Alex Hewitson on The Passion Translation translation of Colossians

Read time: 12 minutes

I continue with my thankless defence of Brian Simmons’ The Passion Translation against the battalion of “highly respected scholars” that Mike Winger has “hired” to wage war against it. Why do I do it? I don’t know. Partly because in an internecine theological spat like this there is invariably error on both sides, and although there is not much to be said in support of Simmons’ methodology, criticism of the translation has struck me as rather weak. But also partly because it provides an opportunity to draw attention to the fact that both The Passion Translation and conservative-Reformed commentary repeatedly miss the historical point of the New Testament. There. I said it.

Having picked through Douglas Moo’s flimsy critique of Simmons’ translation of Romans, I thought I’d also have a look at Alex Hewitson’s review of Colossians. This is a substantial piece of work, and much of it is very helpful. Hewitson deals with the methodological problems well and points out a number of ways in which the translation misrepresents the structure and vocabulary of the Greek text. Much of it is what you’d expect from a self-consciously “passionate” interpretive paraphrase aimed at a charismatic readership. The question is whether we think that the passionate interpretive paraphrase is a valid genre.

There are two areas of Hewitson’s study that I’ll review here because they raise more serious questions about the literary and theological integrity of the translation. It doesn’t make for gripping reading, but maybe someone will find it useful.

Purposefully Overriding the Text

Hewitson says that Simmons sometimes “intentionally overrides the clear meaning of the Greek text,” and gives three examples.

1. I can even celebrate the sorrows I have experienced on your behalf; for as I join with you in your difficulties, it helps you to discover what lacks in your understanding of the sufferings Jesus Christ experienced for his body, the church. (Col. 1:24 TPT)

Simmons has certainly misunderstood Paul here. The “lack” is not in the Colossians’ understanding but in the sufferings of Paul. Hewitson’s own understanding is better but still inadequate: “Paul could be referring to the full range of sufferings that are connected with the mission of Christ, which includes sufferings connected with the spreading of the gospel, which must be shared in by the apostles, amongst other options.” This fails to explain either why it is the sufferings of Christ that are deficient or how the lack is in Paul’s flesh. I think I have a better interpretation.

2. When you live in these vices you ignite the anger of God against these acts of disobedience. (Col. 3:6 TPT)

The change from “sons of disobedience” to “acts of disobedience” is explained in a footnote:

As translated from the Aramaic. The Greek states “the sons of disobedience,” but it is actually the “deeds” which are punished as seen in verses 7–9. The Aramaic word used here is a homonym that can mean either “sons” or “deeds,” which may explain the variation.

Hewitson thinks that this has come about because of “personal theological convictions,” though he notes that elsewhere Simmons translates “sons of disobedience” as “those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2) and “the rebellious” (Eph. 5:6). So not much conviction there. It’s doubtful, in any case, that the phrase “upon the sons of disobedience” was in the original text. I don’t know if the Syriac word can mean both “son” and “deed.” The older translations of the Peshitta have “children of disobedience,” and if the word has both senses, Simmons has to explain why he chose “deeds” rather than “sons.”

3. Christ is our message! We preach to awaken hearts and bring every person into the full understanding of truth. It has become my inspiration and passion in ministry to labor with a tireless intensity, with his power flowing through me, to present to every believer the revelation of being his perfect one in Jesus Christ. (Col. 1:28-29 TPT)

What Paul actually says at the end of this passage is “that we may present every person mature in Christ.” Simmons’ translation here cannot be defended. “Every person” is the direct object, not the indirect object, of the verb “present.” Maturity or perfection is not what the believer already has (cf. Phil. 3:12); it is the goal of the apostles’ ministry.

Speculative theological interpretations

Hewitson lists a number of examples which he thinks expose a pattern of “speculative theological” interpretation. Simmons is accused either of changing the meaning of the text or of adding his own ideas to it.

4. Your faith and love rise within you as you access all the treasures of your inheritance stored up in the heavenly realm. (Col. 1:5 TPT)

Simmons has substituted “inheritance” for “hope.” Hewitson claims that this is misleading because “the primary hope is the hope of glory—that we will be finally transformed into the likeness of Christ, being completely freed from the presence of sin.”

