Language: October 2006 Archives

Judge Robert Armstrong in California has ruled that a law against disrobing in front of a minor applies only to men and not to women, even though no mention of gender occurs in the law. How could that be? It says "exposes his person". [See also here for further details. Hat tip to How Appealing for the last link. I found the story initially from a Google search for something entirely different.]

Now I'm a strong defender of inclusive language, as anyone who has been reading my blog for very long should know, but this is pretty stupid. Just because most of the English-speaking world now does not speak the way this law was constructed does not mean that the law as written means to include men by the pronoun 'his'. Either the judge doesn't know that anyone has ever used grammatically masculine pronouns for gender-indeterminate or gender-unknown people, or this is strict constructionism gone wild. Originalists distinguish themselves from strict constructionists for reasons much like this. No original reader of the law would have interpreted it like this, and the writers of the law surely didn't mean it this way. But if the strict meaning of the literal text is what counts, regardless of what anyone at the time would have understood it to mean, then you get this kind of thing. It strikes me as being in the same category as insisting that there is too milk in the fridge and thus you don't need to go to the store to get more, then pointing at a tiny puddle of milk in the bottom of the vegetable crisper to demonstrate this claim.

What is a Church?

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Mark Roberts is doing a series called What is a Church? Biblical Basics for Christian Community. I especially like the four posts he's written so far under the title "When a Church is not a Church?" These look at the Greek word usually translated as "church" in the New Testament, 'ekklesia', which means "assembly" or "gathering" (and not "called out ones", as many erroneously claim because of some bad arguments from etymology).

The fourth post in that series within the series raises a point very much worth emphasizing. It makes no sense to say that you're part of a gathering that you don't show up for. In a sense any Christian is a member of the gathering around the throne of God in heaven, but we also speak of ourselves as members of local congregations. The average congregation has about 60-70% of its membership regularly attending. Does it make sense to call the others members of a gathering that they don't ever gather with? Treating a church like an organization with a membership list does have this particularly unfortunate consequence, even if there are legal reasons (and perhaps other reasons) to do so.

There's lots of other good stuff in Mark's series, but that struck me as a pointed observation about this attitude about what the church is among a large enough population in contemporary evangelicalism.

Three members of the ESV Bible translation committee are very vocal against the use of inclusive language for human beings when it means using different forms in English than the original language has. That's why the ESV tends to translate 'adelphoi' as "brothers" rather than as "brothers and sisters" or "dear friends" as some of the inclusive language translations are now doing (cf. the NRSV, NLT, TNIV, and CEV). The inclusive language translations tend to avoid using masculine pronouns when the group they refer to includes women or girls, and thus some of the inclusive language translations will use the singular 'they', which is pretty much standard in contemporary English but is not really new to English in recent years anyway, despite the claims of those who have resisted it. It's recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

So it is indeed a great irony that the ESV itself contains an unambiguous example of the singular 'they'. Peter Kirk discovered it, and Rick Mansfield has some further thoughts on it. I agree with their general assessment that this is a problem for a translation that explicitly states in its translation policy that it does not translate in this sort of way. That suggests that someone in the editing process did not notice that a translator had done this, either out of a rushed job or because the editor in question, like the translator in question, is so familiar with the singular 'they' that they did not notice. So I'm in full agreement that this is in itself evidence against the view that the singular 'they' is bad English. I do, however, have some reservations about how we might frame our criticism of the ESV on this. In particular, I think we need to be careful not to treat the Grudem-Poythress-Ryken view as representative of the ESV translation committee in general.

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