Tuesday, May 12, 2009

NT Wright + NIV = Not Friends

Over the weekend, I began to read NT Wright's newest book Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision. So far, like many of Wright's books, I have enjoyed what I have read. Wright, at least to me, reads like he speaks. Maybe that isn't always a good thing, but for books like Justification, which aren't too terribly long or technical, I somewhat enjoy it. While the topic of "justification in Paul" is an extremely important topic for all Christians, it is also nice to view this debate, between the two Protestant's Wright and Piper, merely as an outsider. I hope to blog more on Wright's main points in the near future.

Until then, one section of the book that immediately struck me, particularly since I am always interested in Bible translations, is located in the section on "Rules of Engagement". Here, on pages 51-53, Wright takes issue with how the NIV translates Paul. (For all you fellow Catholics who may not be aware of the NIV, it is the best selling, most widely read English translation of the Bible in the world. It is a mediating translation, that is neither too literal nor dynamic. In many ways it mirrors the NAB, but is far more smooth and consistent.) He begins by stating that he had recommended use of the NIV early in the 1980's, believing that it injected "no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses (51)." However, over a two year period, while lecturing with the NIV and the Greek text, he discovered that "the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said (52)." He follows that up by saying: "I do know that if a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about (52)." Ouch! He sites the NIV translation of Romans 3:21-26 & 29 as a major problem, particularly in its use of dikaiosu.

Now, again, I read Wright's critique as an outsider. I do not use the NIV, although I own a copy of the TNIV, which from time to time I will refer to when doing ecumenical Bible studies. While I have never examined, verse-by-verse, the (T)NIV, seeking to find its merits and problems, I have always appreciated its readability.

One thing that caught my attention is that it took Wright two years to discover the problems with the NIV. I would think that he would have noticed them much quicker. Yet, this may serve as a good example, either way, of why it is better not to promote or condemn a particular translation based simply on other peoples opinion, but only after using the translation over a year or two period. I know that some of the Bible blogs that I frequent feel this way about the TNIV, which some have condemned from the beginning.

I know, personally, that I always stayed away from the NRSV because I read forum comments by people who hated its use of inclusive language. Because of that, I really never gave it a serious read. However, I decided over a year ago to pick up a copy, just to have, and since then I have come to use it more and more. While I still don't like some of its inclusive language choices, I do appreciate many of it's other good qualities, which for me, sets it apart from other translations which have Catholic editions.

I should also point out that Wright does mention that "the NIV has now been replaced with newer adaptations in which some at least of the worst features have, I think, been at least modified (52)?" Any thoughts on that?


rolf said...

I read through those verses and comapred them to the NAB and the NRSV and I don't see the problem, but I am not a Greek scholar either. I don't know why he added verse 29, because it is almost the same as the NRSV.

Timothy said...


If you don't have the book, I will quote directly from it, starting with his comments after Romans 3:21-26:

"In other words, "the righteousness of God" in Romans 3:21 is only allowed to mean "the righteous status which comes to people from God", whereas the equivalent term in Romans 3:25 and 3:26 clearly refers to God's own righteousness-which is presumably why the NIV has translated it as "justice", to avoid having the reader realize the deception. In the following paragraph, a smilar telltale translation flaw occurs, to which again we shall return. In Romans 3:29, Paul introduces the question, "Is God the God of Jews only?" with the single-letter word "e", normally translated "or"; "Or is God the God of Jews only?"- in other words, if the statement of Romans 3:28 were to be challenged, it would look as though God were the God of Jews only. But the NIV standing firmly in the tradition that sees no organic connection between justification by faith on the one hand and the inclusion of Gentiles within God's people on the other, resists this clear implication by omitting the word altogether (52-53)."

rolf said...

Tim, thanks for the clarification.

Theophrastus said...

Thanks for the excellent post, Tim. I had a couple things I wanted to say about this, so I made a comment here instead.

Timothy said...


I forgot to mention that in another book of Wright's, "The Last Word", he says this when talking about various translations: "The New International Version, even in its updated format, is popular, but still has several weakness, particularly in its handling of Paul (143)." That book has a copyright of 2005.

Timothy said...

It also seems, like you mentioned on your blog Theophrastus, that the TNIV has not changed the issues that Wright objected.

Of course the (T)NIV is criticized in many Catholic circles for the way it translates "traditions" in 2Thessalonians 2:15 as "teachings".

Jason Batt said...

I am presently an Anglican christian who is coming into full communion with the Holy See of Rome. I have been a evangelical protestant for all of my Christian life, and I must say that Wright has been one of the most influential theologians in my life. After finishing my first year of koine Greek at Denver Seminary, I came to the shocking realization of the shallowness of scriptural support for the protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness, as demonstrated by Wright. I full agree with his assessment of the NIV. No translation is perfect, and there are many good aspects to the NIV, yet over and over again it is a heavy handed protestant theological translation. I'm presently searching for Catholic critique of Wright's work. If you have any good sources, I would love to see them.