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Thursday, June 23, 2005

ESV and TNIV gender language: my POV

I have wanted to avoid blogging on this topic because I know how divisive the issue of gender language in English Bible translation has become. I have been deeply hurt in some discussions on this topic, but I realize that we cannot stay in the dust, but must get up, dust ourselves off, and keep going. It's hard to do, though.

In this post I simply want to introduce some general thoughts about gender-inclusive language and Bible translation in the TNIV and ESV. I will try my best to be as objective, honest, and fair to all sides as possible. I will not enter into the debate itself, although even these general comments I will make will cause some of you to strongly disagree with me. That is the nature of discussions that involve deeply held convictions.

1. The translators of both the ESV and TNIV are godly individuals, deeply committed to a high view of Scripture and to the Bible as our most reliable rule for faith and practive. Many of the translators on the different teams have been friends and colleagues for many years. I believe that most of them have a high degree of respect for each other.

2. The translators of both versions agree that references in the biblical autographs which clearly refer to groups consisting of both males and females should be translated with English words that make that clear.

3. Both the ESV and TNIV have made the translation of a number of passages more gender-accurate than, for instance, the NIV is. For instance, in all cases where the Greek indefinite pronoun tis clearly refers to any individual, regardless of gender, both translations translate the word with an English indefinite rendering, such as "whoever" or "someone." And this is correct, accurate translation. It contrasts with the NIV treatment of tis which was sometimes translated with words such as "any man."

4. Both versions translate original references to males or females with appropriate matching gender terms in English. This includes references to God, whose fatherhood is a pervasive part of the biblical autographs. Hence, references to boys and men in the Hebrew or Greek have corresponding male words or masculine pronouns referring to them. Similarly, all references to females in the Bible are translated in both versions with feminine nouns and pronouns.

1-4 is what the two versions have in common. And let me stress that what they have in common is a great deal. But I do not want to minimize the gender-language differences between the TNIV and ESV. The differences are not trivial.

5. The TNIV does not continue use of the English masculine pronoun "he" as the generic singular pronoun (when the gender of a referent is not known or is irrelevant in the particular context). Instead, the TNIV uses various other English forms, all of which have already been in use in English, to avoid use of generic "he." The reason the TNIV translators avoid use of generic "he" is that many (but by no means all) English speakers today have the feeling when they hear the pronoun "he" that it is masculine, rather than generic. This is true even of some speakers, like myself, who were taught in "grammar" school that "he" could refer to either females or males. I, however, still use generic "he" sometimes. Most of the time, however, what comes most naturally out of my mouth is the singular "they" which has been in general usage in English since ca. 1400 A.D. The singular "they" sounds "right" to me. I am not driven by any feminist agenda, although as soon as I say that I use the singular "they," there are likely to be people who will say that I am (but if I am, then so is Dr. James Dobson, who also uses the singular "they"!). For anyone not familiar with the singular "they" it is the form used in a sentence such as:
It is every passenger's responsibility to be aware of the contents of their luggage at all times.
This is what is repeated on the public address system at our airport in Billings, Montana. Montana is a conservative state with cowboys, ranchers, farmers, gun owners, etc. but I suspect that very few people in this conservative state think twice when the pronoun "they" is used in the public address announcement to refer back to the antecedent, "every passenger." The TNIV translation team has denied charges that their decision not to use generic "he" was motivated by feminist concerns. Their detractors do not believe them and this makes for a fair amount of back-and-forth argument of the nature of "no, we don't", "yes, you do." By the way, some of the greatest authors in the history of the English language have used the singular "they", including Shakespeare, the translators of the KJV (yes, the singular "they" is in the KJV; I don't have the references right at hand but I can locate them sometime), C.S. Lewis, and even anti-TNIV detractor, Dr. James Dobson of the Focus on the Family radio program.

