A Review of Gender Language in Modern Formal and Dynamic Formal Equivalence Translations of the Bible
When was the last time you went into a bookstore to buy a new Bible for yourself? I mean, really buy a new Bible; not just one with a new cover and intact pages—a new version of the Bible. Were you amazed and confused at the plethora of versions, formats, sizes, bindings, colors, and sizes of print available? Did you struggle to understand some of the versions? Or did you delight in the clarity and readability of others? Did you notice the changes in gender language? Or did you wonder if you can trust this different way the Bible speaks to you? For evangelicals these are important questions.
New Testament and Greek scholar, D.A. Carson, states:
The sixty-six books that make up the canonical Scriptures stand at the heart of Christian faith and practice. Christians everywhere recognize that discussion which touches these Scriptures touches a vital part of their faith; . . . Evangelicals have therefore been sensitized to any deviation from an orthodox doctrine of Scripture; but some in their zeal have erected a fence around Christian Torah and see deviations even where there are none….”1 Some “fences” and “deviations” that evangelicals have erected around the scriptures concern methods of Bible translation and gender language. Professor of New Testament, Aida Besançon Spencer, writing in Priscilla Papers, would agree that fences have been erected around the Bible by a self-appointed committee which set “Guidelines for Translation.”2 She argues that the “Guidelines” represent a “gender matter”; they “do not appear to achieve accuracy. . . .”3
Author Ruth Barton, confronted with four masculine references in Psalm 1 as she read the first three verses to her young daughters, realized her girls could not identify themselves in this passage.4 Eugene Nida, eminent linguist, reckons that “no Scripture is regarded as fully effective for more than fifty years, so rapid is the change which takes place in languages.”5 David Leigh, Baptist pastor in Illinois, also responding to the fences of the “Colorado Springs Guidelines,” asks the question: “. . . if women really haven’t been left out of the meaning of the text, then what is wrong with translating that text into the correct dynamic equivalent to express this reality with clarity?”6 Many clergy and laity already use new English translations that reflect current English, and current English is increasingly gender inclusive.
To free ourselves from unnecessary “fences” we need to understand something about Bible translation methods. From the writing of the earliest documents, Bible translation methods and theories have changed over the generations, yet remained remarkably the same. The writers of the New Testament documents themselves translated or paraphrased from the Hebrew Scriptures or the Septuagint (which was itself a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). Translating “sense for sense” rather than “word for word” was defended by Jerome (fourth century), Luther (sixteenth century) and Dolet (seventeenth century).7 There has long been a debate over the different methods of translation. As early as 1540, Etienne Dolet formulated the first “fundamental principles of translation.” Nida summarizes these principles for us:
- The translator must understand perfectly the content and intention of the author . . . .
- The translator should have a perfect knowledge of the language from which he is translating and equally… the language into which he is translating.
- The translator should avoid the tendency to translate word for word. . . .
- The translator should employ the forms of speech in common usage.
- Through his choice and order of words… produce… appropriate “tone.”8
Translation theories and methods in use today have built on Dolet’s formulation. Philip W. Comfort, in his slim but helpful book The Complete Guide to Bible Versions, gives us clear definitions:
There are two basic theories and/or methodologies of Bible translation. The first has been called “Formal Equivalence.” According to this theory, the translator attempts to render the exact words (hence the word formal— form for form or word for word) of the original language into the receptor language. The second has been called “dynamic equivalence” by the eminent translation theorist Eugene Nida. He has defined the ideal of the translation as “the reproduction in a receptor language [i.e., English] of the closest natural equivalent of the source language [i.e., Hebrew or Greek] message, first in terms of meaning, and second in terms of style.”9
The formal equivalence method is often called a literal translation, and many consider it more accurate than the dynamic equivalence, and certainly more accurate than the paraphrase. In contrast, the dynamic equivalence translations are appreciated for their clarity, readability and contemporary style of English. The focus of formal equivalence is on the original language, necessitating the receptor language to conform to it. The focus of dynamic equivalence is on the response or understanding of the person reading or hearing the Bible in their own language.10 This hoped for response can never be exactly the same as for the original, intended audience as it is for today’s audience. Nida’ s goal for modern translation is that it should be understood. If it is not understood, “. . . the translation will have failed to accomplish its purpose.”11
Not everyone has agreed that changes are desirable; and worse, some argue that the proposed changes are invalid, inaccurate or unnecessary. There is disagreement particularly when inclusive gender language is used in the translation. In 1997, some opponents of gender inclusive language stridently voiced their opinions. They charged that the proposed changes in gender language meant that some “team of theologians” was “editing,” “degenderizing,” “scrubbing,” and “inserting their ‘better ideas’ ” to respond to “current social pressures.”12
Wayne Grudem, a New Testament scholar, argues that the translators who used gender neutral language “consistently disregarded precise, grammatically correct English equivalence and resorted to gender-neutral paraphrases.” Concerning Genesis 1:27 and 5:2, Grudem expresses great concern that changing the Hebrew word adam from man to human results in a loss of the “male overtones of the Hebrew word.” He writes, “What if these very same “patriarchal” elements in Scripture are part of what the Holy Spirit intended to be there?” For Grudem, changes of the words for father, sons, brothers, result in “unnecessary introductions of inaccuracy in over 4,500 places in the Bible.” In conclusion, Grudem doubts— contradicting Eugene Nida—that English has changed enough to warrant these changes in gender language.13
In defense of gender inclusive language in modern Bible translations, John R. Kohlenberger gave a passionate, credible, and authoritative lecture to the Christian Booksellers Association in July 1997. In his talk, “Understanding the Current Controversy Over Bible Translations,” he put the controversy in perspective when he stated:
The first printed English New Testament was produced by William Tyndale. . . . 1526, and in thanks for his difficult solo endeavors, he was strangled. . . burned at the stake—for heresy, not for feminism. But he might be charged with feminism in the modern context, because in dealing with the seventh beatitude, Tyndale said, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God,” not “the sons of God.” But, you might say, the Greek is masculine, so it has to be translated “sons.” No, Tyndale translated it “children of God.” And no one criticized Tyndale. Every Bible translation of the sixteenth century. . . retained Tyndale’s translation. . . .
