Tucked away in this year’s Agenda for Synod 1996 of the Christian Reformed Church lies a “Report of the CRC Worship Committee Regarding Gender-Sensitive Language in the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort” (pp. 90–123). For those who desire to see the CRC return to its historic commitment to the Word of God in Scripture and the Reformed confessions, reading this year’s Agenda will undoubtedly prove disappointing. However, nothing in this year’s Agenda reflects more clearly the CRCs rapid decline into “main-line” denominationalism than this report. Anyone seeking evidence that a spirit profoundly at odds with the spirit and forms of Reformed confessional Christianity has infected the denomination, will have to look no farther than this report.
To appreciate the significance of this particular report, it is useful to trace the history and background leading up to it.
So far as the more recent history of the eRe is concerned, the story behind the preparation of this report probably begins with the latest English translation and revision of the Heidelberg Catechism. This translation of the Heidelberg Catechism was the first significant instance in which the desire to employ “gender-sensitive” language played an important role. Though the changes made in this translation were rather modest and innocuous by more recent standards, they represent the first inroads of a new policy regarding the translation of the confessions and the use of language which was sensitive to the concerns of gender-inclusiveness.1
The provision of this revised translation of the Heidelberg Catechism coincided with the publication of the second edition of the new Psalter Hymnal. This new song book also reflected a growing concern for gender inclusivity in the use of language within the CRC. Among the many changes in the song selections in the new hymn at a number were made in the interests of gender-inclusive language. Some of these changes included the language used in the poetry of the Psalms.
However, the more immediate occasion for this study committee report was the preparation of the new curriculum (LIFE) by the Education Department of the eRe Publications. In the course of producing this new curriculum, the Education Department developed a set of guidelines for the use of inclusive language and reported them to Synod 1991. Synod 1991 requested that these guidelines be revised. A revised version of these guidelines was then adopted by Synod 1992 and referred to the churches as pastoral advice (Acts of Synod 1992, pp. 615–616).2 These revised guidelines were not directly related to the issue of translation, whether of the Scriptures or the confessions, though they did reflect a desire to avoid insensitivity in the use of language.3
At the same time that these guidelines for gender-inclusive language were being approved, Synod 1992 also made a related, albeit perhaps more far-reaching decision when it approved the use of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. TIlls Bible version was prepared in order to meet some of the concerns of gender inclusivity. While it does not alter the language used to refer to God, it does employ a variety of devices linguistically to avoid references that might be considered offensive or gender-exclusive.
Synod 1994 brought two further developments. In response to two overtures regarding inclusive language for God, this Synod appointed a committee to “study the use of inclusive language for God. Its mandate will be to examine the biblical, confessional, theological, cultural, and pastoral dimensions of the use of inclusive language for God” (Acts of Synod 1994, p. 496). The appointment of this committee indicates that the whole question of the language we should use in speaking about God (whether in the Scriptures, the confessions or preaching and teaching) was thought to require further reflection and evaluation. This committee has not yet finished its work and reported its conclusions to synod.
The second and related development at Synod 1994 was a decision to accede to an overture from Classis Minnesota North, asking that synod “provide gender-sensitive language to name and describe persons in the translations of the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort, provided the theological intent is not altered” (Acts of Synod 1994, p. 495). The two grounds offered for this decision were the precedent established in the revised translation of the Heidelberg Catechism and the continued changes in contemporary language usage “to the point where inclusive language is necessary.”
This second development was the immediate occasion for the report that is now being presented to Synod 1996. However, this brief history ought to be enough to show that there has been a growing concern and interest in the CRe to use gender-inclusive language that answers to the concerns of those who fear gender bias in the older, traditional forms of English usage.
THE CHANGES PROPOSED
It is not possible, of course, to give here a complete account of the kinds of changes that this study committee report is proposing. Rather than attempt to be complete, I will only cite a number of representative changes. This selection of changes should be sufficient to permit some conclusions about the principles that are operative in the thinking of the committee.
Among the proposed changes are the following:4
Belgic Confession, Art. 3: “We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by human will (the will of men), but that holy servants (men) of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit, as Peter says.”
Belgic Confession, Art. 9: “In the book of Genesis God says, ‘Let us make humankind (man) in our image, according to our likeness.’ So ‘God created humankind (man) in his own image’….”
Belgic Confession, Art. 14: “We believe that God created human beings (man) from the dust of the earth and made and formed them (him) in his image and likeness ….
Belgic Confession, Art. 16: “We believe that-all Adam and Eve’s (Adam’s) descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first human beings (man)….”
