The Inclusive Language Debate

Article ID: DI401 | By: Mark L. Strauss & David Wegener

This article first appeared in the Volume 22 / Number 4 issue of the Christian Research Journal. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

THE CASE FOR GENDER-INCLUSIVE
by Mark L. Strauss

There are several points that need to be clarified in a discussion of the current controversy over gender- inclusive language in Bible translation. The first is that the debate is not about the role of women in the church. Failure to distinguish between these two issues has created much pain and confusion. I am a conservative (known as a com-

plementarian) on the issue of women in ministry (see “A Woman’s Place,” p. 12). I believe God has established distinct roles for men and women in the church.

The real issue of gender-inclusive language is not about the role of men and women, but it is about translating the Word of God as accurately as possible. It is about rendering the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek into the most precise English equivalents possible. A simple example will illustrate my point. When Paul wrote that “a man (anthrôpos) is justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28), the Greek word anthrôpos does not mean “a man”; it means “a person.” Paul intended the reference to be generic and inclusive, referring to both men and women. The NIVI, a gender-inclusive version, translates this verse, “a person is justified by faith.” Gender-inclusive translations are careful to use words that most accurately and precisely represent the sense of the original Greek or Hebrew. A simple definition of a gender-inclusive translation is a translation that seeks to avoid masculine terminology when the original author was referring to members of both sexes.

Almost every Bible translation produced or revised in recent years has adopted this kind of moderate inclusive language. They include the New Living Translation (NLT, 1996), God’s Word (1995), the Contemporary English Version (1995), the Good News Bible (revised 1992), the New Revised Standard Version (1990), and the New Century Version (1987). In addition, an “Inclusive Language Edition” of the popular New International Version was published by Hodder & Stoughton in Great Britain in 1995. It was this version, referred to as NIVI, that sparked the present controversy.1 It should be noted that conservative evangelical scholars with a high view of the authority of Scripture produced inclusive versions such as NLT and NIVI. In fact, the majority of the scholars who produced NIVI are complementarians.

The use of this kind of language is nothing new, and all translations of the past have introduced some inclusive language for masculine generic terms in Hebrew and Greek. The King James Version, for example, often introduced the inclusive term “children” for masculine generic terms (bânîm, huioi; “sons”). Matthew 5:9 in the KJV reads: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” The KJV translators correctly recognized that though these terms were masculine in form, their meaning in context was generic and inclusive. What is different about these new versions is that they introduce inclusive terms more consistently and comprehensively. Yet they still seek to do so only when the context is clearly generic and inclusive.

Another clarification is also important. This kind of inclusive language has nothing to do with God-language. None of these versions introduce feminine language for God or eliminate masculine terms used for God in the Bible. They introduce inclusive language only with reference to human beings and only when the original author intended to include both sexes. These are not “feminist” versions of the Bible.

SOME OF THE DIFFICULTIES

While the basic issue of gender-inclusive translation is relatively straightforward, the actual process can be difficult. This is because of the complex nature of language and the arduous task of Bible translation. The difficulties come primarily in two areas: first, in determining which contexts are inclusive (referring to both men and women) and which are not. While it is obvious that anthrôpos in Romans 3:28 means “person,” in other passages it is difficult to determine whether the author was referring to men and women. In such cases, careful study of the historical and literary context must be made to determine the best translation. Translation is a difficult process and the meaning (and hence the translation) of each passage must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

The second major difficulty is determining whether English masculine generics such as “man” and “he” sound inclusive to English ears; that is, are they “heard” to include women as well as men? This is an area where there is significant disagreement. After all, what sounds exclusive to a young person may sound perfectly inclusive to an older person. What sounds exclusive to a woman may sound inclusive to a man. Different readers hear terms differently. Advocates of inclusive language point out that inclusive language solves this problem. Whereas the translation “man” in Romans 3:28 is ambiguous (it could mean “male” or “person”), the translation “person” is precise and clear. Inclusive language renders the meaning of the Greek more precisely for both kinds of readers. Furthermore, empirical studies have demonstrated conclusively that the English language is changing and that generic terms like “man” and “he” are increasingly misunderstood today.2 If we want Bible translations that are as clear and unambiguous as possible, inclusive language may be used when the context is clearly generic.

SOME OTHER EXAMPLES OF INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE

“Man” and “he” are not the only masculine generics in the Bible. Terms such as “fathers,” “sons,” and “brothers” are also used with an inclusive sense.

“Brothers” or “Brothers and Sisters”? The masculine Greek noun adelphoi can carry the sense of physical brothers, but in the New Testament it is more often used figuratively for the kinship between believers. English translations have traditionally rendered the term as “brothers” or “brethren.” The NIV rendering of Philippians 4:1 reads, “Therefore, my brothers (adelphoi)…stand firm in the Lord.” In this and many similar contexts, the author is addressing both men and women. Notice that in the next verse Paul encouraged two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to live in harmony (Phil. 4:2). Adelphoi in this context clearly means “brothers and sisters.” This is not a “paraphrase” or a concession to a feminist agenda. It is exactly what the Greek term meant in its first-century context.

“Fathers” or “Ancestors”? The Greek and Hebrew terms traditionally translated “fathers” (’âbôt, pateres) can refer to actual “fathers” (male parents), to mothers and fathers (“parents”; see Heb. 11:23), or to past generations (“ancestors”). First Samuel 12:6 reads, “It is the LORD who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your ancestors (’âbôt) up out of Egypt” (NIVI). Since Samuel is speaking of many past generations, and since both men and women came out of Egypt, “ancestors” represents an accurate translation. The NASB renders the verse, “It is the LORD…who brought your fathers up from the land of Egypt.” This is less precise because it does not clearly refer to generations of long ago and because it seems to exclude women. The NIV uses “forefathers,” which is better, but still may suggest the exclusion of women. In this case, the inclusive “ancestors” clearly represents the most accurate translation of the Hebrew text.

“Sons” or “Children”? As noted earlier, even before the inclusive language debate, Bible versions like the KJV often introduced the inclusive term “children” for Hebrew and Greek terms traditionally rendered “sons” (bânîm and huioi). Isaiah 1:2 in the NIV reads, “I reared children (bânîm) and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” The KJV translation of Matthew 5:44–45 reads, “Love your enemies…that ye may be the children (huioi) of your Father which is in heaven.” In these and many other contexts, bânîm and huioi clearly mean “children,” not “sons.”

These examples demonstrate an important point about language. Most words in any language do not have a single, all-encompassing meaning. Rather, they have a range of potential senses. For example, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psychç).” In Matthew 6:25 He said, “Do not worry about your life (psychç), what you will eat or drink.” The same Greek word, psychç, is used in both cases; but in the first it means “soul,” in the second “physical life.” The context tells the reader which meaning is intended.

Now compare the two sentences: “man (anthrôpos) does not live on bread alone” (Matt 4:4) and “a man (anthrôpos) who was demon-possessed…was brought to Jesus” (Matt. 9:32). In the first sentence, anthrôpos means “a human being.” In the second, it means “a male human being.” To insist on the translation “man” for both sentences would be like insisting that psychç be translated “soul” even when it does not mean that! The goal of translation must always be to capture the closest meaning, not simply to reproduce a form. “Human being” is an accurate and precise translation in Matthew 4:4 because it is exactly what the Greek word anthrôpos means in this context.

SOME CAUTIONS

I certainly am not suggesting the uncritical or wholesale adoption of inclusive language, which should be introduced only when the original author clearly intended to refer to members of both sexes. For example, if the context indicates that only male children are in view, then “sons” should be used instead of “children.” But when both sexes are intended, inclusive language may be introduced to provide the most precise translation. This policy is simply good translation. It is exactly the kind of meaning-based translation that Bible translators use around the world.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with inclusive language, there is also nothing inherently wrong with masculine generic terms (contrary to what some feminists may say). Both Hebrew and Greek use masculine generics. The important question is whether current English masculine generics convey the same inclusive sense that their Hebrew and Greek counterparts once did. Do terms such as “men,” “sons,” “fathers,” and “brothers” sound inclusive to the average reader? If they don’t, then more inclusive words such as “person,” “children,” “ancestors,” and “brothers and sisters” should be introduced. As we have noted above, the English language is changing and masculine generics are in decline. If contemporary Bible translations are to remain accurate, they must keep an eye on the current state of the language. Just as translators no longer use the word “gay” because of its negative connotations (compare James 2:3 in the KJV and the NASB), so they replace masculine generic terms with more inclusive ones.

THE CASE FOR INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE

The reader my ask, “Why should we condescend to the changes in language produced by our heathen culture?” But we might just as well ask why the apostle Paul preached in “pagan” Greek instead of Hebrew (the language of God’s original revelation!). Or why he preached to the Athenians about the “unknown God” (Acts 17) instead of giving them his traditional message that he preached to Jews in the synagogues (e.g., Acts 13)? The answer is that Paul sought to present the gospel in as clear and accurate terms as possible for his audience. At the same time, he never compromised the truth of the message. Gender-inclusive translations of the kind we are describing seek to accurately and precisely convey the sense of the original Hebrew or Greek, while using the common language of the day. That is the best possible goal for Bible translation.

1. For details of this debate, see Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 20-31, and D. A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), ch. 1.

2. See the Excursus, “Contemporary English Usage: Are ‘Man’ and ‘He’ Inclusive Today?” in Distorting Scripture? 140-46.

THE CASE AGAINST GENDER-IMCLUSIVE

by David Wegener

American Christians do not usually give much thought to the theory and process of Bible translation. That changed for many of us in the spring of 1997 when news broke of plans to make numerous changes to the New International Version (NIV, 1984). The proposed changes focused on making this respected evangelical translation gender-neutral. Though Zondervan and the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) eventually dropped plans to degender the American version of the NIV, a gender-neutral version of the NIV remains on sale in England. In 1999, Zondervan and the CBT announced plans to develop an inclusive language spin-off of the NIV to be sold in the United States. Thus, the controversy continues, and much confusion on the matter persists. In this brief article I hope to dispel some of the confusion and explain why gender-neutral Bible translation is a terrible idea.

WHAT IS A GENDER-NEUTRAL BIBLE TRANSLATION?

A gender-neutral translation is a version of Scripture that systematically attempts to eliminate masculine terms (e.g., he, him, his, man) that are used to express general truths. Some prefer to call such alterations “gender-accurate,” but this assumes what is being debated.1 If these translations are more accurate, then we should thank God for them and

use them. But are they more accurate? I think not.2

WHAT KINDS OF CHANGES HAVE BEEN MADE?

1. Changing generic “he.” How should we translate third person masculine singular pronouns in the original

biblical languages? Traditionally, they have been rendered “he/him/his.” Consider the New American Standard Bible (NASB, 1995) translation of John 14:21: “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves me will be loved by My Father and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”

The NIVI converts third singulars into third plurals: “Those who have my commands and obey them are the ones who love me. Those who love me will be loved by my Father and I too will love them and show myself to them.” The NRSV and the NLT do the same.

Sometimes gender-neutral versions convert third person singulars into second person singulars. While the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) translation of Revelation 3:20 reads, “If any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me,” the NRSV renders it, “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

Though gender-neutral translations give a rough approximation of the meaning of the original, it is still only an approximation and much has been lost. The meaning has changed.3 In the NIVI version of John 14:21, no longer does Jesus promise to disclose Himself to the individual believer; He discloses Himself to a group. This is not the promise of John 14:21.

Are American Christians too individualistic, and do they need to recognize more fully the corporate dimensions of Christianity? Yes, but a translator does not have this kind of authority. An author of a book has authority over what he is going to say, but a translator, particularly a translator of the Bible, cannot shape his translation to fit his notions of the needs of American Christians. It is a translation, not an interpretative commentary, and his job is to translate the original text in as accurate a fashion as he can.4

To do this, a translator first needs to understand the meaning of the passage in the original and then to communicate that meaning faithfully in his translation. The meaning of a passage includes not only its basic content, but also its “nuances arising from style, focus, emphasis, allusion, metaphorical color, literary form, paragraph structure, rhythm, tone, register, literary density of information, directness and indirectness, explicitness and implication, and intertextual connections.”5 The meaning is changed, often significantly, when we change singulars into plurals and convert third persons into second persons. And we do this even though the generic “he” is still perfectly acceptable usage in contemporary English.

2. Changing references to “man.” Gender-neutral versions have also eliminated hundreds of references to

“man.” Occasionally this is appropriate. The Greek word anthrôpos can mean “man” or “human being.” The NIV translates Romans 3:28 as, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” The NIVI is more precise when it says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”6

The Greek word aner, however, should almost always be translated as referring to a male human being. It rarely has a generic meaning, and when it does, there is some special factor in the context that tells us the reference is generic.

Those who deny this must explain why a term like aner would move so close to anthrôpos in meaning, leaving Greek without a term to specify unambiguously that one is talking about a male human being.7

Some of the more serious problems with gender-neutral translations occur with their renderings of aner. Acts 1:21 in

the NASB reads, “Therefore it is necessary that of the men (aner) who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us….” The reference to “men” drops out in the gender-neutral versions. “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of those who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…” (NIVI). This translation obscures the fact that the apostles sought a man to replace Judas as an apostle.

Or consider Acts 20:30. Paul was giving the elders of the church at Ephesus a strong warning that false teachers will arise from among them and lead many astray. “Even from your own number men (plural of aner) will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them,” is how the NIV translates it. The NLT renders it, “Even some of you will distort the truth in order to draw a following.” This obscures the fact that the elders of the church at Ephesus were men, and those arising from their number as false teachers would be only men.

The RSV reading of 1 Timothy 3:2 has, “Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband (aner) of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher.” The NRSV has, “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher.” The fact that bishops were men, which is clear in the Greek, has been completely eliminated in the NRSV.

There are also problems with gender-neutral translations of adam from Hebrew. Adam can mean a male human being. It is also the name given to the first man, and it is the name God gave to mankind to designate male and female. Genesis 5:2 is explicit: “He created them male and female and He blessed them and named them Man (adam) in the day when they were created” (NASB; cf. Gen. 1:27). Yet this has completely disappeared in the gender-neutral versions. The NLT reads, “He created them male and female, and he blessed them and called them human.” The NRSV has “humankind,” and the NIVI has “human beings.”

Now why do we have these changes? The Hebrew is clear. God called the human race by the same name that he called the first man. Those who object to this are not simply rejecting words; they are taking offense at the implications of what God has said.

Consider, finally, Psalm 8:4. The RSV has, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” The NLT not only changes the words but also makes singulars into plurals: “What are mortals that you should think of us, mere humans that you should care for us?” This causes significant problems because the author of Hebrews quoted this passage and said the “man/son of man” referred to is Jesus (2:6–9). This connection between the two testaments is lost in the gender-neutral versions.

WHY HAVE THE CHANGES BEEN MADE?

Many more examples could be given, but I must now address the question: Why have the changes been made? The Introduction to the NIVI supplies this rationale: “It was recognized that it was often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the Biblical writers through gender-inclusive language when this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit.”8

Several grievous errors appear in this explanation. First, it is an example of cultural elitism. It assumes that our culture is superior to the patriarchal world of the biblical writers. What right do we have to make this assumption? Moreover, what if God’s written revelation itself formed and shaped the patriarchalism of the biblical writers? If this is true, then to mute the patriarchalism of the biblical world is to oppose the teaching of the Bible itself. To accuse Scripture of a cultural fault is to impugn its inerrancy and undermine its authority. Putting it bluntly, it is a challenge to the doctrine of inspiration. Finally, the message of the Spirit is communicated in the words of the Spirit. We have no access to the message of the Spirit except through the words of the Spirit. To change the words of the Spirit is to change the message of the Spirit.

Why have the changes been made? Not because the English language has changed so dramatically in the past 35-40 years. The generic “he” and “man” are still understandable. 9 Understanding is not the issue. The issue is the change in our culture that has made it unacceptable to use masculine terms to express general truths. A culture that is resistant to using generic “he” is sick, and it needs the gospel to heal it. But if our culture is sick, “We do not help the sickness by sickening the Bible a little in order that the sick person can be more at home with it.”10

1. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, God’s Word or Man’s Agenda: The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, forthcoming).

2 . I will use three gender-neutral Bible translations as examples in this article: The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1990), the New Living Translation (NLT, 1996), and the New International Version: Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI, 1996). These versions accounted for 10 percent of the sales of Bibles in the first half of 1999.

3 . Vern Poythress, “Gender in Bible Translation,” Westminster Theological Journal 60 (1998): 3.

4 . Ibid., 3-5.

5 . Ibid., 4.

6 . See Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 204.

7. Poythress, “Gender,” 9-10.

8. “Preface to Inclusive Language NIV,” in NIVI (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), vii.

9. See the examples given in Wayne Grudem, What’s Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations?

10. Poythress, “Gender,”22.

STRAUSS’S REBUTTAL TO WEGENER

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to David Wegener’s article and want to thank him for his contribution. It seems, however, that he has missed some fundamental issues in this debate.

First, he insists on calling these translations “gender-neutral,” which suggests that their goal is to neutralize, “degender” (his term), or eliminate gender distinctions in Scripture. In fact, the goal is the opposite. It is to clarify the gender distinctions intended by the original authors. When the apostle Paul meant to refer to members of both sexes, a gender-inclusive translation makes this clear.

This brings up a second flaw in Wegener’s reasoning. He points to examples of poor translations in the NIVI or the NRSV and assumes the whole methodology is flawed. But this is criticizing a few poor applications of inclusive language rather than its fundamental legitimacy. For example, I agree that the NIVI got it wrong when they failed to translate the Greek word ançr as “man” in Acts 1:21, but this only proves that mistakes were made in the translation process. I could point to dozens of mistakes in traditional versions such as the RSV, NASB, NIV, and NKJV. For example, the NASB translates Matthew 5:15, “Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure….” The term “men” does not appear in the Greek, and the third person plural verb (“they light”) carries no gender distinction. Since women in that culture usually lit lamps in the home, the translation “men” actually distorts the original meaning. Such examples merely prove that all translations are done by fallible human beings and so contain some errors. Yet the goal remains to reproduce as accurately as possible the meaning of the original. (Incidentally, the 1995 revision of the NASB introduced an inclusive term to correct the translation of Matt. 5:15: “Nor does anyone light a lamp.…”)

A third major problem with Wegener’s position is that he confuses form with meaning in Bible translation. While admitting that the translator’s goal is “to communicate that meaning faithfully in his translation” (emphasis added), he then insists on retaining the form. For example, he claims it is wrong to use an English plural to translate a Greek or Hebrew generic singular (a difference in form), but a plural translation can capture the precise sense of a generic singular. Mark 4:9 in the NIV reads, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The NIVI captures the sense of the original Greek with a plural construction, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Since the term “he” in the first sentence is generic (referring to people in general), the meaning of the two sentences is the same. People (not just one man) are being encouraged to hear Jesus’ words. Meaning is retained despite the change in form.

Proof that meaning is not lost by introducing plurals in generic contexts is seen in the fact that the biblical writers themselves translated this way! Paul sometimes changed singulars to plurals when quoting the Old Testament. Consider the following examples:

OLD TESTAMENT TEXT PAUL’S NEW TESTAMENT CITATION
Isa. 52:7: How lovely on the mountains are Rom. 10:15b: As it is written, “How beautiful

the feet of him who brings good news…. are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Ps. 36:1b: …There is no fear of God Rom. 3:10, 18: As it is written….“There

before his eyes. is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Ps. 32:1: Blessed is he whose transgressions Rom. 4:6–7: David says the same thing…“Blessed are they

are forgiven, whose sins are covered. whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are

In all three cases the apostle Paul translated Hebrew singulars with Greek plurals in exactly the way that Wegener claims is inappropriate! Paul clearly believed generic plurals in Greek accurately represented the meaning of generic singulars in Hebrew. He changed the form but retained the meaning.

Opponents of such translations claim that while the “general sense” may be retained, important nuances of meaning are lost by changing the form from singular to plural. Yet, it is even more likely that meaning will be lost by retaining the form and disregarding the meaning. For example, retaining the English term men in a truly inclusive context may lose more than just a nuance; it may lose the entire meaning by suggesting that only males are included.

Fourth, Wegener makes the claim that inclusive translations “change the words of the Spirit.” This statement misses the point since every Bible translation ever produced changes words (in Hebrew and Greek) for different words (e.g., in English). The only way not to change the words would be to reproduce only Greek and Hebrew texts! The inclusive language debate is not about altering the original text of Scripture (the Hebrew or Greek text), but rather it is about how best to translate that text into clear, accurate, and contemporary English.

Finally, Wegener’s claim that introducing inclusive language is “sickening the Bible” to adapt to a sick culture flies in the face of good translation theory. What about translations of the Bible into languages that do not use masculine generics? Are these “sick” translations? What if masculine generics eventually disappeared from English? Would it then be impossible to translate God’s Word accurately? OF course not! The goal of Bi8ble translation is not to artificially mimic Greek or Hebrew forms, but to accurately convey the meaning God intended.

Mark L. Strauss (Ph.D., Aberdeen) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary San Diego. He is the author of Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

WEGENER’S REBUTTAL TO STRAUSS

I disagree with several points in Mark Strauss’s article. First, he claims that the issue is simply one of accuracy in Bible translation and not the role of women in the ministry of the church. Why then are several of the texts that figure prominently in the debate between complementarians and egalitarians concerning the role of women in ministry translated incorrectly in the gender-neutral versions? As I pointed out in my article, the Greek texts of Acts 1:21, 20:30, and 1 Timothy 3:2 make it clear that only qualified men could serve as apostles and elders/bishops; women were not eligible to serve in those offices.

