C'mon Man and the NIV 2011

One of my favorite segments in all of sports journalism is ESPN's C'mon Man before Monday Night Football. They go back over Sunday's games and pick out the funniest moments. These hilarious incidents often involve a player doing something that leaves commentators and viewers wondering what he was thinking. Hence the name.

The debate over the NIV update has had some c'mon man moments lately. My purpose here is to plead with NIV 2011 critics to be fair in your criticism of the translation: not to demagogue, not to oversimplify, not to accuse translators of ulterior motives.

I want people to criticize when they find problematic passages in the NIV 2011. I hope people will publish, blog, and tweet when they see ways that we can better understand the Bible. I don't believe any translation is above question. Every translation can be improved, even if only in slight ways here and there.

What kind of criticisms am I talking about? What should be out of bounds? Here's a sampling:

1. Charges that the NIV 2011 (or functional equivalency in general) attacks the foundation of inerrancy.

There are firmly committed inerrantists on both sides of this debate. Both agree with the doctrine and want to see it upheld. However, it is a logical fallacy to say that formal equivalence necessarily follows as the only, or even the best, translation philosophy. Those who advocate functional equivalence or some balance between the two (every English translation balances the two at some point) do so because they believe in the full verbal, plenary inspiration of the original autographs as much as you.

Make the argument that formal equivalence is better, but don't pretend that you are any more committed to inerrancy than anyone else in this debate.

2. Charges that the NIV 2011 "edits" or "takes liberties" with God's word.

At one level, you could say that any translation edits God's word. Translation is no easy task. Every, and I do mean
every, translation has points where it departs from literal renderings in order to make a passage make sense in English. Is this "editing"? That's such a pejorative term. I don't think that's how any translator would classify his or her work.

Are the ESV translators "editing God's word" when they depart from a literal rendering? Is the NASB "editing God's word" when it adds words in italics that the translators feel like are understood in a Greek construction? Where does "editing" begin and translation end? Sure, you may be able to define the tipping point for yourself—what you prefer. But when others disagree, don't paint them with terms you wouldn't want to be painted with if someone disagreed with your own preferences.

3. Charges that the NIV is filled with "inaccuracies" or "errors".

Comments like this act as if Bible translation is as simple as some kind of true/false high school exam. There's a right and wrong answer to everything. Accurate and inaccurate are simple categories and translation decisions are easily put in one of the two.

Most difficult translation decisions come at places where there is more than one possible rendering and there are advantages and disadvantages to each possible choice. We are not always going to agree on those answers. But we need to always read charitably those who come away with a different answer than the one we believe is best.

I rarely find a place in any translation (not counting the NWT!) that I can say is absolutely wrong. There are almost always reasons translators choose what they choose. Sometimes I disagree, sometimes strongly. But my critique of translations in almost all instances begins with, "Now I understand why they translated this way... here are the good things about the translation... and here's why I think something else might be better..." I hear very little of that kind of deference in the NIV discussion.

4. Disproportionate criticism of the NIV compared to other translations.

Yes, the NIV is the best-selling Bible translation. So that means it is important and any revision is going to receive a lot of scrutiny. However, there are plenty of translations that do the same things as the NIV and have never been singled out for this kind of criticism. The NLT is the 4th most popular English translation. It uses more dynamic equivalence than does the NIV and also avoids the generic masculine in some places. The NET translation, a very good, thought less popular translation also makes many of the same kinds of decisions. Has anyone asked LifeWay not to sell those translations?

The HCSB says they try to draw a halfway mark between formal and dynamic equivalence, but I don't hear charges of "editing" or that it is "taking liberties" with God's word.

The real problem with disproportionate criticism is not necessarily that the criticism is invalid. (Let's leave that question aside for now.) The problem is that it doesn't give people a full sense of the issue. This is really a much bigger question and debate than can be accurately conveyed in soundbites and editorials that over-simplify a pretty big and complex question.

I love talking about Bible translation. I want to hear valid criticisms of the new NIV and any other translation. But I want to stop reading simplistic assessments that make me say, "C'mon man."

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