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Monday, February 13, 2006

J I Packer on the NIV, TNIV and NLT

I spoke with Dr. J I Packer in his office last Friday afternoon, Feb. 10. I taped the hour long conversation with his agreement. Although I had prepared my questions, it became at times more of a conversation.

For this post, I have taken from the middle of the conversation a piece that I find he developed in greater detail than some other parts. To put this in context, while I was preparing to leave, after I had turned the tape off, he summarized his comments on the different Bible versions. "Horses for courses," he said with great enthusiasm.

Suzanne: I want to talk about the TNIV statement that was written in 2002, the statement against the TNIV. I wondered, you didn’t feel it was trustworthy, that it was not up to Bible translation standards.

Dr. Packer: I will only say first that my understanding of what translation should aim at, is not quite the same as that of either the original NIV or the TNIV and I will tell you specifically what difference I see. The NIV and the TNIV were, in both cases, seeking to package the word of God for a particular reading public which the translators thought they could identify and characterize. It is very obvious, actually the TNIV which has been marketed in terms of “This is the Bible for persons between 18 – 35" have you spotted all that?

Working with the NIV, I haven’t actually matched this with the TNIV, my years with the NIV were, I felt, sufficient. I found it a very frustrating version to teach from. I haven’t actually used the TNIV but my years with the NIV was enough, because it is an in and out version, when a literal translation is clear they give you a literal translation. When they think they are confronted with a form or words which, if literally translated, or should I say, directly translated, wouldn’t communicate very well, without warning of what they are doing they go off into paraphrase.

You see what I mean. When you are teaching, at least when you are teaching at graduate level, which is what we have here, you want as much precision as you can have and actually when you are standing in the pulpit, the same is true. It irritates the preacher and the congregation if he is constantly having to say this that we have got in front of us isn’t actually what the text says.

Let me say this. I am not an exponent of the view that there is only one way to translate the Bible. I am an exponent of the view that among the many ways of translating the Bible some are better than others on balance … there is a computation of pros and cons. And its a tradeoff. This way of doing it for the purpose for which you are doing it, if this is the purpose, achieves more than doing it any other way, if this is the purpose you have. If you have a different purpose, well of course, the rules change and then it is likely that a different way of doing it will seem more appropriate.

Suzanne: To me the TNIV seemed appropriate for its purpose.

Dr. Packer: Then I say the best of luck.

Suzanne: Well, I have been using Good News Bible.

Dr. Packer: Then I say I think the Good News Bible is very good.

Suzanne: And the New Living?

Dr. Packer: I also say the New Living is very good for what it is and once you understand what it is, well ...

Suzanne: I have to ask you, as I was asked to ask you some of these questions, they said please ask Dr. Packer how about the TNIV? What does he still feel about it?

Dr. Packer: Well, here is something that you can quote from me. I think I understand what the TNIV intends to do and I think that the NLB does the same thing better.

Suzanne: Okay. Does that make the TNIV untrustworthy?

Dr. Packer: No, it doesn’t. It just means that if you’ve got enough money to buy one further Bible I would encourage you to buy the New Living before you buy the TNIV.

Suzanne: That is very interesting. I haven’t used the New Living Bible. I will look at it.

Dr. Packer: Well, different things appeal to different people but I think that the New Living is– it is brilliantly done, but every translation has one or two weak spots and so has the New Living - not very many.

Suzanne: Every Bible has something.

Dr. Packer: Yeah, that’s right.

As I left he said,

"The scholars of the TNIV are extremely learned men. They are my colleagues here, you know."

I will post more in a few days.


At Mon Feb 13, 10:51:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Well, if the TNIV has the same goals as the NLT, then I would agree: The NLT does a better job at being a modern, colliquial, dynamic translation. It's more loose and understandable where the TNIV isn't.

I never saw the NIV or TNIV as trying to reach those particular goals though. The NIV and TNIV are dynamic, but not by very much.

