"he" vs. "they" as generic pronouns in Bible translation
At 35, I'm not exactly an old man, but whenever I hear someone substitute "their" for "his" in a sentence -- and I concede that it's done -- I can't escape the feeling that a mistake has been made.Mark's feeling is legitimate for him, one which is grounded in how he (and I) were taught "proper" English. I would quibble with Mark's saying that someone substitutes "their" for "his." For those who use the singular "they" there is no such substitution. "He" is not the original generic form in the mind of speakers for which they substitute singular "they." There is simply use of the singular "they". But that's a minor point. (I'm now finished responding to Mark.) Now let's move on to more important points, for everyone.
We've addressed the issue of English generic pronouns on this blog a number of times, but I'd like to address this issue from a little different angle this time.
Unlike French, with its generic pronoun on, in English there is no generic pronoun used to refer to singular entities which is without a problem of one kind or another. The long-used generic pronoun "he" is grammatically masculine. To use it generically an English speaker must convert it from a masculine to a generic. English speakers have been taught--in "grammar school"--to do so for centuries and have proven quite capable of making the conversion unconciously. But any time a mental conversion is required to convert a linguist form from which is called, in lay terms, it's "literal" meaning, a greater processing burden is required. Speakers of all languages can handle processing burdens fairly easily, but they are a burden nonetheless.
Generic singular "they" is grammatically plural. To use it generically an English speaker must convert it from a plural to a singular. Again, there is an additional process burden, just as there is with the generic "he." As with generic "he," there have been many centuries of usage of singular "they" in English, including by some of well respected authors. Singular "they" was used by the translators of the KJV (emphasis added):
Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards. (Numbers 2:17)Among those speakers and writers who naturally use "he" as their generic pronoun many never think of the fact that it is grammatically masculine. They are so accustomed to using "he" as a generic that their brains simply give them the generic meaning in a generic linguistic context. For many of these speakers there is absolutely no intent to be linguistic reactionaries, misogynists, or any of the other claims which have been made by those who believe that it is socially improper to use a grammatically masculine pronoun to refer to either a male or a female.
And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. (Numbers 2:34)
According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number. (Numbers 15:12)
And Judah was put to the worse before Israel; and they fled every man to their tents. (2 Kings 14:12)
So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. (Matthew 18:35)
[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Philippians 2:3)
Among those speakers and writers who naturally use singular "they" as their generic pronoun many never think of the fact that it is grammatically plural. They are so accustomed to using "they" as a generic that their brains simply give them the generic meaning in a generic linguistic context. I happen to use the singular "they" myself, most of the time, even though it was drilled into my brain by my "grammar school" teachers that I should only use "he" as a generic pronoun. For me, and many other English speakers, it simply sounds better to use "they," rather than "he" in a sentence such as:
If everyone turns in their term paper on time, I'll treat the class to pizza for lunch on Friday.For many who use singular "they" the idea of being politically correct by using non-gendered pronoun as a generic never crosses their minds. They are just using a generic pronoun that sounds most natural to them. Singular "they" has been in use in the English language for centuries, as has generic "he," and both have sounded natural to those who regularly use them as generics.
Is there any theological reason why a grammatically masculine generic "he" should be used in English rather than singular "they"? Of course not, in spite of claims by Grudem and Poythress to the contrary. Language is language. There is nothing theological about grammatical systems of languages. There is nothing sacred about the fact that pistis 'faith' is of the feminine gender in Greek, but nomos 'law' is of the masculine gender. There is nothing sacred about the fact that Greek uses grammatically masculine forms for generics. Nor is there anything sacred, or un-sacred, for that matter, about the fact that Cheyenne, which is my language of research, lacks gendered forms for generics. In Cheyenne any third person singular is referred to by a pronominal prefix e- which has no gender. It can refer to a male, female, or biologically genderless object such as a stick.
