In the latest Bible dispute, evangelicals battle over gender

Saturday, February 16, 2002

Conservative Protestants often find themselves in theological arguments with liberals about the Bible's historical reliability. But an unholy squabble over Scripture has erupted in recent days that pits evangelicals against each other.

The flash point is the inclusive language used in the forthcoming "Today's New International Version" of the Bible, with questions of gender and proper translation sparking fierce debate -- plus a side argument developing over treatment of Jews in the New Testament.

What's at stake is more than victory in an intellectual game. Millions of dollars in potential sales could be on the line.

The International Bible Society, sponsor of the new version, believes change is necessary to reach 21st century readers. Its North American publishing ally, Zondervan, now has "Today's NIV" for pro-inclusive customers, and the original "New International Version," a sales smash since its introduction in 1978, for traditionalists.

But there's danger of a gender backlash among evangelicals -- the biggest consumer block among Bible buyers -- as other new evangelical versions enter a competitive market.

'A step backward'

Another problem is that James Dobson, the most influential personality in Christian radio, brokered a 1997 pact in which the Bible society and Zondervan accepted 13 anti-inclusive translation guidelines.

The Bible society is withdrawing from its "firm commitment," Dobson said, and "risks dividing the Christian community again, as well as damaging its own reputation." He called the new Bible "a step backward."

The language issue originated in the 1980s with the ascent of religious feminism. A panel from the more liberal National Council of Churches published translations of key Bible passages that abolished "male-biased" language regarding God and Jesus Christ.

Jesus' famous prayer became "O God, Father and Mother, hallowed be your name." To avoid male pronouns, John 3:16 turned into "for God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child." Instead of "the Son of man," Jesus was "the Human One" and "the Lord's supper" was "the Sovereign's supper."

Traditionalists and aesthetes blanched. A separate National Council committee rejected the approach when it produced the "New Revised Standard Version" of the Bible in 1989. This pioneering work left God and Jesus alone but used inclusive wording in references to humanity.

Soon after, the NIV translators began a rewrite, similarly using inclusive wording for humans only. The Bible society authorized publication of this version in Britain, but World magazine of Asheville, N.C., crusaded in 1997 against revising the NIV. In the end, the Bible society halted the British edition and vowed that the NIV would remain unchanged.

For future work, it agreed to the Dobson guidelines, later endorsed by major evangelical figures: Bill Bright, Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson and two Southern Baptist seminary presidents.

Then on Jan. 18, the Bible society wrote the '97 meeting participants that it was about to issue "Today's NIV," thus "withdrawing its endorsement of" the guidelines which are now deemed "too restrictive" because "English usage is changing dramatically."

Last week, the New Testament portion of "Today's NIV" was displayed at a trade show and on the Internet, with bookstore release in April. The complete Bible with Old Testament is due by 2005.

'They have broken faith'

Though the old NIV remains unaltered, Wayne Grudem of Arizona's Phoenix Seminary says he and others in the 1997 negotiations understood that the Bible society promised to end inclusive revisions.

"They have broken faith with the Christian public," he maintains. The Bible society, meanwhile, believes it has the right to change policies.

Grudem and colleagues in the conservative Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood of Louisville, Ky., quickly assembled a report citing dozens of changes they find objectionable.

Disagreements fall into several basic categories:

Added words. Rather than strict word-for-word translation from the Greek, some terms are added. For instance, "brothers and sisters" is sometimes used instead of the literal "brothers" in the Greek. John Stek, chairman of the "Today's NIV" translators, says the change is justified if the biblical group addressed included both genders.

In another addition unrelated to gender, "the Jewish leaders" now oppose Jesus in John's Gospel, not "the Jews," as in most translations. Stek says the change conveys the writer's original intent, avoiding the misunderstanding that he was referring to all Jews, a touchy matter in interfaith relations. Conservative critics respect the intent, but believe the literal translation must stand.

Male nouns. The word "man" is often changed to "person." Critics say that's acceptable when the Greek word is "anthropos," which can be generic, but the Greek "aner" means only "man." Stek says that's a matter of opinion.

Male pronouns. The new translation often uses plural pronouns and avoids the words "him" or "his." Critics complain this surrenders the intended spiritual force of verses referring to a single person. Stek thinks that's a modern, individualistic reading that doesn't reflect ancient culture.

Such opposition "comes from an ideological agenda," said Bible society spokesman Larry Lincoln, and is disobeying biblical teaching against dividing the church. Complicating matters, some opponents of "Today's NIV" are involved with new rivals like the "English Standard Version" and "Holman Christian Standard" Bible.

But Grudem contends fidelity to the exact Greek and Hebrew wording is vital.

"People deeply want to trust every word of their Bibles. They meditate on every word. They preach on every word," he said. "If you don't have a Bible you can trust, it strikes at the heart of the Christian faith."

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