Lost in translation?

I was thinking about bible translations recently, and the importance of selecting one to use consistently through a preaching ministry. I think it is important for a church to be taught from the same translation every week or the danger is that the preacher might lean towards selecting the translation that best suits the preachers point from week to week. Using a translation consistently gives a congregation confidence in the bible and the integrity of the preacher. But the question then is which translation do you select? I’ll make no secret of the fact that I have been a fan of the ESV ever since I came across it about 6-7 years ago. For me it combines the accuracy of a more literal ‘word for word’ translation philosophy such as in the KJV with the relative readability of the NIV. Of course some people would disagree with that! There was one church that I was in discussion with about a pastoral position who were in the process of changing from the NIV84 translation and were on the verge of deciding to use the NIV11. I am quite concerned about some of the desicions made in the NIV11,  and so during the interview process I asked how open they would be to using the ESV instead, they said not at all, that the ESV was not readable and as they were seeking to reach non Christians, it was more important that the translation the church uses be readable. I pushed the point and asked what was more important to them as a leadership team – whether something was readable, or the content of what was being read. Yeh…I didn’t get offered the post! This was one of the many reasons I was so thrilled when I was called to the Tab. They were in the process of doing the same – moving on from the NIV84 – but they had already settled on the ESV. Win!

The problem is that the NIV11 uses a ‘thought for thought’ translation rather than a ‘word for word’ translation which causes the translators to make exegetical decisions, instead of just translation decisions.This therefore removes these decisions from the preacher. One example of this is the NIV11’s decision to be gender neutral/inclusive. I agree with removing male-orientated words when there is no male-orientated meaning in the original Hebrew or Greek text. But when there is a male meaning, translators should not conceal that meaning just because the emphasis is unpopular today. For example in Heb 12:7 the NIV11 changes ‘son’ to ‘children’ in the analogy of God disciplining us as a father disciplines his son. To insist that believers are Sons of God is important theologically, and is not just male chauvinism. As believers we are sons of God because our identity with God is only through Jesus who is God’s son – not his daughter. We are in Christ, and therefore become his son, and share in the inheritance that is given to Jesus as God’s son. The NIV11 rightly does not refer to the church as the ‘spouse’ of the lamb instead of bride, and yet if it were to follow through its gender neutral stance completely surely it would? In the same way that the church is very much the wife of the lamb – the bride – so are we as believers sons of God our father.

As well as (at times) bordering on being heretical (can I say that?) the issue is that translations like the NIV11 over step their role in providing a useable translation. Luke 17:3 should read, ‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him‘ the NIV11 reads, ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.’ Jesus is using a male individual as an example of a general truth, but the NIV11 will not let him do this. Of course the verse applies to sisters who sin, but that is application, it is not translation. In reaching for a ‘thought for thought’ philosophy the translators make exegetical decisions, and take those decisions out of the hands of the preacher. Sometimes those decisions are very obviously driven by an agenda, such as the examples above – others are not so obviously driven by an agenda such as in the essay below.

I do love the ESV. And I do not mean to demonise the NIV11 translation. We are truly blessed as English readers to have so many english translations of the bible – and they are (mostly – not the message et al.) all God’s Word, and authoritative. But because of that  I believe we need to be even more careful that we select a translation that does most justice to the original text. Our aim should be to get as close as possible to the original text….. (runs off to work on his Greek and Hebrew)

This essay is an adaptation of a piece of work I did in my first year of my theological degree at WEST. It was coming across it again and reading it that led me to write this post. Enjoy/be bored to tears!


In Philippians 1:27, the 1984 revision of the NIV Bible has “stand firm in one spirit”, whilst the 2011 revision says “stand firm in the one Spirit”. Which is right, and what difference does it make?

Trying to understand the meaning of Scripture is never an easy task, due to there being so many issues to consider when doing so. Should we adhere to a strict translation of the text in isolation, or do we take into account what is said by an author elsewhere in Scripture? Or is that something that is to be done by expositors and therefore translators should keep as authentically to the original Greek (in this case) as possible. This essay will explore these ideas specifically relating to the translation of Philippians 1:27, to try and determine whether it is correct for the 2011 revision of the NIV to translate ‘in one spirit’ as ‘in the one Spirit’.

