Part two of four parts; click here to read part one.

Psalm 1 begins with a description of a righteous man: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners … but his delight is in the law of the Lord" (RSV). Here the Hebrew word for man is 'ish, which ordinarily means a man in distinction from woman (except in some rare idiomatic constructions). The default sense of the word (the sense readers would attach to this word unless the context required another sense) is man. Psalm 1 holds up a solitary righteous man who stands against plural sinners as an example for all Israelites to emulate. (Similarly, Proverbs 31 holds up a godly woman as an example to emulate.)

But this righteous man is gone from the NRSV: "Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked … but their delight is in the law of the Lord." The NIVI similarly says, "Blessed are thosetheir delight … ," and the NLT, NCV, and CEV do the same.

The NIVI preface explains what led to this translation of Hebrew singular words with English plural words. It was not that scholars suddenly discovered in 1992 that the singular Hebrew word ha'ish ("the man") was really plural. Rather, the translators tell us that "in order to avoid gender-specific language in statements of a general kind, it was agreed that the plural might be substituted for the singular and the second person for the third person." Evangelical Christians should ponder that sentence well: it says they "substituted" or changed what the Bible said for what it did not say.

In Galatians 6:7, Paul wrote, "Whatever a man sows, that will he also reap" (RSV). Changing man to person would have been fine, since the Greek is not gender-specific. But to avoid he, the NRSV says, "You reap whatever you sow."

Readers will now wrongly think that Paul is speaking only of something that is true of Christians, the "you" to whom he is writing. This would be properly interpreting the English of the NRSV. But in fact, Paul is making a much more general statement about human conduct and about people generally. The NRSV changes he to you, but that is not what Paul wrote. This kind of change has happened repeatedly. Once again, this is not translating the Bible; it is rewriting the Bible and giving the verse a different sense. (The NLT and CEV also have you; the NCV and NIVI change to plural, people. )

I strongly disagree with this procedure. The evangelical doctrine of Scripture is that every word of the original is exactly what God wanted it to be, because "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16). If God caused Psalm 1 to be written with singular nouns and pronouns, then we should reflect the sense of those words in English translation. We must not "substitute" other words with different senses.

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God's providential guidance of an individual person's life is quite clear in the RSV: "A man's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps" (Prov. 16:9). It would not be wrong to translate, "A person's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps," for the Hebrew is not male-specific, and the individual application would be preserved. The word his would also accurately translate the third-person singular (masculine) Hebrew pronoun.

But the offensive word his had to go. A comparison of other gender-neutral versions shows how translators have tried almost every possible way to avoid literally translating the Hebrew pronoun as his:

NCV [singular to plural]: "People may make plans in their minds, but the Lord decides what they will do."

NIVI [changes third-person singular to second-person singular]: "In your heart you may plan your course, but the Lord determines your steps."

NLT [changes third-person singular to first-person plural]: "We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps."

NRSV [changes third-person singular to no person]: "The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps."

Such variation is almost humorous to see. It seems that any translation is acceptable except a clear, simple, literal his.

All of the changes involve some change in meaning. The NCV's they loses emphasis on the individual person. The NIVI restricts the sentence to the readers ("you") rather than keeping it universal in application. The NLT and CEV restrict it to the speaker and hearers ("we") rather than keeping it universal. The NRSV makes the statement impersonal: "The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps." What way? Whose steps? We cannot tell. Personal application is lost. But "masculine language" and "patriarchalism" had to be eliminated, even when it most accurately represented the Hebrew or Greek text.

Another serious consequence is the erosion of readers' trust in every pronoun in the Bible. Imagine that you have a translation that regularly changes he, him, his to you or we or they. Now you want to make a point in a sermon (or contribute something in a Bible study) based on one of those pronouns. How do you know you can depend on it? Maybe it is accurate, but then again maybe it is one of those "substitutes" that replaced "patriarchal" language. How do you know the we or you or they is really what God's Word said? Unless you can check the Greek or Hebrew text yourself, you simply won't be able trust any of those pronouns anywhere in that Bible.

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For the NRSV, we, us, our occur 4,500 times; you, your, yours occur 21,704 times; they, them, their occur 17,102 times. That is a total of 43,306 words. Even if half occur in narrative contexts where no change would be made, that still leaves over 20,000 words in the NRSV about which you can have no confidence that they faithfully represent the original text. Such erosion of trust in our English Bibles is a high price to pay for gender-neutral translations.

Some may object that our language has changed so much that even the uses of the words he, him, his in these verses, or the use of man to refer to the human race, would not be proper in English today. We have no choice, they would argue, but to use alternative expressions.

But this is not true. Every current major dictionary includes these broader meanings for he and man. National publishers such as Newsweek, U.S. News, and the Chicago Tribune continue to use he in a generic sense and man as a name for the human race. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (1994) directs to "use the pronoun his when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female: A reporter attempts to protect his sources." (Not his or her sources.)

Someone may object, "But these are not very common anymore." I agree that such expressions are less common, but that does not mean we should avoid them in translation. All major English Bibles use numerous expressions that aren't very common, but they are understandable, and necessary, for accurate translation. The questions are: Does the English language today, as understood by the vast majority of its adult speakers, have he-him-his as a generic pronoun? And does it have the word man to designate the human race? The answer to both questions is clearly and certainly yes.

