Why Douglas Moo is wrong about The Passion Translation translation of Romans

Mike Winger has orchestrated a comprehensive assault on Brian Simmons and The Passion Translation. He is certainly not the only person to criticise the book, but he seems to have a bigger bee buzzing around in his bonnet than most. He has lined up some serious scholars to pass judgment on a number of the books in the translation, including Douglas Moo on Romans. You can watch the video interviews or download the research papers.

I am beginning to think, however, that Brian Simmons—the man and his method—is more of a problem than his translation. The translation method, as it is explained on the website, is unorthodox; and the claims for supernatural insight that Simmons makes are peculiar, to say the least. But it is difficult to find any clear evidence of significant inaccuracy or bias in the translation. I noted, for example, in a comment to my previous post that Winger’s criticism of the word “activate” in Romans 12:6 rather misses the mark. So I thought I’d have a close look at what Douglas Moo had to say about Simmons’ version of the book of Romans.

Confusing translation philosophy

Moo suspects that Simmons is using his “meaning-based” translation philosophy to smuggle in ideas that are not in the original Greek text. He gives two examples, one innocuous, the other more “problematic.” So first, here is Simmons’ translation of Romans 3:4:

Yet through his powerful declaration of acquittal, God freely gives away his righteousness. His gift of love and favor now cascades over us, all because Jesus, the Anointed One, has liberated us from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin!

A more literal—and much more concise—translation would be:

…being justified freely by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus…

Moo notes that “love” has been inserted here and adds: “These kinds of additions are found everywhere.” What Simmons has done is translate the single Greek word charis, usually translated “grace,” with “love and favor.” The Contemporary English Version does something similar: “But God treats us much better than we deserve…,” which is explained in a footnote: ‘The Greek word charis, traditionally rendered “grace,” is translated here and other places in the CEV to express the overwhelming kindness of God.’

But clearly the whole verse in The Passion Translation is an attempt on Simmons’ part to bring out what he takes to be the full meaning of Paul’s compact statement. The language introduces an explicit Reformed theology that isn’t there in the original. There is no “declaration of acquittal” in the paragraph and nothing about God giving away his righteousness. The “righteousness” of God here is not something imparted or given to believers, as I pointed out in the previous piece. It is God acting righteously or rightly; it is God proving himself by his actions to be in the right.

If you’re going to object to the addition of “love,” then you need to object to the whole misleading Reformed paraphrase. Oddly, Moo doesn’t do that.

The more serious example is found in Romans 8:14, which Simmons translates, “The mature children of God are those who are moved by the impulses of the Holy Spirit.” Moo’s comment is:

“Mature” has no basis in the Greek text, and by adding this qualifier, the verse is turned from a promise to all believers (which it is in context) to a promise limited to certain kinds of believers.

On the face of it, it appears that Simmons has introduced into the text a doctrine that reserves maturity for charismatics. But if we work through Paul’s argument here, we may find that the translation has more to be said for it than Moo—and probably also Simmons himself—realises.

In this section Paul is speaking in the first place as a Jewish believer in Jesus. He draws a distinction between those who fail to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish Law because they walk according to the flesh and those who succeed in fulfilling the requirements of the Law because they walk according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-8). This is a distinction within the people of God as it existed in the first century from the point of view of a Jewish apostle of Christ. It does not apply literally now because the “condemnation” of those Jews who adhered to the Law and rejected Jesus was historically realised in the judgment of AD 70.

Paul would not have made this a matter of “maturity”—those who walk according to the Spirit are not more “mature” than this who walk according to the flesh. But the argument moves on: the Spirit gives life to the body that has been put to death by the Spirit; those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God, who will cry out, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, “Abba! Father!”; and if they have this Spirit, they will share in Jesus’ future glorious inheritance provided that they suffer with him (Rom. 8:9-17).

Now this is something that Paul certainly would have made a matter of maturity. In Philippians 3:15 he exhorts those who are “mature” (teleioi) to think as he does: that is, to desire to imitate Christ in his suffering and death in order to be raised and glorified with him (Phil. 3:10-11). Paul has not already obtained this; he has not yet “become perfect” (teteleiōmai); but he presses on towards the goal of the upward resurrection call of God, which is the reward for the martyr (Phil. 3:14).

