Francis, the Roman 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.