The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism
Baker/IVP, 223pp, pbk, £9.99
The inclusive language debate is concerned with Bible translation and specifically such words as 'man' and generic 'he' which, it is claimed, offend and exclude women, who need to feel 'included' in the Word of God. The sharpest controversy has arisen over an inclusive edition of the New International Version (NIV) and tempers have become frayed on both sides. This book is advertised, confusingly, as both 'the best and most balanced treatment of this controversy' and 'an able defense for inclusive language'.
D A Carson brings illumination to many areas of a debate which is often characterised by more heat than light. He is particularly helpful in explaining some of the complexities of translation. The process of converting from one language into another is more difficult than many realise, with value judgments and grey areas inevitable. Language and gender systems differ and the enterprise is far from straightforward, though not perhaps as complicated as the author suggests. Some of the more strident criticisms of modern versions spring from ignorance of how language actually works. This book, digested, should produce greater sympathy for translators, a reluctance to impugn the motives of those with whose renderings we may disagree, and a general lowering of the temperature of a highly charged controversy.
Carson's volume suffers, however, from two significant weaknesses. He is less than fair to the critics of inclusive language. The proponents of change are treated with scrupulous courtesy. While some of their amendments are penetratingly dismantled, the translators themselves are portrayed in a favourable light and the author bends over backwards to excuse some of their errors. Take, for example, one of the principles behind the gender-inclusive approach: 'The patriarchalism (like other social patterns) of the ancient cultures in which the biblical books were composed is pervasively reflected in forms of expression that appear, in the modern context, to deny the common dignity of all hearers and readers. For these forms, alternative modes of expression can and may be used, though care must be taken not to distort the intent of the original text' (quoted on p.41). Although Carson admits that this 'is not very carefully worded' (p.104), he argues, and hopes, that it could have been meant in a good sense. Just about possible, but highly unlikely.
Objectors to the changes are handled with less gentleness. Aspects of their campaign are certainly open to question and many of Dr Carson's criticisms of their procedure are perfectly justified. But extreme examples are quoted, irrelevant issues introduced, and their portrait is occasionally closer to caricature than description. A final chapter gives six pieces of pastoral advice-cum-rebuke, heavily weighted against the anti-inclusive language party. These imbalances damage the author's claim to even-handedness.
More seriously, this book fails to deal adequately with the basic issue:
What is wrong with the generic use of 'he' or 'him' in our English Bibles? Only feminist ideology (which Carson does not espouse) has made it a problem. Luke 9:23, for example, reads: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me'. This is perfectly comprehensible. The Greek pronouns are masculine and are so rendered in English. No one seriously imagines that the verse applies only to males.
But NIVI translates: 'Those who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross daily . . .' Why the change to plurals? It is not enough to say that the English language has changed. The overriding purpose is to satisfy a feminist agenda by eliminating the biblical practice of using a male figure to represent a general inclusive truth. The issue is not, as Carson would have us believe, clarity of communication but capitulation to propaganda. Thousands of such changes are being made, altering the nuances of many texts. This is not good translation, but accommodating the Word of God to the spirit of the age.
What will this book accomplish? It will educate some about the translation process. Unfortunately, it will confirm others in their conviction about the appropriateness of inclusive-language Bibles. That this is the view of the publishers, though not, perhaps, of the author, is illustrated by the gloating triumphalism of a 'blurb' on the inside cover claiming that 'current translations that refuse to update themselves gender-inclusively will quite likely end up in the dustbin of history'. May God grant that J I Packer's comment proves more percipient: 'Adjustments made by what I call the feminist edition are not made in the interests of legitimate translation procedure. These changes have been made to pander to a cultural prejudice that I hope will be short-lived.'