In this respect Simmons’ translation is spot on: “The mature children of God are those who are moved by the impulses of the Holy Spirit.” At this point in the argument, however, the correlative construction (hosoi… houtoi…) is not intended to exclude those Jews who walk according to the flesh. The meaning is rather that all those who have the Spirit are “sons of God,” and therefore will share in the future rule of Christ over the nations.

Inconsistencies

Moo wonders why Simmons makes no attempt to find a “contemporary equivalent” for the difficult word sarx in Romans 8:4-13 given that “flesh” is not easily understood by modern readers. The Living Bible has ”old evil nature”; The Message speaks of our “fractured human nature.” This seems a bit captious to me. I imagine that Simmons’ charismatic readers would take “flesh” in their stride. I would also point out to Moo that in Romans 8:3 Simmons translates sarx “human nature” and adds in a footnote that this is a reference to the “flesh.”

Textual basis

As an example of how Simmons incorporates extraneous ideas from the Aramaic version of the New Testament, Moo highlights the translation of Romans 5:18:

In other words, just as condemnation came upon all people through one transgression, so through one righteous act of Jesus’ sacrifice, the perfect righteousness that makes us right with God and leads us to a victorious life is now available to all.

Simmons explains in a footnote that the phrase “victorious life” is translated from the Aramaic and that the Greek refers only to “life.”’ For comparison, Lamsa’s English translation of the Peshitta reads: “In like manner as by one man’s offence, condemnation came upon all men, even so by the righteousness of one man, will the victory unto life be to all men.”

The method is faulty, but is the actual translation so objectionable? In the preceding verse Paul says that those who receive the free gift of righteousness “reign in life.” And if the one righteous act (dikaiōmatos) of Jesus produces “vindication of life” (dikaiōsin zōēs), does that not naturally count as a victory? Etheridge’s English Peshitta has a Latin gloss on “acquittal”: “Victoria, innocentia, justificatio.” It rather looks to me as though the Peshitta has found the idea of “victory” in the notion of “justification.”

False appeal to etymology

Simmons translates horisthentos in Romans 1:4 as “set apart”: “the mighty Son of God he was raised from the dead and miraculously set apart….” That is a fairly loose paraphrase. That Jesus was “set apart” is not really the point of Paul’s statement—“appointed” seems more appropriate to me—but it’s not such a bad translation, and Simmons suggests in a footnote that “marked” or “appointed” would also do. But he also says:

The Greek word for “set apart” comes from horizo, meaning “the horizon.” It means “to mark out the boundaries,” “to decree,” or “to define.” The horizon we move toward is Jesus!

Moo regards this as a matter of false etymology: ‘there is no evidence that the verb ever means “horizon.”’ Simmons’ statement is certainly muddled. The Greek word horizō is a verb, “horizon” is a noun, and as Moo observes, it is not used in ancient Greek for the modern concept of “horizon” (I’ve just checked the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon). But Simmons is right to say that the primary sense is to “mark out the boundaries” or “determine the limits” (cf. Acts 17:26). In that regard, etymology is a very good guide to the meaning of the English word “horizon”: it is the limit of our vision.

The Greek word could also be used with reference to people, meaning to “determine” a person’s status or identity, which is how Paul uses it here: Jesus is “appointed” as “Son of God” or as judge (Acts 10:42; 17:31). This has nothing to do with Jesus being the one we are moving towards—we never get any closer to the horizon! But this is just a secondary teaching point based on bogus semantics. The translation is fine.

Questionable interpretations

Moo gives a couple of instances of what he calls “questionable interpretations.” Paul says that through Christ the apostles have received “grace and apostleship” (Rom. 1:5). Moo is a little unclear here, but he seems to think that Simmons has translated this as “the gift of apostleship” (see also his comments under “Challenges to Meaning-Based Translations). In a footnote Simmons says: ‘Note that grace comes before service or ministry. This is likely a hendiadys: “We received the grace-gift of apostleship.”’ Moo is concerned that he has introduced into the text the idea that “the concept of grace comes before and leads to the concept of apostleship.”

The Passion Translation reads: “Through him grace cascaded into us, empowering us with the gift of apostleship….” The italicisation is an acknowledgment that Simmons has added “the gift of.” The idea of “grace” is expressed in the first part of the sentence and then echoed in the italicised “gift”—I think Moo has misunderstood Simmons here.

