The Bible and gender-inclusive language
by E. Calvin Beisner
Continued from ...
Does the Gender-Neutral Use of _Anthropos_
Support the Demand for Gender-Inclusive Language?
"In the Greek," Miss Smith argues, "_anthropos_ refers to both
male and female, and should be translated as `person.' Perhaps a word
like `people' or `humanity' would more accurately communicate the meaning
of those passages."
First, only sometimes does _anthropos_ (_anthropoi_ in the
plural) refer to both male and female; sometimes it refers only to males.
The same is true of the English _man_ (or _men_) and of equivalent terms
in other languages.
Might _people_ or _humanity_ be a better translation of the
generic _anthropos_? Perhaps. Unless, of course, there is something
significant about the fact that while _anthropos_ may designate either
people in general, inclusive of females, or male human beings
specifically (e.g., Matthew 11:8; Luke 7:25, etc.), it would never
designate women specifically, and one would never have used _gune_
("woman") to designate people in general, inclusive of males. It is my
contention that this apparently universal phenomenon in human language
reflects a truth rooted in creation, fall, and redemption: that because
the male First Adam preceded the female in creation and represented the
whole human race (male and female) in the fall, and because the male Last
Adam represented all His chosen people (male and female) in His death,
resurrection, and ascension, male headship, in the sense of both
authority and representation, is part of the warp and woof of the reality
God intended in creation and is restoring through redemption.
Writers of the Greek New Testament did, after all, have an
available option to using _anthropos_ to denote people in general: they
could (and sometimes did) use _polloí_. Might we lose something
significant in translation by opting for _people_ instead of _men_
(generic) as the translation for _anthropoi_ where the New Testament uses
that instead of _polloí_?
Just What Is Gender-Inclusive Language?
Indeed, Miss Smith accepts the generic _anthropos_, despite its masculine grammatical gender, as acceptably gender inclusive and a model
for our own usage. But then why reject the generic use of _man_ and
masculine pronouns in English? If it is okay for Jesus to have said,
"Beware of practicing your righteousness before men [_anthropon_,
genitive plural] to be noticed by them [_autois_, masculine relative
pronoun]" (Matthew 6:1), what is wrong with - well, translating this as the
NAS does, and speaking or writing so ourselves?
In reality, _man_ and _men_ and _he_, _him_, and _his_ simply are
gender- inclusive and have been so for hundreds of years, just as
_anthropos_ and _anthropoi_ and _autos_, _autou_, _auto_, and _auton_
(and their plural counterparts) were gender-inclusive language two
thousand years ago (and still are) in Greek. If Miss Smith accepts the
gender neutrality of these Greek words, why not of their English
counterparts, which have a long history of precisely gender-neutral
usage, as a quick check in any good dictionary reveals? For example, the
definitions of man in _Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary_,
unabridged 2d ed., include: "1. a human being; a person, whether male or
female. 2. the human race; mankind: used without the or a," and the
definitions of he include "2. the person indefinitely; the one; anyone."
Indeed, _he_ formerly was used not only generically but also even to
denote a woman specifically, as when the author of the Early English work
_Joseph of Arimathie_ wrote of Mary, "He chaungede cher & seide hou
scholde I gon with childe / Without felauschupe of mon?" This history
helps to explain why _he_ has properly been used generically, while _she_
(which derives from another stem and specifies a female) has not.
Thus since _man_ and _men_, like _anthropos_ and _anthropoi_,
refer to both male and female, they are just as good translations of
_anthropos_ and _anthropoi_ - and just as gender inclusive - as _person_ or
_people_. Indeed, John Calvin, a Frenchman, could write in Latin what we
find translated into English as "Why, even children know that women are
included under the term `men'!" (Institutes II.xiii.3.)
Who Bears the Burden of Proof?
Miss Smith thinks those who oppose the movement for gender-
inclusive language wish to restrict how people speak or write. "But even
if our English Bibles use `man' and `he' to refer to both sexes [as the
Greek and Hebrew do, she might have added], does that mean that
English-speaking Christians are required to do the same?" That is not the
point at debate.
Opposing the requirement of gender-inclusive language does not
mean forbidding people to use it (although it appears that Miss Smith
would be as quick as I to scorn such real linguistic monstrosities as
s/he, she/he, and plural pronouns with singular antecedents). Those who
do not wish to use it ought not to be forced, particularly because for
some it is a matter of conscientious scruple to maintain, in form as well
as in substance, the Biblical truth of male headship. Those who wish may
use it, although they should be aware that doing so may mean conceding in
form a truth that they wish to maintain in substance - if indeed they think
it a truth.
Morality does not change with time, place, language. If it is
morally wrong not to use gender-inclusive language today, then it was
morally wrong for the Old and New Testaments to be written as they were.
But if it was morally permissible for the Old and New Testaments to be
written as they were, then it is not morally imperative to use
gender-inclusive language today.
Should We Compose Only Parallel, Non-Rhyming Poetry?
In objecting to my appeal to Scripture's example to justify
generic masculine language, Miss Smith writes, ". . . should Christians
compose only poetry in parallel structure because Hebrew poetry follows
the rules of parallelism? If we follow Beisner's argument, it is
inevitable that rules will be made not only in relation to what God's law
says, but also accord ing to the grammar and sentence structure that is
But this is, again, to forget that the argument is not over
whether gender-inclusive language is permissible (it is, although - as I
have suggested - it is debatable whether its wisdom is consistent with
maintaining male headship) but over whether the use of generic masculine
terms like _man_ and _he_ to refer to males and females alike is somehow
wrong. My argument is that since Scripture does the latter, and the
inspiration of Scripture involved the very words themselves (plenary
verbal inspiration) and even whether those words were singular or plural
(see, e.g., Galatians 3:16), to hold it wrong to do so is to hold
Scripture and its Author wrong.
