Hill & Hill Translating the Bible into Action


What can parish ministry learn from missiology? Loads!


What can first world ministry learn from those working cross-culturally in developing countries? Loads.

In Translating the Bible in Action: How the Bible can be Relevant in all Languages and Cultures (Piquant, 2008) Harriet Hill and Margaret Hill take us through seven areas involved in taking the Bible and putting it into practical use. It’s written in world english which means clear communication using a limited vocabulary. There is a french language translation Traduire La Bible en Actes: Manuel pour faire un bon usage de la Bible dans chaque langue et culture (Presses Bibliques Africaines, 2011)


You don’t have to be working cross-culturally, or even in Africa to benefit from this book. We all face the same barriers to understanding and application. In the first section (after an introduction) the authors consider the theological foundations of language and culture. The key point for me is that real paradigm shifts happen when you’re reading in your mother tongue. Thus although you may be able to read in another language and gain content, there will always be far, far better engagement if you encounter the material in your ‘home’ language. This is a strong argument for Bible translation into local languages, and not settling for national languages (French, Portuguese, English, Swahili). A similar argument applies to the way the English language has changed since the seventeenth century (When the 1611 Authorised version of the Bible, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer were published), and indeed since 1984 (when the NIV was published).

A particular challenge in many African countries, as elsewhere in the developing world, is multi-lingual churches, where the congregation is drawn from several tribal groups, and this topic forms the second main section. Yet this phenomenon has its European counterpart too. Within a single culture, there are gaps between the generations. And Great Britain is a multi-cultural nation: even in Somerset, surely one of the least ethnically mixed places in the UK, there are sizeable Polish and Portuguese communities.How do we aim to reach and include them? We are far behind our African brothers and sisters here!

Section three, Relevant Bible Use covers the basics of understanding the Bible and making pertinent application. It’s the reason I came across this book, because we distribute these on behalf of Langham Literature at the Langham Preaching seminars that I have been part of in francophone Africa. I particularly found the chapter on ‘Providing Necessary Background Information’ to be a helpful reminder of just how much knowledge we assume for interpreting the Bible.

Sharing faith is really helpful on doing so in oral contexts. You don’t have to be in a developing world to meet one: a sizeable number of people in the UK are functionally illiterate. (Section six on literacy deals with teaching literacy, especially with African context in mind). And if you think about it, an all-age Family Service is an oral context: we tell stories, use pictures and drama, and aim to communicate the message of the Bible in a way that engages all ages, all of the time. I would like to hear more of Chronological Bible Storying, and work out how Langham Preachers could apply their sound exegetical and hermeneutical skills to this setting.

Section five looks at using your gifts of music, art and drama – chapters that any church would do well to take on board. Finally section eight Passing it on helps the reader think through the logistics of launching a new product, usually a Bible translation. There is a helpful chapter about ‘Bringing about change’.

I would recommend this book for the following reasons

1. In any context, there are sound principles to help you translate the Bible into action. If, like me, you are basically an Anglophone but working with francophone people, the french translation is a great help.

2. In any context and including the West, it’s a great summary in simple language of key concepts of missiology and ministryt

3. It’s great to think about everyday ministry through new eyes. Pastor Simon’s situation is a million miles from my own: but the obstacles in people’s hearts and in his own are not really that different; and his resources are the same – biblical wisdom and good Christian friends.


The Benefits of Translation


I recently attended a church which had simultaneous translation – which I needed because otherwise I would have understood very little.

translation changes the dynamics of the service. And there were some benefits to making the service slower and simpler.

Slower because the translator needs to catch up. When the service is slowed down, one is more aware of the words. Poor language is exposed, and apt vocabulary shines. As much of it was Anglican liturgy there was (in my view) a little more light than shame.

Simpler because, once again, the ideas need to be clear enough to translate. There is no room to hide weak ideas behind florid, clever, ambiguous word-plays. I greatly admire the skill of communicating God’s word powerfully and yet with simple and clear vocabulary. We could all benefit from this – even when no translation is needed.