In fact, relatively speaking, the TNIV is still conservative -- doctrinally speaking and linguistically speaking. It's closer to the traditional/literal Tyndale philosophy of Bible translation than it isn't. It's fairly moderate as far as dynamic translations go.

Doctrinally speaking, the TNIV seems more to be like the conversative Evangelical response to the more Mainline/Liberal NRSV (when it comes to controversial renderings and the like). The only thing liberal and loose about the TNIV is it's gender inclusive approach (Which, in my opinion, shouldn't be considered a liberal or conservative issue at all).

At Mon Feb 13, 11:46:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

All that being said, I think a translation that I could really be happy with would be a synthesis between the TNIV, ESV, NRSV.

The virtue of the TNIV (like the NIV) is that it communicates in modern English well, but without being too loosely rendered (as in the case of other dynamic translations, like the NLT). It represents that much desired "middle road" better than most (and perhaps all) other translations out there.

What it has in common with the ESV (and exceeds compared to the NRSV) is that maintains traditional/doctrinal renderings (like the perennial favorite: Isa 7.14).

What it has in common with the NRSV (and exceeds compared with the ESV) is that it is gender inclusive -- A no brainer issue that needs to be resolved once and for all, as far as I'm concerned.

The only category where I find fault with the TNIV (in my humble opinion), is that it was specifically tailored to and maintained by Evangelicals (as opposed to being Ecumenical). Therefore, Catholics or Orthodox Christians weren't invited to aid in translation. As a matter of principle, I prefer not to rely too much on translations that shed this issue aside, no matter how good they are.

At Tue Feb 14, 03:22:00 AM, Blogger David McKay said...

In commenting on the New Living Translation, are site participants referring to the original NLT or NLT2? I was already a fan of the NLT, but the NLT2 has thousands and thousands of changes from the NLT.

I think that the NLT2 is a huge advance and is an excellent translation. If you have an NLT and like it, it is well worth getting the update.

If you don't like the NLT, you should look at the NLT2. In some ways it is more conservative in its translation, while still being quite interpretive and also idiomatic.

At Tue Feb 14, 04:22:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

I have both versions, but I haven't taken the time to really mark the differences. Perhaps someone here has a chart? I just have a general impression of the NLT, and both versions seem to be about the same.

At Tue Feb 14, 05:37:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

Another thing worth pointing out:

One of the NLT's stated goals in it's introduction is gender-inclusiveness -- Goals which are no different than the TNIV's.

The main difference between the two is that the TNIV leans a little closer to the "formal" side of translation than the NLT does (and being closer to "formal" would be a quality that most conservatives would appreciate...or so I think).

Taking that into consideration, it puzzles me as to why the TNIV has been under as much criticism as it has been. Many Evangelicals wouldn't even recommend the TNIV "just a little".

On one hand, I notice that conservative Evangelicals have little problem recommending or reading from the NLT (isn't it one of the top selling translations in Christian bookstores?), and on the other hand, I notice that these same people will cast suspicion towards the TNIV (and at times, even attacking it with full blown belligerence).

Why is that? Is there something about the TNIV that I haven't heard about? A heretical "bogeyman" serving on the translation committee perhaps?

Seriously, I'm confused.

At Tue Feb 14, 07:33:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...


I'd specifically like to hear what his comments were on the awkward language of the ESV. It almost seems like he is seeing NIV/TNIV as inappropriate for academic use. If so, does he see them as appropriate for family use or for evangelism, etc.

There is no way I can communicate effectively with contemporary Americans, including my children, if I have to use a formal equivalent translation. The burden is placed on me to translate their translation which means in essence that they have left the Bible untranslated.

All in all, I thought he was open in his comments which I appreciate. He could have been simply diplomatic and evasive.

Keep getting more of the interview online for us to look at. Thank you.

At Tue Feb 14, 08:08:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

OK, I'm fuming a bit here...

So the seminary professor is lecturing on Romans 3:25 and says, "Whoops, the [insert dynamic version here] says, 'sacrifice of atonement' but what the Greek really says is 'ILASTERION' which means 'propitiation.'" Then the prof must proceed to translate 'propitiation' since none of the students have the least idea what it means.

