“Inclusive” Language and Other Debates: An Orthodox Alumnus Responds to His Advisor

Knights and Ladies, Women and Men
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How I scared off all the other advisors

Before I became Orthodox, I entered a diploma in theology program and wanted to do a thesis on programming-style “design patterns” and recurring patterns in Biblical Egalitarian argument where problems in the arguments, it seemed to me, raised a red flag about the conclusions. I managed to scare off most prospective advisors by the idea of using concepts used in computer science, and almost scared off even the Biblical scholar who handles the computer stuff at a place connected with the university before (somewhat by accident) he looked at the concept I wanted to carry over from computer science and concluded that it wasn’t so scary after all, and in fact while he said, “I have never heard of an approach like this before,” the concept itself was nowhere so scary to a scholar in theology as the impression I gave by how I introduced my intended thesis. I wrote a thesis under his direction, and at the end of the year, mostly in gesture of thanks, I gave him a classic text in object-oriented programming’s “design patterns.”

The scholar is a major scholar in Biblical Egalitarian circles, as in a plenary speaker at CBE conferences. He gave me kind and appropriate direction in a thesis that critique common styles of argument associated with convictions that are important to him, and we’ve remained in contact every now and then. There may be important distinctions within Biblical Egalitarians, but when he directed me he was working to help me produce a good thesis and did so without trying to lead me to his position, and I do not know what exactstripe of Biblical Egalitarian he is.

Defining terms

I use the terms Biblical Egalitarian and complementarian heavily here. The two terms represent the liberal and conservative camps on issues of men, women, and gender. The flagship organization for Biblical Egalitarians (or, more simply, egalitarians) is Christians for Biblical Equality; the flagship organization for complementarians is The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Biblical Egalitarians try to combine Christianity with feminist concerns of various stripes. For one example, they adamantly believe the Bible’s “In Christ there is no… male nor female” and, more specifically, consistently try to neutralize “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her…” to make room for “no male nor female”. To the Egalitarian, if you really believe “In Christ there is no male nor female”, you believe it on terms informed by feminism. In my experience Biblical Egalitarianism is always argued with sophistry; what got me off sitting on the fence was a forceful presentation of Biblical Egalitarianism clothed in rhetoric that profoundly disturbed me. There is more to Biblical egalitarianism than inclusive language advocacy, but one part of their concern is that using “man” or “brother” when your intent is generic is perpetuating an injustice towards women. Overall there are several feminist-influenced concerns in Biblical egalitarianism; inclusive language is one of them. The basic goal of Bible scholarship pursued by Biblical Egalitarians is to arrive at an understanding of key passages that is more informed by feminist concerns.

Complementarians, in a name as carefully chosen as “egalitarians”, argue that we are missing something until we understand men and women as complementary. They tend to believe that “In Christ there is no… male nor female” and “Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her…” both belong to the same whole and in fact seem to both be cut from the same cloth. Complementarians are people who say, “No, that’s not good,” in response to feminism trying to uproot elements of traditional society. However, groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are making a proactive effort to take a positive position. They are not simply making a negative reaction to change; they are trying to offer a carefully considered positive position about why specific changes are not good and what a real, serious alternative to those changes would be. The basic goal of Bible scholarship pursued by complementarians is to arrive at an understanding that is more Biblical—not for us to adjust the Bible, but for the Bible to adjust us.

“Inclusive” language is not the only issue for either, but it is not a trivial issue, and I focus on it here. I would briefly suggest that what is at issue is not whether women are included, but the terms of inclusion: belabored “inclusive” language pushes to a Biblical egalitarian version of inclusion, while traditional language includes women on more complementarian terms.

Where I stand

Where do I stand? “It’s complicated” may be the best short answer, but that’s misleading. First of all, though I am closer to complementarianism than egalitarianism, it does not mean “I’m a complementarian but I’d rather not say so plainly,” and second of all, it does not mean, “I’m trying to forge my own new path between the two extremes.” Then what on earth does it mean? Um, it’s complicated.

The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics and Orthodox believe the same things, and ultimately the only barrier to reunification is that the Orthodox fail to lovingly recognize that we should restore full communion. I responded to that in An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism. Some Orthodox have found it a bit forceful, but more have found it astute in its observations. But Catholics have only given one response: “FOUL! There’s no way you can understand us if you are saying what you are saying about Thomas Aquinas and such.” And as Orthodox, I find the question “Are you a complementarian or egalitarian?” something like “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” as a false dilemma.

Before becoming Orthodox, I wrote an essay called “Knights and Ladies” that tried to pin down as qualities manhood and womanhood, and suggested a made-up term “qualitarian” as an alternative to “complementarian.” It’s a piece that I consulted several men and women in writing, that complementarians seem to like and egalitarians seem to critique, but I now regard it as flawed. It’s not exactly that I want to mix in more egalitarianism, but the basic project I took on was a thick description of qualities as a line of response, and a thick description of qualities is part of postmodern Zeitgeist and not a real part of Orthodox theology, and as such it is (arguably) a fairly successful attempt to bark up the wrong tree in offering a rebuttal.

