The NIV and the Messiah in the Old Testament

I expect that most of my readers are aware by now of the recent resolution of the Southern Baptist Convention on the NIV 2011. In this document, the SBC expressed its “disappointment” with what they term an “inaccurate translation of God’s inspired Scripture,” requesting that LifeWay Christian Resources (an agency of the SBC) “not make this inaccurate translation available for sale in their bookstores” and further resolving that Convention could not “commend the 2011 NIV to Southern Baptists or the larger Christian community.” The Baptist Press News blog comments that this was “a surprising and dramatic move,” further noting that “[t]he Resolutions Committee had asked messengers not to consider the resolution.”

This hastily presented document and the politically engineered process that led to its approval stands in stark contrast to the careful, balanced, and genuinely helpful supplemental report that the Translation Evaluation Committee of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has prepared for its own convention later this month. The indefatigable Rod Decker already directed our attention to this document nearly two months ago, and I am a bit surprised that his notice has failed to elicit further discussion of the report’s contents. I encourage anyone interested in English Bible translations in general, and the NIV in particular, to acquaint themselves with the supplemental report and the various other supporting documents available on the WELS website.

The Translation Evaluation Committee, who were impeccably thorough in the fulfillment of their mandate, sat down for an extended discussion with Douglas Moo, Chair of the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation. This meeting is described in some detail in pages 7-9 of the report. I was intrigued to learn the following, from page 8:

Regarding the understanding of messianic prophecy, Moo said that all of the members of the committee believe that the Old Testament has predictive prophecy that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He suggested that the majority of the committee follows the Walter Kaiser “line of fulfillment” approach.

In a footnote, the report further elaborates:

Walter Kaiser accepts the existence of direct, messianic predictions in the Old Testament. But he also emphasizes that, in many cases, one shouldn’t have to choose if a particular prophecy is fulfilled in the immediate situation of the psalmist, or later in salvation history, or in Christ and the church. It can be fulfilled in all of them, even though it may be ultimately fulfilled in Christ. A prophetic passage’s unity of meaning consists in the fact that from the original “seed” meaning, the core idea grew in content over time as God’s promise-plan unfolded. See: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan, 1995, pp. 23-31.

These comments piqued my interest for at least a couple of reasons. For one, Kaiser’s views on these and related matters are often dismissed as naïve, particularly by younger Evangelicals who claim a certain degree of hermeneutical sophistication. There may be some truth to that assessment, of course, but Kaiser is not a rube and his views are not an oddity. In fact his views remain extraordinarily influential, to the extent that a majority of a select group of the best and brightest in Evangelical biblical scholarship are said here to operate within his single-meaning, “epangelical” approach to the interpretation of messianic prophecy. Secondly, this bit of information constitutes a rare insight into the minds of the translators, and it might suggest to informed readers how to properly evaluate disputed renderings in the NIV when they touch on this vexed subject.

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11 responses to “The NIV and the Messiah in the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutherans endorse NIV 2011 « Better Bibles Blog

  2. Hello Esteban,

    It seems like forever since I heard your voice of wisdom, if only through the veil of the internet. Perhaps I have been too distracted with other things, which is true enough.

    As you might guess, I am fairly conversant with the situation you allude to. A large and significant part of the Lutheran family is WELS. It has been a staunch NIV supporter since the beginning. Some of the principals in the debate are people I know and for whom I have the utmost respect.

    Make no mistake: in the wake of the changes incorporated into NIV 2011, the chances of WELS distancing itself from NIV and moving in the direction of ESV have never been stronger.

    There is a long tradition in the WELS of sympathizing with the translation philosophy of a great LCMS pastor and missionary, William F. Beck. His AAT is an example of what a Bible in Nidaesque common language would look like if crafted by an orthodox Lutheran. In many ways it is a marvelous translation.

    AAT is to NIV as wine is to water. Nonetheless, in the context of WELS politics, NIV was the compromise solution with something like KJV or NKJV on the other extreme.

    NIV 1984 was an excellent solution. It is now beloved by many WELS folk – virtually none of whom have cultural affinities with those behind the changes that led to the gender-sensitive revision known as NIV 2011.