So…those are the benefits of translation.

Where was I, you ask? In my home town of Bridgwater; and the translation was into English as I was a guest at the Deaf church. And in many ways it was little different to the experience of church-by-translator on my jaunts to Africa.

Bible in English: William Tyndale


Footballers usually only remember the last person to touch the ball before it goes into the net.

Wise managers take note not only of the scorer, but of the person who helped them: it’s called an ‘assist’. Great play-makers are not always the highest scorers. But when they are active, the team scorers well because the strikers are well served by their team.

In a similar way, history generally remembers only the people who brought something to a conclusion. Last time we looked at the Book of Common Prayer. What we call the 1662 BCP was written a century earlier by Archbishop Cranmer, in 1549 and 1552. Cranmer is, rightly, a headline figure. He gets the credit for the Book of Common Prayer.

The person we meet this evening is not a headline figure. He is however one of history’s great playmakers. He provided one of the greatest ‘assists’ to the Bible in English. The known landmark is the Authorised Version of the Bible from 1611. And like the 1662 BCP, it had its roots a century earlier, in the New Testament translation by William Tyndale in 1526 and 1534.

I want to spend our time in three sections.

Tyndale’s Times: setting the scene

Tyndale’s story ends just as Cranmer’s begins

Erasmus and More

An outline of William Tyndale’s Life

Three Marks of Tyndale’s achievement

1. He Translated the Scriptures that Everyone Needed

2. He Translated the Scriptures everyone needed into language everyone could read

3. He published his translation in a form everyone could get hold of.

Tyndale’s Translation opened the King’s eyes

Tyndale’s Legacy for us today.

1. Tyndale’s Times: setting the scene

Tyndale’s story ends just as Cranmer’s begins

Last time we set the scene by placing the Reformation within a virtual timeline of English history. Cranmer’s history was all about Henry VIII, and began in 1534 with the break from Rome’s political as well as spiritual power.

I had not realised how strong the pope’s power was over England. Three hundred years before the time we’re thinking of, in the time of Robin Hood and all that, King John was on the throne. And in 1213 he was excommunicated by the Pope. King John surrendered his Kingdom to the Pope and from that time on, English monarchs paid an annual fee of 1000 Marks (£666) to the Pope.

It only stopped in 1534 when Henry broke with the rule of Rome. Cranmer’s story begins in 1534.

Tyndale’s story ends at just about that time – in 1536, so this evening we’re going back half a generation. Tyndale’s work most definitely paved the way for the English Reformation, because the driving force behind change was, and remains, the Scriptures not the Prayer Book.

Erasmus and More

In order to understand Tyndale better, we should meet some of the other key players at the time. Let me introduce Erasmus, and Thomas More.

Erasmus was probably the brainiest person alive at the time. I want us to note two things about Erasmus:

  1. He could see that the Catholic Church was corrupt. He pointed this out in his writings, some of which have a real spitting-image style biting wit about them. But he never dreamed of breaking with the church: he wanted the church to puts its affairs in order.
  2. He published a printed copy of the NT in Greek, which for the first time put the NT in the original language into the hands of many scholars. He wanted people to read the Bible, but he did not want to rock the Roman boat.

In that sense historians speak of Erasmus laying the egg that Luther hatched.

Erasmus put the Greek New Testament into Tyndale’s hands.

Thomas More was also a massive intellect. He became Lord Chancellor of England after Wolsey (he of Hampton Court fame). Some may know of him through the play by Robert Bolt A Man for All Seasons. More wrote a story about a fictional place called Utopia.

Thomas More was also a very loyal Catholic. He served Henry VIII very well. When Henry broke with Rome, More was unable to accept King Henry as the head of the Church in England. And so he died (executed). He said,

“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”

More hated everything that Tyndale stood for, but could find nothing in Tyndale’s life that he could attack his personal integrity or holiness.

