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Cultural Pressures on Language are Not Always Neutral
 
(an excerpt from my 1997 book "What's Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bibles?")
by Wayne Grudem
 

I have talked to several people who worked on translating some of these gender-neutral versions, and I realize that many of them do not have "feminist" convictions or share the goals of "egalitarians" or "evangelical feminists." However, I am not sure if people realize how much our language itself has been under pressure to conform to "politically correct" patterns of speech that were first demanded by feminists in the 1960s and are now demanded by other interest groups as well. Moreover, the preface to the NRSV explains exactly what led to these changes: It was a requirement from the National Council of Churches to eliminate "masculine-oriented language." And the preface to the NIVI explains that they thought it appropriate at times "to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers." Those who protest that these gender-neutral changes in Bible translation are only for purposes of clarity and proper use of English today have not fully taken into account these fundamental statements of translation goals expressed in prefaces of these translations. Certainly there was some desire to mute the masculine-oriented language of the Bible as originally written in Hebrew and Greek, if these sentences have any meaning at all.

But we should all agree that another factor was also involved, the desire to use contemporary English that is clear and understandable to readers in general. As I have noted throughout this paper, not all of the changes due to perceived changes in English have been objectionable, and some (such as saying "any one" instead of "any man" where the original is not gender-specific) have been improvements.

However, we should not assume that modern language trends are always morally and spiritually neutral, so that Christians should meekly follow these trends or even try to keep one step ahead of the latest fad. The attempt to eliminate "man" as a name for the human race is not neutral, but conflicts with the male-oriented name ’adam that God gave the race in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2. And the attempt to do away with "he" as a generic pronoun -- especially if no other singular pronoun is widely accepted -- would make the accurate translation of most generic singular statements in Scripture impossible.

At this point someone may agree that English has not changed that much yet, but may say, "The language is changing whether we like it or not, and generic ‘he-him-his’ will not exist in 5 or 10 more years." This claim should be recognized for what it is: an unsubstantiated prediction of the future which cannot be proven. In fact, several factors argue against this prediction. Respected English stylist William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, fifth edition (1994), says, "let's face it: the English language is stuck with the generic masculine" (p. 123). The current American Heritage Dictionary (1996), concludes a long discussion on generic "he" with this prediction: "The entire question is unlikely to be resolved in the near future" (p. 831).

In fact, generic “he” is still the standard style used by the Associated Press. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (1994) directs, “use the pronoun his when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female: A reporter attempts to protect his sources. (Not his or her sources...).” (Norm Goldstein, ed., The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994), p. 94; note that the updated edition for 2000 contains the same comments, p. 114). This book is so widely used that the cover proclaims, "Used by more than 1,000,000 journalists."

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, perhaps the most widely-acclaimed and most respected handbook for good writing in the English language, was just reissued in a fourth edition. (William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000)). In it we find the following advice:

Do not use they when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as each, each one, everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun.

Then follow these examples of incorrect and correct usage:

[incorrect:] Every one of us knows they are fallible.
[correct:] Every one of us knows he is fallible.
 
[incorrect:] Everyone in the community, whether they are a member of the Association or not, is invited to attend.
[correct:] Everyone in the community, whether he is a member of the Association or not, is invited to attend.

The book then says, "The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language." (p. 60).

The reason that people who speak and write English resist abolishing generic he, him, his is that there are times when clear and accurate writing requires the use of a third-person singular pronoun with the person's sex unspecified or unknown. Zinsser says, "A style that converts every ‘he’ into a ‘they’' will quickly turn to mush....I don't like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize" (On Writing Well, pp. 122-123). And the American Heritage Dictionary (1996) speaks of "a persistent intuition that expressions such as everyone and each student should in fact be treated as grammatically singular" (p. 831).

Some style manuals imposed on students today tell them to avoid generic "he" and rewrite their sentences in other ways. Of course people can rewrite their sentences with plurals, or change to the second person, or clutter them with "he or she," but then the sentences say something different and they sound different and their meaning is different. But if the author does not want to say the "something different," but wants to use a pronoun to say something that is brief, uncluttered, specific and individualized, then a generic third person singular pronoun is needed. Since "he" is the only recognized English word that functions that way, if "he" is ruled out, the result will be that the would-be rulers of the language will have told us that there are certain things that we cannot say. We are permitted by them to say something similar, something related, something that sounds nearly the same, but we cannot say precisely what we want to say. It is not surprising that wise writers have resisted such a mandate, for if this kind of rule should ever prevail, the English language would be impoverished, and our thought would be impoverished.

The pressure to conform to "politically correct" speech is primarily a pressure not to use certain expressions. But when our freedom to use certain expressions is taken away, then our ability to think in certain ways is also curtailed. For example, if all generic singular statements are removed from the Bible, then the ability to think of a representative individual who stands for a whole group will have been removed -- for we will have no words in which to formulate our thought. There will be no way to say, "If any one 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" (John 14:23), and thus there will be no way to think of that precise idea. Restricting certain types of expression is restricting certain types of thought.

George Orwell understood this well in his novel 1984. One of the government functionaries who is rewriting the dictionary explains what is really happening when he revises English into the Newspeak that is required by Big Brother:

You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words -- scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We're cutting the language down to the bone....It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well...Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it....Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.... (pp. 45-46).

We must not quietly acquiesce to every modern trend in language, nor should we feel powerless before these trends. The evangelical world as a whole also has an influence on the language. Bible translations in particular have historically had a major impact on their own languages, and still have much influence today. The Bible is still the most widely read book in the English language, and retaining generic "he" in Bible translations will also help protect our ability to use this precise translation in future generations.

This will not be the last time that trends in the culture bring pressure to bear on the language and pressure to bear on Bible translation. Already the Contemporary English Version (CEV) has removed another supposed source of modern "offense," because it changes "the Jews" to "the people" or "the crowd" in passages where they oppose Jesus, as Matt. 28:15; John 10:19, 31; 18:31; 19:7, 12. And one prominent reviewer of the NRSV complained that it had not gone far enough, because it "makes not the slightest gesture toward minimizing masculine pronouns for God," and he calls this "the single deficiency of the NRSV which is of such magnitude as will render it in its present form unusable for many believers" (Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr., "The NRSV and the REB: a New Testament Critique," Theology Today 47:3 (Oct., 1990), p. 286).

We must realize that such pressure to change the text of Scripture to conform to certain trends in the culture will be relentless, and it will be applied to every Bible translation, and it will not be satisfied merely with the kinds of changes in the NRSV. If evangelical translators and publishers give in to the principle of sacrificing accuracy because certain expressions are thought to be offensive to the dominant culture, this altering of the text of Scripture will never end. And then readers will never know at any verse whether what they have is the Bible or the translator's own ideas.

 

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