Monday, November 7, 2011

The Trojan Horse of Error

The July edition of the Gospel Advocate has a scathing article denouncing the most recent update of the NIV as "a Trojan horse of error that will destroy the faith of many." The author further charges the translators with having suffered an "erosion of faith" and embracing "the errors of current Protestant theology that [the translation] poses a threat to sound doctrine." In short, "the updated NIV is a greater danger to faith than any other major English version of Scripture."

While I certainly do not agree with all the changes being made, I am equally opposed to this kind of alarmist language which attributes to the discretion of translators the power to make or break faith or distills differences of opinions into a loss of true Christian piety. I find the spirit of the article objectionable, but--since facts are more easy to quantify an objection to--I will turn to the two features of the translation which the author.

The first supposed flaw of the updated translation is its embrace of feminist theology. As expected, this takes the form in part of a shift toward gender inclusive language. A general skepticism is, of course, warranted by the politically motivated shift to take gender exclusive language from a language that has gender inclusive terms and translate it into gender inclusive language in a language that is notoriously resistant to gender inclusivity. Certainly the more intellectually honest approach is to leave the text as it stands and allow readers to infer inclusivity rather than to misrepresent the language in an effort to offer what the translator has decided is an accurate representation of the spirit. Where I stop short, however, is joining the author in his judgment that "the feminist agenda is rampant in the revised NIV."

What the new edition displays is at most an overcorrection for centuries of failures--due mostly to the shortcomings of English, but perhaps in part to the androcentrism of our culture--to correctly render genuinely inclusive biblical language. For every Acts 18:27, which the author points out scandalously implies that "the sisters were involved in writing the letter" of introduction for Apollos, there is a counter-example such as 1 Corinthians 7:24 which, in the traditional gender exclusive, is theological nonsense. In fact, the verse in 1 Corinthians provides a particularly potent example. The 1984 NIV, which the articles author voices few if any objections to, renders the text "Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to." Taken literally, Paul seems to free women here to do as they please relative to their social status: slaves can revolt, wives can desert, and so on. Of course, such a suggestion is nonsense since Paul only verse before explicitly included women in his teaching. What's more, the verse itself does not have the gender exclusive "each man" as the translator renders it. It merely says "each" and leaves the reader to supply the noun (which in this case is probably the gender inclusive, grammatically masculine term anthropos). It is almost as if the newer translation gets it right in rendering the text "each person."

In fairness to the article's author, however, there is more to the "feminist" shift than simple gender inclusive language. Specifically, the author cites a change in the language of 2 Timothy 2:12, which the old version rendered "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent" but which in the new edition reads "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." Outrageous, no? The author suggests that, with this shift, "the revised NIV is parroting theories advocated by feminist theologians" which allow for a woman to lead provided she is offered this authority rather than seizing it for herself. While clearly not the scholar of feminist thought that the article's author is, I can certainly tell you that the shift from "have" to "assume" (which is within the semantic range of the term authenteo) does not change the four principle features of this verse: (1) women cannot teach, (2) there are restrictions on women's authority, (3) women ought to be quiet. The fourth, of course, is that this passage will still represent the number one reason that feminists are angry at the Bible no matter how you try to blunt the translation.

The second flaw, which curiously is offered less space than the feminist invasion, is the way the new NIV seems to undermine a young earth theory of creation. The author notes a troubling "attempt to destroy a literal reading of the creation account" through "imposed" formatting which "indicates the creation narrative is to be
read as poetry." The article takes aim at those who would capitulate to theories of an old earth or evolution which just happen to be en vogue at the moment. "The translators of the NIV brush aside a literal understanding of creation and reduce all difficulties to poetic incidentals. You don’t want to believe in six days of creation with God specially calling everything into existence? No problem. The opening section of the revised NIV lends itself to theistic evolution or any other theory you might want to embrace." What the author does not address is how simply breaking the text up into metered lines can somehow open up new hermeneutical possibilities not before available. Does he not realize that theories of theistic evolution and non-literal readings of Genesis antedate not only this aesthetic change by the editors but also such trivial historical events as the fall of the Roman Empire. Not being a scholar of Hebrew, or much of a poet, I have no idea whether or not the decision to represent Genesis 1 as poetry is warranted. I am, however, quite certain that a literal reading of the Genesis text is not dependent on the text's formatting as prose any more than a non-literal understanding is dependent on a poetic presentation. The change in text alignment is certainly not, as the author's subtitle claims, a "Destruction of Foundations" unless one's faith is founded on the span of time it took God to create the earth.

Given my largely agnostic views about the scientific origin of the universe, I find the author's protestations about Genesis 1 misguided but mostly innocuous. In contrast, it is always so unnerving for me, as someone with thoroughly conservative views about gender economics, to hear the hue and cry raised over any incursion of "liberal" or "feminist" sentiments into translations. Do we really believe that the biblical view of man- and womanhood is so vague, so fragile that it can really be undermined by translational subtleties? More importantly, what does it say about Christians when we inject such vitriol into these issues. I believe that women should stay out from behind pulpits. I do not believe that their failure to do so constitutes a lack of faith, a surrender to liberal, secular feminism, or a disqualification from salvation. While I know many, the Gospel Advocate author likely included, disagree, but even so the perceived (and I cannot stress that term strongly enough) endorsement of a different gender economy by the translators of the new NIV surely does not represent, on their part, a lack of faith, a surrender to liberal, secular feminism, or a disqualification from salvation. The divisive rhetoric that says that it does is what undermines not only all prospects of Christian unity but also any hope of evangelism in a world which already believes that Christianity's m├ętier is infighting and unbridled dogmatism. It is, in short, bad form.

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