There is a forum where I posted certain arguments and received counter-arguments from Orthodox scholars that were subtly reminiscent of the kinds of arguments I had studied in Biblical Egalitarian texts in that thesis. For one example, I made an argument from experience and basic observations about society, and it was dismissed by an Orthodox scholar who had just published a paper with his own thesis. The stated ground? I wasn’t arguing from the Fathers. I’d almost like to say that I let that dismissal slide; a close reading of Church Fathers is not what powers the Church Fathers, but writing of spiritual realities out of experience. But I dropped that line of argument, and in response to his dismissal of both my argument and other attempts to define the qualities of male and female, I pulled from the beloved theologian St. Maximus Confessor and said that, like the Cappadocians and some other figures, St. Maximus Confessor did very much root for transcending the differences between male and female, but this was in connection with a theology that sought to transcend the differences between the spiritual and the material, paradise and the inhabited world, Heaven and earth, and ultimately the uncreated and the created. In every one of the other four cases, the desire to transcend a difference assumes there’s a difference in place to begin with. When I gave this answer to a request to argue from the Church Fathers, he dismissed St. Maximus on this point altogether, saying that his widely loved theology was just flawed.

This example may invite a gentle response of, “Your interlocutor was a scholar who had just published a paper that you were hacking away at; it would be naive to expect him to welcome your argument.” And perhaps it would be, but this is an example of a common thread; though Orthodox heirarchs have not necessarily treated feminism as something to put their foot down on, and there are Biblical Egalitarians and feminists in the Orthodox Church, every single argument I’ve seen from an Orthodox trying to help me be more open and receptive to those perspectives has arguments that smell really funny—a strong whiff of eau de red flag.

I haven’t spent too much more time revising my beliefs after becoming Orthodox, not really because I think I’ve arrived at the full truth, but because as people grow in Orthodoxy, sooner or later they figure out that there is more important work than straightening out their worldviews, and they let go of reasoning about truth because they are working to drink Truth Himself. Nonetheless, I wanted to give this email conversation between him and myself, and pay attention to how appropriate or inappropriate the rhetoric is in particular.

Should we really be that concerned about rhetoric?

I pay very close attention to rhetoric, rhetorical examples, and argument in these pages. There is a reason why which arises from my experience.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ calls for a very close care to the fruits people bear:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

The most obvious “fruits” might be how people are treated, especially the less powerful, sexual behavior, and so on, but as time has passed rhetoric has time and again been faithful to its tree: commendable positions are advanced with commendable rhetoric and false positions are advanced with slippery rhetoric. It is a rare case, rare indeed, where truths we would best heed are heralded by rhetorical treachery.

I do not fault the presence of rhetoric; an observer would say that my writing is just as rhetorical, and just as much contains some kinds of argument and not others, as any piece whose rhetoric and argument I treat as cause for concern. But certain kinds of rhetoric aren’t just a rotten wrapping paper around healthgiving fruit. They betray that much more is tainted in the offering than merely a slight logical fallacy here, a misleading example there.

I would not limit the “fruit” in the Sermon on the Mount to be rhetoric alone; I don’t really believe it is one of the main fruits Christ intended to evoke, compared to how one treats the poor (for instance). But it is an important fruit in one respect: it is available to us as long as we have the message.

In this day of the Internet, false prophets may rarely meet us face to face and we may have little clue of a teacher’s sexual fidelity, or lack thereof, or whether the person arguing with us feels entitled to socially acceptable theft, whether to take office supplies or to listen to music without paying the artist or those who worked to make the music available. It might take a Big Brother to tell us whether an activist bears good or bad fruit there. But there is one way we can attend to the prophets’ fruits without Big Brother invasions of privacy: true and false prophet alike offer us their rhetoric, and it is well worth attending to this one fruit that is impossible to hide.

Rhetoric that keeps on recurring—giving an answer when it appears in email

Let us turn to the conversation, which began after put up a search engine and sent him a link; he followed a link and read, on my site, The Commentary, and then Inclusive Language Greek Manuscript Discovered. He responded to both:

My advisor wrote:

BTW I read your “Commentary” piece a couple of times. I wasn’t sure what you were getting at.
At first glance it looked like you are rejecting all interpretations which take cultural context into account.
At second reading it looks like you may merely be warning readers that humanity itself hasn’t changed, so we shouldn’t re-interpret the Bible as if people weren’t so clever then.
But I wasn’t sure.

But it left me wondering:
* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for greater ignorance in the past?
We are no more intelligent now, but we do have better understanding about medicine, geology, astronomy etc. This affects the way we interpret things like “the moon turned to blood” – which we would now regard as an atmospheric phenomenon and nothing to do with the nature of the moon.

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.

Then I went on to read your piece on the gender-neutral MS.
Do you really think that there are people who want to accurately reflect the gender of everything in the Bible? The NLT and others have followed the TNIV lead, and even the ESV has a policy of translating anthropos as ‘people’ or something similarly neutral. I don’t know ANY version which uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit when the Greek does – eg in Jn.14:17. How would you decide when to follow the Greek and when to follow English convention?

I guess that your aim for these pieces of writing is to provoke the reader to think about the issues, rather than give an answer.
You have certainly succeeded in my case!


My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

Perhaps I didn’t read it carefully enough.

I wrote:

Perhaps one way we should put it is that we should attend to the beam in our own eye.

Then I went on to read your piece on the gender-neutral MS.
Do you really think that there are people who want to accurately reflect the gender of everything in the Bible? The NLT and others have followed the TNIV lead, and even the ESV has a policy of translating anthropos as ‘people’ or something similarly neutral. I don’t know ANY version which uses the pronoun “it” for the Holy Spirit when the Greek does – eg in Jn.14:17. How would you decide when to follow the Greek and when to follow English convention?

The point is not exactly that the English grammar of translations should follow Greek grammar as regards grammatical gender, but that what is going on in inclusive language isn’t going on in the Bible.

This response is brief and enigmatic: not the most helpful. But in the following emails I address the concerns and touch on the same things from different angles.

