The Translation Of The Lord’s Prayer Is Not A Mere Convention

Francis, the Bishop of Rome (who claims to be the universal vicar of Christ on the earth) has recently announced his opinion that the translation of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer should be revised. Anthony Esolen has published a terrific reply at First Things but I want to address an underlying problem that Esolen does not.

Francis’ suggestion, already adopted by French Romanists and mainline Protestants, that the translation of the Lord’s Prayer be revised to say, “Let us not fall into temptation” gives the impression that the relation between the text of Holy Scripture and translation is more or less arbitrary. This implication fuels what I perceive to be a widespread view, particularly among unbelievers and perhaps also among believers, translations of Scripture or other authoritative statements are essentially arbitrary and may be changed at will. This suspicion, which is part of the spirit of the Late-Modern age, assumes a sort of nominalism that is simply untrue. The nominalists argued (and their late-modern successors continue to argue) that the relation between the sign (e.g., a word) and the thing it represents, the reality, is arbitrary, a convention, an agreement, and sometimes even the product of a conspiracy. This is why people accept the claims of writers like Dan Brown. They suspect that someone, somewhere is just making up things and imposing their will on the rest of us. These are all symptoms of a profound loss of confidence in the existence of objective reality. In earlier phases of the Modernity, the essence of which has always been the assumption of human autonomy relative to all other authorities, there was a shared agreement that there is such a thing as objective reality or truth. The debate concerned which account of reality is of correct. One of the defining characteristics of late-modernity is the loss of confidence that there is any such thing as objective reality. Of course, the same people who deny that there is any such thing, who assert that all claims to truth and reality are nothing but a will to power also stop at stop signs.

Objective reality is. Should you jump from a bridge (please do not!), gravity will do what it does. Gravity is not a convention nor is it a conspiracy. The standard, prevailing translation of the Lord’s Prayer, is not arbitrary. The relation between the original text and the traditional English translation is not merely nominal. The translation says what it says because the original text says what it says. As Esolen explains the Greek text of Holy Scripture says what it says: “καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν” (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4). The most direct translation is probably that of the old American Standard Version (1901), “And bring us not into temptation.” You can see for yourself that, out of the dozens of English translations only a few (e.g., the New Living Translation) adopts a rendering approaching that suggested by Francis. The two most important terms for this discussion are bring (εἰσενέγκῃς) and temptation (πειρασμόν). This verb occurs 8 times in the New Testament. This is the verb used in Luke 5:18 in the narrative of the paralytic lowered through the roof. They “were bringing” the paralytic to Jesus. This is the verb our Lord used when he said, “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities” (Luke 12:11). After his discourse before the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus (Acts 17), Paul was charged with “bringing” strange teaching (Acts 17:20). When Paul says, “we brought nothing into this world” (1 Tim 6:7) and when the writer to the Hebrews (13:11) wrote of blood being brought into the holy places” they used this word.

The translation “to lead” or “to bring” in the first clause of the sixth petition is not arbitrary. This is what this word means. It is true that petition may be troubling. That is often the nature of Jesus’ teaching. He said deliberately difficult things. Anyone who thinks Jesus’ teaching is simple has not considered it very deeply. As to the intent of the petition, Heidelberg Catechism 127 is just right:

127. What is the sixth petition?

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” that is: Since we are so weak in ourselves that we cannot stand a moment, and besides, our deadly enemies, the devil, the world and our own flesh, assail us without ceasing, be pleased to preserve and strengthen us by the power of your Holy Spirit, that we may make firm stand against them and not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, until finally complete victory is ours.

The urge to revise the Lord’s Payer rests partly in a misunderstanding of it. We are sinful. We, not God, are the source of the problem. In large measure (see below) the prayer is to be delivered from ourselves. Of course, we confess the reality of the spiritual struggle against spiritual principalities and powers (Eph 6:12). The Evil One does go about as a lion (1 Pet 5:8). The complete victory to which the catechism refers, which the Reformed churches confess, is the final, eschatological victory. We are not perfectionists. We are engaged in a spiritual struggle with ourselves and our own corruption of heart, mind, and will. We are also engaged in a struggle with spiritual realities outside of us. James 1:12–18 is instructive:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (ESV).