Does a singular "they" distort singulars and plurals in the minds of English speakers, as is claimed by Grudem and the CBMW, for instance, in their discussion of Rev. 3:20 in the TNIV (boldface emphasis is in the CBMW text, not the TNIV itself):
NIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.Is there a loss of "individual responsibility and individual relationship with God,", as claimed? Of course not. The CBMW text confuses semantic reference with grammatical form. No one who uses the singular "they"--which will be the majority of the target audience of the TNIV--confuses grammatical number in TNIV Rev. 3:20. The TNIV wording does not "drain" this verse of its focus on an individual, as claimed by Grudem and repeated many times by those who follow him. Those who use singular "they" use it to refer to a single person and they know they are doing so; they are not confused about this and there is no loss of a focus on a single invidual.
TNIV Revelation 3:20 I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.
Comment: Mistranslates Greek masculine singular pronoun autos ("he, him"). Loses the teaching of fellowship between Jesus and an individual believer. The plural pronoun “them” naturally refers to “those whom I love” in the church of Laodicea in the previous verse. So in the TNIV, if any one person in the church opens the door, Jesus will come in and eat with a group, with the whole church. What is lost is the teaching that Jesus will fellowship with one person individually and personally.
(Note on generic masculine singulars: In order to avoid this kind of generic use of “he,” the TNIV has to change hundreds of verses in similar ways, and the cumulative effect is a loss of the Bible’s emphasis on individual responsibility and individual relationship with God. The TNIV preface says the changes include “the elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns.”)
Can we allow people to speak as they normally do without making judgements about their speech? I think we can and I think we should. Even though I naturally use a singular "they," it would be improper of me to judge others who use a generic "he." And the converse is true.
Paul addressed a parallel issue in Romans 14. Some Christians felt free in their consciences to eat meat which had previously been offered to idols but was later sold for human consumption. Others did not. Paul recognized that there was nothing wrong with eating meat offered to idols. But if someone truly felt in their conscience that there was something wrong with it, he said we should be sensitive to their concerns and not cause them to "stumble" by eating idol meat. There are many such issues for believers and the spiritual principles drawn from Romans 14 apply to such issues. When I was growing up the church I attended had a list of several "deadly sins": smoking, going to movies, dancing, playing cards, and drinking. Today there are many Christians who do each of these things and do not consider it sinful.
It is not sinful or "inaccurate" to use a singular "they" in a Bible translation targeted to today's speakers of English. Several recent English versions use singular "they" or some other generics because they are more natural for today's speakers than generic "he." The claim that such translations (or those who do not use generic "he") are conscious or unconscious followers of a feminist agenda does not reflect the centuries long tradition of the use of singular "they" in English (from long before there ever was a feminist movement). And it does not adequately take into account language change which occurs naturally in languages, for whatever reason. And think about it, what if someone did, at some point, stop using generic "he" out of respect to those that generic "he" offended? Would such respect be wrong? Or sinful? It seems to me that the principle of respecting differences of opinion, which Paul promoted in Romans 14, would suggest that avoiding use of generic "he" when it offends would be a sign of love, not of carnal compromise or theological error. Of course, we cannot live our lives constantly concerned about whether someone else will be offended by anything we do. Paul himself offended Judaizers by eating with Gentiles and not insisting that Gentiles be circumcised in order to become part of the Jesus movement of his day.
Let's give each other some linguistic slack. It is appropriate to debate these issues. It is important to state our opinions. It is important for Dr. Grudem to state what he believes, including that he believes that singular "they" distorts grammtical number. It is also appropriate for others to respond to him, pointing out where they disagree with him. But these issues do not rise to the level of any Bible version of being "inaccurate". Something is not linguistically "inaccurate" if it is worded with language forms which are used by a majority of the speakers who are the target audience of a Bible translation. There is nothing sacred about any linguistic forms in any language. There is something sacred about what God wants us to know, and much of what he wants us to know is found in the Bible. Its teachings are found in its propositions (statements), not in grammatical forms which may or may not have any connection to the "real world."
Categories: Bible translation, gender.inclusive, singular they, generic he