Despite the communication weaknesses in my writing, I thought some of the points were worth sharing.


My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

I wrote:

I wanted to comment on this point more specifically.

To an American, references to slavery first evoke field-slaves in our country. The movie Malcolm X has Malcolm on a TV show debate opposite a black opponent who was very educated, culturally almost white, and played to what a white audience then would like to hear for their comfort. The host asked Malcolm what he called his opponent, and he shouted a racial slur and then distinguished between house- and field-slaves: the field-slave’s lot was extremely rough; the house slave was much less difficult and could verge on effectively being a well and politely-treated servant. Compared to the field slave who faced rough realities, the house slave almost represented a leisure class and the house-slave’s outlook and experience were white.

In the U.S., we no longer have people clothed in a few garments, meant to last, with cotton garments woven from the work of field slaves. We have instead many garments meant to wear out, and the culture of a fashion industry that socially enforces purchases above replacement of low-quality garments, made in sweatshops which wear people out faster than U.S. field slavery wore people out. And there are other areas where we are pushing forward not only on abortion, but on scientific use of human embryos meant to be destroyed. And I do not exclude the U.K. from this critique.

I would really not consider a picture to be complete that includes the abolition of slavery and remains, unlike St. John Chrysostom on slavery, silent on other areas where we do worse.

My initial response to his mention of slavery mentioned “a beam in our eye”; this was intended to specify one such beam that makes me skeptical of celebrations of how much we have progressed as a society.


My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language? How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that
* women can’t be blessed,
* sisters don’t sin against you
* women aren’t made in the image of God.

Some Bibles are translated to help people understand what the words were in the Greek and Hebrew, while others are translated to help people understand what God’s message is, in their own language. It is fairly easy to translate those verses literally, but how would you translate them into modern English so that a reader wouldn’t get the wrong impression about what the message is?

I’m trying to gauge opinions on this from a wide range of people, and I’d be interested in your response.
But don’t feel pressured into answering – I won’t think badly of you if you don’t have time to answer.


My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language?
How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that
* women can’t be blessed,
* sisters don’t sin against you
* women aren’t made in the image of God.

I wrote:

Your last paragraph almost begs the question; it’s reminiscent of saying “humankind” even though never, outside of the shadow of inclusive language efforts, has “mankind” been understood to encompass anything less than all of us.

“Exclusive” language is what “inclusive” language wants standard English to be. Inclusive language efforts, and specifically the efforts to recast the alternative as exclusive, redefining “man”, “brother” (and even “mankind”) to be male only, are not a more inclusive alternative to an unchanged option. They are an effort to replace a naturally inclusive language with a more belabored language, and redefine away the inclusive character of what is being attacked.

My point here is that “exclusive language” and “inclusive language” are no mere neutral and descriptive terms: they are loaded language that misrepresent what change is actually being advanced. An alternative, if pointed, terminology for “exclusive” language and “inclusive” language might be naturally inclusive language and belabored inclusive language.

“Exclusive” language is arguably not what inclusive language advocates say it is, language that includes women where the alternative is exclusive to them, except where inclusive language advocates have succeeded in redefining naturally inclusive language as exclusive language.

Furthermore, there are several things to untangle, and I give more than one answer to the question about how I would translate “If a brother…” and other passages because there is more than one thing to say. I write quite a few emails because there’s really quite a lot tangled up in the remarks I am responding to.


I wanted to add a couple of notes from a class that dealt in hardcore feminist theology. I am noting this specifically as something that I would not directly lump Biblical Egalitarians in with unless Biblical Egalitarians ask to be lumped in with them.

The first point was that several of them dealt with the question of an inclusive term for one person of unspecified gender, and in general did not opt to use “they” for one person. Several alternatives were tried, including “s/he” (pronounced “she”), and one author tried hard to make the point that “she” and “her” could be entirely appropriate as a rightly inclusive term for males as well as females.

The second point is that so far as I remember, none of the feminist authors were of limited concern for adult women only; some might speak at one point and refer only to adults (in reference to aging, for instance), but all of the authors were concerned for girls, and from whenever life began in their eyes, a girl was a full-fledged member of the class of women to be cared for…

…but none of them raised concerns of “inclusive language” that “woman” is a term only referring to adults, and so is wrongly applied to a 14 year old or a 14 month old.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems when feminists want to use language that will include all females, their term of choice works like the “exclusive” language of “man”, “mankind”, and such. The list of people who choose the language style of naturally inclusive language, when they want to include all members of a group, includes feminists who never flinch at using “women” when they mean to include all females—girls every bit as much as adult women.

And returning to the topic of my advisor and his Biblical Egalitarianism, while he clearly uses and advocates gender-inclusive language, he never once uses what might be called age-inclusive language. He may ask if a rendering of “Blessed is the man…” demands “Women can’t be blessed”, but he seems entirely unconcerned to clarify whether minors can be blessed. He never uses words like “child”, “boy”, “girl”, “infant”, etc: he applies sophistry to ask us to make it clear that women can be blessed, but the same effort is not made for children, even if they are girls!

It would appear that at least as far as age is concerned, my advisor assumes that what is called “exclusive language” in gender is not exclusive at all, but naturally inclusive.


My advisor wrote:

Could I press you a little more on what you mean by inclusive language?
How would you translate the following:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

I wrote:

I might also comment, before giving a brief interlude that the first example on Orthodox rather than Protestant kinds of exegesis refers to Christ primarily and us derivatively, which is an aside to the context as it has been:

The last example differs from the first two examples, where conservative and liberal readings of the underlying text alike take terms as generic.