Thomas More became involved with Tyndale because he wrote a book attacking Tyndale.

An outline of William Tyndale’s Life

These men were significant because William Tyndale grew up in a world where learning was changing the world, and Tyndale was a player. A list of all his dates would be tedious. The key movements are:

  • He studied at Oxford, and then Cambridge. In Cambridge the reform-minded scholars would meet in the White Horse Inn (which is still there today). It here that the seeds were sown in his heart of craving for God’s word. The apostle Peter writes:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2–3)

Steve Timmis and Tim Chester make this assessment of Tyndale’s heart:

William Tyndale so craved the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word that he spent his life on the run, before dying a martyr’s death to bring that milk to the people of England.

  • Tyndale left Cambridge to work in Gloucestershire (Little Sodbury Manor) as a tutor. At the same time, he worked his way through Erasmus’ Greek NT. The seeds sown during his time in Cambridge came to fruit during this period. From there Tyndale determined that his life’s work lay in translation. Tyndale’s host and employer, Sir John Walsh, often had guests coming through and there was conversation at the table on spiritual topics. One Catholic scholar objected to the idea that the Bible should be made available to others. Tyndale answered, in a quote that is the hallmark quote of the man:

If God spare my life, ere [before] many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.

This was where Tyndale determined to bring the scriptures to the people. The problem is that this was illegal, unless he could get a Bishop to sponsor him.

  • Tyndale went to London, but failed to get permission. The only way forward was leave England, and so he fled to the Continent. He stayed in several places, and smuggled his works back into England. He died in 1536 at the stake. His dying prayer was

Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.

How did the Lord answer Tyndale’s Prayer?

2. Three Marks of Tyndale’s achievement

William Tyndale’s achievements can be summarised under four headings.

1. He Translated the Scriptures that Everyone Needed

There is a joke going round about the time when newer translations of the Bible in English, like the Revised Standard Version and now the NIV, were being introduced. A die-hard advocate of the King James version said, ‘If the Authorised version was good enough for St Paul, then it’s good enough for me!’

I hope it’s not a surprise to you that St Paul did not write in English! The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (mostly).

But for 1000 years the Church in the West had neither Greek manuscripts, nor the ability to read them. They depended on a Latin Translation from the fourth century called the Vulgate or Common Bible. This was a Roman Catholic Translation, and it contained a number of important errors.

I mentioned earlier that Erasmus laid a very important egg by finding and publishing a Greek New Testament. This was happening across the disciplines: scholars were not content to have books second-hand, they wanted to go back to the originals.

The first step was to go back to the Bible itself: amazingly it seems that scholars were content to rely on second-hand quotes from the bible. Two hundred years before Tyndale, a man called Burley was calling for a return to study of the Bible. A little later (1360), John Wycliffe translated the latin Bible into English.

That was a start. But it only brought the Latin Bible into English.

Tyndale went behind the Latin Vulgate to the Greek. He learned Greek and discovered that the Latin Vulgate translation had introduced a number of important errors. By going back to the original Greek, Tyndale was able to correct these. And that made a big difference. When he started work on the OT, he did the same. He learned Hebrew (not simple because the Jews had been expelled from England two centuries before), and looked at the text.

That principle remains a cornerstone of Bible translation. The preface to the King James Bible makes it clear that it was translated from the original tongues. We will see that 90% of the New Testament was by Tyndale. But every new translation since has started from the original Greek and Hebrew. This is the Bible that everyone needs.

2. He Translated the Scriptures everyone needed into language everyone could read

Tyndale translated the original text into English. Written English was still a developing. One book I read commented that even on the same page there are different spellings of a single word! It’s not that he was a poor speller, but that there simply was no standard. Tyndale coined phrases that have remained as part of our English heritage:

Borne the burden and heat of the day.  (Matthew 20:12)

Take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  (Luke 12:19)

For in him we live, and move, and have our being  (Acts 17:28)

Because Tyndale had the ploughboy in mind, he wrote in an English that everyone could understand:

By universal agreement, Tyndale succeeded in his great aim; his language and style broke free from the stilted medieval scholastic approach. Tyndale’s New Testament was earthy, almost rustic and certainly plain enough for the ploughman.


