The NIV on Tradition and Teachings

In my opinion, the NIV is one of the nicest versions of the Bible.  It’s easier to read and understand than the NASB; doesn’t pretend God speaks in King James English; and stays more faithful to the original Scriptures than “The Message” and similar versions. More technically, it’s a good mix of dynamic and formal equivalence, capturing the meaning of the Greek, while trying to preserve the precise wording as well.  These are all reasons I enjoy the NAB, as well. while we’re on the subject. 

But I have one huge beef with the NIV: its translators, headed by Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals, were so phobic of Catholicism that they altered texts of the Bible to avoid Catholic interpretations.  The easiest example of this is in the NIV’s strategic translation of texts referring to Tradition.

 Tradition or Teachings?
One of the major disputes between Catholics and Protestant so-called “Bible Christians” is whether the Bible is to be a stand-alone set of documents, or if it’s part of a large “Deposit of Faith.”  This is a question that not a few Christians have been troubled by, and an obvious place to look for answers is Scripture.  The trouble is, going to the NIV gives a very misleading answer.  Look at these verses:

Matthew 15:1-9

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.‘”

The parallel passage in Mark 7 is pretty similar.  Then you have Galatians 1:14, in which St. Paul says that before his conversion, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”  And Paul later commands in Colossians 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.”  Those are the only times the term “tradition” appears in the NIV New Testament: it’s always negative.  So someone reading only the NIV comes away thinking that tradition is something that is always at risk of getting in the way of right relationship with God.

But that’s not all the New Testament says on Tradition.  Let’s switch versions of the Bible for a second.  Here’s the NAB version of a few critical passages:

  • In 1 Corinthians 11:2, St. Paul writes, “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you.
  • Likewise, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, he writes: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
  • In the next chapter, 2 Thes. 3:6, Paul says, “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of (our) Lord Jesus Christ,to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.

In all of these examples, Paul is using paradosis, the exact same word used in Matthew 15, Mark 7, Galatians 1:14, and Colossians 2:8.  And he’s treating Apostolic paradosis, that is, Apostolic Tradition, as something vital which all believers must be held to: ordering us to follow the.  But unless you’re a really careful reader of the NIV, you’d never know this.  Why?  Because whenever paradosis is used in a negative sense, it’s translated “traditions,” and whenever it’s used in a positive sense, it’s translated “teachings,” with a little footnotes saying “or traditions.”  Most folks likely miss that footnote, and these positive texts don’t come if you use the BibleGateway search feature to find “tradition” mentioned in the NIV. 

Now the word didaktos, used in Matthew 15:9, actually does mean teachings.  But frankly, even though it’s not the most accurate translation, I’m not opposed to paradosis being translated “teachings.”  Just don’t selectively translate it so that it’s a teaching if it’s good, and a tradition if it’s bad. Nothing in the original text supports that.  That’s just altering the text of the Bible to fit a Protestant belief, rather than deriving that belief from the Bible.

This is a huge diference, because it misleads Christians who are trying to find answers from their Bibles.  While the NIV acts if the Bible condemns all tradition, the original Greek texts of the Bible make a very clear distinction: tradition from the Jewish elders, the so-called “traditions of men,” are condemned (or at least viewed with suspicion), while traditions from the Apostles are praised. In fact, we’re ordered in the name of Jesus Christ to shun anyone who doesn’t follow Aposotolic Tradition.

The trouble is that the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals have a long-standing tradition that tradition is bad, and were willing to warp Scripture to accord with their tradition.  As Christ said in Matthew 15:6, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”


  1. In a friendly debate with a friend who used to be Catholic about this and other passages, I just couldn’t get across that we should compare Biblical translations because of this reason. Translators have axes to grind so comparing translations is always helpful. A choice of one word over another – even apparent synonyms – can have a great effect on one’s overall understanding of the text.

    P.S. Just a heads up – you put “translation” where I think you mean “tradition” in the third paragraph from the end.

  2. Sprachmeister,

    Glad you agree! Also, thanks for the heads up on grammar; I do that stuff all the time. But I’m confused at to where I’ve done that here. In the third para. from the end, I say, “But frankly, even though it’s not the most accurate translation, I’m not opposed to paradosis being translated ‘teachings,'”? but I meant “translation” there. Am I missing something else?

  3. I think he means THIS, Joe – “Just don’t selectively translate it so that it’s a teaching if it’s good, and a translation if it’s bad.” where “translation” should read “tradition”. No?

