Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Word

Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Word

by Wayne A. Grudem
"The Bible is God's own Word to us." Translating the words of God has become an even more daunting task in recent years as the pressure of "political correctness" and various activist agendas have sought to influence the landscape. No issue has become more controversial than gender-neutral Bible translations. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem examine the translation


"The Bible is God's own Word to us." Translating the words of God has become an even more daunting task in recent years as the pressure of "political correctness" and various activist agendas have sought to influence the landscape. No issue has become more controversial than gender-neutral Bible translations. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem examine the translation practice of replacing the generic "he" and the specific "father" with the gender-neutral "they" and "parent." While translators may be well intentioned in seeking not to offend, Poythress and Grudem contend that the results are subtly changed meanings of the original texts and less-than-accurate translations. Throughout, however, the authors seek to build a dialogue that will result in understanding both sides of the gender-neutral controversy and the challenge of producing accurate Bible translations.

Author Biography: Vern S. Poythress is presently Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. He received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University, a Th.D. in New Testament from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, a M.Litt. in New Testament from the University of Cambridge, a Th.M. in apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a B.S. from California Institute of Technology. He has published books on Christian philosophy of science, theological method, dispensationalism, and biblical law, and written articles in the areas of mathematics, philosophy of science, linguistics, hermeneutics, and biblical studies. He and his family currently live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wayne A. Grudem is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Cambridge, England, an M.Div. from Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, and a B.A. from Harvard University.He has published seven books and is a co-founder, past president, and currently vice president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He and his wife, Margaret, live in Libertyville, Illinois.

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The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy

Muting the Masculinity of God's Words

By Vern Poythress & Wayne Grudem

Broadman & Holman Publishers

Copyright © 2000 Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8054-2441-5

What's Going on with Bible Translations?

What is the fuss about?

The Bible is God's own Word to us. We depend on it for instructing us about the crucial issue of salvation: "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30). We depend on it to guide us in the right way to live: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Ps. 119:105). We depend on it for revealing Jesus Christ to us: "these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). So it is surpassingly important that the Bible be translated accurately.

A. A controversy over gender terms

But now evangelicals are arguing about how to translate the Bible. How should we translate gender-related terms in the Bible? Some recent translations have switched to "inclusive language," replacing "father" with "parent" and "he" with "they."

For example, Proverbs 28:7 says, "He who keeps the law is a wise son, but a companion of gluttons shames his father" (Revised Standard Version [RSV]). The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) altered the wording. It now reads, "Those who keep the law are wise children, butcompanions of gluttons shame their parents." "Son" has become "children," and "father" has become "parents." In addition, the whole verse has been converted into plural forms: the words "Those," "children," "companions," "their," and "parents," are plural, and each replaces a singular form in the RSV and in the original language.

Or take a second example. John 14:23 says, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (New International Version [NIV). Some people today find this "generic" use of "he" and "him" unacceptable. So the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) removed it: "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." The singular pronouns "anyone, he, him" have turned into plurals, "those, them." The idea of Jesus and God the Father making their home with an individual person is no longer clearly found in the verse.

At points like these, is the NRSV a thoroughly accurate translation, or has it altered meanings in order to avoid male-oriented terms like "father," "son," and "his"?

The NRSV is not the only translation that has moved in this direction. The New Century Version (NCV, 1991), Good News Bible: Today's English Version second edition (GNB, 1992), New International Reader's Version New Testament (1995 edition, NIrV, 1995), The Contemporary English Version (CEV, 1995), God's Word (GW, 1995), New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI) published in Britain (1996), and New Living Translation (NLT, 1996), all make the same kinds of move.

Many of the translators involved in these projects were doubtless well-meaning people. They were seeking to communicate more effectively by avoiding wording that would irritate or offend. But we believe that in the process they subtly changed meanings. The results, we believe, are not the most accurate translations. And they cannot be trusted to indicate at every point how the Bible deals with the sensitive issues of human sexuality.

Consider some other examples.

