Ambiguous and Meaningless (John 3:21)

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AndyE's picture

What's frustrating is a Greek expert criticizing a type of translation philosophy without explaining how and why he would translate a certain passage differently.  I sort of wonder if he is trying to make this more difficult than what it is.  A pretty simple explanation would be that "in God" is short for what Paul says in Phil 2:13, "For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

TylerR's picture


Mounce has been on a bit of a tear lately about making translation clear for the reader. His point is that a generic "in God" is meaningless. What, exactly, does that even mean? Would should a Christian think when he reads that verse, in that passage?

Here is the passage:

16 “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Can we really do no better than go for a default sense of the preposition, and render it "in God?" We can do better.

Andy, with your reference to Phil 3:21 you're suggesting agency for the preposition, which means you'd render it something like, "his works have been carried out by God." If you believe this is the meaning, then you'd probably agree that "in God" is meaningless and useless. When you preach the passage, you'd probably emphasize agency - therefore you agree that translations which render it "in God" aren't doing the reader any favors.

I am more and more convinced we need to move past meaningless phrases and into practical meaning. Another example is the phrase "in Christ," which Harris and other Greek scholars suggest would be better understood as "in union with Christ." Much of our favorite pious but ambiguous Christian language (e.g. "in God," "in Christ") are a heritage of particular English translations that could be made a bit more clear. I think that is Mounce's point - make it clear for the reader. Example:

  • In my post yesterday, I covered Mk 5:1-13. Many translation tell us that the demon-possessed man told Jesus, "I adjure you, by God, don't torment me!" What on earth does that word even mean? Do most people use the word" adjure" in normal conversation? It's a high-brow, literary word - something for the drawing room. Give me a break. To make matters worse, "adjure" carries two meanings in English ("I command you to swear that you'll do this" or "I'm begging you!"); the same two meanings it carries in Greek. I think most translations that went with "adjure" were avoiding taking a stand on which use of the word the demon meant. That isn't helping the reader, and probably leaves some folks reaching for a dictionary. Take a stand and make a decision - what does it mean!? Just make a decision, so the poor reader understands what the demon said! Tyndale went all in for "I command you to swear," while some others (e.g. NET, NIV) went in for "I'm begging you." Good for them - they made a decision, and the reader knows what the man said. Either option is better than the wimpy, fence-straddling "adjure."

Of course, this means you have to make some interpretive decisions in translation. Some will immediately cry foul, and wish for a "literal" translation. Go find an interlinear, then - and have fun! If we'd explain "in God" as agency when we preach it, then we're implicitly agreeing we should have a clearer phrase in translation.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

AndyE's picture

Well, my main point is that Mounce isn't doing us any favors by criticizing a translation but not providing an alternative of his own.

However, I tend to agree with those who say ambiguities in the underlying Greek should be preserved in the English translation. How would an original Greek reader of the John have understood the expression?  Why would God have John express what he is saying with the terminology we find in the text? Depending on those answers, I might want a more interpretive translation or not.

Sometimes the richness of an expression is limited by an interpretive decision.  An example of this is what the NIV does with the following:

"Because for most readers today the phrase “the Lord of hosts” and “God of hosts” have little meaning, this version renders them “the Lord Almighty” and “God Almighty.” These renderings convey the sense of the Hebrew, namely, “he who is sovereign over all the ‘hosts’ (powers) in heaven and on earth, especially over the ‘hosts’ (armies) of Israel.”

I think the NIV hides important aspects of this phrase from the reader.

I haven't studied this particular verse to the point that I have a firm opinion on what "in God" means.  If there are several common interpretations, then I normally explain what those options are and then why I hold the position that I do. 


TylerR's picture


I hear what you're saying. I really like to compare different English versions. If I disagree with a rendering, I always point to another translation that takes it a different way. I don't hold myself out to be a Greek Ninja, who knows all things.

Good thoughts.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

One that I've seen in a German translation I own (Berlenburg) is that the points of the compass are referred to as the dawn, sunset, noon, and midnight.  I don't know if this is in the original languages, but it's wonderful.  Make it idiomatic if the sense is otherwise totally obscured, but otherwise keep as close to word for word as possible. One huge advantage is that it gives us a sense of the ancient cultures--men often peed against a wall, for example--and sometimes, as in Leviticus 18, we can even infer some things about our theology.  (for example, I infer that since the Hebrews equated the exposure of certain areas with fornication/adultery, that they would have felt that the exposure of these areas would have defined their version of immodesty theology)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture


I translate a passage every week for Sunday School. Well, actually, it's every few weeks. I usually take a few weeks to cover a single passage. But, anyway - I translate Greek very often. I go so far as to classify the syntax in every word. I basically do a full exegesis of every passage I preach. I was taught a woodenly literal, word for word approach in Seminary - what Ryken would call the "essentially literal" approach. I think that's good for Seminary. Not so sure it's good for actual translation and preaching.

I've been tinkering lately, and I realize I'm trending towards a more dynamic approach - something like the NIV, NET and (very occasionally) the NLT. Does this make me a traitor? I don't think so. I've been spending time reading a lot of material on Bible translation over the past year, and I am becoming more and more convinced that a translation needs to be clear for the reader. For example, in 1 Peter 2:12, the RSV reads, "maintain good conduct among the Gentiles . . ."

  • That word could mean Gentiles, or it could mean nations (i.e. pagan nations). How should it be translated?
  • If you believe Peter wrote his letters to primarily Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps you'd keep "Gentiles" or "nations." The terms have a particularly Jewish flavor to them, especially in light of the OT. A Jew would get it.
  • But, if you don't believe Peter wrote to majority Jewish Christian congregations, how should you render it? Does "Gentiles" really do the trick? Is that what Peter was literally getting at? They could live like demons among Jews, but if a Gentile comes along - be good? Doubt it. Peter seems to be referring to "unbelievers."
  • Should you translate it as "unbelievers?" The NIV and NLT went with "pagans." The NET went with "non-Christians." The other translations, which are often more literal than these, went with "Gentiles." Which one is better? Which one is clearer?

I think we need to make a distinction between meaning and clarity. The rendering "Gentiles" or "nations" is more technically accurate. But, the translation "unbelievers" is (I believe) much more clear. If something is clearer, is it not, in reality, more accurate?

This whole puzzle of translation is endlessly fascinating to me. I find myself tip-toeing across the line towards the more dynamic side of the fence, because I often times think it is clearer than often wooden literalness.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?