It would be beneficial to first discuss the difference between these two translations. The section of the original text that this essay is concerned with reads, ‘ἐν ἐἶς πνεῦμαwhich when translated word for word reads ‘in one spirit’. But ‘πνεῦμα’ (pneuma) can be used in Scripture to mean wind, breath, spirit (human, of unity etc) or at times Spirit (Holy), and so we need to be careful about saying with any certainty exactly which meaning the Apostle Paul had in mind when writing it. To clear up such issues we must first take account of the context in which he is writing, and consider the ways Paul uses this word in other letters. In doing these two things differences of opinions arise.

For many years English translators have favoured a word for word literal translation, and have left it up to individual scholars and preachers to determine Paul’s meaning. That is until 2011 when the NIV revised it’s wording and made the change to indicate that Paul was speaking specifically about the Holy Spirit. Whilst a translation cannot be declared to be correct solely on the numbers of people in agreement with it, it is worth noting that this translation is a departure from the historical orthodox translation the Church has held to. This essay shall argue that the 2011 revision ‘in the one Spirit’ is an incorrect translation, and that in this case the 1984 NIV translation is more accurate.

First we shall consider the arguments supporting the 2011 NIV translation. Fee, in his commentary on Philippians puts across perhaps the most robust defence of this view. He argues that when a survey is done of Paul’s other letters, it is seen that the Apostle never uses pneuma in this way to mean a spirit of unity. Bockmeuhl supports and furthers Fee’s argument when he writes of this passage that ‘Phil. 2.1 along with other Pauline usage elsewhere (esp. 1 Cor. 12.9, 13; cf. Eph. 2.18; 4.4) favours a reference to the Holy Spirit.’ Fee writes:

‘whenever Paul uses the verb “stand firm” followed by the preposition “in,” the prepositional phrase is invariably locative; that is it defines the “sphere” in which one is to stand firm. That regular usage works perfectly with “the one Spirit,” by whom they have all been incorporated into Christ, whereas “in one spirit” functions not as a locative but as a dative of “manner,” indicating how they are to stand firm. There is no Pauline analogy for such usage.’

The strongest argument for this translation is again made by Fee. He points out that Paul uses this exact phrase ‘ἐν ἐἶς πνεῦμα‘ in two other places and in both of them he is clearly referring to the Holy Spirit. Fee writes, ‘no one would imagine in these cases that “in one Spirit” refers to [the spirit of] community’, and he is right. This is where the strength of this argument is found, in that Paul has used the same Greek phrase elsewhere, and it is consistently translated to mean the Holy Spirit.

The arguments made for the NIV revision are strong and difficult to argue, but it is the foundation that these arguments are based on that weakens them. The body of evidence used to support the NIV revision is based upon what Paul has said in other writings. They rely on Paul never using the same words to mean different things. As Paul writes to individual churches he will have in mind their context and needs, and as readers of the Bible we need to consider that whenever reading a passage, and interpret Scripture based on the context in which it is written, and not on other situations.

If we read the text surrounding this verse it is clear that the context in which Paul is writing is one of Christian unity. Hawthorne agrees that the passage is speaking of Christian unity, and states that the strong appeal for unity in the text shows that the two phrases ‘in one spirit’ and ‘in one mind’ are used together to enforce Paul’s point, rather than to show two different aspects. As Paul was Jewish it is highly likely that he was employing the use of a ‘distich’, a form of parallelism in two lines to enforce a point. Again another commentator, Marshall, would argue that the use of ‘mind’ immediately after ‘spirit’ strengthens the argument for it referring to a spirit of unity.

In conclusion, the 2011 revision changes the meaning of the passage significantly by lessening the emphasis that Pauls puts on Christian unity. However it is worth mentioning that Christians are unable to stand together ‘in one spirit’ unless they are enabled by the Holy Spirit, and in this respect the two meanings are closely linked. Although there is clearly an application of the Holy Spirit in this phrase the original text does not definitively support the 2011 revision’s translation that Paul was speaking only of the Holy Spirit.

Having outlined the support for the for both arguments it could be argued that the evidence is stronger in support of the 2011 revision. However, even if it is thought that ‘ἐν ἐἶς πνεῦμα means ‘in the one Spirit’, it does not justify translating it that way. Scripture sometimes seems ambiguous and it is therefore the translators job to translate the text faithfully, even if that means including some ambiguity. Many preachers, teachers and commentators believe that this is a reference to a community spirit, and it is incorrect for a translator to push an exegetical point of view that is not explicitly supported by an individual text.

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