Tyndale’s New Testament was a gem of a translation. Accurate and beautifully written, it was a page-turner.

It is these two revolutionary aspects of Tyndale’s translation that really lit the fire of reformation in England.

  • Because it was in English, anyone could understand it, including the ploughboy.
  • Because it was from the original Greek and Hebrew, everyone could understand what the scripture really says, including the ploughboy.

I mentioned that the Vulgate latin translation had some errors. Tyndale corrected these errors and gave us the original meaning. And that is when the trouble started. Here are some of the key words that he changed:

  • From penance to repent. Penance is something the Priest tells you to do in order for your sin to be forgiven – much as a GP would give you antibiotics to get rid of a cough. Repentance is completely different: it means turning from sin and no longer living without God, and beginning a new life with him. That is what God calls us to do, and it breaks the power of a corrupt church.
  • From priest to senior (later changed to elder). A priest is someone who makes sacrifices, and who acts as a mediator. Because the Catholic priesthood saw itself in this way, you cold not get to God without a priest. But the New Testament never uses the word ‘priest’ to refer to a Christian leader. It uses the word ‘presbyter’, which means elder. The only priest we need is Jesus, the great high priest. That is what God calls us to do, and it breaks the power of a corrupt church. Ministers are ‘elders’, or leaders of the community of God’s people.
  • From church to congregation. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means a gathering or congregation. It does not mean the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore if you are in a gathering of people united around the message of the Gospel, then even if you are outside the Roman Catholic Church, you are in a Christian church. This is a key truth of the Reformation, which comes to us in Article 19 of the 39 Articles:

XIX Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

  • From charity to love. This change did not make it into the AV, which famously tells us:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  (1 Corinthians 13:1)

Fine you say, I’ll put something in the collecting tin, and then I will have ‘charity’. No says the Bible: you need love from the heart. Charity lets us get away with thinking we can buy love, and we cannot. Where there is love, then we are but a clashing symbol, however gifted we feel.

Do you see that when Tyndale’s Bible connected the real text of the Bible with real people, the impact was dynamite! Brian Edwards comments:

The [Catholic] Church’s use of these terms did not agree with what the Scriptures meant by them and Tyndale’s replacements set the words free from their traditional interpretation.

3. He published his translation in a form everyone could get hold of.

William Tyndale’s translation was produced while he was on the run and on the Continent. The first NT was ready in 1526 (8 years before Henry’s break with Rome) and revised in 1534 (the year of Henry’s break). His first translation of the first five books of the OT was lost in a shipwreck; he reworked it from scratch and this was ready in nine months in 1529!Other books followed.

As long as William Tyndale’s translation remained on the Continent, it could do the English ploughboy no good. Two factors put Tyndale’s translation into the hands of the English.

  • The first was the invention of the printing press. Before the printing press, books could only be copied by hand (slow and unreliable), or by individual woodcuts of every page (expensive). John Wycliffe’s New Testament was copied in this way. Once moveable-type printing was available, books could be printed reliably, quickly and cheaply. Printers were entrepreneurs, and if there was a market they would find a way to print and sell.
  • The second was trade routes into England. While he was on the Continent, Tyndale was harboured by merchants. They had come across Reformation ideas during their travels in Europe. And they were constantly bringing goods into and out of England. It was ideal for smuggling Bibles into England.

Tyndale’s New Testament could be mass-produced and then smuggled into England hidden in bales of cloth. It passed its way into the cities and people would club together to buy a copy, and gather round the person who could read. The price was relatively cheap, probably not more than half a week’s wages for a labourer.

That’s about the price of a television or an iPad: not completely impossible if you really felt you had to have it. And people were willing to pay that. It has been estimated that some 16,000 copies of Tyndale’s Bible found their way into England.