    The original NIV people (whom you know well) were irenic and accommodating to the particular demands WELS had in the process of putting the final touches on NIV 1984.

    WELS is now in a bind. Despite the attempts of Moo and company to be just as accommodating this time around, there might very well be the makings of a “Tea Party” movement within WELS against NIV 2011. By that I mean a bottom-up rather than top-down groundswell against the extent to which NIV 2011 made modifications in line with a (un-)felt need for gender-sensitive language. A groundswell of the kind that did NIV 2011 in among Southern Baptists.

    I’ll be honest and say that, as soon as it became clear to what extent NIV 2011 would depart from NIV 1984 in terms of gender-sensitive language – elimination of phrases like “God and man,” “man and beast,” avoidance of generic masculine pronouns, plurializing of singular constructions in the name of the same priority – I thought it unlikely that NIV 2011 would gain wide acceptance. The changes in and of themselves are not terribly significant (though I don’t mind saying I dis-prefer a sizable number of them). But they are easily understood as portending or promoting extra-textual changes of a particular kind.

    One needs to keep in mind that WELS is old school on gender issues. Men only vote in assembly. Men only are ordained. The recommended marriage vows are the traditional “love/obey.” Same sex marriage: forget about it. If the wife of a WELS pastor divorces him, even if it is obviously on her, he is defrocked.

    On the other hand (and you of all people will understand this, since you are familiar with other old school worlds), there is no evidence that women are oppressed in the WELS family. They don’t have equal “rights,” but that is not the same thing, viewed emically. If I had to say anything, I would say that WELS women tend to have a stronger and a more vital self-directed faith than do women in many so-called progressive environments.

    Nonetheless, against this backdrop, it will be a more than a little bit uphill for NIV 2011 among WELS Lutherans.

  3. Pingback: Interesting insight into translation and exegesis | Scripture Zealot

  4. Pingback: Elsewhere (07.04.2011) | Near Emmaus

  5. Pingback: Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran’s Weigh in on the NIV 2011 « Baker Book House Church Connection

  6. Thank you, John, for your detailed comment, and my apologies that it has taken me so long to reply! And you may well have been distracted with a million other things, but I really have been missing in action forever.

    I have only the most fleeting acquaintance with WELS ethos and culture, so I appreciate your filling out some of that background for anyone reading this post. It is not hard to imagine that, as you suggest, there is vigorous debate within that body regarding the adoption of the latest revision of the NIV as the standard English translation for use in the pulpit and church publications. One might even suspect that that the TEC report could well ultimately be rejected by the Synod Convention later this month. Still, the impressive thing is that here we have a body that has commissioned a group of its best scholars to thoroughly research a new English translation and to provide an honest assessment of whether it is suitable for their use. The end result is admirable. Again, the report may well be rejected for the reasons you adduce, but the committee’s work is still exemplary. In the past, I have only been aware of such synodical reports on Bible translations in the CRC, but none in the recent past have been so well researched and balanced (the 2008 report on the NLT comes to mind). The excellent work of the TEC is certainly an example for others to follow.

    Regarding the fate of the report at the WELS Synod Convention, I think that there may be a slightly better chance for it to be adopted than you suspect. For one thing, as you note, WELS is an NIV church through and through in ways unknown in other church bodies, and one cannot discount the power of tradition in such cases. (That there is a real, living “NIV tradition” in some places is a wild thought, but there it is.) They might ultimately consider the adjustment to the ESV more trouble than it’s worth. Also, my impression is that they tend to respect the opinions of their scholars, whom they (rightly) assume to be thoroughly confessional and in tune with the life and rhythm of their church. A similar attitude helped a similar report on the NRSV gain approval at the CRC Synod before the wars and schisms of the ’90s set in. Then again, my impressions are not as well informed as yours, but the end result still remains to be seen.

  7. Hi Esteban,

    Despite the careful and marvelously even-handed work of its TEC, it is rather likely that WELS this month will kick the can down the road a bit, and leave the new NIV unapproved without closing the door to its eventual approval.

