to Main Menu
article first appeared under the title "The TNIV
Today 46/11 (October 7, 2002), 37-45.
the TNIV Faithful in its Treatment of Gender? No.
Vern S. Poythress
Political correctness can, I believe, influence Bible
translation in spite of contrary intentions
on the part of translators. The influence mainly affects
details of meaning, so it may not seem too serious at
first glance. But in the end it threatens the vital
doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture.
Plenary inspiration means that the whole
of Scriptureevery detail of meaning, not just
the main point or selected partsis the word of
God. This doctrine comes from passages where Jesus affirms
details of Scripture: "not an iota, not a dot,
will pass from the Law until all is accomplished"
(Matt. 5:18 ESV), and from passages like Proverbs 30:5,
"Every word of God is flawless" (NIV). In
addition, the Bible indicates that we are under the
authority of Jesus as our master, who speaks to us through
the Bible. Choosing which details in Scripture we will
accept makes us the master instead, undermining
our relation to Christ.
Father in Hebrews
Now political correctness puts pressure on translators
to change details of meaning that do not fit modern
egalitarian (or "feminist") expectations.
How? In Hebrews 12:7 the New International Version says,
"Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating
you as sons. For what son is not disciplined
by his father?" The TNIV changes
the last part: "For what children
are not disciplined by their parents?"
The underlying Greek word is pater in the singular,
which means "father," not "parent,"
and certainly not "parents."
The official TNIV website nevertheless posted an essay
defending this choice, aruging that it avoids misunderstanding:
"Was he [the author of Hebrews] suggesting that
girls never need disciplining? Or that a mother never
should discipline one of her children, male or female,
under any circumstances? These would be the clear implications
of a literal translation" (www.tniv.info/resources/evaluation.php).
We see in these words a highly exaggerated fear of someone
being excluded. And this theme of alleged exclusion
has an affinity to political correctness. Suppose Bill
is an advocate of political correctness. He does not
like father in Hebrews 12:7, because it is
a male term when a similar point could have been made
with parents. The wording does not fit egalitarian
ideology. How does Bill get this wording changed? He
raises the fear that someone will misunderstand. He
word father includes male bias. Modern readers
will misunderstand it as excluding mothers' discipline,
or they will hear it as "offensive" or "insensitive"
to women. To avoid this dangerous misunderstanding,
the translators need to eliminate the maleness. But
don't worry, the main meaning is still preserved.
How do translators respond to Bill's argument? Translators
need not have any politically correct bias themselves.
All they need to do is accept Bill's unproven argument
that some readers will misunderstand or be offended,
and then they must make a change. They must
change not only Hebrews 12:7, but also any verse
that has a male example or a male representative in
its expression of a general principle. In quite
a few cases, a male meaning is there in the original.
But if we include it in the translation, Bill claims
it will be misunderstood. Maybe he even tells a story
of his young daughter who misunderstood this kind of
statement (not mentioning the fact that children misunderstand
hundreds of other correctly translated statements in
So Bill has found a powerful recipe for excluding from
the English Bible anything that sounds politically incorrect
because it uses a male example to teach a general principle,
even if that meaning is there in the original Greek.
In fact, the TNIV uses a policy of this kind: "Among
the more programmatic changes in the TNIV is ... the
elimination of most instances of the generic use of
masculine nouns and pronouns" (TNIV, "A Word
to the Reader," p. vii). Such masculine nouns include
son and father in Hebrews 12:7.
Similarly, in Luke 17:3 "if your brother
sins" (NIV) becomes "If any brother
or sister sins against you" (TNIV). Matthew
18:15 likewise changes from your brother
to a brother or sister. Jesus used
a male example to teach a general principle, but the
TNIV makes it a double, gender-balanced example.
In short, Bill can manipulate Bible translators, precisely
because he knows that translators have legitimate concerns
for avoiding misunderstandings. He creates a false fear
that people will think "if your brother sins"
does not apply to a sister who sins. Of course readers
know that it applies to a sister who sins, just as they
know that "You shall not covet your neighbor's
wife" (Exod. 20:17) also applies to not coveting
your neighbor's husband. But we should not change the
Ten Commandments to say, "You shall not covet your
neighbor's wife or husband," because
that would be adding to the Word of God. Nor should
we change brother to brother or sister
in Luke 17:3.
The TNIV policy also includes eliminating generic masculine
pronouns, that is, generic he. For example,
1 Corinthians 14:28 in the NIV says, "If there
is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in
the church and speak to himself and
to God." The TNIV changes it to say "... and
speak to God when alone." Now
the Greek original unambiguously indicates the addressees:
"to himself and to God." The TNIV switches
this to an indication of the circumstances
("when alone"). But now the TNIV excludes
even the possibility that the speaker can speak in tongues
quietly to himself while in church (but not addressing
the church and not disturbing the meeting), or the possibility
that in a small, private group each person might speak
to himself out loud.
