Since we’ve had a thread going on this blog about Bible translation, I figured I’d continue to stir the pot.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that for the current portion of our Romans study (chapters 6-8), I am using the ESV translation of the Bible rather than the NIV. The change is prompted by the way the NIV translation committee chose to render the word “flesh.”
“Flesh” (sarx in Greek) is a complex word in the New Testament. Sometimes it refers simply to the physical body, as in Ephesians 5:29: “For no one ever hated his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it…” (note that the NIV has rendered sarx as “body” in this instance). But even casual readers can see that in Romans 6-8, Paul uses sarx to speak of something deeper and more elemental to our fallen human nature. Different commentators have spoken of sarx in Romans 7 as “the false and fallen self” (John Stott), “human nature as corrupted, directed, and controlled by sin” (John Murray), and “all that belongs to men, apart from the Holy Spirit” (Charles Hodge).
Here is where the NIV translation committee chose, in my view, to interpret rather than to translate. Instead of writing “flesh” for sarx in Romans 6-8, they opted for the term “sinful nature.” That is not necessarily a bad translation; it certainly gets at a piece of what Paul is saying. But neither is it an accurate translation. Instead of telling you what Paul actually wrote and making you figure it out, the NIV translators are essentially telling you: “Even though Paul wrote the word flesh, what he meant to say was sinful nature.” This rendering is overly limiting. It suggests that our struggle against “the flesh” is an internal battle, as if we are at war with ourselves in some navel-gazing, self-deprecating way. And that is not the case.
Instead, the battle against the flesh is a struggle to live the kingdom life. It reflects the tension of aligning our lives under God’s rule and reign. In the words of Herman Ridderbos, “The Spirit… [is to be taken] not first and foremost as an individual experience… but as a new way of existence… being in the Spirit… means you are no longer in the power of the old [age] [i.e. the flesh]; you have passed into a new one, you are under a different authority” (Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come).
If, as the NIV suggests, the struggle against the flesh is primarily a fight against my own sinful nature, then it’s a pretty individualistic battle. But if conquering “the flesh” is about reversing the effects of the Fall by submitting to God’s rule and reign, then community is essential. My subjective struggles are part of a greater objective struggle. They typify the fight between the “kingdom of this world” and “the kingdom of our Lord and Christ,” which will not be finally resolved until Jesus’ return (cf. Rev. 11:15). We who seek for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” must use every resource available to help each other orient our lives around the deep spiritual realities of that kingdom.
So we will preach from the ESV in order to capture the full range of Paul’s intended meaning in this passage. Don’t throw away your NIV… it’s a still good and reliable translation. But Romans 6-8 is a good case study for the importance of reading and studying from multiple translations of the Bible.