Language: June 2010 Archives


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My post on slaves and sons reminded me of a point I've been thinking that I don't think I've ever discussed with anyone or written anything about. The term "gender-inclusive" has come to be associated with a certain translation philosophy in Bible translation, namely the translation philosophy that considers it accurate to translate terms referring to multiple genders only with terms that in contemporary English can apply to multiple genders. In other words, using "he" to refer to a gender-unknown or gender-unspecified person or using "sons" to refer to a gender-mixed group would not be gender-inclusive.

It strikes me, however, that the term "gender-inclusive" is actually ambiguous, and the translations that use "sons" for a gender-mixed group or "he" to refer to a gender-unspecified or gender-unknown person are actually the gender-inclusive ones in one sense of the term. After all, they're using usually-masculine terms in a gender-inclusive way, right? They're using a sometimes gender-specific term in a gender-inclusive way. So why is it the opposite approach that always gets to be called gender-inclusive?

[cross-posted at Evangel]


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Sophia: Ethan, stop arguing.
Ethan: We're not arguing. We're bickering.
Sophia: Ethan, bickering means arguing.
Ethan: Yeah, but we're still not arguing. We're bickering.

Later in the day...

me: So, Ethan, what's the difference between bickering and arguing?
Sophia: They're not the same?
Ethan: Yes, they are!

Sons and Slaves

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It's rare that I post on something I encounter that I have almost nothing to say about, but I was just catching up on Mark Heath's blog, and this post struck me as brilliant. Mark notices all the slave language and son language in the New Testament for believers and wonders what's going on with followers of Jesus being adopted into God's family but then called slaves of Christ. How can believers be both adopted members of the family and slaves to the master?

Mark wonders which is more fundamental or which is the way we should more strongly think of ourselves. But then he notices something that makes such a question seem completely in the wrong direction. He observes that the primary way God is addressed is as Father, and the primary way Jesus is addressed is as Lord. He thus suggests that we should think of ourselves primarily as sons* with respect to the Father and slaves with respect to the Son.

What's striking to me about this is that I think most Christians think of the Father as sort of a more distant figure to respect and pray more formally to, whereas the Son is more down-to-earth (literally; pun intended) and brotherly. The way the first two persons of the Trinity are addressed in the scriptures, however, is backwards from that. Now of course the very fact that we are told to address the Father as Father is a lot more significant than most of us reflect on. The immense privilege implicit in the first two words of the Lord's Prayer means we've been told outright how we should see God the Father, at least in terms of our praying, and it's not so much as a master as as a parent*. That tells us something about God and his attitude toward us.

OK, so I didn't have nothing to say about this. That's something. But I think Mark's observation is pretty interesting, and I didn't intend to have anything to add myself.

[*Note on inclusive language: I deliberately use the masculine here, because "sons" in NT usage would culturally have included far more in terms of inheritance and status than "daughters" or "children". That this term is applied, in my view, suggests that women who are children of the Father are treated fully as sons would have been expected to be treated, and I think something gets lost if it is translated more inclusively, at least for readers who understand this about the ancient Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures. So I prefer to keep the gender-inclusive "sons" that is jarring in contemporary English if meant inclusively, since pretty much no one talks that way outside uber-traditionalist hyper-formal-equivalence translation circles.]

[Note on apparent typo: Yes, I know there's an extra "as" there, but it's actually correct with it and incorrect without it. I couldn't resist.]

[cross-posted at Evangel]

On a paper or exam last semester (I don't remember which), a student described someone who might "prepare for death by amending for their sins". My first guess as to the student's intent was that they meant "atoning for their sins". But why choose this word to confuse with "atoning"? I suspected maybe it had to do with making amends, something that seemed to me to be foreign to the idea of atonement, which (according to biblical teaching as I understand it) isn't accomplished by you. You don't atone for your sins. It's something that has to be done on your behalf, whereas making amends is something you do for someone else.

But this was probably a Roman Catholic student, probably raised with a simplistic understanding of what Catholicism teaches (given the bulk of the student body where I teach). Perhaps it's less strange to connect atonement with making amends if you think you earn your own atonement by doing good works, as I think a lot of nominal Catholics think their church teaches (it doesn't quite; at least, it's not as simple as that, because of the strong view of God's grace that stands behind any good work that God brings people to do). If you're thinking of working to repay God for your sins or something crazy like that, then you might think atoning is something like making amends to God for all the bad you've done. Someone of that mindset might easily confuse the two concepts.

But suppose you were to take this at face value. What would it even mean? I would understand grammatically what it would mean to amend your sins. You add something to them. I'm not sure if that would be good or bad, since it might be amending your sins by complicating them with further sins, or it could be amending your sins by removing some of the sinfulness. But amending for your sins? Amending what for your sins? Don't you need a direct object? It's at least grammatical to speak of amending an essay for my sins, but I'm not sure what it would even mean to amend for my sins without a direct object.



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