Belgic Confession, Art. 23: “without doing what our first parents (father Adam) did, who trembled as they (he) tried to cover themselves (himself) with fig leaves.”
Belgic Confession, Art. 26: “Although he was ‘in the form of God: he nevertheless ‘emptied himself,’ taking the form of ‘a human being’ (man)….”
Belgic Confession, Art. 31: “So members of the church (everyone) must be careful not to push themselves (himself) forward improperly, but all (he) must wait until called by God (for God’s call) so that they (he) may be assured of their (his) calling. and be certain that they are (he is) chosen by God.”5
Canons of Dort, III/IV, 1: “We humans were (man was) originally created in the image of God….”
These selections from the Committee’s proposals show that several kinds of changes are being made in the interest of gender-inclusive language.
It is also interesting to notice that the Committee has not restricted its proposed changes in language to references in the confessions which are the product of their authors. Scripture quotations in these confessions, where they violate the dictates and concerns of gender-sensitivity, are also subject to the same kinds of changes as were noted in the preceding paragraph. If the Bible speaks of “man” or “men” the Committee recommends something like “humanity” or “people.” Or, if the Bible uses a masculine pronoun, “he” or “him,” the Committee recommends “anyone” or “they.” The same rules apply to changes in the language of the confession’s authors and the language of the Bible.
Consistent with the guidelines adopted by Synod 1992, the Committee refrains from recommending changes in language which refers directly to and names God Himself. This includes not only the names but also the personal pronouns employed to refer to God (like “Father,“ “Son,“ “He,” “Him“).
The changes proposed, therefore, are limited to changes from gender-specific to gender-inclusive terms, when the change apparently involves no significant difference in meaning. And, though they include changes in the language of Scripture, none of them directly affect the way in which God is addressed or referred to in the biblical texts.
DOES ANY OF THIS MATTER?
In the light of these observations about the Committee’s proposed changes, some might conclude that they are relatively modest and of no great significance. Living as many of us do in a politically correct and sensitive culture, none of these changes should be too surprising or disturbing. Do any of these changes really matter? My answer to this question will take the form of four observations.
First, there is an obvious progression in the history of the CRC’s concern for the use of gender-inclusive language. Initially, changes were proposed in the language of the new curriculum to be published by CRC Publications. Some of these kinds of changes were also made in the new edition of the Psalter Hymnal with its revised version of the Heidelberg Catechism and a smattering of changes in some of the Scripture songs. However, the changes now being proposed, not only alter the language of the confessions but also alter the Scriptural quotations in these confessions. It is one thing to alter the language of a church school curriculum, a song book, and even a confession. But it is quite another thing to alter the language of the text of Scripture itself!
Second, what is most striking about these proposed changes is that they include a policy of re-writing the texts of Scripture to bring them into conformity with so-called “contemporary usage” and the agenda of political correctness in the use of “gender-inclusive” language. They represent a shift in the doctrine of Scripture, from the old doctrine of the “plenary, verbal inspiration” of the Bible to a new doctrine of the “thought inspiration” of the Bible. Provided the meaning of the language is unchanged, we are at liberty in translation to rewrite the biblical texts to conform to contemporary usage.
Now I am prepared to admit that my view of Scripture may well be regarded, by the standards of this policy and terribly sexist. Indeed, there will likely be those whose sensitivities will be offended by my remarks at this point. Some may even think that this is a picayune or small point, of no great consequence. However, for those who regard the text of Scripture to be the inspired or “God-breathed” Word of God, the kinds of changes this Committee proposes arc deeply offensive. They represent a cavalier and disrespectful approach to the text of the Bible. However well-intentioned or motivated the members of this Committee may be, their proposed changes in the text of the Bible betray a doctrine of Scripture unalterably in conflict with that found in the Belgic Confession, Articles 2–7. If this Committee and those who support its agenda do not like the way in which God has been pleased to speak in Scripture, then let them say so boldly and get on with their business. But there should be no mistake about what is going on—the Scriptures are being revised, however modestly, to fit the sensitivities of the politically correct.
