Thursday, December 29, 2005

Gender and the Image of God: Conclusion

With this far too lengthy last post I conclude my little epic on the relationship between gender, the image of God, and male-representative language. Many thanks to Ted (whose initial questions on Jesus Creed spurred me on to post this series) as well as to Suzanne and Peter for being such great conversation partners.

But First . . .
A few matters of clarification before I proceed. First, there has been some debate in this series about the legitimacy of the term “male-representative language.” Let the reader understand therefore, that I will be using the term “male-representative” to denote the linguistic phenomenon whereby a typically male term (such as the Hebrew ish) is used in such a way as to clearly denote both sexes. Both Wayne and Peter argued in the previous thread that the term “male-representative” was difficult to apply to a given Hebrew or Greek word since we are not in a position to know with clarity or certainty the exact meaning of an ancient word in a given context. In other words they are suggesting (if I understand their argument correctly) that the Hebrew term ish may in fact not always have a strictly male meaning and perhaps contains a gender inclusive meaning when used in certain contexts. Fine. I don’t think this is substantially different than what I am trying to denote with the term “male-representative.” In fact, it seems clear to me that the Hebrew term ish does have an inclusive meaning whereby it is used to denote both sexes. I call this “male-representative” for the sake of brevity. Those not comfortable with the term or who find it misleading are welcome to suggest an alternative shorthand for this type of occurrence. Again, all I mean to denote with the expression is the occasion whereby a typically male term is used inclusively to denote both sexes (in a way, I should point out, that a strictly female term is never used).

Secondly, my main concern in this whole translation debate is its connection to the wider egalitarian/complimentarian gender debate. As I argued in a previous post, I believe that a typological relationship can be drawn between the man’s relationship to the woman, and God’s relationship to Christ (see in particular 1 Corinthians 11:3). Consequently, I find the complimentarian camp’s affirmation of ontological equality and economic inequality within the husband/wife relationship to be more true to the antitype (God’s relationship with Christ) than the egalitarian position. As I noted to Suzanne in the previous thread, I am not trying to “prove” the complimentarian position through male-representative language, but rather am suggesting that there is a connection between the two. The egalitarian debate is a whole issue itself and perhaps one that I will take up in the future, but for now I press on with the conclusion of my series.

I see the image of God expressed in two primary ways through the use of male-representative language: First, it expresses male headship as a reflection of God’s headship over Christ, and secondly, it typologically parallels the scriptural language pattern used to denote God and Christ.

Male-Representative Language and Male headship
Ancient texts in general and Scripture in particular tend to use a patriarchal noun as representative of an entire group. For instance the nation of Israel is named after the patriarch of the same name. Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49 is highly indicative of this tendency. In blessings his sons by name, he blesses the tribes of which they each act as head. Principally speaking, the name of the head of a family or clan often became the term by which the entire family or clan associated with that person was named. Typically, naming rights are granted to the head and can be used inclusively or exclusively.

In the same way, it seems apparent to me that the use of a typically male term to designate both sexes stems from the fact that the man is head of the woman (1 Corinthians 11:3). (We can debate Paul’s use of kephale (head) in this text, but for me it seems difficult to suggest that Paul’s use of the term in this context can be anything other than a reference to the man’s leadership and authority over the woman—see in particular verse 10.) In as much as Paul is correct here (and my view of inspiration and inerrancy compels me to believe that he is), it makes sense that scripture would use the typically male term when referencing the entire human race. In short, male-representative language flows out of the principal of male-headship. Thus just as God is the head of Christ (a relationship full of deep beauty and worth glorifying) the man/husband is the head of the woman/wife (likewise a relationship of deep beauty worth glorifying). Male-representative language highlights this relationship and typologically points us toward the perichoretic relationships within the Trinity, namely the Father’s relationship with Christ.

Male-Representative Language as Typologically related to Divine-Representative Language
Secondly, I would suggest that the reason the original text often uses the male noun in an inclusive fashion—in a way that is never done with the female noun—is intentional and can be related typologically to a similar language pattern used to denote God and Christ. There are many terms used to denote God in scripture, but for the sake of my argument here I will focus on the Greek term theos.