As Christians who confess sola Scriptura, i.e., that Scripture is the sufficient and final rule for the Christian faith and the Christian life, we affirm both things. God tempts no one and our Lord taught us to pray, “bring us not into temptation.” James 1 is a Holy-Spirit inspired commentary on the first clause of the sixth petition. We are utterly dependent upon the Lord’s preserving grace, on which we dare not presume and, at the same time, we are the source of the corruption against which we struggle. The Lord is not corrupt. He neither tempts nor sins.

Some of the initial responses to Francis’ suggestion, however, illuminate the differences between Rome and the Reformation. Some Romanists responded by resisting the proposed revision on the basis that the laity were familiar with and comfortable with the traditional translation. This might be construed as a plea to remember God’s people and not to introduce changes that might disturb their faith. It might also be construed, however, as a naked appeal to tradition or even to folk religion. Here the Reformation churches might be with Francis, had his suggestion any basis in God’s Word. The great problem with his proposal is that Scripture does not say what he is suggesting the translations should make it say.

This is not to say that translations always get things right nor is to say that the overwhelming majority of English translations are correct because they are the majority. Popes, councils, and translators err. In this case, however, the traditional translation is correct for the reasons given above. The text says “bring us not into temptation,” i.e., into a spiritual trial on account of which we may be liable to sin. The problem of sin is a great mystery (which the Romanist doctrine of concupiscence seeks incorrectly to alleviate). Adam was created righteous and truly holy. Only God knows why he chose to disobey rather than to obey the holy law of God. Salvation is equally mysterious, however.  Only God knows why God the Son voluntarily came to obey and die in the place of sinners and why he graciously elects to grant to any to new life and true faith and through that faith union and communion with the living and ascended Christ.

The sixth petition is challenging but it is God’s Word and the traditional translation faithfully communicates the language and intent of the text and of our Lord’s own words. There is real truth in the world and the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is part of that truth.

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  1. Amen. Dr Clark, would his suggestion of changing the wording of the Lord’s Prayer be problematic within Roman Catholic theology since they technically do not regard the Greek and Hebrew texts as authoritative?

  2. The editor’s note after Esolen’s article is troubling:
    Editor’s note: A previous version of this essay characterized the Greek word for “lead” as in the indicative mood, present tense, when in fact it is in the subjunctive mood, aorist tense.

    While it could have been a simple mistake, it suggests the parsing of the verb is irrelevant to his argument. But the parsing is in fact important. The verb in question is the only one in the prayer in the subjunctive mood; all the rest are imperative. This might be behind the bishop of Rome’s argument. The sense of “do not let us…” could, in fact, work if the verb is first person plural (hortatory subjunctive). But it is second person singular so that can’t be. I suggest the reason this verb is subjunctive unlike the rest is because it is negativized (μὴ), which none of the other verbs are. A quick search shows this to be a common construction with negativized imperative statements, such as the list of commandments in Mark 10:19 and Luke 18:20. Thus there is nothing special about the subjunctive. It should be translated as an active imperative like the rest of the verbs.

    This petition of the prayer evidently alludes to Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness. The Spirit is said to actively force Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:12 has ekballo). Surely this should be part of the discussion.

  3. Excellent explanation. But the notion that in and of ourselves we are somehow evil is bitterly hateful to almost everybody.

  4. Thanks alot for this, my sister asked me yesterday about the sixth petition and James 1 but I didn’t know what to tell her so as much as it is in response to what Francis said but it has a very good message for me too and have shared it with my sister. Thanks

  5. This question goes out to anyone: While I agree that we shouldn’t be ‘tampering’ with the Lord’s Prayer, this recent story got me looking in the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms, both of which say the Lord’s Prayer concludes with “for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever.” Yet it turns out this petition is not necessarily part of the Bible, and rather relies more on “tradition” in some sense. The Heidelberg Catechism link above says this:

    119. What is the Lord’s Prayer?

    Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever*. Amen.1

    *This doxology does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew 6:13. It is drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:10–13. It appears first in Byzantine copies of the NT. A shorter version appeared in the Didache, which has been dated from the late 1st century to the late 2nd century. 1 Matt 6:9-13. Luke 11:2-4.

    Apparently, only the KJV has the doxology, since it relies on the Byzantine manuscript tradition. But the OCP officially endorses the ESV, which does not contain this doxology, since it follows other (older?) traditions. Sola Scriptura doesn’t answer the question of manuscript traditions, so what is the best way to think about this?