Another objection is this: Some women Bible readers feel excluded by such generic uses of he, him, his and by the use of man to name the human race, and so on. Here we have two alternatives: We can change the translation to something less accurate in response to these women's feelings; or (a better alternative) we can retain the accurate translation and explain that such language in fact is not exclusive if understood correctly—to say it is exclusive is to misunderstand it. How do we know such expressions do not have an "exclusive" meaning? Because the original author did not intend such an exclusive meaning, the translators did not intend such a meaning, and that is not the meaning the words have when interpreted rightly in their contexts, contexts that give abundant clues that broader senses are intended. This is just another instance of something Christians do all the time—explain the meaning of the text to those who are misunderstanding it. We must not choose the first alternative, however, because it is inaccurate, and because once we do this there will be hundreds of others who will say they feel excluded by calling God "Father" and calling Christ "Son." Will we change the translation again because of their feelings?

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Of course, we must admit frankly that there are powerful forces in the larger culture (including style manuals imposed on students in various universities) that are saying generic he, him, his, and man simply cannot have those inclusive senses. They tell us we cannot use these words in ways they have previously been used, even if we want to. However, we must not give in to such pressures in Bible translation, for the ability to translate God's Word accurately is at stake. Moreover, modern style manuals give recommendations for writing our own compositions, an activity different from the translation of ancient documents that already exist. In accurate translation, I am not at liberty to rewrite what another person said.

But someone may say, "The language is changing whether we like it or not, and generic he-him-his will not exist in five or ten more years." This claim should be recognized for what it is: an unsubstantiated prediction of the future that cannot be proven. English stylist William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (fifth edition, 1994), says, "Let's face it: the English language is stuck with the generic masculine." The current American Heritage Dictionary (1992) concludes a long discussion on generic he with this prediction: "The entire question is unlikely to be resolved in the near future."

The reason for the resistance to abolishing generic he-him-his is that there are times when clear and accurate writing requires the use of a third-person singular pronoun with the person's sex unspecified or unknown. Zinsser says, "A style that converts every 'he' into a 'they' will quickly turn to mush. … I don't like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize." And the American Heritage Dictionary speaks of a persistent intuition that expressions such as everyone and each student should in fact be treated as grammatically singular.

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One professional linguist told me he knew of no human language that lacked a singular pronoun that was used generically (in some languages it is a masculine singular pronoun; in others, a neuter singular pronoun). Therefore, people who predict that English will soon relinquish generic he-him-his, when there is no commonly agreed singular substitute, are predicting that English—perhaps the most versatile language in history—will lose a capability possessed by all major languages in the world. This is highly unlikely.

When I read the NRSV, I wonder what has happened to the reverence for every word of Scripture that was so common in the church in previous generations. The words of Scripture are not ours to tamper with as we please. In the second century, Marcion tried to remove from Scripture all the sections he disagreed with. The Jehovah's Witnesses have a special translation that changes a few key words to suit their doctrine. Now we have an NRSV that does a very similar thing in order to eliminate masculine language from thousands of verses of Scripture. When it does this, it unnecessarily distorts the meaning of the Word of God. And so do the other gender-neutral versions (the NLT, NCV, CEV, and NIVI) that follow its precedent.

Wayne Grudem is professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and vice president of the Evangelical Theological Society.

I want to thank Dr. Grudem for a helpful dialogue. The issues have been clarified, and now the scholarly debate over them can ensue. If this course had been followed before the controversies over the NIVI last May and June, many aspects of that unfortunate event could have been avoided. The only proper approach to controversial issues is knowledge, and this process has just begun.

Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989) states, "The common solution (to the lack of a common-gender pronoun in English) has been to substitute the plural 'they'; even Chaucer used this dodge." It adds elsewhere: "The plural pronouns have been pressed into use to supply the missing form since Middle English." In other words, they has been used for he, without distortion of meaning, for centuries.

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In fact, inclusive language has long been used in Bible translations. John Kohlenberger, in an address to the Christian Booksellers Association last July, used two examples to illustrate this. First, William Tyndale translated Matthew 5:9, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children [Greek 'sons'] of God." This stood for 400 years until the ASV, NKJV (not the KJV!) and NIV changed it to the gender-specific "sons of God." Second, the KJV translates "sons of Israel" 644 times as "children of Israel" when it refers to the tribes in the wilderness and only four times as "sons of Israel" when the phrase specifically refers to men. The KJV at this point is an inclusive-language translation!

It is not more precise to retain he when it refers to a group. In fact, if we were to be that "precise" we would have to call the Holy Spirit "she" in the Old Testament, which uses the female ruach, and "it" in the New Testament, which uses the neuter pneuma.

Whenever man or he refers to a male individual, the term should be retained; whenever the emphasis is on the individual, the singular should be retained. If there is a collective idea inherent in the singular, good exegisis prefers a plural translation. The retention of "he" and the singular cannot be mandated whenever they occur, but depends on the interpretation of the passage in its context.

Two further points: ha 'ish (Ps. 1:1) does not always mean "the man" (see Num. 9:13 and Ps. 34:12); and in the NLT and NIVI "prodigal son" is retained because it refers to a male.

Finally, I want to emphasize the evangelistic purpose of Bible translation. Both the NIV and NLT are trying to get into the Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble markets. Unbelievers are offended by the generic he. Gender-specific translations would be counterproductive on secular college campuses. Translations for the general public should not erect unnecessary barriers to the gospel.

Part two of four parts; click here to read part three.

ASV—American Standard Version
CEV—Contemporary English Version
GW—God's Word
KJV—King James Version
LB—Living Bible
NASB—New American Standard Bible
NCV—New Century Version
NIV—New International Version
NIVI—New International Version-Inclusive Language Edition
NKJV—New King James Version
NLT—New Living Translation
NRSV—New Revised Standard Version
RSV—Revised Standard Version
TEV—Today's English Version

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