A cursory reading of Scripture will reveal that the term theos can refer either inclusively to the entire Godhead or it can refer exclusively to God the Father. It is, however, used very rarely to refer to Christ exclusively. For example, when the Scriptures state that o theos created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1), we—at least as Christians—understand that the use of the term theos in this context is inclusive of the entire Godhead, for both the Son and the Spirit were present and active in creation (note John 1:3). In principal, we typically predicate (at least theologically) to the Son whatever is spoken in reference to theos, even where we understand that the term in a given passage is referring primarily to the Father. But when the Scriptures wish to designate between the members of the Godhead, they use the term theos strictly in reference to God the Father (e.g. Jesus Christ the Son of God, or God is the head of Christ) and never in relation to Christ (we never find something like, the Father, God, and the Holy Spirit where the term God is referencing Christ). Just as Suzanne pointed out that the unmarked anthropos assumes a male orientation by default, so too the unmarked theos always refers to the Father unless the context suggests an inclusive meaning whereby the entire Godhead is predicated. And just as anthropos or ish are never used in Scripture to denote an exclusively female audience, so too theos is never (almost) used exclusively in relation to Christ. It should be obvious at this point where I’m headed.

The Scripture’s use of the masculine noun when referring to humanity in general is analogous to the language used to speak of God. Just as Christ is included in the general term theos even though the term is used most often in reference to the Father, the woman is included in typically male terms such as ish. So for me, the woman’s inclusion in the masculine term “man” is not inconsequential or merely semantics, but rather points us towards, and stems from, God’s relationship with Christ. So it would seem that the Scripture’s use of male pronouns to refer to all humanity can be directly related to the fact that gender has relation to the image of God.

Conclusion: Accuracy vs. Clarity
I have been impressed by the sincerity of my egalitarian dialog partners in as much as they have insisted that gender-neutral translations are in fact more literal in that they reflect the original author’s gender inclusive intent. I hadn’t really considered this to be a legitimate factor in the debate as it seemed to me that no one really had trouble making sense of male-representative language. But the more I read by the proponents of gender-inclusive translations (particularly by Wayne and Peter of the more I have come to sympathize with this concern. The basic gist of their argument runs such: the English language has changed over the past thirty years such that male-representative language no longer makes sense to a significant number of English speakers. Terms such as “brothers” “all men,” etc., are no longer understood inclusively in general English language. I think perhaps that this line of reasoning is overstated, but I am willing to grant it a measure of legitimacy. The egalitarian bent of our culture has largely done away with male-representative language in the common vernacular. But does this shift is culture require a shift in translation?

There are times when a given culture simply cannot accurately communicate the terms and idioms of another culture. Do we preserve the original language’s idiom and leave an awkward English translation, or do we adopt a smooth English translation and abandon the cultural idiom? My concern here is typical of the translator’s dilemma that grows out of the tension between the desire to communicate a text clearly and the desire to communicate a text literally. Not always an easy choice. For example, when translating the Bible for a south pacific Indian tribe that has no familiarity with sheep, do we refer to Jesus as the “Good Shepherd,” or do we call him the “Good Chicken Keeper?” “Chicken Keeper” would be the more immediately clear translation and resonate most quickly with their culture (assuming they raised chickens, that is).

My general solution to this problem is as follows: It is best to translate the original language’s idiom into something that makes sense in the target audience’s language, even if the original idiom is not preserved, as long as the original idiom does not have inherent theological significance that would be otherwise lost. In the latter case it is best to convey the original idiom (even if not immediately clear to the target audience) as much as possible in the target audience’s language and ask them to search out its meaning. So in the above case, it is better in my mind to translate the passages as “shepherd” and “sheep” and then do our best to enlighten our audience of the cultural context of the Palestinian situation that gave birth to this idiom. At the end of the day, chicken aren’t sheep and much of the typology is lost if we tried to compare ourselves to chickens or Christ to a chicken keeper. In certain passages that are wrought with theological meaning that can’t be properly communicated though our current cultural matrix, it seems best to me that we retain the cultural motifs and idioms and ask the reader to search out its meaning.