    • I’m not comfortable with the notion someone randomly (or legally) appended 1 Chronicles 29:11 to the Lord’s Prayer. The doxology is very beautiful and perfectly orthodox, so the issue is more about whether Jesus actually taught us to pray those words. And that seemingly comes down to which manuscript tradition we ‘prefer’. On the Confessional side, the authoritative answer (via the Catechisms) is that Jesus did include the doxology, so it’s technically not optional, which would also mean nobody should officially endorse any Bible which doesn’t include those words.

      • Nick,

        We have manuscripts not available in the 16th century. We have decisions to make that they did not.

        It’s not a matter of preference. It’s a matter of history and text criticism.

        The doxology was a late addition. It was taken from Scripture bit our Lord did not say it.

  6. Arbitrariness and bias plagues many modern English translations.
    The ESV, NIV, RSV and their ilk are plagued by dynamic equivalence in their translation method. The Nicene creed acknowledges μονογενής (τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν Μονογενῆ) and the Credo of the Roman mass as well (Et in unum Dominum, Jesum Christum,
    Filium Dei ~unigenitum~), but the ESV arbitrarily leaves out the word ‘begotten’ in its translation of John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18 and 1 John 4:9.
    This doesn’t help the current controversy over the “eternal” subordination of the Son.
    The ESV can’t even render American evangelical’s favorite Bible verse correctly, and yet it’s ubiquitous in mainline denominations.
    I never use these translations. Ever.

    • Jeff,

      Translation is difficult work and translators are probably never going to agree. Here’s an essay I wrote on this several years ago:

      It would be more accurate to say that the ESV and NIV have differing philosophies of translation. Further, both are the products of committees and so they are never going to be perfectly consistent. I have been critical of both. The recent ESV revision in Genesis 3 is somewhat troubling:

      I agree with you that, e.g., “one and only” and “the only” are unhappy translations of μονογενὴς. The traditional translation captures John’s intent more fully.

      Still, I’m influenced by Luther’s brief treatise on translating:

      There are no perfect translations but there are better and worse philosophies of translation. My preference is to follow the words as closely as possible, to leave the difficulties and ambiguities, i.e., to resist the temptation to fix the text or to cut the translational baby in two. Let preachers and teachers argue about what the text means.

  7. The Pope’s attempted theodicy ignores the many OT scriptures which speak of God’s vindication of His penal judgment upon men in allowing temptation to openly reveal their inward sinfulness and culpability. We may entreat by the petition that He will not do so with us, as we submit to His sovereignty and seek the forgiveness He has provided in the cross of Christ.

  8. Can I be a Grammar Guerilla, and complain about Esolen’s piece being described as ‘terrific’ – ie., terrifying? I continually complain that commercial advertising should be exposed as one of the main destroying forces of our language, and thus of even a natural faith that words mean something.

  9. Thank you, Dr. Clark.

    I appreciate your article on Bible translations. And Luther is always fun to read—he often applies the mirror of judgement, and makes me laugh not just at others, but at myself.

    Of course, it’s not possible to be consistently literal because it would make reading very awkward. Nor is it right to paraphrase throughout, because subjective interpretations would dominate the translation. I think that the safest and most faithful translation lean towards formal equivalence where possible, and make adjustments where it makes sense to be idiomatic or natural.

    Personally, I would error on the side of caution rather than take liberties with paraphrasing. I heartily agree with your preference.

    One thing that is lacking in many modern translations is euphony. While this may or may not be the case with the original language (I can’t tell if the Greek text is euphonious), a text that sounds good when read aloud is more memorable and easier to memorize. I find the old KJV very good on that. This is my go-to translation, because I read mostly old books, and that’s the version that they quote. But I often turn to the NKJV, the NASB or the ASV when the old text is not clear to me. I use these translations because I trust them.

  10. ‘Terrific’ – Oxford Dictionary
    1 Of great size, amount, or intensity. – ‘there was a terrific bang’
    1.1 informal: Extremely good; excellent. – ‘it’s been such a terrific day’ ‘you look terrific’

    2. archaic: causing terror. – ‘his body presented a terrific emblem of death’

    – where will it all end?

  11. Dr. Clark,

    How does this impact those who are to fully subscribe to the 3 Forms of Unity?

