My family helped me with an experiment. I read some Bible verses and asked if they had anything in common. After about half a dozen verses, our 8-year-old daughter, Abigail, said, “They’re all about boys and men.”
Apparently, they were. The verses all contained male pronouns or references to “brothers” or “men.”
Actually, the verses weren’t meant to exclude women and girls. “He” is supposed to include females. The same for “brothers.” And “men” means “people.”
Abigail didn’t hear the verses that way. She figured they meant what they said.
Of course, even an 8-year-old can understand the concept of “generic masculine,” once it’s explained to her. But . . .
Would it be wrong for the Bible to say what it means? Would it be wrong for the Bible to speak clearly to both men and women, rather than speaking literally only to men, with the unwritten assumption that women are included too, even though they’re not mentioned?
Opponents of Today’s New International Version seem to think so. The TNIV, which makes its debut with the release of the New Testament this month, uses gender-inclusive terminology. TNIV critics released a statement that says the new translation distorts Scripture. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, or CBMW, made a list of TNIV “translation inaccuracies,” most of which deal with words that are masculine in the original Greek.
For example, the CBMW says the Greek word aner always means “man.” The TNIV Committee on Bible Translation says aner was occasionally used as a generic term for human beings. Arguments for how to translate certain words can be found on the TNIV and CBMW Web sites— tniv.info and cbmw.org/resources/tniv/scholars.html—along with many interesting comparisons of NIV and TNIV verses. (The original NIV, which came out in 1978 and now is the top-selling translation, will continue to be published without changes.)
The CBMW seems to demand a word-for-word equivalence between Greek and English. The TNIV committee opts for language that is familiar to the contemporary reader but true to the intent of the original.
For example, Heb. 12:7 in the NIV says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” The TNIV says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their parents?” The CBMW rejects the TNIV’s changes because the Greek word huios means “son,” and pater means “father.”
The CBMW might be right about that. But does it matter? When it is clear that the author is referring to both men and women, we do not need to preserve the Greek masculine terminology. It is much more important to communicate in a way that is clear today. The generic use of “men” and “he” is outdated and, to many modern readers, illogical and even disrespectful to women.
Because English has no singular gender-inclusive pronoun, the TNIV often changes singulars to plurals—”he” becomes “they.” The CBMW argues against this by saying that “the cumulative effect is a loss of the Bible’s emphasis on individual responsibility and individual relationship with God.” But common sense tells us that a reference to a group also refers to the individuals within the group. It makes much more sense to say that the word “they” includes individuals than to say that the word “he” includes women.
It also is interesting that the CBMW is concerned about the cumulative effect of plurals on how individuals view their relationship with God but not about the cumulative effect of masculine terminology on how women view their relationship with God and understand their place in the church.
The TNIV does not change references to God (unlike Oxford’s 1995 New Inclusive Translation, which calls God the “Father-Mother”).
We join with many Christians in welcoming the TNIV. Inclusive language is true to the biblical message and helps the Bible speak more clearly to all of us.
This column was reprinted with permission form the Mennonite Weekly Review.