Analyzing Today's NIV Below the Surface

Anyone can see that the TNIV (Today's New International Version, an update of the New International Version) makes changes to the NIV in the area of gender. Some of the changes are legitimate, and are in line with the Colorado Springs Guidelines on Gender Language (footnote1). But many of these changes (see here for a list of inaccuracies) look suspiciously like movement in the direction of "political correctness." The "Kept the Faith" website contains a list of some problem verses, and elsewhere there are several kinds of critical analysis of TNIV revisions.

In spite of documented problems with TNIV, some people defend the problematic changes (footnote2). We must dig deeper if we are to make up our minds when we hear these defenses.

A full discussion of the issues can be found in the book by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A. Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Words (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000) (soon to be online here at the KepttheFaith website). This book came out in the year 2000, before the publication of the TNIV; but the principal issues have not changed since then. In fact, in its treatment of gender the TNIV differs little from the British Version New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI 1996). The NIVI was produced by substantially the same translation committee as was responsible for the TNIV (the Committee on Biblical Translation associated with the International Bible Society). The Poythress-Grudem observations about the NIVI apply with little alteration to the TNIV.

We will here do something briefer. We look at three passages in detail, to show that meaning changes have indeed taken place in the TNIV, and that defenders either do not know what they are talking about, or are presenting evidence in a one-sided fashion.

Luke 17:3

NIV: If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

TNIV: If any brother or sister sins against you, rebuke the offender; and if they repent, forgive them.

The TNIV exhibits a considerable number of questionable changes, but we will focus on only one of them, namely the change from "brother" in the NIV to "brother or sister" in the TNIV.

Facts about the key word adelphos ("brother")

The underlying Greek text has the word adelphos, masculine singular. We can summarize the basic facts about Greek as follows.

  1. The Greek word adelphos, when used in the singular in the context of an ordinary family, means "brother." ("James, the brother [adelphos](footnote3) of John" Acts 12:2 NIV.) It does not mean "sibling" (with no male marking), and certainly not "sister."
  2. Greek also has a related feminine form adelphe, which means "sister." ("Mary and her sister [adelphe] Martha," John 11:1 NIV.)
  3. When talking about a group of siblings, the feminine plural of adelphe would be used for a group of female siblings ("sisters"). For example, John 12:3, referring to Mary and Martha, says, "So the sisters [adelphe] sent word to Jesus ...," (NIV). The masculine plural of adelphos would be used for a group of male siblings ("brothers"). ("He saw two brothers [adelphos], Simon called Peter and his brother [adelphos] Andrew," Matt. 4:18 NIV.) For a mixed group of brothers and sisters, there are two alternatives. One could use both masculine and feminine forms in order unambiguously to include both. ("If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers [adelphos] and sisters [adelphe]--...," Luke 14:26 NIV.) Or one could use the masculine plural form alone, and let the context indicate that sisters are included. ("Therefore, I urge you, brothers [adelphos], in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, ...," Rom. 12:1 NIV. For examples where literal brothers and sisters are in view, see Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, p. 263.)
  4. In addition to the literal use for ordinary brothers, the word adelphos has an extended use in which it refers to close associates. The most common case in the New Testament is the well-known use in which one refers to fellow Christians as "brothers." (Rom. 12:1, and many other passages.) But it also occurs in referring to fellow countrymen. For example, in Acts 3:17 Peter addresses fellow Jews: "Now, brothers [adelphos], I know that you acted in ignorance" (NIV). And it can refer to an associate more generally, anyone who is a "neighbor." ("But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother [adelphos] will be subject to judgment," Matt. 5:22 NIV.)

(For more extended discussion of the word adelphos, see Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, pp. 263-276.)

Since Luke 17:3 uses the masculine singular form of adelphos, the translation "brother" is most reasonable. If a Greek speaker wants to say "brother or sister," he can use the masculine and feminine singular forms side by side. ("Suppose a brother [adelphos] or sister [adelphe] is without clothes and daily food," James 2:15 NIV.) When the masculine singular alone occurs, as in Luke 17:3, it basically means "brother" (possibly in the extended sense), not "brother or sister."

Confusion from defenders

Some defenders of the TNIV enter at this point, and try to justify what the TNIV does. But much of the defense introduces confusion rather than light.

For example, defenders may fail to distinguish between the singular and plural forms of the word adelphos. The plural, as we have seen, can in some contexts be used to refer to mixed groups that include both men and women. But the singular is different. The masculine singular is used to refer unambiguously to a man.

Now why should the behavior of Greek be different for the singular and the plural? The reason is fairly simple. In the plural we are sometimes dealing with mixed groups, including both men and women. Greek must use some gender (just omitting the gender is not grammatically possible). So masculine is used. But a single individual, as opposed to a group, cannot be mixed. The masculine singular adelphos is unambiguously male, while the feminine singular adelphe is unambiguously female. (See Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, pp. 268-269.)

Next, note that Luke 17:3 expresses a general principle, namely that we should rebuke and forgive those who sin. This general principle applies to both men and women who sin. Hence, a defender concludes, we need explicitly to make this inclusion of women plain.

But the conclusion does not follow. The Bible regularly uses individual cases to illustrate and express general principles. The individual cases can be either male or female, and need not be gender-neutral. For example, the wise man who builds his house on the rock in Matthew 7:24 illustrates a principle applying to both men and women who hear Jesus' words. God "settles the barren woman in her home" (Ps. 113:9 NIV), illustrating the care that he has for both men and women who find themselves childless. Exodus 20:17 says, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife," leaving us to infer that it is also wrong for a wife to covet someone else's husband.

Luke 17:3-4 sets forth a case with some particulars, not only by starting out with "If your brother sins," but continuing with "if he sins against you seven times in a day." The particular case can involve a male example, without undermining the fact that the general principle includes both men and women.

