Through the years I have been a critic of The New International Version. From time to time I have preached on it or talked about it in Bible class, always with a negative view of it. However, having recently worked through translation selection matters as I weighed a move from the New King James Bible to the English Standard Version, I have re-evaluated my criticisms of the NIV. I believe my criticisms of the NIV were probably not the best. That may lead readers to think I am reversing course on the NIV. Not so. Upon further reflection I like the NIV less than ever, but I believe I have even better reasons for rejecting it. Let me explain what I mean.
I used to attack the NIV largely for its poor translation of some key verses. Several verses in the New Testament arbitrarily, and without warrant, translate the Greek term for flesh as sinful nature. For example, Romans 7:5 in the NIV has For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies The ESV offers For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law This pattern is repeated several times more in Romans and other New Testament passages. To say this seems to reveal a Calvinistic bent in the translators is an understatement. It is hard to miss the implication that man is born in sin if we have a sinful nature. This is a serious problem.
However, it is not the most serious problem with the NIV. Every translation has some verses that we don’t like how they were translated. If the criteria is all verses translated perfectly then we would have no Bible to use. To be sure, the verses I wish were done better or differently in the NASB, NKJV, or ESV are not verses with the same import as the NIV and its sinful nature verses. Yet when I point out troublesome verses in the NIV it may well be that folks just think but all translations have some verses we don’t like in them and go on their merry way with the NIV. That is why I am convinced that cherry picking a verse here and a verse here from the NIV to demonstrate its weaknesses may not be an effective critique of the NIV.
Instead of complaining about the NIV’s shortcomings in a few select passages, I want to move my criticism to a more over-arching problem: the NIV’s translation philosophy. There are two kinds of Bible translations done: word for word or dynamic equivalence. Word for word translations are just what you would expect from that name: an attempt to render the text of Scripture in the most literal, accurate, word for word way possible. Dynamic equivalence translations make no such attempt. They attempt to translate the thought and intent of the original text into English. This is precisely what the NIV translators reveal on the very first page of the NIV preface. The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the Biblical writers At the same time, they have striven for more than a word-for-word translation. Because thought patterns and syntax differ from language to language, faithful communication of the meaning of the writers of the Bible demands frequent modifications in sentence structure and constant regard for the contextual meaning of words. The NIV translators make no secret of their determination to make modifications to the text so as to convey the thoughts of the biblical writers rather than just producing a word for translation. By the way, every translation has a forward or preface where the philisophy of translation is explained. This should be your first stop when checking out a Bible. Sometimes we check a few key verses like Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21 and if those read right we assume all is well. Start by reading the forward and see what the translators wanted to produce.
The NIV’s philisophy of translation means that the NIV translators will make decisions for the reader as to what the Bible is saying. For example, Romans 1:17 says that in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed is from faith for faith (ESV). What does righteousness of God mean? Is that an attribute of God’s character, i.e., God is righteous? The meaning would then be the Gospel reveals how right God is. Or does righteousness of God mean the righteousness that comes from God, i.e. the righteousness God gives. The meaning then would be that the Gospel reveals God’s gift of righteousness that is given to those who are saved. Which is it? The answer cannot be found in analyzing Greek grammar or syntax. The manuscripts simply say the righteousness of God. We are left to study and decide what Paul’s meaning is here, unless we are using an NIV. The NIV translators, because it is a dynamic equivalence translation seeking to give the thought of the writers, just make the decision for us. The NIV renders Romans 1:17 as For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed. The NIV translators decided that Paul meant the righteousness God gives, not the righteousness that is part of God’s character. They may even be right. However, the point here is that they obscured the original text and force fed the reader their interpretation of the text. That is absolutely unacceptable for the student of Scripture. We seek what God says, not what some group of men have decided God meant to say.
This leads to my second criticism of the NIV: it is inaccurate. I first began to notice this when I purchased a commentary set several years ago that was based on the NIV. Over and over, especially in the Old Testament, I noted the commentators saying the NIV isn’t exactly right here or the NIV translation is not good here. This is because the NIV many times just doesn’t get it right. Recently I was looking at Isaiah 1. I noted that the NIV had the head is injured in verse 5, while other translations had the head is sick (ESV, NKJV, NASB). The Hebrew term is sick, not injured. Now, is this a big deal? Will anyone lose their soul because the NIV has injured instead of sick? Probably not. However, one cannot deny that what the NIV has there is simply wrong. Injured is not the same as sick. Since we are a people that often make a point or application from the specifics of Scripture (not a bad thing, Jesus did so Matthew 22:32), I can easily see a Bible class teacher making a point of what it means for the head to be injured and how it got injured. There might be talk of crime or violence. Since the head in Isaiah 1 is the nation of Judah then there might be talk about its injuries at the hands of other nations. Yet such would all be amiss because the text isn’t talking about being injured! The text speaks of the nation being sick, not hurt. There is a difference. It may not be the most important difference ever and it may not have the greatest implications ever but the difference is there. That kind of sloppy translating is everywhere in the NIV. Isaiah 1:17 has encourage the oppressed (NIV) when it should be rebuke the oppressor (NASB, NKJV, ESV). Over and over again the term chosen, the words they use, simply are not the best and most accurate words. The NIV is just not as accurate as it could be or should be.
Many of these criticisms are often answered by someone noting how easy it is to read the NIV. It is true that the NIV has a sentence structure that flows easily. With its translation of the writer’s thoughts instead of having to give an exacting word for word translation it often does read very nicely. Yet we must learn that readability is not the chief criteria for selecting a Bible translation! What good is it to be able to read what is incorrect easily? When it comes to the Word of God are we not willing to work a little, study a little, try a little harder, so that we may hear what God really said? Of course we all want a read-able Bible. This is why we select an English translation. Most of us don’t read biblical Greek! But what we should desire more than just an easy to read Bible is a Bible that is accurate to the original language manuscripts. Accuracy matters most something the translators of the NIV don’t seem to have understood.
My criticism of select verses from the NIV in times past may have given the impression that except for a verse here or there the NIV is a pretty good translation. That is not correct. The NIV’s translation philosophy and its loose and inaccurate translations make it less than ideal for Bible students. Instead of pointing to a verse with Calvinism tinting it as I did in the past I want to look at bigger issues that impugn the entire work of the NIV translation team. Yes, a person can read the NIV and learn how to be saved from it. Yet I do not believe it is the best choice for the Bible student who wants to hear the very voice of God as expressed in Scripture in the clearest and most accurate form possible. If it were the only option we had we would do the best we could with it but with better translations so readily available (the NKJB, NASB, ESV) let us use these and free ourselves from all the troubles the NIV has.