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Re: Debate on inclusive language
Bible translations

by Becky Groothuis

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis is author of "Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality." (Offsite Link) Published by Baker, it is a systematic analysis of gender roles from an egalitarian position.

This article is provided in response to a discussion on the subject of gender-inclusive language Bibles. It is posted here as a service to the members of the AR-talk mailing list, and provided under these terms.


       Some on this list have responded to my little essay on inclusive language translation by bringing up issues and objections that were beyond the scope of the essay. My intent was simply to show that the incendiary accusations against the NIVI that mobilized the masses to revolt (which, in turn, provided the leaders of the opposition with the populist clout they needed to force IBS to back down) was based on a fallacy: namely, that the move to use inclusive language in Bible translation is a move toward neutering the Bible, rendering it unisex, and obliterating gender differences. The use of such argumentation--despite its powerful effect on an unthinking and uninformed evangelical public--should be shunned by those who should know better. Unfortunately, it was not.

       Another profound misconception (not addressed in my essay) is that inclusive language translations are primarily out to promote an egalitarian or feminist agenda. If this were so, there would not be so many traditionalist scholars who support such translations. These people realize it is just as easy to argue for gender hierarchy from an inclusive language translation as from, say, the current NIV. (Of course, this would not include the more extreme traditionalists who really seem to believe men are more important to God and the church than are women and so insist that the very philosophy of the language into which the Bible is translated should reflect the centrality and normativity of maleness in both the divine and human agendas.)

       Regarding Acts 1:21, which Rob Bowman cites as evidence of an egalitarian agenda in the NIVI: First, referring to the Twelve as "those" does not open church leadership to women, and referring to them as "men" does not restrict church leadership to men. The exact word Peter used in this context proves nothing. Obviously, the Twelve were all men, just as they were all Jewish. It does not necessarily follow from this fact that all church leaders should always be men (or Jewish--but no one makes this argument). There is even debate as to whether this lot-casting episode was entirely directed of the Holy Spirit or was largely Peter's own notion. Second, the NRSV (an inclusive language version) translates this word as "men," and I have no problem with that. The concept of inclusive language translation does not demand that "aner" be neutered when there is no real reason to do so (as in this case).

       Opponents of inclusive language translation are quick to object to any perceived influence of an egalitarian agenda on translation. And it is quite right that theology and translation should remain as distinct as possible. What the Bible says, and the theological positions that can legitimately be derived from what the Bible says, are separate questions. Yet no one seems to object when advocates of a hierarchical theology attempt to justify the continued generic use of masculine terms on the basis of their male-centered theology. But should we allow the translation process to be co-opted by a very specific and debatable theological agenda?

       Perhaps some of the folks who argue in this way are unaware that there exists good reason--on exegetical, theological, and logical grounds--to question the standard dogma on male hierarchy in the church and home. This is understandable because, as we know from sociology of knowledge, the terms of cultural debate are set by those who control the public discourse (which, in evangelical culture, are the traditionalists). As a result, the public rarely even hears of an alternative biblical view, and when it is mentioned it is typically caricatured and misrepresented beyond all recognition. And so the arguments against gender hierarchy are not even heard, much less honestly engaged by persons of intellectual integrity eager to arrive at an understanding of the truth.

       I have read carefully the writings of the critics of the NIVI, including the CBMW newsletter on the subject. There has lately been a fair amount of space and effort devoted to arguing against changing singulars to plurals in order to avoid the generic "he"; yet this objection to the NIVI has nothing to do with the rallying cries of "feminist seduction," "unisex Bible," and so forth. To say that pluralizing pronouns deemphasizes individuality is not exactly to demonstrate an obliteration of God-ordained gender differences!

       I may be breaking ranks with other egalitarians (if so, it won't be the first time), but I think the generic "he" should be retained in cases where plural or second person pronouns would move the sense of the text away from its intended meaning. If a passage that refers to both men and women uses the generic "he," its meaning should be clear enough as long as the antecedent is gender inclusive (e.g., person, people, or believers instead of man, men or brothers).

       I won't respond here to objections to inclusive language that are nothing more than arguments for male hierarchy (from which the generic use of masculine terms is presumed to follow naturally). I have dealt with all those arguments in *Good News for Women*. Summary papers of my main points in this book may be found at our Web site, www.gospelcom.net/ivpress/groothuis. My earlier book, *Women Caught in the Conflict*, refutes the oft-heard claim that to move toward biblical equality (or evangelical feminism) is to take the first step twoard an inevitable slide down the slippery slope to radical feminism, goddess religion, abortion and homosexual rights, and so on. (This is another false but highly effective rhetorical effort that trades on the ignorance of the evangelical public.) Since Rob Bowman mentioned the Web site for CBMW, I see no reason not to give the Web site address for the evangelical counterpoint, Christians for Biblical Equality: www.goldengate.net/mall/cbe. After all, shouldn't we at least have a fair understanding of both positions before deciding on one?

Becky Groothuis
Email, via Douglas Groothuis: Douglasgro@aol.com



Return to CounterPoint Menu
On The Gender-Inclusive NIV (NIVI) - Robert Bowman
The Bible and Gender-Inclusive Language - E. Calvin Beisner
Response to Becky Groothuis' Paper - Robert M. Bowman
Women in Christian Perspective (A Bibliography) - Robert M. Bowman

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