Thoughts on Gender-Neutral Language in the NIV 2011
I believe there are major linguistic and hermeneutical problems with the gender neutral language used in the NIV 2011. The concerns noted below go beyond translation problems with individual passages.
We are familiar with the NIV 2011’s attempts to make Scripture gender neutral. Words that carry a masculine meaning are retranslated using the normal editorial tools for gender neutrality. For example, singulars become plurals; “one” or “someone” is made plural in the predicate; “you” is substituted for “he” or “him;” and words like “brother” and “father” are changed, so that “brothers” becomes “brothers and sisters” and “fathers” becomes “parents.” (This is distinct ANTHROPOS and ADAM that can often be translated using gender neutral terms.)
Depending on how you count them, the changes number in the hundreds and perhaps well over a thousand. We are no longer dealing with changes to individual passages that we could teach around (even if there were several dozen of them) but with the entire fabric of Scripture in this area.
A gender-neutral translation changes the way in which translators determine the meaning of words. We have all relied on lexicons to help us understand word meanings. We trust the lexicographer to study a word, relying, where possible, on how the word is used in Scripture. After a thorough study, the lexicographer gives the word a range of meanings.
In the interest of gender neutrality, however, gender neutral translators extend the range of meaning of certain words far beyond what traditional lexicographers have arrived at. In regard to gender neutral language, the approach is this: If a word is used in a context that references both men and women, the word was considered by the original writers actually to be gender neutral. Accordingly, translators are allowed to use whatever techniques they need to translate into gender-neutral English.
Completely overlooked is the reverse argument, namely, that since groups of men and women are addressed or referred to by words that carry a masculine meaning (when the writers could have easily used a different word or included additional words to make the passage gender inclusive), we should explore why the original authors did this and wrestle with how we should reflect this in translation.
Some words in the Hebrew and Greek do have a wide range of meaning. ADAM and ANTHROPOS certainly do. And we may not hear the word ANDRES exactly like the early Greeks did, even if we debate the likelihood that they heard a straight gender-neurtral “brothers and sisters.” Often, the NIV 1984translates “man” or “men” when it could or should have used “person,” “people,” or some other gender-neutral term. A retranslation of the Bible that singles out those terms for a gender-neutral treatment would be helpful in our society and probably would make a drastic difference in how gender specific Scripture is considered to be.
But the NIV 2011 does not stop with these words. If a Hebrew or Greek word is used in a context where men and women are being addressed, the translators do not rely on the reader to read that fact into the gender-specific word used in Scripture. Rather, they widen the range of meaning for that word and translate accordingly. For example, “your own brothers” is changed to “your fellow Israelites,” “brothers” becomes “relatives,” “turn your sons away” becomes “turn your children away,” “your needy brother” becomes “the needy among your fellow Israelites,” “sin of the fathers” becomes “sin of the parents,” “fathers” becomes “ancestors,” etc.
It can certainly be argued that in the context, men and women were included in those statements. But can the translator for that reason expand the range of meanings of “father” at will and translate “father and mother”? Or in the case of the Greek word for “brothers,” does the context give the translator the right to extend its range of meaning and translate “brothers and sisters”? At NPH we regularly operate like this, but we are dealing with people’s words—that we have the right to change—not with the words of God.
But the NIV translators go beyond this. Their intention is not just to reflect what they think is how the early Hebrews or Greeks understood certain words like “men” or “brothers,” but to remove those words entirely and substitute other words. Consider the translation of Acts 10:23. The NIV 1984 translates, “The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along.” The 2011 NIV translates, “The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.” Perhaps the translators didn’t think the context would allow their normal gender-neutral translation, “brothers and sisters.” So to get rid of the gender-specific word “brother,” they translated “believer.” But “brother” and “believer” are two different words.
Again, we are not arguing that Paul’s audience did not include men and women, or that when Paul addressed a mixed group he was only addressing the males. We are arguing that the word he used was not always gender neutral.