Furthermore, if Scripture does teach male headship and covenantal
representation, and if this truth is reflected in the generic masculine,
as I believe it is, then Miss Smith has drawn a false analogy. Since
Hebrew poetic parallelism does not in itself reflect any truth of
Scripture, but the generic masculine does, the two are not analogous. The
one is mere form; the other is form rooted in substance.
What About Offensive Speech?
". . . Christians," Miss Smith writes, "should be most careful
that their speech does not offend anyone, primarily God." This she offers
as one reason to adopt gender-inclusive language.
Of course we should never offend God, but presumably the God who
breathed out generic masculine terms in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) is not
offended by our following His example.
But what of offense to others? Must we, in fact, never offend
anyone with our speech? Surely Miss Smith does not mean to go so far.
After all, that would mean we could never tell a murderer that murder was
wrong, a liar that lying was wrong, an adulterer that adultery was wrong,
or a thief that theft was wrong. The real standard is that we should not
needlessly offend anyone with our speech.
But I suggest that those who are offended by generic masculine
language, which people of many tongues for thousands of years have
recognized as gender inclusive, are offended not because the language is
not gender inclusive (it is) but because they reject the substantive
notion of male covenantal representation and authority and they sense,
however uncomfortably, that precisely this truth underlies generic
masculine language. Where that is so, there seems no good reason to try
to avoid in form an offense that must be made in substance.
The Path of Prudence
There are, as Miss Smith points out, ways to avoid generic
masculines without using linguistic monstrosities. We may use plurals,
although this can get dreary after a while. Or we may repeat nouns, as
when Miss Smith wrote, ". . . once the writer becomes adept at gender
inclusive language, biased writing becomes a monstrosity because it does
not always accurately communicate the writer's thoughts" - although this,
too, can get tiring. Avoiding cumbersome repetition is the purpose of
pronouns. Or we may alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns,
using both generically - although this requires asking most readers,
accustomed to generic masculines but not to "generic feminines," to
adjust consciously to our form and thus makes communication more
cumbersome and less sure.
All of this is not to say that we who oppose the demand for
"gender- inclusive language" - and I put the term in quotes here to
contrast the language feminists demand from the gender-inclusive
masculine - should at every opportunity wave our generic masculines in the
faces of those who take offense at them. We need not always press every
point of truth; sometimes pressing one may hinder communicating another,
as happened when I delivered a paper at the Christianity Today Institute
on Population and Global Stewardship in April 1994. One evaluation
utterly ignored my paper's substance and condemned it solely because I
used generic masculine pronouns.
There are times when - for the sake of the weaker brother or sister
who is personally offended at what Scripture permits, like one who does
not eat meat or who insists on observing particular days as ceremonially
holy - it might be the part of prudence to give up our liberty to use
generic masculines in order to remove an obstacle to communication. At
those times, we should follow the example of the Paul, who wrote:
"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I
might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though
not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the
Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being
without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win
those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win
the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may be all means
save some." [1 Corinthians 9:19-22]
Yet I hesitate to apply this passage too readily to
gender-inclusive language, which is not quite analogous to the cases Paul
addresses. There was nothing wrong with being a Jew or a Gentile, under
the Law or without law, strong or weak. But there is something wrong with
rejecting Biblical role differences of men and women, and to the extent
that adopting gender-inclusive language implies approval of that
rejection, it is imprudent to adopt it. Paul's becoming all things to all
men did not, after all, entail his refusing to confront thievery merely
because doing so might offend some thieves (Ephesians 4:28), let alone
the whole catalogue of sins mentioned in Romans 1:26-32.
Those who insist on gender-inclusive language other than the
historically gender-inclusive _man_ and _men_ and _he_, _his_, and _him_
(1) falsely consider the latter gender-discriminatory, (2) insist on
their version of gender-inclusive language to the possible detriment of
an important Biblical truth, (3) imply that the God-breathed Scriptures
themselves are morally flawed to the extent that they fail to conform to
this new moral standard. Those who oppose the requirement of this version
of gender- inclusive language, in contrast, (1) rightly consider generic
masculines gender inclusive, as demonstrated by millennia of usage in
many languages and cultures, (2) uphold an important Biblical truth about
male and female roles, and (3) uphold Scripture as morally blameless not
only in what it teaches but also in how it teaches it.
E. Calvin Beisner
4409 Alabama Ave., Chattanooga, TN 37409 USA
Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies
Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750 USA
Office phone: 706-820-1572 ext. 1417; Office fax 706-820-2165
See Books and Papers by E. Calvin Beisner. (Local information)
1. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, _Commentary on the Old
Testament_, 10 vols., Volume 1, _The Pentateuch_, 3 vols. in 1, trans.
James Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976 rpt.), 1:88.
2. John Calvin, _Commentaries on the First Book of Moses, Called
Genesis_, 2 vols. in 1, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984
3. Keil and Delitzsch, _Pentateuch_, 1:103.
4. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, edd., _Recovering Biblical
Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to `Biblical Feminism'_ (Wheaton, IL:
Crossway Books, 1992).
5. Walter Bauer, _A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature_, 2d ed., trans. William F. Arndt
and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 68.
6. Bauer, Lexicon, 688.
7. Cited in _The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of
the English Language_, 6 volumes, edited by William Dwight Whitney (New
York: The Century Company, 1889), 3:2747.
Return to CounterPoint Menu
On The Gender-Inclusive NIV (NIVI) - Robert Bowman
Re: Debate on inclusive language Bible Translations - Becky Groothuis
Response to Becky Groothuis' Paper - Robert M. Bowman
Women in Christian Perspective (A Bibliography) - Robert M. Bowman