In terms of Orthodox Church Fathers who can attract feminists, the Cappadocians are one group of usual suspects; St. Ephrem, who had women as well as men chanting liturgical teaching in liturgy, is another, and Kathleen McVey’s Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns shows some of those concerns. At one point, “Branch” is the metaphorical name applied to the Cross and then Christ, and the translator explains that the term ‘branch’ is grammatically feminine and, at that point, renders repeated pronoun references to the Branch, which refer to Christ with varying ambiguity, as “She”.

The footnote I take as an example of the French proverb “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse” (in politically correct English: “To excuse yourself is [by that very fact] to accuse yourself”) and it is the same light that I read the NRSV’s excusing and accusing themselves for their translation for what you left out in the ellipsis, rendering “them” for “him” in “in the image of God he created him”; I’ve read the whole NRSV and that footnote is the most convoluted footnote justifying a translation that the NRSV offers; the NRSV does not usuallys’excuse/s’accuse concerning its renderings.

Now that is over the ellipsis. As regards referring to God as “him”, we have left the question of horizontal inclusive language where a grammatically male reference to a person of unspecified sex in the original text is argued to require explicitly gender-neutral language in English today. Or to put it differently, the original text worked more like the English now called “exclusive language”, but its spirit today is best reflected by the “inclusive language” that is used in redefining the alternative as “exclusive language”. But this question is not the issue in calling God “him”; at most it is a gateway drug.

The first two comments are simply about passages where all sensible scholarship agrees that “man”, “brother”, etc. as they appear in the original text are intended to include women. The last example is one where there is real controversy over whether the text should be rendered to be more politically correct. I was trying to say, “Look, I see two problems—cans of worms—in translating the last text that aren’t in the first two.”


My advisor wrote:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for cultural situations in the past?
God expects the same morality from humans at all times, but don’t the rules change in order to result in the same principles? I’m thinking of things like slavery, which in the OT was restricted to certain permitted types (6-yr voluntary slavery, and minimum rights for lifelong slaves from warfare), and was tolerated in the NT “for the sake of the Gospel”, and was increasingly opposed by the church (albeit very gradually) with as much speed as society permitted.

I wrote:

There’s something I might like to comment.

There are some points where any number of examples might be chosen. In the Bible, Sodom is an emblem of sin and is used to say that a particular community’s sins are grievous, but the list of sins connected to Sodom is rather open-ended: without going with queer scholarship and saying that the sin had nothing to do with “sodomy”, there is room to say that the men of Sodom showing vile and obscene inhospitality to angelic visitors was the anvil that broke the camel’s back; part of the build-up is a dialogue in which Abraham tries to negotiate with a God who cannot find ten righteous in the city. The city is an image of vice later in the Bible, but the sins that are compared to Sodom are open-ended: they include hollow religious observances while preying on one’s neighbor and the poor (opening of Isaiah), adultery and defiled living (Jeremiah 23:14), pride and excessive eating without care for the poor (Ezekiel 16), not receiving Christ’s apostles appropriately (Matthew 10), general ungodliness (II Peter 2:6), and unnatural lust (Jude 7, perhaps the biggest fly in the ointment to queer exegetes who assert that Sodom’s story is no more about homosexual relations as such than the story in Judges 19 is about heterosexual relations as such). But the list is open-ended and I have not included connections of pagan nations; my main point is that the list of sins is open-ended; prophets name Sodom in connection to the sins they indict. And other things are open-ended in church and in scholarship…

But it really strikes me how much this one simple example of slavery and the Bible comes up in certain contexts. When I read queer scholarship arguing that the story of Sodom can be read without the hypothesis that homosexual relationships are condemned as such, a discussion of slavery in the Bible paves the way. When Craig Keener argues in the example of bad scholarship I chose for my thesis that we can do better than the Ephesians haustafel, a discussion of slavery in the Bible paves the way. When I discussed this regularity with one teacher, and asked “If it is necessary that we will get our bearings somewhere about what orients our understanding of Scripture, why this specific paradigm example?” It would seem that when people want to enhance what the Bible has, or draw out what it intends more clearly, or improve on it as demoted (if in fact I name more than one intent), the paradigm example that should orient our view of Scripture invariably finds itself in a Bible that did not offer our progressive abolitionism.

(I might comment in reference to my earlier example, though, of clothing and sweatshops: Before the abolition of slavery, Northern as well as Southern U.S. citizens who wore cotton were clothed at the expense of preventable human misery from field-slavery. And today, black and white Americans alike are clothed at the expense of preventable human misery from sweatshops. But there is a difference of scale. Americans own, use, and replace quite a few more garments, and if one may speak of a “carbon footprint”, one may perhaps also speak of a “footprint in preventable human misery”, and say that U.S. field slavery was an abomination, but the “footprint in preventable human misery” of an American today in clothing is not comparable to the footprint of an American before the civil war; it is comparable to the footprint of a small city. And as long as we have excess of clothing and other unneeded luxuries at the expense of preventable human misery, we should perhaps moderate our celebration of ourselves for having progressed beyond such evils as slavery.)