The TNIV changes the introductory expression by making it say, "If any brother or sister...." It is not any longer "your brother" (NIV) but "any brother or sister." The insertion of "any" pushes things a little more in the direction of a generality, less in the direction of a particular case through which one illustrates the generality. This change already somewhat obscures the way in which Luke 17:3 starts with a singular case. Luke 17:3 mentions a brother as the starting case. This is no way undermines the generality of the principle.

Defenders also tend to overlook another subtle meaning difference, the difference between using a single designation like "your brother" and a double designation like "any brother or sister." "Any brother or sister" invites us to consider two different kinds of cases, flipping between them in our minds. These two are then the basis for arriving at a general principle. In the end, the general principle is the same. But the way in which one arrives at the general principle is subtly different. A writer who wants to express a general principle must bear in mind that both approaches have their strengths. By focusing on one example, one sets forth the principle more vividly and pointedly. By providing a list with two or more examples, one emphasizes that the reader should look out for all kinds of cases differing in various ways from each other. The meaning effects are different with these two strategies. In Luke 17:3-4, Jesus has chosen the first strategy (with one starting case), not the second.

Next, defenders may introduce confusion by claiming that everything is different with the extended use of the word adelphos ("brother"), as opposed to the literal use for an ordinary brother. Certainly the two uses can be distinguished. But it is evident that the extended use is built on the ordinary use. It is natural to assume that many meanings from the ordinary use carry over by analogy to the extended use. And indeed this is the case. For example, in Romans 16:24 the Apostle Paul refers to a Christian man as "our brother Quartus" (NIV), using the masculine singular adelphos. In Philemon 2 he mentions a Christian woman, "Apphia our sister" (NIV), using the feminine singular adelphe. A group of Christian men are designated "brothers" using the masculine plural (adelphos, 2 Cor. 8:23), while a group of Christian women are designated "sisters" using the feminine plural ("Speak to my sisters [adelphe] that they love the Lord, and be content with their husbands in flesh and in spirit"; from outside the New Testament in Ignatius to Polycarp 5:1, Loeb Library). A mixed group of men and women Christians can be addressed as "brothers" (adelphos, masculine plural, Rom. 12:1), but can also be addressed as "brothers [adelphos] and sisters [adelphe]" ("Let us then have faith, brothers and sisters," with a masculine plural followed by feminine plural; from outside the New Testament in 2 Clement 20:2; see also 2 Clement 19:1). The pattern matches what we have described in the literal use for ordinary brothers and sisters.

Next, defenders may confuse things by appealing in a slanted way to Greek lexicons. For the word adelphos the standard New Testament Greek lexicon by Bauer (BDAG) lists both the literal use "brother" and the extended uses. Under the extended uses it has descriptions such as "compatriot" and "neighbor." "Aha!" someone says. "You see that BDAG has 'neighbor.' BDAG proves that adelphos can be gender-neutral, with no male meaning component."

But it does no such thing. One must understand what a lexicon is saying, rather than just leaping to conclusions because of the mere occurrence of the word "neighbor." In context, BDAG is explaining the same facts that we laid out under point 4 above, namely that adelphos has an extended use. BDAG uses the word "neighbor" to indicate what kind of close associate is in view in one of the cases. The complete list of cases includes the following: (a) the close associate may be a fellow Christian ("brother, fellow member," meaning 2a in BDAG); (b) he may be a "compatriot" (meaning 2b); (c) he may be someone who stands in the relation of "neighbor" (meaning 2c); or (d) he may be a person "in very high position" (meaning 2d). BDAG is not actually making any claim about maleness. It is not asserting that adelphos has now lost all maleness; neither is asserting that it retains a male meaning. It is simply not addressing the question. It is rather describing how the extended use differs in reference from the literal use. The evidence given two paragraphs above shows that, in fact, adelphos retains its male component in singular uses of the extended meaning.

Why not translate Luke 17:3 with "your neighbor"? BDAG might appear to endorse this solution, not of course because the male meaning is lost, but because "neighbor" indicates that we are dealing with an extended use. Actually, it is not quite clear whether Luke 17:3 involves the literal or the extended use of adelphos. Conceivably, in making the statement in Luke 17:3, Jesus wants us to think of a case involving a literal brother. This one case then illustrates what our responsibilities are in many other cases. More likely, Luke 17:3 involves an extended use. The case of a literal brother would certainly apply, but what we are told is vague: this person is a close associate, whether a literal brother or a fellow Christian or a compatriot or a neighbor. A case involving a fellow Christian believer would certainly fit, and might be the first to come to mind for many readers of Luke 17:3. The difficulty with "your neighbor" is that it does not suggest the family-like intimacy and family-like responsibilies that belongs to the connotations of "brother," even in its extended use. Nor does it suggest so pointedly that a "brother" in the sense of a Christian associate may be the first and most obvious place in which to make the application. For these reasons, the TNIV is undoubtedly right in avoiding "neighbor" and sticking with "brother." But having made this decision, it cannot justify adding "or sister." That represents a change of meaning from the Greek.

Weighing alternatives

We may illustrate the issue another way by standing back from the TNIV and asking what other translations did before 1980. All the translations that we have checked have "brother" (not "brother or sister"). Here they are: the King James Version (KJV 1611), Revised Version (RV 1881), American Standard Version (ASV 1901), Moffatt (1922, 1935), Montgomery (1924, 1952), Goodspeed (1931), Berkeley (1945, 1959, 1969), Revised Standard Version (RSV 1946, 1952, 1979), Phillips (1958), New English Bible (NEB 1961, 1970), New American Standard Bible (NASB 1963), New American Bible (NAB 1970), Living Bible (LB 1971), Translator's New Testament (TNT 1973), New International Version (NIV 1973, 1978, 1984), Good News Bible (Today's English Version; GNB 1976), New King James Version (NKJV 1979, 1982).

