The New International Version (NIV) is an English translation of the Christian Bible which is the most popular of the modern translations of the Bible made in the twentieth century. The preface to the NIV states, “The first concern of the translators has been the accuracy of the translation and its fidelity to the thought of the biblical writers.” This should be of interest to us because the translators tell us that they are concerned about being true to thoughts of the biblical writers. This led the translators to move away from a word-for-word translation like the NKJV and NASB and to a thought-for-thought translation. Again, the preface of the NIV states, “At the same time, they [the translators] 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 meanings of words.” The stated goal, therefore, is to communicate the meaning of the writers, not the words written by the writers.
SOME STRENGTHS OF THE NIV
- Readability. It is not hard to see why the NIV has become the most popular version in the world. The NIV is very easy to read, yet many of the words are not “dumbed down” like many other “readable versions.” The NIV as become a breath of fresh air for those who had trouble understanding the King James Version. It is my personal estimation that most people who favor the NIV do so because of its readability, not realizing that there now exist many other versions that are just as readable, but do not attempt “thought-for-thought” translation.
- Idiomatic Expressions. I believe another benefit of the NIV is its ability to take Greek and Hebrew idiomatic expressions and translate them in such a way that those unfamiliar with the Bible can understand it readily. An example of this is in Luke 9:44-
ESV: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”
NIV: “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”
The ESV simply translates the words literally which can cause to reader not to understand the idiom Jesus is using. The NIV does not translate the words literally, but does translate the idiom correctly. The idiom “let these words sink into your ears” meant that the people needed to “listen carefully.” The translation “listen carefully” can help the study correctly understand what Jesus meant.
SOME WEAKNESSES OF THE NIV
- Interpretation, At Times, Rather Than Translation. There was some criticism of the NIV from conservative Protestants also, who objected to the non-literal method of the translation. The moderate use of the so-called dynamic equivalence method of translation in the version involved a trade-off in which accuracy was sometimes sacrificed for the sake of readability. As Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary observed concerning the NIV, “Readability seems to have been a higher priority than anything else.” The erosion of accuracy was not as severe as in many modern versions which used this method of translation without restraint (e.g. the Good News Bible and the New Living Translation) but it did present problems for preachers and teachers who were trying to use the NIV while focusing on verbal details of the text. For instance, the Greek word hilasterion (literally “propitiation”) in the New Testament implies a certain doctrine of the atonement (namely, the concept of mercy and the need for God to be justified is offering mercy), but in the NIV this technical term was rendered rather loosely as “atoning sacrifice.”
- Lost Words. There are numerous instances where the NIV simply drops out words found in both Alexandrian and Byzantian manuscripts. One case of this problem is in Romans 4:1-
NASB: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?”
NIV: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”
Notice the phrase “according to the flesh” is missing. This is no small omission considering the thrust of Paul’s argument is that salvation is not found through the flesh but through faith. This is why I encourage people who like the NIV to NOT rely upon the NIV exclusively for study. Please use other versions when studying for you may find something that the NIV omitted.
- Calvinist Preference. This problem does not only exist with the NIV but many of the modern versions. Rather than simply translate the Greek or Hebrew words, the NIV and others will place their own Calvinistic understanding into the translation. An example of this is Psalm 51:5-
ESV: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
NIV: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
Calvinism teaches that all people are born in sin. The NIV and some other versions take opportunity to use Psalm 51:5 as a way to continue the false teaching. Notice what a dramatic difference exists between the English Standard Version (which is also a modern translation) and the NIV. The NIV makes the interpretation that David is saying he was born in sin. However, the actual text (as faithfully represented by the ESV) leaves the possibility that David is speaking of being born into a sinful world or that the sinfulness belonged to the mother. The point is that these things should be left up to the student and not taken away by the translators.
This Calvinist preference is also found in the New Testament. Throughout the letter to the Romans and Galatians, the NIV translates the Greek word sarx as “sinful nature” rather than its literal meaning “flesh.” The translators defended their use of “sinful nature” because they wanted to communicate that sin is not from the body, but from our human weakness. I appreciate what the translators say they were attempting to do. In fact, using “human weakness” may have been useful. However, they chose to use “sinful nature” which communicates the Calvinistic teaching of total depravity. In other words, Calvinism says there is nothing good in humanity and that we cannot choose God. Such a doctrine is not found in the scriptures. The translation”sinful nature” helps bolster the doctrine of total depravity.
- Inconsistent Translation. One of the criticisms of the KJV comes to life for the NIV. The same Greek or Hebrew word is often not consistently translated. The letter to the Galatians is an excellent example of this problem. The Greek word sarx which means “flesh” according to the lexicons is repeatedly translated anything but flesh in the NIV: Galatians 3:3 “human effort”, Galatians 4:23,29 “the ordinary way,” Galatians 5:13 “the sinful nature.” Most other versions translate this Greek word as “flesh” consistently through Galatians. Inconsistent translation leads the student to think there are different Greek words being used, when in actuality, the NIV is simply averse to using the word “flesh.”
You may not be able to tell by the article but I am fond of the NIV. I have used it for study, teaching, and preaching. However, I think it is important that people compare the reading of the NIV to ensure that the translation is accurate before relying upon its text, as I do myself. The NIV can only be recommended if thorough comparison and study has been done to be sure that the text is accurate to the original.