Feb. 11, 2005-The release of a new Bible translation this week pushes to the forefront a hair-splitting debate among evangelical Christians. Depending on whom you ask, the Today's New International Version Bible is either a way to connect with a new generation or a paean to the feminist agenda.

It's an update of the New International Version, the best-selling Bible of all time. The NIV, published by Zondervan in 1978, has surpassed the King James Version in popularity. One in three Bibles bought is an NIV.

For evangelicals, it's the pew Bible of choice. And many don't want it changed. Yet Zondervan insisted it was time for an update. The English language has undergone warp-speed changes in the last 30 years, they say, and the TNIV reflects a more "gender accurate" language than its predecessor. It took 45,000 changes to the text to do that.

That doesn't mean the Bible has been "neutered," Zondervan is careful to add. God is still referred to in the masculine. But where the original language was meant to include both men and women, translators have changed "man" and "brothers" to "human beings" and "brothers and sisters."

That's helpful for the generation that has grown up learning English in an inclusive way, said Paul Caminiti, vice president and Bible publisher for Zondervan. Since the 1970s, many textbooks have used gender-inclusive language. Schoolchildren may get marked down for using exclusively masculine pronouns. As a result, many 18- to 34-year-olds are "used to hearing English in what is now taken to be the correct way," Mr. Caminiti said. That means with inclusive language.

Critics, however, say the TNIV interprets Scripture with an agenda that many evangelicals do not support.

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the translators went beyond trying to clarify meaning.

"They have an agenda-to attempt to force egalitarian and even feminist perspectives on readers in the name of translation," he said.

"This is spin city if I ever saw it. Many evangelical scholars do not buy it for a moment."

Dr. Kenneth Barker, a member of the TNIV translation team, said evangelicals looking for a feminist agenda in the new Bible are misguided. Using standard Greek-Hebrew lexicons and dictionaries, his team changed passages only where the text meant to include both men and women, he said. Guidelines used for the TNIV are the same as used by the American Bible Society and Wycliffe Bible Translators.

They differ, however, from the anti-inclusive Colorado Springs Guidelines drawn up in 1997 by James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Critics charge that Zondervan changed its mind on sticking to those guidelines. Zondervan says it refused to sign on in the first place because it had already published gender-accurate Bibles.

Evangelical concerns began when the International Bible Society, a nondenominational organization that sponsors Bible translations and holds the copyright to the NIV, announced in 1997 that it planned to update the NIV. Zondervan has since said it will continue to publish the original NIV. When Zondervan released the New Testament portion of the Today's New International Version in 2002, evangelical critics unleashed a slew of articles and books to refute what they viewed as a "gender neutral" translation. Dr. Vern Poythress is a professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and co-author of TNIV and the Gender Neutral Controversy. He says the TNIV translators renegotiated the meaning of Scripture to accommodate popular culture.

"The question is, where do you draw the line? In translation, you have to be faithful. You can't always be looking in your rearview mirror," he said. Certainly, there were gender-accurate Bible translations already on the market, including the New Revised Standard Version, the New Century Version, and the New Living Translation.

But it was different with the NIV, which had found a home on pastor's desks, seminary professors' shelves, and in the pew.

"Certain individuals and organizations sent out inflammatory sound bites that say, 'Here's someone changing the Word of God.' It sends hackles up the back of people's necks," Mr. Caminiti said.

Proponents of the TNIV say it follows in a long tradition of getting the Bible into the common people's language, much like Martin Luther did when he translated Scripture into German. It's like crossing over into the 21st century, culturally speaking, they say.

Ben Irwin, 28, who heads up the Bible marketing team for Zondervan, said baby boomers and older readers are used to translating in their minds "human beings" or "men and women" whenever they see "mankind." But research shows 18- to 34-year-olds misinterpret it 90 percent of the time.

"That is huge," he said. "The reality is language changes all the time. You could say we still want to use it in the way we've always used it, but you'd be miscommunicating to your audience."

