Monday 19 September 2011

D.A. Carson on the Inclusive-Language Debate

D.A. Carson, The Inclusive-Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Leicester: IVP/Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), ISBN 080105835X, 221pp.

I see that the Gospel Coalition are making this book by D.A. Carson freely available as a pdf here. Very kind of them too.

I reviewed the book when it first came out in 1998, and have reposted the review below. Of course, events moved on after the publication of the book with the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) and – more recently – the new NIV. Even so, while Carson’s book will sound dated in some respects, his treatment of gender-inclusive language in Bible translation remains, in my view, extremely helpful and sensible.

So, for what it might be worth, here is what I said about the book...

The book forms a companion of sorts to Carson’s much earlier The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979). Like that one, the net is cast wider than the title alone suggests. Two of the early chapters here, for instance, are devoted to a crucial discussion of the challenge of translation in general, and the ‘translator’s nightmare’ of gender and translation in particular.

Carson begins the book by outlining the recent ‘crisis’ over the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI, published in 1996, now withdrawn in the United States, but still available in Britain), carefully setting it against a wider historical perspective.

One of the chapters lists the guidelines on the gender-language policies of the CBT (the Committee on Bible Translation, those behind the NIV and NIVI) and the CSG (Colorado Springs Guidelines, drawn up by a collection of scholars and church leaders opposed to the NIVI). A further lengthy chapter then subjects each set of guidelines to comment and critique.

Although biblical examples are cited throughout the book, three chapters look in turn at specific Old Testament passages, New Testament passages, and passages where doctrinal issues are raised in the debate. Here Carson seeks even-handedly to weigh evidence in favour of both sides of the debate, on a case-by-case basis, sometimes deciding in favour of the NIV against the NIVI, sometimes (perhaps more times) deciding in favour of the NIVI, and sometimes preferring something else. As the sub-title says, the book is a ‘plea for realism’, which means acknowledging that both sides have raised important questions on delicate issues, along with the need to make clear ‘what we can and cannot expect from translations, and how easy it is to miss some of the big issues while focusing on the narrower and more technical ones’.

Although the book is clearly written against the background of the current debate, it would be wrong to think it is limited to those confines. Final chapters on the question of whether the English language is changing or not (Carson sides with those who think it is) and pastoral considerations make the whole book a valuable survey, shedding considerable light, and posing provocative questions to all readers.

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