Switching to the NIV 2011

This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. For hundreds of years after its publication, it was the standard English version of the Bible. Will there ever be another standard English translation of the Bible again? I don’t think so. Most churches pick the translation they feel most comfortable with, and church members eventually use that same translation if they didn’t already.

So what do we do when a Bible translation is significantly revised as in the case of the NIV? Should we upgrade or remain with the tried and true translation? Should we consider a newer and different translation altogether such as the ESV? Knowing that there is no perfect translation, should we all learn Hebrew and Greek?

I love the NIV 1984. I grew up with it. A friend of my father’s was in charge of marketing the NIV. My dad still has an old promotional copy of the book of John from the 70’s. So I gave UBF bonus points immediately when I discovered that everyone uses the NIV. We’ve all read it, studied it, memorized it. Does the NIV translation committee really expect us to change to the NIV 2011?

I’m amenable to this revised edition of the NIV for three reasons: language, audience and, for lack of a better term, freshness.

First, language. The English language evolves so quickly that revisions to Bible translations are necessary every few years. The English language is not the same as it was in 1984. The NIV 1984(I’ll call it the ONIV) was the NIV’s first attempt at the translation. After years of usage, i.e, preaching, Bible study, and scholarly input, surely the NIV can improve upon their first translation. For example, the committee has changed the word “Christ” in Acts and other places to “Messiah.” “Messiah” is more accurate since it is the term that the disciples would have been using, especially since their first audience was Jewish. For another example, take Luke 1:18. The ONIV says that Mary was “with child.” What does that mean in contemporary English? It means that she was pregnant, which is exactly how the NIV 2011 renders that verse. I’ve never heard anyone use the phrase “with child” to refer to a pregnancy.

Now, “with child” may be a literal translation, but literal is not always the clearest or most lucid. The word for word translations are generally the ESV, NRSV, and the favorite of all Greek students, the NASB. I’m in favor of using literal translations for my Bible study and personal readings to get a deeper sense of a particular passage. However, I’m not crazy about the more literal translations to use in a church service. But, you may object, UBF is a Bible study centered ministry, we can handle the more stilted language of the literal translation. Yes, but we are also focused on evangelism. For new Christians and even non-Christians, a dynamic equivalent translation of the Bible (e.g., the NIV), where meaning, lucidity and readability are all taken into consideration, is the necessary choice. That brings us to the next point.

Second, audience. Who is our audience? Our official evangelistic focus is college students. I was one of them. Generation X and younger generations have been raised in gender inclusive language environments. They’ve used gender inclusive language throughout their education. Ask a college student what would happen if he or she only used the male pronoun to refer to men and women. Since gender inclusive language is so normal to me and to college students, shouldn’t we use it in our sermons and Bible studies?

Take a look at John 14:23. The ONIV says, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” The “he” makes me a little uncomfortable having been raised in a gender inclusive language environment. I much prefer the NIV 2011, which reads, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.”

I know some grammar mavens get vexed when plural pronouns are used in the same sentence as singular ones. Take a look at the entire verse, “23 Jesus replied, “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.” We’ve got “anyone” and “them.” The translators say that this is a pragmatic or usage issue. This is an acceptable translation since this is the way that people talk. People will say “someone” and then say “they” referring back to “someone.” People talk like that all the time, even the grammar mavens.

Now, the issue of gender inclusive language isn’t about whether or not Generation X is comfortable with male only pronouns, the issue is whether or not gender inclusive language is biblically accurate. Mark Strauss, author of How to Choose a Translation for all it’s Worth, calls gender inclusive language in the NIV 2011 “gender accurate.” He writes,

“the Greek word anthropos can mean “person” (its primary meaning) or “man” (a secondary sense), depending on the context. While the NIV translated Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man (anthropos) is justified by faith,” the NIV 2011 more accurately renders, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith.” Virtually everyone agrees that anthropos here means “person,” so the NIV 2011 translates it that way.
The NIV 2011 does not eliminate gender distinctions (as some critics claim) but rather clarifies them. References to females remain feminine. References to males remain masculine. But when the inspired authors are referring to both men and women, an inclusive term like person is used. This is just good translation policy—the kind of meaning-based translation practiced by Bible translators around the world.”