6. The ESV (and also the HCSB) use the generic "he", following the Colorado Springs Guidelines For Translation Of Gender-Related Language In Scripture (CSG). These translators believe that the generic "he" is still understood as a generic by a sufficient number of English speakers to warrant its use in new English translations produced at this time. They also believe, as stated in the book on this topic co-authored by Drs. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, that those who do not understand the generic meaning of "he" can be taught it very quickly. A number of those who translated the ESV and HCSB have signed a statement opposing the particular usage of gender-inclusive language in the TNIV. As a matter of fact, both Drs. Grudem and Poythress who helped draft the CSG are on the TOC (Translation Oversight Committee) of the ESV. The translation of the ESV was initiated in response to movement of the NIV CBT (Committee on Bible Translation) to revise the NIV to be more gender-inclusive. (A further motivation for production of the ESV was discontent with what was viewed as too much "dynamic equivalence" in the NIV and a desire to have a more literal translation than the NIV, but one that read more smoothly than the NASB. I believe, however, that had the NIV CBT not made moves toward more gender-inclusive language the ESV would not have been produced.)

7. In some passages where a singular male term is used in the Bible as a kind of "representative" (an important theological and translational term for Drs. Poythress and Grudem) of all of humanity, or, in some cases, all righteous people, the translators of the ESV and TNIV differ in their interpretation. The ESV translators believe that the reference to a single male (even if he represents a gender-inclusive group) must be translated as a single male in English. This is regarded as word-level accuracy, precisely translating both the number and gender of the person referred to in the biblical text. In many of these passages, the TNIV team believes that since the single male represents a gender-inclusive group, they should use an English term which more clearly conveys that the biblical text is speaking about a gender-inclusive group. Typically, as in Psalm 1, the "blessed man" is translated as the "blessed people" (or some close synonym) in the TNIV. Anti-TNIV people (including ESV translators) believe that this is changing God's Word, changing both the number and gender of the original word "man." Both teams believe that they are accurately translating the intent of the original biblical wording in such male-representative passages.

Part of what makes this debate so intense are deeply held convictions about what are the God-ordained relationships between males and females in the world, in marriage, and in the church. One of the primary reasons the ESV was produced was to support the traditional teaching of many churches (and the belief that it is the Bible's clear teaching) that females are to be in submission to males, especially to husbands and to elders (who must only be males) in churches. Those who believe in such female submission are called complementarians. Complementarians believe that males and females are equal in value in the eyes of God, but, by divine commands, then have distinct roles in the world and church. Those who believe that women are not only equal in value but can have the same roles as men (other than obvious biological roles) are called egalitarians. Everyone on the ESV team, as far as I know, is a complementarian. I think that most on the TNIV team are also complementarians, believing, for instance, that women should not be ordained to be pastors or elders. The linguistic forms of the ESV more easily support the complementarian belief system. Complementarianism, however, can be taught from the propositional wordings (teachings) of the TNIV, also, however. The fact that there are more masculine forms to function as generics in the ESV is viewed by Drs. Poythress and Grudem as a proper use of English in Bible translation, a linguistic means of supporting the complementarian belief system.

I have probably over-simplified the two positions a little, although that has not been my intent. Again, I hope I have been objective and fair to both sides in this very intense debate.

For those who might wonder, I personally am not fond of either the TNIV nor the ESV. (I never used their predecessors, the NIV nor RSV, and when I look at them now, I am not fond of them either.) But I do not want to advocate against either version. I will try to be gracious in any statements I make where I point out areas where either translation can be improved. I have already posted a number of such things in the appropriate ESV and TNIV sections of this blog and I will continue to do so. I do with respect for each of the translation teams. And if anyone could help me find places to improve in our Cheyenne Bible translation, I would gladly welcome it.

