Over on Facebook I've been having a discussion with Chris Bennett on gender inclusivity in Bible translation. Chris favours the inclusive stance of the TNIV, while I prefer the less radical policy of the NKJV and ESV. His comments have got me thinking. But Facebook is a bit limiting when it comes to theological discussion, so I thought I might continue to reflect on the matter here.
Exact gender correspondence is impossible in translation as the Hebrew has no neuter. We would not want to refer to inanimate objects like the an altar in the temple as "he" or "she". In English it's an "it". Also, it would be theologically insensitive to refer to the Spirit as "it", although in Greek the pronoun for pneuma is neuter (the AV does this somewhat pedantically in Rom 8:16.)
But, to take an example, when TNIV translates anthropou as "human being" rather than "man" in 1 Cor 15:21, the specificity of the two men, spelt out in 1 Cor 15:22 is lost. Adam as man/male is head of fallen humanity. Christ as man/male is head of God's new humanity. Unless we are saying that Adam's maleness was incidental to his headship, we have no right to translate "human being" rather than "man". The same is true for the second "man" in 1 Cor 15:21, Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Cor 15:47, where "man" is used of "the first man" and "the second man" in TNIV). Was maleness incidental to Jesus being God as man for us and for our salvation? Clearly not. Presumably the Son of God incarnate could not have taken a female human nature. As the last Adam he had to be male. The translation "human being" in 1 Cor 15:22 weakens the link between this text and the broken symmetries of Paul's Adam/Christ parallels Romans 5:12-21, where "man" is rightly used in connection with both figures in TNIV, rather than the non-gender specific, "human being". Also note that Paul makes Christ's headship of the church a pattern for male headship in the home, (Eph 5:22-33).
It is true that in Christ there is neither male nor female, (Galatians 3:28), but that does not mean that gender specificity has no place in English translations of the Bible. In taking gender inclusivity too far TNIV is depriving its readers of some of the rich connotations of the biblical text that can only be expressed in gender specific terms. The ESV is right to be gender inclusive when anthropos means humanity whatever the gender. But it is also important to retain gender specificity when the theological concerns of the text demand it.