Following this principal, it seems best to me that we retain the cultural idiom of male-representative language in as much as it typologically reflects the relationship between God and Christ, even though such an idiomatic expression may no longer readily obtain in our culture. Using gender inclusive terms such as “brothers and sisters” when the text reads adelphoi (not adelphoi kai adelphas) masks the reality of male headship and its corresponding relationship to God’s headship over Christ. To insist on eliminating language that implies male headship—and surely the use of a typically male term to denote both sexes at least implies male headship—finds its primary fault in that it blurs the typological relationship between the man and the woman and God and Christ. The headship of the man over the woman is patterned after the headship of God over Christ. We are the type, He is the anti-type. Our translations should highlight this truth, not obscure it.

Again, a hearty thanks to those of you who participated in this discussion. Blessings to all!


Kenny said...

Gerald, thank you for your thoughts on this subject. I have found this discussion very interesting. I have just posted a somewhat lengthy discussion of the degree to which linguistic facts might be significant to theology in response to this post here.

Wayne Leman said...

My concern here is typical of the translator’s dilemma that grows out of the tension between the desire to communicate a text clearly and the desire to communicate a text literally.

Gerald, where does translating accurately fit in? Wouldn't that be the highest priority, higher even than translating clearly or literaally? Since tone doesn't come across by email, I'm asking this as a sincere question, with no ulterior motive.

Wayne Leman said...

Gerald, as you may know the Greek language used grammatically masculine (but semantically inclusive) terms long before the New Testament was ever written. And the Greeks believed in a number of different gods. How, then, can you make any connection between a grammatical patterns of Greek when there was not yet any Judeo-Christian theology, which you and I follow, and that theology?

Many languages use various grammatical forms to indicate non-matching semantic reference. This is simply the way languages work. There is much that is grammatically arbitrary about language.

Ultimately, if we follow your thesis to its logical conclusion, we have to find theological significance for every grammatical pattern of Hebrew and Greek. What, then, would be the theological significance to the fact that the Hebrew word for 'spirit' is grammatically feminine, but the Greek word in grammatically neuter. What is the significance for the godhead that 'spirit' is grammatically neuter.

What is the significance that pistis 'faith' is grammatically feminine, but logos is grammatically masculine, and teknon 'child' is grammatically neuter.

I think, dear brother, that you are imposing your own theological understanding upon the ancient languages and picking what features of those languages you believe to be theologically significant. Then based on what those features are, it sounds like you call them theologically significant. The problem, of course, if this is true of your position, is that it is logically circular and vacuous.

I find it far safer to derive our theology from the statements of scripture, not grammatical forms, many of which are, obviously, arbitary. How can we, with our human minds, determine which grammatical features of languages are theologically significant and which are not? If the answer is that those things are theologically significant which I believe to be theologically significant then we really haven't answered the question, have we?

I appreciate your wrestling with us over these issues. I would encourage you to take a linguistics course, or read a linguistics book, that discusses the arbitrary nature of many linguistic grammatical features.

Grammar is like the clothes that a person wears. It is the outer form. The real person is inside the clothes. Yes, yes, I know, there is the English proverb "Clothes make the man," but I don't believe that and I suspect you don't either. I think that what is in a person's "heart" (their inner being) is what makes that person. And God would seem to agree as he stated in 1 Sam. 16:7. I don't mean to be trivializing the debate by pointing to this Bible verse. I may be wrong in seeing a parallel between outward appearance of a person and grammatical features of languages, but at this point, such a parallel makes sense to me.

BTW, my wife grew up in Mexico as a fluent speaker of Spanish. Spanish, like several other Indo-European languages, including Greek, has masculine and feminine grammatical genders. Spanish has a number of words which, in context, are grammatically masculine but semantically gender-inclusive. This is not male representation. This is simply a linguistic phenomenon, just as it is a linguistic phenomenon that Greek teknon is neuter, and Spanish pluma 'pen' is feminine, but Spanish lapiz is masculine. There is not theological or other significance to these grammatical gender assignments.

