Unmanning the Bible by S. M. Hutchens

Unmanning the Bible

The editorial “Heretical Bibles” in the April edition of Touchstone has predictably brought much response, both negative and positive. The letters in this issue from Mr. Hering and Drs. Moo and Padgett are typical of the former, and call for reply. Those who weary of our emphasis on this and related topics must understand that while we, too, would like to let them rest, the issues will not go away. We believe this to be the principal place of doctrinal engagement and defense in our day, where old errors are recrudescing in subtle and not-so-subtle modern forms, and against which the Church is called to engage as often as it is challenged. While this editorial is based specifically upon letters we have received, an excellent general explanation of “the necessary failure of inclusive language translations” by Fr. Paul Mankowski, “Jesus, Son of Humankind?” may be found in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone.

Mr. Hering and Dr. Moo have, each in his own way, accused us of uncharitableness, Hering because we have unkindly warned people away from finding God in the Bible or Bibles of their choice, Moo because we have wantonly scandalized the Church on a difference of opinion that does not touch the heart of Christian doctrine and upon which, therefore, earnest Christians should be allowed to disagree without suffering the disapproval of the Touchstone editors.

Moo’s reaction of deep offense as a translator of Today’s New International Version (TNIV) seems more reasonable than that of those who are willing to allow us our opinions as long as they can have theirs. He knows fighting words when he hears them, and therefore also, we presume, understands that what is at stake among those for whom this Bible is intended is nothing less than the division symbolized in his own cancelled subscription.

We doubt it is possible to identify people as abettors of heresy in a way that will sound charitable to them until they come to agree, so once again, we must go to the point. As the editorial and the history of our publishing on the subject indicate, we believe the egalitarian anthropology the wording of his translation supports does indeed lay violent hands on the heart of Christian doctrine, since it obscures and confuses headship in the human order that, according to St. Paul, directly reflects the Divine. This, we believe, is one of the principal points of attack in our generation against the orthodoxy Dr. Moo desires to uphold and defend. Because man is made in the image of God, bad anthropology is also bad theology. To misunderstand and misrepresent man is to misunderstand and misrepresent God.

We do not enjoy offending people, especially the decent kind of people that stand behind the letters written to us by our critics on this issue. We hoped the account of how far we forebear in our own publishing, identified by Dr. Moo as hypocrisy because we do not force our contributors to write exactly as we do, would serve as evidence of a reasonable and generous spirit. Apparently not. It is true, however, that we hold Bible translators to a higher standard than Touchstone contributors, and he is correct in thinking the editorial was aiming directly at, among others, the translators of the TNIV.

Dr. Padgett says we are being un-Christlike, and we presume this means that, like Mr. Hering and Dr. Moo, he is accusing us of uncharitableness, of treating sincere Christians badly by calling them terrible, false names, for which we should repent and give an apology to the innocents we have harmed. If things stand as he says they do in his digest of egalitarian conviction, however, the situation is even worse than that, for our un-Christlikeness amounts to belief in, and teaching of, a different Christ than his own.

Padgett’s Christ, the Christ of a rather large and influential new crop of Evangelical egalitarians, assumed a generic humanity that is equally a quality of men and women. This is found neither in Scripture nor in nature nor in Creed, but is the product of egalitarian re-imagination, read back into all three.

Padgett is right to point to the word anthropos as the token of the controversy, but very wrong in his Greek. The word as used in Scripture means “man” as English apart from egalitarian adjustment means man, as the Church has known man from its beginning, man as the proper title of the male as primary, comprehensive, and representative of the human race, something that can be seen even by readers of Bibles that have undergone egalitarian adjustment, whether or not they know the original languages. It pervades the narrative. One cannot rid the Bible of it by grammatical tinkering. It inheres as a fundamental structural element of the whole, there for rediscovery even if the egalitarians were wholly successful in their attempt to neuter biblical grammar. As we have observed many times, this is a commonplace of feminist theology, which, with unassailable reason, finds it necessary either to radically revise or to reject both Judaism and Christianity as hopelessly sexist from the creation narratives forward.

The egalitarian juggernaut breaks upon the rocks of the Bible’s very first chapter, from God’s seminal incursion into the formless and empty earth to the creation of a man like himself: “So God created man [ha’adam, LXX: anthropos] in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” So it is carried on through the Scriptures and by those who follow them, the man as the defining member of the woman, of the Church, and of the race. Naturally, the egalitarians will not recognize the connections. They do not see why creating a male first, identifying humanity with his name, and then making a woman from him, whom he in turn names, should have any bearing on their doctrine. This failure to see and understand is the chief of their faults as would-be teachers of the Church. One cannot place women’s ordination or any other issue that involves divine order to the side in such matters. They are all connected, and intimately, to what is identified in the Pauline writings as the headship of the man over the woman, of Christ over the man, and of God over Christ—not an invention of St. Paul, but a prior teaching of Scripture rightly divined and re-delivered to the Church with apostolic force and authority.

