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  • John Davis

Why I Left the NIV for the ESV

I preach and teach from the ESV translation of the Bible every week. For those who are used to a different translation, it might be helpful to hear the reasoning behind my decision here. Furthermore, next week (as I write this) our church will consider whether or not to replace our current NIV pew Bibles with new ESV Bibles to match the version I preach from.


I grew up on the NIV. From as early as I can remember it was my “native language” so to speak. I continued to read the NIV daily, as well as teach from it, until around 2010. The change was hard for me because at that point I was 24 years old. I had already begun to internalize the NIV language by osmosis. If you read anything enough times it becomes ingrained into your brain. Even today, when I do a search for a phrase that I know is in the Bible, I’m sometimes searching for NIV phrases and word-order. Switching to the ESV was not an easy task.


But, in my opinion, it was a necessary one. In 2005 the NIV translation committee came out with what they called the Today’s New International Version (or the TNIV). It was sold alongside the traditional NIV, which was produced in 1984. The TNIV was not widely accepted in the evangelical community and it was mainly seen as a fringe edition. But in 2011 the NIV committee made a drastic decision. They decided to update the NIV Bible to reflect many of the TNIV changes. Only this time they did not sell two versions alongside one another. The 1984 version was taken out of print and completely replaced with the 2011 version.


So what’s the big deal? The TNIV and the 2011 NIV have both made changes to certain passages that suggest a feminist or progressive interpretation. The changes were significant enough that the conservative group The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood refused to recommend the NIV as a trustworthy Bible translation. This is a widely known conservative group whom I have consistently trusted on matters of biblical interpretation and gender issues. Those changes were also significant enough to send many preachers and Bible teachers, like myself, to another translation.


The pew Bibles in my church right now are the 1984 NIV, which is a perfectly acceptable version of the Bible. However if you were to enter a bookstore and buy an NIV from the shelf today, what you would get is the 2011 NIV with all the changes below and more. The 1984 NIV is no longer sold.


Gender-neutral Language


One problem I have with the current NIV is the gender-neutral language in places where the Hebrew or Greek text clearly calls for gender-specific, masculine language. See the examples below:


Proverbs 15:5 (1984 NIV) - A fool spurns his father's discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.

Proverbs 15:5 (2011 NIV) - A fool spurns a parent's discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.


2 Samuel 23:8 (1984 NIV) - These are the names of David’s mighty men

2 Samuel 23:8 (2011 NIV) - These are the names of David’s mighty warriors


1 Kings 9:5 (1984 NIV) - I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, 'You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’

1 Kings 9:5 (2011 NIV) - I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, 'You shall never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.'


John 14:23 (1984 NIV) - Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

John 14:23 (2011 NIV) - Jesus replied, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.


Romans 4:8 (1984 NIV) - Blessed is the man (Greek ’anēr, “man”) whose sin the Lord will never count against him.

Romans 4:8 (2011 NIV) - Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.


Now, in some of these examples you might be saying, “What’s the big deal? This might actually be helpful to someone who is new to the Bible!” While that may be true, what is more important is staying true to God’s originally inspired words. We do not have license to play with God’s words and change them however we see fit… even when they go against cultural trends. The supernatural power of Scripture exists only in the original words of God. Our modern translations will only remain a vessel for that supernatural power to the degree that they are accurate to the original words that God inspired. If we stray from those we will lose access to that power. The ESV does a much more faithful job of translating what was there and leaving the interpretation and cultural contextualization up to the reader.


The Overreach of the NIV Translators


While the gender neutral language is a significant issue, my bigger problem can be seen below. The 2011 NIV translated multiple passages in a way that suggests how the reader should interpret that passage. And in each of these instances, the suggestion was moving toward the feminist/progressive interpretation and away from a traditional/conservative interpretation. The ESV consistently does a better job remaining neutral in translation and leaving the interpretation up to the reader. Below I have cited three examples. There are many more.


1 Timothy 2:12 (1984 NIV) - I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man…

1 Timothy 2:12 (2011 NIV) - I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man…


Using “assume” instead of “have” here opens up the door to suggest what Paul is saying is that what he prohibits is the wrongful assumption of authority by a woman. A rightful bestowal of authority upon a woman in the church is fine. I believe this takes interpretation too far and also does not remain true to the original Greek.


1 Corinthians 14:33-34 (1984 NIV) - For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (new paragraph) As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches…

1 Corinthians 14:33-34 (2011 NIV) - For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (new paragraph) Women should remain silent in the churches…


While the question of where a paragraph should end and begin is not apparent in the original Greek text, this change reveals the interpretive stance taken by the NIV translation committee, which has shown itself time and time again in the changes they have made from the 1984 version to the 2011 edition.


Romans 16:1 (1984 NIV) - I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.

Romans 16:1 (2011 NIV) - I comment to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.


While the Greek word diakonos can be translated either “deacon” or “servant,” the 2011 NIV is the only one of all the 10 major translations I refer to regularly to use the word “deacon” here instead of “servant.”


In conclusion, I have two major problems with the 2011 NIV that caused me to switch to the English Standard Version. First, the NIV translation committee has made interpretive decisions for the reader, which they should have instead left up for debate. Second, it seems they have collectively moved in a more feminist/progressive interpretation of the Bible and that has consistently come through in their translation choices.


The ESV on the other hand does a much better job staying in their lane when it comes to translation and refusing to suggest an interpretation but rather leaving that up to the reader. Furthermore the scholars on the translation committee for the ESV represent a much more conservative/traditional view of Scripture and I trust them much more than I do the NIV team at this point.