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"Systematic Pattern in TNIV"
Vern Sheridan Poythress
published in Westminster Theological Journal
64/1 (2002): 185-192.
central problem with Today's New International
Version (TNIV) does
not lie in this or that verse that has been translated
in less than an ideal way. It lies in a pattern, a systematic policy, namely that it avoids using a male representative or example
to communicate a general truth.
We first consider four examples, then stand back to
discuss the pattern.
Examples of meaning changes
First, consider 1 John 2:10.
Whoever loves his brother lives in the
light, and there is nothing in him to make
Those who love their fellow believers
live in the light, and there is nothing in them
to make them stumble.
changes "his brother" to "their fellow
believers," avoiding the male-marking of both
"his" and "brother." "Fellow
believers" loses some of the intimacy implied
by "brother." "Brother"
indicates a family-like relation, implying family-like
responsibilities to the other person. "Fellow
believers" indicates only a common belief within
a larger group. In addition, it replaces the
family idea of brotherhood
with the idea of belief, which does not occur in the original. "His
brother" takes its starting point in a single
case, which the reader is then to generalize, so that
in the end the generalization includes both men and
women. In this sense, either wording includes
the same people within the scope of the principle,
but the meanings by which one achieves the inclusion are distinct and
TNIV also changes the singulars "whoever,"
"his," "him" to plurals ("those,"
"their," "them"). First
John 2:10 sets forth a general, or "generic"
truth, as the word "whoever" makes clear.
But in the NIV subsequent references to "whoever"
take the form of the masculine pronoun "his/him."
The masculine may suggest that a male sample case
is illustrating the general principle, but it leaves
intact the inclusive scope of "whoever."
(This kind of use of "he/his/him" is called
By substituting plurals, TNIV avoids the male overtones
of the masculine "his/him."
The general principle expressed may be similar in
the two wordings, but the starting point for expressing
it is different. If we use the singular, it
is as if we start with a particular case, "whoever,"
"he," where the masculine pronoun hints
that we think of the representative case as male. We then move from the representative
case to observe that any one case stands for a principle
applicable to a whole group of cases, including both
men and women. On the other hand, if we use
the plural ("those," "they"),
we start by designating all the members of the group,
and we may move from there to conclusions about any
one member of the group. The direction of inference
goes either from one case to the generality, or from
the generality of members to any one member.
The difference between the two is subtle, yet real.
In some cases, the change to plural also introduces
an ambiguity between an individualizing and a corporate
interpretation. If the singular occurs, we know
unambiguously that the principle applies to each person,
because the starting point is a single case.
If the plural occurs, we are free to infer that the
principle applies to each individual. But we
might also infer that the verse is focusing more on
the corporate life of believers together. Christians
together show by their love for one another that they
live in the light, and this corporate behavior serves
as proof to the world, in a manner analogous to what
Jesus says in John 13:35, "By this all people
will know that you are my disciples, if you have love
for one another." The pluralizing of 1
John 2:10 slants the verse more towards thoughts of
the members as a whole than does the singular.
Again, this is a change in meaning.
Next, consider 1 Corinthians 14:28.
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep
quiet in the church
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep
quiet in the church
and speak to himself and to God.
and speak to God when alone.
NIV is correct in translating it "to himself."
In Greek the phrase in question is parallel in structure
to the phrase translated "to God."
If there is no interpreter, Paul forbids addressing
the church in tongues, because this would distract rather than edify (see 1 Cor
14:9-11, 16-17). Instead of addressing the church,
one should speak "to himself and to God."
This instruction is clear enough.
But TNIV substitutes "when alone" for "to
himself." The expression "when alone"
not only leaves out completely the idea of speaking
to himself, but adds the idea of being alone, which
is not there explicitly in the Greek. And it
is not clearly implied either, since the person in
question could, as it were, mumble under his breath
while still in the church setting. Or he could
pray out loud, not to address
the church while everyone else is listening, but in
a context of a small number of other Christians who
were each praying out loud to God, and with none disturbing
another. (I understand that in some cultures,
more given to expressing all their prayers out loud,
the practice of simultaneous vocal prayer is common,
even outside the context of tongues.) The operative
issue for Paul does not concern whether one is literally
alone, but whether one disrupts the church gathering
by trying to address it in tongues.
But suppose, for the sake of argument, that we assume
that the two expressions have similiar practical
They still differ in meaning. The NIV and the
Greek achieve their meaning by specifying the addressee
of the utterance. The TNIV does so by specifying
of the utterance, which is a different meaning.