But gender-neutral translators still go further. Once they have been given license to retranslate words, they retranslate events or offices. They make them fit more closely with Western culture. Here are a few examples from Deuteronomy. In 5:23 “leading men” is translated “leaders,” even though the reference is to the elders—all males—who approached God along with Moses at Mount Sinai. In reference to soldiers in 20:8, “is any man afraid . . . his brothers” is changed to “is anyone afraid . . . his fellow soldiers.” (In this case, they make part of the sentence gender neutral yet retain “his.”) In 21:5 and 31:9, “the sons of Levi” is changed to “the Levitical priests,” even though the priests were all male. In 10:22 “forefathers” is changed to “ancestors,” even though the 70 referred to here were all men. In 1:35 “not a man of” is changed to “no one from,” even though the reference is to the people counted in the original census, who were all males. In 1 Chronicles 9:17, there is a reference to the gatekeepers in the temple: “Shallum . . . Ahiman and their brothers” is retranslated “Shallum . . . Ahiman and their fellow Levites.” Was this change made only to excise the male word “brothers,” or was it made to suppress the fact that only males served in that capacity in the temple?
For additional illustrations and concerns, see the reviewers of Judges, Acts, and 1 Corinthians in the reviewer notes on our synod’s translation committee’s Web page. And note the comment from the convention floor regarding the change of “brothers” in Acts 1:16 to “brothers and sisters,” which then becomes the antecedent for “they” in verse 23, the people who nominated two men to replace Judas.
The ability to communicate is based on the meaning of words. A gender neutral translation bases word meanings more on the perceived needs of the receptor language than on what can be proven from the original.
Feminine versus masculine endings, plural versus singular endings, third person versus second person endings—these are realities of language. But the NIV 2011 translators have simply ignored these grammatical distinctions for the sake of gender neutrality.
Except when the reference is to a specific male person, the translators have eliminated the use of “he” and “him.” Sentences are simply made plural, even though the nouns and verbs are singular. The second person is sometimes substituted for the third person. The predicate is made plural when the subject is singular. (We might accept that as being in line with modern usage. At least in this case the force of the singular and its ability to address each of us personally is not completely lost, which it is in many passages.)
The lack of attention to singulars and plurals can lead to odd results. For example, in Leviticus 14:2-9 where the Lord gives Moses a law regarding skin disease, at verse 2 the translators begin substituting the plural for the singular. This is followed consistently in the next seven verses. When you get to verse 9, which details the rites of purification, you have Moses commanding everyone to shave off their beards. The law of skin diseases no doubt applied to women as well as men. But a sensitive translator would not have allowed himself to get backed into this corner. It seems that it would have been difficult to avoid this error unless the masculine singular had been retained. Of course, this would have resulted in inconsistent translation practices.
We have been appealing to Luther for the right to translate idiomatically and in good English. We certainly agree with his translation principles, and we should emulate them. But I find it hard to believe that he would play fast and loose with the grammar of the original language simply to make it more readable for his culture. His concerns at Marburg would hardly have carried much weight if he had. I believe we should think twice before we use Luther to defend a gender-neutral translation like the NIV 2011.
This is not an argument for a wooden translation. We all know that the idiomatic nature of language often moves outside of the structure of grammar. There may be times when we are forced to change singulars to plurals or give noun and verb endings a meaning not in the original simply so we can communicate. But the NIV 2011 moves far beyond this. On a wholesale level, it ignores the noun and verb forms so it can make the language gender inclusive. Some may argue that this is the modern idiom. But changing the actual meanings of words, changing the grammar, and even changing the nature of a situation that was part of the culture of Scripture for the sake of gender neutrality is simply not an acceptable way of translating, no matter how much an art translating might be. This smacks more of an agenda than a simple heartfelt desire to make God’s Word understandable.
In my opinion, there is an even more serious matter in gender neutral-translation.
A gender-neutral translation implies a shift in cultures. There is the implication that today’s Western society, in how it views the relationship between men and women, has advanced in its understanding and moved beyond the weakness of previous (read patriarchal) cultures.
