by Vern S. Poythress
[“The TNIV Debate: Is This New Translation Faithful in its Treatment of Gender? No,” Christianity Today 46/11 (October 7, 2002): 37-45. Used with permission. Response by Vern Poythress to the parallel piece by Mark Strauss is included on pp. 43, 45, and is reproduced on this website.]
Political correctness can, I believe, influence Bible translation in spite of contrary intentions on the part of translators. The influence mainly affects details of meaning, so it may not seem too serious at first glance. But in the end it threatens the vital doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture.
Plenary inspiration means that the whole of Scripture—every detail of meaning, not just the main point or selected parts–is the word of God. This doctrine comes from passages where Jesus affirms details of Scripture: “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18 ESV), and from passages like Proverbs 30:5, “Every word of God is flawless” (NIV). In addition, the Bible indicates that we are under the authority of Jesus as our master, who speaks to us through the Bible. Choosing which details in Scripture we will accept makes us the master instead, undermining our relation to Christ.
Father in Hebrews 12:7
Now political correctness puts pressure on translators to change details of meaning that do not fit modern egalitarian (or “feminist”) expectations. How? In Hebrews 12:7 the New International Version says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” The TNIV changes the last part: “For what children are not disciplined by their parents?” The underlying Greek word is pater in the singular, which means “father,” not “parent,” and certainly not “parents.”
The official TNIV website nevertheless posted an essay defending this choice, aruging that it avoids misunderstanding: “Was he [the author of Hebrews] suggesting that girls never need disciplining? Or that a mother never should discipline one of her children, male or female, under any circumstances? These would be the clear implications of a literal translation” (www.tniv.info/resources/evaluation.php).
We see in these words a highly exaggerated fear of someone being excluded. And this theme of alleged exclusion has an affinity to political correctness. Suppose Bill is an advocate of political correctness. He does not like father in Hebrews 12:7, because it is a male term when a similar point could have been made with parents. The wording does not fit egalitarian ideology. How does Bill get this wording changed? He raises the fear that someone will misunderstand. He objects passionately:
The word father includes male bias. Modern readers will misunderstand it as excluding mothers’ discipline, or they will hear it as “offensive” or “insensitive” to women. To avoid this dangerous misunderstanding, the translators need to eliminate the maleness. But don’t worry, the main meaning is still preserved.
How do translators respond to Bill’s argument? Translators need not have any politically correct bias themselves. All they need to do is accept Bill’s unproven argument that some readers will misunderstand or be offended, and then they must make a change. They must change not only Hebrews 12:7, but also any verse that has a male example or a male representative in its expression of a general principle. In quite a few cases, a male meaning is there in the original. But if we include it in the translation, Bill claims it will be misunderstood. Maybe he even tells a story of his young daughter who misunderstood this kind of statement (not mentioning the fact that children misunderstand hundreds of other correctly translated statements in the Bible).
So Bill has found a powerful recipe for excluding from the English Bible anything that sounds politically incorrect because it uses a male example to teach a general principle, even if that meaning is there in the original Greek. In fact, the TNIV uses a policy of this kind: “Among the more programmatic changes in the TNIV is … the elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns” (TNIV, “A Word to the Reader,” p. vii). Such masculine nouns include son and father in Hebrews 12:7.
Similarly, in Luke 17:3 “if your brother sins” (NIV) becomes “If any brother or sister sins against you” (TNIV). Matthew 18:15 likewise changes from your brother to a brother or sister. Jesus used a male example to teach a general principle, but the TNIV makes it a double, gender-balanced example.
In short, Bill can manipulate Bible translators, precisely because he knows that translators have legitimate concerns for avoiding misunderstandings. He creates a false fear that people will think “if your brother sins” does not apply to a sister who sins. Of course readers know that it applies to a sister who sins, just as they know that “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exod. 20:17) also applies to not coveting your neighbor’s husband. But we should not change the Ten Commandments to say, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or husband,” because that would be adding to the Word of God. Nor should we change brother to brother or sister in Luke 17:3.
The TNIV policy also includes eliminating generic masculine pronouns, that is, generic he. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:28 in the NIV says, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.” The TNIV changes it to say “… and speak to God when alone.” Now the Greek original unambiguously indicates the addressees: “to himself and to God.” The TNIV switches this to an indication of the circumstances (“when alone”). But now the TNIV excludes even the possibility that the speaker can speak in tongues quietly to himself while in church (but not addressing the church and not disturbing the meeting), or the possibility that in a small, private group each person might speak to himself out loud.
