Poythress on NIV 2011

Denny Burk recently linked to an article in the Westminster Theological Journal by Vern Poythress. The article is titled Gender Neutral Issues in the New International Version of 2011.

I wanted to interact a little with this article because it makes some very valid points of criticism against the 2011 NIV. Readers of my website will know that I have been mostly positive toward the updated NIV. I still use the 1984 NIV as my main Bible for preaching and teaching. I haven't yet decided if I will use the new NIV. (I won't anytime soon because the vast majority of our church will still be using the 1984 version. But I do think this is an issue worth thinking about few years in advance of when I will need to make a choice.)

Poythress' Main Point
The main problem Poythress addresses in his article is the move from 3rd-person singular pronouns (like "he" or "him" or "his") to 3rd-person plural pronouns (like "they" or "them" or "theirs"). This move by the NIV translators is designed to show readers that the original text wasn't specifically addressing men only, but both men and women.

There's no good singular way in English to refer to a person without respect to that person's gender. It's why you've seen such awkward things in writing as "he/she" or "his or her". So to avoid that kind of awkward construction, people today sometimes use a technically plural pronoun ("them") while still meaning one person. Example: If anyone wants some water, they should take a drink from the water fountain. English teachers cringe but most of us shrug.

So the 2011 NIV makes this same kind of move. Poythress lists at least eight passages (says examples could be multiplied) where the move to plural does really obscure the meaning of the verse. And I agree with his examples. A few of these are moderate to big changes in meaning (Heb 2, maybe John 14:23). The rest of them are what I'd call slightly significant. (Proverbs 11:9, 12:15, etc...)

The first thing I'd note is that he's right. Most of the verses he lists are better in the 1984 NIV and could cause some confusion as produced for the 2011 version.

The second thing I'd say is these eight verses are hardly enough to discredit the translation as a whole. Now, Poythress says these examples can be multiplied. That's a little ambiguous. By a factor of 2? By a factor of 20? That makes a big difference. We need a more exhaustive study to see how prevalent this really is. I have to think he pulled the most obvious and egregious verses for his examples. If these are the peak of the mountain then we may only be looking at a molehill.

The third thing is that he admits that he notices the problem occurring mostly in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Did those books slip through a less careful editor when they were evaluating the TNIV? If that is the case, and some parts may suffer from this more than others—then it isn't fair to take most of the examples from there and then act as if it is representative of the whole translation.

I need to see more evidence that this problem is characteristic of the 2011 NIV for me to agree that there really are significant problems with the translation. For now, I think it belongs in the category of "a few places that could use improvement." (BTW, there is no English translation that doesn't have spots that fall into that category.)

A Few Other Points
Poythress also names a few other problems he's seen in the NIV discussion. He points out the awkwardness and connotation of "that person" (Rev. 3:20; 22:18) doesn't align with the simple "he" pronoun. I think he's right there too. But again, this is hardly a big issue as far as translations are concerned. Area for improvement? Yes. Reason to reject the translation? Hardly.

Poythress also articulately points out some of the limitations of the Collins Report. I thought most intriguing was his (I think valid) point that the report likely underestimates how often the generic masculine is still used in modern English.

I think Poythress is right that the 2011 NIV should have made more extensive use of the generic masculine. But is that "should have" enough to draw condemnation for the whole translation? Surely not. There is no translation that would survive a fine-tooth comb and people saying "this verse should have been clearer!" We strive for perfection in Bible translation but we don't reject good translations because they fail to live up to that perfection.

Everything I've seen so far is telling me that the improvements to the NIV greatly outweigh the drawbacks its critics have been able to point out.

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