Review: The Inclusive Language Debate by D.A. Carson

by May 9, 2021KJV, Linguistics, NTScholarship12 comments

The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism, by D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). 

Don Carson's prose is elegant, and his pace is perfect. He briskly moves the reader through a narrative of the conflict among evangelical Christians over so-called "gender-inclusive language" in Bible translation, then he tackles the linguistic issues involved as efficiently as anyone could.

I should have read this book many years ago, but the interesting thing to me is that my love for language and linguistics and Bible translation over time has brought me to all the same positions. I read the book very quickly because none of the concepts were new to me; there was no uptake required. What's so sad to me is that my tribe should have read this book many years ago, and many of the concepts would have been new to them. I recently got an email from a wonderful, gracious, studious pastor who is a respected friend—and he had picked up that the NIV 2011 was bad because of its gender language. I totally understand that not every pastor can read every book and be up on every issue, but I've never heard of pastors in my circles being aware of the kinds of arguments Carson makes. And they really, really ought to be, because I just hate to see easier-to-read translations like the NIV and CSB blithely ignored when they could be such great tools for our sheep.

Carson is so evenhanded. He is a complementarian who nonetheless takes an unpopular position among his fellow conservatives. He critiques the work of friends and former students graciously but clearly. He also is willing to side with the critics on individual rendering choices in specific passages. He talks carefully and patiently (but not ad nauseam) through examples of grammatical gender in multiple different languages—and the way they do things is all over the map. He also works through the strengths and weaknesses of the respective position statements that were rushed to print during the late 90s controversy over gender-inclusivity.

I'll tell you where I'm at with all this kind of thing right now: I'm crying out to God. He's the one who gave us a situation in which the following obtains:

  • His word is available to 99.9% of Christians only through translation. (How many Christians can read biblical Hebrew and Greek at sight?)
  • Some translation decisions are difficult and obscure, especially in Hebrew but also in Greek.
  • We had a monolithic standard in English-speaking Christianity for approximately three centuries.
  • Most Christians can use their native language incredibly well but cannot describe it with accuracy. They don't know English the way a linguist knows it; they can't sort out the issues involved even on only the English side of the inclusive language debate.
  • If even Wayne Grudem on John Piper and Andreas Köstenberger come in for due criticism (though also due praise; except that Grudem probably does come off the worst in Carson's book) for mistakes at the nexus of translation and linguistics, what can the rest of the righteous do? (Even Mark Dever, of whom I think the world [yes, I do], just fell into the Grudem/Piper/Köstenberger/CBMW trap in a recent tweet, as if his friend Carson never wrote this book.)

This is why I cry out to the Lord like the psalmists of old: why does this all have to be so hard? A good friend of mine lost a man from his church when this man found out that they were using the NIV 2011 and not the NIV 1984 as he had assumed.

The KJV-Onlyists, of course, want to solve all the problems by freezing translation and textual criticism in time (1611 or 1769, depending on how you look at it) and calling all advances in these fields suspect at best and corruptions at worst.

But that's no solution. Or it's a cure that brings problems worse than the disease. As merely one example, it has caused a large number of churches to invent a Bible doctrine (the preservation of God's Words through a 17th century English translation) that is simply not taught in Scripture—and to divide on this point from all Christians who disagree.

I think the only thing I can do is what I am doing: I can join Carson in the popularizing work for which he is so well known. I can pray that the Lord would illumine Christian people and gentle them. I can hope that the mere fact that conservatives like Carson (and me!) see real value in inclusive language translations would give our fellow conservatives pause—maybe they're missing something. I can hope that what this controversy has done for me it will do for others, namely drive them deeper into the fascinating and helpful study of language and Bible translation. There are so many valuable things to find.