No translation made before 1980 has when alone or anything like it. The TNIV changed to when alone not because of any more knowledge of Greek or of the circumstances in Corinth, but because it had decided in principle to eliminate masculine generic pronouns.
Our friend Bill can use the same arguments here as before. He warns translators about misunderstanding or offense from the expression speak to himself and he tries to compel them to change this politically incorrect speech. If they accept his arguments, they must change every instance of generic he throughout the Bible—and there are thousands of cases altogether.. Are you, reader, willing to have the meanings of all these verses changed around in dozens of subtle ways in order to eliminate generic he?
Consider Matthew 16:24-25.
NIV: … If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
TNIV: … Those who want to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will find it.
The TNIV converts singulars to plurals. The result has a similar meaning–but not exactly the same. The word he refers to a single human being, used as an example of a principle applicable to all. But the plurals those and themselves suggest a corporate meaning, where the group as a whole, all its members together, have a single cross. Together they “deny themselves”–perhaps their identity as a group. They have a single group life that they may save or lose. The TNIV refuses to let Jesus teach by using an individual as an example, and Jesus’ focus on the individual application is blurred.
Another kind of change appears in Luke 9:26.
NIV: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory ….
TNIV: If any of you are ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in his glory ….
In the TNIV the verse is no longer so clearly universal. Instead of speaking of anyone throughout all ages, it says any of you, any of the immediate people to whom Jesus is speaking at the time. Perhaps what he says to them is still generalizable, but how do we know? In the TNIV, maybe it only applies to people who have followed Jesus, not to anyone.
Consider also 1 John 4:20:
NIV: If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.
TNIV: If we say we love God yet hate a fellow believer, we are liars.
The generalizing word anyone leaves open the real possibility that the main trouble for John comes from a dissident group who had already withdrawn (1 John 2:19). By shifting to we the TNIV suggests instead a focus on hypocrisy among the immediate circle to whom John is writing, we who are in the church. This is a significant change of meaning
Hundreds of examples of such changes can be found in the TNIV (see www.no-tniv.com). The whole series of changes rests on the key, unjustified assumption that generic he must be eliminated.
We have concentrated on the disputed areas, because this is the issue. But it should be noted that some areas of the TNIV translation are not in dispute. The TNIV sometimes improves on the NIV. To separate between the disputed and undisputed cases, I recommend that readers consult the fullest treatment on the question, The Gender-Neutral Bible: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words (Broadman and Holman, 2000) by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem.
For now, note these significant facts.
(1) Generic he, though not as common as before, still occurs in major secular publications.
(2) It occurs even in pro-feminist literature, in the form of an oscillating use, with generic she for perhaps one page and then generic he for two paragraphs.
(3) People do understand such usages, on an obvious level. (For people even understand generic she when it is used to affirm a general principle that includes men, and some prefer this kind of expression, some do not.)
(4) Generic he is not offensive or insensitive, if in the feminist literature it is combined with equal time for generic she. The offense occurs if there is unequal time for male and female cases. The offense is thus not a grammatical question, or narrowly linguistic question, or a question of misunderstanding, but a cultural question. Any pattern of thought—not mere grammar—that does not show equal prominence for male and female is not acceptable to modern egalitarianism. But neither does egalitarianism accept the fact that the Bible in the original uses male sample cases more than female (remember the father and son in Hebrews 12:7)! So the real problem is that modern people can and will claim to misunderstand and be offended because the Bible in the original does not match their expectations and prejudices.
But then shall we update the Bible in order to make it conform to modern expectations and demands? Updating it makes it easier, but does so by simply giving in to a modern prejudice. Meanings and thought patterns in the Bible are compromised. The plenary inspiration of Scripture disappears in practice, because details of meaning are altered—always under the claim of eliminating offense and misunderstanding. But faithfulness to original meaning requires letting the Bible’s innately offensive elements stand. Whether these are minor or major, the principle remains the same. If we give in at this point, further down the road we will give up calling God Father, because this too is perceived by some as offensive. In fact, it is far more offensive than a generic he! If we give in here, we should get ready to pray to “Our Parent in heaven …” because the new Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon, with no new evidence, has already added the new definition Parent for Greek pater when referring to God (p. 787).