Problems with Inclusive Language Translations of the Bible

“Inclusive language” editions of the Bible run the risk of letting contemporary cultural pressures distort not only the wording, but also the meaning, of the original text of Scripture. For example, an inclusive language edition of the NIV was published in Britain in 1995 with this sentence in the preface: “It was often appropriate to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers through gender-inclusive language when this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit” (emphasis added). This sentence reveals one of the strong influences on the translators. They assume that patriarchalism should be muted, that is, silenced. Right or wrong, this appears to be the result of contemporary cultural pressure defining what in the Bible will be allowed to speak, and what will not be allowed.

Most modern translations are moving in this direction, for example, the New International Readers’ Version, the New Living Translation, the New Revised Standard Version, the New Century Version (Odyssey Bible). One assumption of most of these translators is that if a masculine word in the Greek or Hebrew Bible refers to more than males, it should not be translated with a masculine English word. What is astonishing to me is that the question never seems to be asked whether there may be a significant purpose for using a masculine word to refer to male and female.

For example, most inclusive language versions translate “brothers” at the beginning of the epistles, “brothers and sisters” and explain it like this: “It is clear that these epistles were addressed to all the believers—male and female. Thus, we have usually translated this Greek word [brothers] “brothers and sisters” or “Christian friends” in order to represent the historical situation more accurately” (from the preface to the New Living Translation). The problem with this is that it does not ask why the writers used “brothers” when they could easily have written “brothers and sisters,” since that is clear and simple Greek which was used other times (1 Corinthians 7:15; James 2:15). Something of the writer’s intention is lost in presuming to change his wording so dramatically.

Another example is the translation of the Hebrew word adam which is both the word for “human” and the proper name for the first man, Adam. This is probably not without significance. Therefore it is helpful to translate adam in a way that reveals this masculine orientation of the original writer in giving the first man (not woman) and the human race the same name, Adam. So we read in Genesis 5:1-2 (NIV), “This is the written account of Adam’s line. When God created man [Adam], he made him (masculine pronoun) in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them ‘man’ [Adam].” The significance of the man’s role in bearing the name of the race is obscured when inclusive language translates as follows: “This is the history of the descendants of Adam. When God created people, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and he blessed them and called them ‘human’” (NLT). The word translated “people” and “human” is, in both cases, adam, as it was used in verse 1, Adam. Something deep and important is being obscured here in the cause of gender inclusiveness.

For the cause of God and truth,

Pastor John

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org