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Translation debate: Gender-neutral TNIV hits the streets

February 14, 2005

Would Gen Xers better understand their American heritage if history books updated their language and called the men who gathered in at the first Constitutional Convention “our founding human beings” instead of “our founding fathers?”

            Would Gen Xers and ‘Next Geners’ better understand their American heritage if history books updated their language and called the men who gathered in at the first Constitutional Convention “our founding human beings” instead of “our founding fathers?”

            Or instead of entitling his 1970s hit “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” might the late country music legend Waylon Jennings have sold more records if he had used more inclusive lyrics like “Only Parent That’ll Walk the Line?”

            Translators of the full-Bible edition of Today’s New International Version (TNIV), released last week by Zondervan, have tampered in similar fashion with something infinitely more sacred, evangelical Bible scholar/theologian Wayne Grudem says.

By employing gender-neutral language, translators have edited the Scriptures in a manner that is both inaccurate and unnecessary, says Grudem, research professor of Bible and Theology at Phoenix Seminary and co-author of The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Broadman & Holman 2004).  Grudem is also a board member for The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

            “They are changing a historical document (the Bible),” Grudem said. “It is like someone writing about Bob Dylan’s song from the 1960s, ‘How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?’ and deciding that people today wouldn’t understand that Bob Dylan was using an example of a specific man to teach a general truth, and therefore telling modern 18-34 year olds that Bob Dylan wrote these words in a song: ‘How many roads must a human being walk down, before you call them a person?’ That would not be historically accurate, nor would it be necessary. But that is what the TNIV has done to the Bible.” 

            Zondervan released the TNIV earlier this month following perhaps the largest advertising campaign in church history. The publishing house pumped millions of dollars into a media blitz that saw it run ads in scores of publications both sacred and secular, including “Rolling Stone,” which ostensibly changed its policy to run the ad after initially rejecting it due to “religious content.”

            The TNIV is an updated version of Zondervan’s famous New International Version (NIV), for many years the best selling Bible translation, annually pulling in one-third of all Bible sales. The main difference between the TNIV and the NIV is that the new translation employs “inclusive language.” That is, many words referring to the male gender are nebulously changed to include the female gender—“they” instead of “he,” “parent” instead of “father,” “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers,” and so on.

Zondervan is targeting the 18-34 age group with the new translation, a demographic that Paul Caminiti, vice president and publisher for Bibles for Zondervan, calls “the most spiritually-intrigued group on the planet.”

            “Our mission at Zondervan for our Bible group is simple: It is more people engaging the Bible more,” Caminiti said. “We have wrestled for some time with the idea that we might engage more people than ever before in God’s Word. And as we began to look carefully at that and as we began to study different people and their degrees of ripeness, in a sense, for spiritual truth, it became clear through our research that the most spiritually-intrigued group on the planet are 18 to 34 year olds.”

            Still, Grudem contends that a desire to reach a particular demographic group does not provide warrant to alter the Scriptures.

            “I think every 18-34 year old can understand the first grade reading words ‘man,’ ‘father,’ ‘son,’ ‘brother,’ and ‘he/him/his,’” Grudem said. “Do people really want a Bible where they can’t trust that what they are reading is what the Bible says?”

            Instead of using terms such as “gender-inclusive” and “gender-neutral” to describe the TNIV’s revised language, Zondervan’s ad blitz—using the slogan “Timeless truth. Today’s language.”— is billing the new translation as “gender accurate,” itself an inaccurate description, say both Grudem and Randy Stinson, executive director of The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

            “This translation is by and large inaccurate when it comes to the gender-related language,” Stinson said. “While calling it gender-accurate might be a good marketing move, it cannot hide the fact that in literally thousands of places this Bible—in its use of words such as ‘son’, ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘brother’, ‘man’, and ‘father,’ are translated in ways not recognized in standard Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic dictionaries. The result is a loss of meaning throughout the Old and New Testaments.”

            Despite Zondervan’s noble intentions, Stinson fears that changing pronouns and inserting neutral gender references to suit contemporary whims will not compel large numbers of any age-particular group to desire the Scriptures but will only place an inaccurate translation in the hands of Christians.

