Small Changes in Meaning Can Matter: The Unacceptability of the TNIV

by Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D., Th.D.
Professor of New Testament Interpretation
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

[Originally published as an internet article at <www.cbmw.org> and <www.keptthefaith.org>.]

 

Is Today’s New International Version (TNIV) a trustworthy Bible translation? I think not.

Examples of changes

Consider the following changes.

Genesis 1:27:

NIV:1 So God created man in his own image, …

TNIV: So God created human beings in his own image, …

The change to a plural obscures the unity of the human race.

Or Psalm 34:20:

NIV: He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.

TNIV: He protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken.

The change to plural obscures the fulfillment of this verse in the crucifixion of Christ, as indicated in John 19:36: “These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’” (NIV).2

Proverbs 13:1:

NIV: A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, …

TNIV: A wise child heeds a parent’s instruction, …

A male meaning component in the underlying Hebrew words has been removed by changing son to child and father to parent.3

In an article in World Magazine Dr. Wayne A. Grudem shows that the TNIV changes meanings again and again as it tries to eliminate male-oriented words like fathersonbrotherman, and he/him/his.4 Grudem’s articleconsiders not only the verses above, but others: Genesis 1:26; 5:2; Psalm 1:1; 8:4; Proverbs 5:21; Luke 17:3; John 6:44; 11:25; 14:23; Acts 20:30; 1 Corinthians 14:28; James 1:12; Revelation 3:20; Matthew 7:3; 1 Corinthians 15:21; Hebrews 2:17; Matthew 7:4; 15:5; Revelation 22:18. Many of the changes in these verses are the same ones that were already made in an earlier gender-neutral rendering, the NIVI, New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (1996), which sparked the first gender-neutral Bible controversy in 1997.5

The examples that Dr. Grudem provides are disturbing enough. But what is more disturbing is that these examples can be multiplied. An article in 2002 offered a list of no less than 901 examples of “Translation Inaccuracies in the TNIV,” in the New Testament alone.6 A few of these have been corrected in the 2005 edition, but most remain in place. And now the TNIV in 2005 has come out in an edition that includes the Old Testament as well, and the Old Testament translation has its share of problems with meaning.7

Consider the following examples of meaning changes that have crept in because the TNIV determined to eliminate generic “he.”8

1 John 4:16:

NIV: … Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

TNIV: … Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

CHANGE: TNIV opens the door to a corporate interpretation, in which God dwells in the group, not in each individual.9

1 John 3:3:

NIV: Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, …

TNIV: All who have this hope in him purify themselves, …

CHANGE: TNIV allows a corporate interpretation, in which the group purifies itself, or in which each person purifies the others.

1 John 3:9:

NIV: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in himhe cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

TNIV: Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in themthey cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.

CHANGE: TNIV has a principle that applies to the group corporately, but it is not as clear whether it applies to each individual. Perhaps the group as a whole has turned from sins, but a few individuals within it are exceptions. This is not as strong a statement as in the NIV.

Luke 9:26:

NIV: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory …

TNIV: If anyone of you are10 ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in his glory …

CHANGE: TNIV changes to the second person, you, thereby seeming to restrict the principle to the immediate addressees, “you,” the disciples to whom Jesus is talking. By contrast, the NIV, with the unrestricted wordanyone, makes it clear that the principle is completely universal.

1 John 4:20:

NIV: If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

tNIV: If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.

CHANGE: Third person singulars–anyone and he, his–have been changed to first person plural, we. In the process, the principle is no longer formulated in such universal terms, but only concerning the immediate group, “we.” Moreover, in the second sentence “brother” has become “fellow believer,” omitting the family-like relationship in the meaning of “brother.”

We could multiple these examples. Each particular case involves a fairly small change in meaning. In a hasty, superficial reading, one might think at first that the two renderings make the same basic point. But a closer look shows that there are small changes in meaning, and that some of these changes make a significant difference in interpretation.

Why make all these changes? The obvious answer is that generic “he” has been judged “politically incorrect.”11 The TNIV rewords the verses to eliminate it. Likewise, the TNIV regularly removes male meaning in cases that express a general truth using a male example, as when it changes son to child and father to parent in Proverbs 13:1.12 Poythress and Grudem call this gender-neutral translation.13

Some people have defended the TNIV’s decision in these cases, and one can read book-length defenses if one wishes, as well as a book-length critique.14 Many things go into the discussion. But the two principal defenses are (1) that the English language has changed and translations must adjust to the changes; and (2) that the changes are necessary to avoid misunderstanding or offense. Much can be said in reply.15 Briefly, (1) the words son, father, and brother remain in the English language, with the same meanings that they always had. The word man (for the human race) and generic “he” (to refer to a case representative of a general truth) still occur in major secular media.16 (2) The problem with using male-oriented meanings is not that they will actually be misunderstood—the occurrences in the secular press dispel that notion. Rather, it is that some people, having been trained by feminist propaganda, will perceive offense or evidence of insensitivity in such use. But that is no different in principle than perceiving offense in calling God “Father,” or in the doctrine of hell or the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.17 We are not free to remove a pattern of thought from the Bible just because it is offensive.