This list is all the more impressive because it includes translations with a variety of approaches. The Living Bible is by its own admission a paraphrase, representing the meaning only loosely. The Good News Bible rests on principles of "dynamic equivalent translation," whereas some of the others tend more towards word-for-word equivalence. The Translator's New Testament pays special attention to translation issues. The Montgomery translation was done by a woman, Helen Barrett Montgomery. Finally, the NIV is the predecessor on which the TNIV was based, so one must ask why the TNIV undertook to change it.

Defenders usually focus on giving arguments why the TNIV is "acceptable." But really, to justify the TNIV they must do more. Any translation should not only aim at doing a minimally "acceptable" job of capturing some of the meaning, but should do a maximal job of capturing as much meaning as it can, within the limits in which it works. (On types of translation, see Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, chap. 4, pp. 57-90.) Since the meaning of the TNIV is demonstrably different from all these earlier versions, we must ask, "Is the TNIV demonstrably better than all of them?" And why should we believe that it is better? What has changed, to justify this clear break with virtually every translation done before 1980?

Scholarly knowledge of the Greek language continues to grow. But scholars have been working with Greek for centuries, and the increments possible at this point tend to be very small. Has our knowledge of adelphos changed? Not really.

Increased modern sensitivity to gender issues has led people to reinspect previous knowledge of adelphos. Maybe at some point we have had a small incremental gain. But there are also new dangers. The present politically heated atmosphere about gender, combined with the propensities of sinful human nature, tempts people to one-sidedness. Certainly on our side there is danger that some people will take overly rigid positions in reaction to present-day cultural tendencies. (But note that the Colorado Springs Guidelines <>  acknowledge language change and allow for exceptional cases.) But on the other side people run the danger of engaging in wishful thinking. How convenient it would be if the Bible offered no resistance to rewording it in harmony with politically correct modes of speech. People who wish it were so look for evidence that it is so. If they find even one exceptional case pertaining to a particular word, they may be tempted to act as if the exception has become the rule, while the rule becomes the exception. Then they have an excuse for large-scale alterations in gender. (See the discussion in Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, Appendix 2, pp. 321-333.)

In any case, translators of previous generations, going all the way back to the KJV, were often very well qualified in their knowledge of Greek (why else would they be asked to serve as translators?). They knew the basic facts. They certainly knew that adelphos in the plural can refer to both men and women (depending on context), because this fact is steadily visible in the New Testament.

So the changes are not due to changes in knowledge of Greek. Has the English language changed since 1980? Ah, yes, feminism has raised serious questions about supposed "sexism" in English, and various pressures have led to decreasing use of some expressions, such as decreased use of "men" when the referent includes both men and women. But has the meaning of "brother" or "sister" changed? No. "Brother" may be used less often in contemporary speech to describe a fellow Christian (though it is still common in some African-American churches). But that does not help at all to explain a change from "brother" to "brother or sister."

Modern culture

At bottom, the issue for Luke 17:3 is not about the meaning of the Greek. (If the Greek actually meant "brother or sister," as a directly expressed meaning, earlier translations would have done it this way.) Nor is it about whether "brother" or "sister" is understandable in English when used in an extended sense. The TNIV of Luke 17:3 uses "brother or sister," thus admitting that these words are understandable in the extended sense.

Then what is the real issue? It is the modern setting since roughly 1980. Since 1980 not only the TNIV but several other translations have gone in a "gender-neutral" direction. (See Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, pp. 1-36.)

Some defenders candidly admit that, at least for some verses, the main issue does not really concern directly expressed meaning in Greek, but modern cultural expectations. Grant Osborne says, "... the biblical writers themselves would most likely [use inclusive language] ... on the principle of becoming 'all things to all people,' since many in our culture could be confused or offended by masculine language" ("Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort Scripture? No," Christianity Today 41:12 [Oct. 27, 1997]: 33-39). Not only Osborne but others worry that people "could be confused or offended" unless we remove masculine language. (For a thorough discussion of these issues we must once again refer to Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, especially pp. 163-179, 203-212.)

Take first the issue of confusion. Are people really likely to be confused in Luke 17:3 by reading "your brother" instead of "brother or sister"? The Bible contains many passages in which it expresses general principles using single cases. Some of these cases involve individual male examples, while others involve female examples. It insults readers to say that they cannot make sense of this. (See Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, p. 168.) All the translations before 1980 thought that readers could make sense of it.

What about offense? It could be offensive to say "brother," rather than "brother or sister." Why? Because "many in our culture" (Osborne's words) expect speakers and writers to show appropriate "sensitivity to gender issues" by carefully sticking to gender-neutral expressions whenever they make general statements. "Brother or sister" is in line with the way in which many modern people have learned to express themselves, whereas "brother" is not (in a context like Luke 17:3).

Such an argument has some plausibility, and may sound attractive. But let us consider how far we have come. We are not now talking about the meaning of the Greek. Nor are we talking about the meaning of the English words "brother" and "sister," both of which mean about what they meant thirty years ago. We are talking about cultural expectations. Shall we "update" the way in which the Bible expresses things, so that these updated expressions fit in with what the surrounding culture expects of "sensitive" people?

Shall we give in to modern culture?