When you think that the population of England was 2.5 million (most of whom were illiterate), that’s an astonishing one copy per 156 people!

Tyndale’s Translation opened the King’s eyes

Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities while he was living in Antwerp, now in Belgium. He was tried and eventually executed by being first strangled (as a mercy) and then burned, in October 1536.

His life’s work had been to bring about a translation of the Scriptures that could be put into that hands of the ploughboy. Remember his claim at the dinner table in Little Sodbury Manor:

If God spare my life, ere [before] many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.

History records a plough-girl who read the scriptures: John Foxe writing in the following century records the tale of a woman of Suffolk, Alice Driver. She told her judges that she had never been brought up in a university but had ‘driven the plough before my father many a time’. Yet she ran rings round the churchmen in her knowledge of the scripture.

She was able to do this because William Tyndale had translated the scriptures from the original, into an english she could understand, available in a form she could get her hands on.

Tyndale’s last words were the prayer,

“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”

Tyndale died before he could see that massive change brought about by his translation. Within a few years of his death, the kings and bishops were beginning to awaken to the need for the Scriptures in English. Henry VIII ordered that an English Bible be placed in every church in the land. Officially the translators were Miles Coverdale and John Rogers, but much of the work was in fact taken from Tyndale. Here’s an interesting comment:

It was not that Tyndale’s translation … was accepted because times were changing. On the contrary it as Tyndale’s translation that was changing the times and thus the whole course of English history.

Thus God did indeed answer Tyndale’s prayers: the King of England’s eyes were opened.

3. Tyndale’s Legacy for us today.

I said at the start that Tyndale was not the striker, but the playmaker who scores an ‘assist’. He did not live to see the fruit of his labours. And fruits there were:

As English Bibles multiplied, it became important to have a single, reliable translation. So King James I commissioned a new translation, to become the Authorised Version of 1611. It was to be a new translation from the original languages. Tyndale was hard to improve on, and 90% of the NT is in fact Tyndale’s translation, as are many parts of the OT.

As Tyndale’s reforming light went out, the baton passed to others. In England, it was the turn of Cranmer. In Europe, it was the rise of men like John Calvin. In the year that Tyndale died (1536), Calvin published the first edition of his most famous book: the Institutes of Christian religion. The so-called heresies for which Tyndale was executed have become normal, mainstream biblical Christianity:

    1. That faith alone justifies [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    2. That salvation comes to those who believe in the forgiveness of sins and trust in the mercy offered in the Gospel [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    3. That human traditions cannot bind the human conscience [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    4. The we do not have free will (over God). [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    5. That there is no purgatory [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    6. That neither the Virgin Mary nor the Saints are to be invoked in prayer [Well, so do I, and so do the 39 articles]
    7. And so on.

We (evangelicals) do not consider any of these to be radical: they represent simple, basic, biblical Christianity. These foundational beliefs all come from the scriptures. Men like William Tyndale worked and even died so that we might know the truth, and the truth set us free. And we thank God for them.

We who gather here today have unparalleled access to the Scriptures.

  • Our access to the original texts is about 1,000 times greater than it was in Tyndale’s day. We have astonishingly accurate and early copies of the original text. And we know so much more about the original languages.
  • We have a multitude of translations into English. And each year the Bible is translated into more local languages.
  • We have easier access than ever before: Bibles are cheap, the text is on the internet.

One thing has not changed: if God’s word is to open our eyes, we need to begin by reading it. If you do one thing as a consequence of this talk, why not pick up a Bible and read it again? Start in the NT as Tyndale did, and as you read, thank the Lord that you have the Scriptures, and ask him to speak to you through them.

William Tyndale English Bible Lent Talk 2012 PDF version (contains footnotes)

Audio mp3 will shortly be available on the sermons page at http://www.sgw.org.uk

More on the NIV 2011


The excellent journal Themeliosis now published by the Gospel Coalition. The latest issue (36-3)  has a fine evaluation of the NIV 2011 revision. You can find the article here.