    Here is a motion which reflects as I understand it the sentiment of many:

    http://www.wels.net/sites/wels/files/Unpublished%20Memorial%20-%20NIV%202011%20Translation%20Evaluation%20Committee%20Work%20(Committee%2019).pdf

    I’m surprised this document is available online; in case it comes down, here is the text:

    Subject: NIV 2011 and Translation Evaluation Committee work
    Floor Committee #19

    Reference: BORAM, pp. 36 and 37, Translation Evaluation Committee report; Translation Evaluation Committee
    Supplemental Report for the 2011 WELS Convention

    WHEREAS 1) the publication of NIV 2011 requires the synod to make a decision about which translation it will use in its publications; and

    WHEREAS 2) we recognize that the NIV 2011 contains many improvements, but also contains many passages which unnecessarily weaken the translation; and

    WHEREAS 3) many passages dealing with Messianic prophecy are rendered in a questionable or unacceptable way; and

    WHEREAS 4) some of the use of gender-inclusive language is welcome, but some departs from the original meaning of the Greek or Hebrew text; and

    WHEREAS 5) some translations of passages dealing with gender roles obscures the biblical doctrine of the roles of men and women; and

    WHEREAS 6) the members of the South Central District believe that fidelity to the meaning of the original text is ultimately more important than the flow and currency of its English expression; and

    WHEREAS 7) our own WELS Translation Evaluation Committee does not expect the WELS convention in July 2011 to make a final decision about the choice of a Bible translation for WELS publications; and

    WHEREAS 8) the WELS Translation Evaluation Committee believes that there needs to be further discussion held among a wider audience until we reach a more general agreement; and

    WHEREAS 9) the WELS Translation Evaluation Committee has not had time to review thoroughly the leading options among the current Bible translations for our use other than NIV 2011; therefore be it

    Resolved, a) that we urge the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in its 2011 convention to commission a thorough study of the other leading options among the current Bible translations for use in our publications—An American Translation (AAT, Beck), English Standard Version (ESV), Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), New American Standard Bible (NASB), and New King James Version (NKJV)—to be reported to the constituency of our synod; and be it further

    Resolved, b) that we urge this study to be conducted with the serious consideration that one of these other
    translations may be more appropriate for use in WELS publications; and be it further

    Resolved, c) that we urge the 2011 convention to make no decision regarding which translation WELS will
    use in its official publications; and be it finally

    Resolved, d) that we thank the WELS Translation Evaluation Committee for the work they have done.

    South Central District

  8. One does not have to be a confessional Lutheran to understand why the issues raised in the whereas’s #3- #6 are weighty and significant.

    In this comment, I will reflect on a relatively minor issue.

    Like Rick Mansfield, I was surprised to see the new NIV adopt the singular “they.” Sometimes the result is acceptable; on occasion the result is simply jarring. NIV 2011 Revelation 3:20:

    Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

    This is awkward, as Rick pointed out. I would add that it is paradoxical that a translation committed to fluency and currency of diction would come up with the above text.

    It is noteworthy that Catholic NABRE – the revised New American Bible, 2011 – retains generic masculine singular diction in this instance.

    This is one of many cases in which NABRE, ESV, HCSB, and NASB align over against the new NIV, I have been comparing the way the above translations, and the revised Grail Psalms, deal with Psalm 1 and other important passages. A pattern emerges, though on occasion the new NIV in fact chooses fluent if generic masculine diction. Rom 14:22 (cited by Rick):

    Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.

    Rick’s review:

    http://thislamp.com/?p=1105

  9. Pingback: I am Becoming More Liberal | Apprentice2Jesus

  10. As a Lutheran pastor/leader in another confessional church body, I follow these discussions closely. I had served as a pastor in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the original revisions of Beck’s translation were taking place. All congregations I served were test congregations for each revision. Originally called NET (New Evangelical Translation), it was excellent, and was shaping up to be our primary Bible for worship, study, etc. But the change in 1992-1995 which led to GW left me and the congregation I served in a quandary. We went with NIV, which still was not ideal.

    I see great value in WELS/ELS pursuing a revision of Beck/NET.

    Rich

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