Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

“Man of God” or “All God’s People” (2 Tim 3:17)

I have stayed away from gender issues in translation so far in this blog, but maybe it is time to at least broach the topic.

There are two points of view when it comes to the issue of man. Some argue that there is still a generic use of the word, and that man can refer to males or to men and women depending upon the context. Other believe that man only means male and cannot refer to women as well.

Related, but still slightly different, is the use of he. Can he be used to refer back to a previous subject, regardless of whether that subject is male or female? Consider Ps 1 for example. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (ESV). If “man” is seen as generic, can you refer back to this person as “he”? If this “anaphoric he” is removed from the translator’s arsenal of words, translation becomes quite difficult.

I don’t really have a concern here to settle the debate. My personal opinion is that in many parts and sub-cultures of the United States, “man” and “he” can be used in a generic sense. All you have to do is listen to the news or read a newspaper and you will see the words used this way repeatedly. It is confusing to me when good scholars deny this point that so easily proven.

And there are other parts and sub-cultures of the United States where “man” and “he” are not generic, and to insist on using these words only inhibits the spread of the gospel. My guess is that English is in the midst of a possible transition on this point, and we will have to wait and see how it turns out.

Part of the problem is that most of the ways of avoiding “man” and “he” are so unsatisfactory that literary sensibilities recoil at attempts, such as always writing he/she, or (s)he, or alternating between “he” and “she,” or using the plural “they” to refer to a singular antecedent. So many of these devices draw attention away from the content and focus on the form, which is part of the essence of bad writing.

Anyway, let’s get biblical. I think the hardest passage in the Bible to translate when it comes to this issue is 1 Tim 2:1-7. The reason is that anthropos (“man”) ties the entire passage together, and if you are not consistent in your translation of this word, you obscure meaning, which of course none of us want to do.

Paul wants Timothy to ensure that the Ephesians are praying for all anthropoi (v 1), because God wants all anthropoi to be saved (v 4); to leave people out of our prayers is to run counter to God’s salvific plans. There is salvation nowhere else. There is only one God, and one mediator between God and anthropoi, the anthropos Christ Jesus (v 5). anthropos is the word that ties the entire discussion together, showing that Paul’s instructions in v 1 are based upon his theology in vv 4-5.

There is no way to satisfactorily translate this passage. Even in the ESV we alternated, using “people” in the first two references and “man” in the second two, and included a footnote on the last anthropos: “men and man render the same Greek word that is translated people in verses 1 and 4.” The TNIV renders, “everyone … all people … human beings … human.” The NET is similar, and the NLT loses the connections altogether.

Welcome to the joys of translation. So what is the answer? Learn Greek! I had to put that in — but certainly a working knowledge of Greek, or at least a working knowledge of the language tools like a good interlinear, goes a long way in solving this type of problem, as does the practice of using multiple translations and study Bibles. But at the end of the day, this is why God not only inspired Scripture but also gave the church preachers and teachers. Some things simply cannot make it into English and need to be explained.

This is a problem that will not go away for any time soon. We will continue to have debates on verses like James 3:1 — “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters [Greek, adelphoi], because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (TNIV), a translation that removes from debate the question of women teaching.

Or my favorite complaint against the TNIV. “All Scripture is God–breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people [o tou theou anthropos] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). In my opinion, “all God’s people” is an impossible translation of “the man of God” (o tou theou anthropos), even with the singular footnote, “the servant of God.” Paul is thinking primarily of Timothy, a fact totally obscured by the TNIV’s attempt to not use “man.” But to their credit, the TNIV committee has said they will look at this verse, and one of the members told me that he thinks this will be changed.

Which brings me to my final point. The biblical call for gentleness, kindness, and respect does not stop at the door to the classroom or the translation table. The way to work on these differences is not to shoot a bullet through a particular translation and mail it to the CEO of the publishing house. May God help us if we forget that his demands on our lives, and attitudes, and tongues, applies to all of us, perhaps especially those of us who presume to be teachers. In the midst of the debate, shouldn’t that be the focus of our discussion on James 3:1?


I have been teaching Sunday school and i still don't know Greek, but i hope i didn't mess things up.

If one word can be used in both inclusive and exclusive ways depending on context, at best it leads to confusion and at worst to oppression, as indeed, it has and continues to do so as long as people continue to use it for both. I have had to sit through jokes by college professors, i.e. man is rational woman is not man woman is not rational That joke can only play if one assumes that "man" is "inclusive" in the first tenet in order to set up the humiliation of the few women who dared to take philosophy in a conservative Christian college in the 1980s. Multiply by hundreds of thousands of such experiences, and you realize that just because something is used does not mean it works, or that it should continue to be allowed to play games with peoples' heads, creating false pride and security for men and false humiliation and ipso facto absence/silence for women. Try writing out something that uses male language "inclusively," using female language, then read it to yourself. Can you see yourself in it? Is it including you, really? Throughout history male language never really included women, and many times that was entirely the point, from ancient Israel to the Constitution of the United States. And growing up with it does not change the impact of exclusion, it multiplies it. The difficulty of translating this passage is an example that it just doesn't work in English or Greek. Singular "they" is the best option we have, and it's not that difficult to adapt to, or we could make new inclusive personal nouns. In the U.S. It is mostly conservative Christian circles that fight inclusive language, do they not care that some women cannot---not "overly-sensitive women who won't," but women who can't get past that language to hear God's love for them? Paul prided himself on meeting people where they were, and in that he was a beautiful follower of Jesus. Let's do the same. Tawnya