Perhaps I'm knocking down a straw man here. It would help me to see an example where Packer feels the text is going off on a paraphrase and thus obscuring the real meaning.

OK, I'll be quiet now...

At Tue Feb 14, 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne, thank you for these comments. It seems that we can summarise Packer's position as follows: formal equivalence translations have their place, and dynamic equivalent translations have their place; he doesn't like NIV very much because it is neither one thing nor the other; TNIV has more or less the same faults as NIV, but is no worse; but if you don't want or need FE you would do better to use a proper DE version like NLT. Although I don't entirely agree with this, it seems a very reasonable position from a very reasonable man. It tends to confirm what I wrote about this issue in a posting here last December.

I find it puzzling that Packer seems to criticise the promoters of TNIV for marketing it to a particular audience. Yet he holds to the principle "horses for courses". Is it wrong to tell inform purchasers what kind of horse they are buying and whether it is suitable for their course? By contrast, the promoters of ESV seem to disagree here with their General Editor, Packer, for they promote their version here as "one Bible for all of life... suitable for any situation". Also many of the translation team seem to be more concerned in bringing down other versions by fair means or foul rather than accepting them as valid horses for other courses. Well, it is good that Packer is taking a very different line.

I would continue to disagree with Packer on his opposition to women's ordained ministry. And I would have similar questions to Lingamish about why he really prefers FE translations when preaching. Perhaps it is so that he can add his own interpretation of words like "propitiation" rather than accept the translators' - this is not a problem of course for an careful scholar like Packer, but it is a problem for ordinary pastors with limited training, who tend to use words like "propitiation" as hooks on which to hang out their own theological prejudices. At least with a version like NIV or TNIV even a poor preacher can't go very far astray.

At Tue Feb 14, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I find it revealing that Jim Packer would admit that he hasn't actually examined the TNIV very closely. My understanding from the TNIV promoters is the following:

- Approximately 30% of the changes from the original NIV are in the area of inclusive language for human beings.

- Of the remaining 70%, three-quarters lead the TNIV in a more literal (i.e. formal equivalent) direction than the NIV.

If this is true, then perhaps Dr. Packer ought to have given the TNIV a closer examination. He might have found that he liked it better than he thought!

But then again, perhaps Jim has the same problem I have with the TNIV - and I am a great fan of it. However, it is so obviously marketed toward the 18-35 year old group that the print is very much on the small side for a 47-year old with aging eyesight like me!!!

Tim C.

At Tue Feb 14, 12:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

J.I. Packer said:

It irritates the preacher and the congregation if he is constantly having to say this that we have got in front of us isn’t actually what the text says.

And, it is also true that:

It irritates the preacher and the congregation if he is constantly having to say this that we have got in front of us isn’t actually what the text means.

Somewhere there needs to be a balance, so that Bible teachers trust biblical scholars to have translated the meaning of the biblical texts accurately. And if the forms of the original text do not convey the original meaning if they are translated formally, then surely meaning must take priority.

It is perfectly fine to footnote more literal renderings which do not adequately communicate the original meaning.

No Bible version, including the literal NASB and ESV, totally translates only what the original "says". Every Bible version, including literal and essentially literal ones, give meaning priority at times when a formal equivalence would be meaningless in English. As I see it, it is a matter of degree: To what degree does a particular version attempt to translate as formally as possible. And also, to what degree do the translation (English) forms adequately communicate the meaning of the original forms.

It takes both good biblical scholars and English language professionals to produce adequate translations of the Bible to English. Very few English versions pay adequate attention to the quality of the English in them. But it is necessary to pay proper attention to both language, both the source language and the target language.

At Tue Feb 14, 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Alan S. Bandy said...

Thanks for that interview. This only serves to further my case for a translation commentary (see my post about this at 2/11/06. Instead of someone just positing that the TNIV is faulty I think it would be helpful to have a resource that demonstrates the exegesis behind the translation choices. That way people could address the real issues and not just preferences.