And it's even harder for people for whom English is a second language, who "truly misunderstand the good news of Jesus" when they read passages that refer only to men, Mr. Irwin said.

He described his own 20-something generation as unique, in that they are: The most spiritually intrigued on the planet, yet they are turned off by organized religion.

More visually attuned. They spend 16 hours a week on the Internet, 14 watching television, and 12 listening to the radio.

Six of 10 say the Bible is relevant to their life.

Yet 8 million, says researcher George Barna, will leave church by the time they're 30.

Dr. Poythress and other critics of the TNIV say there are other ways to reach young people, including Bible study guides. But the Scripture itself should be handled with care.

"We're sympathetic to the concerns, but the Bible is not ours to renegotiate. When it comes to the Bible, we want it to be accurate," he said. The TNIV publisher and translators say accuracy is their goal, too. They say they have picked up on nuances missed earlier because information available to translators has grown exponentially in the last 30 years. Translators have benefited from a better understanding of the use of ancient languages, new archaeological discoveries and greater availability of manuscripts.

"It's as if something was in black and white, and now it's in color," Mr. Caminiti said.

People who want a word-for-word translation don't realize how cumbersome that gets, said Dr. Barker of the translation team. It ends up as gobbledygook because of differences in grammatical structure and word meaning. Instead, he said it's better to go for dynamic equivalency, or the intent of the original thought, which the original audiences would have understood immediately.

Dr. Patterson prefers a more literal yet readable translation. He predicts most Southern Baptists will neither buy nor support the TNIV.

Indeed, the Southern Baptist Convention's publishing arm, now Lifeway Christian Resources, came out with its own alternative to the NIV in 2004, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. That version uses traditional language and is closer to the NIV in translation style.

Dr. Barker, who lives in Lewisville and is a Southern Baptist deacon, said he and others on the Committee on Bible Translation felt comfortable making changes to the NIV because a translator's job is simply to recognize a shift in language, "whether you like it or not." The committee is the same group of 15 scholars-except for those who have retired or died-that put out the NIV. They are faculty members at evangelical institutions such as Wheaton and Westmont colleges. The main controversy, Dr. Barker said, is over the TNIV's gender language. The battle has been drawn between egalitarian and complementarian views of marriage and ministry. Egalitarians believe the Bible doesn't teach separate roles for men and women in marriage, and say both are equally gifted to serve as pastors, preachers and elders. Complementarians believe the Bible has different roles for men and women in the church and at home. They restrict women from serving as a pastor or elder, and say God has given men the role as leaders in the home. And evangelicals reside in both camps. Mimi Haddad, president of the egalitarian organization Christians for Biblical Equality, praised what she called the clarity and accuracy of Today's New International Version. "Modern people no longer use male-dominated language. When you see the word 'men' on a restroom door, you don't go in. But women are supposed to recognize that 'rise up, O men of God' includes us, too? ...We want people to know that men and women are both included in Christ's atoning work," Ms. Haddad said. Meanwhile, Randy Stinson, director of the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said translators interested in making gender-based changes to Scripture "should have dealt with that in a footnote." "We all want the Bible translated in the language of the people. The key difference is in how far you are able to go to try to reach the culture. We want true accuracy in the text, and leave the application and meaning up to others. It's possible to have good motives and yet produce a poor product," Mr. Stinson said. Dr. Barker predicted the furor on the part of those who are opposed to inclusive language will die quickly. "Some [critics] are pulling in their tentacles a little and backing off. This is not a battle they can fight," he said. "What amuses me is that some of those who criticize the TNIV are the same ones who apologize for the use of masculine pronouns. They will say, 'Ladies, we know that Paul says 'brothers' here, but you are included.' The nice thing about the TNIV is you don't have to apologize anymore." Dr. Poythress disagreed, saying the controversy will probably continue because evangelicals consider the Bible to be the Word of God.

"It's the most important book in the world. The stakes become higher because we want to base our lives on it," he said.

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