The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy

  • Vern S. Poythress, Wayne A. Grudem
  • Jan 1, 2001
  • Series: Volume 4 - 2001

Poythress, Vern S. and Wayne A. Grudem, eds. The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Words. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000. $19.95. xxix + 373 pp. ISBN 080542441-5.

It was, I suppose, inevitable, after Don Carson and Mark Strauss each wrote excellent little books defending the use of inclusive language for humanity in Bible translations (see my reviews in Denver Journal 1 [1998]), that a rejoinder should be published. Unfortunately, this book is such a complex combination of important observations, misleading half-truths, and linguistic naivete that it will only stir up emotions once again, further clouding what is really at stake (and what is not) in this debate.

Initial chapters largely accurately survey the recent history of the debate and defend an evangelical belief in the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. It is when the authors turn to their principles for translation and guidelines for when inclusive language for humans is and is not permitted, in their minds, that the confusion begins.
The authors early on claim that theirs is not a debate with egalitarianism or feminism but merely a contribution to the discussion of how to translate the Scriptures most accurately. But as their arguments are presented, it is clear that both issues are at stake for them, intricately intertwined. Thus they rightly point out that changing third person to second person or singulars to plurals for the sake of inclusive language does sacrifice a little in original meaning but they drastically overestimate how much is lost and do not appreciate what is gained. It is doubtful if most modern American listeners will interpret "blessed are those who. . ." (whether in the Proverbs or the Beatitudes) as a corporate reference that excludes individual application), but on more than one occasion I have add well-educated adults in churches that use the NIV ask me why the Proverbs were only addressed to men or sons and not applicable to women or daughters.

Grudem and Poythress also rightly point out that many printed media still use the "generic he"(and comparable exclusive constructions), that alternatives retaining the third person singular are awkward ("he or she", alternating between "he" and "she," etc.) and that those that switch to plurals are grammatically incorrect (according to historic English convention). But they say nothing about the fact that in spoken English only a tiny handful of people ever still complete a sentence like "No one brought ______ book to class" with any pronoun other than "their," and that the Modern Language Association has since the late 1980s authorized such usage for standard printed materials.

What initially purports to be a linguistic debate quickly turns theological as one discovers what really annoys Grudem and Poythress. Men, according to their version of complementarianism, are the representative heads (in the sense of "authorities") for the human race, and therefore all but the very most cautious usage of inclusive language (e.g., "brothers and sisters" for "brothers" and "people" for "men" in certain but not all contexts) is muting the masculinity of Scripture and undermining the frequency with which readers can recognize the God-ordained rationale behind the use of masculine language. At this point, they simply do not understand how language works and implicitly introduce a theory of linguistics that becomes absurd if one tries to apply it to languages that refer to gender in a considerably different fashion than does English (as a lengthy chapter in Carson's work discusses in detail, a chapter to which Grudem and Poythress offer no response except to say that they are not discussing the question of translating into anything other than English!).

Additional linguistic errors compound their theological arguments, as they claim that the Greek aner can never be generic (by the principle that if an exclusive interpretation is at all contextually possible, we can never assume that a generic meaning was meant!), and that adam in its first uses in Genesis already refers to maleness, despite the clear inclusiveness of both Genesis 1:26 and 27 before Adam is ever created.

No one of whom I am aware would want to assert that the NRSV, NIVI, NLT or any other partially inclusive-language translation now in print cannot still be substantially improved, and each of these versions has committees that are working to make precisely such revisions. Grudem and Poythress are correct to insist that for translators attempting to be highly literal (as was the objective with the KJV, NKJV, NASB and RSV), too much inclusive language does move the end-product a little ways down the road to dynamic or functional equivalence. But to criticize hybrid translations like the NIV or fully functionally equivalent works like the NLT for applying inclusive language is tacitly to argue that all translations must be literal and that there is no convincing rationale in any context for other kinds of translations. That our authors deny this logical conclusion in other contexts demonstrates that it really is not translation theory or a concern for the accuracy of God's word that most fundamentally motivates them, rather it is one particular conviction about what Scripture teaches on gender roles and the corollaries which they believe (erroneously) necessarily follow from that conviction (recall that Carson and Strauss are equally complementarian).

It is not surprising that Broadman and Holman would publish this work because of the heavy-handed politics in the last few years within the Southern Baptist Convention that has led to changes in the Baptist Faith in Message, additions which require adherents to hold to a complementarian understanding of gender roles in home and church, notwithstanding the fact that Southern Baptists have historically been almost as anti-credal as any wing of Christendom and that none of the major, historic creeds of the church, whether from the the first five centuries, the Reformation, or modern Baptist life has ever insisted on taking a stand on these issues. Particularly because I am a complementarian, I deplore the confusion that the publication of this volume will continue to generate, possibly on a very widespread basis (at least within the SBC), implying as it does that there is room for only one fully evangelical view on this matter and that it borders on being a fundamental of the faith rather than a considerably more peripheral issue.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary, Denver, CO
January 2001



Josh Lowery

Dr. Blomberg, forgive my intrusion into this older discussion. Here in 2009, I am only a prospective student in the early stages of considering seminary and have had my eyes continually fall on Denver. That being said, I was told by an acquaintance that he had heard "somewhere" of "liberalities" taking place at Denver. I knew not to what he referred, and as it turned out, neither did he. However, I was intrigued by your boast in the standard seminary info brochure regarding Denver's unique (among so-called "conservative" seminaries) "openness to women in ministry." And when I googled the general phrase "denver seminary controversy," this article of yours was the first result. I was intrigued to find that it touched on the same aforementioned issue.

I cannot claim a fully formed view on the subject of gender-neutral Bible translations. I confess that at the onset, when looking into the issue, I might generally tend toward the Grudem/Poythress position based simply on my own personal disdain for egalitarianism as an end unto itself--the gender-neutral translation idea having this appearance from a distance.

That also being said, the last sentence of your article jumped out at me as perhaps the most important. The implication in that sentence seems to be that the central fallacy of the Grudem/Poythress proposal is its implication that there can only be one correct "evangelical" view on the subject, and furthermore, their supposed hinting that said debate is central to the faith and not the peripheral issue you seem to believe it is. While, after reading your whole article, I am inclined to agree with you on the peripherality of the issue, I thought that statement to be a little odd when juxtaposed with a comment made just previous to it: "I deplore the confusion that the publication of this volume will continue to generate, possibly on a very widespread basis..."

What I'm getting at is this... As a prospective student who comes from and is longing for a conservative, Bible-first environment in which to study, I am ever-so-slightly tempted to wonder if gender issues in general have or are becoming sort of a "pet" selling point for Denver. It wouldn't exactly be a deal breaker for me, especially since what I desire to study has no bearing on the issue in the least. However, knowing that a supposedly "peripheral" issue like this has become central enough to boast about in the school's admissions literature would make an affirmative decision for Denver a little more difficult.

Can you comment?

Craig Blomberg, PhD

Yes, under Craig Williford, especially up until about 2006, it might have been fair to say that the issue was starting to become a little bit of a pet issue, though some events led him to back off somewhat from it during the last two years of his presidency. Under Mark Young, who starts with us July 1, while none of us expects any changes to our lack of formal doctrinal statement one way or the other, I don't expect it to be any high profile issue at all. I still am thrilled that ours is one of the rare environments where complementarians and egalitarians can get along well, debate vigorously, and go away friends, however, and I don't expect this to change.