Gender accurate language is also nothing new in the biblical world. For more than twenty years translators have been using gender accurate language in their revised versions. These include the New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Bible, The Message, the Contemporary English Version, and the New Living Translation among many others.

Third, freshness. Switching to the NIV 2011 will knock us all out of the comfortable world of the ONIV. Many of us have memorized significant portions of the ONIV, not to mention the gospel key verses, yearly key verses, and life key verses. Some second gens have grown up memorizing the ONIV in CBF Bible memorization contests. We could settle down and be comfortable with the ONIV for the rest of our lives. However, the NIV 2011 gives us a unique opportunity to use a fresh and yet familiar translation. Some of the verses we’ve memorized will remain the same. Some revised verses will challenge us to look at them in a new light. A friend of mine told me that he prepared a thematic workshop on marriage. Since everyone uses the ONIV at his church, he decided to use other translations for some familiar verses he was using in his presentation. His plan worked—people read the verses as if they were reading them for the first time.

Making the switch to the NIV 2011 doesn’t mean we have to abandon the ONIV. Switching to the NIV 2011 will only make our Bible study that much richer and deeper. When the NIV 2011 renders a verse differently than the ONIV, we’ll be compelled to figure out the reason. Is the new rendering more literal? Was the old rendering confusing or convoluted?

Are you going to make the switch?


  1. I’m going to remain true to NIV84 and resist any changes with all my strength.  I’m joking.  There is a flow in the NIV84 that I’ve gotten so used to that when I read other translations or the new NIV, I stumble (for a lack of better words).  But I read other versions to definitely get  out of the habit of glazing through the words when I try to read the Bible.

    • Mixing it up once in a while helps.  If you really want something different, try the Message if you haven’t already.  Whoa!  This is one of my favorite passages in the Message from Amos 5, probably because I’m most guilty of it:

      I can’t stand your religious meetings.I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
      I want nothing to do with your religion projects,your pretentious slogans and goals.
      I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,your public relations and image making.
      I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.When was the last time you sang to me?
      Do you know what I want?
      I want justice—oceans of it.I want fairness—rivers of it.
      That’s what I want. That’s all I want.

    • Wow, Ben, the Message translation from Amos 5 is interesting!  I also like the New Century version.
      Hosea 11:8: “My heart beats for you,
      and my love for you stirs up my pity.” (NCV)

  2. Joshua Brinkerhoff

    The difficulty in switching to another version comes during the worship service, when the person leading the service reads from a different version than the rest of the congregation. I learned that the hard way! (Smile)

    • That happened in New York UBF one Sunday, too! We used BibleGateway and didn’t realize that there was a new NIV (2011) version out, so our PowerPoint presentation was different than everyone’s bibles. Oops.

    • Darren Gruett

      It can be difficult, but it depends on how the service is conducted. In some churches, the reading is not done responsively, so there is not as much of a need for homogeny.

    • Yeah, that can be problematic.  I am all for a congregation agreeing upon a translation.  If a guest speaker comes he or she should be aware of what translation the congregation uses and try to use that translation.

  3. Darren Gruett

    I greatly appreciate this article because of my own interests in Bible translation. In fact, I had considered posting an article about this very issue, but it looks like you beat me to it.

    Back in 2009, when it was first announced that the NIV was going to be updated, I decided to start using a different translation altogether. There were a lot of things that led up to that decision, but generally speaking, I was at a point where I had gone as far as I could with the NIV. For the kinds of study that I wanted to do I needed a literal, word-for-word translation, and the NIV was no longer suitable for that. Among the various translations that I considered, one of them was the ESV, which I had actually used for a short time back in 2001 right after it came out. However, I eventually decided on the NASB, and looking back, that was definitely the right choice.

    I do not want to knock the NIV too much; after all, it was the translation that I used for nearly 17 years. However, being in a church and around people who use the NIV all the time I cannot help but see some of its weaknesses.

