“Sinful Nature” Translation Dilemma NIV PDF Print E-mail

The “Sinful Nature” Translation Dilemma and the Upcoming NIV Revision

Thursday, September 3, 2009
By Jason A. Staples

Word is out (see the Better Bibles Blog, for example) that an updated version of the NIV will be released in 2011. Mark Goodacre (and a happy 6th anniversary of blogging to Mark) and others have already noted their hopes that the NIV finally drop “sinful nature” as a translation of σάρξ (sarx), which means “flesh.” As Goodacre notes, this translation of such a key term “makes [the NIV] unusable as a translation for teaching Paul,” a sentiment with which I strongly agree.

To further the conversation, Matthew Montonini has pointed to an interesting essay by Douglas Moo (now the chair for the Committee on Bible Translation, overseeing the NIV translation project), “‘Flesh’ in Romans: A Challenge for The Translator, where Moo expresses his initial displeasure at the translation but concludes that for a dynamic equivalence translation, it is hard to find a better alternative. Moo’s article surveys the use of σάρξ in the Pauline epistles, especially in Rom 7–8, concluding:

Nevertheless, the argument could be made, as Dunn suggests, that the best route is simply to render sarx with “flesh” every time it is conceivable to do so, and let the English reader, through careful contextual reading, build up for himself or herself a sense of this important technical term. The TNIV, of course, retains many such technical theological terms, in contrast to some modern versions that seek to avoid them. But the problem with technical terms is that it demands a great deal of the reader. A careful reader of the Bible would no doubt eventually acquire a sense of the significance of “flesh” in Romans. Yet, no matter what our hopes might be, how many readers of the Bible today are that careful? If one is translating for the well-read churchgoer—the person who goes to Bible studies where the Bible is really studied—then “flesh” is probably the best rendering of sarx. But the unpalatable fact is that only a minority of Christians anymore fall into that category—to say nothing of non-Christians, who, we hope, will pick up and read the Bible. For many readers, then, translating Paul’s sarx as “flesh” would not effectively communicate. …

First, a good English equivalent for Paul’s theologically loaded use of sarx in a negative sense is difficult to find. … One could avoid the language of “nature” by translating “sinful impulse,” but this rendering moves too far away from the idea of something that is the seat of sinful behavior. “Sinful aspect” might fit better with Paul’s anthropology but is hardly understandable English. At the other end of the phrase, “sinful nature” is certainly preferable to “sinful self,” since the latter would suggest that the person as a whole is irremediably sinful. And other possible variations—”evil nature,” “lower nature,” “old nature,” “fallen nature”—are hardly improvements on “sinful nature.” With its problems, therefore, “sinful nature” is hard to improve on if one chooses to translate sarx in a contextually nuanced manner.

A second penalty one pays for such a translation procedure is the loss of explicit connections among Paul’s various uses of sarx. Romans 8:3 is the best example. Paul uses the word three times in this verse to make clear that the victory over sarx was ultimately determined in the sphere of sarx itself. God in the person of his Son entered fully into sarx in order to defeat it from within. … Because the meaning of sarx within the verse varies, the TNIV renders the three occurrences with three different English expressions, thereby somewhat obscuring the connections: “for what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh” ….

What the TNIV may sacrifice on this score [consistency of readings] may be more than made up for in contextual readability. Every indication is that the ability of people to read is steadily declining. If we are to hope for a Bible that an entire congregation can use, the readability of a more contextually nuanced translation such as the TNIV may be the best option.

Problem #1: Low Standards Beget Lower Competence

While I agree that most people (churchgoers or not) are not especially good readers, I strenuously disagree with the idea that we must resort to imprecision or “dumbing down” material to meet this lower level. On the contrary! As I have found as an instructor, students will generally rise to meet a higher standard if it’s set—the rule of thumb is that people will meet expectations, wherever they’re set. So if they’re set progressively lower, progressive decreases in competence will follow.

Then should we return to older translations (say, the KJV) simply because they’re harder to read? Of course not! The reason for newer translations is because the language has changed over time (e.g. “suffer the children” in the KJV does not mean what it would today), and our text-critical resources continue to improve. I am not advocating difficulty for the sake of difficulty. Where an easier word or term does the same job as a more difficult one, we should use the easier one. But a choice between imprecision—or worse, misinterpretation or mistranslation—and a little more difficulty to the reader is no choice at all.

Bigger Problem: Sarx Doesn’t Ever Mean “Sinful Nature”

One could argue that sarx is one of the five or so most important key terms in the New Testament—one of the consistent points across NT authors is that Jesus came and shared in the same sarx as every other human being. 1 John 4:2–3 even says that the denial of this fact is “of the antichrist,” an emphasis that fits closely with Rom 8:3 as discussed by Moo above. Given such strong admonition that Jesus came in the sarx is a key teaching in earliest Christianity, one would think this term above all would be treated with the utmost precision!