When I made the comment about this one example that keeps paving the way to orient us, the professor made a comment about canons within a canon, and I would like to comment on the concept and then her specific comment. The idea of a canon within a canon is not a particularly Orthodox one, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read an Orthodox theologian speak in such terms. The first time the concept was explained to me was something like this: “All great and even minor theologians draw disproportionately from some areas of the Bible more than others, and they do not all do so in exactly the same way. We call the areas of focus ‘the canon within the canon.'” And in that sense, I’m not sure there’s Orthodox room to object, even if there may be more important things to say. But what I would say is that while that is one way of understanding the canon, it is profoundly misleading to suggest that this is the only basic meaning current in academia. On those terms, which I’m not sure I’d particularly object to, “the canon within the canon” for a particular theologian is a simplification, a generalization, and the kind of thing you observe after the fact. One may claim to identify a particular theologian’s “canon within the canon” in something of the same spirit where C.S. Lewis spoke of defining periods in history: he didn’t see how you could do serious history without them, but they are a map that does necessary violence to its terrain, and unnecessary violence if it is imposed as an absolute.

In my time at another school, I heard the phase “canon within the canon” consistently. One example was when people were setting out to engage in a particular theology, and identified as the very first task to identify the canon within the canon. Taken in context, this was clarified to mean not “What few areas of the Bible will we give special focus?” but “What few areas of the Bible will we not truncate away?” Not all examples were the same as this, but I do not remember a usage of “the canon within the canon” that retained the boundaries and modesty of the definition I first met. And, returning to when I raised a question in a paper about getting our bearings from the passages of the Bible that treat slavery prescriptively and do not directly abolish it, my professor responded that there needed to be some canon within the canon. And that response surprised me. I have seen the example of slavery repeatedly, but apart from that one remark I have never heard it called “the canon within the canon.” But it does in a certain way make sense.

If you are going to orient and situate people so they will naturally seek to appreciate the Bible’s strengths while gently working to refine its weaknesses, then there is no “canon within the canon” in the Bible that can properly compete with prescriptive moral teaching in the Bible that sets bounds for slavery but fails to command its abolition.

The best nutshell summary I’ve heard of Polanyi’s theory of personal and tacit knowledge is, “Behaviorists do not teach, ‘There is no soul,’ but rather induct students into investigation in such a way that the possibility of a soul is never even considered.” And there is something telling along these lines in the slavery example that keeps being chosen when the audience is drawn to work and refine the Bible’s weaknesses.

I find the example significant.

On another note, I realized I had misread your intent because of where I cut a quotation. Let me quote the part that I muffed, and then respond to that.

God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

If we had read these in a modern English book, we’d assume the author was implying that

* women aren’t made in the image of God.

On that point may I comment about Mary the Mother and Birth-giver of our God?

There are some pretty medieval Catholic things that the Reformers kept even as they rebelled against Rome, and I’m not referring in this case to assuming that doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation should remain after reform.

There is precedent as old as Origen, and as Orthodox as a number of canonized saints, for having as one layer of piety an identification of the believer as the Lord’s bride. In Orthodoxy this is not as focal as the image of the Church as the bride of Christ, and in piety it is not nearly as important as the Biblical image of sons of God (I am intentionally using the masculine here; the Bible includes “children of God” but never “daughters of God”). But was really on steroids in the medieval Catholic West and the bedrock of sanctification through the metaphor of bridal mysticism remains the bedrock of sanctification in Evangelicalism today, and is part of a rather asinine question I asked in moving towards Orthodoxy: Is the reason so many Evangelical men are converting to Orthodoxy that Orthodoxy understands sanctification as deification and Evangelicalism understands sanctification as a close personal relationship with another man?

Another example has to do with what The Sin is, the one sin we ought most to look out for. In the pop caricature of Victorianism, The Sin was lust. Among many Evangelicals today, there is a wariness much like what made a Catholic Dorothy Sayers write, “The Other Six Deadly Sins”, and The Sin is pride. In late medieval Catholicism, The Sin was idolatry, and people were looking for it everywhere. If the Reformers found that the adoration of the saints to be idolatry, they were developing a medieval Catholic perspective.

Whether medieval Catholic and contemporary Orthodox veneration of Mary the Mother of God should be seen as the same or different is something I am not interested in exploring here, but the following element of Orthodox piety I am sure would have been classified as idolatry by the Reformers:

It is very proper and right to call thee blessed,
Who didst bring forth God,
Ever blessed and most pure,
And the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the cherubim,
And more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
Who without spot bearedst God the Word,
True Mother of God, we magnify thee.

I would like to make a point, and it is not exactly about agreeing to disagree. A basic Reformation outlook or worldview had no place to classify this other than as worship. First of all, it addresses Mary in the second person. In the culture of at least of Evangelicalism as I know it, in a secular context you address other people in the second person, but in a church context you address God alone in the second person. Second, it extols her above the highest ranks of angels and really gives her a place that the Reformers did not see as a place to be given rightly to a created and sinful human. And third, it calls her Mother of God, which would at least give the impression of placing her above God. The Christological controversy that led Nestorius’s attempt at a reasonable way to please everybody with “Christotokos” is known, at least on the books, but that “Mother of God” is both confessional Christology and not intended to place Mary as supra-divine (Orthodox liturgy refers to Joachim and Anna as “ancestors of God” and icons call James “the brother of God”), and a relational statement: “Mother of God” is not confused with being above God any more than the readings of “sons of God” in the Bible mean that we are taken to be fully divine by nature in the same sense as Christ.

My point in these clarifications is not exactly to say that the Reformation view is wrong; my point is to say that what is going on in those words is something that the Reformation universe has no place for, except in the category of worship that should be given to God alone.

And my reason for bringing this up is not to say “Because we praise Mary as the Mother of God, we don’t view women as inferior.” It is to say that, to paraphrase what I’m responding to, “Gen 1:27 says, ‘…in his image he created him, male and female he made them.’ Does this mean that women aren’t made in the image of God?”

