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.)