I received my first Bible in 1976, the day I entered first grade Sunday school at the Briarcliff Baptist Church in northeast Atlanta. It was red. It had pictures. It was published by Broadman, the Southern Baptist publishing house. It was the King James Version. It was, in other words, all but unreadable to me. (I wish I still had it today!)
When, at age 14, I joined the church by profession of faith and was baptized, I received a new Bible. This time it was the New International Version. It was, in contrast to my old KJV, very readable. Like many young Christians, I started with page 1, read until about midway through Exodus—the mind-numbingly boring details related to the tabernacle—and then skipped ahead to the gospels, which were much easier to get through.
I loved the NIV at the time. I probably would still like it if I read it, although I believe N.T. Wright when he says that it takes too many liberties with Paul’s letters, slanting them in a conservative Reformed direction.
After flirting with the British-translated New English and Revised English Bibles (I’m an Anglophile, remember), I switched to the NRSV in the mid-’90s, in part because I became Methodist, and that was the preferred version for Methodists and other mainline Protestants. It was also the most widely read translation in the world of scholarship, embraced by Protestants and Catholics. It was by far the translation of choice in seminary.
(One thing we all learn in seminary is that Bible translation is as much art as science, and all translations miss the mark in their own ways. In fact, the good ol’ King James is still a very fine translation, but for its archaic language.)
I, like John Wesley, am an evangelical. Happily so! There is, however, a very conservative type of evangelical that rejects the NRSV because it made the decision to use gender-neutral language where it could do so without doing violence to the original Hebrew and Greek texts. When Paul, for example, says “brothers,” and—as even the biggest fundamentalist Christian would agree—is clearly addressing both men and women, the NRSV translates it as “brothers and sisters,” and includes a footnote indicating what the original language literally says. To me, that’s perfectly appropriate. I’m a big fan of footnotes, and the NRSV does a great job of footnoting alternate meanings and conflicting manuscript evidence.
The NRSV does not—I repeat, does not—use gender-inclusive language (and pronouns) for God. I’m sure there’s some ghastly translation out there somewhere that does that, but I would strongly disagree with that!
Now, the newly revised NIV, copyrighted 2011, uses gender-inclusive language to some extent. I’ve only read good things about it (and notice they’re not appending the “Revised” label to it; good for them!). My former denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, predictably, has an objection to it, and they’ve put that objection in the form of an official resolution. You can read about it here.
I don’t get it. I know that I don’t have to get it since I’m not Baptist anymore, but their resolution does speak to the “larger Christian community,” of which I am certainly a part. My question is, What’s at stake in the question of a limited use of gender-neutral language? Why are some Christians afraid of having a Bible that uses it? No Bible translation, even the most literal, is completely literal. All translations deliberately sacrifice literal-ness for clarity and sense.
Why is this sacrifice inappropriate in the case of gender?