I wrote a previous post which you can find here.


More on translation – how English has changed


One of the drivers for the NIV2011 update is that the English language has changed. This is more noticeable with the KJV (1611) version. The folks at Accordance have produced their top ten KJV words that don’t mean what they used to (in their June 2011 newsletter).

400th King James Bible Anniversary!   

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. To celebrate this occasion, and to have a bit of fun, we humbly submit our Top Ten List of KJV words that don’t mean what you think they do.  

By Darin Allen, Director of Marketing 

KJV Word Modern Day Definition KJV Definition KJV Sample Passage
Tablet A flat computing device, such as the iPad Ornamental jewelry, probably a string of beads worn around the neck And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing hearted, and brought bracelets, and earrings, and rings, and tablets, all jewels of gold.-Exodus 35:2a
Charity Give back to the community…and get tax write-offs Love Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.-1 Corinthians 13:1
Passion A fire in the belly Suffering To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.-Acts 1:3
Peculiar Strange or weird Possession or property For the LORD hath chosen Jacob unto himself, and Israel for his peculiar treasure.-Psalm 135:4
Bosses They write your paychecks The projecting parts of a shield He runneth upon him, even on his neck, upon the thick bosses of his bucklers.- Job 15:26
Gin An adult beverage often mixed with tonic A trap or snare The gin shall take him by the heel, and the robber shall prevail against him.- Job 18:9
Ouches Where Dora the Explorer Band-Aids go. AKA “hurties” and “booboos” Cavities or sockets in which gems were set And they wrought onyx stones inclosed in ouches of gold, graven, as signets are graven, with the names of the children of Israel.-Exodus 39:6
Bravery A courageous display of valor Glory or beauty In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon.-Isaiah 3:18
Prevent To hinder or keep from occurring To meet or come before The God of my mercy shall prevent me: God shall let me see my desire upon mine enemies.-Psalm 59:10
Husbandman A redundant married man One whose business is to cultivate the ground And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard.-Genesis 9:20

NIV 1984 vs NIV 2011


Why has there been a change?

The NIV translation of the Bible has been around for nearly forty years: it was completed in 1984. Since that time it has served the church well, and continues to do so. We currently use the NIV as our mainstream Bible in church, and I expect to do so for some time to come. The CBT has felt the need to produce a revised text for the following reasons:

  • Concern for clarity because the 1984 NIV is ambiguous or has become so as the English language has changed
  • Changes in the English language with regard to gender inclusive language
  • Advances in biblical scholarship.

Should we welcome the new translation of the NIV? 

The questions to ask of this new translation are those we should ask of any English translation:

What is the underlying text

We do not have the original manuscripts that Paul, Peter, Matthew, John and Isaiah penned. We have copies: lots of them, and some of them very early. Although the copies are very similar (really remarkably similar), they are not identical and we need to try somehow to reconstruct the original text. The fruits of the two main approaches are known as the Majority Text and an eclectic text. The first weighs up the number of copies reflecting one reading or another and favours the one with most witnesses. The Authorised or King James version of the Bible (1611) is based on a Majority Text. Textual critics have found ways to group the manuscripts into families, and favour those readings with the strongest claim to be original. The NIV is based on an eclectic text, as are many modern translations including ESV and RSV. You can see this in Mark 16.9-20 and John 7.53-8.11 where the NIV notes comment ‘the most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have [this text]’. While adherents of the KJV and NKJV family of bibles remain loyal to the Majority text, I am persuaded that the NIV 2011 is based on a better text, an eclectic text.

The Philosophy of translation

Translation is not an exact science because languages are not identical. A particular greek word will often have a different range of possible meanings than its English equivalent. For example the word glossa means language, tongue, or the tongue (in your mouth). An English translation may need to choose between the three words.

Here again there are two broad approaches.

