The NIV gender bender

Seems like the gender inclusive language debate is on for young and old again with the announcement that the TNIV is to be discontinued and that a new version NIV is scheduled for 2011.

Personally I think this is one conversation where the old maxim of God giving us two ears and one mouth, to be used in that proportion, may be something to take note of. Few who argue for formal equivalence would deny the need for some translation, short of everyone learning to read ancient Greek and Hebrew. Few who argue for dynamic equivalence would deny the need to treat the ancient text with integrity, lest we think we can make it say anything. Let us at least acknowledge some boundaries to the debate!

I think there are few who would argue that New Testament use of αδερφοί (brothers) to address disciples of both sexes is not problematic. So let us acknowledge we share this understanding, let us acknowledge that about one another.

For me personally, one of the language issues I find most difficult is how to deal with the issue of personal pronouns for God. He, him, his, I find these words very difficult, as using them gives many the impression that masculinity encapsulates God, when it does not, not at all. But the alternatives, she, her, hers or it, it’s create just as many, if not more problems. So generally I avoid pronouns altogether. But this approach is not without its difficulties either. So, let’s listen before leaping to conclusions about people’s intentions.

6 thoughts on “The NIV gender bender

  1. Mere idle pedantry of course… But I think you mean ἀδελφοί. 🙂
    Better say something constructive while I’m going…
    We don’t have anything even resembling gender-neutral third-person pronouns in English, and attempts to make them have conspicuously failed; trying it and seeing why is left as an exercise for the reader.
    Picking one gender and sticking to it means implying one gender is by nature more like God than the other. Picking “him” panders to Christian chauvinists; picking “her” panders to others who think maleness is so flawed that women can’t relate to a “male God”. Either position drives a wedge between men, women and God. But these, however common, are conceptual extremes and should not decide the issue.
    Between these extremes are egalitarian and complementarian (hierarchical) views of how men and women should relate, which conspicuously emphasise both biblical language and the equality of men and women in dignity and worth.
    It will be significant for both groups that scripture always calls God “he”. However, egalitarians will hold this to be an artifact of culture, since scripture sometimes uses female imagery (nursing mother, mother hen) for God alongside the male imagery (shepherd, farmer, warrior, king — since people who did interestingly varied things in antiquity were generally male). Complementarians will see God’s nature as most concordant with the intrinsic maleness of authority; which they find in scripture. Egalitarians, however, will see that as a cultural artifact too, which should be transformed by the implcit equality of the gospel.
    The appeal to biblical images of God’s feminine side is comparatively weak; being generous it’s a handful of passages — e.g. Isa 66:13 “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” — up against hundreds with male language.
    This is something of an impasse, as the choice of framework determines whether we see “him” as a figurative or essential when applied to God. Everyone concedes that, being non-physical, God has no chromosomes, genitals, and so on. In a clever part of Deuteronomy, he appears in a fire specifically in order to prevent images being carved afterward (4:15). But gender is considerably more than body matter, so Complementarians can still consistently see God as characteristically and qualitatively male in essence. So it will not do to simply write off gendered God-language as idolatrous in tendency, and so principally the projection of social power structures and conflicts.
    Here’s a better approach: What kind of language supports the “body” theology that men and women together comprise God’s image in humanity, and that we need all the gifts and capacities of both, with our relative strengths fully realized, and our relative weaknesses fully complemented?
    Careful teaching on the whole spectrum of Christian character should tend to this end — but has that done the job in the past, to the extent that it has occured? Seemingly no. Do we change this? Presumably yes.
    Calling God “he” is less prone to misunderstanding than “she”, as many people have understood this gender-neutrally for thousands of years; “she” still seems like a political statement. So why not work with this?
    Periodic alternation between male and female language for God is a gripping way to make everyone come to terms with their implicit sexual theology. This action will have to be explained, but is that a bad thing? Plato is dead, and the Platonist aspects of Augustine with him, so all Christians today hold that women are as much made in God’s image as men. “He” language for God already has to be carefully qualified to avoid endorsing (or appearing to endorse; or being misunderstood to endorse) naive idolatry, crassly un-Christian chauvinism, or inequal male and female dignity. Calling God “he” has biblical warrant, but is still *partly* figurative on any view in present circulation.
    Calling God “she” may be objected to as figurative and potentially confusing, but it is not unique in this respect, and it demands clarification and illumination in a way that more-of-the-same does not.
    Complementarians will still object that God is nonetheless intrinsically male, and should be addressed accordingly. They should, like anyone, and with humility, follow their conscience and their best understanding.
    But I think they can still use the language, if rarely, figuratively and provocatively, explaining what they are doing, in order to force Christian men to come to terms with casual chauvinism that they have derived from culture and upbringing, recognize that women too are God’s image, and genuinely live out equality in dignity, as they theoretically affirm.
    There’s certainly enough biblical warrant for figurative and even shocking prophetic language to impress on men the need to be consistently Christlike in their attitudes to women.

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  2. 🙂 I try to avoid pronouns too and find them problematic, referring to God is “it” is out of the question.
    Interesting though we were singing a hymn on Sunday with the wonderful line:
    “Soverign Lord gentle as a mother”,,, I am afraid that I rebelled and sang Soverign One, I am also given to replacing words where possibe.
    For examle I chose the Servant Song to be sung at my Welcome Service but opted for the gender inclusive version. I must admit that the other versions do make me wince, and the continued proliferation of KINGFAP language is too much.
    So I ask myself am I happy with the New Testament use of αδερφοί (brothers) to address disciples of both sexes? And I have to say in this day and age that NO I am not, to argue that the first disciples were treated equally reveals our ignorance of the culture of the day. Yes women in the Christian community were afforded greater respect and status than in other situations but equal???
    So I am sad to see the demise of the TNIV, and hope that the new edition bears the need for inclusivity in mind!

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  3. I must confess, I often change “me” to “our” when singing overly individualistic worship songs. Sort of like that scene from Life of Brian, “We’re all indivisuals” “I’m not”
    But I digress
    I likewise think “Lord” is a gender exclusive label too and I like to consider context before using it. I prefer “God” under most circumstances.

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  4. Well now! “Lady” and “Lord” could be combined as “Lordy”!! Problem solved.
    Actually, Sally, I think there are two ways in which ‘Lord’ might be gender-neutral.
    I did a quick lunchtime search for kuria, the feminine of kurie, ‘Lord’, wanting to see if queens were ever addressed in this way in Hellenistic times.
    Haven’t confirmed that. But I was reminded of “eklekte kuria” (to the chosen lady) in 2Jn [1], and also came across a Gnostic site which noted Hekate, a powerful female archon in their system, was addressed Kuria [2].
    [1] http://www.churchofgoddfw.com/monthly/did_what.html — 2Jn 1,5
    [2] http://www.granta.demon.co.uk/arsm/jg/hekate.html
    This is very partial, but certainly suggests there was plausibly a feminine form of ‘Lord’ used with comparable honour to the masculine. It could translate to English as ‘Lord’; but we’d have to check if the same honorary conventions that produce the anaemic title of “Lady” in English had parallels in Greek. Anyway, there are lots of checks and balances and qualifiers here.
    Secondly, however, terms with these kind of gender splits are often collapsed into the (formerly) male sense nowadays to avoid prejudicial usage: hence female waiters and actors.

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