            “While we are grateful for the desire to reach a particular age group, we are doubtful that the reason this age group does not read the Bible is because of masculine pronouns and the presence of words like father, brother, and son,” Stinson said. “It is possible to have good motives and still end up with a faulty product. This, in my estimation, is what has happened with the TNIV.”

            Despite clear examples of the use of inclusive language unwarranted by the manuscripts (See accompanying article at, Caminiti contends that the TNIV is an accurate translation, one he believes will eventually replace the NIV as the translation of choice among evangelicals.

            “This translation was done by the Committee for Bible Translators (CBT) which is the same committee that translated the NIV,” Caminiti said. “In our estimation, they are the most qualified group of translators on the planet. They come from the most renowned evangelical colleges and seminaries in the world…They are a who’s who of linguists and we would make a very clear distinction between someone who is a trained linguist and simply someone who has a theological degree.

            “Also, this is a completely independent committee. They are not owned by Zondervan. They are not owned by the International Bible Society. They are their own independent group and, believe me, they work independently to translate God’s Word in the most accurate way possible.” 

Mark Rice, vice president of corporate communications for Zondervan, insists that the TNIV meets the company’s most important criteria: widespread acceptance by its target demographic.

            “The one thing we have really kept in focus is, and what frankly has been the most encouraging, has been the response we’ve received from the age group that we are after. That is frankly, for us, the response that is most important—and that is how are 18 to 34 year olds responding to the text?” Rice said.

“Our biggest supporters have been young people in the 18 to 34 year old demographic who want a Bible that combines the best in biblical scholarship with language that is relevant today and we have received overwhelming support from that age group. To us that is the true sign of how this text is being received in the market.”

            The TNIV controversy has a shelf life that dates back nearly a decade.

            News of plans to revise the NIV in a gender-neutral direction first came to public notice in 1997 when WORLD magazine detailed the intentions of Zondervan and the International Bible Society (IBS)—the group responsible for the NIV—in a series of stories that led to a meeting in Colorado Springs between a number of evangelical leaders and Bible scholars and representatives from Zondervan and IBS.

            Participants in that meeting—which Focus on the Family founder James Dobson convened—reached an agreement that the NIV would not be revised as planned. Opponents of the revision, as well as Zondervan and IBS representatives signed a document called the “Colorado Springs Guidelines” ( that gave specific guidance as to how gender-related language in the Bible should be handled.

            However, in 1999, IBS effectively reneged on the agreement and announced plans for a new translation. In 2002, Zondervan rolled out the New Testament edition of the TNIV, which unleashed a hail of discussion over its fidelity—or lack thereof—to the original languages. 

            Citing an article that appeared in the organization’s publication “Light Magazine,” WORLD’s Gene Edward Veith recently reported that IBS President Peter Bradley said translators had to “withdraw” from the Colorado Springs Guidelines because they conflicted with guidelines of the Forum of Bible Agencies, to which the IBS subscribes. In the wake of the release of the TNIV New Testament, more than 100 evangelical leaders, including many Southern Baptists, signed onto a public statement stating that “the TNIV Bible is not sufficiently trustworthy.”

            In producing English Bibles, there are essentially two approaches to their translation: the “dynamic equivalence” or “formal equivalence” variety which seeks to render a passage according to its general sense; the second strategy is a “word-for-word” approach which translates words substantially using their literal English equivalent.

Dynamic equivalence translations include the NIV and variations of the Living Bible, among others. Word-for-word translations include the New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), New King James Version (NKJV) and the venerable KJV.

So where does this discussion leave the discriminating pew-sitter in the local church? Stinson urges believers to select translations that are most literally congruent to the ancient biblical languages.

            “Evangelicals should be encouraged to embrace translations that have adopted a word-for-word translation philosophy such as the ESV, NASB, NKJV, or HCSB, just to name a few,” he said. “People buying Bibles should have accuracy as their first concern. Even those in the 18-34 age group can understand the language in these translations.”


The TNIV is available on line at The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood will be providing more extensive critiques of the TNIV at


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