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Bible translation incites debate

Critics say Today's New International Version doesn't reflect God's intentions. Others say it merely reflects changes in English usage.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002


Critics say Today's New International Version doesn't reflect God's intentions. Others say it merely reflects changes in English usage.

A new version of the Bible has the local Christian community buzzing.

Area armchair theologians are joining the global debate about the validity of a recent translation of the New Testament that rewords and replaces some words in earlier versions. The most controversial change in Today's New International Version, or the TNIV: Many masculine references are deleted and replaced with genderless words.

Supporters call it "gender-accurate." Critics call it blasphemy.

"The translators of that version have taken liberties with the translation that God did not intend," said the Rev. William D. Blosch of First Baptist Church of Dunedin. "It is a politically correct watering down of theology."

But other religious leaders say individuals must decide whether the new translation is appropriate.

"It's always a balance between tradition and being sensitive to new understandings," said the Rev. Reid Heydt of St. John's Episcopal Church in Clearwater. "Probably the translations that are going to resonate with me are going to be more traditional, but what the new debate has done, I think, is made us all sensitive to what personal pronouns do and how people hear them."

Among the changes in the TNIV version of the New Testament:

Some masculine pronouns are deleted and replaced with gender-neutral words.

In certain verses, the word "Messiah" is replaced with "Christ."

The word "Jews" is sometimes replaced with the words "Jewish leaders."

The International Bible Society owns and created both the more traditional New International Version and Today's New International Version. Both translations are published by Zondervan Publishing House, the world's largest Bible publisher. The NIV is the most popular Bible in the English-speaking world and is used by many evangelical denominations of Christianity.

A spokesman for the International Bible Society said the new translation was not a replacement for the NIV, but a version for a new reader in a time when the English language has changed. The TNIV reflects those subtle changes but still relies on the original Greek manuscripts, said Larry Lincoln, director of communications for the International Bible Society.

"What's generated the most stir are types of changes that have to do with gender," Lincoln said. "(Changes) were made only where it was clear in original Greek that they were talking to men and women. The goal is always accuracy. God is still he, man is still man, woman is still woman."

Some words and feelings expressed in Greek don't have exact English translations, so Bible scholars have a difficult job to do, he said.

An introduction to the TNIV tells the reader that: "... translating the Bible is never finally finished. This very fact has prompted the Committee to engage in an ongoing review of the text of the NIV with the assistance of other scholars." The introduction goes on to say that the TNIV is accurate and faithful to the meaning of the original Greek texts that collectively make up the New Testament.

One verse in the midst of the debate is Revelation 3:20, which is a portion of a letter to the church in Laodicea. In the NIV, it reads: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me."

The TNIV reads: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me."

The problem with the TNIV text, some say, is that it takes away from the personal relationship a person can have with God. God, critics say, relates to a person individually, and by changing "he" to "they," the personal relationship is lost, as is the singular nature of the Greek words.

Lincoln disagrees.

"The "them' and "they' implies singularity of relationship," Lincoln said. "That's part of the problem, that people don't know what the original Greek said. The original text refers back to "anyone."'

Ninety-three percent of the TNIV is identical to the NIV, Lincoln said, but the TNIV was still translated directly from Greek. Only 2 percent of the changes refer to gender, he added.

The Old Testament portion of the TNIV will be available in 2005.

The New Testament can be found now at a handful of local bookstores or can be ordered from the Internet. It comes in soft or hard cover ranging from $12.99 to $16.99.

The TNIV went on sale in early spring and so far, only a handful have sold in the North Pinellas area. Family Christian Bookstore in Clearwater has sold two so far and doesn't stock many. The manager there, Joe Toney, isn't sold on either the NIV or the TNIV.

"I like the New King James version," Toney said, "so I don't know where I stand in that battle."

Some religious leaders stress that this debate might end if people would read the Bible properly.

"You cannot take the Bible literally," said Mary Lotruglio, president of Highland Christian Academy. "This is where the mistakes come in and you find that's why there is such diversity, such confliction. ... They expect us to use common sense in reading it."

The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't want its members to even try to read the new version. Two weeks ago, the convention officially denounced it.

The Presbyterian Church in America also decided on June 20 to formally express disapproval of the TNIV.

Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater issued a statement saying the TNIV is trying too hard to make the Bible "politically correct" and that it "compromises the accuracy of the message."

Lifeway Bookstores, which are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, don't carry the book. The Charis Christian Book Store, which is affiliated with Indian Rocks First Baptist Church in Largo, does not carry it, either.

You can find the TNIV at Family Christian Bookstore and at Cokesbury Bookstores across the region. But even within the walls of a Christian bookstore, the TNIV causes a stir.

"I think it's a travesty, myself," said Lionel Trujillo Jr., a recent graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and a prison chaplain in Zephyrhills. "We've talked about it at the prison. They reacted like, "How dare they tamper with God's word?"'

Some bookstores also carry The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy -- Muting the Masculinity of God's Words, which came out almost simultaneously with the TNIV and criticizes several other gender-neutral Bible translations.

IBS does not want such a debate to prevent people from finding God, which is why Zondervan Publishing will continue to print the NIV version, Lincoln said.

"We're really deeply saddened by any unproductive debate," Lincoln added. "Unfortunately though, there's always going to be differences of opinion within the church."

Lincoln suggested that people interested in the TNIV go back to their basic Christian roots and remember the suggestion offered up regularly by Bible study or Sunday school.

"We want people to take the opportunity to study for themselves," Lincoln said. "God says study to show thyselves approved. We have a responsibility as Christians to get into the word."

-- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com.

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