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>.]

 

Does the new TNIV (Today’s New International Version) commend itself as a trustworthy translation of the Bible? I think not.

On February 2, 2005, I received from Zondervan a free copy of the new TNIV, which includes the TNIV Old Testament. (The TNIV New Testament appeared in February, 2002.) A friendly cover letter asks me to reconsider my earlier criticisms of the TNIV. It alludes to the fact that in 2002 I signed a public statement along with more than 100 other evangelical leaders, judging that “we cannot endorse the TNIV as sufficiently trustworthy to commend to the church.”1

I am certainly willing to reconsider, and I am grateful for the invitation to do so. However, when I examine the new TNIV, I find that little has changed.

 

What about “father” and “son”?

Let us compare the TNIV with an earlier, sister version, the NIV (New International Version, 1978, 1984):

NIV: A wise son heeds his father’s instruction, …
TNIV: A wise child heeds a parent’s instruction, …

The original Hebrew has a singular term for son. In the singular, in the context of parent-child relations, it means son, not a gender-neutral “child.”2 Does the verse exclude daughters? Of course not.3 Often Proverbs uses a concrete case to express a general truth. This proverb focuses on a wise son, but the principle clearly applies to daughters as well.

What about the other change in the TNIV, from father to parent? In the singular the Hebrew term for father means father, not parent.4 Versions before 1985, such as the KJV, RSV, NASB, and NIV, all have son and father. Since 1985, the meanings of son and father in English have not changed. Neither have the meanings of the Hebrew words changed, nor have we received some dramatic new information from the Ancient Near East that has changed people’s minds.

Then what has changed? Our culture. Parts of the culture, under the influence of feminism, have been taught not to like a male term when it is not balanced by an equivalent female term nearby.5 This kind of change therefore indicates a problem: what we are seeing here in the TNIV is not faithfulness to lexical meaning or linguistic context, but pandering to modern sensibilities.6 The TNIV could claim to be following the 1993-1995 Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, which unlike earlier lexicons allows for such renderings. But this Dictionary has added the new meanings without any good evidence.7

A statistical tally of Proverbs 10-30, the part of the Book with loosely connected proverbs, confirms the pattern uncovered in Proverbs 13:1. Consider occurrences of the Hebrew word for father, in the singular, in Proverbs 10-30:

text father paired with mother or equivalent unpaired
original Hebrew 10 father (Hebrew ‘ab)

father (Hebrew ‘ab)

KJV (1611) 10 father father
RSV (1952, 1971) 10 father father
NIV (1978, 1984) 10 father father
NIVI (1996) 10 father(s) father parent(s)
TNIV (2005) 10 father(s) father parent(s)
family

 

The earlier translations, the KJV, the RSV, and the NIV, all translate each passage by consistently using the word father. Then comes the NIVI, The New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (1995, 1996). The NIVI was a revision of the earlier NIV (1984). But suddenly we see a change, because it adopts an inclusive language policy.8 The TNIV, which is closely related to the NIVI, does the same. In the TNIV the word fathercan be allowed to stand when paired with mother, because that is compatible with modern egalitarian sensibilities that prescribe the symmetric mention of both genders in nearly all contexts. Thus all 10 occurrences of this type are translated with the word father (or fathers). But the word father is not so acceptable when it does not have an accompanying word mother. The NIVI and the TNIV, to their credit, nevertheless do leave two or three instances of the unpaired term father. But in one of the cases, the second half of the verse talks about the father’s begetting, which makes it difficult to evade the emphasis on fathering (Prov. 23:24). In another verse, Proverbs 19:13, the two halves of the verse talk about two griefs to a man, one from a foolish son and the other from a quarrelsome wife. The mention of wife makes it hard to evade the idea that the central figure is a father rather than a neutral “parent.” That leaves only one verse in the TNIV (Prov. 29:3) where the translation goes notably against the modern preference for equal mention for fathers and mothers.9

A similar pattern occurs with the use of son in the singular. In the singular the underlying Hebrew word has the sense son, though in the plural it can mean either sons or children. Look at the pattern of occurrences for the singular in Proverbs 10-30:

text occurrences of singular for son
original Hebrew

23 son (Hebrew ben)

KJV 23 son
RSV 23 son
NIV 23 son
NIVI 11 son 12 child(ren)
TNIV 10 son 13 child(ren)

 

The number of occurrences of son in the NIVI and the TNIV is roughly half that in Hebrew and in the other translations. The other occurrences have been replaced by child or children, losing the masculine element. Still, sonremains present in a considerable number of texts. But most of them are occurrences of the fixed phrase, my son, used to refer to the addressee. This same phrase is used Proverbs 1-9, where it includes advice to the son about avoiding the adulterous woman (7:10). NIVI and TNIV both use my son in Proverbs 1-9, where not using it would lead to a clash with the reference to the adulterous woman. The alternative, my child, would also involve the connotation of a child of quite young age. In modern English one would not typically address one’s own teenage son as “my child.”