Well, dear readers, you now have the facts. We invite you to make up your own minds about what you expect of a Bible translation. Some people undoubtedly will want this updating, if only so that they will not be embarrassed and apologetic when they try to explain a Bible verse to their "cultured" friends. But for our part, we do not approve of it, and we think there are very good reasons for avoiding any translation that goes this way. Briefly:

  1. It compromises meaning of the Bible in the original languages. This should be evident from the discussion above.
  2. Plenty of things in the Bible are going to "offend" modern people, for all kinds of reasons. The Bible is innately offensive, because it calls for people to abandon totally their own way. "Repent and come to God through Christ." Sinful people do not like that. So early on they might as well face the fact: the Bible demands to be read on its own terms and not on our pre-set, prejudiced, sinful modern terms.
  3. The principle of avoiding offense begins a slide down into more and more compromise. What do we do when people are offended by calling God "Father"? Or when they are offended by hell? As Poythress and Grudem say, "Such pressure to change the text of Scripture will be relentless. It will be applied to every Bible translation, and it will not be satisfied merely with the kinds of changes in the NRSV [New Revised Standard Version, which is gender-neutral]. If evangelical translators and publishers give in to the principle of sacrificing accuracy because certain expressions are thought to be offensive to the dominant culture, this altering of the text of Scripture will never end. And then readers will never know at any verse whether what they have is the Bible or the translator's own ideas." (Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, p. 187; see also pp. 169-175)
  4. Ordinary readers never know just where the compromises have occurred. They are locked in to whatever judgments the translators have made on their behalf.
  5. Updating obscures the differences between the customs of our own time and the ancient ways of thinking, speaking, and acting in the Bible. To do the best job of applying the Bible involves actually seeing something of the setting from which the Bible comes, in order better to apply it to our own. Updating short circuits the process. Paternalistically, the translator decides for readers beforehand what will and will not "offend" them, and what they do and do not need to know about original meanings within their original context.

Hebrews 12:7

Next, consider Hebrews 12:7. We focus on the second half of the verse.

NIV: For what son is not disciplined by his father?

TNIV: For what children are not disciplined by their parents?

The TNIV changes "son" to "children" and "his father" to their parents." There are also changes in neighboring verses (12:5, 6, 7a) from "son(s)" to "child(ren)." In verse 8 "sons" in the NIV disappears in the TNIV. We believe there are problems with respect to "son(s)," but because of the multiple occurrences the situation is more complex. For the sake of simplicity we concentrate on only one problem, namely the change from "father" to "parents" in Hebrews 12:7.

Facts about the key word pater ("father")

First, what is the Greek like? The Greek text of Hebrews 12:7 has the word pater in the singular. We can summarize its meaning as follows:
  1. In the context of an ordinary family, pater in the singular means "father." ("Joseph sent for his father [pater] Jacob and his whole family," Acts 7:14 NIV.)
  2. Greek also has a feminine form meter, meaning "mother." (Mary the mother [meter] of James and Joses," Matt. 27:56 NIV.)
  3. In the plural, pater can sometimes designate "fathers" of more than one family. ("We have all had human fathers [pater] who disciplined us," Heb 12:9 NIV.) But it can also designate "parents." ("By faith Moses' parents [pater] hid him for three months after he was born," Heb. 11:23 NIV.)
  4. In addition to this basic meaning, pater can be used more broadly in a number of ways. It can designate forefathers who are more than one generation back. For example, in Acts 7:11 Stephen, describing the time of Jacob and his sons, says, "Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers [pater] could not find food" (NIV). It can be used metaphorically to describe a person who has a father-like relation to a younger person, either an older fellow Christian or an older person to whom one is expressing respect. ("I write to you, fathers [pater], because you have known him who is from the beginning," 1 John 2:13 NIV.) It is used to describe God as the Father of the Son and as spiritual Father to Christians (John 3:35; Rom. 8:15; and many other passages).

Now what about Hebrews 12:7? The larger passage in Hebrews 12:5-11 compares God's discipline toward Christians with a father's discipline of his son. God is specifically called "Father" [pater] in Hebrews 12:9: "How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!" (NIV). Hebrews 12:7 uses the two halves of the verse to make the comparison. In the first half the subject is God's discipline: "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons" (NIV). The second half is clearly about a human father: "For what son is not disciplined by his father?" The word for "father" is pater in the singular. As summarized in statement (1) above, pater in the singular means "father." There is no ambiguity. (So that readers can verify this for themselves, we have included online visual evidence from Greek lexicons.)

Confused defenses

This case is so clear-cut that some defenders of the TNIV may choose simply to say nothing about it, but concentrate wholly on the issues involving the changes from "son(s)" to "child(ren)" (which, of course, is a different issue). But other defenders undertake to say something. They may attempt to confuse the reader about the difference between the singular and plural forms of pater. They impose the meaning "parent" on the singular form in Hebrews 12:7, even though this meaning is otherwise unknown for the singular.

Next, they may appeal to the fact that the plural of pater designates "parents" in a nearby passage, in Heb. 11:23 ("By faith Moses' parents [pater] hid him for three months after he was born," NIV). They may try to pull in this verse as an alleged influence on Hebrews 12:7. "Look," someone says, "the occurrence of pater in Hebrews 11:23 prepares the way to use the same word in the same way in Hebrews 12."

Yes, Hebrews 11:23 is less than one chapter away, a little more than 20 verses from 12:7. But even 20 verses is like a mile. Hebrews 11:23 is irrelevant to 12:7, because the immediate preceding context of verses 12:5-7 talks about God's fatherly discipline. As we arrive in verses 5-7 God has not yet been explicitly called "Father" (that comes in verse 9). But verses 5 and 6 talk about God disciplining people as sons, obviously indicating that God is the Father in relation to them. (Remember that Christian readers of Hebrews already know that God is their Father.) The thought of God's fatherly discipline is firmly in people's minds. Hebrews 12:7 then introduces the word pater in the singular right after referring to God's discipline. The singular pater obviously has its ordinary meaning "father," and that meaning is reinforced rather than undermined by the immediate context (as opposed to a context 20 verses back).

After the word pater appears in the singular in verse 7, it appears in the plural in verse 9a: "Moreover, we have all had human fathers [pater] who disciplined us ..." (NIV). Defenders may argue that since the plural occurs here , it may mean "parents." But the meaning "father" is already established by verse 7, before we come to verse 9. The "we all" in verse 9 is clearly extending the principle of verse 7 to a multitude of people, who necessarily have a multitude of fathers. In verse 9a the word pater really must be plural in order to fit its context. But the context is still that of fathers, not of "parents" (that is, fathers and mothers equally in focus). And even if the word did mean "parents" here (which it does not), that meaning certainly cannot be extended from the plural form of pater back to the singular form of pater that occurs in verse 7.