Regardless of what someone believes about complementarianism or egalitarianism (and I do consider these belief systems to be important), the more important issue for translation is whether the biblical text has been translated accurately with regard to gender. It is my understanding that all members of each translation team, those of the ESV and TNIV, believe that the way that they have translated is more accurate than the way the other team has translated. For some people, including perhaps many reading my post here, the answer is obviously clear as to which of the teams is right about translating accurately. To them there really is no argument. There is no need for any discussion or debate. I respect that position, but I do believe that it is important for this issue to be discussed. Right now the world is watching as Christians shoot each other (only figuratively, so far) over this issue. On the whole, the world doesn't care about this inter-nicene battle. Many think it is humorous to watch Christians attack each other over various issues like this. I, for one, do not think it is humorous. I do think there are real differences among godly sincere people. Of course, advocates of either side can quote the familiar adage that anyone can be sincere, "sincerely wrong." And this is true. But it is also true that not every Bible passage is as clear as we would like it to be so that we could translate it without any doubt about its meaning. This is true even of some of the Bible passages involved in the gender-inclusive language debate. Some believe that when Paul addressed the adelphoi of Romans 12:1, he was only speaking to males, so Paul properly used the plural male term for "brothers." Others, including the translators of the ESV, believe that in some cases adelphoi can and does refer to a mixed group of males and female believers. The ESV places a note to this effect on the word "brothers" for Romans 12:1 and a number of other passages.

May God give us grace to hear each other. I especially hope that he would give us grace not to question the spirituality or biblical commitment of those with whom we disagree on this issue. This doesn't mean that I consider anyone's convictions unimportant. No, on the contrary, the fact that Adrian and I encourage gracious discussion which includes dissent, indicates, I think, that we both consider these important issues. If nothing else, the amount of heat which is being generated these days by this debate makes this an issue to be dealt with as best as possible. The church has dealt with a number of other issues over the centuries and survived, including whether or not to baptize babies, whether someone who is baptized is to be placed all the way under some water or if getting water just on their heads is enough, whether or not it is possible for a true believer to lose their salvation, whether God is totally sovereign or if he has chosen to allow people to act in ways that he has not determined for them to act, whether or not the "sign gifts" ceased at some point in the past, etc. etc. May the church also survive this debate. A world which needs to hear God's Word both from Scripure and seen in our lives needs the church to survive this issue.

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At Thu Jun 23, 08:29:00 PM, Blogger Paul W said...

Wayne, this is an awesome post. I felt something reasonable and balanced needed to be said on this issue. And you've stepped up to the plate. I'mcertainly not qualified to speak on this issue.

I have some questions about gender inclusive translations which I hope you may help me to answer. When I read Proverbs or Psalms in translations like the RSV, they read as very gendered texts. They read as texts which were written in a highly patriarchal society where masculine domination was the norm. For example, in translations like the RSV many of the Psalm read as prayers written by men to men, and to a God largely conceived of in terms of masculine experience. Female perspectives seem to hardly get a look in. I really struggle with this element in the Bible, especially because I regard every part of the Bible as divinely inspired Scripture. A consistent gender-inclusive translation policy, as we find in the NRSV, appears to run the genuine risk of translating out what I see to be the implicit androcentrism in biblical books such as Proverbs and the Psalms.

I have two of questions. If androcentrism is indeed present in the Bible, should contemporary English readers be made aware of it as much as possible in translation? And do gender-inclusive renderings potentially hinder contemporary English readers from seeing this aspect of the biblical text, if indeed it is there?

I raise these questions, because as far as I'm aware in all the ink that's been spilled over gender-inclusive translation, nobody has tackled this issue directly.

At Thu Jun 23, 09:53:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Paul, the Bible is quite patriarchal. Women were not valued highly in the cultures in which either the Hebrew Bible or the Greek New Testament were written.

You have, IMO, corrected picked up on the highly masculine nature of the Psalms and Proverbs.

There are, of course, the exceptions which stand out. Deborah (the name of one of our daughters who has some of the leadership skills that biblical Deborah did) was a judge. Some women play key roles in the Hebrew Bible in the lineage of Jesus, including Sarah, Rebekah, Tamar, and Rahab. Esther was a Jewess heroine.

