The Library Basement
Reading under ground


Open letter to Southern Baptists

Dear Southern Baptists,

Your representatives at the Southern Baptist Convention in 2011 made some rather hasty resolutions regarding the 2011 revision of the NIV. However I fear that these leaders are somewhat confused about language and semantics and have muddled the situation for the larger Southern Baptist movement.

The SBC messengers claim that the updated version "alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language." However, it was the policy of the NIV translators to make changes only where there were no gender-specific details - that is when the source text was using generic third-person pronouns.

By convention both the Hebrew and Greek languages defaulted to masculine pronouns when such a generic (non-gender-specific) pronoun was needed. This was also the case with English, so our translations of the Bible followed this convention: using "he" when the pronoun could represent a man or a woman. For example, Romans 8:9b:

And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.

However, the substitution of "they" for "he" as a generic pronoun is now part of common spoken English. The new form has the exact same meaning as the traditional masculine generic singular, and therefore its use in modern English translation is not inaccurate but instead is up-to-date vernacular. You will likely notice yourself using this construction in your own speech if you pay attention. You may even hear your pastor use "they" as a singular generic pronoun in a sermon.

This is a change in form, not a change in meaning. The NIV 2011 translation committee has not produced an inaccurate translation nor made mock of the inspired nature of the scriptures. They merely endeavored to update the NIV to keep abreast of changes in the English language. Therefore the NIV 2011 is not to be shunned because of the use of these so-called "gender-neutral" idioms.

The good news for you Southern Baptists is that you are a rather free-wheeling bunch of protestants. Therefore you can reject this resolution of your Convention on the grounds that it is based on false information. You are free to buy and read and memorize the NIV 2011 whether or not LifeWay carries it. And you can write your pastor a letter of protest when he bashes this new revision from the pulpit. I commend all these actions (and more) to you, as I also commend to your use the 2011 revision of the NIV.

Kind Regards,

Nathan Smith

NIV revision: third time's a charm?

The NIV is getting an update, its first since 1984. This will actually be the third attempted update since then, with the first dying in its early stages in 1997, and the second, the TNIV, dying in a maelstrom of bad press and poor marketing. What ultimately killed both of these efforts was the gender-inclusive language debate, especially in the case of the TNIV.

I am very interested to see how this new translation will come out with respect to gender-inclusivity. The NIV charter requires the translators to update the text as a reflection of developments in English. Once again, I have no empirical data on this, but gender-inclusivity idiom (e.g. the use of "they" as a singular pronoun of generic gender) appears to be dominant in much of the United States, if not the whole English-speaking world. The NIV translators seem to share this opinion, given that they have worked in accord with that assumption twice previously. So the question is: will they attempt again to market a gender-inclusive NIV, or will they shrink away from the controversial topic?