It would be interesting to have Carson write an afterword to this book 20+ years on. I feel as if he has been vindicated. People unselfconsciously experience gender-inclusive language as normal English and not as feminist-inspired oddities. Where people like Poythress (whom I greatly admire!) have scored some lasting points against inclusive-language translations, I think they are mainly doing what Carson himself did and noticing specific instances of silly or softheaded overreach. They are not, I think, undercutting Carson's basic case in favor of the idea that when English changes (and it is changing!), our translations have to change along with it or they will actually be inaccurate.

(One other little thought I have to stick in somewhere or I'll forget it: to call the NIVI the NIV Inclusive Language Edition, as the UK publishers Hodder & Stoughton did back in the late 90s was a major mistake. It made a relatively minor feature—something akin to using red letters—part of the very name of the translation, raising its profile to such a height that it could only look to some people like an imposition of feminism on the Bible.)

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  1. Andy Efting

    Mark, I’m not sure I’m with you on this one. It would be helpful to read some specifics to understand why those of us who are concerned about gender-neutral translation choices should re-think our position. For example, where does Dever go wrong in his tweet? I admit I have not read this book by Carson, but I have read plenty from the CBMW side. You seem to take a decidedly different view than, say, Tim Bayly (

    • Mark Ward

      Andy, I urge you to read the book. I definitely admit, for my part, that I didn’t rehash the arguments in this post—nor did I take the time in this review to evaluate the work of Vern Poythress. This I am committed to do as part of any YouTube video I produce on this matter. For now, I feel satisfied urging my fellow conservatives to read Carson’s work.

      I do take a decidedly different view from Tim. And I again ask conservative Christian people to ask how likely it is on its face that the co-founder of TGC, a self-confessedly complementarian group, colluded with evangelical feminists. At multiple points in the book Carson firmly expresses his complementarian views. And he is even willing to (as I mentioned) call out instances of silly overreach on the part of those aiming for gender-inclusivity in Bible translation.

      • Andy Efting

        I’m going to get both Carson and Poythress, and see what they have to say. I don’t know if this is covered by either of them, but one thing I wonder about is if the Bible could have been breathed-out using more inclusive language, like these translations are trying to do in English, but instead used male-oriented terminology intentionally. In other words, is the male-oriented terminology simply a function of the underlying source language, or is there a theological reason for its usage?

        BTW, regarding adelphos, I think it is too bad modern translations don’t just follow the KJV and use “brethren” in most cases. “Brethren” is gender-inclusive and so much warmer than “brothers” or “brothers and sisters”.

        • Andrew Efting

          I just finished Carson’s book. To me there are two big issues. First is…has the language actually changed so that people really are hindered in understanding by the use of the generic “he” and other masculine-centric terms? Second, what is lost theologically by switching to gender-neutral alternatives.

          Regarding the first, I have a hard time believing it is as big of a deal as Carson is making it out to be. I think the proliferation of gender-netural writing is due to feminist influences on academia, publishing houses, and the media to only allow gender-netural terminology. In other words, I see this as trying to force a change in English so that they can promote their agenda. What I don’t see is any real evidence that the general population doesn’t understand the generic use of he, etc. I have noticed just the opposite – the increasing use of “guys” to refer to both men and women, by both men and women, just as an example. Working at a secular university as I do, I feel the pressure to use gender-netural language, not because I don’t think people will understand but because they will get upset if I don’t.

          In spite of all that, I don’t think I would have the issue with this if I didn’t also feel that #2 is more impacted than Carson gave credit for. I mean he would occasionally agree that using plurals undercut the personal application, and of course he was against changing pronouns for God, but I’m not sure he gave enough credence to the federal headship of Adam and how the use of “man” and other masculine terminology plays into what the text of Scripture is trying to communicate. So, if God breathed out a gender-specific word that is also gender-inclusive, should we not try to replicate that in English if English enables us to do so? It seems that Carson was too quick to downplay the potential theological significance of the gender-specific aspects of the words used in the original. He didn’t always do that, but he often did. That’s my quick take…

  2. Fred Creason

    Hi Mark. You are correct that the English language is changing. When I was young, the words “men” and “brothers” were understood by Christians to include men and women. That is no longer the case. In many contexts, translations such as “people” and “brothers and sisters” do communicate the original meaning more accurately. The old argument that any use of gender-inclusive language would lead to translations depicting gender-inclusive deity have not proven true. The CSB is a good example.