In the end, it’s a verbose, exuberant, and chaotic “translation” not merely into English but into the verbose, exuberant, and chaotic culture of charismatic Christianity. What’s wrong with that?

I would argue that Simmons is less wrong than Hewitson here. 1) Hewitson does not mention the fact that Simmons references the original “hope” in a footnote. 2) The Pauline hope is in a future state of affairs that will be a glorious inheritance for those who believe in Jesus: the hope of glory comes with gaining that inheritance (cf. Eph. 1:18). What hope has in view is not personal perfection but “kingdom,” which is a political event. 3) The hope of glory has little to do with a final state of sinlessness. Glory is a matter of the public recognition of status, which will attend the vindicated church and the martyrs in particular when the pagan system is overthrown and the rule of Christ is established.

5. For in the Son all our sins are canceled and we have the release of redemption through his very blood. (Col. 1:14 TPT).

Hewitson says that Simmons has substituted the cancellation of sins for the forgiveness of sins. But BDAG defines aphesis as “the act of freeing from an obligation, guilt, or punishment, pardon, cancellation.” Most English translations have “forgive,” or “forgiveness.” The Message says that the Son “got rid of the sins,” and the Wycliffe Bible has “remission of sins.” The Passion Translation is characteristically idiosyncratic, but to suggest that this amounts to an “unjustifiable” theological alteration seems unwarranted.

6. For our spiritual wealth is in him, like hidden treasure waiting to be discovered—heaven’s wisdom and endless riches of revelation knowledge. (Col. 2:3 TPT)

Paul does not speak of “revelation” knowledge, just “knowledge.” He says nothing about this being “spiritual” wealth either. Hewitson is concerned that this eliminates “the agency of ministers teaching in the church and the illumination of the Holy Spirit of existing revelation (i.e., the Scriptures).”

Clearly Simmons has weighted the translation towards charismatic interests, but in the context there is some point to it. The “mystery” that has been “revealed” (ephanerōthē) to the saints is that Gentiles now also have a share in the future glorious inheritance (Col. 1:26-27). Paul’s desire is that the Colossians should gain a full understanding of what this means—in other words, that they should obtain the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” entailed in what has been revealed. Whether this is quite what Simmons meant is another matter, but there is certainly a strong revelatory dimension to this knowledge.

7. Even though I’m separated from you geographically, my spirit is present there with you. (Col. 2:5 TPT)

This seems a clear mistake on Hewitson’s part. He takes issue with the fact that Simmons has changed “I am with you in spirit” for “my spirit is present there with you.” “This is not possible because the human soul is finite, bound by space (the body), and limited to a geographic location. Only God is omnipresent—this is one of his incommunicable attributes, which means it is only true of him.”

Try telling Paul that! In 1 Corinthians 5:4 he writes: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present (kai tou emou pneumatos), with the power of our Lord Jesus…” (ESV). Fee comments: ‘in a way that is not altogether clear to us he understood himself actually to be present “in spirit/Spirit” in the gathered community.‘1 I presume that Simmons’ wording echoes this passage.

8. In the same way you received Jesus our Lord and Messiah by faith, continue your journey of faith, progressing further into your union with him! (Col. 2:6 TPT)

Simmons has expanded Paul’s simple “walk in him,” and Hewitson argues that this “has changed the meaning of the phrase from being about the manner in which we live to a claim about making progress of some kind.” Whereas Paul talks about a “manner of life,” The Passion Translation has in view a “spectrum in which one must progress.” I suspect that Simmons has let the idea of progress seep back in from verse 7: “being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith as you were taught” (my translation). There is a clear notion of progress here which echoes similar statements in Ephesians 2:20; 3:15.

9. Through our union with him we have experienced circumcision of heart. All of the guilt and power of sin has been cut away and is now extinct because of what Christ, the Anointed One, has accomplished for us. (Col. 2:11 TPT)

What Simmons has done here is substitute “guilt and power of sin” for “flesh.” In a footnote he adds: ‘The Aramaic can be translated “flesh of sin.” The Greek means “body of the natural realm.”’ In verse 13 he translates sarx as “realm of death” but again notes the underlying reference to “flesh” in a footnote. Hewitson says that the imagery of “stripping off the body made of flesh” is important in Colossians but has been obscured by Simmons’ translation. There is some force to his, but it is ironic that Douglas Moo found fault with Simmons for not paraphrasing “flesh.” Damned if you do, damned if you don’t! And if Simmons’ translation here is “factually correct,” as Hewitson admits, how does it amount to a “speculative theological” interpretation?

