Function Vs. Form – a False Dichotomy

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DR. DON WILKINS: B.A. UC Irvine, M.Div. Talbot Seminary, Th.M. Talbot Seminary, M.A. UCLA, Ph.D. UCLA. He has worked with The Lockman Foundation (TLF) as a senior translator since 1992 on the NASB.

In translation philosophy, the goal of DE/FE is to produce a translation that is the “functional equivalent” of the OL text. As I said earlier, I take strong exception to the use of the term “equivalent,” regardless of whether it is used to describe interpretive translation or literal translation. But for the purpose of this chapter, let’s assume that a translation can succeed at being equivalent overall to the original text.

“Functional” equivalence as a philosophy assumes that it is possible to create a translation with the exact same meaning as the OL text, without matching the grammatical forms found in the original or using words that match the meanings of the OL words, as established or recommended by lexical research. Of course, it also assumes that a translation done as a formal equivalent differs from a functional equivalent to such an extent as to be contrasted with it. In other words, two such translations will belong to these two separate categories, and there is a dichotomy between them.

The question is, are these assumptions justified? I think it is possible to evaluate the assumptions about word meanings and the two separate categories without great effort. First, the meanings of OL words as they were understood in ancient times have been researched and provided in standard lexicons, so I think there are only three possible options for OL translation: 1) use one of the meanings in the lexicon for the word in question; 2) use a synonym or a phrase that matches one of the meanings listed; or 3) use a word or phrase that is not a match (either entirely or partially). Option three will be chosen either when the translator has information about the meaning that is better than that available to the lexicographer(s), or when the translator chooses to interpret the word in a different way based on his understanding of the context.


I should add in regard to the second option that sometimes the lexicon lists meanings that are phrases, so I am referring instead to the substitution of a phrase for a word. An example of a phrase actually given as a formal translation can be found under the entry for phroneo in BDAG. This happens to provide us an opportunity for illustration in regard to Romans 12:16, because the NIV translator to whom I referred earlier, Bill Mounce, used it during his lecture in October 2013.[1]

In his lecture Mounce quoted the NASB’s “Be of the same mind toward one another,” commenting disparagingly that it felt to him like a “cult” mentality, with everyone having to think exactly alike. He then quoted the NIV’s “Live in harmony with one another,” calling it “a really good translation” and maintaining, “That’s what ‘same’ means in this context.” As he noted in the lecture, “same” is in the Greek.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

If we consult BDAG, we find “think the same thing, i.e., be in agreement, live in harmony” recommended for the passage, all of which are of course phrases, and in this case, include not only the Greek word but its object as well. “Thinking the same thing” leaves room for interpretation, and the lexicographers did not see it as implying agreement on everything, which led them to suggest “live in harmony” in particular, the translation preferred by Mounce.

I am entirely willing to admit that “live in harmony” sounds good; so does world peace. But this is not the question; rather, what is the most accurate meaning of the Greek, given its usage in ancient times and the context here? It happens that Greek has a wealth of words for thinking. This particular word focuses on one’s frame of mind. In addition to that, BDAG cites two extra-biblical passages from the first and second centuries that use the word in the same construction as we find in Romans 12:16. In one, the writer (Dio Chrysostom) laments that he does not believe it possible to find any two men in the city of Tarsus who think alike. In the other, the apologist Justin Martyr asserts that Scripture never contradicts itself, and he declares that if any Scripture is posited that does seem contradictory to another, he will take the position that he does not properly understand it. He then adds that he will strive to convince others who think the Scriptures contradictory to instead assume the same frame of mind (literally phronein the same thing) as his.

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So, it turns out that “Be of the same mind” lines up well with the extra-biblical passages recommended by BDAG, even though “live in harmony” is one of the translations recommended. Mounce’s inference that this means everyone in the church must think exactly alike is his own. Granted, as I said, “live in harmony” sounds good. Is anything lost by it as a translation? It depends on how we understand it. The Greek verb is all about thought. I can, however, live “in harmony” with people who disagree with me about virtually everything. We just need good fences, as the saying goes (“Good fences make good neighbors”). Indeed, I dare say that if we want to, we can even get along well with people who are heretics to our belief system. If this were not the case, I doubt that John would have felt it necessary to admonish his readers on the matter (2 John 10-11).

For me, the ultimate test of accurate translation is always the possibility of accurate back-translation: that is, what is the probability of translating from the English translation back into the OL from which it was translated, if one did not know what the OL said? In this case I would save very high for “be of the same mind,” but questionable for “live in harmony.”