Are defenders really claiming that "parent" is more accurate than "father" as a literal representation of the expressed meaning of the original Greek in verse 7? If so, we suggest that they give it up. In the long run, it only makes them look ridiculous, and undermines confidence in their scholarly abilities.

As with our discussion of Luke 17:3, look at the evidence of translations before 1980. In Hebrews 12:7 "father" appears in KJV, RV, ASV, Moffatt, Montgomery, Goodspeed, Berkeley, RSV, Phillips, NEB, NASB, NAB, LB, TNT, NIV, GNB (1976), NKJV. None has "parent" or "parents." Why not? Because they did not think it was as accurate. And why do things change after 1980?

Modern culture

So what is the real issue? The expressed meaning of the Greek is clear: "father." The real issue is how this sounds to the sensibilities of modern culture after 1980. People worry about causing offense. We may repeat almost verbatim what we earlier said with respect to "brother" in Luke 17:3. It could be offensive to say "father," rather than "parent." Why? Because "many in our culture" (Osborne's words) expect speakers and writers to show appropriate "sensitivity to gender issues" by carefully sticking to gender-neutral expressions whenever they make general statements. "Parent" is in line with the way in which many modern people have learned to express themselves, whereas "father" is not (in a context like Heb. 12:7).

Our reply is the same as it was earlier for Luke 17:3. The policy of avoiding "offense" compromises meaning and goes down a slippery slope towards eliminating all kinds of offensive things in the Bible in order to appease the "sensibilities" of modern culture, which (let's face it) really does not like many of the things that the Bible says.

Changing the subject

Finally, the defenders may try to change the subject to a general discussion about child-rearing. Is it not true that mothers as well as fathers discipline their children? In modern cases with single-parent families, will not mothers sometimes have all the responsibility for family discipline? Is not the discipline that mothers give analogous to the discipline that God gives? Surely, yes. But note the following:

  1. The context in Hebrews 12:7 does not focus on instructing people on how to discipline their children. It does not offer us generalities about child-rearing in order primarily to furnish directives to help fathers' and mothers' tasks in parenting. Nor does it address cases of single-parent families, though these did occur in the ancient world when (say) a father died in a battle. Rather, it illustrates, through human example, something about the meaning of God's discipline. Generalities to the effect that both parents ought to and often do discipline their children are not relevant. Keep the focus where it belongs. Ask the crucial question:"As the starting point for its comparison, does this verse talk about a human father? Or a generic human parent?" We need the meaning of this specific verse, not mere generalities.
  2. By suggesting that it does not make a difference whether we think of a father or a mother, this defense comes dangerously close to suggesting that a father's and a mother's discipline are identical in every respect, rather than merely analogous. But such cannot be proved, nor do we think it is so. It is certainly not the prerogative of Bible translators to draw broad conclusions on such subjects, and then inject the conclusions into the Bible without warning.
  3. This argument seems also to come close to suggesting that it does not matter whether we call God "Father" or "Mother." At a practical level, much of our experience of the meaning of God's Fatherhood involves the expressions of his intimacy and love—and discipline is one aspect of his love. We can imagine someone arguing as follows:
    "Fathers and mothers both give love, intimacy, and discipline. The discipline is identical in all respects that matter. Therefore, maybe the love and the intimacy of the two parents are identical in all respects that matter. If we can substitute 'parent' for the singular of 'father' here in Hebrews 12:7, then maybe we can do it also in Hebrew 12:9, where God is our spiritual 'Father' (or should it be 'Parent'?). God does not literally belong to the biological male sex, and so we can simply delete maleness in this case. Otherwise, we risk confusion, in that people may think that God is biologically male."


The TNIV does not go this far, but once the logic is in place, what is to prevent it? Some radical feminists are in fact already arguing in this direction. For our part, we think that to go down this route means trying to be wiser than God. God revealed in the Scripture that he is the Father of the Son, the Father of Jesus Christ. He then becomes our Father because we are united to Christ. If we do not accept the Scriptural manner of expression as the final word about God, we are proposing to follow our own ideas about God, and we are manufacturing ourselves an idol. We will know neither the Father nor the Son, and we will remain in darkness. "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt. 11:27 ESV). In this area the stakes get very high.

When people say, "Don't fuss about it," they reveal naivete.

1 Corinthians 14:28

Finally, consider 1 Corinthians 14:28. Here is how it goes:

NIV: If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.

TNIV: If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to God when alone.

The TNIV changes "to himself" (the NIV) to "when alone."


What is in the Greek original? The Greek has two parallel expressions in the dative case, namely "to himself" (eauto, a form of eautou) and "to God" (to theo). Both expressions are linked to the verb "speak" (laleito). Both indicate who is spoken to. "Speak to himself and God" is thus a reasonable translation. "When alone" changes the meaning. The Greek (and the NIV) specifies the addressee of the utterance, but the TNIV specifies the circumstances of the utterance. These are different meanings.

Where then did the TNIV get the expression "when alone"? One cannot be sure. But a possible explanation is close at hand. The Apostle Paul has just said that "the speaker [the one who is going to speak in tongues] should keep quiet in the church." In the larger context, Paul indicates that the church meeting should carry on in such a way that everyone is edified (see 1 Cor. 14:2-5, 12-13, 23, 26, etc.). If there is no interpreter, the rest who are present in the meeting will not understand. So, one might infer, it is better in that case for the speaker to proceed in another way, perhaps by waiting for another time and circumstance.