    Nick Barnes

    • Furthermore how does a rejection of the last line of the Lord’s Prayer, according to the critical text readings, impact this?

      • In practice it means that candidates for ordination must disclose to classis how they understand these passages and issues. A few things come up here: the longer ending of Mark, the woman taken in adultery, the three witnesses, the authorship of Hebrews, and sometimes the doxology attached to the Lord’s Prayer.

        This last belongs to a somewhat different class, however, since it was taken from Scripture. Strictly, it is God’s Word and thus not quite the same as the others.

        I’ve been attending classes and synods since c. 1981 and I’ve never any controversy over these issues per se.

        I’m much influenced by Old Princeton and and Old Westminster. We must be good scholars. It won’t do to stick our heads in the sand and say that we cannot look at any MSS etc that were discovered after the 16th century. The Reformers didn’t think this way. Beza discovered a MS and published it (D = Codex Bezae). Calvin commented on text critical issues. There’s nothing magic about the 16th century. We have to be as faithful to our calling now as they were to theirs in their time. That means accounting for all the external and internal evidence as we make textual decisions.

        We subscribe to the confession because (quia) it’s biblical but even the older church orders had a provision whereby a minister could report his scruples about any element of the confession/catechism so that the body could judge whether it was material.

        Text criticism is but one of the several reasons I’ve argued that the confessional churches have been negligent in not doing in our time what our forefathers did in theirs, namely confess the faith in our own generation, in light of the issues that have arisen since the Reformation. On this see Recovering the Reformed Confession or the summary published in Modern Reformation.

  12. I favor any changes that make the meaning more clear. Can we not have accuracy AND clarity for the ordinary reader/hearer? The Roman Bishop’s suggestion does not seem to pass the accuracy test but I applaud any motive that might strive for more clarity.

    In my experience, many believers say the Lord’s prayer like a chant and don’t really comprehend what the meaning is. Phrases like “hallowed be thy name” are not conphrehendible to ordinary people under 40 years old. The same is true for “want of conformity” or “Of Repentance Unto Life” and many other archaic phrases from the Standards. Ordinary people are non theology geeks.

    A veteran NAPARC minister objected to my suggestion of using updated language Lord’s Prayer (i.e.non KJV rendering) in public worship because he feared people would get upset at the changes to one of the few passages that everyone has memorized. My thinking, as a younger person, is: “who cares whether it’s memorized if they don’t even understand what they are regurgitating!”

    New Testament scholar R.T. France renders it this way in his 2007 commentary:

    Our Father in heaven
    May your name be held in reverence
    May your kingdom come;
    My your will be done, as in heaven so also on earth.
    Give us today the bread we need for tomorrow.
    And forgive us our debts as we, too have forgiven our debtors.
    And do not bring us into testing, but rescue us from the Evil One.

  13. Hello there,
    As a Catholic (Roman Rite) I am surprised to see that you are against nominalism.
    I appreciate what you say and I also think that what our Pope say is wrong since I know Biblical Greek and the old translation is correct.

    But something strikes me in this article. Because what you are saying is against Protestant idea. If the CHURCH which is inspired by the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible and being inspired established the Canon of the Bible (approx 150 AD) then how can YOU think that this Church erred with doctrines in some place in history and required reformation?

    If the Church can err with doctrines than we can error with translations and even the Bible itself. If Church cannot error with doctrinal issues (not daily application of them) than you have to be Catholic because historically it is the Apostolic Church who has “authority to bind and loose”.

    • Augustinus,

      I suppose that you are surprised because of the long-made allegation that Protestantism is the child of nominalism. That has always been false. As a matter of fact, the Reformed, in particular, were indebted neither to the nominalists nor the realists. They were philosophically eclectic.

      The holy catholic (universal) church is the product of the Spirit working through the Word. The earliest fathers regarded themselves as servants of the Word, not masters of the Word. They regarded the churches as ministers of the Word. They did not regard the church as inspired. They regarded the Scriptures as inspired. The doctrine you advocate developed gradually, beginning with the Cappadocians in the late 4th century and developing through the middle ages. It is a historically conditioned view, i.e., it was an errant response to heresy.

      Luther was right. Popes and councils do err but the Word of God is utterly trustworthy and the Spirit preserves the visible church, even if she is sometimes only a remnant. The Reformation was a return to the biblical and most ancient Christian doctrine of church and scripture.

      We invite you to join us.

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