Given the three options, then, for literal translation the first option is preferred most of the time, and frequently the second option is preferred and exercised with considerable care to maintain “equivalence.” The third option is rarely chosen, and then is not considered legitimate unless the translator has better information than the lexicographer(s). As I have explained previously, this can happen when the translator is able to examine texts where the word is used outside the Bible, i.e. texts that were not available to the lexicographer(s). Over time, it seems inevitable that the standard lexicons will be revised to account for these additional texts.

It is also possible, I believe, for the translator to have a legitimate disagreement with the lexicographer(s) based on evidence–as opposed to subjective interpretation. The illustration above of phroneo in Romans 12:16 exemplifies this to some extent, in that I consider “think the same thing” too basic a concept to fit, but “live in harmony” too general and one that loses sight of the main idea, which in this case is thought. These two translations were listed by BDAG, as well as “be in agreement,” which is close but not a prize-winner.


As for functionally equivalent translation, the fact of the matter is that very often the first two options will be preferred as well, though sometimes with greater freedom when a phrase is chosen (option two).[2]  In addition to all the “little” words like the articles (“the,” “a/an”) and pronouns that occur routinely in the OL text, the DE/FE translator will very often find that the meanings chosen by the translator of a literal version will be agreeable to him- or herself as well. This is a word-for-word agreement that ironically exists between literal and DE/FE translations.

Consider just one example, the word “altar.” It is hard to imagine a synonym or synonymous phrase that is either better or needed. The word occurs 381 times in the NASB, 380 times in the ESV, 376 times in the HCSB, 381 times in the NIV, and 408 times in the NLT, where it obviously would have been replaced or paraphrased if it were considered awkward or difficult. Even the more restricted term “bronze altar” occurs in all the translations in almost all the same verses.

This across-the-board agreement of translation choices between Bibles with competing translation philosophies reveals at the outset a flaw in the assumption of a dichotomy between literal and DE/FE translations. It soon becomes apparent that one translation is not categorically a formal equivalent and another a categorically functional equivalent, but that the differences have to be examined at a verse-by-verse (or even line-by-line) level.

Of course the differences, which do occur often, are due to functionally equivalent translation allowing the translator greater flexibility in choosing phrases (option two), and–especially–meanings based on subjective interpretation (option three). This seems to have been the case, for example, in the NIV’s rendering of “works” in Rom. 8:28. It simply is not the equivalent of the original Greek, and there are no objective grounds for thinking that the formal lexical meaning is incorrect.

If we recall the instruction that Eugene Nida’s professors gave him to translate the meaning of a passage and not just the words, I have to conclude that there really is no such thing as a functional equivalent at the level of the OL word, i.e. an “equivalent” word or phrase that is in any sense contrary to the formal meaning. Indeed, “equivalent” and “contrary” do not go together well. I would add that if the meaning of the passage depends on the subjective interpretation of some of the words, contrary to their formal meanings, then it follows that the interpreted meaning probably will be incorrect.

Focusing on agreement between formal and functional equivalents, what is true for word meanings is also true for grammatical constructions. Most of the time a DE/FE translator will find no reason to take exception to the formal construction found in the OL, other than to adapt it to English word order as needed.

For example, there are few grammatical constructions more basic and common than the simple sentence with a subject, verb, and object. The Bible contains thousands of them, and seldom can the word order be changed in English without the meaning of the sentence being botched or obscured. Recall, specifically, my word-for-word translation of Is. 40:19 earlier. It is necessarily a little awkward, but an interlinear-style translation of the same verse would switch the subject and object in the first clause, completely confusing the meaning.[3] Since English is so dependent on word order to express grammatical relationships, it is inevitable that literal and DE/FE English translations will mostly agree on the structure of these sentences. Even when the word order is altered for emphasis (either to reflect the OL text or as an interpretive decision by the translator), care will be taken not to confuse subject and object.

So in point of fact, there is no categorical dichotomy between literal and DE/FE translations in regard to word meanings and grammatical structures. For both, there will be a great deal of agreement, and an accurate appraisal will require comparisons on a verse-by-verse basis. Furthermore, I maintain that translations of individual words that are contrary to the formal, lexical meanings without objective justification do not qualify to be considered “equivalents,” so to treat them as such is begging the question.


