I recently left a lengthy comment at a friend’s website, where he was commenting on D. A. Carson’s book about gender-neutral Bible translations. My comment was lengthy enough that I thought worth reposting here as a blog post.
First, the Bible was not written in a gender-neutral milieu, and making it gender-neutral may distort a proper understanding of the Bible in its world. This is an observation that David Clines, who I think would be happy to be called a feminist, made in 1989:
I have not managed to use inclusive language in the translation; committed though I am to its use in my own writing—and it is employed throughout the commentary proper—it is not always possible, in my experience, to conform the writing of another person to a gender-free style. For example, in the depictions of the “wicked man” in chap. 18, there is no reason to think that the words should refer only to males; on the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the author so intended. One option that I have not taken is to convert all the references to the “wicked man” into plurals, for the poetic image of the evildoer would be weakened if I did so. [To the NIV 2011’s credit, they also leave the “wicked man” in Job 18.]David J. A. Clines, Job 1–20, vol. 17, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1989), xxxi.
Robert Yarbrough, in his BECNT commentary on the Johannine epistles, draws attention to this (and several other problems) that emerge in the attempt for gender-neutrality:
“Edwards 1996: 91-92 questions the wisdom of translating John’s ἀδελφός as ‘brother and sister’ or other generic label (cf. NRSV, NLT; cf. also English translations of Strecker 1996: 47 and Schnackenburg 1992: 82). CEV reads, “If we claim to be in the light and hate someone.” TNIV opts for ‘those who claim to be in the light but hate a fellow believer,’ thus avoiding ‘brother’ but also losing the individual focus of the assertion by changing the particular ‘one who says’ into an unspecified collection of persons. The original spotlight an arrogant individual (ὀ λέγων), not an impersonal group. (Paul’s periphrastic rendering of Ps. 32:1-2 in Rom. 4:7 is reasonable and legitimate, but hardly justifies a translation philosophy that would render Ps. 32:1-2 plural or Rom. 4:7 singular.) The words of Porter 1989: 33-34 on the CEV and gender language come to mind: ‘At points the biblical text may well be considered hopelessly insensitive in matters of gender, but I cam convinced that it is in the best interests of making the meaning of the original text clear if the clear meaning that exists is in fact obscured.’”Robert Yarbrough, 1-3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 103, n. 15.
Second, part of the narrative of the Bible is that all humanity was initially represented by the man, Adam, and that all of the redeemed are represented by the Man, Jesus. There is something about male representation that’s part of the created order and part of the way the Bible regularly speaks. There is something significant going on in naming the first man “Man” and in noting that God created “man” male and female. There is so much seminal theology in Genesis 1-3, that not seeing that as theologically significant would be odd. It would be doubly odd given the representative role that Adam played. Likewise, when Christ came as a man, he came as a male human; I don’t think he could have come as a female human to represent redeemed humanity given the creation order God established. Nor do is this representative function limited to Adam and Christ. Husbands and fathers have representative roles in the family, pastors/elders have representative roles in the church, etc. In personal writing, I think it is fine to vary writing and not insist on always using the generic “man.” However, style guides the prohibit the use of the generic “man” are, I think, contrary to a biblical worldview on that point. With regard to Bible translation, I don’t think that we fully understand the impact on the meaning of Scripture when we seek to move it in a gender-neutral direction.
Third, I think the Bible often uses gendered-imagery purposefully, and we misunderstand the imagery by making it gender-neutral:
The current tendency, influenced by the pressure of gender-inclusive language, to refer to believers as ‘sons and daughters’ of God is misleading, blurs this vital truth, and has the effect of blunting the church’s appreciation of what union with Christ entails. Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, and is so eternally; that is his name and that is his status. It is not a sexual term, for God is not a sexual being. By referring to Christian believers as ‘sons,’ the NT is not, under the influence of patriarchal culture, bypassing half the human race. Instead, it is pointing to our shared status with the Son of the Father, in and by the Holy Spirit. The introduction of talk of ‘daughters’ obscures this point, placed at the hub of the Christian life.Robert Letham, Union with Christ (P&R, 2011), 54, n. 19.
“So the thing to notice, especially in Paul’s treatment, is not an ostensible chauvinism in identifying the people of God as “sons” rather than “sons and daughters,” but the radical discontinuity with both Judaism and Hellenism in identifying daughters and slaves as sons—that is, the legal heirs of the estate. In the process, the whole notion of who constitutes the right to “property” is subverted, at least in the communion of saints.”Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 243.
“As I explained in the introduction, the gender-specific ‘sons/sonship’ is used here and elsewhere in the commentary in order to preserve the first-century concept of inheritance (almost always involving male offspring) and the relationship between the ‘sons’ and the ‘Son’ (4:5-6). The term refers, of course, to male and female believers equally.”Moo, Galatians, BECNT, 196, n. 1.
