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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.),[5] 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_.[6] 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?"[7] 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 used."
      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
Email: ebeisner@aol.com
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 rpt.), 1:131-2.
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

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