  3. Brian C Collins

    I recall reading this Carson book back in seminary. I wish I hadn’t lost the notes that I took on my Palm Pilot; I would have been interested to see what I thought then. I recall, however, being less than persuaded. In the subsequent years we’ve been able to see the best efforts to put into practice what Carson calls for (and I do think the NIV 2011 is the best effort so far), and I think there is more loss than gain.

    I have some overarching concerns. First, the Bible was not written in a gender-neutral milieu, and making it gender-neutral may distort a proper understanding of the Bible in its world. This is an observation that David Clines, who I think would be happy to be called a feminist, made in 1989: “I have not managed to use inclusive language in the translation; committed though I am to its use in my own writing—and it is employed throughout the commentary proper—it is not always possible, in my experience, to conform the writing of another person to a gender-free style. For example, in the depictions of the “wicked man” in chap. 18, there is no reason to think that the words should refer only to males; on the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that the author so intended. One option that I have not taken is to convert all the references to the “wicked man” into plurals, for the poetic image of the evildoer would be weakened if I did so.” David J. A. Clines, Job 1–20, vol. 17, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1989), xxxi. (To the NIV 2011’s credit, they also leave the “wicked man” in Job 18).

    Robert Yarbrough, in his BECNT commentary on the Johannine epistles, draws attention to this (and several other problems) that emerge in the attempt for gender-neutrality: “Edwards 1996: 91-92 questions the wisdom of translating John’s ἀδελφός as ‘brother and sister’ or other generic label (cf. NRSV, NLT; cf. also English translations of Strecker 1996: 47 and Schnackenburg 1992: 82). CEV reads, “If we claim to be in the light and hate someone.” TNIV opts for ‘those who claim to be in the light but hate a fellow believer,’ thus avoiding ‘brother’ but also losing the individual focus of the assertion by changing the particular ‘one who says’ into an unspecified collection of persons. The original spotlight an arrogant individual (ὀ λέγων), not an impersonal group. (Paul’s periphrastic rendering of Ps. 32:1-2 in Rom. 4:7 is reasonable and legitimate, but hardly justifies a translation philosophy that would render Ps. 32:1-2 plural or Rom. 4:7 singular.) The words of Porter 1989: 33-34 on the CEV and gender language come to mind: ‘At points the biblical text may well be considered hopelessly insensitive in matters of gender, but I cam convinced that it is in the best interests of making the meaning of the original text clear if the clear meaning that exists is in fact obscured.'” Yarbrough, 1-3 John, BECNT, 103, n. 15.

    Second, part of the narrative of the Bible is that all humanity was initially represented by the man, Adam, and that all of the redeemed are represented by the Man, Jesus. There is something about male representation that’s part of the created order and part of the way the Bible regularly speaks. I don’t think that we fully understand the impact on the meaning of Scripture when we seek to move it in a gender-neutral direction.

