NIV 1984 vs NIV 2011

Douglas Moo, chairman of the NIV-CBT (NIV Committee on Bible Translation), states,

“It has been a monumental undertaking to update the NIV, as well as a true honor to follow in the footsteps of the NIV founders who decades ago first defined the vision for a Bible translation that brings Bible readers as close as possible to the experience of the original audience. We have invested countless hours of study and debate in pursuit of this vision, and we are delighted with the result. With this update, we believe the NIV continues to represent the optimum combination of transparency to the original documents and comprehensibility for the broad audience we serve.” (emphasis added)

The closing words of this quote clearly set forth the desire of the translators for the NIV 2011 to maintain its status as the “middle of the road” translation, achieving a balance between dynamic and formal equivalence as we have already discussed. I believe the NIV 84 largely achieved this goal. So how do things change with the NIV 2011? Does the new text continue to achieve the result of the optimum combination of  transparency vs. comprehensibility?


There are some areas where the NIV 2011 has made some noteworthy updates in a positive direction.

The Greek word “sarx” is now translated “flesh.” That is the literal meaning of the word. The NIV 84 made an interpretive call and translated it “sinful nature” in many instances, which it can also refer to. But again, this is an interpretive decision made by the translators. Take for example I Corinthians 5:4,5:

When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

The highlighted phrase is changed to “for the destruction of his flesh” in the NIV 2011. You can see in the updated phrase that there are at least two possible ways this might be interpreted: (1) Paul is saying may his “sinful nature” be destroyed so that he comes back to a place of repentance and, thus, save his spirit (which is the meaning one infers from the NIV 84 translation), or (2) Paul is referring to a literal physical dynamic here. He could be saying that the intention is that his flesh be destroyed (i.e., may he become sick or die physically) though ultimately his spirit will be saved. Incidentally, this second interpretation would carry weight as a support for the eternal security of the believer (even one in gross sin). Regardless of the interpretation Paul intended, now the updated text is more transparent to the original, leaving the interpretation open, as it is in the original language. There are helpful footnotes in the 2011 text as well helping the reader see these various possibilities.

“Christ” is translated “Messiah” in some places (particularly in the Gospels and Acts). This is done, according to the translator notes, “where the word seemed to retain its titular sense of the coming deliverer of the Jews rather than its more common New Testament usage, in which it seems to be virtually equivalent to a second name for Jesus.” Since the literal word is “Christos” this is a shift in the dynamic equivalence direction, but they make a good argument for the change.

The wording in 1 John 2 (referring to the “things in the world”) is returned to the original KJV “lust of the flesh, lust of the eye, pride of life.” I’m not sure about the scholarly reasons for this, I just always liked the time-worn phrase better.

Several other enhancements have been made reflecting a better understanding of Koine Greek than we had 40 years ago, or updated English wording to provide greater clarity. These are explained further in the aforementioned translator notes. I would highly recommend reading these notes as they cover many other changes I have not included here.

Gender-Inclusive Language.

The largest number of changes (and the most controversial) revolve around the shift to gender-inclusive language. When the NIV first headed in this direction in 1997, it was met with a chorus of criticism from many prominent Evangelical leaders (such as James Dobson and John Piper) who received assurance from Zondervan that any future NIV would not be gender inclusive (see for a description of the agreement reached over a decade ago.) Subsequent gender-neutral translations based on the NIV text carried a different name (NIrV, NIVI, TNIV, etc.) With the NIV 2011, the creators of the NIV are reneging on the agreement reached in the late 1990’s with these Evangelical leaders.

For clarification, the gender-inclusive changes do not include references the Godhead (with a couple of possible exceptions in the case of indirect references in prophecies such as Psalm 8, see below). The argument made by the translation team is that the English language has changed in the past 50 years and that these changes simply reflect modern English. While I can agree with that argument to a point, what must remain paramount is the faithfulness of the translation to the original texts, and sometimes it seems this faithfulness is lost to a higher priority of political correctness.

This subject has been hashed quite a bit over the blog-sphere, and it probably doesn’t do much good for me to rehash it in a lot of detail here. But I’ll sum up the changes the way I see them. Basically, they fall into three categories.

