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Christianity Today, October 27, 1997
Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort
Scripture? (Part 1 of 4)
He Said, They Said
Wayne Grudem (Yes) and Grant Osborn (No)
Wayne Grudem and Grant Osborne are friends. And they strongly disagree about
the desirability of having gender-inclusive versions of the Bible.
Both possess degrees in New Testament from respected institutions (Cambridge
and Aberdeen, respectively). Both hold professorships at Trinity Evangelical
Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, one of our leading seminaries. Both
have written significant textbooks in their fields (Grudem on systematic
theology, Osborne on hermeneutics), published by leading evangelical presses.
And yet one says "he" when the other says "they."
Grudem is the president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,
a group that lobbies for male headship in gender relationships for church
and home. He was active in the successful effort to oppose the plans for
producing an inclusive edition of the New International Version. (See
CT News, June 16, 1997, p. 52.)
Osborne is on the translation team for the New Living Translation, which
revised the Living Bible by making it more accurate and consistently gender
inclusive. Osborne, as well as the majority of the biblical scholars at Trinity,
feels gender inclusivity, as a translation strategy, actually makes our English
Bibles clearer and more accurate.
In the following pages they present their best arguments for their positions
and, in the responses that follow, point out the weaknesses in the other's
position. Throughout they model how to be passionate about what you believe
while recognizing that those with whom you disagree are also sincere Christians.
You, the reader, may be persuaded by one or the other author, but no one
should be tempted to label the other side "the enemy." While Grudem and Osborne
disagree, they are still friends.
Wayne Grudem: YES
The publicity brochure of the New Revised Standard Version sounds so sensible.
At last, we are told, misleading masculine-oriented language has been removed
from the Bible. Jesus no longer says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the
earth, will draw all men to myself" (RSV), but instead,
will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32,
This is an improvement: the word men is not specified by the Greek
text, and all people is a faithful rendering of the Greek pronoun
pas. Changes like this use gender-neutral language without sacrificing
accuracy in translation. In addition, the NRSV has not gone
as far as some people wanted, because it still calls God "Father" (not "Parent"),
for example, and calls Jesus the "Son of God" (not "child of God")probably
in large measure due to the conservative influence of the chairman of the
NRSV translation committee, evangelical New Testament scholar
But there are many other changes that should cause evangelicals much concern.
The translators consistently disregarded precise, grammatically correct English
equivalents and resorted to gender-neutral paraphrases. The preface explains
that the copyright holder (the Division of Education and Ministry of the
National Council of Churches of Christ) required that "masculine-oriented
language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering
passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture."
The NRSV in 1989 was the first major gender-neutral translation,
but many have followed: the New Living Translation (NLT),
the New Century Version (NCV), the Contemporary English Version
(CEV), and (in England only) the New International
Version-Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI). I have based this
analysis on the NRSV as the foundational gender-neutral Bible,
and compared it to the NLT, NCV,
CEV, and NIVI at key points.
SINGULARS TO PLURALS
The translators of the NRSV found the little word he especially
troubling. We can appreciate the difficulty they encountered in a verse such
as John 14:23: "Jesus answered him, 'If a man loves me, he will keep my word,
and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with
him' " (RSV).
There would be no problem in beginning the sentence, "If anyone loves
" because the Greek pronoun tis does not specify a man. But
then how can we finish the sentence? One might use "he or she" in some cases,
but it would soon become exceptionally awkward. The NRSV changed
the singulars to plurals. "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 problem is that Jesus did not speak with plural pronouns here; he used
singulars. Jesus wanted to specify that he and the Father would come and
dwell with an individual believer. But the NRSV has
lost that emphasis, because the plurals "those" and "them" indicate a group
of peopleperhaps a church. The words of Jesus have been unnecessarily changed
in translation, and the meaning is different. This is what the
NRSV preface says are the "paraphrastic renderings" required
in dealing with gender-related language, and the preface rightly sets these
in contrast to the rest of the NRSV, which is called "essentially
a literal translation." The rejection of generic "he, him, his" obscures
the personal application of Scripture in many other verses, such as "I will
come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev.
3:20, where three Greek pronouns are masculine singular). The
NRSV changes this to, "I will come in to you and eat
with you, and you with me," but "you" in context refers to
the whole church, and individual application of a familiar verse is lost.
It is also lost in the NLT, NCV,
CEV, and NIVI, which replace he with
There is a messianic prediction in Psalm 34:20: "He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken" (RSV). John's gospel refers to this (and probably
Exod. 12:46) with respect to Jesus' death: "For these things took place that
the scripture might be fulfilled, 'Not a bone of him shall be broken' " (19:36,
RSV). But the NRSV, NLT, NCV,
CEV, and NIVI will not allow such a prediction
about an individual man in Psalm 34, so the prediction is plural: "He keeps
all their bones; not one of them will be broken"
(NRSV). The individuality of the messianic prediction, so
wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus' death, is lost to readers, even though the
prediction is singular (his bones ) in Hebrew.
How often are singulars changed to plurals? The words they, them, their,
those occur 1,732 more times in the NRSV than in the
RSV. Why? There have been no new archaeological discoveries,
no changes in our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, no ancient texts discovered
that make us put plural pronouns instead of singular ones in these places.
The changes have been made because the NRSV translators were
told to remove masculine-oriented language from the Bible. This systematic
change from singulars to plurals is a substantial alteration in the flavor
and tone of the entire Bible, with a significant loss in the Bible's emphasis
on God relating directly to a specific, individual person.