Third, it should be noted that the kinds of changes proposed by this Committee represent not only a different doctrine of Scripture than that found in the Reformed confessions but also a revised doctrine of original sin. Though it has been pointed out by others before me, the changes in language proposed by this Committee compromise the biblical teaching regarding the covenantal headship of Adam and the unity of the race in his person. According to the teaching of the Bible, God did not create an abstractentity called “humanity” or a collection of individuals known as “people.” God created a particular person who was placed in the position of being the representative head of the human race. Consequently, when the Bible refers to this person whom God created as “Adam,” the noun used to refer to him (note well) is used as a proper noun, referring not only to a generic entity like “humanity” or “humankind” but also and specifically to an individual person. The doctrine of original sin, as it is expressed so majestically and profoundly in Romans 5, can not be expressed in the “gender-sensitive“ language which the Committee proposes. Thus, though the confessional and biblical illiteracy of the CRC may permit the Committee to get away with what it is proposing, it should be noted that the agenda of political correctness may well succeed in accomplishing what the proponents of evolutionary dogma have compromised in another way—eliminating the biblical doctrine of the covenant unity of the human race in Adam, our first parent?
And fourth, though the changes being proposed do not touch directly the way in which God Himself is addressed and named in the Scriptures and the confessions, the adoption of the tenets and the dictates of gender-inclusivity virtually guarantee that these more radical kinds of changes will be forthcoming. Though some may be comforted by the Committee’s restraint in not changing the language used to refer to or address God, there is no difference in principle, certainly no difference in the doctrine of Scripture, between making the modest changes this Committee is proposing and the more radical changes (even in the language used to refer to God) that others might propose.
Once you admit the principle that the Bible can be rewritten at any point to satisfy the sensitivities of the politically correct, what is there to prevent the rewriting of the Scriptures to satisfy the sensitivities of those whose political correctness is more consistent and consequent? There is no principled reason why a more radical rewriting of the Scriptures should not be permitted. The only obstacle is that, at this particular point in the historic decline of the CRC, it has not yet become “politically correct” to speak of God as “our Father and Mother.”
1. Perhaps the most significant of the changes made to the Heidelberg Catechism were the changes in Lord’s Day 3. For example, the older translation, “Did God create man so wicked and perverse?,” became, “Did God create people so wicked and perverse?” This kind of change is much more common in the proposals of this latest study committee report. I will reserve comment on the significance of these kinds of changes until the close of my article.
2. The guidelines adopted were: “Guideline 1. Make no changes in Scripture or in the scriptural language and imagery for God. When Scripture is being used that contains masculine pronouns or imagery, continue these in the discussion about that Scripture. Guideline 2. Reflect the rich range of imagery Scripture uses in speaking of God. Guideline 3. In cases where gender descriptions or designations of God arise out of common English usage, prevalent social patterns, or traditional theological language rather than out of Scripture, take care not to offend readers needlessly by using inappropriate image, overusing masculine pronouns, and/or by naming God with feminine nouns or pronouns. Guideline 4. Always use language that fully reflects the personal nature of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”
3. I am only reflecting the opinion and attitude behind the advocacy of gender-inclusive language. I do not, however, concede many of the arguments that are offered by gender-inclusive language advocates that the traditional language usage betrays some kind of unacceptable bias against women. It is worth noting that the English noun, “man,” in its traditional usage was a gender-inclusive term (when used without the definite or indefinite article). The advocates of politically corrected gender-inclusive language seem bent upon making this noun gender-exclusive (so that it becomes increasingly difficult to make any single term or noun refer to both kinds of human beings, men and women)! This is one of the ironies of the recent attempt to re-write the English language in the interests of political correctness: the language becomes less precise and increasingly sexist!
4. Though I am citing changes proposed in the Committee’s report, my format in what follows differs from that of the Committee. I am italicizing the proposed changes and citing the present form of the confessions in parentheses.
5. This change recommended by the Committee is particularly interesting from an historical point of view. As a delegate to Synod 1985, I witnessed a decision by that Synod to retain the masculine pronouns in this article. The decision to retain these masculine pronouns was made on the basis of the gender-specificity of the original French language on which the translation was based. And it was also made in the awareness that, by changing the language of the previous article from “faithful men” to “persons,” the meaning of the original language would be lost, namely, its reference to masculine persons. Apparently, the agenda of political correctness now permits this Committee here to disregard such matters as accuracy in translation, integrity in resisting the temptation to propose a confessional revision under the guise of “gender-sensitivity,” or the decision of a previous synod on the matter!
6. With at least the notable exception mentioned in my previous note.
7. In so doing the Committee has also violated its mandate which forbade any change in the “theological intent” of the confession’s language. The previous article from “faithful men” to “persons,” the meaning of the original language would be lost, namely, its reference to masculine persons. Apparently, the agenda of political correctness now permits this Committee here to disregard such matters as accuracy in translation, integrity in resisting the temptation to propose a confessional revision under the guise of “gender-sensitivity,” or the decision of a previous synod on the matter!
Dr. Venema, Professor of Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN, is a contributing editor of The Outlook.