At Tue Feb 14, 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Alan, the TNIV team has put together a comprehensive list of explanations of its controversial exegetical and translational choices, accessed from this page. And the opponents of TNIV have also attempted to explain their objections, at this page for the NT and this one for the OT. I don't find all of the arguments on either side convincing, although you won't be surprised to learn that I accept more of the pro-TNIV arguments than the anti-TNIV ones. But it is not fair to suggest that the real issues have not been addressed by either side.

At Tue Feb 14, 02:28:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

from Mark Taylor, of the NLT:


I have prepared a study of John 1 that shows how the TNIV compares with the NIV. Since I am partial to the NLT, I have put the NLT in a separate column alongside the NIV and the TNIV. And I've added my own notes commenting on the changes made in going from NIV to TNIV.

In this chapter, I found that the TNIV changes moved it more toward the NLT rather than toward a formal equivalence approach.

I'd be happy to send this document to anyone who emails me at


from Wayne:

Mark attached the document to the message he sent me and you can access it at url:

At Tue Feb 14, 04:56:00 PM, Blogger Alan S. Bandy said...

Thanks Peter. You are right, it is not fair to suggest that the real issues have not been addressed (very poor choice of words).

I would just like to see a one volume scholarly assessment of the exegetical and linguistic reasons for various translation choices (of course, taking the opposing views into consideration).

At Tue Feb 14, 07:21:00 PM, Blogger Bill Combs said...

Packer says: "You see what I mean. When you are teaching, at least when you are teaching at graduate level, which is what we have here, you want as much precision as you can have." I wonder if he means what I hear from most proponents of a FE translation, though they may not articulate it exactly. They want a "precision" that allows them to look at their English text and be able to recognize or identify the underlying Greek text. In other words they want their Greek text in English. This, to them, is a good translation since it allows them to exegesis on a syntactically Greek text written with English words.

At Tue Feb 14, 08:41:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Well, you might get some idea of the syntax but not the semantics.

At Wed Feb 15, 06:40:00 AM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

I find it particularly revealing that two (or more) different people can preach from a literal translation--saying different things--and not "[be] irritat[ed]... that the text that we have got in front of us isn’t actually what the text says."

At Wed Feb 15, 06:56:00 AM, Blogger lingamish said...

Lots of good comments here. I can't help putting in a little reminder that only 405 of the world's 6913 languages have a whole Bible. (

So don't expend too much energy on this issue when God can use you to help one of the more than 2000 language groups who don't have a single translation to fight about!

Pray for the Bibleless peoples.

At Fri Feb 17, 10:01:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I spotted that you wrote:

It is perfectly fine to footnote more literal renderings which do not adequately communicate the original meaning.

I agree as long as they are not worded in the way in which they are worded in many versions. As an example of how this should not be done, I quote here from a footnote at 2 Timothy 4:21 which you quoted on the e-mail list:

Grk “brothers,” but the Greek word may be used for “brothers and sisters” or “fellow Christians” as here...

The implication of this footnote is that “brothers” is not just a literal rendering but also what the Greek actually says or means, and that the alternatives “brothers and sisters” and “fellow Christians” are somehow secondary or interpretive. That is a misunderstanding of the Greek word ἀδελφός adelphos here, for there is no justification in the semantics of this word for giving the rendering “brothers” priority over the rendering “brothers and sisters” or “fellow Christians”.

At Fri Feb 17, 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter said:

Wayne, I spotted that you wrote:

It is perfectly fine to footnote more literal renderings which do not adequately communicate the original meaning.

I agree as long as they are not worded in the way in which they are worded in many versions.

Very good, Peter. I agree. I, also, had noted those footnotes in the NET Bible, the NLT, and probably some other versions. It is misleading, as you say, when they say that the Greek means such and such when it actually doesn't. I thought about drawing attention to that when I referred to the NET footnote and should have. But now there are two of us affirming the same thing so maybe this way the emphasis on this important principle can be even better :-)


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