Lecture 32: Principle 10: Gender Language
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Principle 10: Gender Language
1. The Use of a Single Referent
This lecture deals with the whole issue of inclusive language. The issue of gender language is what dominates translation today. The problem is with English, which is right in the middle of a change. In translations, we are fairly sure where the English language is going. If you are an older person, you probably will not change with the language. If you are a younger person, perhaps you are ahead of the change in how to refer back to a single referent. My guess that within ten years, most of these issues will be done away with. This is the question; can the words he and man refer to all people? Where it gets really difficult is how you refer back to a singular referent. Blessed is the one who walks not in the council of the ungodly for…… So what pronoun are you going to use to refer back to the one in this sentence? Do you say he or they; how would you refer back to the word, one? The story that I generally tell is of my daughter, she was six or seven years old at the time; really young and my wife is not what you would call a feminist. Kids were home-schooled and protected with not a lot of outside influence on our children at that age. I walked into a room once and my daughter had photocopied a verse from the Bible. The pronoun ‘he’ was crossed out with ‘she’ written over it, and it was tacked on the bulletin board. I wondered whether or not she had been talking to my colleagues at school! I went to her and commented on it as to why she had done this. I ask her if she had felt left out when it said he? She replied, ‘well, of course. I’m not a he, I’m a she and I think the Bible is about me also, isn’t it, Dad?’ I thought that was really interested. She had inherently felt left out of the Bible.
So this is a real issue and it is a very difficult issue. English is in the process of change and it is easy to say ‘one’ who instead of ‘man’. This is not an issue and it is really simple. But things like brothers, for example, are we brothers or are we brothers and sisters. If we say, brothers and sisters, then we are
divided by gender. I preached a sermon once where I called everyone sisters because I wanted the guys to feel what it was like to always be called a sister. It didn’t work; the language couldn’t hold it and the church couldn’t take it. These are hard things and what really causes problems also is referring back to a singular referent. There was a study done on where English was going and what happened in the mid-1990s, looking at generic language, it just disappeared. Christian writers were doing anything other than saying ‘man’ and ‘he’; they were saying things like mankind, humanity, human, person, people and alternating between he and she. What they found was, none of it worked. So the graph showed in the late 90s, the male language went up; we were using it more than we used it at the beginning of the 90s. There was no other way to communicate. Two things have happened: one, it is one of a slow decline, man and he are going away, but very slowly; the thing that is changing is ‘they’. The NIV hangs onto the word, ‘they’. They will determine the success of the NIV. Before the Latin grammarian got a hold of English in the mid-1800s, the word ‘they’ was the generic pronoun referring back to singular or plural. The grammarians made it plural and it is now becoming non-marked again. I would think that if you go back to biblical training later on, you will see that I have used the pronoun ‘they’ referring to the singular most of the time. I say it so naturally now, but using ‘they’ in speeches is one thing, but writing it down is something else. And once you are committed to the use of ‘they’, you are also committed to using ‘them’. The pronoun ‘them’ is still marked as plural in our heads, and there is no word such as ‘them-self’. There is no reflective. So, this is really difficult. It is a no-win scenario, but ‘they’ as the pronoun is going to win.
2. The Use and Changes that Have Taken Place
If your brother sins, rebuke him and after he repents, forgive him but the NIV says, ‘if your brother or sister sins against you rebuke them and if they repent, forgive them.’ It is in plural; the Greek is singular, but since you have brother or sister, so ‘them’ works here. This is not a Wednesday night prayer meeting where you confess everyone else’s sin. That is what we used to have. This is individual and it gets lost in the plural. This is one of the really big complaints against the TNIV; the plurals made everything a group. ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones; those who believe in me, to stumble, it would be better for them; ‘them’ is going back to anyone; ‘it would be better if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.’ This is where language is going, whether we like it or not. Another translation which is really bad again comes from the TNIV; ‘here I am, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and I will have a potluck with them and they with me.’ It reads like a potluck. If Jesus is standing at the door of the Ephesian church, saying I’m knocking and if any individual hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter into an intimate relationship with him; I will eat with him or her. It is a very personal, one on one kind of promise. We fixed this a little to read, ‘I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person and they with me.’ That was the best we could do. But you can see what the struggle is; this is what I am trying to show you.
Where you really have trouble with inclusive language is in the wisdom literature, especially with father and son kind of things in the Old Testament. This is because you see the father instructing his son where it is culturally understood to be parents instructing their children, although in the super patriarchal families of that day, which was probably mostly the father doing the teaching. But you have this wealth within the background of information and culture that if lose the father and son, you lose the connection with the back. God deals with you as sons; for what son is there that their father doesn’t discipline? The Old Testament has all of these things about our Father, God and disciplining his children, Israel. The NIV says ‘God is treating you as children’; they had to make it plural to get away from son, ‘for what children are not disciplined by their father.’ At least they kept the word ‘father’. NRSV says,’ God is treating you as children for what child is not disciplined by their parent.’ This cuts all connection with the past; the entire wisdom literature of the Old Testament has gone in one verse. These are the other issues and after about ten more years of hearing ‘they’ and ‘them’ and writing these pronouns, a lot of these issues will go away. The abruptness of ‘them’ and you trying to decide whether this is one person or a group; I think this will be gone. But we are in that transition stage right now and this is what makes translations hard.
You can see the Interlinear Bible is on the left, for example, and the Message Bible is on the right and the other translations sit along the spectrum with the NIV being right in the middle. What I want you to conclude from this discussion, we are blessed with a plethora of good translations and it is really amazing how many we have. In one sense, it was nice when there was just one because everyone read the same one and we didn’t have a lot of the problems that we do now. But there are a lot of translations along this whole spectrum now. I would encourage you to adopt one as a primary one Bible. You need one that you can highlight and mark up and write things in the margins, things that you have memorized. The NIV, for example, is so much better for church and for preaching and communicating. I would also encourage you to get a second Bible such as the ESV. Whatever two Bibles that you choose make sure that both of them are not dynamic or both formal. Don’t use an NASB and an ESV, as this doesn’t work. Don’t use a NIV or NLT as this doesn’t work either. Unfortunately, the ESV isn’t printed in a parallel. We have begged them to allow this but for various reasons they have declined. So you will never have an NIV / ESV parallel. And when you see the differences in some of these translations, don’t base your theology on this. For example, when the disciples could not cast out the demons with Jesus replying that this one doesn’t come out without prayer and some say prayer and fasting; it is a difference in the Greek manuscripts. When you see these kinds of differences, don’t hang onto a verse where the Bibles are really different on a certain point. I have a friend who says that he just loves the Word and that is great, but I ask him one day whether or not he loved the author of the Word. The Bible is really important and we need to adopt one version and read other versions for wisdom, but understand that this is a love letter and what we are supposed to love is the author.