It isn’t until the more grammatically exacting ASV and the New King James Version (not the Old King James) that we have renderings like, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” But I don’t personally consider this an improvement, because I think there are daughters of God who should be included in this as well.14
Kohlenberger gave many examples of how translators historically resolved gender language issues. But perhaps the best argument for inclusive language is to actually compare some translations.
Following are three passages quoted in four translations. The publishers of the New Living Translation have compared eleven Bible versions on a continuum from strictly literal to paraphrase:
New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition
(NASB) “strictly literal”
New Revised Standard Version
New International Version, Inclusive Language Edition
(NIVI) “literal with freedom to be idiomatic”
New Living Translation (NLT)
Genesis 1:26, 27
NASB: Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish. . . God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.
NRSV: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish. . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
NIVI: Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish….So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
NLT: Then God said, “Let us make people* in our image, to be like ourselves. They will be masters over all life—the fish. . . . So God created people* in his own image, God patterned them after himself; male and female he created them. (*Hebrew man )
NASB: What is man, that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?
NRSV: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
NIVI: What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
NLT: What are mortals that you should think of us, mere humans that you should care for us?*
(*Hebrew what is man that you…the son of man…)
NASB: Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
NRSV: Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
NIVI: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Those who would come after me, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?”
NLT: Then Jesus said to the disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. And how do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul in the process? Is anything worth more than your soul?”
1 Timothy 2:5
NASB: For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, . . .
NRSV: For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all— . . .
NIVI: For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, . . .
NLT: For there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and people. He is the man Christ Jesus. Gender inclusive language can be found in either the formal or dynamic equivalence translations: language that is clear and precise because it is inclusive. Many will argue the theological merits of some of these changes. All of us will come with our biases—theological, historical, social or emotional. It is our challenge to struggle through our biases, clarify our theological reasoning and decide which translation says it best most of the time so we can understand it and thus have no excuse for not believing or obeying it.
The next time you go shopping for a new Bible I hope you will go past the colorful advertising displays and take time to examine the different modern Bible versions for yourself. A careful reading of the intent of the translators and publishers, the credentials of the translators, and the theory and method of translation used will help you buy a trustworthy translation suited to your needs.
- D.A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 9.
- Aida Besançon Spencer, “A Gender Matter: Response to the Colorado Springs Guidelines,” Priscilla Papers Fall 1997, p. 18.
- Ruth Haley Barton, “Reflections on the Debate Regarding the NIV Inclusive Language Bible,” PRISM Sep./Oct. 1997, p. 32.
- Glassman, Eugene H. The Translation Debate: What Makes a Bible Translation Good?, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998), p. 32.
- David Leigh, “Analyzing the Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender- Related Language,” Priscilla Papers Fall 1997, p. 22.
- Glassman, pp. 12, 32.
- Glassman, pp. 32, 33.
- Philip W. Comfort, The Complete Guide to Bible Versions, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1991/1996 Rev.), p. 90.
- Glassman, pp. 48, 52.
- Comfort, p. 91.
- James Dobson, “Spooked by the zeitgeist: Don’t give in to the feminist pressure to rewrite the Scriptures,” World May 3- 10,1997, p. 30.
- Wayne Grudem, “Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort Scripture? Yes,” Christianity Today, Oct 27, 1997, pp. 27-32.
- John Kohlenberger, “Understanding the Current Controversy Over Bible Translations.” Kohlenberger website. Online. Internet. 19 April 1998, pp. 17-18.
The Publishers. Text and Product Review : New Living Translation Holy Bible, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996).
Lewis, Arthur H. “From A Translator’s Point of View.” Priscilla Papers Fall 1997:11.
Newman, Barclay M., et al. Creating and Crafting the Contemporary English Version: A New Approach to Bible Translation, (New York: American Bible Society,1996).
Kubo, Sahae and Walter Specht. So Many Versions? Twentieth Century English Versions of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975).
Mickelsen, Alvera. “Which Bible to Use?” Priscilla Papers Fall 1997: 16,17.
Nida, Eugene. Meaning Across Cultures. American Society of Missiology Series No.4, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1981).
Scholer, David M. “The New International Version Inclusive Language Edition: An Important but Mysterious Event.” Priscilla Papers Fall 1996: 1-2.
Sider, Ronald J. “The NIVI and the Future of Evangelicalism: An Open Letter.” Priscilla Papers Fall 1997: 6-7.