And in the New Testament Jesus treated women differently than most men did. But he did not turn all societal norms upside down doing so.

Paul honored the women who served with him in evangelism.

There are hints of a new order between men and women throughout the Bible. Paul stated it clearly in Gal. 3:28, yet even today we wonder at what all the implications of that verse are, especially in the light of other statements by Paul which place limits on the roles of women, at least for the congregations having difficulty to which he was writing.

Yes, in answer to your question, if a Bible translation disregards cultural differences mentioned between men and women, and biblical statements made to men and women in local congregations, by use of too generic language, we are missing some of what was originally said in the Bible. But in the discussion of the ESV and TNIV, specifically, we need to step back a few paces, and look as objectively as possible at the actual gender differences between these two translations. We will discover that there actually are very few. To my knowledge, there are no teaching statements about roles of men and women that are different between these two Bible versions. If I'm wrong on this, I'm sure there may be people reading this qualified enough to correct me--and I hope they do. The differences are more subtle (but not unimportant), having to do with whether Jesus said that peacemakers will be called the "sons of God" (only males) or whether the Greek huioi is to be translated generically as "children of God." The ESV takes the former approach and the TNIV the latter approach, as does the KJV. There is no consensus among biblical scholars as to which meaning sense of huioi is intended in the beatitudes. Both are possible. Both meanings are used in other parts of the Bible. Which one is most accurate in the beatitudes? I don't know if we will ever know, this side of heaven. I think we do the best we can, and when biblical scholarship is divided, we footnote to let readers know what the other option is.

I don't think there is anything wrong with allowing Bible users to understand how very patriarchal the cultures were when the Bible was written. The are also clear statements in the Bible for how women should be treated by men, and those ways are much better than the way women typically were treated. How many of us husbands love our wives so biblically that we are willing to sacrifice our lives for them, as Christ did for his bride, the church? I think I would. I'm pretty sure I would in a case of life or death. But in daily life I often put my own desires ahead of those of my wife, until her birthday comes along as it did yesterday, or until the Holy Spirit nudges me to get away from the desk for awhile and give my wife some more attention.

Enuf! I must sleep. You can read this at a whole different time of day where you are! I hope there is something of help and truth here. That is always my desire.

At Fri Jun 24, 12:51:00 PM, Blogger Michael Sly said...

Wayne, first let me tell you how much I appreciate your blog. I have made it a daily routine to visit your site.

Secondly, you state, "I personally am not fond of either the TNIV nor the ESV. (I never used their predecessors, the NIV nor RSV, and when I look at them now, I am not fond of them either.)" Based upon your statement, which version(s) do you personally use for your own studies and devotional life?

Thank you.

At Fri Jun 24, 01:16:00 PM, Blogger D. P. said...

Excellent post, Wayne! I noted this interesting turn of phrase: "On the whole, the world doesn't care about this inter-nicene battle." I'm assuming that you typed what you meant to type, since this battle is indeed not only "internecine" (=a struggle within a group) but also "inter-Nicene"--fought among people who all hold to an orthodox, Nicene vision of Christian theology. That second point is the one that bears repeating, over and over again.

At Fri Jun 24, 02:12:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Yes, D.P, I meant the latter, which you so nicely definted as "fought among people who all hold to an orthodox, Nicene vision of Christian theology."

At Fri Jun 24, 02:18:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael asked: "Based upon your statement, which version(s) do you personally use for your own studies and devotional life?"

Michael, in light of the focus of this blog and my many statements about various versions, I've been thinking it might be helpful to answer that question in a blog post. Since you have asked it, now must be the time to do so.

Oh, thanks, also, for your kind words about my blog. I appreciate them. I really try to post with integrity and information that is helpful to others. It is important to me not to simply be negative, destroying the good work that others have done in English translation work, but to truly try to get across the point that we want to help in the process of improving English Bibles. By my work and nature I easily spot certain kinds of translation problems. I'm willing to share what I see with others.

