We Still Don’t Get It: Douglas Moo on Evangelicals and Bible Translation

December 9, 2014

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2015 will be the 50th anniversary of the New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible. More precisely, 2015 will be the 50th anniversary of the commencement of the translation committee. The NT would not be published until 1973, the OT in 1978, and with major updates in 1984 and 2011.

The NIV is a controversial translation among some folks. The KJV-only crowd, which has vastly diminished over the years (praise the Lord!), cannot fathom an imperfect late textual tradition. On the other end of the spectrum, mainline Protestants have never trusted a translation that was founded upon dissatisfaction over the RSV (“expiation” instead of “propitiation”; “young woman” instead of “virgin”). More seriously, the NIV has been criticized for intentional mistranslations for the sake of harmonization and other evangelical biases (well beyond Isaiah 7:14). Paul Davidson’s very long list is probably the most exhaustive to date. Davidson’s list is valuable, even if I don’t agree with every complaint (and some of the more important faults were corrected in the 2011 update). It is hard to defend the NIV’s use of the past perfect tense in Genesis 2, to give one of the more famous examples. And sometimes the NIV will put the better translation in a footnote (e.g., Gen 47:31).

Within the last three years, I completed both the Greek/NT and Hebrew/OT cycles at our seminary. Both were fairly intense, in good Presbyterian fashion. We used the NRSV as our base translation. Even the most gifted seminarian could scarcely claim to have attained serious competence in his or her translation skills. I certainly did not. But in the process of doing my many translations and exegesis, I was routinely surprised by the NIV. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it and even preferred it to the NRSV in many cases. Both the NIV-2011 and NRSV are excellent translations, and I generally use both, side by side. On the whole, the NRSV is more defensible in its translation choices, but the NIV is precisely what the NIV claims for itself: an accessible translation with a frequently mellifluous quality. For someone who works closely in the local church — teaching and (more recently) preaching — this is no small factor. And where the NIV’s interpretive bias is on display, for the sake of clarity, I tend to agree (e.g., ἁμαρτίαν in 1 John 3:6 as “keeps on sinning” and “continues to sin”). When compared to other “accessible” translations, like the New Living Translation (NLT), the NIV is downright old-fashioned with its insistence on “technical” language like “righteousness,” instead of the NLT’s “made right,” in Romans 3 and elsewhere. Likewise, the CEV has “acceptable” instead of “justified” in Romans 3:28. In my opinion, these alternative renderings from the NLT and CEV do not fully capture the meaning of δικαιοσύνη.

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The purpose of this is to introduce Douglas Moo’s paper on the NIV, recently delivered at the Evangelical Theological Society’s meeting in San Diego. Professor Moo has been the chair of the NIV’s translation committee for the past few years and a member since 1996. He has taught at Wheaton since 2000 and previously at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for over two decades. In addition to his widely touted commentary on Romans, I found his commentaries on Colossians/Philemon and James to be especially helpful for my research. Here is Moo’s paper:

“We Still Don’t Get It: Evangelicals and Bible Translation Fifty Years After James Barr”

In the paper, Moo defends three linguistic principles that have too often been neglected:

First, linguistics is not a prescriptive but a descriptive enterprise; second, meaning resides not at the level of individual words but at the level of collocations of words in clauses, sentences, and ultimately discourses; and third, the meaning of individual words is expressed not in a single word gloss but in a semantic field. [pp. 3-4]

For those of us who have long been exhausted by those who exclusively defend so-called “formal equivalence” translations, you will appreciate this paper from Professor Moo. A lazy appeal to “literal” or “word-for-word” meaning is what Moo opposes. To quote Luther, as Moo does:

…what is the point of needlessly adhering so scrupulously and stubbornly to words which one cannot understand anyway? Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it — once he understands the Hebrew author — that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, ‘Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?’ [LW 35:213 –14]

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8 Responses to “We Still Don’t Get It: Douglas Moo on Evangelicals and Bible Translation”

  1. Mike said

    When I’m studying the Greek or Hebrew text I usually have my NASB open as well, to refer back and forth, as I find that to be a good “direct” translation, and helpful as I look at the original languages.

    At Second Baptist, where we attend in Houston, the “official” version is NASB. Considering the wide range of theological viewpoints that you might find there, this is probably as good a political choice as any.

    I really like NRSV in the Psalms. But sometimes their insistence on avoiding male pronouns is really forced. Daniel 7:13 “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.” – Oh brother.

    When I was a teenager the only version was King James. Then our high school group discovered Phillips. What a breath of fresh air. Don’t use it much any more, but I am always grateful that I was introduced to it.

    If asked I advise folks if it’s a difficult or controversial passage, read it in multiple versions. This will give the layman a feel for the range of translation possibilities.

    • Daniel 7:13 is good example of where the NIV-2011 kept it as it should be: “one like a son of man.” Also, I think “humankind” is just clunky (as in Gen 1), so I was happy when the NIV-2011 chose “mankind” instead…though I think “man” is still generally understood in its universal sense, whereas the second person pronoun (“his”) is indeed less common now (or alternating with “she”). The NIV-2011 uses the “singular they” in the parables and elsewhere (“Anyone who…they will…”).

      One of my NT professors at UNCC hated the gender inclusive changes in the NRSV, so he always used the RSV. And this was a rather liberal guy.

      I use the NASB when I have BibleWorks up, along with several other translations. I didn’t grow-up with the NASB and have never been in a church that used it, so I’ve just never been exposed to it much.

  2. Rod said

    Congrats on completing the Greek/NT and Hebrew/OT study. I agree with Moo & Luther. Careful contextualisation is a valuable part of proclamation and exegesis.

  3. Joel said

    I go to a church that mostly uses the NRSV, I don’t have an ESV study bible and probably never will, and I’m not particularly Reformed (maybe slightly on some days).

    Still, I have a soft spot for the ESV. I prefer its more literary style over the NIV’s straightforward plain English. I also like that It always says “immediately” in Mark instead of trying to paper over the repetition with “at once” and other rough equivalencies. But I use oldNIV and NRSV too.

    I do think the ESV is too conservative with gender-inclusive things though – can’t we have “brothers and sisters” without going into silliness like “what are human beings that you are mindful of them”?

    • can’t we have “brothers and sisters” without going into silliness like “what are human beings that you are mindful of them”?

      Yes, I think we can, and this is where the NIV-2011 does a better job, on the whole, than the NRSV. Interestingly, the ESV does use gender inclusive alternatives, albeit sparingly: Matt 12:31 is a good example (“people” instead of “men”), or James 3:8 (where “no man can” becomes “no human being can”). So, why not “brothers and sisters” too? I don’t understand. But from a purely literary/aesthetic perspective, I do prefer “he” instead of the “singular they,” even if the latter is increasingly widely used.

      I do like the ESV, because I first liked the RSV — and they are almost identical.

  4. […] has many naysayers, but I am a fan of the NIV, especially the 2011 revision (see a related post here). This study Bible is the evangelical standard. As such, it is minimally concerned with […]

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