  4. Hi Joe.
    I watched Hal Lindsey last night. He gives a “Christian” weekly report about things in the world. He chastised the Vatican for saying that the Church claimed that “the Jews had no more right to Israel than the Palestinians. He quoted a “Monsignor” (from what looked like by his dress, a Coptic Catholic if I’m right). I could not find a copy of the video. What is he talking about. Do you know?

  5. Sprachmeister and Christopher,

    I must have read that paragraph four times, and never once did I notice I’d done that, even when I was looking for it! Thanks for catching that.


    The “Monsignor” was actually the American Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Bustros, but he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Church. He said:

    “The Holy Scriptures cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands,” adding, “We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people– all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”

    The Vatican actually distanced itself from his comments, emphasizing that this wasn’t something that the Synod had said, but the Archbishop, so I think it’s a bit dishonest to say “the Church claimed” this. (

    That said, at least part of what he was saying is correct. Dr. Jeff Mirus analyzes it briefly, here, as well as the response:


  6. As a protestant who grew up on the 1984 NIV and who now reads Greek, I have to agree that this is disappointing. Though I am not Catholic, this is blatant bias. I am sorry, because this must be frustrating.

    It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have one Catholic scholar, an Eastern Orthodox scholar, and even a Jewish scholar participate in some chiefly-Evangelical translations.

  7. I thought you and your readers might find it useful to know that I’ve just put up some pages that show how similar the NIV2011 is to the NIV1984 and the TNIV. My pages also show each verse where the NIV2011 differs from the NIV1984 or the TNIV in an easily read / clear manner.

    The pages are online @

    I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions if anyone has any. Please either email me [email protected] or leave a comment on my blog post

    Thank you,

  8. The problem is (something you almost explicitly note) that anyone can appeal to his tradition, and claim that it compels this or that.
    These translators can claim that their traditions compel such a distinction between good teachings—“traditions”—and good teachings—“teachings”.

    How do you segregate between any two traditions claiming to be representatives of the Deposit of Faith? As always, you would have to appeal to Scripture. But then, this is exactly what creates the distinction between Scripture and Tradition: that one is deemed superior to the other. In short, one is “teachings”, and the other “traditions”, where traditions are supposed to be synchronised with what scripture says, and they are not equal to it in force.

    But, really, the root of all this stuff is (first) a failure to realise that Scripture is whatever it is for which you say “Let this be true, and every man a liar,” and that is the Bible for the Protestants and the Tradition for the Catholics (it cannot be both Tradition and Scripture, because one has to validate and legitimise the other—the superior validating and legitimising the inferior); and (second) a failure to realise that, if anybody holds the Bible to be authoritative at all, then such a one must also recognise the superiority of it to any traditions, so that for the Catholic who follows after Tradition, the Bible might as well never be referred to ever again, and Catholicism will survive and therefore for him the Bible is just a superfluous commentary on what the Tradition holds, while for the Protestant, the Tradition can as well vanish irretrievably forever, and he will not be bothered, because he still has his Bible.

    P.S.: I am neither a Catholic nor a Protestant. Just some pseudonymous believer on the Internet who is excited about the new NIV.

  9. While this comment here may seem combative (perhaps it is), just consider it as an irreverently-written-but-honest-to-goodness question.

    I note that you say “we’re ordered in the name of Jesus Christ to shun anyone who doesn’t follow Aposotolic Tradition.”

    This is true; but I think that Roman Catholicism is not the Apostolic Tradition. If it were, you would say faith seventy times for every time you say works, and say “believe, and you will be saved” ten times for every single time you say “follow these statutes”, and you would say “by grace you have been saved, not through works, but by faith—and this not of yourselves, but of God” instead of “man should work for his salvation”. That is the Apostolic Tradition, and it is not the Roman Catholic Tradition. Which of the Traditions that you know of would you consider to be the “traditions of men”, looking at what various Christian groups do? Would you use Roman Catholic (“Apostolic”) Tradition as the definer of what the Apostolic Tradition is? How would you find out what the traditions of men are, as opposed to the traditions of God? (I understand that you do not accept that the Bible is a complete picture, leave alone a comprehensible picture, in separation from the Roman Catholic Tradition—which could be of men or of God, but I do not know.) Which group today is most like the Pharisees—complete with what would be seen as theological-pedigree mandate?

  10. Ryan and Robhu, thanks for the heads up on this.  Sorry to hear that they’ve kept it misleading. I mentioned in my response to T27C (see post linked to below) that they do the same thing with “works” in James 2, to avoid having to say what Scripture says about being justification by faith AND works. The NIV version of James doesn’t even mention the word “works,” even though James uses the same Greek work Paul’s using in Romans 3:28 (which they translate as “works” there) a full thirteen times.

    The 27th Comrade, I appreciate your comments, and responded to them here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *