Gender Inclusive Language and the NIV

There has been for some time now a raging debate about gender inclusive language in the NIV 2011. The Centre for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), in particular, have mounted a sustained attack against the NIV 2011. You can read a short version of their critique here: CBMW  Let me say upfront that I am a complimentarian and have benefited from the ministry of CBMW. While a focus on specific key texts shows some legitimate concerns with a few verses, CBMW has a broader issue with the NIV11:

The NIV 2011’s aversion to generic masculine forms of expression is unnecessary and can have the deleterious effect of obscuring aspects of the biblical authors’ meaning. In my view, this feature alone weighs heavily against the NIV 2011.

gender neutral languageThe question I want to ask in this blog is, should our Bibles have an ‘aversion to generic masculine forms’? The key aim of translation is to render the original message into the current language of the reader. Keeping as much of the original wording as possible can help in accurately conveying that message, but this is just not possible when moving from one language to another. This is especially so with languages as different as Hebrew, Greek and English. For example, one Greek word means to be born, made, performed, happen, develop, become something, move, prove to be, be there, belong to and be in. What English word covers all that? No translation, therefore, will ever be perfect, because where it may gain from consistently using the same word in different contexts, it will lose from not choosing the best word for each context. We will always need different translations, each with a different focus (word for word, meaning for meaning) in order to best grasp the meaning of the original.

One reality every translator must face, however, is that language changes over time. This is certainly true for English. There was a time when ‘this is a problem for men’ could have meant every person, male or female. In English today, however, this phrase strictly addresses only male adults. Words have changed their meaning. If we are going to translate the Bible into modern English we will need to take this into account. Despite CBMW’s preference for generic masculine forms, there are some Greek words that imply both genders. One of these is ‘anthropos’. Although anthropos has traditionally been translated as man or men, it does not imply masculinity. Unless the context requires it, it is not a gender specific word. It is best translated person or people, unless the context requires otherwise. Yet the CBMW preferred translations (NASB, ESV) regularly translate the word as either man or men. In fact, on 341 occasions the ESV translates it as man or men. The ESV only translates anthropos as person or people on 94 occasions. The ESV has a clear preference for generic masculine forms. This can be seen in the following examples:

Acts 17:29 

ESV  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

NIV Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.

The use of man here is an archaic usage. There is nothing masculine in this context that requires it to be translated man.

Galatians 1:10

ESV For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

NIV Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Again this is an archaic usage. Is it only one male or all males that Paul might be trying to please? The NIV makes a sensible translation, using human beings in contrast to God, and then people in contrast to Christ.

Matthew 4:19

ESV And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

NIV “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”

I think this verse highlights some of the weaknesses and frustrations of the ESV. First the gender issue – were they only going to be fishers of male adults? That’s certainly the way it sounds to modern ears. What is a fisher, anyway? According to the Oxford online dictionary it’s a large brown marten (whatever that is). It also has an archaic entry: fisherman. We actually have to translate this verse of the ESV into modern English!

Fisher: A large brown marten. Is this Peter?

Romans 1:18

ESV For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

NIV The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,

Is it only men whom God is angry with? Are women off the hook? What in this context requires the use of ‘men’?

Romans 5:12

ESV Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned-

NIV Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

Perhaps women are off the hook because it’s only men who have sinned? There is no need for masculine gender to be used in this context, in fact it’s deeply unhelpful, even problematic. Yet, the CBMW takes no issue with their preferred translations at this point, but prefers ‘generic masculine forms of expression’, even if they distort the text to the ears of the modern reader.

How is it that the CBMW is worried only about distortions of the text that may reduce the strength of male headship in the Bible, but not concerned about unnecessary offence caused to women or the multitude of distortions to the text caused by a preference for generic masculine forms? It’s right and proper to pull up the NIV (and any other translation) for incorrect translations of particular verses, but it’s wholly out of step with the current use of the English language to evaluate a translation on the basis of gender-neutral forms. Quite simply, the ESV on many occasions has to be translated into modern English before it can be understood, even though it was translated just 13 years ago.

A major drawback for the regular public reading in church of the ESV and NASB is their higher reading levels. The ESV and NASB both have a reading level of grade 10 and 11 respectively. The NIV, on the other hand, only requires a reading level of grade 8. This may not be such a big deal if our churches are filled with university graduates, but given that only 23% of Australians have a bachelor’s degree or above, and given the widespread turn away from books and reading in our culture, the vast majority of Australians will struggle to hear and understand God’s word when we read it to them from the ESV or NASB.

So, what are we to make, then, of the gender inclusive language debate? First, let’s acknowledge that no one translation is perfect or even adequate for detailed study. Any Christian serious about understanding the Bible will reference more than one English translation. We train church pastors in Greek and Hebrew so that they can get behind even the English translations to the original languages. Second, any modern English translation will use the conventions of modern English, which will mean in our day and age the use of gender inclusive language unless context suggests otherwise. To do any different is not to render a modern English translation. Third, other factors beyond just gender inclusivity need to be taken into account when selecting a translation, including the required reading level. Unless our churches are going to be elitist institutions, generating dependence upon the paid staff for Bible interpretation and understanding, we had better publicly use a Bible that everyone understands, even those who aren’t confident readers. For this reason Flooding Creek has used the NIV 2011 for the last year, and although it has been less than perfect, it has served us well. We were tempted to dabble with the HCSB, however the lack of availability and popularity, especially in country areas, were factors that played against it in the end.