The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy
By Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem
Publisher: Broadman & Holman (800-448-8032)
Review Author: Dale Vree
Among Evangelicals in the U.S., the most widely used Bible translation has been the New International Version (NIV). In 1997 the Evangelical magazine World did a major report on how Zondervan, the publisher of the NIV, was planning to bring out a so-called inclusive-language version of the NIV that would eventually replace the NIV. World, joined by the hugely popular radio teacher James Dobson, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others, sparked mammoth resistance to the scheme among grassroots Evangelicals. Zondervan felt the pressure — even in the pocketbook — and backed away from the project. It’s a fascinating tale, retold in Chapter 2 of the book under review here, written by two solid Evangelicals. The same controversies are rocking the Catholic world, where opponents of “inclusive” language also appear to be ascendant.
As we all know, language changes gradually and naturally over time in response to the way ordinary people choose to speak the language. Grammarians may huff and puff, but in the end it’s usually vox populi that prevails. Now, if “inclusive” language appears to be becoming more common nowadays, why not just let nature, so to speak, take its course? Because “inclusive” language is not a natural evolution of the language deriving from how people spontaneously speak. Rather, it is being artificially imposed on people by feminists and assorted eggheads via their commanding positions in education and the media, and by their flunkies in government, business, and advertising. It’s a kind of Stalinist “revolution from above,” or, if you prefer, a linguistic putsch.
Moreover, so-called inclusive language — a.k.a. the Feminese dialect — carries with it an ideological agenda, namely, that male and female are not complementary but identical, and that males and females must be equally prominent in all areas of life. But as Poythress and Grudem say in this book, “The Bible paints a different picture, a picture in which God has ordained men, not women, to serve in certain positions of leadership, first in Adam as representative of the human race, then in Christ, and…in the family and the church.” But feminists cannot abide this biblical picture, which pretty much informed American society until the 1970s. They understand that how we think can be influenced by how we use the language, and so one way they are going about changing the culture is by changing the language.
You know the anti-biblical feminists are making headway when they’re able to intimidate or cajole or guilt-trip nice Evangelical Bible translators into changing the very words of the Bible. As Harold O.J. Brown protested, this is “the first time anyone…has ventured to strain the Bible through an ideological sieve….”
The Poythress/Grudem volume exhaustively shows that in many cases “inclusivized” Scripture passages are not accurate translations, but reflect attempts to “improve” God’s Word, for nuances and meanings are changed. Subtly, the Word of God becomes the Word of Man. Poythress and Grudem give oodles of examples. I’ll cite two that will be of particular interest to Catholics. They pertain to the ordination of women, an issue that currently divides Evangelicals. (1) In 1 Timothy 3:1-7 St. Paul discusses the qualifications of a bishop. One is that he be “the husband of one wife” (which, of course, is not to say that bishops must be married). One “inclusive” Bible (the Contemporary English Version) says instead that a “church official” must be “faithful in marriage,” thus obliterating Paul’s understanding that bishops are to be males. (2) In Acts 20 Paul addresses the leaders of the Church, and says, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth…” (v. 30). Poythress and Grudem say: “The word ‘man’ translates the Greek word aner, denoting male human beings.” However, six “inclusive” Bibles drop “men” and substitute a neutered term. Again, the understanding that men are to lead the Church is expunged. Poythress and Grudem say — gently — that the translation here is “not accurate,” is a “serious mistake.” Poythress and Grudem are careful not to attribute motives, but it’s hard to resist the impression that this is not an innocent mistake, but deliberate distortion.
Poythress and Grudem later discuss the problem of the “slippery slope.” So-called inclusive Bibles have obviously been designed so as not to offend people having feminist sensibilities. Now, the translations Poythress and Grudem happen to be critiquing do not go so far as to change God from Father to “Parent.” But if not giving offense is the litmus test, then why not neuter God too? Moreover, say the authors, “We cannot call God a warrior, because our culture sees war as ugly, vicious, uncivilized. We cannot call God king. ‘King’ is male and connotes oppression under arbitrary orders. God cannot be wrathful because it connotes that he has lost control of himself and harbors destructive emotions. God cannot threaten us with hell because that connotes cruelty.”