Gender-neutral translators are forced to articulate why they feel compelled to translate into gender-nutral language. They can express their reasons in one of two, but mutually exclusive, ways.
The first, which we discussed in the first two sections, is to argue that their translation does indeed reflect the meaning of the words God uses in Scripture. But without tampering with word meanings and grammar, I think it would be difficult to prove that the original readers understood Scripture to be a gender-neutral document. Without trying to define it further, there is a certain “maleness” to the language of Scripture that surfaces in the language, the laws, and in how the New Testament applies Old Testament statements.
I think it is more accurate to say that while the people did understand that male terms often referred to men and women, they were content to accept God’s way of speaking. They saw something in God’s way of expressing himself—something that simply cannot be jettisoned by some future egalitarian society. They also realized that how God expressed himself was foundational for their culture and carried applications for the roles of men and women—without at the same time affirming the many ways mankind’s sinfulness has corrupted those applications.
Anyone who agrees that the linguistic justification for an egalitarian translation rests on shaky grounds must turn to the second approach, the culture-shift argument. They must make the claim that a shift in cultures justifies a shift in one’s approach to the subject—which commonly occurs in application of certain Bible passages, but can also occur in translation practices.
They will admit that the original Hebrew and Greek authors had an overlying gender-specific way of speaking. They will admit that Scripture has a certain maleness about it. They will admit that it was written in the context of a patriarchal culture, reflects that culture, and affirms it. But they believe they must adjust all of this in order to to communicate with modern culture. They reason that if the ancient authors were writing today, they would simply have written in modern gender-neutral terms.
But if God is behind the words of Scripture, then it is not just the people of a culture who are involved in the words of Scripture, but God. Here is where the damaging implications of gender-neutral language begin to show.
I think it can be demonstrated that most denominations that resist gender-specific language also object to what that language implies for our culture. They consider some aspects of modern culture, specifically its egalitarian nature, to be superior to the culture of the past. And since the relationship of men and women in those cultures was based to some extent on the gender-specific language of Scripture, then that language must be changed. If there is a “maleness” in Scripture, it must be excised. And if the Lord was behind this, he was either wrong or the Bible writers were not communicating his truth clearly but allowing their own culture to emerge in their writing.
At heart, gender neutrality is not about translating per se, but about hermeneutics, a hermeneutics driven by the fact that cultures change and by the question of what that implies about the words and statements of Scripture.
We are all aware of the unbiblical practices rapidly gaining ground in the formerly conservative Evangelical world. Evangelical Christian denominations have come to evolutionary teaching, homosexuality, and egalitarian Christian congregations and homes. At first, some in these churches have tried to justify their new positions on the basis of the words of Scripture and exegesis of its passages. But invariably, when they realize this cannot be done without stretching word meanings and introducing odd interpretations of the pertinent passages, they turn to the culture-shift argument and appeal to our more enlightened understanding. It cannot be overstated how deeply this argument is embedded in Western Christianity—not just in liberal churches but in a large part of the Evangelical world.
This is a different spirit. In a gender-neutral translation, this spirit does not show itself in Bible interpretation as in the examples in the paragraph above, but in Bible translation. The translator’s view of how culture should be and how we should express ourselves to reflect our understanding of culture trumps how the Scripture writers expressed themselves.
We readily grant that the NIV 2011 retains an accurate enough translation of passages on which the conservative Christian world has built its theology of the roles of men and women. But the extent to which the translators have altered word meanings, etc., makes a person wonder about their attitude toward the passages that will not allow an egalitarian society. That is a strong statement, but is it that far out of line? Would they prefer that God had inspired his Word in a culture similar to ours today and written in clear, unmistakable gender-neutral terms?