Changes like those illustrated above are a regular feature of the TNIV. So if one is using the TNIV as one’s main Bible, without comparing it with another translation, one never knows exactly where the changes will show up, and what sort of alternations will take place. The problem is severe, not because of any one verse by itself, but because of the way in which many, many verses are affected. One cannot have confidence as to where one is reading the pure word of God, and where one is reading something that is close to being the word of God, but with some small alterations. That is disturbing for anyone who deeply values the word of God.

A startling change in meaning

Consider a final example in Hebrews 2:6:

NIV: What is man that you are mindful of him, …

TNIV: What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, …

Again, the main point sounds similar in the two renderings. But there are small differences. The original Greek here has the word anthropos, which means human beingman. TNIV has instead the expression mere mortals. The idea of mortality is not in the original. It has just been imported from nowhere.18

Some people will not worry about TNIV’s use of “mere mortals” here. “What is the difference,” they may say? “Mere mortals” refers to the same thing as did the earlier translation “man”; namely, it refers to the human race. Yes, the reference may be the same, or nearly the same.19 But the meaning is not the same. Putting in the expression “mere mortals” confuses meaning with reference.

Consider a parallel example. The expressions “God,” “The Father,” “The Almighty,” “the Creator,” and “The Alpha and Omega” refer to the same God. The reference is the same. Is the meaning the same? If it is, then we can freely substitute “God” for “the Father” or for “God the Father,” thus eliminating all the politically incorrect occurrences of the word “Father” with reference to God.20

In fact, the expressions referring to God all have different meanings. Sameness in reference is not enough for a translation to preserve meaning. Similarly, “man” and “mere mortals” have different meanings, because the latter expression has added the idea of mortality.21

The distinction between reference and meaning has been well known to semantic theory for decades.22 Even before it was formally defined, it was intuitively used by translators throughout the ages. Despite this, the TNIV translates reference but not meaning.

Once a translation becomes sloppy with meaning in this way, it allows in meanings that do not belong. And then it opens the door to false inferences.

Consider. The TNIV text has introduced the word “mere,” indicating that the person so designated is not more than mortal. But that is not valid. Notice that Hebrews 2:6-8 contains a quotation from Psalm 8:4-6. (At this point we will quote from the English Standard Version [ESV], in order to show the sequence of thought better.)

6 It has been testified somewhere,

“What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”

Hebrews then goes on to draw out some implications:

Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (ESV)

The expression “crowned with glory and honor” in verse 9 applies to Jesus. It echoes the specific wording of the earlier quotation in verse 7. Hebrews is obviously applying the wording of the Psalm to Jesus. The Psalm finds its fulfillment in him. Thus verse 6, along with the other verses quoted from the Psalm, applies to Christ.

But that creates a theological problem with the expression “mere mortals,” which the TNIV has inserted back in verse 6. Verse 6, we have seen, applies to Christ. So was Christ a “mere mortal,” as the TNIV wording suggests? With respect to his human nature, Jesus was indeed mortal, and suffered death. But he was not a “mere mortal.” “Mere mortal” implies that he was not divine. Whatever else one says, one ought not to use this kind of language. And it is not there in the original Greek. The TNIV has pushed it in against the principles of sound lexicography and meaning representation. And by doing so, it has (without realizing it) opened the door to an attack on the deity of Christ.

So is this difference in translation a small difference? Is it unimportant? No, not now. The difference does not look that big, at least at first. But in the end it is a big difference. It affects the deity of Christ! How can such a small difference have such a big effect? Because a difference in meaning affects what kind of inferences we draw from it. A fallible human translation cannot always anticipate this kind of effect. Hence, it is not only wiser to stick as close to the meaning of the original as one can; it is important. It can become exceedingly important when we start drawing inferences—which we must if we are going to take the Bible seriously and apply it to our lives. We need a Bible that we can trust. Is the TNIV that Bible? I do not think so.

The failure of the TNIV in Hebrews 2:6 is all the more serious because there is a history behind it. In February, 2002, the TNIV New Testament was issued. That New Testament portion had, in Hebrews 2:6, exactly the same wording as it still has in its 2005 edition. Why was there no change in this verse in the new edition? In February, 2002, 37 scholars signed a public statement critical of the TNIV New Testament, and later more than 100 evangelical leaders signed a similar public statement.23 In 2002 a leading critical article by Wayne A. Grudem, “A Brief Summary of Concerns About the TNIV,” cited Hebrews 2:6, including the expression “mere mortals,” as one of a half-dozen principal examples of the problems.24 Yet in 2005 the TNIV has not changed the wording. An obvious inaccuracy in meaning, to which public attention was drawn, remains in place. Why?