  • A literal or formal equivalence translation aims for word for word translation in order as closely as possible to mirror the language and syntax of the original text. The ASV of Philippians 1.3-4 reads  I thank my God upon all my remembrance of you, always in every supplication of mine on behalf of you all making my supplication with joy, which faithfully reflects the syntax of the greek and is stilted English.
  • A paraphrase or dynamic equivalence translation uses thought-for-thought translation to bring about clarity in the target language. It’s better English! For example the Message gives us Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart.
  • The NIV translators aim to blend the two approaches. In practice it is a moderate form of dynamic equivalence translation, and mostly it is reader-friendly. Philippians 1.3-4 becomes I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy … (the NIV 2011 is the same).

There is no such thing as a perfect translation. All translation is treason (a saying quoted by D A Carson). Compromise is inevitable. I think that for general use, the NIV is a good  compromise. For study purposes a more literal translation like ESV will get the reader closer to the original – but at the expense of readability in English.

Advances in Scholarship

The Bible is written in languages that are now dead to us: our only access to them, and to the forms of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that were current in ancient times, is through scholarship. We learn what words mean by studying how they were used – in the Bible and in the literature of the time. For example (these examples cited by the CBT website)1:

  • We are more certain than we were forty years ago that the Greek word kataluma used in Luke 2:7 means “guest room,” not “inn.”
  • We likewise know that those crucified on either side of Jesus (called lēstai) were “rebels” rather than “robbers” (e.g., Mark 15:27).
  • We now know that the word translated “demons” in the original NIV® of Psalm 106:37 is more accurately translated “false gods.”
  • Joseph’s “richly ornamented robe” (Genesis 37:3) suggests a garment with decorations hanging from it, but drawings and descriptions of comparable clothing from antiquity now suggest that “ornate” is the best adjective to use.

Most of these changes are of negligible doctrinal significance. But some will affect doctrine, as this note from the CBT explains

  • When the NIV® was first translated, the meaning of the rare Greek word harpagmos, rendered “something to be grasped,” in Philippians 2:6 was uncertain. But further study has shown that the word refers to something that a person has in their possession but chooses not to use to their own advantage. The updated NIV® reflects this new information, making clear that Jesus really was equal with God when he determined to become a human for our sake: “[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”

I have looked at a couple of other texts:

  • 1 Tim 2.12 translated in 1984 as I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent has changed in 2011 to I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; a she must be quiet (bold indicates a change). The new translation implies that authentein refers not to the exercise of authority, legitimate or otherwise, but to an abuse of authority – which can never be legitimate. I do not think this adequately reflects the context and biblical teaching on this issue. While this is an important issue, it should be borne in mind that any serious discussion of this verse and this word must refer to the original language and to the context.
  • 1 Cor 12.1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant  becomes Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Corinthians 12:1) The word translated spiritual gifts/gifts of the Spirit is pneumatikoi, meaning ‘spiritual things/people’, and could have been distinguished from the other words charismata for spiritual gifts.
  • The word hilasterion for propitiation is translated in the same way in both editions of NIV as ‘sacrifice of atonement’ with a marginal gloss of ‘or one who turns aside God’s wrath, taking away our sins’.


The bible was written for both men and women. In the languages of the time it was normal to refer to men and women as ‘man’; and to brothers and sisters’ as ‘brothers’; and to ‘anyone’ as ‘he’. God is also revealed in masculine terms. In Scripture God is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’ or a ‘she’. When the NIV 1984 was produced it was still correct to refer to mixed groups in this way: ‘man’, ‘brothers’, ‘he’. That is no longer the case. It is considered incorrect to use one (male) gender to refer to a mixed group; instead one should use ‘brothers and sisters’, ‘one’ or even the singular ‘them’ in place of ‘him or her’ (as is ‘if anyone comes to me I will eat with them’). At the same time feminist writers want to challenge the patriarchy inherent in the Bible’s revelation of God as father and son in masculine terms by removing gender references to the Godhead. I tend to describe these two movements as ‘gender inclusive’ (meaning language that includes both genders) and ‘gender neutral’ (meaning language that removes the genders). The first is welcome the second is not.

