May 15, 1996

Can Bible English Be Only Half Emasculated? "Horizontal Language" Game

Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 3: May/June 1996

Can Bible English Be Only




Horizontal Language" Game

Those who urge that the Scriptures and the liturgy be rewritten in inclusive language sometimes attempt to reassure skeptical Christians by arguing that we must distinguish between "horizontal language" (man talk) and "vertical language" (God talk). A moderate use of horizontal inclusive language, it is said, will hardly be noticed and will not significantly change the meaning.

Concerns of those who reject this "linguistic reform", however, will not be greatly assuaged by this key distinction, especially as it is applied to revision of biblical texts notably the Revised New American Bible [RNAB] and New Revised Standard Version [NRSV], which have been proposed (and rejected) for liturgical use. Critics of the feminized scripture translations are concerned for the totality of revelation, not simply for those bits a committee has determined to be exempt from manipulation. Concern about the integrity of the Word of God runs deep, precisely because so much is at stake. Nor are so-called "conservative" Christians alone in feeling strongly about the subject, as the quotation below makes plain.

"If the demonic influence of patriarchy on the religious imagination is to be exorcised, if the neurotic repression of the feminine dimension of divinity is to be overcome, the imagination must be healed. It is absolutely imperative that language, which appeals to the imagination through metaphor … be purified of patriarchal overtones, male exclusive references to God, and the presentation of male religious experience as normative. We must learn to speak to and about God in the feminine; we must learn to image God in female metaphors; we must learn to present the religious experience of women as autonomously valid."

This remark comes from Sister Sandra Schneiders, SSIHM

(Women and the Word

. Paulist 1986, p.70.), Professor of New Testament Studies and Spirituality at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and contributor of the article on Hermeutics to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.

It should be stressed that the same language Sister Schneiders attributes to the influence of demons the Second Vatican Council reaffirms as an inalienable constituent of Catholic faith. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,

Dei Verbum,

we read:

"The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church … accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more." [

Dei Verbum

11 – Chapter III, "Sacred Scripture: Its Divine Inspriation and Its Interpretation"].

Dei Verbum

and Sister Schneiders cannot both be right.

In translating the Bible, horizontal inclusive language is a red herring. The truths that God reveals to man about man (and the imagery by which this is accomplished) are no less a part of the Deposit of Faith than those truths God reveals to man about God. It is futile to pretend that we can have confidence in the one while replacing the other with our own devices: they stand or fall together. Make no mistake about it, when the language of Romans 5 is changed from grace though the one man Jesus Christ (New American Bible) to grace through the one person Jesus Christ (Revised NAB), the doctrine of justification itself is changed, and not simply its phraseology. The adaptation occurs on the "horizontal" level, but its impact is ultimately Christological affecting our understanding of the nature of Christ.

The RNAB is highly unsuited to reassure those who are skeptical about the vertical-horizontal distinction. While it scrupulously preserves the divine titles and epithets, it has embarked on a far-reaching project of neutralizing masculine pronominal references to God. It does this by a variety of changes to the sentence structure of the Hebrew original: change of voice, change of grammatical person, substitution of a noun or adjective, and simply omission close to 300 times in the Psalter alone. Thus "Give to the Lord the glory due his name" becomes "give to the Lord the glory due God’s name"; "The Lord is the strength of his people" becomes "Lord, you are the strength of your people," and so forth. If this does not count as a change in vertical language, then the expression is meaningless. While advocates of feminist language are correct that specifically feminine imagery is not introduced into the texts, the effect of the pronoun replacement is profound.

Precluding Christological Interpretation


Critics of inclusive language translations are concerned not to obscure what its proponents call "the literal sense of Scripture itself" but to vindicate it. Criticism of the inclusivist rendering of Psalm 1 (and comparable passages) do not suppose that the patristic tradition, that is, the tradition of the early Church fathers who emphasized the foreshadowing of Christ in the Psalms and other books of the Old Testament, should determine translation.

The point is that traditional patristic interpretations, especially Christological ones, should not be excluded by constraints imposed on the translation by extra-textual considerations.

For example, literal translation of the Hebrew phrase "

ashrei ha/ish

" as "happy the man" in Psalm 1 does not demand a typological exegesis, but it permits interpretation of multiple levels, including the Christological. In other words, the hearer can equally well understand it as referring to THE blessed Man, Jesus Christ, and to anyone who "walks not in the way of the wicked." The RNAB’s rendering "happy those…" precludes the Christological interpretation at the outset, since a specific historical reference to one specific man can no longer be heard.

