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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Rev. 3:20 and singular they

In Suzanne's preceding post Dr. Packer said:
my memory is, that instances were produced where that way, that particular English idiom was introduced in order to avoid generic masculines which the TNIV is concerned to do every time it can. I think that some of those cases are of that sort, a sort of substituting.
Dr. Packer was obviously not prepared to list passages which do the sort of thing he has just said to Suzanne. But Dr. Wayne Grudem is always prepared to do so. One of the passages which Dr. Grudem and his followers keep criticizing in the TNIV is Rev. 3:20 which uses singular they to accord, per current English usage as well as centuries old usage, with the preceding indefinite pronoun anyone (Greek tis):
Here I am! 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. (TNIV)
This is a revision of NIV which uses a generic "he":
Here I am! 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. (NIV)
Dr. Grudem and his followers claim that the TNIV revision with the grammatically plural "they" (he does not seem to recognize that it is semantically singular) "obscures" this passage of one's individual relationship with Christ. He suggests that TNIV readers would understand from this verse a corporate union with Christ, not an individual one. Several church leaders, with Dr. Grudem as a primary signatory, signed a statement of concern about the TNIV which included this opposition to TNIV translation of Rev. 3:20:
The TNIV translation often changes masculine, third person, singular pronouns (he, his and him) to plural gender-neutral pronouns. For example, in Revelation 3:20, the words of Jesus have been changed from "I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" to "I will come in and eat with them, and they with me." Jesus could have used plural pronouns when He spoke these words, but He chose not to. (The original Greek pronouns are singular.) In hundreds of such changes, the TNIV obscures any possible significance the inspired singular may have, such as individual responsibility or an individual relationship with Christ.
But Dr. Grudem is wrong. The singular they accords with the preceding indefinite pronoun "anyone." Every speaker and writer who has ever used the singular they understands that it is not semantically plural, but, rather, singular and indefinite. I suspect that Dr. Grudem himself sometimes uses the singular they. I do know that Dr. James Dobson, who promotes Dr. Grudem on his Focus on the Family radio program, does.

And Dr. Grudem is wrong about the Greek of Rev. 3:20. It contains no generic "he." It does have the generic pronoun autos which is grammatically masculine, but that is the natural way that Greek referred to a semantically gender-neutral entity. There is no semantically masculine entity referred to by Greek autos of Rev. 3:20, so Dr. Grudem is wrong in repeating his claim that the Greek pronoun must be translated by English "he", which for a majority of English speakers today is understood as being both grammatically and semantically masculine. Such widespread understanding indicates that translating with an intended generic "he" (or perhaps a male representative grammatical "he", per Poythress and Grudem's linguistic hypothesis) is not communicatively accurate for most current speakers of English.

These linguistic facts of singular they usage have been presented, in response to Dr. Grudem on many occasions, but, as far as I know, he never acknowledges them.

If Rev. 3:20 is the kind of passage that Dr. Packer was thinking of, where the TNIV did not use a "masculine generic" that was in the NIV, then he, like Dr. Grudem, is missing an important linguistic fact, that singular "they" is no more semantically plural than generic "he" has been semantically masculine for those who have used it.

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11 Comments:

At Sat Feb 18, 10:47:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

On singular "they": I included this link on a comment on "Suzanne's Bookshelf", but it seems like it might be useful to add it here too.

Certainly the "rules" of English usage are not so rigid as some would have us believe. Unfortunately (I suppose), that means too that there isn't a "rule" to exclude either of the meanings offered here for Rev 3:20. It remains a matter of "taste", or inclination.

I guess what one wants to avoid is something like "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to that one and eat with that one, and that one with me." Doesn't one?

:)

 
At Sat Feb 18, 12:19:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I don't think it matters much whether the English is 'him' 'them' 'you' or whatever as long as you don't tell a woman that this indicates that men are ahead of women in prominence, order, representation and whatever else is in that list. That is what Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress wrote.

I just don't think God meant authority derives from being male, but rather authority derives from truth.

 
At Sat Feb 18, 01:27:00 PM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

I hope this isn't asking too much but can anyone summarise for me how this issue pans out in Hebrew? My 3 years of Hebrew were a long time ago now...:-)

Thanks.

Dick.

 
At Sat Feb 18, 01:39:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I hope this isn't asking too much but can anyone summarise for me how this issue pans out in Hebrew?

Dick, could you be more specific? For instance, are you asking whether or not Hebrew has generic pronouns?