Colossians 3:18-19 offers key instructions concerning the relation of husband and wife in marriage. Colossians 3:18 tells us, "Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord" (NIV). You would never know it from the CEV, which has the highly weakened expression, "put others first." "A wife must put her husband first. This is her duty as a follower of the Lord" (CEV). What does "put ... first" mean? Precisely what is a wife supposed to do? It is not clear. Readers might guess that a wife is supposed to put her husband's needs before her own, as Philippians 2:4 says, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (NIV). But in such a situation, there is really no sense of being subject to or obeying someone else who is in authority, but only a general idea of sacrificially caring for him. In the end, a wife does for her husband exactly what the husband does for her: serve sacrificially. What for Paul are different commands for different roles have become in the CEV equivalent commands for identical roles. The CEV has distorted the picture. The CEV's "translation" harmonizes well with what many modern people might wish that the apostle Paul said. But it does not do justice to what he actually said. The same problem occurs also with the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:21-23.

First Timothy 3:1-7 discusses the qualifications for "overseer" or elder. One qualification is that he be "the husband of one wife" (3:2, RSV). The CEV eliminates all signs that Paul expected the elders to be men. The CEV merely says that a "church official" must be "faithful in marriage." All the "he's" become "they's."

Some people today say that Paul was wrong in these teachings. But the Bible is the word of God, having God's own authority, so the Bible could not be wrong on these issues. Or people may say that Paul was right for his own day, but the changing times call for a different practice today. But even in a case like this where people disagree, we need to have the meaning of the Bible preserved in order to see what the Bible said in its time so that we can see the basis for today's disagreement! Especially when an issue engages debate, translators must not hobble the debate by obscuring the meaning of the text.

Now someone may object that the CEV is an extreme example in its translation of Colossians 3:18 and 1 Timothy 3. The other gender-neutral translations do not do as badly. But consider another, similar passage, Acts 20:30, where Paul says to the elders at Ephesus, "Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth...." The word "men" translates the Greek word aner, denoting male human beings. The reference is to male elders. The NRSV, NIVI, NIrV(1995), NLT, CNV, and CEV all omit the male component. This is a serious mistake. The verse is a significant one in the modern debate as to whether women may be appointed as elders in the church. Gender-neutral translations have suppressed significant information pertaining to this debate. Again, the result is not accurate, but rather skews the verse in the direction of modern ideas about women's roles.

Some people might think that critics of gender-neutral translations are motivated solely by the desire to protect their complementarian views concerning men and women. But these examples as well as our later discussion should make it clear that though the two issues are related, they are also distinct. The issue on which we are focusing is accuracy in translation, not egalitarian or complementarian views on men and women. Some complementarians have argued in support of gender-neutral translations. Conversely, some egalitarians have argued against gender-neutral translations, on the ground that they are inaccurate.

And so we need to explore these issues with care. We need to investigate the ins and outs of what these translations do, and evaluate the results on the basis of biblical standards.

B. What are these new versions?

Now what shall we call these new versions? They are not all the same. There are a few radical-feminist versions that even undertake to call God the Father "Father and Mother" or to eliminate "Father" language altogether. But these versions clearly reject the authority of the Bible and its claim to be the Word of God, and they are not the focus of our attention in this book. We are thankful that most modern versions—including all the versions we examine in this book—have attempted to preserve the language about God, including masculine pronouns referring to God. But even when language about God is preserved, we are concerned that several modern versions, produced for the most part by evangelical translators, have removed important aspects of meaning when they refer to human beings.

The versions that concern us in this book generally eliminate generic "he," avoid using the word "man" as a name for the human race, and systematically exclude many instances of male-oriented words such as "father," "son," "brother," and "man" in cases where (we will argue) a male component of meaning is present in the original text, and where all earlier translations included these words.

Such versions have been called by several names. Some people favoring such translations have called them "gender accurate." But, as we have already seen, they contain some pointed inaccuracies, so the phrase "gender accurate" is misleading. And this phrase takes a position beforehand on the very issue that needs to be debated—are these versions in fact "accurate" in their translation of Scripture?

