Columnists > Voices

Claim it-or concede it

Otherwise, the process leads to some awkward moments

Issue: "Mounting a defense," May 25, 2002

"Would to God!" moaned the aging professor. Then he pressed his palms to the white hair at his temples and groaned even more passionately to the small crowd: "Would to God that it were so!"

John Stek, veteran professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., is also the last remaining active member of the original group that first translated the New International Version of the Bible in the 1960s.

Mr. Stek was responding to a question from an audience that had gathered mostly because they were concerned about the extent to which feminist thinking might have affected Bible translation in recent years. "Isn't it better," a questioner had asked, "for language to affect our culture, as it has so often in the past, than to let culture dominate our language so profoundly?"

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"I too wish it were so," Mr. Stek said convincingly. "But that is exactly what this argument is about. It's just that we come down on opposite sides of the issue."

John Stek's fervent observation offered me a renewed insight into the debate that has raged now for the last five years about Bible translation. It helped remind me that there are, among proponents of so-called "gender inclusive" translations, two distinct schools of thought.

There are those, on the one hand, who are principled "egalitarians" on the gender issue. They believe either that the Bible does not teach male headship in the home and in the church, or that the Bible is outdated where it does teach that. So they have few scruples about adjusting the Bible to fit their point of view. Are there folks who fit this description among the sponsors of translations like Today's New International Version? The record speaks clearly that there are.

But there are also those, on the other hand-and my guess is this is a much larger group-who are by no means missionaries or advocates for a "feminist" position, but who at the same time have been persuaded that our culture has now moved so far in that direction that the Bible simply will not get a hearing unless it too is adjusted to reflect such values.

On the issue of Bible translation, I think both the principled feminists and the pragmatic adjusters are wrong. But I was reminded by Mr. Stek why the pragmatic adjusters are so irritated at WORLD magazine for-as they see it-calling them "feminists" or accusing them of trying to implement a feminist agenda. (In fact, WORLD has always been careful not to make this accusation. What we have argued is simply that the feminist agenda is advanced by such translation policies, wittingly or unwittingly. In our very first story on the subject we did not accuse the translators of being "seducers"; we suggested instead that they had been "seduced").

Indeed, some of these pragmatic adjusters are as distressed as we are at the changes in our culture and in our language. They personally don't like the homogenizing of our society or the dumbing down of the English language that in earlier years both shaped and reflected that society. But they're willing to go along for what they see as a higher cause: the calling of men and women and boys and girls to the gospel of Jesus.

Yet even for a pragmatic adjuster, there are limits. It may be grating to change Psalm 23 for Eskimos so that it reads, "The Lord is my seal herder"-but who can object if it helps Eskimos discover the truth? But where does the process stop? What if someone suggests, as a respected seminary professor did in a letter to me last week, that the very concept of fatherhood may now be passé for a high proportion of young people? Do you give up and try to find another image? Do you trade in the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father, which art in heaven") and the Apostle's Creed ("I believe in God the Father") for something more trendy and relevant to young people who see their fathers only on weekends?

Or do you dig in your heels and say: The same God who promises to be the source of all comfort knew precisely what He was doing when He chose the Father image in the first place. It's not just a metaphor; it is of God's very essence. What do fatherless children need? A Father, maybe?

So you either concede the language-or you claim it. To our friends whom I have here described (I hope not too pejoratively) as pragmatic adjusters, I say: Thank you for your zeal in spreading God's truth. But stop worrying so much whether the Bible's ideas and language are capable of confronting a pagan and secular society. Be exceedingly careful while adjusting both its words and (more than you think) even its ideas to fit that society.


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