Why should TNIV have undertaken this unfortunate alteration?
The clue lies in the word "himself," which
is masculine. The general principle expressed
in the verse undoubtedly applies to both men and women.
And the phrase "the speaker" indicates this
generality. It does not single out either a
male or a female individual. The subsequent
"himself" refers back to "the speaker,"
and therefore retains the earlier generality of "the
speaker." At the same time, it may suggest
to many readers that the individual case that we choose
to represent the general principle is a male example.
We have a male example representing a general truth. TNIV as a matter
of systematic policy
avoids such use of generic "he."
Next, consider Hebrews 12:7b.
For what son is not disciplined by his father?
For what children are not disciplined by their
changes "son" to "children" and
"father" to "parents," removing
male meaning components in both instances. It
also changes the whole sentence to plurals, thereby
avoiding the masculinity of "his."
Are these moves justified by the underlying Greek?
The key Greek words for "son" (huios) and "father" (pater) are both singular. While the word translated
"father" may sometimes have the meaning
"parents" when it occurs in the plural (see
Heb 11:23), it regularly has the meaning "father"
(not "parent") when it occurs in the singular
in the context of ordinary nuclear family relations.
Similarly, the word translated "son" regularly
has the meaning "son" (not "child")
when it occurs in the singular in the context of ordinary
The relation of discipline between a father and son
illustrates the relation of God to his people.
Doubtless the relation might be illustrated by merely
talking generally about parents and children, rather
than father and son, but Hebrews 12:7b (in Greek)
has not chosen this way of doing it. TNIV expresses
a general principle of discipline, but eliminates
any suggestion that male examples are used to illustrate
Finally, consider Revelation 22:18.
... I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy
of this book:
... I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy
of this scroll:
If anyone adds anything to them, God will add
to him the plagues described in this book.
If any one of you
adds anything to them, God will add to you the plagues described in this scroll.
next verse, Revelation 22:19, exhibits an analogous
The NIV's expression "anyone" becomes "any
one of you" in TNIV, and the subsequent "him"
becomes "you." The changes introduce
an ambiguity in meaning. What is the reference
of "you" in "God will add to you ..."? In informal writing, "you" could have the
same referent as "any one of you," which
would mean that the plagues fall on whatever individual
adds anything to the words. But "you"
could also refer to the same people as the earlier
occurrence of "you," that is, "everyone
who hears." The implication would then
be that if any one
person among you adds something, all of
you will receive
the plagues. In more formal writing, one generally
expects "you" to keep pace with the earlier
occurrence of "you," so that this second
meaning actually becomes the preferred reading.
Needless to say, this reading does not represent the
force of the Greek original.
One might still hope that people will suspect that
this spurious meaning is wrong. It seems "unfair"
that a penalty should fall on everyone for the sin
of only one person. But this kind of corporate
punishment has a precedent in the case of Achan (Josh
7), so one cannot automatically exclude it here.
To represent the meaning clearly and accurately, we
definitely need another wording than what TNIV offers.
Responses from defenders of gender-neutral translations
Defenders of TNIV and other gender-neutral translations
have developed a considerable number of arguments
and explanations attempting to explain changes in
meaning such as we see above.
critics of TNIV are wrong in their interpretation
of this verse.
is room for scholarly disagreement about its exact
main point is sufficiently expressed in both wordings.
may legitimately have different goals, and in this
verse they allowed themselves more liberty in rephrasing
at how well they did in translating other verses.
final fall-back--no translation is absolutely flawless.
of more of these defenses may or may not be relevant
as an explanation for a particular verse. Arguments
may fly back and forth, amassing ever greater quantities
of information about possibilities for interpreting
one particular verse, about theories of translation, about which aspects of meaning may
or may not have undergone change, about whether the
meaning changes are notable or negligible. These
arguments all have their place, and Wayne Grudem and
I have ourselves laid out a considerable quantity
of arguments in our book The
Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy.
A pattern of deleting male representatives
But as words multiply we may miss a crucial point:
the heart of the matter lies not in a problematic
rendering in one or two verses, but with a systematic
policy and a systematic pattern. TNIV along
with all previous gender-neutral translations systematically
eliminates hints of a male representative or of a
male sample case used to illustrate a general truth. The above verses
clearly illustrate the pattern. In 1 John
2:10 "brother" disappears, so that we have
a statement that mentions "fellow believers"
who may be equally male or female. One does
not allow "brother" to stand as a male example
of a principle that clearly does apply to both men and women. Similarly, one does
not allow generic "he" to appear, because
it suggests a male starting point for the general
truth. In Hebrews one eliminates the maleness
of "father" and "son" as sample
cases of discipline in a family. In Revelation
22:18 and 1 Corinthians 14:28 one makes substitutes
in order to eliminate generic "he."
