Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Bible--without Grace and Propitiation

Thanks to the ESV Blog for their post today about propitiation (and corresponding link). It reminded me of a topic I wanted to address--the removal of theological terms from some Bibles. They are very kind about it, quoting from the ESV Preface that the ESV “retains theological terminology—words such as… propitiation—because of their central importance for Christian doctrine and also because the underlying Greek words were already becoming key words and technical terms in New Testament times.”” They also link to "another view" (read: different) from the Net Bible. Here's the quote from there--"...the English word "propitiation" is too technical to communicate to many modern readers..."--and for that reason they have substituted "atoning sacrifice."

Now I'm not going to claim to know all the implications of substituting other words for propitiation and other theological terms, but I do want to briefly discuss some of my concerns about doing this.

My first is the stated reason for not using the term. What exactly qualifies a word as "too technical?" Does this mean modern readers are incapable of understanding it? Or perhaps it means they are unwilling to learn about it? Why are they incapable of learning a technical word like this about theology, and yet these same people understand other technical words, either in their chosen profession, or even on the Internet? How many people managed to figure out what a "blog" is, for instance?

My second concern is the reason (some) don't use the word: they don't accept the Bible's teaching about the wrath of God. What would they do with a passage like Ps 7:11, where it talks about his daily anger with sinners? (KJV/NKJV even more emphatic--"he hates the wicked every day"). Or in the New Testament--what do we do with Revelation, which talks about unrepentant sinners (Rev 9:20-21), and the wrath of God that will become them (Rev 19:15)? Clearly, not everyone who would substitute words would be of this mindset, but some are, enough that this idea that God is not angry and full of wrath seems prevalent in the modern church. And without those terms, it certainly makes it easier to avoid the issue.

Which brings me to my third concern--the result of this removal. We stop using the word, and pretty soon we start forgetting about the concept. As PJ has so eloquently put it, when the doctrine of propitiation comes under attack, a whole generation of people who don't even know the word have no clue how to defend the doctrine (actually, he puts it more eloquently, but you get the drift).

"Propitiation" is not the only word banned from some modern versions. "Grace" is another one (see note on CEV). And in my mind, to purge "grace" from the Bible seems almost unforgivable.

For instance, look at Romans. Follow the logic of Paul's argument in Chapters 5-6, then go back and substitute "God's kindness" for "grace" (or just read it here). It weakens the argument. In fact, given the way Paul writes, I think it kills the argument altogether.

In Romans 1:5, "Jesus was kind to me and chose me to be an apostle," (CEV), instead of "we have received grace and apostleship" (ESV). In John 1:14, the Word was full of "unfailing love and faithfulness" (NLT) instead of "full of grace & truth" (ESV and most others). Instead of "my grace is sufficient," "My kindness is all you need" (2 Cor 12:9, CEV).

I won't go on, except to say that in a world without grace, we would sing "[God's] Amazing Kindness," John MacArthur would come to us via "God's Kindness To You," and the Reformation would have recovered the "Doctrines of God's Kindness." The loss would be nearly insurmountable.

No doubt, God is kind. But this is God we're talking about here. Is there no word bigger than kindness to express all that He has done for us? Is this really the most suitable way of translating the Greek word charis, after "much careful thought" and utilizing "innovative skill?"

No doubt, it may take some effort to understand that grace means more than "a pleasing quality, attractiveness, seemingly effortless beauty or charm." But, for heaven's sake, what is wrong with a little explanation from the pulpit? Isn't that what preaching is for? Do we really expect that we'll just automatically know all there is to know about this spiritual life that is so foreign to us, so opposed to our very nature, and that it won't come without some effort on our part?

More might be said, and I hope to put out more about translations and translation philosophies, but this seems a good place to stop for now. Understand that I ascribe no motives to those who translated or use the CEV, or any other translation. I am merely pointing out that, intended or not, the removal of these theological terms has detrimental consequences, and it is worth considering issues like this when choosing a translation.

