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

There are some prophetic passages that seem to point forward to Christ, and so some argue that the male language must be retained. For example, Psalm 8:4-6 is quoted in Hebrews 2:6-8, especially verse 4: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" Many versions, however (including the NRSV, NLT, NIVI), believe that the psalm stresses humanity as a whole rather than an individual man. These translate the verse (with variations), "What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" Critics state this understanding ignores Hebrews 2:6, where son of man in the psalm may be fulfilled in Christ. However, many believe (and I would agree) that son of man in Hebrews 2:6 refers to mankind and not to Christ, who is not referenced until verse 9. Therefore, human beings is the more accurate translation in Psalm 8:4.

Another debated passage is Psalm 34:20, "He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken." Grudem argues that this verse is behind John 19:36, "Not one of his bones will be broken." However, verse 17 of the psalm refers to "the righteous" as a group, so it is valid to translate it "he protects all their bones." Moreover, many Johannine scholars believe the paschal lamb passage of Exodus 12:46—"Do not break any of the bones" (also Num. 9:12)—is actually closer to the meaning of John 19:36 and so argue that Psalm 34:20 is not a prophecy looking forward to Christ, so the more accurate and more clear translation is "their bones."

The CBMW guidelines for translation state, "Person and number should be retained in translation so that singulars are not changed to plurals and third-person statements are not changed to second-person or first-person statements, with only rare exceptions required in unusual cases." Any such changes are seen as a distortion of the Word of God. Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine, calls this "misquoting God" and "changing God's words … an activity that the Bible itself condemns" (CT, Aug. 11, 1997, p. 58). Grudem in his article above speaks of an "erosion of trust in our English Bibles" because we can no longer trust the accuracy of the pronouns.

This is strong language, but is it true? If every word in the original Hebrew and Greek were kept intact, would anyone dare translate "bowels" by any other term (see Phil. 2:1 in the KJV)? Such a woodenly literal translation is hardly mandated by the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration. In fact, the Bible translates itself in dynamic fashion. A perusal of Ephesians 4:8 (compare Ps. 68:18) or Hebrews 1:7 (compare Ps. 104:4) shows how freely the New Testament writers translated the Old Testament.

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The question remains whether changing he to you or they distorts the intended meaning of the biblical text. I do not believe that it does, either in a literal or a dynamic translation. As stated above, there is more potential for misunderstanding when man or he is used where the text refers to both men and women. In that situation, you or they is more accurate, especially for those in our society who are not used to the generic masculine singular. For instance, Mark 8:36 says, "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" The intention is obviously broader than just males, so NIVI says, "What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?"

Another common argument against making singulars into plurals is that this destroys the emphasis on the individual in Scripture. However, there is another danger that, given the privatization of religion in American culture and the rugged individualism inherent in our society, many often read far more individual intent into singulars than was intended by the biblical writers, who lived in the more communal culture of the biblical world. Obviously, this must be decided passage by passage, but in many cases, the context warrants the plural.

For instance, John 6:44—"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him"—is changed in the NLT to a plural—"For people can't come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me." The Greek itself suggests a collective sense, as reflected in the collective singulars of 6:37, 39: "All that the Father gives me will come. … I shall lose none of all that he has given me." Therefore, the plural is an accurate translation. Moreover, this rendering does not obviate belief in individual election since "people" can easily connote "each person."

In the same way, John 14:23 reads in the NIV, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." The NIVI translates this, "Those who love me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." Does the context demand an individual emphasis? I do not think so. The question introducing this response posed by Judas (not Iscariot) asks, "Why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" Jesus' use of "he" in his response is collective, referring to all the disciples. One way to capture both the individual and the corporate aspect of this passage is to translate, "Every person who loves me will obey me. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and live with them."

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Then there is the debate about the use of father, son, and brothers. Should we always retain these terms when they are used inclusively for all believers? I do not think so for the same reasons given above. Too many modern readers will fail to understand the wider nuances. For instance, NLT translates Matthew 7:9, "You parents [literally, 'which among you']—if your children [literally, 'his son'] ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead?" Proverbs 15:20 reads, "Sensible children [literally, 'a wise son'] bring joy to their father; foolish children [literally, 'a foolish man'] despise their mother." In each instance, the switch broadens the sphere in keeping with the meaning of the text. We feel this is more accurate and is not a distortion of the meaning as some critics suggest.

The same is true of brothers. One should only retain the term when the context indicates that the verse is restricted to men. For instance, the NIVI renders 1 Thessalonians 2:1, "You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure," because obviously the whole church is being addressed. Likewise, 1 John 2:9 is translated by NIVI, "Those who claim to be in the light but hate a brother and sister are still in the darkness." To retain the inclusive brother would misinform many modern readers who might read it as exclusively male.