    One of the more significant problems with the NIV is that it often interprets the text rather than just translating it. A good example of this is in John 12:2 where the NIV inserts the word “honor” into the sentence, even though it does not appear in the Greek. This is easily verifiable by reading it in a word-for-word translation. Of course, I hardly believe that is the only place where a word has been inserted into the text by the translators, but unless I am willing to compare each passage I read to a literal translation there is no way to know for sure. That was a major reason that I decided to stop using it, because I simply lost confidence in the text, not knowing which words really belonged in there.

    As for the NIV2011, since it was first released online last fall I have been evaluating it and reading up on it. In some cases, there are significant improvements. For instance, the word commonly rendered as “sinful nature” in the NIV84 is now rightly rendered as “flesh” (e.g., Ro 7:5). At the same time, there are some questionable modifications, such as Galatians 3:13 where the NIV2011 reads, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” Obviously, the biggest change, for better or for worse, is the use of gender-inclusive language, and I believe that will be the real issue for most people when it comes to embracing it or not. Regardless of all this, the NIV2011 is still a dynamic equivalent translation at heart, which makes it easy to read and understand, but simply not suitable for in-depth, granular study.

    One thing about the NIV2011 that I do appreciate is that it is generating conversation and interest about Bible translation. Hopefully people will take the time to investigate these things for themselves so that they will understand that the difference between one translation and another may not just be a difference in wording, but a difference in what philosophy is used in the translation process. This is not a light matter either. Every word of God is pure (Ps 12:6; Pr 30:5), and those who translate the Scripture ought to remember this to ensure that they are “accurately handling the word of truth” (2Ti 2:15).

    • I’m with you on this one.  I like the fact that people, who may not have considered reading other translations until now, will be exposed to a new translation and will take others into consideration.  That may be one of the best things about this.
      I love more literal, word for word translations for Bible study, but I’m not a big fan of them for extended reading.  I find them too awkward.

  4. Thank you, Ben, for this informative and very helpful article.

    I agree with others that it will be difficult of the NIV 2011 to become the new standard translation in churches also bearing in mind that most bibles of worship service attendants and the bibles available in churches are ONIVs. Such a change might be easier in smaller (and thus more flexible) house-church settings. But it is always rewarding to compare bible translations.

    Interestingly, a new and modern bible translation is being released in Germany. So far, only the New Testament has been translated.  Very often, Greek sentences tend to be very long. Modern people of the internet era, however, seem to suffer a lot from poor concentration skills and lack of ability to read through longer texts. :) (this is true for me, at least). Even though ancient Greek sentences might be long they can very well be separated in meaningful phrases. The resulting German translation thus remains close to ancient Greek and is yet radically different from traditional bible translations in German. (As you might know, German sentences can be awfully long, too).

    I was thinking that modern translations should maybe also account for new ways of making the word accessible, such as fully searchable, cross-referenced, electronic versions, portable versions for e-readers, etc…

    I was just wondering: what is your take on the TNIV?

    • Darren Gruett

      Hello, Henoch, I do not know if you have seen this site, but it might be useful to see how much has been changed among the various NIV flavors.


      Basically, it looks like the NIV2011 is about 90% the same as the TNIV. Also, just from doing my own comparisons, I have found that the NIV2011 is much more like the TNIV than the NIV84. I think that is mostly due to gender-inclusive language, which incidentally, is what doomed the TNIV and was partly the motivation behind the entire project to revamp the NIV.

    • Henoch, how privileged you are to read Luther’s translation!  I know that most German churches still use it today, whereas the number of churches using the KJV is dwindling every day.  American English seems to favor short sentences thanks to Huck Finn and Hemingway.  It is possible to break up those long Greek passages (such as Luke 1:1-4 and anything in Hebrews) into shorter sentences.  The challenge would be to keep the long sentences in German or English without sacrificing clarity and meaning.
      I don’t mind the TNIV, but from what I’ve seen on the website Darren posted below, some of the kinks got worked out and look forward to the 2011.
      What translation do you prefer in English?

    • Birgit (Heidelberg)

      I bought this new NT translation mentioned by Henoch. It`s a very good one. They applied sincere linguistic methods. Nonetheless, it’s very very difficult for me not to prefer Luther’s translation. But I think, future generations will make good use of it.