In addition, one verse, Proverbs 30:1, refers to “Agur the son of Jakeh,” a particular reference to a particular man. Proverbs 30:4, inquiring about the name of God’s son, refers to the divine Son. If, then, we eliminate these constrained uses of son, we end up with the following statistics:

text occurrences of singular for son
(but not my son or special uses)
original Hebrew

14 son (Hebrew ben)

KJV 14 son
RSV 14 son
NIV 14 son
NIVI son 11 child(ren)
TNIV son 11 child(ren)

 

Has the meaning of son changed in English? Have we discovered new information about the meaning of the Hebrew? No. Why the change in the TNIV and the NIVI? You can guess.

 

The gender-neutral policy in the TNIV

With few exceptions, the new TNIV repeats the same gender problems that are found in the TNIV New Testament from 2002. In addition, it now extends to the Old Testament the same unsatisfactory gender-neutral translation policy. It repeats the problems of the British version, the NIVI (1996), which was produced under the direction of the “Committee on Bible Translation,” the same committee now responsible for the text of the TNIV. In fact, time after time, the TNIV just repeats the gender-neutral wordings of the NIVI. And that is not surprising, given that the overall gender-neutral translation policy is still in place. For example, the TNIV refuses to use generic “he,” which by itself leads to rewording something like 3000 verses in the Bible. And it avoids using “brother,” “son,” and “father” in generic contexts, except when it can pair the masculine terms with complementary feminine terms. Such a policy compromises meanings, and is just as unsatisfactory now as it was with the TNIV of 2002, with the NIVI of 1996, and indeed with every Bible translation that adopts the same policies.

How then can I change my mind about the TNIV when the TNIV has not changed its mind? The situation is in fact worse than ever, because the TNIV continues its gender-neutral policy in the face of extended, detailed criticism. Criticism boiled up in 1997 when the NIVI came to public attention; it developed into a book-length treatment in 2000;10 and it then rekindled in 2002 when the TNIV New Testament appeared. Yet the gender-neutral policy has remained in place. One can no longer realistically hope to see a major change in TNIV policy.

To be sure, there are a few good changes in the area of gender, in individual verses here and there. In Hebrews 12:7 TNIV has changed “parents” (TNIV 2002) back to “father.” Proverbs 3:12 has changed back to a father disciplining a son, rather than a parent disciplining a child in the NIVI.11 But these are exceptional. The TNIV exhibits a firm and massive commitment to gender-neutral policy, which includes eliminating generic “he” and then putting up with the damaged meaning that results.

 

Generic “he”

Let us consider some cases where the TNIV has damaged meaning in the process of eliminating generic “he”. In John 14:23 TNIV 2005 repeats the problem of TNIV 2002:

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

The NIV correctly has:

If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

Needless to say, the original Greek has a masculine singular, not a plural, at each of the italicized places. The meaning is similar in the NIV and TNIV, but not identical. The TNIV wording (with plural them) opens the door to a corporate interpretation, in which God dwells not with each individual, but with the group, “them” corporately. This new translation obscures the point of the original. But why? To avoid generic “he,” which has become a taboo word for political reasons. Earlier gender-neutral translations have received extended criticism for this kind of treatment of John 14:23;12 but still the TNIV is determined to perpetuate their mistakes.

Consider another example, 1 Corinthians 14:28.

NIV: If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church
and speak to himself and to God.
TNIV: If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church;
let them speak to themselves and to God.

The original Greek has a masculine singular pronoun corresponding to “himself.” The TNIV has nevertheless converted it to plural, “themselves,” in English. The change is made in order to avoid using generic “he” in the form “himself.” The two wordings are similar in meaning, but not the same. The TNIV, with “them” in the plural, allows a corporate interpretation of the verse. It opens the door to the idea that the people who speak in tongues should go off in a private group where they can speak to one another. They speak “to themselves,” that is, to other tongues-speakers rather than to the general assembly of the church. The NIV, by contrast, unambiguously expresses the correct meaning: each person speaks only to himself and to God, not to the church.

The verse makes an important practical difference today, because people who speak in tongues want to know what sort of direction Paul is giving to them. And they cannot tell from the TNIV, whose wording can easily mislead them. There is a big cost here in loss of clear meaning because of the refusal to use generic “he.”

Finally, consider Revelation 22:19:

NIV: And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy,
God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, …
TNIV: And if anyone of you takes words away from this scroll of prophecy,
God will take away from you your share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, …

Consistent with its policy, the TNIV rewords the verse to avoid generic “he”; in this case it uses you instead. But what is the price? “Anyone of you” (TNIV) has a similar function to the NIV “anyone.” But now in the TNIV “anyone” means a hypothetical individual picked out from the group of addressees, “you.” That already restricts the scope of “anyone.” The original “anyone” includes anyone at all. But in the TNIV it is only anyone from among the people whom the book directly addresses.