I do not know why. But a case like this magnifies the problems of trusting the TNIV.

Spiritual dangers in cultural pressure

We do not know what was going on in the minds of the translators. But we do have the product. And the product regularly suppresses male meanings. It regularly gives up accuracy in meaning when it has to in order to avoid generic “he” and “man” (for the race) and other patterns of thought that the politically correct elite has pronounced unacceptable.25 At such points, the product is in effect bowing down to the canons of political correctness rather than to God, who speaks authoritatively in his word.

Our culture is also a culture of pragmatism. Whatever works justifies itself. So if a gender-neutral Bible works in getting some people to read the Bible, we no longer worry. I am saying that we should worry. Pragmaticism has become a false god if it tells us to trim meanings off of the word of God.

The larger conflict

Larger issues are at stake. Mainstream prestige culture finds certain patterns of thought politically incorrect. It is at war with the word of God. And so the integrity of the word of God is at stake. The TNIV fails at crucial points to maintain that integrity. The rejection of the TNIV is important for the spiritual health of the people of God. I repeat the warning that Dr. Wayne Grudem and I issued at the end of our book in 2000:

The issue is therefore tied in with the doctrine of Scripture and its authority. Do we follow the Bible alone, submitting to all its teachings and nuances? Or do we trim it in order to fit in more comfortably with modern thought patterns?26


The New International Version, 1978, revised in 1984.

For further discussion, see Grudem, “Changing God’s Words,” World Magazine 20/8 (February 26, 2005), 32-35. Extensive discussion of the broader issues is found in Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy(Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2004). Psalm 34:20 is explicitly discussed in ibid., pp. 236-38.

See the fuller discussion in Vern S. Poythress, “TNIV’s Altered Meanings: An Evaluation of the TNIV,” internet article at <www.cbmw.org/resources/tniv/><www.shepherdchurch.com/ktf/>, and <http://tniv.worldmagblog.com/tniv/archives/LAnalyzingTniv20050203.html>; Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 217-20, 367-75,

Wayne A. Grudem, “Changing God’s Words.”

5 See Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, Chapter 8, “The Rise of Gender-Neutral Bible Translations,” pp. 121-48.

“Translation Inaccuracies in the TNIV: A Categorized List of 901 Examples,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 47/2 (fall, 2002), 73-84; reprinted in Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 73-84..

7 See, for example, Poythress, “TNIV’s Altered Meanings.”

8 I discussed these at greater length in Vern S. Poythress, “Avoiding Generic ‘He’ in the TNIV,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 7/2 (fall, 2002), 21-30; reprinted in Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 85-100. In some cases the TNIV 2005 has made changes, but they have not eliminated the problems.

9 It is claimed by some that the word they here has a singular reference, because of the preceding singular word whoever. But the actual situation is more complicated. See Poythress, “Avoiding Generic ‘He,’” pp. 25-26; Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 92-95.

10 Since in English the subject “anyone” is grammatically singular, the verb should also be singular: “If anyone of you is ashamed …” But the TNIV has “are.”

11 See the extensive discussion of various aspects of generic “he” in Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 223-344; Vern S. Poythress, “Gender and Generic Pronouns in English Bible Translation,” in Language and Life: Essays in Memory of Kenneth L. Pike, ed. Mary Ruth Wise, Thomas N. Headland, Ruth M. Brend (Dallas, TX: SIL International and The University of Texas at Arlington, 2003), pp. 371-380.

12 See Vern S. Poythress, “Gender in Bible Translation: Exploring a Connection with Male Representatives,” Westminster Theological Journal 60/2 (1998): 225-53.

13 Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 117-18.

14 With some reservations, Carson and Strauss defend gender-neutral translations in D. A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998); and Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998). Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, criticizes the policy of removing male meanings.

15 Ibid., especially pp. 275-344.

16 Note the following examples:

HOW MAN EVOLVED: Amazing new discoveries reveal the secrets of our past (Time, front cover, Aug. 23, 1999).

Years ago, man thought everything revolved around the earth … (cartoon caption in USA Today, Jan. 18, 2000, A14).

Cold, snow good for man’s soul (by Jeremy Manier and Sue Ellen Christian, Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1999, 1).