But the one thing that sarx simply does not mean is “sinful nature,” a term tracing back to the Augustinian concept of Original Sin (or what is known in Reformed circles as “total depravity“). Despite the venerable history of these concepts, it as at very best highly debatable (and I think utterly incorrect) to assert that they were teachings of the Apostle Paul or anyone else in the New Testament period. (On the importance of getting beyond Augustinian interpretations of Paul in order to understand what Paul is actually saying, I think Krister Stendahl’s “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” should be required reading for anyone studying Paul even at an elementary level.)

In contrast to the Augustinian reading, I think it’s a vast improvement to see Paul’s teaching as closer to the later rabbinic conception of the two inclinations: the inclination to good (יצר הטוב) and the inclination to bad/evil (וּיצר הרע). That is, every human being is born with desires that can be bent towards good or evil, and there are competing inclinations towards each. If this is indeed the case, Paul would seem to be borrowing from the Platonic notion of the soul as well, which I covered in some detail here (scroll down until you see the bust of Plato). This shouldn’t be surprising, as that’s where Philo turns when attempting to conflate Jewish and Greek concepts (see especially De Cherubim 54ff.).

To give a brief synopsis of the way such a system would function, it is not that there is a “sinful nature” or some “depravity” inherent in every human being, but instead that human beings are (and have always been, even before the Fall) created with a flesh that has specific desires (e.g. food, drink, sex, pleasure). But since that flesh is itself irrational, it is prone to desiring unlawful or sinful things (such as sex with another man’s wife) without real distinction from the desire for what is lawful. When a person is hungry, it makes no difference if the barbecue is coming from the neighbor’s house—it still stimulates the desire for that food. So the flesh, left unrestrained, is prone to reckless and unlawful action—and the teaching of early Judaism (and in fact Greek wisdom as well) was that the more the flesh gets its way in such things, the more uncontrollable it becomes (hence John 8:34, “Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you that every person who sins is a slave to sin”—note that he does not say “every person sins because they are a slave to sin already,” as the “total depravity” model would suggest).

So Paul is not teaching something new with his depiction of the flesh in Romans. Rather, he is using the traditional teachings of his day to establish something everyone already understood—the existence of a part of all of us that desires things that are often illicit. He then sets up the death/resurrection of Christ and the subsequent sending of the Spirit as the answer to this problem—if we have died with Christ, our flesh and its desires are dead, and our desires are now purified by the life of Christ, his Spirit that lives in us.

The takeaway? Paul is not speculating about the existence of some depraved nature that we all have resulting from the fall, a nature that Jesus himself did not share. On the contrary, as already covered above, Jesus himself shared this sarx—this source of all desires—in order that when he was crucified, it meant a victory over the desires of that flesh (chief among which is the desire not to die). As such, the flesh no longer requires an external law to hem it in and restrain its desires—it has died and is now raised to new life, the life governed by the Spirit. But this whole scheme is all shot to pieces if Jesus did not share the same sarx as all of us (hence 1 John’s very strong statements to that effect). To repeat: sarx never means anything close to “sinful nature” in Paul. Rather, Paul is referencing the seat of bodily desires (like food, sex, etc.), which is not “sinful” in essence at all, though it can lead to sin if not restrained.

A final problem that a contextually differentiated translation of sarx presents is the fine distinction that Paul makes between sarx (”flesh”) and soma (”body”). Most Pauline scholars point to an important distinction between the two in Paul’s eschatology, where there is a bodily, but not fleshly, resurrection.

So not only is this translation further encouraging lazy reading, it does so with a poor rendering that doesn’t mean what the word it translates means. Sarx simply never means “sinful nature.” Ever. So why would it ever be translated as such? And, to be honest, I’m not sure why it would be so difficult for even a relatively lazy reader to identify this kind of definition of the English word “flesh” anyway—it’s not hard to understand that one’s “flesh” wants certain gratifications that aren’t always right. Just google the word “flesh”; it’s not like the concept is foreign. Western culture is quite conscious of “fleshly” desires and their consequences. Frankly, I think in this sense “flesh” is a more understandable modern rendering of the term than any other option, even for the negative uses of the term (which, as Moo points out, do come up a good bit in Paul). There is no reason to attempt to introduce baggage-bearing theological language like “sinful nature” when “flesh” is quite simply not difficult. If anything, our translations should go in the opposite direction—away from heavy baggage and theological terminology towards common terms in the world that remain in use.


Honestly, I think the NIV revision has two legitimate choices: either translate sarx consistently (and literally) as “flesh” or translate it consistently as “sinful nature”—even when it applies to Jesus. Thus, if it wants to retain “sinful nature” with respect to the rest of humanity, it must declare that Jesus “came in the sinful nature.” This is a better alternative to the constant contextual monkey business of the current NIV and TNIV.

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