But worse is to come. In the expression “anyone of you,” the word you necessarily refers to the whole group of addressees. In addition, this first occurrence of the word you correlates with the later occurrences of you andyour. From whom does God take away a share? It says, “From you,” that is, from the whole group. If the TNIV is literally understood, the verse now implies that if one person should take away words, the whole group of you, the whole group of addressees, will suffer the penalty. That is not right; it twists the meaning of the original, which clearly indicates that a penalty comes to the specific person who actually took words away. The TNIV has changed the meaning of the verse. And the particular verse in question is a verse threatening a penalty on anyone who tampers with the message of Revelation!

The same thing happens in the immediately preceding verse, Revelation 22:18:

NIV: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book:
If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.
TNIV: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll:
If anyone of you adds anything to them, God will add to you the plagues described in this scroll.

Such changes do not inspire confidence.

 

The overall pattern

The overall pattern is not acceptable. Do you really want to read a translation that suppresses male meanings here and there, because of its eye for modern sensibilities? And do you want a translation that turns meaning around in various directions in order to avoid generic “he,” even though generic “he” still occurs in major secular publications like newspapers?13 I think not. Nor can I bring myself to recommend this translation for the church. It cannot be thoroughly trusted in its treatment of gender.

 

But why do other people think differently?

Not everyone agrees with my conclusion. Why not? Are there scholarly reasons? Learned scholarly papers may well appear, appealing to lexicography, semantic fields, genre analysis, sociolinguistics, linguistic pragmatics, translation theory, “unmarked” forms, default meanings, semantic neutralization, gender systems, and so on. Scholarly arguments, pro and con, may come trotting out as they did at earlier points. In 1997, the original gender-neutral Bible controversy focused on the NIVI, the immediate predecessor of the TNIV, and generated considerable scholarly comment. In 1998 and 2000 book-length discussions appeared, pro and con.14 In 2002 the controversy broke out again, focusing on the TNIV New Testament that had just appeared.15

The scholarly discussions have their place. We can debate about the meaning of this or that individual verse. But in the end, the differences in opinion do not arise primarily from scholarly technicalities. If there is any justification for the overall policy of the TNIV, it is a pragmatic one.

We want people to read the Bible more, including young people, unchurched people, and non-Christians.16 For this purpose the TNIV tries to remove obstacles to understanding and sources of possible offense. Worthy motives; noble goals. A promoter might say, “Even if you do not prefer to use a Bible of this kind for your own study, should you not still be happy for what it can do for others?”

It is all quite attractive and plausible, as Wayne Grudem and I noted already in 2000 and in 2002 when we evaluated the NIVI and the TNIV New Testament.17 Without repeating all the arguments that we set out earlier, let me point to some important truths.

First, the end does not justify the means. A noble end—even the end of saving souls—cannot impart its nobility to a less-than-noble means.18

Second, we need evangelism, evangelistic reading material, and attractive helps for Bible study. Those are legitimate ways in which we may encourage Bible reading. But it is not legitimate to drop some meanings out of the Bible itself, for the sake of acceptability. We must beware lest, in spite of our good motives, we end up compromising the word of God. We then end up implying, in spite of noble intentions to the contrary, that God made a bad marketing mistake when he wrote the Bible the way he did, but that fortunately we are here to help him out! No. Rather, let us respect what God has spoken in his Word, and let us not attempt to be wiser than God.19

 

Notes

1 See Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004). The full text of the public statement appears on pp. 101-109, together with the names of the signers.

2 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, eds., Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 120, meaning 1; Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden/New York/ Köln: Brill, 1994), 1:137, meaning 1a. David J. A. Clines, ed.,The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993-), 2:186, gives the meaning “son, and (usu.[ally] in pl.[ural]) child, descendant.” The word “usually” suggests that sometimes it has the meaning “child” in the singular, but no examples are offered. The change in comparison to earlier lexicons may be due to an egalitarian wish that it meant “child.” But no evidence is offered.

3 See Vern S. Poythress, “A Preliminary Response to Ellis W. Deibler: The Real Problem with Gender-Neutral Translations,” <http:/www.shepherdchurch.com/ktf>, for discussion of the way in which fear of excluding someone can be misused.

4 Brown-Driver-Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 3, meaning 1; Koehler-Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, 1:1, meaning 1. Clines, ed., Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 1:90, as it does with the case of “son,” opens the door for the meaningparent: “usu.[ally] father, sometimes, esp.[ecially] in pl.[ural], parent.” It offers as examples in the singular Isa 38:19; Ezek 18:4; Prov 17:21; and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 3:8. In all four cases the meaning could easily be father. There is no unambiguousevidence that in the singular the meaning is ever parent. And of course there is plenty of unambiguous evidence that it means father.

