Theologically Manipulated Translations

Ok, class. Get out your black highlighters and your pencils! We’re going to play, “Correct your sanitized translation!”

Boo… Theologically Manipulated Translation. Boo… by J.R. Daniel Kirk

Here are some renderings in some popular English translations:

NRSV: faith working through love. (Footnote: Or ‘made effective’)

NLT: faith expressing itself in love.

NIV: faith expressing itself through love.

ESV: faith working through love.

NET: faith working through love. (Footnote: ‘But faith working through love’)

CEV: your faith that makes you love others.

Kirk’s assertion is that every translation that doesn’t translate this as “faith working through love” is theologically manipulated.

What do you think?

Read Kirk’s post here.


  1. Posted February 20, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    From the standpoint of logic and context, it should be noted that Paul is not talking about how to be saved, but rather how to behave. Like water baptism today, the legalists then seemed to view circumcision as “the believer’s first act of obedience”, but Paul is saying that this first and continual act of obedience is love put in practice. He says “in Christ”, meaning the already saved, and it’s part of the larger context of warning people not to go back to a life of compliance to regulations but one motivated by genuine love for others.

    Personally, I’d render it “faith put into practice in love”. Or something.

  2. davidlrattigan
    Posted February 20, 2010 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    The meaning of the literal English translation “faith working through love” is by no means clear, to me anyway. I don’t think sticking with word-for-word is much better than any other way.

  3. Posted February 20, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I was being a little bit snarky on a Friday afternoon. I do think that the point is to keep faith and works from looking like they might be somehow inherently connected. It seems that the reason behind it is to mute the idea that true faith is working faith–something that would undermine the faith versus works dichotomy that some see as the Reformed understanding of how justification/salvation works.

    But as I said on the blog comments: all translations are theologically motivated to some degree. So long as it’s my theology, it’s ok… :) (Self-effacing humor alert!)

  4. Posted February 20, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Daniel, thanks for the good humor and provocative post. :)

  5. Posted February 20, 2010 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Hasn’t Daniel, no relation, heard of dynamic equivalent translation? Instead of insisting on word for word literalism, let’s see what this verse actually means, and what the verb means in context. Since faith is an abstract noun, it cannot perform an activity like “work”.

    But is that what the verb in Galatians 5:6, energoumene, means? No! According to one of my dictionaries, an old Liddell-Scott, energeo indeed means “work, be active”; and in Barclay Newman’s dictionary the verb has intransitive senses “work, be at work, be operative; be effective” and a transitive sense “effect, accomplish”. But all that is in the active voice, and the verb in Galatians is middle or passive. So perhaps a more literal translation is “faith being worked/effected through love”, or more idiomatically “faith made effective through love” which is the RSV and NRSV marginal reading.

    It looks to me as if we have here a dubious rendering in KJV which has been repeated in many versions. And although some of the other translations listed in the post use different wording, none of them has actually dared to move the meaning away from the KJV error.

    It seems clear to me that in the context Paul is talking about believers putting their faith into practice by showing love. Nothing theologically controversial there, I hope, but maybe a shock to some people that they, not their faith, are expected to do something.

  6. Posted February 20, 2010 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Dear Peter,

    Please take a step back and take a deep breath.

    Yes, I do know about dynamic equivalence. Yes, I understand that this is the NIV and TNIV’s approach. So it might be better if you didn’t create blog posts telling people I don’t know anything about translation theory. I’m happy to have a disagreement with you about the application of said theory in this instance, and whether such theory, so vigorously applied as in the case of the NIV, produces helpful translations, but let’s keep it on the level of the interpretive decisions, not who’s got a better education in the Bible, if we can. That might be a better way forward toward “Gentle Wisdom”. *ahem*

    Anyway, I don’t actually think that there’s that much difference in the meaning of the translations, I was just amused at how the word choice of the NIV keeps the distance between faith and works. Which is convenient, if nothing else…


  7. Posted February 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    David, I like your translations over at J. R. Daniel Kirk’s post:

    “faith through love working.” — as if rendering the word order of Greek right into English might be something.


    “Faith that is realized in an atmosphere of love” — which pushes Paul’s ἐνεργουμένη back on πίστις, making the verbal a relative clause in English — which also makes Peter’s point in his post linked here: “a passive verb has a different meaning from an active one.”

    But my favorite translation is Ann Nyland’s:

    “But what does count is faith which is active and supported by love.” — she’s also rendering the Greek verbal into a passive voice relative clause in English, and she’s showing the dynamic, multiple senses of the verbal as well. I wonder how the (two?) theological camps would like that?!

  8. Posted February 20, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Daniel, perhaps I should apologise. I was basing my criticism of you on what David wrote in this post:

    Kirk’s assertion is that every translation that doesn’t translate this as “faith working through love” is theologically manipulated.