The TNIV has jumped to the conclusion that the circumstance in view must be when one is alone. But that is not necessarily so. What if the individual mumbles in tongues quietly to himself while in church? Is that O.K.? Someone might look at the expression "keep quiet in the church," and might press it into an absolute rule: keep absolutely, deathly quiet. Maybe. But is that realistic? From time to time will not some people find themselves quietly weeping or groaning, but not absolutely silent? And is absolute silence Paul's purpose? Surely the purpose is to keep the overall church meeting in order. Disruption of the meeting, not absolute silence, is the issue.

There is also another possibility. In some cultures where almost all praying is out loud, a small number of people who have come together may for a time pray out loud simultaneously, each offering his or her own prayer to God. Similarly, one can envision a number of people praying out loud in tongues simultaneously. This practice does not disrupt the church meeting, because the people are not in a church meeting in the ordinary sense, and they are certainly not trying to address the church meeting (unlike the case in 1 Corinthians 14). They are just praying, and are doing it in the same room.

Is the Apostle Paul forbidding such practices of simultaneous prayer? The issue in 1 Corinthians 14 is not what may happen in various small groups, but what happens "in the church" (14:28; see verse 23), which suggests a larger gathering where unbelievers might sometimes enter (14:23-25). Paul forbids speaking to the church, because that would disrupt the meeting or at least not be edifying. He focuses on the addressee. He does not really say anything one way or the other about how a person might "speak to himself" in various circumstances, but puts forth a necessary restriction about addressing the church. Addressing the church must be edifying, and it is not when tongues are not interpreted.

Thus, the TNIV has drawn a conclusion about being alone that the text does not clearly warrant. Instead, it should have let people see what the text actually asserts, including its focus on the addressee. Then each reader would remain free to draw whatever conclusions may be appropriate as to the circumstances in which one might speak in tongues.

But suppose for the sake of the argument we grant what is not true, namely that, without an interpreter, speaking in tongues is to be done only "when alone." The TNIV has still changed the meaning. It makes a direct assertion about the circumstances, whereas the original makes an assertion about the addressee and leaves the reader to infer what circumstances are appropriate.

Defenders' explanation

As of June 5, 2002, the official TNIV website contained the following "explanation" of 1 Corinthians 14:28:

The TNIV offers a clear translation of 1 Corinthians 14:28, accurately reflecting the intended meaning.

"When alone" translates the Greek word eautou, a reflexive pronoun used to indicate something done "to oneself" or "by oneself," according to BDAG, the standard lexicon for New Testament Greek. Paul did not permit a person to speak in a tongue in the church itself unless there was someone who could interpret. The person was to wait until he or she was outside the church--i.e., when they were alone. The fact that eautou is singular suggests that the command is to speak "to oneself," not to "themselves"--indicating that "when alone" is an appropriate translation.

Bear with me as we analyze this explanation.

The first paragraph simply asserts that the TNIV is accurate. We have already given evidence that this is not so. Let us then look at the second paragraph, in order to see whether evidence can be offered on the other side.

Confusion about the lexicon

Take the first sentence of the second paragraph:

"When alone" translates the Greek word eautou, a reflexive pronoun used to indicate something done "to oneself" or "by oneself," according to BDAG, the standard lexicon for New Testament Greek.

Most people are likely to accept this sentence at face value. It sounds so reasonable. But if we actually look up eautou in BDAG (the third English edition of Bauer's Greek lexicon), the initial impression completely changes. BDAG's entry under eautou has three main subdivisions, of which only the first concerns us. The first main subdivision, marked 1, has at its beginning the following general summary: "indicator of identity w. [with] the pers. [person] speaking or acting, self." That is, eautou in Greek indicates that the person so designated is identical with the person who is doing the speaking or acting, that is, typically the person who is referred to in the subject of the verb. It is like our English "oneself." Quite properly, this general summary does not say "to oneself" or "by oneself"; it does not add extra prepositions like "to" or "by." Why not? Because these are not the meaning of eautou in and of itself. Rather, they are the meanings of various compound expressions. For example, subdivision 1.a.alpha in BDAG indicates that the Greek phrase af' eautou (literally "from [af'] oneself [eautou]") can mean "of one's own accord," or "on one's own authority," or "by itself" (in the sense of supplying its own means of doing something). The phrase en eauto can mean "to or in oneself" (1.a.gamma). The phrase kath' eauton can mean "by oneself," in the sense of a distinct location (1.a.zeta). (The TNIV explanation probably gets the phrase "by oneself" from BDAG meaning 1.a.zeta, but "by oneself" in 1.a/zeta is the meaning of the whole phrase kath' eauton, which is not what occurs in 1 cor. 14:28!) The Greek phrase peri eautou can mean "for himself" or "about himself" (1.a.theta). And so on.

The lexicon supplies a considerable quantity of carefully classified uses. The total amount comes to one whole column and two half columns, making up the equivalent of one whole page of tightly packed information. Out of this total the TNIV "explanation" picks only two pieces, "to oneself" and "by oneself." It totally ignores the context within the lexicon. The context shows that these two meanings "to oneself" and "by oneself" pertain to contexts and constructions quite different from what we have in 1 Corinthians 14:28. This suggests that the writer of the TNIV defense did not even know how to use a lexicon!

But things are worse than this. Out of the total possibilities the TNIV "explanation" has picked two and only two possible meanings, "to oneself" and "by oneself." Where are the other possibilities? Why these two alone? The reader who does not actually check BDAG will probably assume that these two correspond to two possible meanings in 1 Corinthians 14:28. One meaning would be "to oneself" indicating the addressee, which would explain why the NIV translates "to himself." The other meaning would be "by oneself" indicating the circumstance, that is, "when one is by oneself," "when one is alone." It would therefore justify the translation "when alone." The "explanation" produces in the mind of a naïve reader absolutely bogus evidence in favor of translating the meaning of eautou in 1 Corinthians 14:28 as "when alone." This production of bogus evidence is ominous. It still leaves open the possibility that the writer does not know how to use a lexicon. Let us hope that this is the correct inference. The other alternative is that the writer did know how to use a lexicon, and deliberately concealed and distorted evidence in the way in which he reported things, in order falsely to suggest that BDAG supports the meaning "by oneself" in 1 Corinthians 14:28.

