The Inclusive-Language Debate: A Plea for Realism

  • D. A. Carson
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

D. A. Carson, The Inclusive-Language Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker; Leicester: IVP, 1998. 221 pp. Pb. $ 13.99. ISBN 0-8010-5835-X;

Mark L. Strauss, Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation and Gender Accuracy. Downers Grove: IVP, 1998. 240 pp. Pb. $12.99. ISBN 0-8308-1940-1.

One of the more astonishing and tragic events in the recent history of Bible-translating occurred in 1997 when a self-appointed group of largely non-academics (World magazine writers and editors, Southern Baptist leaders, James Dobson and others) raised such a ruckus about the new Inclusive-Language Edition of the NIV published in the U.K. and applied blackmail tactics to Zondervan and the International Bible Society who own its American rights that plans to publish it in the U.S. were suddenly abandoned. It is hard to know which is more distressing: the totally undemocratic methods by which pressure was applied to censor the new translation or the overwhelming ignorance as to what is involed in producing a reliable translation of materials from one language to another on which the criticisms were based. Given that many of the objections were also spearheaded by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, co-led by Wayne Grudem and John Piper, this organization and these men bear a certain measure of responsibility as well for the confusion that ensued.

The details of this story are told, much more dispassionately, in two recent short books which are all the more significant because they are written by complementarians who generally share the concerns of the CBMW with regard to gender roles in home and church but recognize that the NIVI (as the inclusive-language edition is abbreviated) had very little to do with any alleged feminist agenda and in fact reflects, with some exceptions, the types of updating in the translation of Greek and Hebrew words for humanity and persons, or their corresponding pronouns, that is necessary given current English-language usage if we are to keep the NIV (or any other translation) as faithful as possible to the original languages and their intent in their original contexts.

Carson's book is slightly shorter and less technical than Strauss's and ranges across such topics as the history of the recent debacle, the conflicting principles of the committee that created the NIVI and those of their opponents, the fact that all translation inevitably involves some loss of meaning, issues of translating gender and sex in a variety of the world's languages, key Bible texts where inclusive-language translation raises important exegetical issues, a consideration of how the English-language is changing (whether we like it or not) and pastoral considerations on how to avoid "Bible rage."

Strauss covers much the same ground. Indeed, at numerous points both authors use the identical illustrations, both because the critics of the NIVI in fact consistently pointed to only a handful of actual Scriptures about which they were concerned and because both authors had written articles on this topic before and each cited the other at several points. Strauss does more than Carson, however, with other inclusive-language versions, especially the NRSV, and Strauss alone surveys what truly deserve the label of feminist versions (i.e., those that speak of God as Father and Mother or Jesus as Child rather than Son, instead of using inclusive-language merely for generic references to human persons).

The wealth of detail and examples in each of these judiciously-weighed discussions can scarcely be reproduced in a short review. Suffice it to say that anyone who is worried about the handful of people who, like my wife and I (who are also complementarians), regularly use the NIVI in ministry (having gone to England to get our copies which cannot legally be sold in the U.S!) or about the growing number of evenagelicals who are opting for the NRSV not least because there is no acceptable inclusive-language translation produced by evangelicals, should read these two books and then stop worrying. We can only hope that periodic reports are correct that say that Zondervan and IBS have not given up on the idea of producing a different inclusive-language NIV for the U.S., even if it is still a few years off and will need to be somewhat more carefully done, with input from an even wider constituency of scholars, than its predecessor. The alternative is to alienate an entire generation of Americans and hinder evangelism among those who have not been taught nor find it natural to think of "men" as regularly meaning "men and women" as in fact it frequently does in the original biblical languages.

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