Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Gender inclusivity and the Bible

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.


Sam C said...

Have you read the various papers by Carson & Strauss, amongst others, on this issue?

You say: "The ESV is right to be gender inclusive when anthropos means humanity whatever the gender."

But the problem with the ESV is that it often isn't gender inclusive when _anthropos_ is intended inclusively.

And so even if we assume that the TNIV is wrong on this point, and that "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" -- we could equally say that in taking gender exclusivity too far, the ESV is negatively impacting 50% of its readers.

Exiled Preacher said...

I haven't done much concerted reading in this area. I just posted my uninformed ramblings.

On TNIV depriving readers of theological meaning vs. ESV supposedly impacting negatively on women, I suppose it comes down to what should come first in a translation of the Bible; theological accuracy or accommodation to post-feminist culture.

For what it's worth, my wife read the post and agrees with me!

Sam C said...

That's hardly a fair dichotomy mate :) Translating gender correctly to avoid ambiguity is theological accuracy.

I could just as easily say it comes down to theological accuracy vs. accomodating traditional culture, to paint it unfairly in the other direction.

And, asking someone who, I presume, has been reading the bible for many years in traditional translations and has learnt to interpret the biblish whether said biblish is understandable doesn't establish a whole lot, I would suggest.

Anyway, I'm just a layman who doesn't know much Greek. But two resources on the question I have found very informative are:

Don Carson, The Debate over Gender-Inclusive Language (15 pages)

Carson's piece is important, I think, because demonstrates the weakness of arguments oft used by Grudem & co.

And, a more in-depth series which also exame past and current uses of the English word 'man' is Mark D. Roberts Is the TNIV Good News? series:

Particularly relevant to our discussion is his section on inclusive language in today's English:

Exiled Preacher said...

I suppose my dichotomy was a little unfair. But there was an element of truth in it. Let's take another example:

Psalm 8:4 & 5 (TNIV)

4 what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

5 You have made them a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned them with glory and honor.

Contrast the same verses from ESV, which correctly translates the Hebrew:

4what is ,man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

5Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings...

In TNIV, the intertextal links backwards to Adam and forwards to Christ (Hebrews 2:5-9) have been obscured for the sake of gender inclusivity. That is too high a price to pay.

Thanks for the links you suggested. I'll have to look them up sometime.

Sam C said...

Hey Guy - Carson deals briefly with Hebrews 2:6 & 2:17 in his paper, p12ff, and addresses your concern. Here's a snip from page 13:

If this exegesis is correct (and I shall argue elsewhere and at length that it is), Jesus is said to be “son of man” not in function of the messianic force of that title in Daniel 7:13-14, but in function of his becoming a human being – which all sides recognize is one of the major themes of Hebrews 2. If one wishes to take the opposite tack – that “son of man” here is a messianic title – there are competent interpreters who have taken that line. But it is not a matter of theological orthodoxy, since understanding the text one way does not mean that the translator (or the commentator) is denying the complementary truth, but is merely asserting that the complementary truth is not in view here.

On a slightly different note, here's a seperate comment from one of his footnotes which I think offers some helpful perspective:

I cannot help remarking, rather wryly, that in the light of the ESV, the argument of Poythress and Grudem sounds a bit like this: “The language is not changing, so we do not need to respond to the demands of inclusive language. But if it is changing, the changes are driven by a feminist agenda, so they are wrong and must be opposed if we are to be faithful to Scripture. Because of the changes, we will make some minor accommodations in our translations, but if others make any other changes, they are compromisers who introduce distortions and inaccuracies, and should be condemned, because changes aren’t necessary anyway!”

Rusty said...

The "and the Bible" part of the context typically becomes lost in diatribe.
"Inspired word of God."
God's established order of things.
Today is would be "person hole covers"

Rusty said...

Typically the "and the Bible" becomes obscured by the diatribe.

"Man-hole covers" become "personhood covers."

Chris said...

The point in 1 Cor 15:21 is surely not mainly that Adam was a man rather than a woman, and therefore Christ had to be a man; rather it is that through a member of the human race (the head in fact, who happened to be male but that is not the big point here)the race fell into death, and one who became human, Christ who became flesh, has now rescued us from death. So the principal point is the humanity point not the maleness point.

Now you might say: But our translation should get both of these across, which the ESV does. But it doesn't do that successfully for the ordinary Christian reader let alone for the interested non-Christian: translating with "man" here gets people thinking that it's about maleness as much as, or more than, it is about humanity. So it misleads.

The other crucial point is: what is a standard Bible translation for? One translation cannot possible get all the meanings across, so it should concentrate on the main meanings and only get as much of the secondary meanings and nuances as it can consistent with doing a good job on the main meaning. The idea that an individual with one translation, however good, can figure out all the hints and nuances and secondary meanings, is and always was a fable. We have Bible notes, commentaries, and preachers who know Greek to help us on these points. The differences between languages are just too great to imagine we can get all this into one translation; so the translation for ordinary use should have all the main meanings and as many of the secondary meanings as it is possible to get across clearly. Now that man, men, etc have changed their meanings in English and are further from Greek categories, we have to settle for a TNIV-type of approach.

Exiled Preacher said...

I didn't say that the main point of 1 Cor 15:21 is that Adam and Jesus were male, but that maleness is not incidental to their headship. And it's their headship that is in view in the text, not their generic humanness.

Besides, in ordinary speech "man", "men" etc. still often means human beings in general, at least round here it does. Hey, I've even known BBC newsreaders say "known to man" and stuff like that.

Way to go Rusty!

John Foxe said...

You can find rebuttals of Carson, his views on the TNIV, and his critique of Grudem/Poythress here