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Q52 : NIV as Study Bible

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Q52 : NIV as Study Bible

I'm in the process of looking for a study bible and have started researching several different ones. However, during my research I have found that the NIV translation is NOT recommended for a study bible. My dilemma is that I grew up using NIV and don't really want to change translations, but would like a study bible for my daily devotion / study / reading. I do possess other translations (NKJ, NASB, Message, CEV) but would like the stick with the NIV for my 'every day' bible and would like one more inclusive of helps, notes, etc.

I guess my question is should I change translations? Or what would you recommend??

Thank you very much for any insight,

A52 : by Tony Garland

Your question is a good one. I myself started out with the NIV as my favorite translation when I became a believer. I stayed with it for about 2 or 3 years. However, over time, I came to a point where I felt I could not trust it as my primary translation. Was this because someone told me it was a bad translation? No. It came about when I began to dig further into the details of passages and found that I had no way of determining when the English words reflected the underlying Hebrew or Greek text and when they were translators assumptions or interpretations going beyond the text itself.

There is a saying which holds that 'every translator is a traitor.' This recognizes that it is virtually impossible to move from one language to another without distorting the original message. That being said, the aim of a good translation for study (and what other reason would you read the Bible?) is to preserve the original meaning as closely as possible. When the need arises to add words to help the text flow in the target language, then it is helpful to let your reader know this is the case. The NKJV, NASB, and many others do this by printing those words in italics. Unfortunately, the NIV does not — so you don't know when you may be placing too much emphasis on a phrase that isn't in the original. I suspect the reason the NIV foregoes this helpful approach is that most of the text would be in italics! This is because the NIV utilizes a translation approach known as 'dynamic equivalence' which assumes that information is conveyed by ideas rather than the underlying words so subtleties in the original text are not all that important. In a sense, this technique underemphasizes verbal (individual words) inspiration because it doesn't concern itself with preserving the very words. Will studying the NIV lead one into apostasy? No. It certainly isn't the monster that some try to make it out to be. But neither it is a very helpful translation for the careful student.

If you decide later on to start working with Strong's numbers or become interested in the underlying Hebrew or Greek, I predict that you will eventually grow to distrust the NIV. It is just a matter of time before it will let you down and you will eventually trade in familiarity for accuracy and switch to one of a number of other reliable translations. I would encourage you to consider the NKJV, NASB, KJV, MKJV, or some other 'formal-equivalency' word-for-word translation (see our Q and A section on Bible Versionsa).

One rule of thumb is: 'if it doesn't have italics in the text then don't buy it.' (The ESV might be an exception. It is a good translation, but they regretfully neglected to utilize italics.) Without italics, you don't know when phrases which are not necessarily part of the text have been added by the translators. And all dynamic equivalency translations and paraphrases omit italics because most of the text would be in italics.

As but one example of how the NIV suffers from misleading interpretation, consider how 1Cor. 7:36-38 compares between the NKJV, NASB, and NIV:

But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. So then he who gives [her] in marriage does well, but he who does not give [her] in marriage does better. (NKJV)

But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better. (NASB 95)

If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin— this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (NIV)

Notice how both the NKJV and NASB, which stick more closely to the the underlying Greek text, understand the discussion about the man and the virgin as a father-daughter relationship whereas the NIV clearly assumes it is an engaged couple. This difference comes about because the NIV interprets 'to keep' (in the Greek) as 'not to marry' and ekgamizo as 'to marry' when it actually means 'to give in marriage.' (The term for 'marry' is gameo as in Mat. 5:32.) The result is that the NIV interprets the father of the bride as the bridegroom.

Now some might argue that the Greek still leaves open the possibility of the man being the husband, but the disturbing fact is that the NIV has chosen one possible interpretation and made the text read that way: period. Any ambiguity in the text is removed from the sight of the reader in order to make the text 'easier to understand.' But this isn't really any favor because out of several possible interpretations, the reader has no idea there is more than one. This is one of the main drawbacks of a 'dynamic equivalency' translation: when concepts are translated rather than words alternative interpretations or shades of meaning are effectively hidden from the reader who is left all the poorer as the result.

If you want to really get to the bottom of why the NIV and many other popular dynamic equivalency translations and paraphrases are not suitable for Bible study I recommend you consider reading this excellent book: The Word of God in English: Criteria for Excellence in Bible Translationb by Leland Ryken which we have reviewedc

As an aside, I don't see any reason why a 'devotional' bible should be allowed to be less accurate than a 'study' bible. We are in God's Word as much as possible and every moment we spend in it we are developing and refining ideas about Who God is and what He has said. If I use an accurate bible to 'study' once in a while, but spend day after day after day in an inaccurate 'devotional' bible, what am I really accomplishing? Is it really fair to say that there is a 'devotional' use of the Bible and a 'study' use? If so, how do they differ? Am I permitted, when reading 'devotionally,' to allegorize or make the text mean what 'it means to me today?' Isn't all bible reading subject to the same desire for accuracy by paying attention to detail and context?

For example, I can choose to read John 3:5-6 while studying as:

Jesus answered, .Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' (NASB)

or I can read it devotionally as:

Jesus said, 'You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.' (The Message)

Which of these passages is God's Word? Remember that Jesus seemed to think that details were important (Mat. 5:18) and there are numerous warnings about adding or subtracting from God's Word (Deu. 4:2; Deu. 12:32; Pr. 30:6; Jer. 26:2; Rev. 22:18). How far afield does one have to go from the underlying Greek (in this case) before he crosses that line? It's one thing to offer suggestions in a commentary form, but to put them directly into the text (as Eugene Peterson has done) is very risky as it will be abused or misunderstood by some, regardless of the good intentions of the author.

In the example above, Mr. Peterson has introduced ideas into the text which are highly speculative and assume an interpretation which is but one of several possibilities. And the reader has no idea what the original text really said and where Mr. Peterson has made decisions 'for him' about meaning — with no clue about alternative possibile meanings. Now the NIV is not nearly as problematic as The Message, but I'm trying to illustrate a point: I don't see how devotional reading frees up a translation from the need for accuracy. Is error and sloppiness with God's Word acceptible so long as we have devotional thoughts when we read?

I really can't see the logic in trying to please God by studying a second-rate translation of His Holy Word. If we truly love Him, why put translation plus dynamic equivalence plus interpretation between us and the original? If He is truly our first love, wouldn't we want to get as close as possible to hear every detail of His precious Word — even though it may cause us some difficulty in the short term?

So I'm encouraging you to cut the apron strings from the NIV and look elsewhere. It may be more of a challenge in the near term, but the long term benefits far outweigh them.

I'm encouraged by your question and your desire to study God's Word and I pray that He will bless your desire to know Him.


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