    Only someone entirely ignorant of translation theory could make such an assertion, that there is only one valid English rendering of a Greek word, and that any other translation is “theologically manipulated”.

    But I am glad to see, on more careful reading, that you did not actually assert anything like what David said you asserted. What you criticised, implicitly calling it “theologically manipulated”, was the one particular rendering “expressing itself”. Now I’m not sure I agree that that rendering is bad, but that is because I disagree with your exegesis, not because of any lack of understanding of translation theory.

    So, if David did in fact misrepresent your position, I must apologise for what I wrote, and I will correct it.

    Meanwhile what do you have to say about the exegetical issue I raised, in effect that “faith” is not subject but the object of “work”?

  9. Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Sure, blame it all on me… :)

  10. Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Well, if you want to apologize then: “Only someone entirely ignorant of translation theory could make such an assertion” is not exactly how I’d suggest going about it.

    I might rejoinder that anyone who thinks that translations aren’t theologically manipulated is naive. Every translation reflects the bias of the translator–including mine, of course!

  11. Posted February 20, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Now, now, brothers. Remember, love bears all things.

    Whoops. That’s an abstract noun.


  12. Posted February 20, 2010 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Well said, Bill. On both counts!

    Don’t know why I’ve been grumpy about this. Apologies, Peter, for the ways in which I’ve been asinine.

  13. Posted February 20, 2010 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Daniel, thanks for the apology. Of course I was saying that you could not have made that assertion, because you are clearly not ignorant of translation theory. Sorry for any misunderstanding.

    I will now go ahead and correct my post – I didn’t have time earlier.

    I accept that every translation reflects the theological biases of its translation team. One reason why Bible societies etc insist on multiple levels of checks of translations is to reduce this bias effect. But they cannot eliminate it completely. However, this accidental bias is a quite different thing from the deliberate theological manipulation which I thought you were accusing some translators of.

  14. Posted February 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Peter, I can’t speak for Daniel, but I for one do think the ‘bias’ in this case is deliberate – not accidental. But just for a moment, let’s not be negative.

    Surely the team discussed how to avoid confusing people, among other concerns, and surely a very large block of Zondervan’s market was indeed more familiar with putting things in terms from the protestant tradition.

    For the sake of argument, I’m just pointing out that from some perspectives, “theological manipulation” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In other words, one could possibly embrace Daniel’s “accusation” and say, “Yes, but it’s still the clearest translation for the idiom of our time, especially according to the interpretation of our tradition.”

    Chicken & the Egg, you know. Bawk, bawk.

    By the way, Peter, didn’t the Old Testament say bloggers should avoid online flame wars during the first year of marriage?

  15. Mike Sangrey
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Is it just me, or are there other people that question the value of a method which builds a theological position from specific, independently considered, word choices?

    Personally, I believe a minimum of a paragraph is needed for a theological building block. Obviously, that appears to very rarely be practiced. At least I do not have any Systematic Theology books on my shelf which build their systems based on paragraph sized texts.

    If that method is questionable from a linguistic and communicative perspective, then at what textual level (ie. text chunk size) should we be dialoging about when we raise the ‘traduttore, traditore’ objection?

  16. iverlarsen
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    Just a small side comment to JRDK. If you consider NIV and TNIV to have vigorously applied the dynamic equivalence method of translation, then we have different definitions of what DE is. I would call NIV a modified literal translation, somewhat in the centre of the literal-dynamic continuum, but in the literal half.

    I do agree that the theology of the translators show up in translations, even quite literal ones, simply because you cannot do exegesis in a theological vacuum and exegesis is a requirement for translation.

  17. Posted February 21, 2010 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I accept that the any translators’ theological viewpoint is reflected right through their translation, and that in the case of NIV and others that is especially clear in this verse. I’m not sure that “theological manipulation” is the best way to describe it, as to me that implies a deliberate process.

    As for the particular rendering “expressing itself”, that is not what I would go for. But if the verb is understood as middle voice, rather than passive (these two are not distinguished in the Greek present), the meaning must be something like “putting itself to work”, which is probably the meaning intended by “expressing itself”. After all, how can something express itself without doing some kind of work?

  18. Bill Caulfield
    Posted June 8, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Here is how I explained Gal 5.6 in a church class:
    This verse, which provides the reason for verse 5, can be paraphrased as: “For ‘in Christ Jesus’ neither ‘doing’ nor ‘not doing’ Torah is effective [before God] – the only thing that matters [now] is [our] faithfulness [to God] having an effect [on others] through [our activity of] love.”

    Probably way too DE for everyone; but I think Paul wouldn’t mind.

5 Trackbacks

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  5. [...] I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as did T.C. Robinson), one comment noted that I “miss[ed] the [...]

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