When it comes to interpreting the Bible, it is never right to misinterpret or mistranslate for some supposed higher purpose. I have been looking at a lot of Christian articles on the internet recently, and I have often been left with the impression that the author I am reading has not really tried to be honest with the Biblical text under discussion. On many of these occasions I have received the impression too that the reason the author has not tried to be honest with the text is because they are trying to avoid a passage looking as if it might support something that they believe is untrue. Or, similarly, the reason for dishonesty sometimes seems to be because an author is trying to make a text say something that they believe is true.
Let me give some examples of the sort of thing I mean:
(1) In Colossians 1:15 Christ is described as ‘the firstborn of all creation’. Because at first sight this phrase looks as if it is saying that Christ was created, those who are anxious to uphold His divinity sometimes translate as ‘the firstborn over all creation’.
Now, to want to uphold Christ’s divinity is of course good. When the Bible as a whole is taken into consideration, He is revealed as the divine Son of God, and translating Col 1:15 with ‘the firstborn over all creation’ allows this verse to fit easily with the overall picture.
However, the problem with translating in this way is quite simply that that is not what the Greek says. In the Greek there is no word for ‘over’, and if Paul had wanted to say ‘the firstborn over all creation’, he could easily have done so. The text says that Christ is the ‘firstborn of all creation’. That is what the inspired Scripture says, and it is totally wrong to mistranslate it in such a way that the passage fits more obviously with orthodox Christian beliefs. The difficulty in this verse needs to be faced honestly and dealt with as best we are able.
(2) In Matthew 16:18 Jesus tells Peter, ‘I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.’ The Greek word for ‘Peter’, Petros, means ‘Stone’ or ‘Rock’, so there is a play on words in Jesus’ statement.
By far the most natural way of interpreting this saying is to take Peter as the rock on which the church is to be built. (For more details, please see my article: Peter, the Rock in Matthew 16:18.) However, because Roman Catholics have used this verse to support their doctrine of papal succession, many evangelicals choose to interpret the rock on which the church is to be built as Jesus or as Peter’s confession about Jesus or something similar.
Again, it is understandable that there is concern with the Catholic doctrine of papal succession. However, that does not give us a warrant to misinterpret the passage. Instead, we should be honest with the text, interpret Peter as the rock, and then tackle any difficulties that arise. (As it happens, it is quite easy in this verse to take Peter as the rock and to reject the idea that papal succession is in view; see my aforementioned article).
(3) In polemic with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians often make the argument that the Holy Spirit must be personal, and therefore divine, because in John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14 the masculine pronoun ekeinos is used, somewhat irregularly, to refer to the neuter noun pneuma (‘Spirit’).
It is of course true that when the whole Bible is taken into account, the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit are clearly revealed. However, in these passages of John’s Gospel it is a much better interpretation of the text to take ekeinos as agreeing not with pneuma but with the masculine noun parakletos (‘Helper’). Interpreting in this way removes one of the arguments that can be used against Jehovah’s Witnesses’ theology. However, it is simply not justifiable to misinterpret these passages so as to make it easier to argue against the Witnesses’ wrong beliefs.
(4) Another possible example comes from the 4th century, from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. When Jerome composed the Vulgate, orthodox Christians were embroiled in a vigorous dispute with a sect known as the Arians. The Arians, like Jehovah’s Witnesses today, believed that Christ was not begotten but created.
It is noteworthy that when Jerome came to the Greek word monogenes, used of Christ in John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18, he translated it as ‘unigenitus’, meaning ‘only begotten’, with the result that his translation clearly contradicted Arian theology. Jerome’s translation has influenced the King James Version, which has ‘only begotten’ in these verses.
As it happens, however, it is extremely unlikely that monogenes means ‘only begotten’ in these passages (or anywhere else, for that matter), for which monogennetos would be the most likely Greek word. Monogenes means ‘unique’, ‘one and only’ or such like. In fact, in most of the places where it is used in the New Testament to refer to someone other than Christ, Jerome translated it (correctly) as ‘unicus’.
Although I am hesitant to claim that Jerome might have done something wrong when I don’t know all the facts, it seems possible that he did exactly what I am saying Christians should not do. It seems that he may have knowingly mistranslated the Bible in an attempt to make certain passages more explicitly anti-Arian. If so, then he should have been content to confront the Arians using Scripture as God inspired it.
(5) In Eph 2:1 non-Christians are described as being ‘dead in . . . trespasses and sins’. Some Christian authors use these words to argue that people play absolutely no part in their salvation, that even faith is something that is caused by God. The text says that non-Christians are dead, they argue, and dead means totally unable. To the suggestion that the concept of deadness might be being used in this verse in a rather loose way without a connotation of total deadness, many of these authors respond simply by saying something like, ‘The text says ‘dead’! Dead means dead, so take this verse at face value and don’t try to water it down!’
However, when it comes to Romans 6, where Paul describes Christians as dead to sin (esp. v. 2), many of these same authors have no problem in immediately saying (rightly in my firm view) that dead does not mean totally dead here.
Now, someone may want to argue that dead does not mean totally dead in Rom 6 and that it does mean totally dead in Eph 2:1, but then they need to give arguments to support their case. To believe that dead doesn’t mean totally dead in Rom 6 and then to denounce without argument those who say that dead doesn’t mean totally dead in Eph 2:1 is immoral and in a sense hypocritical.
When Christians knowingly mistranslate or misinterpret the Bible, they are being dishonest. However, we should make it our aim to imitate the goodness of God in all aspects of our lives (Eph 5:1), and that includes imitating His honesty. Furthermore, I think that trying to doctor the Bible to make it ‘more helpful’ in a given situation actually shows a serious lack of faith. If we trust God that He knows what He is doing, we will be content to let Scripture stand as He inspired it. If that means that we have to wrestle with a text or that it causes us some difficulty, then so be it.
It is bad enough for a Christian to be dishonest with the Bible when they are trying to uphold something that is true. It is even worse when they are trying to uphold something that they only mistakenly believe is true. I have read numerous Christian articles where not only does the author seem to be interacting dishonestly with the Biblical text, but what they are trying to teach is all wrong as well. We need to beware that at the judgement we will have to give an account to God for every word we have spoken or written (Matt 12:36), and that prospect alone should make us take great care in what we say.