No translation made before 1980 has when alone
or anything like it. The TNIV changed to when alone
not because of any more knowledge of Greek or of the
circumstances in Corinth, but because it had decided
in principle to eliminate masculine generic
Our friend Bill can use the same arguments here as before.
He warns translators about misunderstanding or offense
from the expression speak to himself and he
tries to compel them to change this politically incorrect
speech. If they accept his arguments, they must change
every instance of generic he throughout the
Bibleand there are thousands of cases altogether..
Are you, reader, willing to have the meanings of all
these verses changed around in dozens of subtle ways
in order to eliminate generic he?
Consider Matthew 16:24-25.
... If anyone would come after me,
he must deny himself and take up
his cross and follow me. For whoever
wants to save his life will lose
it, but whoever loses his
life for me will find it.
TNIV: ... Those who want to be my
disciples must deny themselves and
take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their
life will lose it, but those who
lose their life for me will find
The TNIV converts singulars to plurals. The result has
a similar meaningbut not exactly the same. The
word he refers to a single human being, used
as an example of a principle applicable to all. But
the plurals those and themselves suggest
a corporate meaning, where the group as a whole, all
its members together, have a single cross. Together
they "deny themselves"perhaps their identity
as a group. They have a single group life that they
may save or lose. The TNIV refuses to let Jesus teach
by using an individual as an example, and Jesus' focus
on the individual application is blurred.
kind of change appears in Luke 9:26.
If anyone is ashamed of me and my
words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him
when he comes in his glory ....
TNIV: If any of you are ashamed of
me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of
you when he comes in his glory ....
In the TNIV the verse is no longer so clearly universal.
Instead of speaking of anyone throughout all
ages, it says any of you, any of the immediate
people to whom Jesus is speaking at the time. Perhaps
what he says to them is still generalizable, but how
do we know? In the TNIV, maybe it only applies to people
who have followed Jesus, not to anyone.
Consider also 1 John 4:20:
If anyone says, "I love God,"
yet hates his brother, he
is a liar.
TNIV: If we say we love God yet hate
a fellow believer,
we are liars.
The generalizing word anyone leaves open the
real possibility that the main trouble for John comes
from a dissident group who had already withdrawn (1
John 2:19). By shifting to we the TNIV suggests
instead a focus on hypocrisy among the immediate circle
to whom John is writing, we who are in the
church. This is a significant change of meaning.
Hundreds of examples of such changes can be found in
the TNIV (see www.no-tniv.com).
The whole series of changes rests on the key, unjustified
assumption that generic he must be eliminated.
We have concentrated on the disputed areas, because
this is the issue. But it should be noted that some
areas of the TNIV translation are not in dispute.
The TNIV sometimes improves on the NIV. To separate
between the disputed and undisputed cases, I recommend
that readers consult the fullest treatment on the question,
The Gender-Neutral Bible:
Muting the Masculinity of God's Words (Broadman
and Holman, 2000) by Vern S. Poythress and Wayne A.
For now, note these significant facts.
Generic he, though not as common as before,
still occurs in major secular publications.
It occurs even in pro-feminist literature, in the
form of an oscillating use, with generic she
for perhaps one page and then generic he
for two paragraphs.
People do understand such usages, on an obvious level.
(For people even understand generic she when
it is used to affirm a general principle that includes
men, and some prefer this kind of expression, some
(4) Generic he is not offensive or insensitive,
if in the feminist literature it is combined with
equal time for generic she. The offense occurs
if there is unequal time for male and female
cases. The offense is thus not a grammatical question,
or narrowly linguistic question, or a question of
misunderstanding, but a cultural question. Any pattern
of thoughtnot mere grammarthat
does not show equal prominence for male and female
is not acceptable to modern egalitarianism. But neither
does egalitarianism accept the fact that the Bible
in the original uses male sample cases more than female
(remember the father and son in
Hebrews 12:7)! So the real problem is that modern
people can and will claim to misunderstand and be
offended because the Bible in the original does not
match their expectations and prejudices.
But then shall we update the Bible in order to make
it conform to modern expectations and demands? Updating
it makes it easier, but does so by simply giving in
to a modern prejudice. Meanings and thought patterns
in the Bible are compromised. The plenary inspiration
of Scripture disappears in practice, because
details of meaning are alteredalways under the
claim of eliminating offense and misunderstanding. But
faithfulness to original meaning requires letting the
Bible's innately offensive elements stand. Whether these
are minor or major, the principle remains the same.If
we give in at this point, further down the road we will
give up calling God Father, because this too
is perceived by some as offensive. In fact, it is far
more offensive than a generic he! If we give
in here, we should get ready to pray to "Our Parent
" because the new Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich
Greek Lexicon, with no new evidence, has already
added the new definition Parent for Greek pater
when referring to God (p. 787).
Mark Strauss's response.
article is not to be reprinted in a print periodical
without the author's permission.