And here is where the danger lies. To a greater or lesser degree, God is pitted against Scripture. He must be distanced from what the Scripture writers said. The verbal inspiration of Scripture is watered down or lost. I am not implying that anyone in our circles is thinking this way. But my concern is that if we adopt the NIV 2011 or any gender-neutral translation, we are admitting a Trojan horse into our church that will weaken how we approach, interpret, and apply Scripture. If continued study reveals that a gender-neutral approach to Bible translation cannot be argued linguistically, then we will be forcing ourselves to sit in judgment on God’s way of expressing himself in what we perceive as a different cultural context.
The subject of gender-neutral translating is, at heart, about whether God’s way of expressing himself is legitimate for all time. By God’s grace our church body still says yes to that. Gender neutral translators say no.
Accordingly, we need to guard the fact that God chose to reveal his will in very specific ways. He chose to use gender-specific noun and verb endings. He chose to use “brothers” and “fathers” when he could have used specific gender-inclusive language. His tools for protecting Israel and for teaching them his Word—the military and the priesthood—could have been comprised of men and women, but they weren’t. Every law could have been the same for males and females, but they weren’t. Women could have been included equally in the long lists of genealogies. But they weren’t.
There is a vast difference between saying, “God’s Word in the original reflects the culture of the time” and, “God’s Word in the original reflects the headship-helper relation between men and women as taught throughout Scripture.” By accepting a gender-neutral translation, we will be accepting the first expression. This is the Trojan horse. If our synod does adopt the NIV 2011 translation, we will force ourselves into the quagmire of redefining how we arrive a word meanings, what is the role of gender, person, and number in translation, and the role culture shift should play in our hermeneutics of Scripture.
It is better to live with what Scripture says and do our best to translate it into good English. It is far better to trust that the Lord will reach his elect through a legitimate translation and will overcome any problems such a translation may cause in the ears of the modern reader.
The points I’ve made above are the most important. The following are a few observations of a more practical nature.
What exactly is accuracy? We use this term without defining it. We probably think of it as a relative term, referring to the number of passages where a word is mistranslated or where a grammatical construction is missed. We must determine how many such problems earn a translation the label “inaccurate.”
If we accept how the NIV 2011 update of individual passages has improved or worsened the NIV 1984, I believe we can legitimately use the “there is no perfect translation” argument. But if we do not agree with how the NIV 2011 deals with the words and grammar in question, we can only conclude that the NIV 2011 is a very inaccurate translation, purposely ignoring some word meanings and grammar for the sake of gender neutrality.
Note: This is essentially the conclusion the majority of the Southern Baptist Convention arrived at. At their most recent convention they passed a resolution which included this evaluation of the NIV 2011: “This translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language; and . . . although it is possible for Bible scholars to disagree about translation methods or which English words best translate the original languages, the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards.”)
A separation of “ability for the reader to understand” and “gender-neutral language”
Those who argue for the NIV 2011 seem to combine these two issues. It’s almost as if objecting to gender-neutral language is to object to wanting Scripture to be understood in our society.
To be sure, the NIV 1984’s translation of ANTHROPOS as “man” and its many unnecessary uses of “he” or “him” as the pronoun, may cause confusion to some in our culture and set up a roadblock to understanding.
But in most cases, gender-neutral changes hardly make it easier for people to understand what the Bible says. The pastor who reviewed Judges for the WELS translation committee offered these comments on Judges 17:3:
- “The problem I see with inclusive language and the NIV 2011 is that the translation committee [Biblica] felt obligated to find gender neutral terminology for terms where there is no confusion about the gender of the men to whom Scripture is referring. ‘But because he was afraid of the . . . men of the town. . . .” [NIV 1984] That translation offers no confusion to anyone, whether traditionalist or feminist. It is idiomatic English, inoffensive, and perfectly understandable.”
The writer’s final statement can be applied to many, probably to most, of the passages where gender-neutral language is used.
In our discussions, we should carefully distinguish these two issues. Gender-neutral language cannot necessarily be equated with the ability of people in our modern culture to understand Scripture better.
Our own translation and study Bible
The entire discussion of whether or not to create our own translation depends on how we deal with the topics of words, grammar, and culture shift discussed in the first part of this paper. If we did our own translation, would it be gender neutral? Or are we assuming that our own translation would be gender specific? What would our posture be toward word meanings and grammar?