1.) Changes where it is obvious that both men and women are referred to, that no one would disagree with, and are easily changed. A good example is Matthew 5:16: “In the same way, let your light shine before men. . .”  Men is easily changed in the NIV 2011 to “others.” Good change. No problem. There are many changes of this variety which the CBT could hardly be faulted for.

2.) Changes where, again, there is no doctrinal problem, but either the resulting English is poor, or else one is left with the feeling that somehow we have become slaves to the “Political Correctness” police. A couple of ones I find particularly annoying:

Matthew 4:19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.The underlined portion is changed to “I will send you out to fish for people.” Yes, it’s gender-inclusive, but the wording grates on me.

Ephesians 2:10 “We are God’s workmanship” is changed to “handiwork.” The “PC” police have banned the word workmanship from our vocabulary. Nothing wrong with the new word “handiwork”, but it still grates on me.

3.) More seriously, however, would be places where the gender-inclusive language does obscure the underlying text or meaning of the passage. There are not a ton of these, but in a few cases it seems that political correctness has become priority over Biblical truth.

For example, consider a subtle change in Matthew 10:42:

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward. (NIV 84)

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, I tell you the truth, that person will certainly not lose their reward. (NIV 2011)

That may look innocent enough, but if you look closely you’ll see that in the first instance reward is based on motive: the person is rewarded for giving the water because the little one was Christ’s disciple. In the NIV 2011 rendition, the reward is given simply for the action irrespective of the motivation. Yes, we’ve eliminated the masculine pronoun “he,” but we’ve lost a major thrust of what Christ was trying to teach, particularly if you study the preceding verses in their context.

Consider also the more well-known controversy over the translation of Psalm 8:3,4:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? (NIV 84)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (NIV 2011)

Aside from the fact that the new wording is just bad poetry, there is a more serious problem. While it’s true that David at one level is talking about human beings in general being placed over all creation, there is a strong Messianic component to this verse according to Hebrews 2:5-9 (check it out in the NIV 84 or a formal equivalence translation). Because “Son of Man” is a Messianic title that Jesus used for himself, I would be very hesitant about obscuring that in the text.

So, great, we’re now gender-inclusive! But at what cost?

It’s these few but significant changes  in category #3 that really frustrate me about the NIV 2011. On the one hand, I really like it!  However, for the sake of gender-inclusiveness, they have sacrificed transparency to the original in these few passages of Scripture. Thus, it is impossible for me to recommend the NIV 2011 as the translation of choice for Bible study.

So, in summary, Dr. Moo, while your translation does as excellent job of achieving the goal of being comprehensible to the audience you serve, I do question whether the other goal of continuing to be as transparent as possible to the original texts has been preserved in the cases where the priority of gender-inclusiveness has gotten in the way.

Thus, we come to the question that started all of this, and it demands a concluding post of its own: “Which version of the Bible is the best for Hiding His Word in our hearts?”


About Neil Burleson

I serve as a missionary in the country of Papua New Guinea.
This entry was posted in Bible Versions, Scripture, Scripture Memory. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to NIV 1984 vs NIV 2011

  1. Jason says:

    When Hebrews refers to Psalm 8:3,4 it is not in the context of the masonic use of “son of man”. If you read the text closely (Heb 2: 5-10) you see its just talking about the human race. In verse 8 NIV84 “him” refers to man and not Jesus, because later in verse 9 it says “but we see Jesus”. The NASB95 makes the difference by capitalizing Him when referring to Jesus in vs 9.

    • nburleson says:

      Yes, you are correct, and I tried to mention that in my post but obviously did not do that clearly enough. However, the author of Hebrews is obviously drawing a comparison/contrast with “mankind” on the one hand losing dominion over creation and Christ restoring that dominion for mankind under his own authority as the “son of man”.

      I agree with you that the NIV 2011 translation doesn’t change the doctrinal intent of the passage directly, but the removal of the phrase “son of man” makes it more difficult for the reader unfamiliar with the Hebrew to see the obvious wordplay in the OT passage that the author is using to complete his argument.

      And I still think the 2011 is just bad poetry. 🙂

  2. Steve says:

    I agree with the analysis, The gender inclusiveness is not necessarily bad, but in the case of poor English and bad grammar, it detracts from the text. Where the doctrinal intent is obscured it becomes less potent in biblical study. Who are we pleasing – God or “mankind”?

  3. James says:

    If you want the NIV84 back please sign this petition and spread it around:

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