It seems that we may have entered a period similar to the late 1920s and '30s when a united movement of conservative churches stopped working together to stave the tide of liberalism and began to fight within itself over many different unresolvable issues. Especially after the Scopes trial, conservatives retreated from the public arena, and much of the energy spent fighting liberalism turned inward. Denominations and individual churches split over issues such as mode of baptism, Arminianism versus Calvinism, and other concerns that were theologically important but not cardinal doctrines.

The tendency to fight over the wrong issues has begun again. In recent years we have seen a number of Christian leaders sign a declaration stating that Anabaptists, Pentecostals, Arminians, and seeker-sensitive Christians are not true evangelicals because they do not accept Reformed theology. Others have condemned many Christian psychologists as "psycho-heretics" because they use psychological theory to supplement the Bible in their practices. It is not that these are unimportant issues, but rather that differences over these points do not constitute heresy. My point is this: concern over inclusive language in translating the Bible is degenerating into a heresy hunt. We are all evangelicals and need dialogue rather than divisive denunciation to guide us on this issue.

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If every word in the original
Hebrew and Greek were kept
intact, would anyone dare trans-
late bowels by any other term?

There is an important place for gender-specific language in Bible translations, as Grudem asserts, namely, in a highly literal translation (like the NASB) that is used for Bible study by those without knowledge of the biblical languages. However, translations that are intended for public and general reading ought to reflect inclusiveness, for clarity and accuracy, in passages that refer to men and women together. Moreover, the biblical writers themselves would most likely render them as such on the principle of becoming "all things to all people," since many in our culture could be confused or offended by masculine language and, thus, the gospel could be hindered.

Translating the inclusive he as they is not surrendering to a feminist agenda. Rather, it is embracing a basic translation philosophy—namely, the desire to communicate clearly and accurately the meaning (and not just the words) of the biblical text. Some scholars are driven by a feminist agenda, but it is unfair to accuse all who prefer inclusive language of such. The use of male terms to refer to all people is disappearing from modern speech. Therefore, it is best to translate man and he, whenever they refer to women, too, with appropriate language so that all readers can understand them.

Grant R. Osborne is professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

I respectfully differ with my friend and colleague Grant Osborne at several points. When I knocked on Grant's door recently, his wife answered. I asked, "Is your husband home?" She replied, "Yes, they are"—which would be a sensible answer if changing "he" to "they" doesn't distort meaning. The story is fictional, but it makes the point: "He" and "you" and "they" are not synonyms.

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Osborne admits that generic he is still used today but claims it is "on its way out." I have recent clippings from USA Today, Newsweek, U.S. News, Reader's Digest, the Chicago Tribune, and the Associated Press Stylebook that use generic he, him, and his. When reporting on the credits for college students in the 1997 tax law, USA Today said, "A student who pays his own way gets the tax credit." It is not true that students who have attended public schools will misunderstand this. If generic he is still used and understood in standard English, we should continue to use it in Bible translation. It is the most precise way to translate the Hebrew and Greek uses of generic he. We should not give this up because it might become obsolete sometime in the future.

Nor should we assume that modern language trends are always morally and spiritually neutral, so that Christians should follow these trends or try to stay ahead of the latest fad. Bible translations have historically had a major impact on their own languages, and retaining the generic he will protect our ability to use this precise translation in future generations.

Nor is this matter one of literal versus dynamic translation. The Living Bible was a dynamic translation, and for the most part it was not gender-neutral.

Osborne says that some readers might misunderstand or be offended by the generic he. But this possibility does not compare with the certainty that all readers will misunderstand the meaning if he is changed to you or we or they where the original Greek or Hebrew text does not have those words or convey those meanings.

In some verses where I pointed out the singular pronouns in the Greek or Hebrew text ("his bones," Ps. 34:20, and "we will come to him" in John 14:23), Osborne answered by pointing to the nearby verses that have plurals. I agree that these other verses have plurals, but the point is, these verses have singulars, and they should not be changed to plurals in translation.

With regard to the word man, I did not argue for the generic use of "man" to mean "person." Nor did I argue that the same English word should always be used to translate a specific Hebrew or Greek word.

If Hebrew 'ish and Greek aner can mean "person" and not "man" in rare contexts and idioms, I have no objection to translating them this way. But the expression ha'ish ("the man"), as found in Psalm 1:1, never means "the person" but always means "the man." It applies to women as well, just as the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) applies to daughters, too. But we must not translate Luke 15 to speak of a prodigal "child" or Psalm 1:1 to speak of the blessed "person."

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Finally, this is not fighting "over the wrong issues." The Southern Baptist Convention and Presbyterian Church in America passed resolutions this summer opposing inclusive-language Bibles because they knew the accuracy and integrity of the very words of God are at stake.

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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