There’s a fairly clear statement on that point in the Bible, in one of the passages that your camp sees as (residual?) misogynism in Paul and something that we need to progress beyond, because that’s the only place for it, much as an early Reformer could only see the liturgical quote above as idolatry, of rendering to a creature what is only proper to give to the Creator:

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.

I will leave it mostly as an exercise to the reader what I believe of this text; what I will say is that I will understand if your conceptual framework has no place for statements like this except as one of the areas of the Bible that is not so much a strength to appreciate as something to gently refine.

The two points buried under all these words are first, that bringing up slavery as the place to get our bearings in understanding the Bible is highly significant, and second, that there’s something going on in the text that egalitarianism has no place for and is apt to misfile because it has no place to receive it.


My advisor wrote:

But it left me wondering:

* Are you saying we shouldn’t make allowance for greater ignorance in the past? We are no more intelligent now, but we do have better understanding about medicine, geology, astronomy etc. This affects the way we interpret things like “the moon turned to blood” – which we would now regard as an atmospheric phenomenon and nothing to do with the nature of the moon.

I wrote:

The assumptions that frame this question are part of what I was trying to answer in “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. That treats the religion-science question at interesting and arguably provocative length; beyond the link, I’d like to respond briefly.

I don’t make allowances for greater ignorance in the past. Allowances for different ignorance in the past are more negotiable. And I would quote General Omar Bradley: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

To put things differently, my advisor could be paraphrased, “Look, we’ve progressed! We have a more scientific understanding of some things!”

My response rejects the modern doctrine of progress: I don’t believe we’ve progressed, and in particular the fact that we are more scientific is not the same as moral progress. In fact, the case may be that when we have moved to a more scientific outlook it has led us to lose sight of things that are foundational to Christian faith: “Religion and Science” Is Not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution explains how exactly being more scientific may not be good for theology.


I wrote:

There was one other point I would like to venture, in terms of how things fit together:

Jerry Root wrote a monograph from his dissertation, C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil, arguing that C.S. Lewis made an objectivist critique of subjectivism and that this is a major thread through multiple works across decades and arguably could be called the common theme. All of Lewis’s fiction, or at least the samples quoted from before he was a Christian (“Dymer”) onwards, have villains who are ascribed subjectivist rhetoric.

Root is himself an egalitarian, which I need to say in fairness, although his egalitarian argument smells faintly subjectivistic, along with a silence that speaks rather loudly: he never intimates that the message of the Un-man in Perelandra might in fact be almost unadulterated subjectivism and a gospel of feminism and that these are arguably not two separate things, at least in the narrative.

I have a friend who is a silver-haired, balding counselor, and tried really hard to help me prepare for my Ph.D. program (which blew up anyway, but I can’t fault his help or any defect in his help). He spoke appreciatively of his training in gay theology (he is a conservative Orthodox and was not trying to convert me to queer agendas), and the biggest single point he tried to make, as something I would have trouble understanding, was subjectivism in relation to feminism.

One of the things he told me that I wouldn’t understand was the kind of thing that was illustrated in this: there is a hardcore academic feminist camp that insists that all male celibacy is a tool of patriarchal oppression, and there is a hardcore academic feminist camp that insists that all heterosexual intercourse is rape, and these camps coexist without particular conflict. The objectivist says, “Wait a minute, unless at least one of these is at least partly wrong, or there is an imperative for all men to be homosexually active (or doing something more creative), there is no course open that would let a male live without being a sex offender,” is in a very real sense intruding with something foreign onto the scene: objectivism that says there is a reality we should seek to conform to, however imperfectly we may do so.

Biblical egalitarianism is often not so pronounced; I doubt many, or even any, of the egalitarians at Wheaton College make any claim of comparable feminist extremity. But the subjectivism is there, and my thesis could be described as an analysis of how subjectivists argue when straight argument won’t get them where they want to go—and every single treatment of the passage from a Biblical Egalitarian/feminist that we looked at for a comparison study had the same shady argument; I have yet to see a Biblical Egalitarianism treatment of the passage on husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 that argues in objectivist fashion; every one of the dozens of cases I’ve seen argues with sophistry out of a subjectivism that is unwilling to conform to the reality studied.

I wrote about the connection more explicitly in point 24 of From Russia, with Love; that explains concretely and more descriptively what it would mean for feminism and egalitarianism to be intertwined with subjectivism.

I know Jerry Root and probably should have called him Jerry instead of Root the second time. I sat in on one of his classes once, to observe before teaching (he is considered a legendary professor in the community), and as a C.S. Lewis scholar quoted Lewis as he said, “Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwilly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.” He then said, communicating with great warmth, “and I would add, ‘or daughters'” and said that women were included in the great company of those who do God’s will as children of God and not as mere tools.

In my role as a visitor, as a fly on the wall, I held my tongue on saying, “You’re not adding to the text, you’re taking away from it.” By saying that he was adding that the text could apply to women, he was retroactively redefining the text, when no sane reader, even a sane reader who prefers to use explicitly gender-neutral terms when the intent does not include specifying gender, would read Lewis’s text as saying that males like Peter and John could do God’s will the good way but by definition Mary the Mother of God and Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles could not.

Do I really believe Jerry believed that, or intended that in anyone he addressed?

The rhetoric is too subjectivist for that.


My advisor wrote:

Your emails are interesting though, as you say, they have gone down paths which you were particularly interested in.

The main question I had was:

Blessed is the man who … (Ps.1)
If a brother sins against you… (Lk.17.3)
God made man in his own image, … male and female he made them (Gen.1.27)

How would you translate them into modern English so that a reader wouldn’t get the wrong impression about what the message is?

