Barack Obama and the TNIV

The introductory “Word to the Reader” of Today’s New International Version (TNIV) says, “Among the more programmatic changes in the TNIV are the removal of...most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns.”

Three examples:

  1. Luke 17:3-4

    NIV: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

    TNIV: “If a brother or sister sins against you [added] rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

  2. 1 Corinthians 14:28

    NIV: "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.”

    TNIV: “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church; let them [added] speak to themselves and to God."

  3. Revelation 22:18

    NIV: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.”

    TNIV: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If any of you [added] adds anything to them, God will add to you the plagues described in this scroll.”

The defenders of these "programmatic changes” have argued that “the use of the generic  masculine language is rapidly fading.... There is an entire generation of young people who don’t use it and don’t understand its usage.” (For that quote and Wayne Grudem’s response see the CBMW article, "Are the Criticisms of the TNIV Bible Really Justified?" And for defenses of the TNIV see the TNIV links page.)

On February 24, 2009, in his most significant speech since coming to office, President Obama did not share this concern about the generic masculine pronoun. He said,

We have launched a housing plan that will help responsible families facing the threat of foreclosure lower their monthly payments and refinance their mortgages. It's a plan that won't help speculators or that neighbor down the street who bought a house he could never hope to afford, but it will help millions of Americans who are struggling with declining home values.

Wayne Grudem, who pointed this out to me, observes (from this and many cases in today’s media), “The pronoun ‘he’ referring back to a specific antecedent that is used as an example of a general case continues to be commonly seen in standard English.” He asks, “Would the TNIV supporters say that President Obama's words would likely be understood by young hearers to refer only to men who bought houses they could not afford?”

The larger issue here is: Are the “programmatic changes” of the TNIV (and some other recent versions) worth the difficulties that the translators find themselves in when trying to bring singular Greek or Hebrew words over into English as plurals, or masculine words over into English without masculine connotations? The price is high and linguistically unnecessary.

For more on this issue see Vern Poythress, “Gender and Generic Pronouns in English Bible Translation."

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books.