  5. Conversation with one Bible scholar:
    John Y: “So you know, I was curious, which Bible translation(s) do you use for your study and devotions?”
    Bible scholar: “I don’t really use any.”
    John Y: “Huh?”
    Bible scholar: “I know Hebrew and Greek, so I just read the manuscripts without translation.”
    John Y: “Oh…Okay. That’s nice.”
    So do any of you out there spend a lot of time memorizing passages of Scripture? I don’t memorize much, but I sort of find it a disincentive to switch translations. I mean lazy folks like me would rather not have to re-memorize passages of Scripture in a different translation when I’ve memorized it in another translation. But that’s because I’m lazy. Come to think of it, I suppose it’s not much a problem for me anyway, since I barely memorize Scripture so I might as start up again sometime with a new translation. When someone figures out the best translation for memorizing, let me know.

    • John, as you know there’s no perfect translation.  Some people cannot accept that fact.  Thus, they start learning Hebrew and Greek.  If you’re not up to the task, just remember that even Augustine didn’t like Greek.
      I don’t like word for word translations for memorizing for the same reason that I don’t like to use them to read extensive portions of Scripture–they’re too awkward and thus too difficult to memorize.  I’m going to use the NIV 2011 for my memorization.  However, I really enjoy reading the NLT for marathon Bible reading sessions, and it’s an easy one to memorize.  Let us know what you decide on.

    • Joshua Brinkerhoff

      My parents raised me reading NIV and memorizing KJV. The language of the KJV was somewhat archaic, especially for a youngster, but I think that the lyricism made it easier to memorize. Plus, so many sentences in the new testament begin with “And…”, which helped as well. I think that as a result of this training as a youngster, I now prefer KJV for reading as well.

  6. I cant make the switch Benny Blanco, for me it is either 1984NIV or ESV…I am just too invested in them. However, I did decide to buy and listen to Max Mclean’s KJV Audio Bible this year for the 400 year anniversary (Because I knew I would probably never read the whole King James). So far it is Awesome! I think that everyone who speaks English should either read or listen to the King James Version as a memorial to how God used that version tremendously for the last four centuries. How many countless souls are in Heaven today because God used the KJV?!

  7. I love the KJV!  I remember my grandma had significant portions of it memorized, and she would always pray using “thee” and “thou” and she only finished 3rd grade.  We’re just as blessed with the KJV in English as the Germans are with the Luther translation.
    Maybe you can use the NIV 2011 where it’s the same as the ONIV :)

  8. Note to Zondervan Publishing: Please come out with a NIV1984 and NIV2011 side by side in one Bible so that folks like me can see what was changed and why. Or at least some annotated Study Bible version of the NIV2011 that explains why each of the changes were made, along with the NIV committee’s reasoning. I would appreciate it.
    Otherwise, we might adopt the ingenious NY UBF method of reading NIV1984 out loud in service while projecting the Bible Gateway NIV2011 version onto the screen. That way I can see/listen to the differences between the two versions over time.

    • by the way, I guess these links will suffice for those interested in the differences. I don’t have a new NIV version, but I suppose this must already be in the front pages of the new NIV2011 bible.

    • And I see now after reading this blog backwards that Darren already offered up some of these links. Thanks Darren.
      Appreciate the article. Wasn’t planning to, but I ended up spending a couple hours researching the subject further, but now I can say a bit more confidently that I’m with Ben W. I’m going with NIV2011 — at least for memorization and devotional reading. I typically use ESV/NASB for more in-depth study. And I use the Message/NLT to jolt people during Sunday messages and keep them awake. :)
      Thanks guys for the discussion!
      Actually, thanks EVERYONE for this discussion! (like the NIV2011, better keep this web forum gender-inclusive, right?)
      I will now cease replying to my own replies.

  9. Thanks, Ben (not me:-) (and commenters), for this interesting topic of Bible translations and gender inclusivity. I’ve only read the NIV since I became a Christian in 1980. Only 2 years ago did I begin reading the ESV, after hearing John Piper’s strong endorsement for it. I also began to barely understand the different translation philosophies: functional equivalence (paraphrase), or formal equivalence (word for word), or a combination of both. With the 2011 NIV, I will begin reading it, while noting all the differences with the ONIV even without trying. It will surely keep Bible reading fresh.