(Note: Scriptures marked as "(CEV)" are taken from the Contemporary English Version Copyright © 1995 by American Bible Society. Used by permission. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.)


Chris Pixley said...

Good eye, Matt, and great analysis of this alarming trend.

The problem with retranslating these "too technical" theological terms is that the new words actually under-define the words they are replacing. Propitiation, for example, certainly includes the idea of atoning sacrifice, but it doesn't specifically tell us anything about atonement being made because God's righteous wrath has been satisfied. And, as you've eloquently argued, grace includes far more than the idea of kindness. In fact, grace is so unique, there is really no other word that I know of that captures its actual biblical meaning.

Well done, my friend!

Hemsch said...

the (forgive my french) bastardazation of the bible makes me physically ill. how to translate the bible has been a very heated debate but what's been going on for that 20 years or so is unbelieveable. It just show's you how much satan has infected the so called american church. I've seen articles where all refernces of God and Jesus have been changed to the feminine. I also just read an article of some one condencsing the whole bible down to being able to be read in 2 hours.

Paul said...


I think that you are right, but I also would say that any English translation of the Bible is a tool. If you were to explain from the pulpit one of the first things that you would say is atoning sacrifice. There is much more meaning to propitiation of course, but couldn't this meaning also be explained from the pulpit if your translation read "atoning sac."

We have to find the proper gloss to translate these Greek words. It has to convey the meaning in the target language, and not distort the original. If I were doing Bible translation then I would use propitiation, and I want the bible I use to do the same. But remember your English translation is a tool that conveys (depending on the translation) God's word to us. In this case we must use propitiation because of the historic meaning within reformed Christianity.

But there is wiggle room. Let me give an example. William Tyndale translated the very first English NT. In that NT he translated the word for church as community of believers (something to that effect). If a translation were to do that now we would cry foul and blame the emerging church. But Tyndale did that b/c to the people "the church" was the RC hierarchy (priest, bishop, pope). Just some food for thought. Thanks for continuing the reformation!

I enjoyed your blog, and I am glad Chris P. sent me your way.

Gummby said...

Thanks for your kind words, and I'm glad you stopped by, too. I just wanted to interact with a couple of your of your points.

Tyndale translated the word EKKLESIA as "congregation," to avoid communication with "church," which could be confused with "the Church," as you mentioned. But there is a distinction to be made here. Tyndale was writing to an audience who had no Bible in their own language, only in Latin (or Greek & Hebrew--nor am I counting Wycliffe's translation here). They were being taught falshood, and he was trying to made the truth available for them to read for themselves. (BTW, God's Bestseller by Brian Moynahan is a great biography of Tyndale, that reads more like a novel than like nonfiction.)

This is certainly not the case today. The Bible is more available than any other time in human history. And the problem generally isn't a misunderstanding of terms, like replacing the word "alien" for the word "foreigner." I have no problem with that.

I just don't think that's what is going on here. Instead, we have a decision by a translation committee that certain words are "too technical." But remember that many (if not most) translators these days are skippping over the words anyway and going straight to the meaning, so it is easy, if not downright self-serving, to eliminate words, and replace them with meaning. Too many times, they are taking on the role of the preacher, and expositing rather than merely translating.

With regard to "grace," I can't improve on Chris's comment, so I'll merely repeat it: "grace is so unique, there is really no other word that I know of that captures its actual biblical meaning."

Paul said...


I can not, and would not, disagree with you on the word grace, or even propitiation.

However, in the work of translation we must remember that there is not an exact word for word to the Greek. The two languages do not interface that way. When we translate we must find the meaning of the Greek and convey that meaning as close as possible in the English.
To do this is not dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence is to look at the meaning of an entire section then convey that meaning in your translation rather than one word at a time and convey the meaning of that word.
I am not sure how we can translate the word karis into English as grace unless we look at its meaning in koine Greek first.
Like you and Chris said there are no other words that convey its meaning. And so because we know its meaning we choose the English word that correlates best with that meaning.

Thanks for the great conversations,