This is not fanciful. Poythress and Grudem note that the Contemporary English Version has already removed a “source of modern ‘offense’: it changes ‘the Jews’ to ‘the people’ or ‘the crowd’ in passages where they oppose Jesus….” Elsewhere in their book, Poythress and Grudem note that in the Nazi era, German Protestant churches began replacing “Jews” with “People of God” in the liturgy and hymns so as not to offend German gentiles and so as to be — yes — “more inclusive.”
Many of the nice Evangelical Bible translators who produce so-called inclusive Bibles say they’re not kow-towing to the forklift feminists — no, no, they’re just translating the Bible into English as it is spoken today. Poythress and Grudem have much fun with this (phony) justification. The primary beef the “inclusivizers” have with standard English is with the generic “he/his/him” as in, let’s say, “Each student must sit at his own desk and use his own pencil,” as a teacher might say in school. Let’s be frank: Any feminist who honestly thinks that what is being said here refers only to male students is a moron.
Poythress and Grudem show that “Each student must sit at his own desk and use his own pencil” is correct usage today, citing the latest edition of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual — and all major dictionaries.
In short, there is no need to say, clunkily, “Each student must sit at his or her own desk and use his or her own pencil,” or to say, ungrammatically and barbarously, “Each student must sit at their own desk and use their own pencil.”
Putting the matter in helpful perspective, Poythress and Grudem say: “Transport yourself back to 1965. Most people calmly accept generic ‘he’ without even noticing it. It is a convention of the English language…. Both men and women have used generic ‘he’ all their lives without intending to oppress women or be insensitive.” Indeed! Moreover, so-called inclusive language is a non-issue because standard English is already inclusive, as every informed English speaker knows. But, alas, the feminists have — as is their habit — manufactured a crisis where there is none.
This brings me to my only reservation about the book. The authors themselves are too eager to show that they too are “sensitive.” Hence they say they have no objection to saying “he or she” or “they” instead of the generic “he” in everyday speech or writing (though not in Bible translations). They don’t seem to realize that if such linguistic promiscuity really catches on in common parlance, a future edition of The Elements of Style may rule out standard English usage, and the “inclusivizing” Bible translators will have the last laugh.
As for Bible translations, the authors approve of replacing, for example, “a man” with “a person” in certain cases, and replacing “brothers” or “brethren” with “brothers and sisters.”
Why? In the former case they say that “‘a man’ can be misunderstood to mean a male human being.” Really? The example they give is from Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith….” But who in his right mind would think that only males are justified by faith?
In the latter case — i.e., replacing “brother” or “brethren” with “brothers and sisters” — they say they worry about giving “needless offense.” Well, here we are back on the ole slippery slope! One “inclusive” Bible (not discussed in this book) drops “the right hand” of God in favor of a euphemism, lest left-handed people be needlessly offended. Perhaps there is no “need” to “offend” left-handed people? We Catholics refer to Protestants as our “separated brethren” — are we giving needless offense? And there’s an entire Protestant denomination called the Church of the Brethren — it’s not for males only, so is its very name needlessly offensive?
“Needless offense” is a very spongy concept. Is there any Miss Manners, any authority, that everybody would trust to define it in every case? No. Better to scrap the notion of needless offense and stick with standard English.
In defending the use of the generic “he,” Poythress and Grudem note that certain “inclusive” Bibles do retain the generic “he” in certain cases. They say, quite correctly, that if it is used “even once,” it is (inadvertently) conceded that the generic “he” is understood by contemporary readers. Therefore the pretense for the need for “inclusivized” Bibles — that most people today simply don’t understand standard English — collapses.
But the real reason for “inclusivized” Bibles is to avoid giving needless offense to the hypersensitive. So I would add that if the generic “he” is used even once, it is (inadvertently) conceded that standard English does not give offense.
Thus the authors’ valid point about “even once” boomerangs on them. If it’s OK to use “inclusive” language even once in Bible translations so as to avoid “needless offense,” as the authors allow, then why is it wrong to use it many times where “needless offense” might be given, even if some nuance or meaning is lost? What the heck! Translation is not only a science but an art, and no translation will ever be “perfect.” Moreover, if people want more accurate translations, they will always be available. I’m being facetious, of course. The notion of “needless offense” is a Pandora’s box that should not be opened.
Let’s give the last word to Frederica Mathewes-Green (whom the authors quote in another context): “If someone thinks I’m incapable of reading ‘Blessed is the man’ and figuring out it applies to me too, I’m insulted.”
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