Editorial: Inclusive Language bibles
by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.

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If the June 16, 1997, issue of Christianity Today is any indication, this piece is going to irritate a lot of folks. For those who have not seen the article (pp. 52-55), the International Bible Society has reportedly abandoned plans to make a "gender neutral" NIV on account of tremendous pressure from the "evangelical church."

One look at Rom. 12:6-8 will quickly illustrate the problem:

NIV We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
NRSV We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

I would hope that your criteria for judging these two translations is to recognize that they are, indeed, translations. That is, they are intended to communicate to English-speaking peoples the words of Paul that were penned in biblical Greek and one must examine the Greek before rendering any sort of verdict. And what does the Greek say? We have here a string of nouns, each followed by a prepositional phrase (more nouns). There are no personal pronouns except for one pronominal suffix on the main verb ("we have")--and this is the first-person plural which has no gender at all. So, in the span of three verses, and with no biblical justification, the NIV translators have inserted no less than eight masculine pronouns, while the NRSV has translated the passage intact.

This one short passage is sufficient to try and convict the NIV as a "sexist" Bible, but out of fairness we must recognize that the NIV is twelve years old--probably older if one considers the fact that work started on it years earlier. We also have to give the NIV points for its first-rate use of the English language, which has been highly acclaimed in many quarters. (Even in the above passage, the NIV appears relatively less awkward--but it also can be said that the original Greek is difficult to render without some awkwardness).

I would like to suggest that the question of exclusive language is best examined by a single criteria: what is the language of our culture? This is among the very first questions any missionary would ask when contemplating a new work in some arbitrary part of the world. In the twelve-plus years since the NIV translators began their work, the language of our own culture has changed. When the NIV first came out, virtually all readers (with the exception of a few ardent feminists) would have found the NIV completely "inclusive." What does "inclusive" mean? It means that both men and women reading the above passage in the NIV would have understood that it referred just as much to the spiritual gifts of women as it did to men. The English language reader, in other words, was conditioned to interpret masculine pronouns (and such words as "man" and "mankind") in a manner that would use context to determine whether to decode them in a gender-insensitive or gender-specific way.

It must be said that many are suspicious of inclusive Bibles because they worry that the translators may tamper with the gender of God, a point that is definitely in the agenda of some who approach God from psychology textbooks rather than biblical theology. This has serious theological flaws. First, it is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of God to assign biological gender to God at all, since God is spirit (Jn. 4:24) rather than creature, and that biological gender is meaningless outside of creaturehood. Secondly, such tampering destroys the essential femininity of Israel and the Church vis-à-vis the masculinity of God and Christ in the great number of marriage illusions in both testaments. Should evidence of this sort of thing be found in an "inclusive" translation, Christians would have good cause for concern (the fact that such passages as Isa. 66:13 and Mt. 23:37 use feminine images to describe the nature of God does not change God's maleness vs. Israel's femaleness).

The problem is that this is no longer the case. The modern reader has lost that ability due to the fact that the language of our culture has changed. That many evangelical Christians are not at all happy with that change may very well be true, but that does not alter the fact that the change has taken place. The task of the translators of an English-language Bible (or any other work) is to render the original text into the current language of the culture--it is not their task to reverse changes in the language with which they don't agree.

So here is the bottom line. Had the NRSV (or any other inclusive translation) been placed in the hands of Christians back in 1985 when the NIV was introduced, the appearance of inclusive language would have raised flags. We would have suddenly encountered female pronouns in places where they were not expected, and we would have formed an immediate suspicion that something was seriously amiss. The NIV translation, on the other hand, achieved immediate acceptance because the words in question were read in an gender-insensitive manner. But this is not the case today. Over the passage of time the modern reader has lost the ability to read the NIV text inclusively. The appearance of all these masculine pronouns now raise flags in the minds of both men and women because passages that Paul intended to be read as gender-inclusive now tend to be decoded as gender-specific.

The NIV text was a good one. In the view of this writer, however, it has become obsolete and is in serious need of revision. If we accept the Great Commission of Jesus as a valid command to the church--that we are to make disciples--why would we want to hamper ourselves with a Bible translation that leaves half of the people out?

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