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Dynamic Equivalence and the NIV: Other Issues

February 13, 2010

The core strength of the NIV is that it so easy and pleasant to read. It chooses words and phrases that are familiar to modern ears. And it eliminates confusing ambiguities so we aren’t left wondering what was being said. But that strength is also its greatest weakness. Sometimes we need to wonder. Sometimes the concept being expressed is not so simple. When the NIV simplifies, it sometimes removes the depth of meaning. And sometimes it completely changes the meaning.

One example of NIV simplifying the text occurs in Philemon 1:6

(NIV) I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

Let’s compare that to a few other translations:

(ASV) that the fellowship of thy faith may become effectual, in the knowledge of every good thing which is in you, unto Christ.

(ESV) and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

(KJV) That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.

(NET.) I pray that the faith you share with us may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to you in Christ.

Those other translations convey quite a different meaning from the NIV. The NIV passage has often been used as an admonition to evangelism — certainly a concept supported elsewhere in scripture. But the other translations call that interpretation of Philemon 1:6 into question. The Greek word which is variously translated as “sharing”, “fellowship”, and “communication” is κοινωνια (koinonia) — which Thayer defines as follows:

1) fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse
1a) the share which one has in anything, participation
1b) intercourse, fellowship, intimacy
1b1) the right hand as a sign and pledge of fellowship (in fulfilling the apostolic office)
1c) a gift jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution, as exhibiting an embodiment and proof of fellowship

The message the NIV has injected not the verse is not an unbiblical message — it’s just not what this particular verse is about. In this letter Paul was making an appeal Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. He begins forming that appeal in verse 6, calling on Philemon to act upon his faith in how he would receive Onesimus. Compare verse 6 with 17:

Phm 1:17 So if you consider me a partner [Gk κοινωνον, koinonon], welcome him as you would welcome me.

The idea was that Paul was making an appeal based on their partnership in the gospel. But that connection is lost in the NIV.

Another example is Matthew 11:12

(NIV) From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.

Compare to other translations:

(ASV) And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and men of violence take it by force.

(ESV) From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

(KJV) And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

(NET) From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.

This is admittedly a difficult passage to translate. I don’t know why the NIV chose to interpret this passage differently from all those other translation teams. Compare this to to Luke 16:16

(NIV) “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.

In context, in Luke 16:16, Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for sneering at his teaching about money. He was certainly not admonishing us all to be forceful men and to take hold of the Kingdom by force.

Occasionally the NIV appears to render a passage to support a particular doctrinal position. For example, consider how the Greek word παραδοσιν (paradosin) is translated in various passages

Mat 15:3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

Col 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

1Co 11:2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

2Th 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

2Th 3:6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.

Is παραδοσιν tradition, or teaching? In the NIV, it is tradition when spoken about negatively, and teaching when spoken about positively. The NIV leaves the impression that tradition is bad. But in the original text, it can be either good or bad.

Mat 12:33 is another example:

(NIV) “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.

(ASV) Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by its fruit.

(ESV) “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.

(KJV) Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.

(NET) “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is known by its fruit.

Here the two “Dynamic Equivalence” translations (NIV, NET) inject cause and effect into the verse. The original Greek does not contain the notion that making the tree good causes the fruit to be good. Rather, it just conveys that good trees and good fruit go together, and that bad trees and bad fruit go together.

In Acts 1:10-11 the word ουρανον (ouranon) appears four times. The NIV translates two of them as “sky” and the other two as “heaven.”  The NIV does this in an attempt to make it easier to understand. The result is not highly objectionable, but perhaps something is lost by making a distinction between where the men were looking, where Jesus ascended, and where Jesus would appear when he returns.

The NIV is today’s best selling English Bible translation, for good reasons. The Dynamic Equivalence principle leads to a more accessible, readable, enjoyable text But it is not the best choice for careful textual study. Anyone who regularly reads the NIV would be well advised to also read one or more of the more literal translations to give a clearer picture of what the Holy Spirit inspired the original authors to write.

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3 comments

  1. I think that Heb 11:11 as the NIV translates it is one of the oddest twists that I’ve come across.
    The NIV makes Abraham the object of the faith when in fact it is Sarah. The NIV Is the ONLY translation that renders this verse like this and yet they say in the foor note, “some documents say…” Check it out


  2. Greg, Actually the NET bible also translates as the NIV does. The NET bible translation note on this verse says:

    3 tn Grk “power to deposit seed.” Though it is not as likely, some construe this phrase to mean “power to conceive seed,” making the whole verse about Sarah: “by faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and too old, she received ability to conceive, because she regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy.”


  3. You know alanrouse, I posted about this earlier today on my own website. Your post has provided me with some food for thought, I think that you made lots of important points. In fact, I simply wish I had discovered it earlier, before I published my own blog post. – bowlegged148.



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