Sunday, May 09, 2010

Problems with Funcational Equivalence in the translation of sarx

In the book How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, the authors attempt to aid the ordinary layperson in reading the Bible. For all its good intentions however, the book is a mixed bag, and problems creep in when the authors decide to confuse guidance with interpretation.

In Chapter 2 on the need for a good translation, Professor Gordon Fee attempts to guide Christians through the plethora of English Bible translations available on the market. The problems however arise when translation and interpretation become confused. Fee in this book heavily promotes the TNIV, a much more liberal version than the NIV (which can be termed the Nearly Inspired Version), and it is in this aspect that we see in sharper detail the error of Functional Equivalence.

I have addressed the issue of Bible translations in the past briefly, and it is my view that "Functional Equivalence" translations mostly are not functional and are most definitely not equivalent. Prof. Fee provides us with an example which I would like to look at: the Greek word σαρξ.

On page 43, Fee compares the translations of the phrase κατα σαρκα (kata sarka) in 2 Cor. 5:16 and made the claim that the TNIV/NIV correctly translate the verse. However, is that really so?

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer (2 Cor. 5:16 - NASB)

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer (2 Cor. 5:16 - ESV)

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer (2 Cor. 5:16 - NIV)

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer (2 Cor. 5:16 - TNIV)

Ὥστε ἡμεῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν οὐδένα οἴδαμεν κατὰ σάρκα: εἰ καὶ ἐγνώκαμεν κατὰ σάρκα Χριστόν, ἀλλὰ νῦν οὐκέτι γινώσκομεν (2 Cor. 5:16 - UBS 3rd Ed.)

The two literal translations (ESV and NASB) have translated the phrase κατα σαρκα literally as "according to the flesh". The NIV and the TNIV however have decided to translate this as "from a worldly point of view". Fee and other advocates of Functional Equivalence (F-E) believe that this is the best conceptual interpretation of the phrase "according to the flesh" since they deem that phrase incomprehensible to the majority of people today.

Let us discuss the translation for the moment, ignoring the philosophy behind it which I have discussed before. According to the F-E own standards, does the newly minted phrase "from a worldly point of view" is even the meaning taught in 2 Cor. 5:16? The answer is sadly no. The "flesh" in Scripture has nothing to do with "sinful nature" or "worldly point of view". In fact, the "flesh" refers merely to the idea of physical humanness — that which is physically of humans. The entire contrast in 2 Cor. 5:16 is not about God and the world, but about true reality and the the appearance conveyed by our physical bodies. 2 Cor. 5:16 therefore can be better interpreted to teach that we regard no one as seen from their physical status, and that though we had once judged Christ based upon the physical appearances, we do so no longer.

The NIV and TNIV mis-translation for this particular verse with its rendering into the term "worldly" subtly introduces the idea of worldliness and evil into the text. The "flesh" however as used in Scripture is not necessarily sinful but just the physical nature component of men, for otherwise Christ himself would be sinful (cf 1 Tim. 3:16). In like manner, 2 Cor. 5:16 does not say that the flesh is necessarily worldly or anything of that sort, but is is merely stating that we are not to regard people according to their human characteristics and physical appearances. Such mis-interpretations of sarx have more in common with Gnostic ideas about the evil of physical bodies rather than that of biblical Christianity.

The NIV/TNIV translation of 2 Cor. 5:16 is in error. According to F-E's own criteria, the NIV/TNIV translation fails. In a bid to "simplify" and "clarify" Scripture, the F-E translators have instead become the de facto new Magisterium by which they interpret Scriptures on our behalf (sometimes wrongly too as in the case of sarx). Even if one follows their own stated Bible study method of using multiple translations, by virtue of the fact that the F-E translations claim to translate the "sense" of the passage means that their interpretations would be regarded as the default and even best interpretations of the text, which may not be the case.

In ending, the rest of the book suffers from a similar problem. Fee in his chapters frequently conceptually interprets where exegesis should be done, promoting his characteristic doctrines as he move through Scripture. This became intolerable when he starts pontificating on controversial topics such as his promotion of Egalitarianism in pages 82-86, contrary to the biblical position of Complementarianism. While we can respect his desire to promote his position on this topic in his egalitarian books, it is morally repugnant that he does so in a book that is supposed to be teaching Christians how to read Scripture, as if his interpretation of Egalitarianism is THE way to read Scripture and all others are not. It is for such conceptual interpretations which permeate sections of the book that this book is not recommended for young Christians wanting to know how to read the Bible, a pity since such books would be really helpful.


Joel Tay said...

These are certainly valid points made against Gordon Fee's book.

PuritanReformed said...


yup. Now your turn to finish the review =) hehehee....