At Sat Jun 25, 06:22:00 AM, Blogger Phil (Col 1:27-28) said...

So, Wayne, I read your post above and you know where I am on the ESV, but as I read your post on this gender neutral or inclusive thing, I question that if this was all so clear and straightforward, why is it then that so many scholars, translators and theologians cannot agree on this? I mean there are a lot of those who seemingly would take issue with what you stated.

For people like me, reading all of these various people who all claim to know what is correct, all with reputable names, credentials, etc. where does this leave us, besides with our heads spinning and actually a lot of frustration? It leaves us, as far I can tell, in the position that there is no clear answer, so we must, as usual, choose what seems like the best position to us and have a go with it.

There is not a clear sense of agreement between all of you guys.

Blessings in Christ Jesus!

At Sat Jun 25, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Phil commented:

"So, Wayne, I read your post above and you know where I am on the ESV, but as I read your post on this gender neutral or inclusive thing, I question that if this was all so clear and straightforward, why is it then that so many scholars, translators and theologians cannot agree on this? I mean there are a lot of those who seemingly would take issue with what you stated."

Phil, the problem is, as I tried to state in my post, that it is not all clear and straightforward. To some people it is, but some of them take one side and some take the other side, and, logically, both cannot be right, no matter how straightforward and clear it is to them.

We are left, as I tried to state in my post, in the same position as we are when we disagree about whether or not babies should be baptized in the church, whether or not there is going to be a literal, future 1,000 year millennium, whether Calvinist or Arminian doctrine is closer to biblical truth, etc. etc.

Yes, we can listen to the scholars. We can carefully read things which have thoroughly described the various positions. We can think about how much both sides actually do have in common (my points 1-4). We can pray. We may never come to complete certainty, although we may be able to come to sufficient certainty to be able to live contently with one of the positions, just as many of us have done so about infant baptism, etc.

The church has always had its debates. They are not trivial. But God is strong and loves his church and enables it to survive, even when we who are going through the debates have little faith sometimes that we can ever resolve things enough to present a faithful, biblical witness to the world, in spite of our differences.

At Sat Jun 25, 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Phil, let me add one more thing which may be even more important than what I said in my preceding response to you. I think I referred to this in my original post, but it bears repeating many times:

As far as I know, from my study of both the ESV and TNIV, you will not learn or teach any incorrect doctrine from either version. I think even the teachings about how men and women are to relate to each other in marriage and in the church are clear in both versions.

Both the ESV and TNIV retain all masculine references to God and to all other male referents in the Bible.

IF you are someone who prefers to use the English pronoun "he" as the generic singular, to fill in the blanks in a verse such as Rev. 3:20:

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock and if anyone opens the door I will come into ______ and I will eat with ____ and ______ with me."

then you would do better to use the ESV. If you most naturally fill in the blanks in that verse with the singular "they," then you may prefer to use the TNIV.

This test would not, of course, be the only factor to determine which version you would use, but this verse has been held up as a key verse in the debate over what kind of language is most appropriate to use in an English Bible translation for today's English speakers.

If I have misspoken about teaching differences between the two verses, I invite others to correct me. I welcome correction.

At Sat Jun 25, 11:52:00 AM, Blogger Phil (Col 1:27-28) said...

Wayne thankyou for your repsonses. I did read your post before I asked my question of you, but I obviously didn't get out of it what I should have.

I am not pleased with all of this stuff, not referencing you of course. The older I get, the more complicated things to seem to be. There is this yearnig for some kind of simlicity that seems to be long gone from both the church and obviously the world in which we live.

I suppose this is true of just getting older period, but I also feel that the Word of God shouldn't have to be so complicated nor should translations for that matter. I still do not believe that it all has to be, yet it seems more and more that I would be one of the few who feel that way.

Anyway, thankyou for your patient response.

Blessings in Christ Jesus!


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