Anyone who doubts that this pattern exists needs first
to observe the language of the prefatory section of
TNIV, entitled "A Word to the Reader."
the more programmatic changes in the TNIV is the removal
of nearly all vocative "O"s and the elimination
of most instances of the generic use of masculine
nouns and pronouns.
expression "generic use of masculine ... pronouns"
refers to the elimination of generic "he"
(which occurs in 1 John 2:10, 1 Cor 14:28, and Rev
22:18 above). "Generic use of masculine
nouns" probably includes instances like the change
in 1 John 2:10 eliminating "brother," as
well as changes replacing "son(s)" with
"child(ren)" and "father(s)" with
Anyone interested can now read through 1 John in the
NIV, noting each time (there are quite a few) where
generic "he" occurs. One can predict
that each time TNIV will change the verse in such
a way as to eliminate generic "he."
Sometimes TNIV converts the verse to plurals, as in
1 John 2:10 (above). Sometimes an initial "whoever"
gets followed by "they" (1 John 2:5).
Sometimes TNIV substitutes "you" (1 John
2:15) or "we" (1 John 4:20).
Sometimes "his" drops out by other kinds
of rewording (1 John 3:15). One way or another, the job
A similarly pattern occurs with the use of "brother"
and "son" in generic contexts. To this one must add the use of
"man" to designate the human race, such
as in the statement, "God created man
in his own image." This use of "man,"
always without any article "the" or "a,"
and without any quantifier "every" or "all,"
occurs in the secular press, but not at all in
I am advocating freedom to use the whole spectrum
of English expressions currently in use. Generic
"he" and "man" for the human race
are in current use, so we may use them. Modern speakers
and writers, if they wish, may also refrain
from using them, and instead use only various other
ways of speaking. It is up to them.
are under unusual constraints. Modern writers
control their own meanings, but translators do not.
They are responsible to convey the meanings of the
work that they are translating. Because of differences
between languages, translation becomes complex and
challenging, and it becomes excruciatingly difficult,
even using all the resources of the English language, to capture every
In fact, the difficulties make it imperative that
translators actually use the resources of the English
language without artificial restrictions. They
must have at least the same freedom that ordinary
writers have. In particular, they must be able
to use generic "he," "man," "brother,"
"father," and other words if that is the
best way to express the meaning.
It is an instructive exercise to try to write a paragraph
or an essay without using some part of English. One refrains from
using linking verbs, or from using overworked words
like "interesting," or even from using the
indefinite article "a/an." It can
be done. One changes one's meanings around in
whatever ways are necessary in order to avoid the
forbidden words. Likewise, one can write in
English without using generic "he," or "man"
for the race. But if one does that in the process
of translation, one must find work-arounds every
time. The work-arounds inevitably lead to alterations
in meaning. Defenders may argue that after the
resulting alterations, particular verses are still
"accurate"--more or less. But the
difficulties of translation imply that, as a matter
of general principle, the overall result for the Bible
as a whole cannot possibly be as accurate as it would be if one permitted oneself to use the
extra resources of the English language from which
one has abstained. The issue is particularly
important when it comes to the use of generic "he,"
because it is needed in a large number of verses that
involve singular examples expressing general truths.
The debate then focuses on the question, whether generic
"he" and "man" (for the race)
are still usable resources of the English language.
They are being used in mainstream secular publications,
so the immediate conclusion is that, yes, they are
not to use them in translation sacrifices meaning.
TNIV made the wrong decision at this principial level,
and cannot regain standing merely by arguing about
a small list of verses.
Vern Sheridan Poythress
is professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster
... If anyone loves the world, the love of
the Father is not in him.
... If you love the world, love for the Father
is not in you.
If anyone says, "I love God," yet
hates his brother, he is a liar.
For anyone who does not love his brother,
whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he
has not seen.
If we say we love God yet hate a fellow
believer, we are liars. For
if we do not love a brother or sister
whom we have seen, we cannot love God,
whom we have not seen.
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer,
Anyone who hates a fellow believer is a murderer,