For uses of generic “he,” consider the following:

“Nobody comes off a trans-Atlantic flight looking better than when he got on it.” (Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1999, Sect. 8, p. 3)

“Little is more incendiary than a member of Congress who feels he has been misled– unless it’s a law enforcement agency that fans conspiracy theories through incompetence.” (USA Today, Aug. 31, 1999, sec. A, p. 14)

An extensive list of such uses could be compiled (see Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 351-54; 315-22. Lists were initially published in 2000 in Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words [Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2000], pp. 239-42, 203-210).

Some of the defenders of the TNIV and other gender-neutral Bible translations assert or assume that these kinds of usage “must” be avoided. But they cannot give a satisfactory reason. People who know English (in distinction from people who may be still learning the language at an early stage) do not misunderstand. The one remaining reason is that such usages are labeled politically incorrect in elitist circles. See Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 223-357; Paul Mankowski, “The Necessary Failure of Inclusive-Language Translations: A Linguistic Elucidation,” The Thomist 62 (1998): 445-68.

17 Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 278-87.

18 On the meaning of the Greek word, see Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, with supplement 1968 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), under anthropos, especially meaning 1; Frederick William Danker, ed.,A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 81, under anthropos. The Danker lexicon has Hebrews 2:6 listed under meaning 1, human being, together with those passages that refer to Christ (subsection 1d), because the subsequent verses leading to Hebrews 2:9 clearly apply the quotation to Christ.

As meaning 2 the Danker lexicon also has “a member of the human race, w.[ith] focus on limitations and weakness, a human being.” It then notes that one such weakness is being “subject to death Hb 9:27; Rv 8:11; Ro 5:12.” Conceivably someone might use this data as an excuse for importing the meaning mortal into Hebrews 2:6. But one should note several problems with such reasoning. (1) The lexicon indicates the sense of a Greek word using boldface and italics; but the wording concerning death is not in boldface or italics, indicating that it is part of the context in various verses, not the actual meaning of the word; (2) all three verses mentioned in the lexicon as being associated with death explicitly mention death; (3) nowhere in Hebrews 2:6 is there any hint about death (there is mention of Jesus’ death in Hebrews 2:9, but that it later, after the reader has already digested 2:6); (4) there is no mention of death in Psalm 8, from which Hebrews quotes; (5) specialists in meaning are well acquainted with the difference between the actual sense of a word and the large set of encyclopedic associations that may be called into play.

Or someone might claim that the idea of mortality is appropriate because Hebrews 2:6 is a quotation from Psalm 8:4 (8:5 in Hebrew numbering), which has the Hebrew word ‘noš, associated with weakness. But now notice how desperate the argument has become. The Hebrew verbal root ‘nš does mean “to be weak, sick.” But (1) is doubtful how far this carries over to the cognate noun, ‘noš, which means man, mankind. (2) Weak and mortal are two quite distinct meanings. (3) The quotation in Hebrews 2:6 is in Greek, not Hebrew; it is a fallacy to suppose that all the meaning associations of a Hebrew word carry over to whatever Greek word is used in a translation. The tenuousness of these connections indicates how flimsy is the case that can be produced for the translation mere mortals. By similar sloppy reasoning one could justify almost any translation that has the loosest connection with the meaning of the original.

Finally, someone might point to an English dictionary which gives “a human being” as the definition of mortal when used as a noun (for example, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary). But it takes only a moment’s reflection to see that this is a case where the dictionary has provided the reference and left to the reader the obvious inference that the word mortal still retains its meaning associations with the idea of mortality. Similarly a dictionary may provide “God” as one definition of “Father” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, meaning 1b under “father”). Such a definition supplies the reference but not the obvious meaning.

19 As we shall see, the reference of “mere mortals” must logically leave out Jesus Christ, who with respect to his human nature was mortal, but is not merely mortal.

20 On the slippery slope that might lead to eliminating “Father” as a designation for God, see Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 298-99.

21 The inadequacy of the word mortal for translating common words for human beings is discussed in Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 362-63.

22 See, for example, John Lyons, Semantics (Cambridge/London/New York/Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 1:177-205.

23 “Scholars Statement of Concern About the TNIV,” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 47/2 (fall, 2002), 91; “Over 100 Christian Leaders Claim that the TNIV Bible is Not Trustworthy,” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 47/2 (fall, 2002), 92-95; see Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 101-9.

24 Wayne A. Grudem, “A Brief Summary of Concerns About the TNIV,” Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 47/2 (fall, 2002), 6-8; Hebrews 2:6 is mentioned on p. 7. The article is reprinted in Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 1-5. Grudem lists some further verses and problems, beyond the initial sample of six verses, but does not devote extended space to the later examples.

25 It is worth reiterating the generic “he” and “man” (for the race) both occur regularly in the secular press (see footnote 16). One cannot rightly excuse the TNIV by saying that otherwise people would not understand. Rather, they would be offended. For a full discussion of these excuses, see Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 275-357.

26 Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2000), p. 298; reprinted in the second part of Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, p. 410.