10. Then Jesus made a public spectacle of all the powers and principalities of darkness, stripping away from them every weapon and all their spiritual authority and power to accuse us. (Col. 2:15 TPT)

Again we have a verbose, interpretive paraphrase for the simple “disarmed.” The thought that the powers and principalities may no longer “accuse us” may have crept in from the next verse: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you….” Otherwise, it’s difficult to see anything seriously misleading in the translation.

11. Don’t let anyone disqualify you from your prize! Don’t let their pretended sincerity fool you as they deliberately lead you into their initiation of angel worship. (Col. 2:18 TPT)

Hewitson thinks that Simmons has omitted the bit about “going on in detail about visions” (ESV). I disagree. The Greek phrase is ha heoraken embateuōn, which means “entering into what he has seen,” and I suspect that this is rendered in the words “lead you into their initiation….” Bruce translates this difficult verse: ‘Let no one disqualify you through delight in “humility” and angel worship the things which he has seen at his initiation inflated to no purpose by his carnal mind….’2

12. Yes, feast on all the treasures of the heavenly realm and fill your thoughts with heavenly realities, and not with the distractions of the natural realm. (Col. 3:2 TPT)

Hewitson says that “distractions of the natural realm” is “not even remotely close to the idea of the text,” which is simply “things that are on earth” (ta epi tēs gēs). I don’t really see the problem. That the things on earth are distractions is implied by the exhortation to “seek the things that are above” and “think about the things that are above.” The term “natural realm” perhaps is meant to contrast with a “supernatural realm,” rather than with “things above,” but I don’t see any stronger dualism here than is in fact present in Paul’s argument. In verse 10 Simmons affirms the “new creation life which is continually being renewed into the likeness of the One who created you.” There is no Gnosticism here.

13. Apply the Scriptures as you teach and instruct one another with the Psalms, and with festive praises, and with prophetic songs given to you spontaneously by the Spirit, so sing to God with all your hearts! (Col. 3:16 TPT)

Finally, Hewitson points out that Simmons has changed “spiritual songs” (ōidais pneumatikais) to “prophetic songs.” Perhaps Simmons would appeal to the prominence of prophecy among the spiritual gifts (eg. 1 Cor. 14:1) or to the correlation of prophētēs and penumatokos in 1 Cor. 14:37: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual….” It’s not clear what Paul did mean by “spiritual.” Bruce says that spiritual songs might be ‘unpremeditated words sung “in the Spirit,” voicing holy aspirations.’3

Oddly, the same phrase in Ephesians 5:19 is translated “spontaneous songs given by the Spirit,” which is much better. In this case, the alternative “spiritual songs” is included in a footnote, though Simmons spoils the effect by adding: “There is no other song more spiritual than the Song of Songs. Perhaps Paul was encouraging the church to sing and rejoice in the greatest of all songs.” That doesn’t seem very likely.

The errors in the first of these two categories are the more serious ones, though Colossians 1:24 has been a notoriously difficult text to translate, and the “sons of disobedience” example seems rather trivial. The distinctly charismatic spin given to Colossians 1:28 is of greater concern. There is very little in the speculative theological interpretations category to get upset about, and in a few instances I think that Simmons gets the better of Hewitson. It’s also worth pointing out that the one patently “sectarian” interpolation identified in the first edition of The Passion Translation (“Live as one who died to diseases” in Col. 3:5) has been emended in the 2020 edition (“Live as one who has died to every form of sexual sin and impurity”), as Hewitson acknowledges.

If The Passion Translation gets charismatics passionate about the whole of the New Testament and not just a few favourite passages, then I would say that’s a good thing—or at least a step in the right direction. In the end, it’s a verbose, exuberant, and chaotic “translation” not merely into English but into the verbose, exuberant, and chaotic culture of charismatic Christianity. What’s wrong with that?

Well, what’s wrong with it is that it doesn’t do justice to the narrative-historical perspective of the New Testament. But that’s asking a lot.

  • 1G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (2014), 224.
  • 2F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (1984), 117.
  • 3F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (1984), 159.