I Agree with Jonathan Merritt

I’m rather surprised to hear myself say it, but I agree with Jonathan Merritt.

Ok, but before anyone gets the wrong impression, let me explain what I agree with.

Jonathan Merritt wrote an article for the Atlantic suggesting that the Southern Baptist Convention is going soft on gender in their latest Bible translation, and he wrote the article just in time for the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting (last week). Accident? Probably not. Inflammatory? Probably. Is the article overstating it’s case? Yes, probably that too. Would Merritt and other “progressive” Christians love to see the SBC devour itself with infighting over gender-inclusive language? I’d bet money on it.

But I still think Merritt is more right, and Denny Burk and Trevin Wax and Tom Schreiner (God bless ’em) are missing a really crucial point.

In response after response after response, Burk, Wax, and Schreiner refer to the much celebrated Colorado Statement and its principles, essentially saying: Our Bible translation does not bend to gender neutrality or inclusiveness because we wrote a statement at an important meeting convened by Bishop, er, I mean Dr. James Dobson and we held the meeting in order to stand against the PC gender-bending agenda. We followed all of those rules in our translation, and therefore, we have not succumbed to the PC gender-bending agenda.

So the argument is something like: We don’t believe in that bad thing you accuse us of and a bunch of our big whigs wrote something against it, therefore, we didn’t do it.

But what if the Colorado Statement itself isn’t so pristine? What if Dobson and Co were already more influenced by modern pagan PC philosophy than they realized? I believe they were.

We’re evangelicals. Our appeal is not to some man-made statement (however good it may be). Our appeal is to Scripture. Scripture itself teaches us how to interpret and translate Scripture. God’s Word is the standard not anything else we come up with, not PhDs, not a vote, not modern sensibilities, not even really good intentions.

So, for example, after affirming that masculine pronouns should be translated as masculine pronouns, the Colorado Statement says: “However, substantival participles such as ho pisteuon can often be rendered in inclusive ways, such as “the one who believes” rather than “he who believes.” Likewise, after affirming that “man” should be translated “man” to designate the whole human race, and that ‘ish’ (Hebrew) and ‘aner’ (Greek) should be translated as “man,” the Statement continues enumerating principles of translation: “6. Indefinite pronouns such as tis can be translated “anyone” rather than “any man.” 7. In many cases, pronouns such as oudeis can be translated “no one” rather than “no man.” 8. When pas is used as a substantive it can be translated with terms such as “all people” or “everyone.”” And again: “”Brother” (adelphos) should not be changed to “brother or sister”; however, the plural adelphoi can be translated “brothers and sisters” where the context makes clear that the author is referring to both men and women.”

Included in this statement are good affirmations that retain masculine references (and rightly so), but if a city under siege does a faithful job of defending three city gates and leaves one gate only minimally protected, we do not give the man entrusted with the care of the city a high grade. If the enemy finds that weak gate and takes the city, who cares that you took special care with the other three gates?

So, the problem with what has just been quoted above is that the Colorado Statement denies the Bible the right to interpret itself. While the Statement affirms that the Bible uses the word “man” to refer to “mankind” and the whole human race, it then goes on to deny that the Bible may do that in any other way or that the Bible may teach us to do the same. The most egregious instance of this is with the word adelphoi which means “brothers.” The Bible uses the word “brothers” to refer to the brotherhood of the church, which we know for a fact includes many women. It is completely inconsistent for the Colorado Statement to say that the Bible can use “man” to refer to the human race but cannot use “brothers” to refer to the church. The same thing is happening when gender neutral or inclusive language is preferred for indefinite pronouns and substantive pronouns or participles. Why not allow God to teach us how to translate those words?

In their explanation, Dr. Allen and Dr. Shreiner write: “The word [adelphoi] is accurately rendered “brothers and sisters” since the word “brothers” today suggests to many that just males are intended.” But notice that logic. The standard for translation has subtly shifted to the modern audience. But God intends to teach us to obey His Word even in our use of language. He intends to teach us to speak of the church as “brothers” because we have all (men and women) become “sons” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26-28). God intends to teach us to speak of the actors in the world and the people of the world in largely masculine terms, and this in no way excludes or marginalizes the absolute glory of being created female. God was never limited with language, and the writers of the Scriptures were not hampered by their cultural contexts. The Spirit broke through every conceivable barrier, thwarted kings and armies, divided the Red Sea, raised the dead, defied the hubris of man at every turn, and it is only the arrogance of modern evangelicals that thinks it knows better than God.

What He meant was “brothers and sisters.”

He had those words at His disposal and didn’t use them. Who are you, O man?

Therefore, when the Statement says, “substantival participles such as ho pisteuon can often be rendered in inclusive ways, such as “the one who believes” rather than “he who believes,” the Statement is affirming that translating the substantival participle as “he who believes” is not inclusive. But the Bible repeatedly teaches us that masculine words and pronouns often are inclusive. When God says that we have been made “kings and priests” to our God through Jesus Christ, He was not being insensitive to women. He didn’t forget about the women. He included the women. But on this matter, the Colorado Statement knows better than God. And I would count myself among those who have sometimes done the same thing. I have thought I knew better than God, that God needed my help, and so I’ve gone out of my way to say “and sisters” or “and daughters” or “and queens” — but this is simple arrogance and unbelief. So let’s be done with it.

While there is much good in the Colorado Statement, I believe Denny Burk and Trevin Wax and company should just recognize that Merritt has a point and go back and fix it. If this issue really is about being faithful to Christ and His Word then let’s realize we left that gate less guarded than we should have and thank one of our enemies for pointing it out.

But I suspect Merritt is smarter than that. He knows what he’s done. He knows that we don’t have the courage to lean into his criticism and fix our mistakes. He knows the story would be all over CNN and Huffington Post. He knows there’s a hoard of vultures circling, waiting for any signs of blood. The “safe” thing to do is just keep pointing at the Colorado Statement and hope nobody flinches. But the “safe” thing is also what keeps getting the Church pushed into obscurity and compromise.

It’s not good enough to point out all the ways you were faithful. We have to keep doing that and fix the stuff we weren’t faithful enough in. It’s called repentance. It’s called learning wisdom. It’s called humility.

It’s called courage.

  1. Robert Truelove June 24

    My thoughts exactly. There is also the rendering of ‘adam’ (man – Hebrew) and ‘anthropos’ (man – Greek) where the Colorado Statement allows for systematic gender-neutral language.

    While these words do indeed mean “men and women” in numerous places, they are “male-oriented” gender inclusives. ‘adam’ and ‘anthropos’ throughout the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament can men, “man” or “men” (in plural form), “mankind” OR “men and women”. They never mean “a woman” or “a group of women”.

    God speaks with male-oriented inclusive language in the Bible. One wouldn’t know that if all they’ve read were translations since the turn of the century.

    One of our iconic expressions in the English using this sort of language was uttered by Neil Armstrong upon setting foot on the moon…

    “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (My my…how far we have come from 1969!)

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