voter when the majority of its people (in the pews if not in the pulpits, though likely many there too) will choose a Bible translation based on a variety of factors significant to their own personal preferences, Bible usage, and faith journey?

Gender-inclusive language (loving it or hating it) is indeed one issue that is important to some people. Other people love ancient languages and will analyze every word for its faithfulness to the Hebrew or Greek. Some (a vast majority of laypeople, I suspect) care more that a translation is easily understandable, with words they commonly use and hear. Some, like Edmondson, focus on the translation’s implications for discipleship and what speaks to them personally. Others are most concerned that it reads well aloud when they’re preaching or teaching. Some want the words to be familiar, and are thus unlikely to adopt a new translation, no matter what the theology or comprehensibility.

And some care that a translation is endorsed by their denomination or pastor… but many do not.

In today’s culture of accessibility and individual expression, people are going to choose for themselves what translation appeals most to them, based on a unique and personal combination of factors. If gender-specific language and traditional cadence are most important, they may well choose King James, even if their church emphasizes modern, common language. If verbal equivalence with the original languages is top priority, that person might cherish the NRSV (if they also prefer gender-inclusivity) or the ESV (if not). If someone wants the language to feel natural and be able to read without stumbling over the words, they may love the Common English Bible.

And if they can’t get what they want at Lifeway, they’ll go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Cokesbury, or any number of other retailers. Attempting to limit access to the Bible—any Bible—reflects poorly on the SBC and surely does more harm than good to people seeking to study and immerse themselves in the word of God.

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