    Third, I think the Bible often uses gendered-imagery purposefully, and we misunderstand the imagery by making it gender-neutral:
    “The current tendency, influenced by the pressure of gender-inclusive language, to refer to believers as ‘sons and daughters’ of God is misleading, blurs this vital truth, and has the effect of blunting the church’s appreciation of what union with Christ entails. Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, and is so eternally; that is his name and that is his status. It is not a sexual term, for God is not a sexual being. By referring to Christian believers as ‘sons,’ the NT is not, under the influence of patriarchal culture, bypassing half the human race. Instead, it is pointing to our shared status with the Son of the Father, in and by the Holy Spirit. The introduction of talk of ‘daughters’ obscures this point, placed at the hub of the Christian life.” Robert Letham, Union with Christ (P&R, 2011), 54, n. 19.
    “So the thing to notice, especially in Paul’s treatment, is not an ostensible chauvinism in identifying the people of God as “sons” rather than “sons and daughters,” but the radical discontinuity with both Judaism and Hellenism in identifying daughters and slaves as sons—that is, the legal heirs of the estate. In the process, the whole notion of who constitutes the right to “property” is subverted, at least in the communion of saints.”
    Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 243.
    “As I explained in the introduction, the gender-specific ‘sons/sonship’ is used here and elsewhere in the commentary in order to preserve the first-century concept of inheritance (almost always involving male offspring) and the relationship between the ‘sons’ and the ‘Son’ (4:5-6). The term refers, of course, to male and female believers equally.”
    Moo, Galatians, BECNT, 196, n. 1.
    “Before we turn to the five huiothesian texts that elucidate Paul’s sons-in-the-Son gospel, an important contemporary contextual comment is in order. As does modern culture at large, modern academia prefers to neutralize gender whenever possible. It might seem preferable to employ “adopted child” or some other gender-neutral formulation in the translation and derivations of huiothesia. As noted already, however, the Greek term for “adoption,” huiothesia, contains the masculine term huios. While in some cases gender-neutral terms may properly convey the meaning and organic (intracanonical) theology in biblical revelation, the use of huiothesia is generally not one of those cases.
    Because the shared etymology between huios and huiothesia aligns the redeemed sons of God with the redeeming Son of God, opting for a gender-neutral term in English muddles this verbally poignant Son/sons solidarity. Since Christ is not teknon, the chosen conception for filial grace is not teknothesia. To preserve this sons-in-the-Son solidarity that shapes Pauline theology, I will normally use the word son, while celebrating how the Pauline adoption concept unambiguously indicates privilege for both male and female (2 Cor. 6:18; cf. Gal. 3:25—27). In fact, at times Paul speaks of the huioi as tekna (e.g., Rom. 8:15—17); we can be assured that Paul’s choice of huiothesia and huioi representing both sexes perpetuates no gender bias and divulges no misogyny. With its etymological composition, huiothesia prominently serves his pervasive in Christ soteriology in a way that should govern our understanding of both tekna and huioi as they reference the redeemed people of God.”
    David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (P&R, 2016), 52.

    Despite Moo’s comment in his Galatians commentary, the NIV 2011, though translating “sonship” in 4:5 then translates huios as “child” in 4:6-7.
    I also think Dever is correct that something is lost with the avoidance of “one new man” in Eph. 2:15 by the move to “humanity.” Humanity is an abstraction. Man is a concrete, inclusive image that likely ties into the body imagery and into the representative theology the first Adam and the last Adam.

    I think it is worth noting that God gave us gendered imagery with “sonship/sons”, and “man,” just as he gave us gendered imagery in describing the church as the bride of Christ.

    Here are a few other specific examples:
    “The gender-neutral translation of כָּל־אִישׁ (kol-ish) (v. 13) as “anyone” (e.g., NRSV) [also NIV 2011] is inappropriate since in ancient Israel only men were allowed to make sacrifices. Tabernacle and temple worship was a male privilege and duty.”
    Harry A. Hoffner Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. H. Wayne House and William Barrick, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 1 Sa 2:13b–14a.

    In Job 14:1, the NIV 2011 obscures the references to Adam by translating adam as “Mortals” rather than “Man.” This translation allowed the NIV translators to transform all of the singular pronouns (“he,” “him,” etc.) into plurals, which further obscures the fact that the man being referred to is a stand in for Job. This is most problematic in the final verse of the chapter where the loneliness and isolation of this man is portrayed: “He feels but the pain of his own body and mourns only for himself” (NIV 1984). The isolation doesn’t come through with the plural pronouns: “They feel but the pain of their own bodies and mourn only for themselves” (NIV 2011).