Indeed, the verses cited in favor of the alleged meaning parent offer a most flimsy basis. Consider Proverbs 17:21. The first half of the verse uses a verb for “begetting” or “fathering,” unambiguously indicating the role of the male parent. “He who sires a fool gets himself sorrow” (ESV). The second half uses the singular word for father. It must therefore mean father, not parent.

Next, Ezekiel 18:4 says, “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son …” (NIV). The subsequent illustrations in verses 5-24 picture a righteous man who has an unrighteous son, and then an unrighteous father who has a righteous son. In both cases, the people involved are unambiguously male, as can be seen from the mention of defiling or not defiling “his neighbor’s wife,” 18:6, 11, 15.

Next, Sirach 3:8 says, “Honor your father.” Could that possibly mean “honor your parent”? It seems very unlikely, not only because there is no unambiguous case of the meaning parent, but because no one is likely to say it that way. One might say, “Honor your father and your mother,” as in Exodus 20:12. One might say, “Honor your father,” focusing on one half of the fifth commandment. One might say, “Honor your parents,” with a plural form, to include father and mother. One would not say, “Honor your parent,” singular, because of its oddity. People do not typically have one parent, but two. The text definitely needs a plural if it wants to be explicitly inclusive.

Finally, Isaiah 38:19 says, “The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.” Who is to say that this means parent? It could just as easily mean father. This verse does not offer any real evidence for the alleged new meaning. To be sure, the expression “the living” in the first half of the verse is very broad. But focusing on the relation of parent to child is already narrowing it. Just from the context, it is impossible to say with certainty how narrow the focus is. In fact, there is good reason to prefer the translation father, because it is more concrete. Even in modern English we typically do not use parent in the singular in such a context. We might say that parents, plural, make something known to their children. Or we would say that a mother does, or a father does, in the singular. In Hebrew poetry, such as we have in Isaiah 38, the singular term is bound to be understood as having the meaning father: (1) father is the common meaning of the word; (2) it makes good sense in context; (3) one would expect a plural if the author wanted explicitly to include both fathers and mothers; and (4) poetry asks for concreteness, not for a dull, bureaucratic concern for explicit inclusiveness.

The new lexicon, then, offers disgracefully inadequate evidence. I am suspicious of a new lexicon, with a publishing date of 1993 and onwards, stemming from an academic environment that heavily favors egalitarianism, that changes previous lexicons on the basis of completely inadequate evidence.

5 Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 247-73.

6 See the extended discussion in ibid., pp. 247-344, especially 275-290.

7 See footnote 4.

8 See the extended discussion of the NIVI and other gender-neutral Bible translations in ibid.

9 And even this verse 29:3 contains a mention of the danger of “prostitutes,” making one wonder whether the sexually-loaded context has pushed the TNIV into an exceptional acknowledgment of male meaning.

10 Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000). This book has now been reissued as the second part of The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy. It is available for download from the internet at <www.cbmw.org/resources/books/gnbc/> and <www.shepherchurch.com/ktf/>. To find page numbers on this earlier edition, one must subtract 112 from the page numbers for the new 2004 edition, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy.

11 NIVI and TNIV 2002 received heavy criticism for the use of parents here. See, for example, Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, 409-410; 366; <http://www.shepherdchurch.com/ktf/>, “Analyzing Today’s NIV Below the Surface.” But defenses of this skewed use of parents appeared from proponents!

12 See Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, pp. 229-32. For a broader discussion of generic “he,” see ibid., pp. 223-344.

13 For a large number of examples from newspapers and other major publications, see ibid., pp. 315-22. For further discussion of linguistic aspects of generic masculine, see Vern S. Poythress, “Gender and Generic Pronouns in English Bible Translation,” inLanguage 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, reprinted at <http://www.shepherdchurch.com/ktf/>; Vern S. Poythress, 2004. “Male Meaning in Generic Masculines in Koine Greek,” Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004): 325-36. .

14 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), were largely supportive of gender-neutral translation policies. Poythress and Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (2000), was heavily critical.

15 See Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, which is critical of the TNIV; while The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World: Essays in Honor of Ronald F. Youngblood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), is largely supportive.

16 Indeed, the desire to encourage Bible reading is a prominent theme in the cover letter accompanying the copy of the TNIV that I received.

17 Poythress and Grudem, The TNIV, Chapter 15, “Arguments for Avoiding Generic ‘He’ for the Sake of Acceptability,” pp. 275-99, especially pp. 287-99.

18 Ibid., 341-44.

19 Ibid., 296-98.