But clearly Simmons thinks that Paul is saying that grace was given to them in order that they might function as apostles. Is that such an unreasonable assumption to make? It wasn’t difficult to find a source for the interpretation. In his commentary on Romans Dunn writes:

What Paul has in mind in particular here is indicated by the accompanying noun (“apostleship”—elsewhere in Paul only 1 Cor 9:2 and Gal 2:8), with which “grace” almost forms a hendiadys (grace embodied, manifested in apostleship). (J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 17)

The other questionable interpretation that Moo cites is in a footnote on Romans 1:1. Simmons translates doulos as “a loving and loyal servant,” and comments:

The Greek word doulos signifies more than a servant; it is one who has chosen to serve a master out of love, bound with cords so strong that it could only be severed by death.

Moo retorts: ‘But doulos means simply “slave” or “servant”; and the millions of slaves in the Greco-Roman world in Paul’s day would have been quite surprised to learn they were serving their masters “out of love.”’ Moo is right, of course, but I think he’s being pedantic. What Simmons really means is that when Paul speaks of himself as a “slave of Christ Jesus,” he is using the word metaphorically with reference to his determination to serve Christ even to the point of death. Paul’s question in Romans 6:6 provides a point of comparison: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves (doulous), you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

Challenges to meaning-based translations

Moo makes the general point that all translations resolve ambiguities in the original text but that this is “more acute for meaning-based translations” such as The Passion Translation. But if this is a general problem, if difficult decisions always have to be made, why pick on Simmons?

Moo thinks that he has not consistently made good decisions. For example, he says that the verb proginōskō in Romans 8:29 can mean either “know about ahead of time” or “choose ahead of time.” By translating this as “he knew all about us before we were born” Simmons, Moo complains, has locked us into one of the alternatives.

Is this fair? No, it’s not, for a number of reasons.

  1. Even if we allow that Paul means “knew beforehand” in the “biblical” sense of “being in a relationship with,” that is not the same as choosing beforehand.
  2. It’s not so obvious that proginōskō and prognōsis carry the idea of choosing beforehand in the other New Testament texts that Moo lists in his commentary on Romans (Acts 2:23; Rom. 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:2, 20). It seems to me thatknowing beforehand works perfectly well in these passages.
  3. There is presumably a distinction between “knew beforehand” (proegnō) and “determined beforehand” (proōrisen). Arguably Simmons does a better job of preserving this distinction than Moo does.
  4. Of the 61 translations of the verse that can be found on Bible Gateway, 56 (by my quick count) have some variant of “knew beforehand.” Only about 10%, therefore, go for the less obvious idea of choosing beforehand.

Moo highlights only a small number of translations which he regards as dubious. Perhaps if he’d looked harder, he would have found more serious errors. Perhaps not. In any case, it seems to me that he fails to make anything stick. In some instances Simmons arguably demonstrates a better grasp of the meaning of the text than Moo does.

Certainly, it’s an imperfect verbose “translation,” written for a charismatic readership with an underlying Reformed theology, as best I can tell. Like most popular versions, including the NIV, and most popular commentary, it tries much too hard to make the New Testament speak to a modern audience and in the process obscures the historical meaning of the texts. But as I said, the translation seems to stand up to scrutiny better than the method.

Samuel Conner | Tue, 06/15/2021 - 21:32 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew; this is helpful.

Re: “Of the 61 translations of the verse that can be found on Bible Gateway, 56 (by my quick count) have some variant of “knew beforehand.” Only about 10%, therefore, introduce the less obvious idea of choosing beforehand.”

The thought occurs that from within strong conceptions of Divine sovereignty, one can argue that God knows what He knows about the creation because (and perhaps “only because”, if one really wants to make it clear that Deity does not depend on creation in any way) He knows His own prior determination of what shall transpire within the creation. Foreknowledge is thus rooted in God’s own prior choices about the kind of world and kind of world-history it pleases Him to create. It might be hard to resist the impulse to make this point (which I think is an important one to its advocates) through word choice in translating passages that lexically speak of “foreknowledge.”

I wonder, though, if we don’t make Paul too much of a philosopher. In Romans 11:2 Paul says that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew (proegnō).” In context this has nothing to do with determinism. Paul references Elijah’s complaint about Israel and God’s response: “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” He then draws a conclusion for the present circumstances: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”

Isn’t the point, then, simply the more practical one, that God is not surprised by the behaviour of his people—he’s seen it all before, he knew them beforehand? There is no need to think that he has rejected his people (11:1). He knows how they will behave, therefore he makes provision for the presence of a faithful remnant.