    To the NIV 2011’s credit, the revised some of these issues as they appeared in the TNIV. For instance, the TNIV translated Lam. 3:1, “I am the one who has seen affliction,” and the NIV 2011 reverted to “I am the man who has seen affliction.” This reversion is correct as Berlin’s comments demonstrate:
    “The speaker is not Jerusalem, or her people, or a poet observing Jerusalem and her people. Rather, the chapter gives voice to a lone male, speaking in the first person about what he has seen and felt and what sense he can make of it. Because the first-person speaker announces himself so forcefully in his maleness (geber), many interpreters have puzzled over who this geber, this speaking voice in chapter 3, represents.
    . . . . . . . . . .
    “The male voice is a counterpart to the female voice of the city in chapter 1. Zion, personified as a woman, speaks in chapter 1, and here a male voice also speaking in the first person echoes, form a different perspective, the experience of destruction and exile. Just as the imagery in chapter 1 was feminine–the widow, the unfaithful wife, the raped woman–so here the imagery seems more masculine, invoking the physical violence against the male body associated with war and exile.”
    Adele Berlin, Lamentations, OTL (Louisvile: WJK, 2002), 84. (On page 88 Berlin specifically calls out “Gender-neutral translations, like NRSV.”)

    I wouldn’t deny that language is changing. but when it comes to Bible translation and gendered language, I think we need to recognize that we are translating an ancient text with a different worldview with regard to gender than our modern American or European worldview regarding gender. I think it is therefore safest to stick closest to the way the Bible itself uses gendered language as long as our language permits it. (And I do think English still recognizes the generic man and the generic he.)

    • Mark Ward

      I knew I’d get a comment from you. 😉

      Hang on. I’m taking my time with this—after dashing off this review.

      I am currently thinking that there is one significant place where the two sides (both complementarians, remember) are talking past one another or not engaging one another. It’s what Grudem calls “representative generics.” How much theological norming is going on in the generic “he”? If it’s a good bit, then we need to make sure to pull people into the world of the text. If it’s just a feature of grammar, then not so much. I wonder if this issue is really untangleable at this point. This is one idea I’m working on…

      • Brian C Collins

        I’m not sure how much theological norming is going on in the generic “he.” Those who think that the generic he is sexist evidently think there is a great deal. Complementarians who want to make the case for gender-neutral Bible translations would need to argue that there is none (or that it is minimal and that a generic “he” or generic “man” has become largely incomprehensible to modern readers). I think that there is probably something to it and that until we really probe the question we’re better off avoiding a find/replace approach to gender-neutral translation. I think the TNIV took something of a find/replace approach and that the NIV 2011 is a better translation because the translators took stock of some of the critiques and revised certain passage back toward appropriate gender specificity. It seems to me that that kind of constructive critique and revision needs to continue to happen with the NIV 2011.

      • Brian C Collins

        A few other thoughts. 1. Most of the examples given above weren’t about representative generics but were about gendered imagery. I think that we should be able to agree that gendered imagery in the original text should remain gendered. 2. In the case of the generic man, it does seem that there is something significant going on in naming the first man “Man” and in noting that God created “man” male and female. There is so much seminal theology in Genesis 1-3, that not seeing that as theologically significant is odd. It is doubly odd given the representative role that Adam played. Likewise, when Christ came as a man, he came as a male human; I don’t think he could have come as a female human to represent redeemed humanity given the creation order God established. Nor do I think this representative function is limited to Adam and Christ. Husbands and fathers have representative roles in the family, pastors/elders have representative roles in the church, etc. I think it is fine to vary writing and not insist on always using the generic “man.” However, style guides the prohibit the use of the generic “man” are, I think, contrary to a biblical worldview on that point.

  4. Sue

    The KJV is gender-inclusive and somewhat gender-fluid from the start. I don’t know why anyone has a problem with this. In Genesis 5;2 it says “and called their name Adam” in reference to Adam and Eve. Most other versions use the term “mankind” other than the KJV. Why is this all of a sudden an argument now?

  5. Mel

    Why is this even being debated? In Job 21:24 it says that HIS breasts are full of milk. If that isn’t an example of gender-free prose, then I don’t know what is.


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