Yet gender-neutral versions obscure this truth, opening the way for women to serve in positions the original text of Scripture prohibited to them. Since most lay people (and an increasing number of pastors) will not be able to check the original Greek, those who read the gender-neutral versions will be led astray from the plain meaning of the texts. Much of what I will say will relate back to this issue, but these examples demonstrate that the issue is not simply one of accuracy in translation. The very words inspired by the Holy Spirit — including their gender markings — pertain to our understanding of the nature and purpose of sexuality. The corruption of Scripture’s teaching that men hold these church offices cannot be separated from the systematic removal of gender markings by scholars seeking to harmonize God’s Word with the feminist bias of our culture. Such scholars claim feminism does not influence them in their revisionist work, but this only demonstrates the lamentable naivete of these men whose calling is to handle the word of truth with accuracy.

A second area of disagreement concerns God-language. Professor Strauss correctly points out that many gender-neutral Bibles retain masculine terminology when referring to God. I would like to ask him, “Why don’t gender-neutral translations change masculine language for God?”

The Greek and Hebrew texts use masculine pronouns to refer to God, which offends many people. They think it implies a male God. But if God is not male, yet the language Scripture employs to refer to Him is, shouldn’t we remove this offense and possible source of confusion? If, as gender-neutral versions affirm in their prefaces, the problem with the gender-language of the Bible is its patriarchal context, shouldn’t we remove all remnants of patriarchy? Didn’t the patriarchal context of the Bible affect the way its human authors referred to God? Shouldn’t we then go all the way and change the masculine language the Bible uses to refer to God?

This kind of reasoning should prove troubling to all who make the case for gender-neutral Bible translations. While I am sure Dr. Strauss would not want to go this far, my question is, “Why not?” The same case he makes for not using language with masculine markings in a generic sense can be extended to God-language with perfect ease. Masculine pronouns for God are misunderstood today. They cause great offense. They are perceived differently today than in the patriarchal eras of biblical authorship. Shouldn’t we have the courage to change them?

This brings us to the real issue at the root of this argument. This debate is about the ideological clash of two worldviews. The worldview of the Bible is essentially patriarchal or father-ruled. Though God is beyond gender, Scripture refers to Him with masculine terms and pronouns. The overwhelming majority of metaphors that Scripture applies to God are masculine: King, Husband, Bridegroom, Man of War, Judge, Lawgiver, Farmer, Shepherd, and so on. He has revealed Himself as Father, not Mother. He is the Father from whom all fatherhood comes, giving us our very idea of fatherhood (Eph. 3:14–15). The God of Scripture has nothing in common with the fertility cults of the ancient Near East and frequently battled with goddess religions. He tells His people to have nothing to do with them.1

On the other hand, the worldview of secular America is feminist. Using a male as a representative for men and women is taboo. Telling a parable about a man building his house upon the rock excludes women (see NLT of Matt. 7:24). Referring to men and women as man is shocking, and using generic “he” is offensive.

The question before us is not one of intelligibility. Our newspapers and magazines still use generic masculine pronouns. Our style manuals still recommend them. The question is not one of understanding. It is one of offense. If we begin to eliminate or change the things in the Bible that cause offense to our secular world, where will we stop? The lake of fire will have to be banished. The Atonement must surely be jettisoned. And what about the doctrine of the universality of sin? Isn’t that supremely offensive to each one of us?

I would plead with Bible translators not to try to update the Scriptures by degendering them so that a feminized world is more at home with them. The Spirit of our heavenly Father inspired the patriarchal words of Scripture. His word is powerful. Throughout history it has addressed all kinds of cultures and changed them, transforming them from the inside out. Let us not cave in to our culture and allow it to squeeze us into its mold. Let us hold forth the Word of God and allow it to confront us, offend us, and sanctify us (John 17:17).

David Wegener has graduate degrees in theology and history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.Div, M.A.) and the University of Wisconsin (M.A.). He was a Fulbright scholar at the University of Geneva, Switzerland in 1990-91. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Wegener is an assistant pastor at the Church of Good Shepherd in Bloomington, Indiana, and also serves as the managing editor for the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

1. See Donald G. Bloesch, God Almighty, Christian Foundations, vol. 3 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 25–27.