The Criteria adopted by the US bishops on inclusive language recognize the fact of the Christological connection between the Old and New Testaments, but only specify five instances of this connection. If these examples are taken by a translator to be a complete list of the passages in which the gender of the Hebrew is to be preserved, the thousands of references to Christ which the Church Fathers and the Church’s liturgy have found in the Old Testament will be all but obliterated. If the Ethiopian eunuch had been reading the RNAB Old Testament, would the apostle Philip have been able to show him where and how it speaks of Christ? Would the eunuch have accepted baptism?

"Inclusive Language" and Politics


To argue that inclusive language is a political and not a natural linguistic phenomenon is not to imply that those who accommodate themselves to it are dupes in every case. Some accommodationists go along because they wish to avoid the social unpleasantness that non-compliance often generates. Others feel that the message can be separated from the medium, and since the former is more important, they are willing to give a little ground on the latter. Still others deliberately wish to proclaim their allegiances to feminism by employing feminist language. But it is idle to pretend that "inclusive" language is a genuine, unsought, unprompted development of the English language, like the gradual disappearance of the subjunctive. Speakers tend to be unconscious of natural changes, whereas the purpose of inclusive language is to raise consciousness and keep it on the boil.

Two opinions from observers who are not Catholic, and consequently unaffected by the disputed texts, may be of help in illuminating the political aim on inclusive language. Sociologists Peter and Brigitte Berger write (in

The War over the Family

, Doubleday Anchor: 1983):

It matters little, in the final analysis, that here is a theory of language that rests on little or nothing beyond the emotions of the theorists. What matters a lot is that the theory legitimates a linguistic offensive that is part of a general political strategy. In this strategy, every masculine pronoun purged from a text, every insertion of "person" as a generic suffix, constitutes a symbolic victory in the larger struggle. Once again, everyone involved in these affairs intuitively understands what’s going on, which is precisely why emotions run so high on matters that to an outside or uninvolved observer might appear deafeningly trivial.

Philosopher Michael Levin stresses that self-consciousness is not a first step but the goal of language manipulation (

Feminism and Freedom,

New Brunswick, NJ.: Transaction 1987, p. 258).

Possibly because the only difficulty created by ordinary language is that feminists do not like it, feminist linguistic reform has become a kind of ongoing referendum about feminism itself…. As a result, whatever thought is to be conveyed in the act of communication is consciously subordinated to equity, with the collateral effect of obscuring whatever is actually being said…. Linguistic change legislated to conform to a worldview makes people self-conscious about their own language, an uncomfortable state of mind that may properly be called oppressive. Language is the vehicle of thought, and in an important sense speakers must be unconscious of choosing their words if they are to express their thoughts. When we become entangled in decisions about how to talk, we lose contact with the reality our thought is supposed to be about. Like playing the piano, language is largely a system of acquired habits, and fluent speech accompanied by constant conscious decisions about which words to utter is as difficult as fluent pianism accompanied by constant conscious decisions about which keys to hit.

The parties to the dispute over language will offer contrary explanations of their disagreement. Inclusivists claim that anti-inclusivists are consciously resisting a change in the language that has already happened; they are living in a dead past. Anti-inclusivists claim that "inclusive language" is a political etiquette enforced by taboo. Which group is right?

The superiority of the anti-inclusivist position can be demonstrated by this consideration: men are most likely to drop poses or affectations or consciously assumed stances in moments of fatigue, relaxation, or domestic security. Now, if inclusive language were indeed a reality of current English, anti-inclusivists would "slip" into it in moments of forgetfulness ("Did our postal carrier twist his or her ankle on the porch?"). On the other hand, if inclusivism is an etiquette, inclusivists would "slip" into ordinary non-inclusive language when their guard was down, using generic he, man, and so forth. There can be no serious doubt that inclusivists commit these slips-of-the- tongue considerably more frequently than their opponents. And the explanation is that "inclusive language" is not the language in which they think and through which they see the world but a complex system of prohibitions prohibitions they have not internalized and which they must commit to memory like the locations of the mines in a minefield.

The manuals, style-sheets, workshops, Government Printing Office directives, and even the heat that surrounds this controversy, all point to the same conclusion: "inclusive language" is not a medium but a message, and the message is ultimately political. Those who wish to promote this political message are perfectly free to do so, and have at their disposal many honorable and straightforward means of doing so. Forcing us to talk their talk at worship is not one them.


The Editors