“Before we turn to the five huiothesian texts that elucidate Paul’s sons-in-the-Son gospel, an important contemporary contextual comment is in order. As does modern culture at large, modern academia prefers to neutralize gender whenever possible. It might seem preferable to employ “adopted child” or some other gender-neutral formulation in the translation and derivations of huiothesia. As noted already, however, the Greek term for “adoption,” huiothesia, contains the masculine term huios. While in some cases gender-neutral terms may properly convey the meaning and organic (intracanonical) theology in biblical revelation, the use of huiothesia is generally not one of those cases.David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (P&R, 2016), 52.
Because the shared etymology between huios and huiothesia aligns the redeemed sons of God with the redeeming Son of God, opting for a gender-neutral term in English muddles this verbally poignant Son/sons solidarity. Since Christ is not teknon, the chosen conception for filial grace is not teknothesia. To preserve this sons-in-the-Son solidarity that shapes Pauline theology, I will normally use the word son, while celebrating how the Pauline adoption concept unambiguously indicates privilege for both male and female (2 Cor. 6:18; cf. Gal. 3:25—27). In fact, at times Paul speaks of the huioi as tekna (e.g., Rom. 8:15—17); we can be assured that Paul’s choice of huiothesia and huioi representing both sexes perpetuates no gender bias and divulges no misogyny. With its etymological composition, huiothesia prominently serves his pervasive in Christ soteriology in a way that should govern our understanding of both tekna and huioi as they reference the redeemed people of God.”
Despite Moo’s comment in his Galatians commentary, the NIV 2011, though translating “sonship” in 4:5 then translates huios as “child” in 4:6-7.
Mark Dever is correct that something is lost with NIV 2011’s avoidance of “one new man” in Eph. 2:15 by the move to “humanity.” Humanity is an abstraction. Man is a concrete, inclusive image that likely ties into the body imagery and into the representative theology the first Adam and the last Adam.
It is worth noting that God gave us gendered imagery with “sonship/sons”, and “man,” just as he gave us gendered imagery in describing the church as the bride of Christ.
Here are a few other specific examples:
The gender-neutral translation of כָּל־אִישׁ (kol-ish) (v. 13) as “anyone” (e.g., NRSV) [also NIV 2011] is inappropriate since in ancient Israel only men were allowed to make sacrifices. Tabernacle and temple worship was a male privilege and duty.Harry A. Hoffner Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. H. Wayne House and William Barrick, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 1 Sa 2:13b–14a.
In Job 14:1, the NIV 2011 obscures the references to Adam by translating adam as “Mortals” rather than “Man.” This translation allowed the NIV translators to transform all of the singular pronouns (“he,” “him,” etc.) into plurals, which further obscures the fact that the man being referred to is a stand in for Job. This is most problematic in the final verse of the chapter where the loneliness and isolation of this man is portrayed: “He feels but the pain of his own body and mourns only for himself” (NIV 1984). The isolation doesn’t come through with the plural pronouns: “They feel but the pain of their own bodies and mourn only for themselves” (NIV 2011).
To the NIV 2011’s credit, the revised some of these issues as they appeared in the TNIV. For instance, the TNIV translated Lam. 3:1, “I am the one who has seen affliction,” and the NIV 2011 reverted to “I am the man who has seen affliction.” This reversion is correct as Berlin’s comments demonstrate:
The speaker is not Jerusalem, or her people, or a poet observing Jerusalem and her people. Rather, the chapter gives voice to a lone male, speaking in the first person about what he has seen and felt and what sense he can make of it. Because the first-person speaker announces himself so forcefully in his maleness (geber), many interpreters have puzzled over who this geber, this speaking voice in chapter 3, represents.Adele Berlin, Lamentations, OTL (Louisville: WJK, 2002), 84. (On page 88 Berlin specifically calls out “Gender-neutral translations, like NRSV.”)
. . . . . . . . . .
“The male voice is a counterpart to the female voice of the city in chapter 1. Zion, personified as a woman, speaks in chapter 1, and here a male voice also speaking in the first person echoes, form a different perspective, the experience of destruction and exile. Just as the imagery in chapter 1 was feminine–the widow, the unfaithful wife, the raped woman–so here the imagery seems more masculine, invoking the physical violence against the male body associated with war and exile.
I wouldn’t deny that language is changing. but when it comes to Bible translation and gendered language, I think we need to recognize that we are translating an ancient text with a different worldview with regard to gender than our modern American or European worldview regarding gender. I think it is therefore safest to stick closest to the way the Bible itself uses gendered language as long as our language permits it. Further, I think we should recognize the worldview motivations behind at least some of the move toward gender-neutral language. Insofar as the worldviews are contrary to the biblical worldview, and insofar as adopting the changes to language makes Bible translation more difficult, I think Christians should be slow to adopt them.