My guess, from what you’ve said, is that you don’t think English has changed, and you don’t think that anyone would get the wrong message except hard-line feminists who would intentionally misread the text.

On Ps.1 you point out the Christological interpretation, which I recognise, though I wouldn’t say it is the primary meaning of the text. One of the wonderful things about Jesus was that he DID associate with sinners, though without becoming one of them.

I fear that English has changed, whether we like it or not, and modern readers need some help, or else they will think the Bible is exclusivist.


I wrote:

I believe English has changed, but you assert forcefully that when the text says “man” it cannot refer to women, fullstop, in the modern reader’s mind. I would take that as a rhetorical overstatement, but even if it is a rhetorical overstatement, it suggests that you have been getting your bearings from egalitarians for whom “inclusive” language is an active priority, whether this is a conscious or unconscious effort. Compared to other Christians, especially outside academic circles, I would expect you have a disproportionately high number of friends and contacts who are members of CBE or share significant sympathies.

(You can fairly say that at least in academic circles I have a disproportionately low number of such friends, and a disproportionately higher number of friends who would critique CBE, and I would say I am not middle of the road for the friends I know.)

English, especially among the learned, has changed, and “man” is less likely to be read as simply referring to people in general. But it is a strong position to say that “if a brother sins against you”, in a passage whose plain sense gives “brother” a much more expansive sense than the biological, will be read only as referring to males. And strictly speaking, at least two of your points contain the same logical fallacy as saying that “All taxicabs are vehicles” demands, if taken literally, that “Because a truck is not a taxicab it cannot be a vehicle”. “If a brother sins against you” if taken to exclude women cannot logically imply “sisters can’t sin.” “In the image of God he created him” if taken not to refer to Eve cannot logically imply “Women are not created in the image of God.” You take an extreme interpretation and position, perhaps partly to rhetorically underscore a point, but with what I think are appropriate allowances for rhetorical overstatement, I believe you take a change that has occurred partially to be full and absolute.

The story of the TNIV does not commend the reading that the change is simply bringing the language of the translation in sync with the language on the street. The argument that this needs to be further imported to Bible translations has something of a whiff of the offensive, “The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy!”

N.B. The reference to the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) is essentially as follows: The NIV (New International Version), like many other translations, has been updated and revised over time. The people in charge of the NIV, as one update, were going to change to inclusive language. There was an enormous outcry that ended in the people in charge of the NIV signing an agreement not to convert the NIV to use inclusive language. And after making that commitment in writing, they still left the NIV available but made an inclusive language version of the NIV and renamed it “Today’s New International Version.”

For the claim, “English has changed”, the argument is that perhaps in the past readers may have read “man” and “brother” as fully inclusive of women, but we need to use (belabored) inclusive language now because things have changed.

The position taken is that we need to move from the older style of naturally inclusive language, to explicit (and belabored) inclusive language, to adjust to the fact that we are in the process of moving from naturally inclusive language to a belabored inclusive language. We should stop using “man” in an inclusive sense because we are stopping using “man” in an inclusive sense. The bureaucracy is expanding… to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy! We must work harder at political correctness to meet the needs of an expanding political correctness.


My advisor wrote:

It sounds like I have trodden on your toes – I’m very sorry.

In the English of most newspapers and blogs, a “man” is male, a “woman” is female and a “person” can be either.

In my original question, I recognised the value of literal translations for those who know the Bible well.
But I was wondering how you would translate such example passages for friends who aren’t Christian, or for people who pick up a Bible in their hotel room – ie those who haven’t ever heard of CBE or other such groups, and who don’t know that “man” can mean both male and female in the Bible.


I wrote:

Well, that depends somewhat on audience. If I am aiming for the chattering classes as my audience, I would probably follow the rule, “Unless it is your specific extent to exclude half of humanity from any possible consideration, use strictly and explicitly gender-neutral language.”

But when I step outside the bubble of those classes, and overhear working-class people talking, “If you see someone, tell them…” melts away and leaves “If you see someone, tell him…” The experience of “he” and “him” as essentially “exclusive” language is common with the bubble we live in but far from absolute, and that matter far from common, in this U.S., where I believe your concerns have made more headway than in the U.K. If we are talking “people who pick up a Bible in their hotel room”, we have left the realm of educated people who read the Bible as literature, and we are talking truckers and the unwashed masses–you know, the kind of people who furnished some of the twelve disciples. And there the answer is simple: say “he” when your intent is generic; saying “they” for one person sounds weird and part of a foreign world intruding on normal English.

And this may be drifting slightly, but if the question is, “How do we render ‘If a brother sins against you’ so that the full sense of the Church as a family and rebukes within that community comes across,” I don’t know, and I am wary of the question and approach. Certainly part of it may be more explicit in rendering “If a brother or a sister sins against you”–or, if you don’t mind making things even harder for truckers opening a Bible in a hotel room, “If a sibling sins against you”–but more broadly the choice of ‘brother’ in Greek bears a wealth of layers that are hard to translate so that all of them are apparent on first blush in English, a game which is very hard to win.

This is meant more as a confession of stupidity on my part than a boast, but at one point I tried to make my own Bible translation, called the Uncensored Bible, and aiming for clarity. There were a few highlights to it, and it rendered the Song of Songs clearly, or was intended to, like the original NIV before the higher-ups vetoed translating the Song of Songs the same way they translated other books. And, though this is not intended as an inclusive language issue, the wordplay in Matthew 6:27 was rendered neither “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” nor “Which of you by worrying can add a single cubit to his height?” but “Do you think you can add a single hour to your life by worrying? You might as well try to worry yourself into being a foot taller!”