Most readers of gender-neutral Bibles will think the plurals were in the
original, and they will interpret and teach these passages accordingly. But
these plurals were not what God's Word itself said. Since "all Scripture
is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), and "every word of God proves true" (Prov.
30:5), we must conclude that God caused singular pronouns to be used in each
of these places for his own purposes, and, if there is any way to translate
them as singulars in legitimate English today, we are not at liberty to change
them to plurals in translation.
The creation narratives tell us that "God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen.
1:27, RSV). This name man is even more explicit in
Genesis 5:2: "Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and
named them Man when they were created" (RSV).
The name man is placed on both male and female, as together they
constitute the human race. The translation man is accurate, because
the Hebrew word 'adam is also used to refer to Adam in particular,
and it is sometimes used to refer to man in distinction from woman (see Gen
2:25, "The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed"). The
English word man most accurately translates 'adam because it
is the only word we have that has those same two meanings (the human race
or a male human being). We can conclude from this usage of 'adam that
it is not wrong, insensitive, or discourteous to use the same word to refer
to male human beings in particular and to name the human race. God himself
does this in his Word.
But in the NRSV the name man has disappeared: "So God
created humankind in his image" (Gen. 1:27). And God is suddenly found
to give a different name to the race: "Male and female he created them, and
named them 'Humankind' when they were created" (Gen. 5:2,
NRSV). (The NCV, CEV, and
NIVI have human beings here, and the NLT
has human. )
The problem is that humankind, human beings, and human are
not names that can refer to man in distinction from woman, and thus they
are less accurate translations of 'adam than the word man.
The male overtones of the Hebrew word are lost.
The name given to a person or a thing has great significance in the Bible.
The names of God tell us much about his nature ("I Am Who I Am," "God Most
High," "the Lord of Hosts"). The names of God's people are often changed
(Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel) to signify a different
status or character. Similarly, the name that God gives to the human race
is significant. The word man for the whole human race suggests some
male headship in the race. God did not name the race with a Hebrew term that
corresponds to our word woman, nor did he choose (or devise) some
"gender neutral" term without male overtones. He named the race with a Hebrew
term that most closely corresponds to our English word man.
Then why not translate it man? Apparently such a precise English
equivalent was thought "patriarchal." The preface to the NIVI
explains that "it was often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism
of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language
when this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit" (p.
vii). The sentence implies that there is some "patriarchalism" in the text
that is not part of the "message of the Spirit." These "patriarchal" elements
can be muted, and the message of the Spirit, apparently, is not harmed. But
what if these very same "patriarchal" elements in Scripture are part of what
the Holy Spirit intended to be there? If we hold to the absolute divine authority
of every word of Scripture, then we should not seek to mute any content that
the Holy Spirit caused to be there.
FATHERS, SONS, AND BROTHERS
A computer analysis can show us the extent of other word changes, at least
for the NRSV. The word father (including plural and
possessive forms) occurs 601 fewer times in the NRSV than
in the RSV. The word son occurs 181 fewer times (including
the loss of son of man 106 times in the Old Testament). The word
brother occurs 71 fewer times. Coupled with the loss of he, him,
his (3,408 times where it is dropped or changed to you or
we or they ) and the loss of man (over 300 times where
it is changed to human or mortal, mortals ), this drive for
gender-neutral language has resulted in unnecessary introductions of inaccuracy
in over 4,500 places in the Bible.
Why do I say inaccuracy? Because we have gained no new knowledge of Hebrew
or Greek that would so fundamentally change our understanding of the common
Hebrew and Greek terms that have always been translated father, son, brother,
man, he, him, his, and so on. It is rather that these terms have now
been thought unacceptable or "patriarchal."
NEUTERING SPECIFIC MEN
The Greek word aner is used when an author wants to specify a man
or men in distinction from a woman or women. Surprisingly, the
NRSV several times avoids translating even this word as
man or men. For example, though the Greek text explicitly says
that Judas Barsabbas and Silas were "leading men" sent from the Jerusalem
council, the NRSV changes this to "leaders" (Acts 15:22).
Similarly, we know that only men were elders at Ephesus, so it made sense
that Paul warned, "From among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse
things," but the NRSV neuters these men, calling them simply
"some" (Acts 20:30). (The NLT, NCV,
CEV, and NIVI translate all three of those
verses in gender-neutral ways.)
Such changes indicate an antipathy toward the word man, even when
the original text had the male-specific term aner.
Another Greek term, anthropos, can mean either man or person, depending
on the context. But the NRSV often refused to translate it
man or men even when that sense was clear. For example, the
RSV rightly says that the Old Testament high priest was chosen
"from among men" (Heb. 5:1), but the NRSV changes it
to "from among mortals"for what purpose? No woman could be a high
priest in the Old Testament.
Even Jesus is not exempt from the NRSV's aversion to calling
a man a man. Where the RSV had "As by a man came death,
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:21),
the NRSV says, "Since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being"
(1 Cor. 15:21). This is theologically important: the representative headship
of Adam and Christ as men is omitted. Similarly, the one mediator
between God and man is changed from "the man Christ Jesus" in the
RSV to "Christ Jesus, himself human" (1 Tim. 2:5) in
the NRSV. (The NLT has man in both of
these verses; the NCV has man in one verse; but the
NIVI and CEV omit man from both verses.)
Part one of four parts; click here to read
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christianity Today magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail
October 27, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 12, Page 26
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