Others have chosen the phrase "gender inclusive." The New International Version: Inclusive Language Edition even contains the word "inclusive" in its title. The idea here is that the new versions have language indicating that women are included in the message of salvation. But earlier versions also made this fact clear. Consider John 14:23 as an example: "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him" (NIV). When John 14:23 uses the word "anyone" at the beginning, it shows clearly that both men and women are included. The subsequent uses of "he" and "him" in the verse refer back to "anyone." So they apply to both men and women. In reality the NIV at this point is just as "inclusive" as the versions that insist on eliminating generic "he," because the sentence as a whole shows that both men and women are included in the meaning. Therefore, the label "gender inclusive" creates a problem. It suggests that any other kind of translation is not inclusive. And such is not the case. Hence this label is not really satisfactory either. (We realize, of course, that, if a translation uses "he" and "him," some people may feel that women are not being sufficiently recognized or affirmed. But this is a different problem, which we must take up later [Chapter 9].)

We will therefore mostly use the label "gender neutral." This label comes closer to describing the actual difference between the translations that eliminate generic "he" and those that do not. When used in a generic way, as in John 14:23, "he" includes women as well as men (see above). But it does so using a masculine form—the gender of the word "he" is masculine. Gender-neutral translations, one and all, tend to eliminate masculine forms and male connotations in verses that express general truths. In this sense, they strive to be "gender neutral."

But it must be remembered that the translations that we are considering in this book do not remove masculine pronouns referring to God and the Persons of the Trinity. In most cases they preserve male markings in historical references. Thus, not everything has been made "neutral," but some specific kinds of statements have been made "gender neutral," as we explain in the rest of this book. We realize of course that no brief label can say everything. In fact, people who use the term "gender inclusive" or "inclusive language" do not imply that everything has been made uniformly "inclusive." Any label we use can only serve as shorthand. In the rest of the book, we look at the versions in detail in order to see just what has been changed, in order to assess these changes fairly.

C. Controversy

We need to examine these gender-neutral translations and the thinking that lies behind them. But the issue is controversial, and when controversy arises, potential for misunderstanding increases. We may misunderstand opponents. Opponents may misunderstand us. Even someone trying to be neutral may misunderstand. Right at the beginning, to guard against misunderstanding, it seems wise to explain our goal.

In this book we criticize some decisions that have been made in gender-neutral translations. When we criticize the translation of a particular verse, we do not mean that every other verse is badly translated. In fact, in some verses gender-neutral translations, through revision in wording, have increased accuracy (see Chapter 5). Nor do we mean that all gender-neutral translations did the same thing with the same verse.

Second, we are not criticizing the personal motives of the translators. Only God can judge people's hearts. We do not know our own motives perfectly, let alone the motives of others. Moreover, as we shall see (Chapter 4), translation as a whole is complex business, in the midst of which many good and bad motives may operate in subtle ways. And translators may sometimes make mistakes through mere oversight.

Third, in matters of usage in modern English, we see nothing necessarily wrong with a whole spectrum of typical modern uses. Some people may continue to use generic "he," while others may avoid it, and instead use "he or she" or "you" or "they." Some people may use "man" to designate the human race, others may not (see Chapter 12). When we criticize a particular translation, it is not because it is bad English, but because it is not the most accurate translation. A writer today has authority over what he or she writes. A Bible translator does not have this authority, because the meaning belongs not to him but to God.

Fourth, in cases where a translation is not the most accurate, it may still capture some of the meaning, usually the most central and obvious meaning. Moreover, almost always the translation results in a statement that is theologically true. For example, in 1 Timothy 3:17, even though the NRSV and CEV omit the key information about overseers being men, they include many statements that are indeed true of overseers! Obviously, we are not criticizing translations for saying things that are theologically true, but rather for omitting one aspect that they should also have included.

Fifth, we commend the many worthy attempts in our society to honor and encourage women. But it is not really honoring to women in the long run if people settle for less than the most accurate Bible translation, just because they think it is more honoring to women. In fact, it is dishonoring, because they dedicate to women's honor an exhibit that shows less than fullest respect for the Bible's meanings.

Finally, we authors (Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem) are fallible. We continue to learn—in fact, as we look back at what we said and wrote on this subject beginning in 1996, we recognize, in retrospect, that in several cases we would now say things more precisely or guard against misunderstanding more carefully. In this book, therefore, we give our best judgments, but we are open to being corrected by further knowledge.

Examining gender-neutral translations includes several steps. We begin by looking briefly at the history of gender-neutral translations, and the controversy that they stirred up.

Excerpted from The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy by Vern Poythress & Wayne Grudem. Copyright © 2000 by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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