As far as biblical words go, ἄνθρωπος (anthropos) was never a particularly controversial one. It is a rather generic word that appears almost 550 times in the Greek New Testament. This word has given us notable English words like “anthropology” and “anthropomorphic,” but it never really gave us much drama or intrigue until 2011. It’s true that some people had been wondering about this word for quite some time – suspicious of its true motivations and intent hidden under a boring public persona. But in 2011, the word came under widespread scrutiny. It’s kind of the Toby Flenderson of Greek words – boring, quiet, and yet suddenly reviled by some intent to find a villain.
2011 was the year that the most popular English version of the New Testament was revised. One of the many changes in the new NIV was the adoption of more gender inclusive language. This change affected the translation of various New Testament words including αδελφος (brother) and ἄνθρωπος, the generic word for “man.”
As you can see, the biggest change between 1984 and 2011 is the translation of the plural form of the noun. The 1984 version tended to translate this as “men.” The 2011 version tended to translate this as “people” or “humanity.” And some people, predictably, freaked out. Oh, the humanity! This was more evidence of the NIV committee accommodating liberalism and some feminist agenda to cut men out of scripture. But, like most bogeymen, the specter of liberalism was mostly imaginary.
- Have there been any recent discoveries about the world of the Bible or new biblical scholarship that will enable us to make the NIV Bible reflect the original Scripture text even more accurately?
- Are there any changes in the use of English that could become barriers to understanding the Bible for new generations of readers?
There is wisdom in both of these criteria. Our understanding of any language – particularly an ancient language – is subject to change with new scholarship and discoveries. Moses is portrayed with goat horns in various pieces of art because of a mistranslation of certain Hebrew texts in the Old Testament. I do like how the NIV committee placed the original intent of scripture first. Sometimes, a new translation is needed in order to be faithful to original intent. Secondly, we should remember the purpose of any translation is that the reader understand the text as clearly as possible. Because the conventions of language are always changing, this means our translations must be subject to change as well. Every new biblical translation is created out of a righteous desire to make an ancient text sing in a contemporary tongue. At the end of the day, our fidelity is to the message of the Scriptures not to the choices made by translators whether those translators were working in 1611, 1984, or 2011.
The fact is that previous generations (and many people today) are unbothered by translations like “men” or “brothers.” They understand those words to be inclusive of both men and women. As the NIV committee acknowledges, the original hearers of the text would have understood words like this to include more than merely males. But this is far from universally true today. To many contemporary readers, translations like “men” are unnecessarily exclusionary. If the Greek words were understood as inclusive to the original audience, why not try to be more inclusive in our translations today? The NIV doesn’t always get it right. There are some verses where I would quibble with their gender inclusive language. (Hebrews 2:6-8 would be just one example that I would point to where the translators are clearly offering a particular, disputed interpretation.) However, generally speaking, I think more inclusive language is not a bad thing.
But there are limits.
G.K. Chesterton (you know how I love him) argued in 1929 that things shouldn’t be torn down without first appreciate their purpose.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
Insisting on inclusive language has become (to some) a favored exercise in postmodern fence clearing. Justin Trudeau famously shamed a young woman who, while asking a challenging question at a town hall, used the word “mankind.” Trudeau interrupted and mansplained to her that we say “peoplekind.” Trudeau cynically invokes the principle of inclusive language to silence a political opponent by literally making up a word and then creating a new public consensus out of thin air by saying “we say peoplekind.” It’s not clear who “we” includes other than Trudeau and his own imagination.
In another, more recent example, that pillar of civic responsibility Teen Vogue published a “back-to-school” article on how to use gender-neutral words. They provide a list of acceptable gender-neutral words, many of which are completely reasonable. “Member of Congress” instead of “congressmen.” “First-year student” instead of “freshman.” “Firefighter” instead of “fireman.” And some were completely bizarre and Trudeauian. Pibling instead of parent (because parent is gender-coded language). Nibling instead of niece or nephew (for the same reason). What was really bothersome though were the marching orders given towards the end of the article. “Just because a nonbinary person isn’t present doesn’t make it OK to use binary language.” “Hold those around you accountable.” “Remember that binary language also harms cisgender and binary transgender people.” Notice the pattern. A new language is created. A new moral consensus is formed. Those who don’t adopt the new language even in private ought to be publicly silenced or shamed by woke teenagers.
This is the type of fence-clearing that Chesterton’s quote warns about. Reforming language in order to be gender inclusive is not a bad idea in principle, but we should also pause and reflect on what we might be losing in the process of this radical deconstruction of language. What is lost when we become afraid to say “father” or “mother?” What is lost when we have hesitancy about using archaic words like “son” and “daughter?” Or, to put it another way, we should pause and reflect on the type of world that is being formed for us by the creation of new words and the enforcing of new moral consensuses. (Don’t be naive, the writers at Teen Vogue are trying to forge a new moral world.)
So what is the difference between the gender inclusion of the NIV and that represented by Teen Vogue? It comes down to the moral bedrock that informs our understanding of virtue. When your moral foundation is grounded in a postmodern tribalistic narrative, you will never stop finding ways to be offended by the conventions of language. Because words represent power dynamics, you will never stop finding justifications for the tearing down and creation of new norms in language. (Even the inclusive language of “brothers and sisters” in the new NIV would be ruled as harmfully binary by the writers for Teen Vogue.) Once the fence is removed, anything becomes permitted except perhaps for common sense. Such an approach teaches us to constantly be on the lookout for reasons to be aggrieved and to imagine the worst in others. Such an approach also teaches us to miss the point of most communication as we become obsessed with cynically reading between the lines of what isn’t being said. What Teen Vogue is advocating is really the death of the communicative act itself.
But these crazed attempts at policing and changing language do not mean that inclusive language is bad in principle. Inclusive language is one of thousands of good things that, if done for the wrong reasons, can quickly degenerate into something destructive. We shouldn’t allow crazy people to ruin every potentially good thing with their craziness. As a Christian, shouldn’t I take advantage of an opportunity to use language in such a way that it will be more inclusive of groups that might be experiencing marginalization? As a Christian, called to the double-love of God and others, if my choice of words is causing real hurt, shouldn’t I at the very least evaluate why those words have caused offense and wonder if there is any good reason not to adopt different words? But in all of this, the good fence that I will be careful to not tear down is the ultimate authority of God revealed in scripture to challenge, correct, rebuke, and teach.