This is a major hotbed of debate within evangelical circles, particularly since the new revision of the New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), has gone this route. Most evangelicals consider this move to be a sell-out to the liberal feminist movement, but some hotly argue that it better reflects current language usage. Currently, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), the Revised English Bible (REB), The New Century Version (NCV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and the New Living Translation (NLT) are the translations that have opted toward gender neutral language.
The philosophy behind gender neutral translations is that the use of the masculine “he” as a generic term to refer to both male and females is no longer the commonly accepted usage in the English language. The solution that they propose is to make the language plural. “He” becomes “they” and “his” becomes “their.” References that are specific to a particular person are left alone, only the general references are changed. Admittedly, there is a move within the liberal community to incorporate gender neutral language to refer to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, but to the best of my knowledge, none of the above translations mentioned as gender neutral have adopted this philosophy.
The danger of pluralizing the language is important to discuss. In some instances, the change is quite harmless. For example, James 1:26 reads in the NIV:
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”
In the TNIV, it reads:
“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. “
Yet, in many cases, the gender neutral language either obscures doctrine or the personal nature of salvation, allowing for a reading that is more acceptable to the Roman Catholic church.
For example, John 14:23 reads:
“If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (RSV)
Yet, the NRSV reads:
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
This may seem to be a slight change given the overall intention is that this verse is addressed to both men and women, yet it has profound implications. First, Jesus did not speak in plurals, he spoke in singulars. He wanted to make a point of emphasizing the personal nature of salvation. Salvation is an individual thing, not a corporate thing as the Roman Catholic church would teach. Jesus did not generically die for every believer, he died for each believer, and pluralizing the language obscures this important fact.
Making the pronouns plural also obscures many of the Old Testament prophesies about Jesus. For example:
“He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” (Psalm 34:20, RSV)
The gender inclusive version renders this verse:
“He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.” (Psalm 34:20, NRSV)
This completely obscures the messianic prophesy that David is making in this psalm.
At times, changing the singular to plural completely changes the meaning of the verse. For example, Psalm 19:12a is changed from “who can discern his errors” (NIV) to “who can discern their errors” (TNIV). At first glance, with this verse entirely out of context, this change does not seem too threatening. Yet, when you realize that the preceding verses of Psalm 19 are dealing with the perfection of God’s law. Verse 12 is taking that law and then applying it to the individual, as Paul does in Romans, to remind us that we cannot know our errors without God’s good and perfect laws. Yet, the TNIV, when “he” is translated “their” shifts the meaning of the verse to look as if God’s laws are the ones that have errors. The TNIV reads like this:
“The Law of the Lord is perfect…,The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy…, the precepts of the Lord are right…, the commands of the Lord are radiant…, they are more precious than gold…, who can discern their errors.” (Psalm 19: 7-12, TNIV)
Oftentimes, the word “man” is simply omitted. In verses where the text reads “men and brethren,” the TNIV simply omits the term “man” altogether. Also, of the 61 times that the term “Saint” is used in the New Testament, the TNIV has omitted 53 altogether in favor of “God’s people.” The term saint carries connotations of holiness and being set apart. It is a term of endearment given to the saved people of God. The change does two things. First of all, it reduces changes the emphasis from personal salvation to a corporate sense, as the Roman Catholic church likes to teach. Secondly, it emphasizes the Roman Catholic belief that “sainthood” is only for a privileged few.
Our salvation comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not membership within the church. The church is a sacred institution because individuals who make up the body of Christ are saved and sanctified by the work of Christ. Christ did not die to save an institution, but to save a people who gather together as part of an institution. As Martin Luther cried out, we are saved by grace and grace alone! There is no coincidence that the gender neutral translations are accepted by the Roman Catholic church, for these gender neutral translations obscure many of the holy doctrines that the protestants fought and died to proclaim.
There are nearly 2000 citations that evangelical scholars have addressed showing the dangers of gender neutral translations. In terms of casual reading, these changes may or may not be particularly noticeable, but for serious Bible study, they are a definite stumbling block. We need to hold translators to the highest standards of translations and be very careful of the biases that they bring to the table of interpretation. We also ought to ask ourselves, has the English language really changed that much as to make terms like “mankind,” that use the masculine in an inclusive way, offensive to the average person? Personally, I don’t think so.
This philosophy is not restricted to the liberal left, but is even sneaking into more respectable circles. Thomas Oden, the general editor of the highly acclaimed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures wrote in his book on pastoral theology, “taking special note of the maternally nurturing images associated with the third person of the Holy trinity in its classical, orthodox, ecumenical formulation, I will speak of the Holy Spirit in the feminine …” See: Oden, Thomas. Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. San Francisco: Harper, 1972. It is worth noting, that the ancient texts not only refer to the Holy Spirit in masculine terms, but there are a number of times that the personal pronoun “he” is used to refer to the Holy Spirit. Yet, as I mentioned above, theological interpretations will enter into any Bible translation. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.