McKnight Sneaks in a Complementation Straw-man

In his reply to Crossway’s announcement of the ESV Permanent Text, Scot McKnight commented that Crossway “sneaked” in a translation that is both “mistaken and potentially dangerously wrong.”

McKnight refers to the translation of Genesis 3:16. In previous ESV text, it read [bold indicates changes]:

“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

The Permanent Text renders the verse:

“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

McKnight believes that this change was made due to complementarian tendencies in the ESV Oversight Committee (populated by folks such as Wayne Grudem, Vern Poythress, J. I. Packer, and the like). I don’t doubt theological biases influenced the translation of the ESV. The ESV is “essentially literal,” which means the translation occasionally conveys interpretation. Theological biases influence all such processes (as with the gender-neutral NIV 2011, and all other translations).

Regardless, the argument underpinning McKnight’s issue is based on a straw-man of the complementarian interpretation of Genesis 3:16, accompanied by a gross simplification of semantics.

McKnight claims, according to discussions he has had with “the ESV complementarian camp”, that complementarians believe Genesis 3:16 is prescriptive. He says:

First, for everyone I’ve discussed this with in the ESV complementarian camp, these verses are prescriptive. Which means this is God’s curse on all women for all time (until heaven and maybe then too). Women will need to be ruled over by their men (and many think this is true both about home and society, though not all) because women, evidently, acted out of order when Eve did what she did.

The “desire” of the woman in Genesis 3:16 is understood, as the result of the fall and God’s curse on them, to be a desire to rule or dominate. They want to usurp the man’s authority. The man’s task — as part of God’s prescriptive design — is to rule, guide, and lead the woman. I do hear at times softer versions: women desire to be with men and it is the man’s job to mentor and rule women. Either in the harder or softer form, this is God’s design for women and for men during at least the Fall period of human history. Hierarchy of some sort and patriarchy of some sort are designed by God for fallen human beings.

I’d like to know which complementarians McKnight has been talking with. He displays lack of understanding of complementarian orthodoxy when he describes the view of Genesis 3:16 as a prescription that women will be rebellious and so men must rule over them, meaning that male leadership was imposed on humanity as a result of the Fall. That view is more often attributed to complementarians, rarely espoused by them.

In fact, foundational to complementarian doctrine is that the leadership role of men predates the Fall; it is not a result of sin. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem (as aforementioned, a member of the ESV Oversight Committee) says:

If we examine the text of the creation narrative in Genesis, we see several indications of differences in role between Adam and Eve even before there was sin in the world.

Ray C. Ortland, Jr., in his essay on Genesis 1-3 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, starts off his commentary on Genesis 3 explicitly repudiating the understanding McKnight attributes to complementarians:

Those who deny the creation of male headship in Genesis 1-2 often argue that, in Genesis 3, God imposed male headship/domination (no distinction is allowed) upon the woman after the fall. As the corollary to this interpretation, they go on to argue that redemption in Christ reverses this decree and reinstates the woman to “full equality” with the man. We have seen, however, that God built male headship (not male domination) into the glorious, pre-fall order of creation.

Merely dipping our toes into complementarian scholarship, we see the complementarian view is simply not as McKnight represents it. Rather than prescriptive, complementarians view Genesis 3:16 as descriptive, describing the effects of the curse God placed upon women as a result of the Fall. Regardless of the actual nuance of the complementarian position, it is a gross misrepresentation of complementarianism to say that Genesis 3:16 is a prescriptive text that describes the imposition of male leadership as a result of the fall. Rather, complementarians affirm that male leadership pre-dates the Fall, being a part of God’s beautiful design for his creation and the perpetuation of his glory.

McKnight believes the translation of Genesis 3:16 is dangerously wrong is in its “over translating”:

The ESV here is mistaken in over translating Genesis 3:16 and the mistake is the assumption emerges from the belief that this is prescription and not description. As description it needs some nuancing; as prescription it turns the male against the female, the wife against the husband, and it means the male partner will rule by God’s design.

The danger is that the translation creates an unnecessary rift between men and women, prescribing that men rule their unruly female partners. However, the claim that the translation emerges from a prescriptive view of Genesis 3:16 is false, as I have demonstrated. McKnight has, like Crossway with their sneaky textual changes, snuck in a complementarian straw-man.

As well as basing his argument on a fiction, McKnight also grossly simplifies semantics. McKnight quotes a study by Sam Powell (which I will interact with further in a follow up post), which says that there is a basic meaning of the Hebrew preposition ‘el (translated  “contrary to” in the ESV Permanent Text) which is accurately translated with words such as “to, unto, or towards”.  In order to translate ‘el as “contrary to”, the context would have to indicate hostility. McKnight presents a counter-example to the rendering of ‘el in Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Permanent Text – Song of Solomon 7:10:

“I belong to my beloved,

and his desire is for me.”

He claims that the meaning of the preposition in this case is clear. It means that the beloved has affection for, to, unto, towards the woman, the whole verse expressing reciprocated loving desire. He continues:

If I read the Bible aright, Song of Songs 7:10 proves that a prescriptive theory of Gen 3:16 is a serious misreading of the Hebrew. Instead of a tragedy, we’ve got divine design. But if Song 7:10 proves that there is another way, then a descriptive reading offers the readers of Gen 3:16 not divine design but a sad reality that is both a reminder of sinfulness and a challenge to reconcile and live a life of loving sacrifice for one another.

The problem McKnight has here (other than the straw-man) is that he has not read the Bible aright. He has taken a single situation in which the preposition occurs and attributed its meaning in that context to another, declaring the question of meaning as simple as the preposition. Powell deals with the issue more fully, but McKnight simplifies the issue, ignoring the role all the other elements of a sentence have in determining meaning. Additionally, in presenting this counter-example to the ESV Permanent Text’s rendering of ‘el, McKnight forgets the other change in the ESV text that he showed at the start of his article but neglected to discuss – Genesis 4:7. In previous ESV text, it read:

Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.

The Permanent Text renders the verse:

Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.

The verse is God counselling Cain while he was angry, warning him that sin is crouching at the door. The preposition ‘el in 4:7 (translated “for” and “contrary to”, respectively) clearly does not  have the same meaning he attributes to it in 3:16, nor as in Song of Solomon 7:10. The desire of sin is to possess, to conquer, to have power over Cain. The desire of sin is contrary to Cain, it is against him. The preposition is very reasonably translated “contrary to” in this instance. This is a clear counter-example to McKnights counter-example, demonstrating that semantics is not as simple as presenting one example of the use of a preposition and declaring the interpretation of the use of it elsewhere to be disproved thereby.

Granted, the question of how to translate and interpret these verses has not been answered here, so I will discuss that in a follow up post (particularly regarding the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “desire”, which I believe very probably, based on the data, provides the context necessary to translate ‘el as “contrary to” or “against”).

For now, it’s clear that the picture McKnight has painted of complementarianism is a misrepresentation, a straw-man around which he constructs an argument about the Hebrew which is further discredited by his gross simplification of semantics.

[For further reading about the complementarian view of male-headship as a pre-Fall reality, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pp. 460-465; Ray C. Ortland, Jr., in eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Wheaton, Crossway Books, 1991, pp. 86-104]

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