So what is actually going on in 1 Corinthians 14:28? The construction involves eautou in the dative case (the exact form is eauto). In a context like this, one has to consider the possible functions of the dative case. This particular use is a dative of indirect object, to indicate the addressee. eautou indicates the addressee, the one spoken to. The parallel phrase "to God," also indicating an addressee, removes any possible ambiguity. The appropriate translation is "speak to himself," where, in rough terms, "to" corresponds to the force of the dative and "himself" to the force of the Greek reflexive pronoun eautou. The NIV translated it correctly, and in fact there is no serious question about this meaning for anyone who has competence in Greek. The first sentence in the TNIV "explanation" simply throws up smoke and obscures the truth.

Circumstances or addressees?

Let us now go on to the other parts of the explanation.

The second sentence says, "Paul did not permit a person to speak in a tongue in the church itself unless there was someone who could interpret." This is true, and expresses the implications of other parts of 1 Corinthians 14:28.

The third sentence says, "The person was to wait until he or she was outside the church—i.e., when they were alone." The part beginning with "i.e." contains a fallacious inference, as we have seen. The alternative of each person praying aloud in a small group still remains. And the possibility of a person mumbling softly to himself while still in the church gathering remains.

The fourth sentence says, "The fact that eautou is singular suggests that the command is to speak 'to oneself,' not to 'themselves'--indicating that 'when alone' is an appropriate translation."

How do we evaluate this last claim? First note that by saying "speak 'to oneself,'" the writer has now conceded that the actual literal force of the construction in this context is "to oneself," not "by oneself," as was suggested in his first sentence.

But now the writer may be trying to appeal to the singular form to mount an argument against people simultaneously praying out loud when several are together. Each must literally be alone. But this does not follow. Using the plural here instead of the singular would result in an ambiguity, in that it would suggest that people might be speaking to one another. The singular unambiguously expresses that each is to speak to himself (and to God), not to anyone else. But this by itself does not decide for us whether a person might mumble softly to himself (one addressee) while still being in church. Nor does it decide for us whether several people might each speak to himself (one addressee) when they were together in private. Any further inference merely from the fact that we have a singular form is unwarranted.

Now look at the final expression, which says, "indicating that 'when alone' is an appropriate translation." Before, we were dealing with possible inferences about the circumstances for speaking in tongues. Now, the writer slides from making inferences about the circumstances to putting those inferences directly back into the translation. This slide confuses exegesis with translation. In exegesis we do draw a large number of inferences about the text's implications. In translation we present something close to the direct meaning of the original, in order that readers may draw the inferences. Of course, translators must do exegesis in order to discern the meaning. But there is a difference between putting the original meaning into another language and putting in all the inferences that are included as aspects of the entire process of exegesis.

The writer also slides over one more issue with the word "appropriate." What we should ask is whether the translation is the most accurate that it can be, not whether it simply represents in some vague way the general direction or the main point of the passage. The explanation needs to show why "when alone" is actually superior to the usual translation "to himself." Of course it does not do that, nor can it.

Other translations

Consider also another question. What do translations do before 1980? "To himself" appears in KJV, RV, ASV, Goodspeed, Berkeley, RSV, Phillips, NEB, NASB, NAB, TNT, NIV, GNB (1976), NKJV. Moffatt has changed "speak" to "address," and so has "address himself," which amounts to the same thing. Montgomery and LB (Living Bible) have "to themselves." This change is probably for the sake of smoothness in English. Here is how Montgomery translates verses 27 and 28 together:

14:27 If anyone speaks in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them keep silence in the church, and speak to themselves and to God.

Verse 27 talks about "two or ... three," making the transition to a singular speaker in verse 28 somewhat abrupt (though the Greek does shift to singular). We can thus understand why a translator might try to use "them" and "themselves" to smooth out the English. But "themselves" is not in fact as good, because it leaves ambiguous whether they are speaking to one another or each to himself.

Within this list, no translation has "when alone" or anything like it.

Will the TNIV then argue that all these translations are inferior, because it alone has translated the most accurately?! There is a difference in meaning here, so we cannot say that both translations are equally accurate in representing the exact meaning of the Greek.

The real issue: eliminating generic "he"

Everyone who has been around and who has listened to the controversy for awhile knows exactly why "when alone" came in. It came in because TNIV and other gender-neutral translations have decided that they will not use generic "he." Some explanation may help. "Generic 'he'" refers to a masculine singular pronoun ("he, him, his, himself") used in the context of a general ["generic"] statement applying to both men and women. In 1 Cor. 14:28, the expression "the speaker" is generic, implying that we should include both male and female speakers. The subsequent expression "to himself" refers back to "the speaker," and is therefore generic. (For a full discussion, see Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, pp. 111ff.) Gender-neutral translations, including the TNIV, systematically eliminate this use of generic "he."

"Himself" in 1 Corinthians 14:28 had to disappear, whatever the effects on meaning. In its preface, entitled "A Word to the Reader," TNIV virtually admits it: "Among the more programmatic changes in the TNIV is ... the elimination of most instances of the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns" (p. vii). The word "pronouns" indicates that generic "he" has been eliminated.

Naturally, TNIV tried to make the effects as small as possible. But in this case one cannot completely conceal the effects. So an "explanation" tries to make the best of a bad situation.

Interestingly, the "explanation" does not mention the one real reason for the change. Since 1980 no one has received any more insight into the Greek language, or insight into Paul's thinking, or insight into the situation at Corinth, such as would justify a change. No one gives any reason (because they cannot) why every translation before 1980 is less than fully accurate. The one real reason, totally unmentioned, is a unilateral decision to eliminate "himself," and to change the passage around in whatever way is necessary once that part of the English language is sacrificed.

