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The Bible

Gender Inclusive Translations
Today's New International Version

2 Timothy 3:16
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It straightens us out and teaches us to do what is right.
NLT

2002 saw a great deal of controversy with the introduction of the Today's New International Version (TNIV) of the Bible. By all accounts, this version of the Bible is one considered to be "gender inclusive." The controversy surrounds the issues of "what does this mean?" and "how inclusive is inclusive?"

I am not a Greek scholar nor am I an English language scholar. Likewise, I have not read everything that exists on this topic. I have, however, read and studied sufficiently to add a couple of comments to this debate in an effort to assist you in understanding this problem.

I find the most interesting part of this debate the force with which it has struck the public. The power behind this effort has been building for some time, and I see the overt reactions to TNIV being fed by fuel unrelated to the translation questions. More on this as we move along.

The literature uses a lot of different titles for this issue, such as gender neutral or gender inclusive. The translation questions surround the difficulty of moving from one language to another and still capturing the nuances of the receiving language. Idioms and slang obviously do not literally move from one culture to another. Likewise, languages change over time. An obvious American example is the word "gay." Many years back, this word was a synonym for happy, joyful, and the like. Now it stands for homosexuals. This is an example of slang causing the meaning of a word to dramatically change. 

Along similar lines, another difficulty of language and changes are the issues of generic terms. New Testament Greek apparently uses male terms in places where the group involved may be male, female, or both. "Man" or "men" may really mean "man or woman" or "men and women." "He" likewise may be used for "she" as well as "he." At times, it may be that the singular is used for the plural. We do this in English (at least we have historically and according to many still use the generic "he," as well as at times a generic "she.") Another example in the Greek is a word translated "brother(s)," which, in places, clearly should be read as meaning "brothers and sisters."

When translating, how then does one treat such terms?

Before making some additional observations, I should note there is an additional force at work here. Feminism, in general, is making an effort at creating equality across the board, including in language. Extreme feminism would change words like "father" to "father or mother," even while talking about God. Jesus would not necessary be a "Son" under the extreme feminist approach. This is an agenda I completely disagree with. Regardless of the issue about whether a spirit (God the Father) may or may not have a "sex," He has chosen to reveal Himself as a "Father." This term is one where no distinction maybe made based upon the original Greek and Hebrew. The Father is a Father for our purposes. And Jesus was a Man, a Male Son. So this point, as well, is fixed in rock and those who would carry translation changes to these terms do so for their own theological interpretative reasons, not for language changes.

However, it is important to note this, for at a slightly lesser level, the feminist movement has invaded the world of Christianity in the form of discussions about the role of women in the church. This has broken into two major camps, the one which follows the historical position that women are not allowed to serve as elders, deacons, and pastors while the other camp obviously takes the opposite position. There are scholars from both camps on both sides of the gender inclusive issue and many appear to perceive the translation issue as relating to this feminist position. I do not believe this to be the direct case, although it may certainly be part of the overall fuel creating this fire.

Now for just a little bit of historical information.

In my discussion on the Bible and the various translations, I used the phrases formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Others will use different terminology, but the effect is essentially the same. Dynamic equivalence is an attempt to translate the thought meanings of Scripture into English, carrying over the slang meanings. Formal equivalence is an attempt to translate word for word. In this process both sides of the equation will suffer at various translation points. 

The King James is treated as being a formal equivalent translation, but if one reads the preface and studies its translation, this version has used (indeed, must use) more thought-for-thought translations in many places. Otherwise, the translation would make no sense. An example I have used earlier is the Hebrew phrase "God flared His nostrils." This is translated as "God was angry." This is a translation much closer to thought-for-thought than to word-for-word.

Of today's modern translations, the New American Standard is the closest we have to a word-for-word translation. It is a good study Bible, but its phrasing will never capture the mind and imagination of most of the popular Bible reading audience. It is dry and without emotion.

At the other extreme are the paraphrases, such as the Living Bible and The Message. These go beyond thought-for-thought to include obvious interpretative thoughts in the translation. They make very poor study Bibles but do have an easy, popular reading style that conveys the emotions of the situation. Their accuracy must be debated on a sentence-by-sentence review.

It is only logical for men to commence to translate terms and thoughts in a cultural setting. That is the way of man. One such trend would be to translate solely in line with the theological views of the translator. Thus, a liberal translator creates a liberal translation. This is probably the case of the New Revised Standard and is certainly the case of the New English Bible. Theological preferences governed the translations, rather than an accurate translation governing the theology.

I make these points because it may be that the NRSV was the first gender inclusive effort. Yet, it raised few comments. Why? Probably because most people recognized that it would not be a big seller in the popular market and it could be dismissed as a liberal translation.

Likewise, the Living Bible falls within the classification of gender inclusive, but, while it sold well, it could be dismissed as a paraphrase. It was not really a translation so of course there would be gender changes.