But the work as a whole has pearls amidst sand, and it taught me chiefly that translating the Bible is a lot harder than I had given credit for, even knowing several languages and having done translation before. And while I partly succeeded, part of what I learned through that failure was that my idea of “Just make what is in the verse plainly simple” is a lot harder, and part of my naivete in the project was in trying to do that. Certainly it’s possible to be a little clearer where major translations deliberately obscure things from the unwashed masses, but the biggest thing I got out of it was recognizing I was doing something dumb, and coming to respect what the major translations accomplish a whole lot more.

But if that is the goal, “If a brother sins against you” is much harder to get across than changing “If a brother” to “If a brother or sister”, “If a sister or brother”, “If a sibling”, etc. because “brother” speaks of the Church as a family and frames the situation not as discussing appropriate rebuke of someone who you are not particularly connected to, but appropriate rebuke within one tightly connected fatherhood or family. And the expansiveness of “brother” is perhaps 10% clarified, and 90% not clarified, by including the word “sister” or going for the gelding option of “sibling”.

So I would partly say, “I don’t know”, and you can call it a dodge if you want, but if your goal is to make what is going on in the text clear to most readers, especially outside academia and the chattering classes, you might or might not get 10% of the way there by explicitly making language more gender-inclusive, but if you do so, don’t say, “Mission accomplished,” because the large part of making “If a brother sins against you” accessible in translation is not accomplished once the translation is clear in applying both to men and women.

The rhetorical posture is taken, “The person I’m really concerned about is the person on the street, the average blue-collar Joe or Jane. What about ordinary people who don’t have all this academic knowledge?”

I answer quite simply, “Don’t worry; that large demographic is probably the one least affected by political correctness and least likely to hear ‘Women are excluded’ if they read a Bible that says ‘man’ or ‘brother’.”


My advisor wrote:

It looks like we both want to educate people to understand the Bible and then translate it literally, because it is so hard to translate it to be understood without that education.

Your decision to use the second person instead of third person is often done in gender-neutral translations, and it works sometimes (such as the example you gave), but not always. I wish we had a neutral pronoun.

Ah well, we have to live with imperfection.


My advisor wrote:

It looks like we both want to educate people to understand the Bible and then translate it literally, because it is so hard to translate it to be understood without that education.

I wrote:

Something like that; it is a difficult matter.

Your decision to use the second person instead of third person is often done in gender-neutral translations, and it works sometimes (such as the example you gave), but not always. I wish we had a neutral pronoun.

Ah well, we have to live with imperfection.

In many ways. My attempt at translation taught me that even more than it taught me I was dumber than I thought.


Of vinyl records, black and white photography, and using naturally inclusive language

Belabored “inclusive” language is here to stay, the rhetoric for it is here to stay, and English usage has changed. I can hardly contest any of these claims, but I would make a point.

When I was a child, it appeared that black and white film had been permanently superseded by color film for all mainstream personal use, and I watched vinyl records be superseded by CD’s, pure and simple. Black and white photography outside of Official Art Photography by Real Fine Art Photographers was obsolete now that we had advanced to color film, and a big record player was a waste of space.

But something funny has happened since then—the “improvements” are not so final as one might think. It is not just Official Art Photographers who make those obsolete monochrome photographs; there is an increasing appreciation for black and white photography, to the point that color digital cameras take pictures and extra work is done to make monochrome photographs, either black and white or sepia. And while digital audio isn’t going away anytime soon, the more an audiophile really, really cares about music and really, really cares about the sound that is rendered, the more likely he is to explicitly prefer the live sound from good vinyl records and a good record player with a good needle to the tinny and more mediocre sound of even the best digital audio.

I said above, partly to avoid pressing a point, “educated people who read the Bible as literature,” giving the impression that the Bible as literature crowd will obviously use inclusive language translations. But there’s something really funny going on here. Educated liberals who read the Bible as literature normally use inclusive language. Educated liberals who read the Bible as literature normally believe in inclusive language. And, in my contacts, educated liberals who read the Bible as literature pass over every inclusive language Bible translation for the majesty of the King James Version. With its naturally inclusive language.

“Man” has taken something of the tint of a sepia image, and hearing language like “humankind” sounds like the tinny mediocrity of a CD to an audiophile who prefers vinyl: the point gets across, but not the way vinyl allows.

Inclusive language efforts have given the traditional language of “man”, “brother”, and “mankind” a share of the beauty and poetic force of sepia and vinyl.

What’s wrong with the emails above

I’ve written these emails with a growing sense that there is something wrong with them: a sense that there was something inescapably misleading even when the observations were accurate. After a while I put a finger on what bothered me. These observations may be accurate observations of truths (or maybe just politically incorrect). But they are not a drinking of Truth. They fall short of the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Do you think that by worrying you can add a single hour to your span of life? You might as well try to worry you way into being a foot taller? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

The observations above are the equivalent of careful, meticulous observations about how to run after food and clothing when there is a Kingdom of God to seek after. Food and clothing have their place, and the observations I made could have a place in the ascetical life, but they are not what there is to seek first, and true Biblical manhood and womanhood come not from trying to be complementarian but from seeking wholeheartedly for the Kingdom of God and his perfect righteousness, and letting all else fall into its place.

Let us seek the greater good.

The Commentary

Dark patterns / anti-patterns and cultural context Sstudy of Scriptural texts: A Case Study in Craig Keener’s Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul

“Religion and science” is not just intelligent design vs. evolution

Where is the good of women? Feminism is called “The women’s movement.” But is it?