Editor, Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Last Spring, CBMW released an in-depth review of the translation of gender terminology in the 2011 revision of the NIV. Last June, the translators of the NIV released a two-page response on the NIV website. The translators raise several important issues in their paper, so I will summarize their concerns here and offer a brief response to each.
(1) CBMW has a theological agenda that has skewed their analysis of the NIV, but the NIV translators have no such agenda.
There are two main problems with this objection. First, it is not true the NIV translators have no theological point of view. In fact, the letter itself says that the translators “mirror the spectrum of evangelicalism” and include both “complementarians and egalitarians.” It may be the case that the committee is not monolithic in its theological point of view, but make no mistake that the translators do individually have a point of view. To say that those points of view have no influence over their translation decisions seems a rather extraordinary claim.
We do not know the internal discussions that went on within the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation (CBT) over gender language, but it is well known that some CBT members have published strong defenses of an egalitarian position. It is certainly possible that their viewpoints had a strong influence on the CBT’s decisions.
Second, CBMW’s theological point of view does not necessarily invalidate the substance of the critique. CBMW’s review brings together a tremendous amount of data, and the data is cited time and again as the basis of the evaluation. At this point, it falls to the translators to engage CBMW’s handling of the data. Simply citing CBMW’s theological point of view is not a compelling response.
(2) CBMW fails to take into account the Collins Report data which proves that NIV translators made decisions that reflect the state of modern English.
CBMW offered two reviews. One is a white paper released through CMBW’s website, and the other is a review I published in the Spring 2011 issue of JBMW. There is considerable overlap between the reviews, but the second one goes into greater detail on some finer points. The JBMW review does in fact deal with the Collins data and shows that the Collins Report does not prove what the translators think it proves. The translators erroneously conclude that a decline in usage of a certain idiom must also mean a decline in understandability. But this is not true as is evidenced by the fact that the NIV itself on many occasions continues to use generic masculine pronouns.
Vern Poythress’s recent article in Westminster Theological Journal deals extensively with the relevance of the Collins Report data, and he gets to the heart of the matter:
People can recognize vocabulary items that they never use in their own speech. They can read and understand sentences that they themselves would never think of producing. Similarly, people can recognize and understand generic “he” even if they do not use it themselves…. The translators must consider whether readers will understand what the translators write, not primarily whether readers use the very same language in their own speech. Constructions that are less common, but still natural and intelligible, can safely be employed in communication. And then the conclusion follows: these less common constructions need to be employed whenever their employment results in greater accuracy.
(3) CBMW’s criticism of NIV’s rendering of 1 Tim 2:12 is based on “guilt-by-association” with Philip Payne, but in actuality the NIV rendering is adopted widely by both egalitarians and complementarians.
Both reviews from CBMW argue that “assume authority” is an egalitarian rendering. The NIV translators, however, argue that the rendering is neutral, despite the fact that this rendering was favored in print by a leading egalitarian scholar before the publication of the NIV. The translators are saying that Philip Payne’s work (including his 2008 article in New Testament Studies) had no influence over their rendering. In any case, whether they meant to or not, their rendering is one that is favored by egalitarians.
One other item is worthy of note on this rendering. By their own admission, “assume authority” is neutral where the previous rendering “have authority” was not. In other words, the 1984 NIV favored an interpretation that supported a complementarian point of view. The 2011 NIV now has a rendering that can be used to support an egalitarian view. If we accept the translators’ argument that “assume authority” is neutral (which I don’t), the translators have nevertheless acknowledged that the egalitarian view is no longer excluded by the NIV’s rendering of 1 Tim 2:12. This is a tremendous reversal on the most contested verse in the gender debate.
(4) CBMW has a simplistic view of word meaning—as if words can only have one meaning.
Of course this is not how the CBMW reviews treat the meanings of words. Scholars on both sides of the debate recognize that words have a semantic range, and their meaning in a given text is determined by context. For example in the JBMW review, I write about the meaning of anthrōpos in 2 Tim 2:2. I acknowledge that anthrōpos can be a generic reference to “human beings” or it can be used to refer to male persons only. Context is king, and I argue at length that context determines this particular use of anthrōpos as masculine. We know that words can have more than one meaning.
However, we also recognize that the meanings of words are not infinitely elastic, as if any word could take any meaning. Our objection to the new NIV is when it strays outside of recognized, well-established ranges of meanings of very common words. For example, the Greek word adelphos (“brother”) occurs 1,269 times in the New Testament and the Septuagint, and the singular form never means “brother or sister.” The word patēr (“father”) occurs 1,861 times, and the singular form never takes the gender-neutral sense “parent.” The word huios (“son”) occurs 5,581 times, and the singular form never means “child.” Yet the NIV often translates these singular terms in gender-neutral ways, and in so doing it exceeds the legitimate boundaries on the range of meanings of these words.
(5) CBMW has failed to acknowledge that many translations (including the ESV) make changes that appear to “avoid” masculine terminology.
Yes, other translations make changes that change earlier masculine-specific terminology to something that is not masculine-specific. But they do this only when the original Hebrew or Greek text did not have a masculine-specific meaning. This objection quite simply misses the whole point of our critique. The issue is not about grammatical gender but about the implication of biological gender that would or would not have been plain to the original readers. Where the original Greek and Hebrew texts encode masculine meaning, it should be brought out in English translation. And it is here that we find hundreds of examples of the 2011 NIV falling short. In over 3,000 places it removes the masculine meaning that would have been evident to the original readers of the Bible.
I want to say that I have the utmost respect for the scholarship represented by the NIV translators. I am personally indebted to the work of Douglas Moo, Craig Blomberg, Gordon Fee, Bill Mounce, et al., and I am grateful for their vast contributions to the evangelical cause. I do not think it is for a lack of scholarship or hard work on their part that we have these differences over the 2011 NIV. We have a philosophical difference over the best way to render the Bible into English when there is a clear masculine meaning in the original Hebrew or Greek text, and at numerous points this difference has implications for the Bible’s gender language in English.