It is reassuring therefore to read that

Nowhere in the updated NIV® (nor in the TNIV®, nor in any of the committee discussions leading up to either version) is there even the remotest hint of any inclusive language for God. The revisions solely surround inclusive language for mankind.2

The NIV 2011 is gender inclusive, but with greater safeguards in my opinion against the risk of gender neutral language. It is also much clearer now that gender inclusive language is the norm in the UK and US.

As an example of the change, philadelphia is rendered love for one another or mutual affection in NIV 2011; but NIV 1984 was not consistent in translating this verb, rendering it brotherly love and brotherly kindness.

The obviously difficult phrase is ‘son of man’ which in Hebrew means ‘human’. Psalm 8.4 is typical of the phrase in the Psalms. Compare NIV 1984 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? With 2011 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? The good news is that Ezekiel is addressed as ‘Son of Man’ in NIV 2011, as is the one like a son of man in Daniel 7.13. Jesus’ use of the phrases remains, as far as I can see, unchanged.

Concern for Clarity

Psalm 1 is a good text to illustrate some key changes

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (Psalms 1:1–3)

This changes in NIV 2011 to:

Blessed is the one [because ‘man’ includes ‘man or woman’] who does not walk in step with [a better translation] the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take [because ‘stand in the way of sinners is ambiguous and could mean ‘stand in the way of in order to prevent sinners’ – the opposite of the intended meaning] or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight [change needed in order to avoid he/she delights in the law; and singluer they would be awkward] is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person [this impersonal construction is the unfortunate consequence of gender inclusive language. There is no adequate ‘that man/that woman expression] is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do [this is a singular ‘they’, now common for third person gender singular inclusive]  prospers. (Psalms 1:1–3)

Other ambiguities have been introduced by changes in English usage. These examples cited by the translators:

  • Who would have guessed in the 1970s that, within a few decades, an ‟alien” would mean, thanks to the influence of ET and other movies and TV shows, an ‟extraterrestrial being”? In the updated NIV, ‟alien” has been replaced with ‟foreigner” or similar words in order to communicate the intention of God’s Word accurately to contemporary English readers. See, for instance, Genesis 23:4: ‟I am a foreigner and stranger among you . . . ”
  • ‟Ankle chains” refer much more often to prison manacles than to the type of personal adornments described in Isaiah 3:20. The modern fashion of wearing jewelry around the ankle has led to the widespread use of the word ‟anklet” to describe this piece of jewelry, and this is the word used in the updated NIV.
  • In Exodus 4:14 Aaron’s ‟heart will be glad when he sees” Moses, but today we would just render this Semitic idiom as ‟he will be glad to see you” — as the updated NIV does.
  • And how many readers today would use the word ‟overweening” in a sentence, much less be able to define it? Moab’s ‟overweening pride” in Isaiah 16:6 and Jeremiah 48:29 has therefore now become her ‟great . . . arrogance.”

Conclusion: Should we welcome the NIV 2011?

Every translation is a compromise on the original text in the original language. The English language has changed since 1984 and gender inclusive language is now the norm. As a translation for general use, I think that the NIV 2011’s gains in contemporary accuracy outweigh the losses in reflecting the (grammatical) gender bias in the original language.

Every translation involves interpretation. Here again there are gains and losses: some translations are clearly better; others reflect advances that have gained the consensus of scholars – including protestant scholars. I am not qualified to over-rule them; in the key phrases like 1 Tim 2.12, it is clear that the evangelical community is divided and more neutral translations are preferred; which detracts from the translation.

I welcome the NIV 2011. While the ESV is a better bible for study purposes, the English of that translation is not good enough for general use. I expect the NIV 2011 to gradually replace the 1984 version, and when our church bibles need replacing through wear and tear I expect we will buy 2011 editions. But we will not rush to do so as the current bibles are adequate for the task.