Please remember, if you are going to find theological significance to any grammatical facts of Biblical Hebrew or Greek, then you must be prepared to argue for the theological significance of each and every grammatical feature (including every noun that has feminine or neuter genders). We can't just pick and choose whatever grammatical features fit our own theological viewpoint.

The male representation theory of Dr. Grudem and Dr. Poythress is simply that, a theory. They believe it strongly. It fits with their personal theological systems. But there is little, if any, evidence to support their position from the grammatical features of languages throughout the world, including the languages of the Bible, which act like any other human language. They are no more sacred or secular than any other language.

Happy New Year, Gerald.

Peter Kirk said...

Gerald, you wrote:

(We can debate Paul’s use of kephale (head) in this text, but for me it seems difficult to suggest that Paul’s use of the term in this context can be anything other than a reference to the man’s leadership and authority over the woman—see in particular verse 10.)

It is not at all difficult to suggest this. As I understand it, the Greek word here, κεφαλή kephalē, unlike the English "head", is never used to refer to leadership or authority. As so often, words which have the same literal meanings in two different languages have quite different sets of non-literal meanings. And as far as verse 10 is concerned, read the verse in Greek and then answer this question, in this verse who has authority (ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν), the man or the woman?

Peter Kirk said...

Now for a more general look at this posting. Thank you, Gerald, for your kind words acknowledging how I have helped you to understand better the arguments for gender-inclusive translations.

But it seems that in this posting you are confusing characteristics of the Greek and Hebrew language, such as that male-oriented terms are generally used to refer to mixed groups, with the teaching of the Word of God. The old theories that the original languages of the Bible are special divine dialects has now been thoroughly discredited: biblical Hebrew and Greek are basically the normal languages of the peoples who spoke them. When someone merely says what they are forced to say by the structure of the language, they are conveying no information; for example, if I say "two words", the -s on "words" conveys no new information because the structure of the language requires it to be present. Similarly, when the biblical authors use male-representative language (if I grant for the moment that that is what we find in the Bible) in Greek and Hebrew, they do so because that is what the structure of those languages requires them to do, and therefore by doing so they cannot be conveying any teaching, anything of theological significance.

Therefore I would totally reject your "surely the use of a typically male term to denote both sexes at least implies male headship". If this use is part of the language, as we can see that it is, it cannot be part of the author's specific teaching. Now I accept that in some sense the Bible does teach "male headship" (but see my previous comment about the meaning of κεφαλή kephalē), but that teaching, and the typological link to the "headship" of God over Christ, is based on explicit teaching e.g. in 1 Corinthians 11:3 (whatever that verse means), and not on the characteristics of Greek and Hebrew of using male-representative language.

The implication of this is that there can be no theological significance in the use of male-representative language in the Bible, and therefore, by your own argument, there is no need to preserve this kind of language in translations.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Gerald,

I have posted a few thoughts on the Better Bibles Blog today

Suzanne McCarthy said...

So it would seem that the Scripture’s use of male pronouns to refer to all humanity can be directly related to the fact that gender has relation to the image of God.

My problem here, Gerald, is that I question the relationship between gender and sex, not between gender and God.

I am aware that some people do not follow links so I have copied my post here.

I was thinking today about how the Bible translates into French. There is certainly gender in French but it doesn't line up exactly with gender in English.

French vs. English

elle - she - singular pronour fem.
il - he - singular pronour masc.
elles - they - plural pronoun fem
ils - they- plural pronoun masc.
sa/son - her - sing possesive fem.
sa/son - his - sing possessive masc.

So for the singular pronoun there is no problem. For the plural pronoun French can indicate gender where English cannot. For the possessive, English can indicate gender where the French cannot. In this case gender in French reflects the gender of the object of the possessive not the subject.

Is truth to be variously distributed to the different nations depending on their language? What then should be done about Swahili which has the following 8 genders.