Perhaps if we started our discussion with these issues, our path would become clear. Otherwise, a translation process will not be a peaceful thing, nor will it solve any problem.
The same could be said of a study Bible. A study Bible based on the NIV 2011 will have to adopt a position on gender neutrality. Would we choose to accept gender neutral language, remain noncommittal, or express disagreement? The Pentateuch is perhaps the section of Scripture most consistently affected by gender neutrality. It also establishes the foundation for the rest of Scripture. It would take an effort to explain the NIV 2011’s translation practices in that section of Scripture, particularly if we disagreed with gender neutrality.
And if the impetus for a study Bible comes from the need to explain and correct the problems we see in the NIV 2011, one wonders if it is wise to choose that translation in the first place.
If the NIV 2011 is accepted, could we also endorse an alternate, secondary translation—something gender specific and perhaps more literal? Would that be a wise compromise? Authors submitting books to NPH could choose to use the alternate translation if they chose not to use the NIV. Or would that also cast suspicion on the NIV 2011?
A stable translation
The synod needs a stable translation. I question how stable the NIV 2011 is. The objection to this concern is that we don’t know how stable any translation will be. There is some truth to that. But have we researched the long-term translation philosophies and publishing plans for other translations?
We do have a track record for Biblica and Zondervan. Previous translations, the NIVI and the TNIV were published without taking the NIV 1984 out of production. Both faced criticism from the Evangelical world, largely because of their gender-neutral language. Both were withdrawn from publication.
The NIV 2011 is a scaled-back version of the TNIV in regard to gender neutral language. Immediately upon release of the NIV 2011, Zondervan ceased publication of the NIV 1984. It does not take a lot of business sense to figure out why. A failed translation means a big loss of revenue. The only way Zondervan could keep this from happening again was for them (1) to argue that the NIV 2011 was simply a normal maintenance upgrade, call it the “NIV” without any additional letters, and simply put it in bookstores as a replacement for the NIV 1984; and (2) consistent with this, take the 1984 version out of print. Obviously, this would force people to buy the 2011 version.
The speed at which this was done is frightening. Denominations and publishing houses were caught off guard. September 2009, when the new translation was announced, to March 2011, when the NIV 1984 was no longer in print, was too short a time for our denomination and publishing company to retool. And the fact that the NIV 2011 was not available for review until November 2010 made it even more frustrating.
Congregations in the WELS are now experiencing the repercussions. Members are buying new NIV Bibles without realizing they are buying the new version. Some want to buy a new Bible for themselves or as a gift but realize the WELS is still deciding on whether or not to adopt the new version or not. Synod officials are being forced to make decisions they cannot make in a few month’s time and are feeling the pressure. NPH is being forced to hold off publishing a large amount of curriculum material until the dust settles. And Zondervan is still unclear about how long it will give NPH permission to use the 1984 version.
How can it be said that Zondervan is acting for the good of God’s kingdom? They certainly have the right to publish a new version if they wish. But Zondervan should not force denominations to use their new translation, which is essentially what they are doing. At the least, they should have kept the 1984 version in production for four or five years to give churches time to decide if they wanted to use the new version. That would have been simple Christian courtesy and fairness.
Biblica and Zondervan seem to be hiding behind the idea that the NIV 2011 is merely a normal maintenance upgrade to the 1984 version—no big deal. But the number of changes and the change to gender neutral-language make it a very big deal. If it were a maintenance upgrade, publishers could simply continue their publishing plans using the 1984 version and updateing the passages that were changed. And churches could simply keep their present pew Bibles knowing that members might find a few differences when they followed along with the readings. But the number of changes to NIV makes this impossible.
In spite of all this, the display material Zondervan supplies to Christian book stores gives the buyer no clue that this is a new translation. It is simply advertised as the NIV.
