Calvinism, Gender Politics and the ESV

In any attempt to speak into a conversation about Bible translations and theology, I am skating on the edge of my own incompetencies before I even begin. Receive this blog in that light. I write not as a scholar, but as a pastor deeply troubled by what reformed theology is teaching this generation about men, women and value. In fact, I’m stunned.

Let me begin with a word about what some Calvinist (reformed) theologians teach about the nature of women in general.

John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who have both written extensively on a “reformed” view of human design, claim that the male-female hierarchy has been so from the beginning. In their book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, they argue from Genesis, chapter two, that woman was taken out of man and that man was given dominion over the whole earth before woman came on the scene. They both lean on their heavy exegesis of the word “helper” to suggest a woman’s supportive role (Recovering, loc 2384).

Complementarianism emphasizes the distinctions between men and women, as well as their roles (Recovering, loc 2384). In the healthiest view of this theological stance, men and women bear God’s image equally, with men having the role of leader and women having the role of helper (Recovering, loc 2144). The weakness of this approach is that it emphasizes roles over gifts, gifts being the New Testament preference.

In its most extreme form, however, complementarianism doesn’t just define roles; it implies an unusual value, to say the very least, to men. Grudem states, “God did not name the human race ‘woman.’ If ‘woman’ had been the more appropriate and illuminating designation, no doubt God would have used it … he called us ‘man’ which anticipates male headship” (Recovering, loc 2224). Where Genesis, chapter one, paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism uses linguistic tricks to insert a hierarchy.

And now, in a last-minute edit, what has been woven into their theology has been solidified into a popular translation of the Bible. The Calvinist camp has now placed the idea of patriarchal design into the English Standard Version of the Bible. The editors of that version (with Grudem as general editor) recently released a statement, after making a handful of final edits, announcing that the ESV is now complete and will remain unchanged for all perpetuity. Among the final edits is a change to the language describing the curse of the woman in Genesis 3. The editors have changed the wording from, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

That translation tweaks the meaning of the verse. The revision now implies that far from being an effect of fallenness God designed gender hierarchy. The problem is that the language doesn’t support the revision.

Of this translation, Scot McKnight says, “It is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” Indeed, McKnight goes on, “This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism.”

Can I say again that I am stunned by this?

The editors of this popular version of the Bible (one I’ve used for years) have intentionally taken a creation-up view of scripture, using their theological biases to weave into the text something that isn’t actually there in order to make their point that gender hierarchy is a matter of divine design and not human fallenness.

This is stunning in its boldness. It is one thing to write commentary on a passage and claim one’s opinion as a sidebar discussion. It is another thing entirely to manipulate the words of the text itself to favor one’s theological biases.

The editors must rethink this. As faithful students of the Word, we must resist it. As Carolyn Custis James poignantly states, “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that reveals the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message in contrast to the patriarchal world. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.”

I am deeply concerned for the direction reformed theology is leading this generation and these ESV final edits only deepen my concern. I am concerned for the women who are being led down a patriarchal path to a place where their very value is stripped. It is dangerous, indeed, to imply that women don’t share in the creation fabric of humanity; it is foolish to state that at the fall, nothing changed. Much more, I am concerned when an agenda is so deeply held that it overrides the integrity of biblical scholarship. When that happens, on what basis can we argue anything?

The original design for men and women is partnership, not hierarchy. The fall fundamentally, catastrophically altered that relationship. All thoughtful, faithful Christians should be fighting like crazy to get all of us back to the other side of the fall line, because it is as we live out our created design that we bring glory to God.

Carolyn Moore

I follow Jesus within the communities of Mosaic Church, Asbury Seminary and the Moore household.

11 thoughts on “Calvinism, Gender Politics and the ESV

  1. I found a difference today in the translation of Hosea 12:6 that made me wonder if the ESV was Calvinist leaning. The ESV and the RSV (the ESV’s predecessor) have added a phrase that is not in the Hebrew and that none of the other translations have. Here it is:

    Hosea 12:6 in the ESV “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.”
    Hosea 12:6 in the NASB: “Therefore, return to your God, observe kindness and justice and wait for your God continually.”

    The ESV and the RSV are the only versions to add in “by the help of your God.” Which made me wonder did they add it in to help reinforce the idea of irresistible grace and effectual call – that you cannot come to God without him making you? It’s not in the Hebrew so why did they add it? I wondered if they added it so that people couldn’t say it was evidence of free will. Anyway, I just googled “Is the ESV a Calvinist translation” and found this site.

    1. If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we’d be in a tough spot, wouldn’t we? Every translation has its spin. The ESV was my go-to translation for years, until the most recent version. I’m back to the NIV.

  2. My, my, how God’s friends provide tools for the Devil’s workshop! Carolyn, your exegesis is so right on and so helpful. Can we not believe that Paul was inspired in writing that while culture makes all sorts of gender, ethnic, and racial distinctions, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs accord to the promise.” Is it not interesting that some of the same people who pick at the straws of chauvinism in the ancient world for the church will vote for politicians who are women, select medical doctors who are women, sit under the authority of educators who are women, and work for women in the workplace!

  3. 1. Complementarism is a subset belief of Christianity not Reformed Theology or Calvinism.
    2. The words may be tweaked, but the meaning has not been changed.
    3. Debating how a text should be translated is a great practice for believers to help us understand the Holy Writ.
    4. Grace MUST be evident in the way we interact with fellow believers for the Glory of God and for the sake of ALL people.

  4. It was this very trend, in such passages where the masculine was rendered, “deacon” while the feminine was not, which prompted me to switch (after many years) from the ESV to the NRSV.

    I very much appreciate having found your blog.

  5. The point that God named the human race “man” shows a patriarchy indicates a lack of language knowledge. The Hebrew word is Genesis 1 is “adam”. Specifically it states in 1:27, “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

    The Army has had trouble with this widespread misunderstanding of “man” as a generic for human. The Navy avoided it by referring to Sailors as “hands”. Consider a manual transmission or an owner’s manual. “Man” in Latin means “hand” in English.

  6. Keep in mind also that many Reformed theologians are not complementarians, and that John Calvin would not consider either John Piper or Wayne Grudem to be Reformed, nor should anyone else, for that matter, since the Reformed faith is not simply the soteriology of the Synod of Dordt, which took place a half century after Calvin’s death, and covenant baptism of the children of believers is an integral part of the Reformed (and small-c catholic) faith.

  7. A similar concern is 1 Timothy 3:11, when speaking of deacons, “Their wives likewise must be dignified…” The NASB renders it, “Women must likewise be dignified…” In a denomination which has had a debate whether women should be deacons, the ESV is helpful to those who oppose women as deacons, yet the more literal translation of the NASB leaves it (appropriately, I believe) open for debate.

  8. Interesting comments. It’s always a challenge to discern God’s will for us as created beings, made in His image. Does God have any gender issues? If so, they’re certainly not like ours. In Christ, we’re all one and more like God than in any other possible way. I don’t see God as a divine designer at all. I see God as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. And God’s will for us is our sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s only then that we can begin to discern His perfect will for our human.

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