This leads to another issue – the use of the labels, gender neutral or gender inclusive, and so on. The immediate problem is that all of the Bible translations have been grouped one way or the other, when in fact, this should not be the method used. Leaders on both sides of the translation issue appear to agree there are places where "man" should be "man or woman," where "brothers" should be "brothers and sisters," and where "he" and other generic terms should be "he and she." The issue is how far to carry these changes. On this there is little agreement.

The NASB is truest translation to the Hebrew / Greek literal terms treating male as male and not as generic for male and female (except for a literal interlinear translation). The overall issue is the replacement of male components with components that are either neutral or encompass both male and female, or, worse, replace male components with female components.

There will not be total agreement on the placement of the translations along a line as to their gender neutrality. One who has studied will note that if the translations were charted, the same chart could be used for the movement from formal equivalence to dynamic equivalence with almost no change. This should not be unexpected, for the changes of gender language are based solely upon a cultural premise of "thoughts" and understandings as to intended meaning. When Paul wrote "brothers" did he intend to include all Christians, men and women, adults and children? And if he did, does the translator need to make this clear to his audience?

There is a group of translators who answer this question "Yes." Their logic is that the context makes it clear Paul was writing to the church universal, thus, women were included. And, their continuing logic is that modern educators have done such a poor job of teaching language and reading skills to our youth, that many people will not be able to figure this out unless they are specifically told this is what Paul meant.

If nothing else, this should reflect as a sad commentary upon the educational system of the past 30-50 years.

But, this is not the issue involved. 

Most of the literature arose out of the proposal of Zondervan to publish a US translation similar to its English NIV Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI) and the New International Reader's Version (NIrV). Neither of these received much discussion in the US since the NIVI was not available in the US and the NIrV is a children's version written for children just learning to read. (An interesting side note to the debates is that many who are against the gender-neutral language object to the original version of the NIrV but not to its 1998 revision.

The controversy surfaced in the spring of 1997 with the announced intention of the International Bible Society and Zondervan to publish a new inclusive language edition of the NIV in the US. The TNIV is, essentially, this edition. The history is outlined in several of the publications, but generally speaking a large group of well-known evangelicals led a quickly called conference to object to the new translation on theological grounds. The new translation was delayed as a result of this conference, but not ultimately terminated.

Reviewing the history, one notes two facts. First, almost all publishing houses now have their own translations. This is, generally speaking, the result of economic forces. In a material world, Christian book publishing ranks high on the scale of active forces. I read a study at some point, which I cannot now find, that showed pastors spent far more on books than the general populous spends on books. Indeed, the Christian community at large expends tremendous sums on written materials. The printing and sale of Bibles help to support this industry.

Secondly, the initial outcry, while stated in terms of translation issue, almost appears to be a fear of loosing the existing NIV. NIV sales account for almost 1/3rd of all Bibles sold annually and this position out ranks the second place KJV by some 10 or 12 percentage points. Those opposing the new translation appear to have been initially operating out of a fear of loosing this popular edition. While I know many churches have protested by switching to the NLT from the NIV, it is to be noted that the NLT is gender inclusive, although perhaps not to the extent of the TNIV. 

Where does this leave us?

First, it is to be noted there are now more than 20 English translations to choose from. Each has its good points and its bad points. The key is to understand your translation. 

Is it based upon a formal or dynamic translation method?

How does it treat male components?

Who translated it – a good committee or one or two individuals?

Is it translated by a publisher, denomination, or other group?

You can add additional questions.

Don't come to rely upon a single translation. The NKJV remains my favorite, but I use and read at least another half dozen translations. This provides a flavor to the emotions and translations and highlights differences in approach, including gender issues.

And what about the TNIV? I see this translation as being mired in a political battle that is at least somewhat unrelated to the quality (or lack of quality) of the translation. At heart, I believe male terms should be translated just as they are rendered in the original languages. I also believe there are clearly places in Scriptures where a male term, such as the generic "he" stands as representing all genders. I have no objections to a translation that takes this into account. 

On the other hand, I believe if there is any doubt, male terms should be carried through and used as being proper translation of the original languages. So, I would be very careful about reading the TNIV. But, in researching these comments, the debate has heightened my focus on reading of other translations. If you sharpen you focus as well, you will discover that in many places the "replacements" are just as gender inclusive as the TNIV or the NIVI.

I have included pro and con websites for the TNIV on the page discussing Bible Versions. I refer you to these for additional research and sources. In addition, the two key books publish when the debate first arose over the NIVI are:

The Inclusive Language Debate, A Plea For Realism, DA Carson, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998. This work is FOR using gender inclusive language.

The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, Muting the Masculinity of God's Words, Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2000. This work is AGAINST using gender inclusive language.

 

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