Gender Neutral Translations?

knox_bible_openedThe Christian Standard Bible, the updated version of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, a Bible produced by LifeWay Christian Resources, which is associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, was recently released. Some are suggesting that the CSB uses gender neutral language. These suggestions tend to produce hysteria among conservative evangelicals. However, in my experience, most misunderstand what a gender neutral translation is. It is my goal in this post to explain fairly what gender neutral translations are so that one can make an informed decision about them. I am not endorsing or criticizing any translation nor am I commenting on the CSB in particular at which I have never even looked.

In order to understand the issue of gender neutral translations, we must understand some basics about translation methodology (Paraphrases are not translations; therefore, I am not discussing them). There are basically two translation philosophies: Formal or Dynamic Equivalence. However, even word for word translations sometimes use a more dynamic translation when necessary. The only pure word for word translation is an interlinear Bible.

The preface to the English Standard Version (ESV) describes the goal of formal or word for word translations: “In each case the objective has been transparency to the original text, allowing the reader to understand the original on its own term rather than on the terms of our present-day culture” (Note that the concern of the translators of the ESV is the “original text”). As far as possible, formal translations attempt to translate each original word with one word in the receptor language and to keep the syntax as close as possible to original text.

The New International Version (NIV) is an example of the dynamic equivalence philosophy. The translators of the NIV explain their primary concern in translation as “the accuracy of the translation and its faithfulness to the intended meaning of the biblical writers.” Clearly, there is a difference in philosophy between the NIV and ESV. The NIV first and foremost focuses on the author’s intended meaning while the ESV is focused conveying the words themselves. Thus, a dynamic translation is not as concerned with the words; instead, it is concerned with conveying the thought or meaning of the author to a contemporary audience. Translators who are producing a dynamic equivalent translation are naturally more likely to have to wrestle with the question of gender neutral language; however, even formal translations like the ESV have to find some way to communicate to contemporary readers that masculine references sometimes include women.

Of course, everyone will ask, “Which is the correct methodology?” My answer is that I do not believe that there is a correct methodology. Both methodologies have produced useful translations that better help one to understand God’s Word. I use different translations depending on my purpose. For example, for preaching, teaching, and in depth study, I use a word for word translation to enable myself better “to understand the original on its own terms.” In addition, I would use a dynamic translation for reading the Bible (especially large portions), for a better understanding of the meaning of a text, for new converts, and for evangelism.

With these basics, we are now in a position to discuss gender neutral translations. First, I will describe what gender neutral IS NOT. Gender neutral translations are not LGBTQ friendly versions. They do not change gender specific persons into the opposite gender persons. In other words, God the Father does not become God our Mother. In addition, gender neutral translations do not change every instance of mentioning gender into a gender neutral term. In fact, changing genders in this way is not gender NEUTRAL. Below are some examples from the updated NIV, which is a gender neutral translation.

  • Adam and Eve are still man and woman (“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Gen.1:27).
  • Husbands are still the head (“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” 1 Cor. 11:3).
  • Wives are still called to submit (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” Eph. 5:22-23).
  • The office of elder is still open only to men (“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” 1 Cor. 14:34-35, See also 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 3:1ff)

The preface to the New Living Translation (NLT), a gender neutral translation, explains well what these translations are attempting to accomplish: “One challenge we faced was how to translate accurately the ancient biblical text that was originally written in a context where male-oriented terms were used to refer to humanity generally. We needed to respect the nature of the ancient context while also trying to make the translation clear to a modern audience that tends to read male-oriented language as applying only to males. Often the original text, though using masculine nouns and pronouns, clearly intends that the message be applied to both men and women…” In summary, gender neutral terms are used when the original text intends the message to be for both men and women.  Obviously, the problem is that the ancient cultures used masculine terms in a different way then our culture does. Thus, there is a need to clarify the original meaning for modern persons. Please, note that the translators of the NLT only use these gender neutral terms when it is the intent of the original text. Below are some examples of gender neutral translations:

  • ”’Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.”’ (Matt. 4:19 NIV)
  • “To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:
    Grace and peace to you from God our Father” (Col. 1:2 NIV)
  • “And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, ‘My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child'” (Heb. 12:5-6 NLT).

While there may still be some legitimate objections against gender neutral translations, there is no reason for the hysteria that generally surrounds them. In addition, there may be some good reasons to use gender neutral translations. For example, when I taught about this issue in Sunday School, one student suggested that these translations could be useful in instructing Muslim women to demonstrate that God cares equally for men and women. I hope this post will help others to use discernment in choosing a translation of God’s word.

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