Some denominations, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention and the LCMS, don’t agree that this is a maintenance upgrade. They have either rejected the new translation and/or chosen not to use it. It is not fair to simply dismiss their actions by saying they want to promote their own translation (in the case of the SBC) or that they simply prefer another translation (in the case of the LCMS). It is more fair—and accurate—to say that these denominations saw the direction Biblica and Zondervan were going in their translation philosophy and chose to jump ship. The SBC created their own translation (as some in our synod are now recommending that we do). The LCMS adopted another translation (which others in our synod are now recommending).
When we consider the stability of the NIV 2011, we should consider the following: The NIV 2011 is a rework of the TNIV, which failed largely because of its gender-neutral language. Biblica was committed to the kind of changes found in the TNIV (otherwise they would not have produced that translation in the first place). It would not be unfair to say that at least some on Biblica’s translating committee would like to make a future NIV more in line with the TNIV. Zondervan has no compunctions about calling the NIV 2011 a simple maintenance upgrade and treating it as such. If the rather radical jump from gender-specific to gender-neutral language can be treated as a normal upgrade, would an advance on gender neutrality be treated any differently?
True, we don’t know the future of any translation. But Biblica’s and Zondervan’s track records give us some pretty solid data about how they handle things. Do we want to continue our relationship with them? I think we should think long and hard about that.
In saying this, I am not taking the obstructionist position but am concerned about what will be the most beneficial for our synod in the long run. My main concern, however, is not about what is easiest, but what is best for the spiritual lives of our people and the hermeneutical challenges we will face.
Making a decision to adopt a new translation now would be difficult, but it will be even more difficult down the road with the next NIV translation (if Biblica advances gender neutrality) after our pastors and people have accepted that way of translating.
Develop a way to deal with an issue in interpretation and not in translation
We should develop a clear philosophy of how far translations can go in interpretation and how much must be left to the teacher. This is an important topic, especially for those translating the Bible into a language or dialect for the first time. We might agree that in that context and as an aid to new Christians the translator could be more free to settle on a translation that reflects one specific interpretation of the text.
But it can also be argued that such a translation is not the best for a church body such as the WELS. After all, many paraphrases are available to those who want to read the Bible quickly without having to do a lot of on-the-fly interpretation. We do need a translation that is adequate for reading from the lectern, but we especially need a translation that can serve our people in their study and growth in God’s Word—a Bible that gets them closer to the Hebrew or Greek idiom without sacrificing the English.
This past Sunday the pastor was preaching about Solomon. Without disparaging the NIV, he pointed out the difference between the NIV’s translation of Solomon’s answer to God’s request and how it is stated in the original. In the NIV Solomon said, “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties” (1 Kings 3:7). The KJV reflects the original in its translation: “I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in.” I appreciated his pointing that out. With a couple words of introduction, it conjured up a fine picture that even a little child can understand.
How far you go in either direction is a judgment call. But the topic is worth discussing. It is worth bringing it to the attention of our laypeople as they think about reading this or that translation.
An emotive issue?
It may be necessary to issue this warning. But in my opinion, making too much of it is counterproductive. It assumes that many pastors and laypeople are loading their rifles and circling the wagons. I think our pastors and members realize that we have been put into a difficult position. Zondervan has forced denominations either to make a quick decision or to make a slower decision with all the havoc that it creates. People realize this or are willing to have it explained to them. Emotions are aroused if the issues are not addressed. The answer to dealing with hot tempers is not only warning people against them, but for leaders to explain the issues in a logical way so that people can understand them.
I think our people would rather have us make a careful and reasoned decision no matter how long it takes. After all, this is the Bible their publishing house will be asked to use in its publications and the one they will likely be using every day of their lives.
This whole process can be a very positive thing for our synod!
The entire Evangelical world is awash in loose principles of translating and horribly wrong interpretations fueled by the culture-shift argument. Our people are often influenced by this. Lessons learned in wrestling with the NIV 2011 translation issue will help our people grow in their understanding of Bible translation and interpretation.
September 1, 2011