The real issue is about English, not Greek. And it is not about the meaning of "himself" at a merely basic level. It is about what people expect and feel about language as a reflection of cultural assumptions, and about sensitivity, offense, and so on.


So now, dear readers, we come for the third time to the point where we make a decision. You have the facts. What do you think? Should a modern translation eliminate generic "he" and make whatever changes are necessary? This question is in one way the most important, because it affects not just one verse but many. The New Testament alone contains hundreds of verses where pre-1980 translations use generic "he." If we extend our inspection to include the Old Testament, the number mounts into the thousands. All these verses must have their wording changed, whatever the consequences to meaning. As in the other cases we have looked at, we expect that some people will wish to have it that way. It produces less "offense." But for ourselves, we reject it. Poythress and Grudem's book, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, devotes no less than five complete chapters to the question (chaps. 7-11; also appendices 3 and 6), because it is so important. And though opponents have blown smoke and produced confusion, no one has refuted the book. To those concerned, we would recommend reading these chapters, or, best of all, the whole book. But we can summarize the main points with respect to generic "he" as follows:

  1. In spite of pressures to the contrary, generic "he" remains in fairly wide use in English, both in the secular press and even in pro-feminist literature (in the latter case, in the form of "oscillating use," which shifts back and forth between "she" and "he").
  2. Systematically eliminating generic "he" compromises meaning of the Bible in the original languages. This should be evident from the analysis of 1 Corinthians 14:28.
  3. Modern resistance to generic "he" is not isolated, but part of a larger pattern of resistance to any kind of imbalance in frequency between male and female cases. The Bible will inevitably offend people with this mind-set, and it will offend them in many other areas as well.
  4. The principle of avoiding offense begins a slide down into more and more compromise. What do we do when people are offended by calling God "Father"? Or when they are offended by hell?
  5. Ordinary readers never know just where the compromises have occurred. They are locked in to whatever judgments the translators have made on their behalf.

Concluding observations about the translation committee for the TNIV

Finally, let us remember who did the actual translation work to produce the TNIV. The responsibility belonged to the Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), sponsored by the International Bible Society. Over the years, the CBT has, of course, gradually had some changes in personnel. But many of its members belonged to the Committee when they produced the NIVI (New International Version Inclusive Language Edition) in 1996. And the TNIV definitely continues the main policies of the NIVI with respect to gender. There is considerable continuity here.

Now in 1995 the CBT wrote the "Preface to Inclusive Language NIV" for the NIVI. They said,

At the same time, it was recognized that 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. ("Preface," p. vii)

The International Bible Society subsequently regretted those words, but there they are. The words suggest that, for the Committee, one factor driving the changes in gender was not merely the question of linguistic meaning in the narrow sense, but cultural appropriateness. They undertook "to mute the patriarchalism of the culture of the biblical writers." (For further discussion of this amazing statement, see Poythress and Grudem, Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy, pp. 152-159.) More precisely, this meant bringing the manner of expression in the Bible into conformity with modern "gender sensitivity," which demands that people suppress any element of maleness in general ("generic") statements. This pattern is exactly what we have seen in all three verses, Luke 17:3, Hebrews 12:7, and 1 Corinthians 14:28. (For further discussion, see Vern S. Poythress, "Gender in Bible Translation: How Fallacies Distort Understanding of the New Testament Gender Passages," Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 3/4 (winter, 1998) 1, 5-7, 12.

The CBT says it preserved "the message of the Spirit." That may sound nice. But think what are the implications.

If the CBT preserves everything that every verse means (which would be the ideal), nothing is being "muted." They admit something is "muted." Moreover, the "muting" is not something inevitable, something that they cannot help because of the technical linguistic limitations that come with translating from one language to another. The muting is "appropriate." They decided to do it when they knew that other translations into English did not. This muting distinguishes the NIVI and the TNIV from translations before 1980 (and some more recent translations), which in their gender language make no attempt to engage in such muting.

Something is being muted, but the CBT says that "this could be done without compromising the message of the Spirit." What is muted is not "the message of the Spirit." Only what is left after muting is "the message of the Spirit," which supposedly is still uncompromised. But this implies that the "message of the Spirit" is something other than and less than the total meaning of every passage. Who decides what is this "message of the Spirit," which is now within the Bible but not identical with the total meaning of the Bible? The CBT decides.

But they have no right to do that! The job of translators is to give us the full, unvarished and unaltered meaning, as best they can, with nothing "muted." It is then up to readers to discern the "message of the Spirit." This is certainly so if readers think as we do that the whole Bible with all its meanings is the message of the Spirit. Leave nothing out! But it is also so even for non-Christians or radical-feminists or liberal theological readers who think that only some part or aspect or core might be identified with that message. Let readers decide, without patronizing them.

Does the CBT really mean what it says? Perhaps at the time they were just being careless or thoughtless in their manner of expression. (But then might similar carelessness or thoughtlessness enter into their manner of expression when they engage in translating biblical verses?) Perhaps they were just muddled in their thinking. (But might similar muddling occur when they engage in translation?) Perhaps they did not have sufficient command of the English language. (But might similar lack of command influence their Bible translation?) In charity one would like to hope for the best. But if the problem is carelessness or muddle-headedness, it is odd that the statement in question exactly matches and effectively explains the precise kinds of change that we observe. Instead of being muddle-headed, the CBT statement may in fact represent a temporary island of clear vision, within a sea of fog and muddle. For once, in a moment of clarity, it expresses the real significance of the most regrettable meaning changes. The CBT perhaps remains in a muddle most of the time because it cannot reconcile itself to the truth that this is what the TNIV is really doing.

Are you ready now to trust the TNIV? We do not.