Steadfast WELS — New Bible Translation or Bust – or Both

It was almost a year ago when the Brothers of John the Steadfast alerted their readers to some of the controversy surrounding the updated NIV translation of the Bible, published one year ago this month. The 1984 version, which has been the official translation for WELS publications since 1977 (Yes, I recognize the anachronism there, but I’m just quoting from the WELS website!), is now gone, finished, out of print, off the market. If you want a copy, too bad. Those who love their NIV84 will have to take extra good care of their Bibles. Churches might want to begin hoarding their copies like those ubiquitous bicentennial quarters, hoping they’ll be worth something someday – because the NIV 2011 is already turning out to be a bust.

Well, that’s my take anyway, and the take of a good chunk of my synod. The rest of the WELS will have to weigh in very soon, with at least a preliminary decision being submitted by each of the twelve districts at their 2012 conventions.

Although my English Bible of choice at the moment is the ESV, I still have my Concordia Self-Study Bible (NIV) that I received at my confirmation (1987). It was hot off the presses (1986) back then, even as the NIV itself was relatively hot off the presses, first published in the year I was born (1973), and then revised through 1984. My home WELS congregation in Michigan made the switch from the KJV to the NIV already in 1981. I still remember my parents’ annoyance at not being able to hand down my second-grade memory book (KJV) to my younger brother. If they were alive today, I think they’d be ready to quit the church that endorsed the NIV 2011.

The issues with the NIV 2011 are many. I won’t go into detail here. Like the NIV84, it tends to paraphrase beyond the comfort level of many adherents of verbal inspiration. It also abandons key theological terms like “saints,” and it not only calls into question the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20 (as NIV84 also did), but it degrades it to an italicized addendum to the Gospel of Mark (without even the red-lettering for Jesus’ words that ’84 had). There are several instances of weakening in Messianic prophecy, including the fact that the NIV 2011 “makes it impossible for an English reader to interpret Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2 as direct, rectilinear prophecy about Christ.” (See this paper by Pastor Brian Keller for more info, including his Appendix A and Appendix B.)

Most noticeable of all – from Genesis to Revelation – is the “new” way the NIV deals with gender. (See this open letter written by Pastor Bob Koester dealing especially with this issue.)

A prestigious committee, chaired by President Paul Wendland of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, was handpicked to study the NIV 2011 to determine its usability in our synod. In spite of all the issues mentioned above, the committee concluded that the translation was not only passable, but commendable (especially with regard to the gender neutralization), and since the summer of 2011, members of the committee have been visiting pastors’ conferences around the synod attempting to build a consensus around the NIV 2011. A Bible study has been written and published (for free) by the synod that, while not endorsing any translation, certainly chips away at the arguments that have been raised against the NIV. And our monthly periodical magazine, Forward in Christ, has been subtly (and at times not so subtly) defending the NIV’s innovations for months.

But the decision has not yet been made. Almost surprisingly, given the theological weight of the Translation Evaluation Committee, some synod officials and a large number of pastors and congregations – and even whole districts – are resisting the peer pressure to get on the bandwagon (perhaps “locomotive” is more accurate). They are supported by the ELS doctrine committee, which recommended against the NIV 2011 (I’ll leave it to Steadfast ELS to elaborate). Many are not convinced that the NIV’s changes are either innocuous or inevitable. Some are calling for a vote this summer at the district conventions that would not make a final decision, but that would include as an option removing the NIV 2011 from all consideration as a choice for synodical translation.

What other options are being considered? Some are suggesting the ESV. Others, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. Still others are advocating a new Lutheran translation. I personally like any of these options better than the new NIV. I also like the New King James Version, but I would be surprised if it makes the ballot that the synod praesidium is charged with preparing for the summer conventions.

Whether we like it or not, the WELS will be choosing a new Bible translation within the next couple of years, and the decisions begin to be made just three months from now. It’s new translation or bust. Of course, if the new translation chosen is the NIV 2011, I think it will be both new translation and bust.

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