 
At Sat Feb 18, 07:13:00 PM, Blogger Jerald & Andrea said...

"I just don't think God meant authority derives from being male, but rather authority derives from truth."

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
(1 Corinthians 11:3 NASB)

God did not set different values on us as men or women, but He did give us different roles. To men, God gives the responsibiliity of leadership (authority over?) in our homes as well as in the church.

 
At Sat Feb 18, 07:52:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have always understood that the husband is the head of his own wife. I am happy to participate in this discussion as long as I acknowledge that only my husband is my head, and no other man. My husband doesn't much like the expansion of the 'man is the head of woman' metaphor to relationships outside of marriage. Go figure. He is rather particular about this.

To my husband I am 'woman' to other men, I am 'sister'. In Greek 'woman' is 'wife', and 'sister' is 'from the same womb'. So the emphasis for sister must be 'fellow member of the Christian family.' A sister is 'wife/woman' to one man only.

As far as authority in marriage goes, we hold that that is a private matter, subject to the absence of abuse.

 
At Sun Feb 19, 02:15:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

I hope this isn't asking too much but can anyone summarise for me how this issue pans out in Hebrew?

I don't know if this will help, Dick, but ths is my take on it. The issue doesn't arise really arise in Hebrew in quite the same way as Greek, and certainly not for the vocab in question in Rev 3:20. Greek autos is a sort of generic pointing pronoun, and can be used of first person, or third person, whatever. Thus the claim is made quite correctly that it does not simply mean "him". It can, but it need not.

Hebrew doesn't have this kind of multi-purpose pronoun. It gives the standard range of 1/2/3 + masc./fem. + sg./pl. possibilities (I/we; he/she/they; etc.), but not a "generic" pronoun. The closest you get would be the demonstratives, but they don't do the same job in Hebrew that autos does in Greek.

That's all aside from the fact that I don't think there are such contentious texts (of this kind) in the OT as have been cited from the NT.

Well that's the best I can do with it off the top of my head and on too little caffeine! Hope that's some use....

 
At Sun Feb 19, 07:55:00 AM, Blogger Dickie Mint said...

Thanks, David, I think that does help. Much appreciated. I was beginning to wonder why the debate centered on the NT and not the OT (at least not in the bits I've read anyway).

Dick.

 
At Sun Feb 19, 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

There are of course Hebrew and OT related discussions concerning generic and gender specific words for "man". Psalm 1:1 is especially contentious, for the word אִישׁ 'ish used here normally means "man" in the gender specific, male only sense, but is also sometimes used indefinitely with a gender generic sense "each, any". Thus Psalm 1:1 could be "Blessed is the man who..." but could also be "Blessed is anyone who..."

 
At Mon Feb 20, 01:27:00 AM, Blogger DavidR said...

Psalm 1:1 is especially contentious...

Thanks, Peter. It came to me long after posting my comment that probably Hab 2:4 fits in here as well. I expect there are more!

And while I'm at it, for those interested, there is an article by David Clines in response to James Barr on the semantics of Hebrew 'adam here. It includes full references for those able to access the official print publications. (And apologies if this piece is already well-known here!)

 
At Mon Feb 20, 04:14:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you for this link to the Clines article (unfortunately spoiled by the failure to embed the Hebrew font into the PDF file). It seems to me that Barr was violating one of his own well known principles by projecting on to the Hebrew word his own understanding of the English word "man", which is in transition between the older generic sense and the newer male only sense.

This article is important also because many of the same principles apply to the Greek ἄνθρωπος anthrōpos, and confirm what I wrote before, that this word "simply does not have a male meaning component". Indeed the LXX translation of Numbers 31:35 provides a biblical example of ἄνθρωπος anthrōpos used of women only. This is important because the only remotely plausible argument for this word having a male meaning component was that it was allegedly never used referring to women only in the Bible, although well known to be so used in other literature.

Here is an important statement by Clines which applies equally to ἄνθρωπος anthrōpos:

"Of course, if אדם means humans in general, it is very easy to argue that in
many places it
means males, and all the easier in places where it is paralleled to
males. But such a conclusion does not follow; to think so would be to ignore the
fundamental linguistic distinction between connotation and denotation (reference).
Just because in one context or another אדם refers to males does not mean that such
is the meaning of the word, any more than just because in some contexts “the
French” means “French footballers” that is the meaning of the term “French”.
"

 

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