This knowledge will be compromised for those who rely on these bad translations, for this is the very thing they deliberately obscure in accordance with egalitarian doctrine, and for which they should be decisively rejected. The Christian teaching, as dark and blighted as it is to the egalitarians, is that the maleness of particular men, not “humanness,” is the essence and sign of the inclusivity in which they claim to delight. There exists no generic quality of humanness apart from the particularity of Adam and Christ as the comprehensive men any more than there exists a generic Godness apart from the particularity of the Father as the Source of the Son and Spirit. God did not become human except in that he was “made man,” which means not simply made human, but made human only and in so far as he was made a particular male, and so able to comprehend all men (including female men) in his person as the “firstborn of all creation.”

As for all the blustering, the accusation that we are mere traditionalists attempting to force our tastes on the churches, that we are nasty and uncharitable and whatnot, these distractions were anticipated in the offending editorial and dealt with there. Even if true, they are small matters next to the issue at hand, which is doctrinal, and very grave. If I have any qualms of conscience, it is not in that we used the word heresy, which refers to false teaching and its effect on the Church, but that to avoid graver offense, stronger biblical terminology referring to the character, origin, and ends of such teaching has not been used. If in this avoidance we have erred, it is the same error of which we accuse those who do not identify departures from the Faith with appropriate words, or oppose them with sufficient vigor—a serious failing indeed.

We have also received critical correspondencefrom a representative of a school very influential among conservative Evangelicals that endorses inclusive language versions by calling for realism in matters of Bible translation—that because language changes, Bible translation must accommodate the changes to be accurate. It should be clear from the editorial that we reject this approach as insufficiently appreciative of the doctrinal implications of biblical grammar and insufficiently critical of ideologically altered language.

Adherents of this school observe that if one is to convey the meaning of biblical Hebrew and Greek accurately to modern readers of English, he must, in order to give them God’s Word, translate it into egalitarian forms as regards man (though not God), but insist that this operation is still compatible with the complementarianism (i.e., male headship) to which they still hold. Their philologists are at pains to demonstrate the difficulty of achieving semantic equivalence in translation, and regard those who will insist on using superceded terminology on a new audience as unrealistic. They identify their own Bible translations as “gender accurate.”

The writer of a letter criticizing us from these quarters accused us of ignorance of this school of thought, as though any reasonable person, once confronted by it, would be forced to submit to its logic. On the contrary, much of what appeared in the editorial was in response to this way of thinking as involving a serious flaw: the apparently seductive notion that the principal goal of the Bible translator is always to achieve, as far as possible, semantic equivalence. Not so. As useful and necessary as this rule is, in Bible translation it must be subordinate to the grammatical requirements of the theology of the text. We believe semantic equivalence cannot in point of fact be achieved by the egalitarian forms of language for mankind because the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible reflect a doctrine, and thus also a semantics, of man in, with, and under a masculine-dominant grammar that the egalitarian forms cannot reflect. The grammar of the original languages, as well as that of traditional English, in other words, fits the theology of the Bible in a way the altered English the realists take as their ruling paradigm cannot.

The goal of the translator must be to transform or reform, not submit to, a conceptually or grammatically deficient receptor language. This may be supremely difficult, practically impossible, in fact, to achieve except over time, as the culture into which a translation is introduced is changed by the mind it finds in the Scriptures, altering its symbolic systems and its semantics accordingly. That this might indeed happen is precisely as unrealistic, but precisely as necessary, as the evangelization of that culture—for these are exactly the same goal. The conversion of a language group involves also the conversion of its language, just as its apostasy involves language’s degradation. Bible translators cannot make a principle of submitting to the latter on the grounds of semantic equivalence.

We readily grant that certain unhappy concessions must be made for initial communication, that translation is an ongoing task that must take proper account of changes in language, and that it is a supremely difficult art. The translator must often pass on a very unsatisfactory product. Be that as it may, semantic equivalence can never be the goal of the translator apart from that of the reformation of the semantics of a culture and its language better to serve the Faith. Not every language is equal in its ability to convey truth, but since every language changes—as the realists never tire of reminding us—there is always the prospect that what is lacking may be provided, what is wrong made right. Indeed, this is what we expect in the language of heaven, the first semantic requirement of which must be the removal of the influence of sin. (This is part of the lesson of Babel.) In the meantime we cannot employ translation theories that proceed as though this influence did not exist or were not a crucial consideration in the matter of “inclusive language” Bibles.

To submit to the language of a degraded receptor culture is especially blameworthy when it has only recently undergone ideological deformation, where echoes of a superior form are still strong enough to be recovered and re-instituted by Christians as part of their evangelical duty. The end of translation of the gospel cannot be simple communication, but the bringing of human language, by the sacramental and transformative ministrations of the translator, into conformance with the Word of God. In this we judge the inclusive-language Bibles to be retrograde and perverse.

S. M. Hutchens, for the editors

S. M. Hutchens is a Touchstone senior editor.

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