by Jim Oesterwind
Inclusive language is all the rage, these days. In everything from your local newspaper to your grammar checker in your word processor, you are encouraged to use inclusive language, appeasing the sensibilities of the modern mind. Inclusive language is an issue for Christians as even Bible translations are affected by this new way of communicating.
Jacques Barzun, historian of ideas and culture, addresses this issue in his work on western cultural history, From Dawn to Decadence. He favors prolonging the usage of man as a generic reference to both men and women in literary work. He offers four reasons for doing so: etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of ‘man and woman,’ and literary tradition. He thinks it unwise “to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served.”
Consider these observations:
In Genesis we read: “And God created Man, male and female.” Plainly, in 1611 and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; “Man inhabits all the climatic zones.” Logicians have said “Man is mortal,” and philosophers have boasted of “Man’s unconquerable mind.” The poet Webster writes: “And man does flourish but his time.” In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others two related meanings, which context makes clear.
Barzun points to the etymology of the word man as coming from the Sanskrit root manu, “denoting nothing but the human being and [doing] so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for ‘I think.’” He points to the etymology of woman as equivalent with the idea of a “wife-human being” (wo is a shortened form of waef).
He believes it clumsy to “repeat at frequent intervals ‘man and woman’ and follow it with the compulsory ‘his and her.’” Gender-inclusive oddities will not “enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.” He also questions the inclusivity of the inclusive term “men and women”. If we seek to be inclusive by the term, do we include teenagers and 8-10 year old boys as well? Now, that could get quite cumbersome! What about men who desire to be women? How does a writer avoid offending such people by using such language?
Such discussion may seem to the casual observer as academic straining at words, having little impact on his daily life. Yet we see this controversy touching Christians in the very Bibles they read and carry to church. As an example, consider the recent kerfuffle over whether or not the MacArthur Study Bible should be released in the New International Version. This decision has stirred the pot over gender neutrality and inclusiveness as it relates to Bible translations.
The controversy began with the 1996 British edition of the NIV called the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition. A protest stifled plans for a similar American edition in 1997, but Today’s New International Version (TNIV) appeared in 2002 (New Testament only; 2005 for the whole Bible). The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood addressed the TNIV issue with an article by the theologian Wayne Grudem. He compares verses from the 1984 NIV with the 2005 TNIV. He concludes:
“Man,” “father,” “brother,” “son,” and “he/him/his” are the main ones that are removed or neutralized. And there are dozens and dozens of other examples like these. I have no objection to removing these words when there is no male-oriented meaning in the original Greek or Hebrew text. But when there is a male-oriented meaning (as in these verses and many like them), then we dare not under-translate and conceal that male-oriented meaning, just because that emphasis is unpopular today. Of course the Bible treats women as equal in value and dignity before God from the very beginning (Gen. 1:27), and it towers over all other religions and world cultures in affirming the true equality of women and men in the image of God. But when the Bible has more numerous uses of male examples of general truths than female ones (as it does), then we should leave it, translate it truthfully, and not tamper with it.
The 2011 update of the TNIV reintroduced masculine terms in verses that were criticized. Here’s an example of the changes that 1 Corinthians 14:28 underwent in the various NIV translations:
- “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himselfand to God” (NIV 2011/1984/1978).
- “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church, let them speak to themselvesand to God” (TNIV 2005).
- “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to God when alone” (TNIV 2002).
The NIV 2011 still struggles with using plurals where none exist in the Greek text in order to give deference to gender-inclusive language. Hebrews 2:7-8a is translated, “You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.” The pronouns in Greek are all third person masculine singular. This eradicates any understanding of Psalm 8 being fulfilled in Jesus. Vern Poythress concluded:
Overall, the NIV 2011 translation appears inconsistent or uneven. The NIV 2011 is definitely an improvement in comparison to the TNIV. The NIV 2011 corrects a number of difficulties produced in the TNIV. But it could have gone further. If in 2011 ‘he’ is allowed (as NIV 2011 does sometimes admit), then it ought to be used whenever it is needed for the sake of accuracy. This kind of through revision has not been carried through. The result is a disappointment, and will not please those who want consistent accuracy.
This is political correctness run amuck. Fundamentalists desire a faithful translation of God’s Word from the original manuscripts. There simply is not anything more vital to our relationship with God than accuracy in the daily translation we read. The Christian should settle for nothing less. The gender neutrality and/or inclusiveness arguments border on the silly and absurd. Next thing you know, I will not be able to tell my boys they throw like girls. Perhaps I should tell them they throw like other people I know!
- Barzun, J. (2001). From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (1500 – Present). New York: Harper Collins. See discussion on pages 82-85. [↩]
- See rationale for why MacArthur decided to publish the MacArthur Study Bible in the NIV here: http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2012/02/macarthur-study-bible-niv.html[last accessed 4/24/12]. [↩]
- See Grudem’s full article here: http://www.cbmw.org/Journal/Vol-7-No-1/The-Gender-Neutral-NIV [last accessed on 4/24/12]. [↩]
- See Poythress’ review and critique here: http://www.bible-researcher.com/poythress.NIV2011.pdf [last accessed 4/24/12]. You may also be interested to read the preface to the TNIV here: http://www.bible-researcher.com/niv2011-preface.html [last accessed 4/24/12]. [↩]