Human, tree, thing (diminutive) appendages, liquid, flora and fauna, round, abstract

The notion that gender in language has more than a superficial association with biological sex is simply due to the fact that the word 'gender' has come to be a euphemism for the word 'sex' in the English language among that part of the population which is squeamish about saying the three letter word out loud. I undertand why this would be so on the internet because one should be wary of putting a three letter word in the title of a post.

Ted Gossard said...

Thanks Gerald, Suzzane, Peter and Wayne for a most interesting conversation. It has plenty of depth.

While I think I understand Gerald, your theological concern (I too think that it seems that the Bible teaches some kind of eternal subordintation of the Son to the Father; something I was taught strongly as a young Christian. Though I do want to study further on it), I tend to side with the other side in this discussion. One has to go with the explicit teachings of Scripture. One cannot base a teaching on the grammar of the original languages. Though you seem to have said that the thought on grammar supports what you see as explicitly taught in Scripture.

All four of you, in my opinion gave very interesting and substantive thoughts on this debate. Thanks again.

blessings, Ted

Gerald said...


Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I too find it not insignificant that the "fullness of time" should occur during the Roman Empire and during the proliferation of koine Greek. How much significance this really has for our discussion will probably depend upon one's prior theological commitments and reading of the didactic passages of scripture that relate to this subject. Appreciate the thoughts.

Gerald said...


Thanks for being the impetuous behind this series. I agree that the explicit teachings of scripture are the place to start. I really began this series from complimentarian assumptions derived from such passages and was intending to show how from a complimentarian perspective, there is correlation between male-representative language and the image of God. As I noted above, it is difficult to reach consensus on the nature of the type when there isn't agreement regarding the anti-type. Appreciate you brother--God's best!

Gerald said...


I think I follow your argument (though I'm not entirely certain). Doesn't Peter's distinction between real world gender and grammatical gender get to what you are talking about? Certainly, as you point out, grammatical gender has very little meaning regarding real world X and Y chromosomes. But a word such as ish is not merely a grammatically masculine term--it is typically used as a real world biologically masculine term. So my point still stands regardless of whether a language has consistent grammatical gender or not. I've adjusted my argument in light of Peter's critique and have defined "male-representative" as a “customarily real-world male term (not a grammatically masculine term) that is used inclusively to denote both sexes.” So it would matter little for my argument whether or not the various languages of the world have consistent grammatically gender terms as long as they had consistent “real-world” male/female terms (which I’m fairly certain they all do). But perhaps I am not following your critique.

Peter Kirk said...

Gerald wrote:

So it would matter little for my argument whether or not the various languages of the world have consistent grammatically gender terms as long as they had consistent “real-world” male/female terms (which I’m fairly certain they all do).

I wouldn't count on it, Gerald. Many languages do not have distinct pronouns for males and females, and are almost lacking in distinct male/female terms, e.g. they don't even distinguish "brother" and "sister" except by adding specific separate words "male" and "female". These are not only languages of peoples for whom gender distinctions are of little importance, for those which don't have gender marked pronouns include Persian, used in Iran with its society based on very strong male dominance. Of course these languages do have to have at least one pair of specific words "male" and "female", and I don't know of any which don't have distinct terms for "mother" and "father". But you certainly shouldn't assume that all languages make anything like the same consistent male/female distinctions as English and the biblical languages do.

By the way, I thought of an example of feminine-representative language which is Latin but used in English: persona non grata, which is used gender generically in English and presumably in the original Latin, although anyone who knows even a smattering of Latin will recognise this as grammatically feminine. Does this imply something about the theology of the Roman Catholic church? Surely not! I hope bringing up this example doesn't make me persona non grata!

Gerald said...


You'll always be persona grata here on iustificare, my friend.

As far as other languages are concerned, the issue wouldn't necessarily be grammatical forms, but whether or not there are idiomatic expressions (such as the English "Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Hiestand") that denote male headship. But as I stated, I don't have enough exposure to other languages to further this discussion. Though a Brazilian friend told me that Portuguese has the equivalent of male-representative language.