The TNIV, sarx and the inclinations of the human heart

Posted: 15th April 2009 by ElShaddai Edwards in Faith & Theology, Uncategorized
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The Better Bibles blog is soliciting input on what types of changes would make the TNIV a “better Bible” – specifically, textual changes that could be reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation rather than marketing changes better suited to Zondervan. While I tend to agree with the first commenter, Rick Mansfield, that the TNIV doesn’t suffer from translation issues as much as political issues, there still may be some opportunity for discussion.

The TNIV of course is a revision of the venerable NIV. As such, many areas remain the same as the older translation – one textual decision that has been criticized by many over the years is the translation of the Gk. sarx as “sinful nature”. Now, I hasten to add that as part of its mediating approach, the T/NIV does not use “sinful nature” as a universal translation for sarx. Other renderings, such as “sinful humanity” and “human flesh”, make it clear that the translation team understood the term to have different nuances in different settings and as used by different authors.

To the best of my understanding, the issue with “sinful nature” is that we read it as something innately bad about our natural selves (body, soul, mind) rather than a corruption of a “good” creation made in the image of God. Nevermind then that Jesus Christ took on the flesh and became human. If our flesh is inherently sinful, than Jesus Christ could not be but sinful if he was 100% human.

I don’t have a good answer with respect to when and how sin entered our bodies, but I do know that I prefer the language used by God himself in Genesis 8.21:

Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. (TNIV, emphasis mine)

Here we see that the human heart is inclined toward evil in every matter and that we slide down that slippery slope more easily than not, even at the youngest age. But it also keeps open the possibility of a human heart, directed and led by the Spirit, that might resist such natural temptation and consequent corruption. This was the case of Jesus, yes?

With this mind, how might a sarx passage such as this from Romans 8 be rendered?

TNIV TNIV, Modified
8.3-4: For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful humanity to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. 8.3-4: For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the inclinations of the human heart, God did by sending his own Son in a human body to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in human flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the inclinations of our hearts but according to the Spirit.

The New Jerusalem Bible is the only published translation I’ve seen that gets close to this rendering:

vv.3-4: What the Law could not do because of the weakness of human nature, God did, sending his own Son in the same human nature as any sinner to be a sacrifice for sin, and condemning sin in that human nature. This was so that the Law’s requirements might be fully satisfied in us as we direct our lives not by our natural inclinations but by the Spirit.

  1. CD-Host says:

    Honestly I like the literal renderings like the NRSV:
    “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,* he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

    The dichotomy here is flesh vs. spirit. God’s incarnation, the law, sin. Part of the message is we are defective and Jesus has a form like our sin (flesh) which is subject to death.

    If you want to be less literal Gaus does a good job: “To make up for the impotence of the law, the place where it was weakened by the flesh, God sent His own son in the flesh likeness of our sin and then sentenced sin in person to die for our sins, so that the stipulations of the Law might be fulfilled for you who go by its spirit without going by it physically.”

    But the whole analogy is lost without making flesh intrinsically sinful. That is what Paul is saying here.

    • Yes, there is the whole argument to generically render it as “flesh”. I was trying to stay within the TNIV’s ballpark, which, as far as I know, doesn’t include that option.

  2. Oh, I like this! I like it very much. You should suggest this to the CBT; it’s a vast improvement over the intolerable “sinful nature” bit.

  3. REB has the following:

    ‘What the law could not do, because human weakness robbed it of all potency, God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of our sinful nature and to deal with sin, he has passed judgement against sin within that very nature, so that the commandment of the law may find fulfilment in us, whose conduct is no longer controlled by the old nature, but by the Spirit’.

    • Thanks for providing that, Tim. There’s still a “sinful nature” stuck in the middle of that passage, but I do like “human weakness” – that is along the lines of the inclinations or intent of the heart.

      The “old nature” is an improvement on the NEB’s “lower nature”, though it’s ambiguous as to whether our weak nature has been replaced by the Spirit or overcome by the Spirit.

      • Peter Kirk says:

        ElShaddai, “There’s still a “sinful nature” stuck in the middle of that passage” for the very good reason that the word “sin” is explicit in the Greek text here. The Greek wording is sarkos hamartias, literally “flesh of sin”. You have lost that in your adapted translation by changing TNIV’s accurate “in the likeness of sinful humanity” to “in a human body”.

        The Good News Bible (aka TEV) was criticised a lot by evangelicals for making the kinds of changes which you want, and which I think I would support. I like its rendering of these verses, from my 1976 British edition (newer editions may be more gender accurate):

        3 What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like man’s sinful nature, to do away with sin. 4 God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law might be fully satisfied in us who live according to the Spirit, and not according to human nature.

        • Thanks for the correction, Peter – I do appreciate it. Though wouldn’t an even more literal translation be “flesh of flaws” or “flawed flesh” (if you allow a grammatical switch)? Sin then being a theological term for “character flaw”. With the overall sense being “our human flesh causes us to miss the mark” – that is, our inclinations and natural tendencies lead us astray from God.

          And I like the example from the GNB/TEV – do you recall or know offhand if any of the criticism was published and is accessible today? I’d be curious to read more on what the specific reactions were.

          • Peter Kirk says:

            Well, as for what is more literal, the whole point of literal translation is that each Greek term is rendered consistently (at least for each sense of the word) by a standard and generally agreed English (etc) equivalent. The standard equivalent of hamartia is “sin”. Of course this word has picked up a lot of theological baggage. But if it is not the best rendering here, that is a problem with the literal translation method, not with how I translated.

            I think I would say that sin is more than a character flaw, and (despite the misleading etymology) more than missing the mark. But perhaps I am simply reading into the text too much of my own theology. Paul talks a lot about hamartia elsewhere in Romans, and that is the best place to look to find out what he means by the term in this verse.

            Sorry, I don’t know of any online sources for criticism of GNB/TEV, but Google should be your friend. There is a review from a conservative viewpoint here but no mention of this specific issue.

          • Thanks, Peter. I was just trying to resolve the meaning behind hamartia as the translation for “sin”,when most of the definitions I saw earlier had to do with character flaws or “missing the mark”, though I now see that was specifically related to Classical Greek, rather than Koine.