Mid October next year there will be a new Dutch translation of the Bible. It is a revision of the translation of 2004. It has been worked on for years by a group of experts and no less than 12,000 changes will be made. In many cases it concerns just a comma, or the word order in a sentence. In a number of cases, words that have gradually become old-fashioned are replaced by more contemporary synonyms. In the meantime, the knowledge of the original languages has not stood still either, which is why in a number of cases translation choices are now being made that differ from what was deemed best some twenty years ago.
One may wonder whether it is wise or necessary to produce yet another new version of the Bible. Many readers have hardly become familiar with the 2004 translation. Others have only recently discovered the Bible in Ordinary Language. And now there is yet another new Dutch translation! This version will be called the NBV21, because it is the intention that we will be able to use it for the best part of this twenty-first century.
The most controversial aspect of the new translation is already beginning to emerge. This concerns the reintroduction of capital letters for the personal pronouns referring to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit (the so-called “reverential capitals”) and keeping the term LORD as a reference to God’s name. Many would have preferred something like The One, as is the case in the so-called Naardense Bible. Moreover, this new translation reignites the discussion about whether we should use “He” and “his” when talking about God. After all, this continues to reinforce the traditional patriarchal image of God! And God is not a man, or what?
Here we encounter an insoluble problem. No, God is not a man. But God is also not a woman. Both man and woman were, according to the Genesis story, “made in the image of God”. Does that perhaps mean that God has both feminine and masculine traits? Most of us feel that we are on the wrong track with that kind of speculation. When Jesus became incarnated he chose to become a male human being. But is he still a male being in his glorified state, after his resurrection and ascension? And what about the Holy Spirit. Some church fathers thought of God’s Spirit in feminine rather than in masculine terms.
The Bible usually speaks of God in masculine terms, but not always. In the book of Job it is said of God that He gave birth to the world and in the words of the prophet Isaiah God is pictures as a mother (Isaiah 66:13). Jesus compares his Father in Luke 15 with a woman looking for a hidden coin. And in Matthew 23:37 Jesus uses for himself the female metaphor of a chicken protecting her chicks.
The problem of the indications of gender in connection with God illustrate clearly that our limited human language always falls short when we want to say something about the Almighty. Perhaps it is difficult to break with the long tradition of speaking about God with male words and images. But when we say “he” (with or without a capital letter) or “his,” we should immediately correct that in our minds and remind ourselves that we are doing God a grave injustice, because “he” is not a “he”. This dilemma concerns our entire theological vocabulary. We are searching for words that should express something that can never be adequately put in human terms. And the same goes for the doctrines we construct with our human language. As soon as we have forged a beautiful formula, we must take a big step back and realize that our linguistic representation of the Inexpressible always remains “work in progress”. It remains a groping in the dark. For God is greater than our language can grasp. That was the challenge for all the biblical authors, and it remains the challenge for every Bible translator and for us, whatever translations of the Bible we use..