by Vern Poythress, Ph.D., Th.D.
A review of D. A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998); and Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998).
[Published in World 13/45 (November 21, 1998) 24-25. Used with permission.]
Evangelicals are arguing with one another over Bible translation. Some recent translations have gone “gender-neutral,” replacing “he” and “man” with “they” and “humankind” or similar words with neutral gender. The problem is that in the process they sometimes change God’s word by ceasing to represent nuances of the original.
D. A. Carson and Mark Strauss have both tried to write even-handed books on the question. Both criticize some of the renderings found in recent gender-neutral translations such the NRSV, NIVI, NLT, and CEV. They also argue that some of the criticisms of gender neutrality have gone too far. They endeavor to find a middle way, neither wholly endorsing nor wholly condemning gender-neutral translation. Unfortunately, both books concede too much in favor of gender-neutral techniques. They also fail to represent fairly the fact that the Colorado Springs Guidelines oppose gender-neutral translation because it changes meaning, not merely form. They claim that the Guidelines show ignorance of translation theory, when it is they who fail to grasp that the Guidelines are complaining of changes in meaning resulting from gender-neutral practices.
The most serious shortcoming lies in their treatment of generic “he,” which occurs, for example, in Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself …” (NIV). Both books lean toward eliminating generic “he,” which affects thousands of verses. But they never quite get around to analyzing why generic “he” is a problem. When “he” and “him” refer back to an earlier “anyone,” as in Luke 9:23-26, it is perfectly clear that “anyone” includes men and women. “He” is not unintelligible. But it has connotations. “He” uses a male starting point to express a general truth. According to egalitarian ideology, preferential use of male examples or male representatives is “unfair.” Feminists claim that it is “oppressive” because it thrusts maleness into the forefront. At this point modern ideology clashes with the Bible, which teaches that Christ and Adam were representatives for larger groups (Romans 5:12-21), and that fathers are representatives for their families (Ephesians 5:22-6:4). In addition, Luke 9:23 uses masculine pronouns in Greek, which would convey to Greek readers a picture of a male figure representing a general truth.
Most people would pay no attention to “he” if ideology had not made it a theme. But feminists pay attention to generic “he” and load it with connotations because they can thereby use it as a means for detecting ideological resistance. Once offenders are located, they are persuaded to conform, or else labeled insensitive or chauvinistic.
People don’t want the Bible to seem insensitive, so they eliminate the offending “he”—even at the cost of changing some nuances and losing the idea of male representatives. But such a route is unacceptable. We must distinguish between rewording that accurately represents meaning (replacing “thou” with “you”) and rewording that changes nuances of meaning in order to be ideologically pleasing (eliminating the use of a male example to express a general truth). God himself forbids this second kind of change (Proverbs 30:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:4).
Carson and Strauss’s books are virtually silent about all this. They could not frankly discuss the ideological connotation of generic “he” because it represents a landmine capable of exploding the illusion that the issue is merely clear communication. The central issue is ideology. It is modern ideology that makes generic “he” unacceptable even though it is intelligible. Ideological influence heats up the whole issue. Carson and Strauss want people on all sides to cool down. The desire for peace and sanity is admirable. But the ideological conflict will not go away. And God’s word does not change in order to appease modern feminists’ ideas about language.
Strauss comes the closest to tackling the issue of generic “he” by citing psychological experiments. Experiments supposedly show that in some people’s minds generic “he” literally excludes women. But the claim is suspect on the face of it. Generic “he” is surely no harder to understand than generic “she,” which many feminists use widely and which they have never understood as excluding men. What the experiments actually show is only that sentences without a context may be ambiguous, and that people perceive a relative prominence given to men. “He” uses a male example to picture a broader truth. Such a picture is natural to the Bible but not to feminism. The book fails to distinguish between actually excluding women and doing what the Bible does, using a male example or male picture in order to include both men and women in the general principle.
The books have smaller lapses as well. Both books appeal to the fact that the New Testament may sometimes change person or number when quoting the Old Testament. Supposedly these examples show what modern translators may do in order to avoid generic “he.” In fact, the New Testament writers are acting like preachers who draw out some of the implications of the texts that they use. They are not endorsing a brand of translation. The appeal to New Testament practice confuses the issue and seriously biases the discussion.
In Bible translation alternatives to generic “he” usually involve using plurals (“they”), converting to first or second person (“we” and “you”), or converting to passives that eliminate the offending pronoun altogether. Some of the main point of a sentence can be preserved under these transformations. But inevitably nuances change. What was implied in the original language becomes explicit in the translation, and vice versa. The translation starts with the addressee (“you”) where the original starts with someone out there (“he”). Carson himself acknowledges that sometimes the changes are unacceptable (for example, in John 14:23). But both books tend to sweep under the rug the fact that in every case these transformations bring subtle changes in nuance. The books give the impression that the meaning is the same, when what they ought to say is that the meaning is similar, but that some changes have occurred that could have been prevented by using generic “he.”
The books also fail to consider the total weight of change involved in eliminating generic “he.” If you use it even once, you admit that it is O.K. to use it. So you should use it everywhere you need it to express the meaning. If you refuse to use it, you commit yourself to thousands of changes in thousands of verses, not knowing beforehand how much meaning you will still be able to preserve. It is a high price to pay, especially when you don’t need to make the change at all.
Advocates of gender-neutral language have talked about language change as a general phenomenon and about differences between language systems. But they have never spelled out reasons sufficient to justify eliminating generic “he” in Bible translation, nor can they. To take up this challenge is to entangle oneself in the ideological voltage with which the English language is now charged. One may wish to stay free of ideology, but English Bible translation cannot because the language itself is polarized.
In discussing the use of “man” for the human race (“God created man in his image”), both books fail to note a crucial distinction. “Man” for the human race always occurs in the singular (not “men”), without an article (not “a man” or “the man”). It is thus easy to distinguish it from the uses of “man” that refer to males to the exclusion of females. The fear that “man” (referring to the race) may be misunderstood is thus overdrawn. Moreover, in a passage like Genesis 1:26, the very next verse explicitly indicates that females are included. The problem with “man” is not literal misunderstanding, but ideological vibrations. “Man” in Genesis 1:26 reminds us that Adam, not Eve, was the head of the race, as Romans 5:12-21 indicates. Such vibrations are not acceptable to egalitarians, who postulate that “fairness” involves equal prominence and interchangeability for men and women in every respect.
The books do include some helpful things. They indicate that in some verses, such as Matthew 7:24, Acts 1:21, 9:7, and 20:30, some gender-neutral translations have wrongly eliminated an original reference to men. In addition, the books try to educate people about the complexities of translation. They provide instances of structural differences between languages, in order to explain why in some instances translators may alter the form of an expression in order rightly to convey the meaning of an idiom or capture an extra nuance.
But general discussion of the complexities of translation does not touch the main issue. Gender-neutral translations have here and there washed out a mention of males in the Bible, and have made an ideologically-loaded choice in eliminating generic “he.” The rewordings necessary to avoid generic “he” quite regularly lead to changes in nuance that less adequately represent the fullness of the original meaning. The resulting translation thus chooses to smooth over ideological clashes in preference to representing original meaning with most exacting fullness.