However, it remains for us to examine whether grammatical structure or style in an RL translation that differs from the structure of the OL text can be considered functionally equivalent. Some differences are unavoidable, such as word order because of the relative inflexibility of English compared to the OL’s of the Bible. Even ancient Hebrew, which is primitive in its structure compared to NT Greek, has a marker lacking in English that can provide greater flexibility in the placement of the direct object, for example. Emphasis (and de-emphasis) is conveyed by non-routine word order, as we saw for example in the case of Is. 40:19. When emphatic word order in the OL text cannot be duplicated in the English translation, emphasis is lost, and therefore some of the meaning is lost.[4]

A classic example of this loss is found in John 1:1. The word order of the final clause in the Greek is, “God was the Word.” Because of the structure of the Greek we know that “the Word” is the subject, and English dictates that as such it must go first. So, all trusted translations of which I am aware read, “the Word was God.” None of them, unfortunately, have a way to convey the fact that “God” is emphasized by the OL word order. In ordinary writing there are ways to emphasize words, or course, but these are considered unacceptable for as dignified a work as the Bible.


Another difference that seems unavoidable is one to which I referred earlier: our handling of Greek participles. Both formal equivalency and DE/FE translators assign contextual meanings to these participles when in fact they often are not so specific in the text. In most of these cases I think the participle could be left in its natural, ambiguous form. However, while this would be good, standard English, it would probably also be targeted as awkward English by critics. At the very least, the public would need to be informed of the reason for the changes, which would appear to detract from clarity.

Then of course there are all the cases where the formal equivalent maintains the grammatical structure of the OL, while the DE/FE translation substitutes something for it. One of the more complex cases was the 1984 NIV wording of John 14:31 that we discussed previously. Undoubtedly the translators of that edition considered their version of the verse a dynamic or functional equivalent of the OL text; but when it was reexamined for the 2011 revision, the translators evidently agreed that the 1984 wording was not an equivalent after all. It is one thing for a formal-equivalency translator like myself to criticize the 1984 version; but it is much more significant that the NIV translators changed what they had to a reading that did a better accounting of the OL grammatical structure.

Young Christians

Let me offer two other examples, the first of which is quite simple: 1 Corinthians 2:4. Here is a word-for-word translation:

[A]nd my word and my preaching [were] not in persuasive words of wisdom but in demonstration of Spirit and of power….

Note that there is no verb in the Greek, and “were” makes the best sense in the context. Also, the Greek preposition translated “in” is capable of several meanings, including “with” and “by.” I capitalized “Spirit” as a contextual interpretation, because it seems likely that Paul would refer to the Holy Spirit rather than to his human spirit. This is a typical situation where both capitalization and the lack of it point to an interpretation, so the translator has no choice but to interpret. The absence of the article (“the”) with “Spirit” could be used as an argument in favor of Paul’s human spirit, but sometimes “Spirit” (referring to the Holy Spirit) is found without the article (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:3).

The NASB and the ESV both retain the grammatical structure of the Greek. The NASB reads,

[A]nd my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.

A note is included on “message” providing the literal “word.” The article is added to “Spirit” for more natural English. The ESV reading is very close to the NASB’s:

[A]nd my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power….

No notes are provided. I find “plausible” an odd word to use here since “persuasive” is the simple meaning, and “plausible” is a weaker concept. However, we are focusing on the structure of the Greek, and we can see that both translations follow it.

Now let’s compare the HCSB:

My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit….

The translators chose to start a new sentence with the verse and for that reason deleted the first “and.” They also chose “with” instead of “in” for the Greek preposition, which is entirely legitimate and seems to fit about as well as “in.” However, the translators departed from the structure of the OL for the last four words in the Greek. This is further evidence of the hybrid character of the HCSB that I noted earlier. First, the noun “power” at the end of the verse is converted to an adjective modifying “demonstration.”

The phrase “powerful demonstration” may sound better than “demonstration…of power,” but as we saw in discussing Mounce’s preference for “live in harmony” above, what really matters is whether it is accurate as a translation. I can honestly and objectively say, no. Let me explain why.

You have probably inferred by now that I not only think in terms of back-translation, but that I enjoy reverse-engineering translations, i.e. figuring out the steps that led to a particular translation. It is a little like solving a crime mystery, though of course no crime has been committed in these cases (unless one considers it criminal what some people have done in translating the Bible).

So in analyzing the HCSB wording here, the first thing that comes to mind is a Hebrew idiom (or “Hebraism”) in which a noun in the genitive construction–which we represent with “of”–is used as an adjective. “Fire of flame” is a good example; we would typically translate it “flaming fire.” Similarly people are often described using “son” with a genitive noun that describes them, such as “son of man” and “sons of thunder.” Jesus once described Judas as “the son of destruction” (John 17:12), meaning that he was doomed.


As a Pharisaic scholar who studied under the great Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), Paul certainly could be expected to use a Hebrew idiom at any given time, and if we had “demonstration of power” here in the Greek, then “powerful demonstration” might be plausible. It might even be understood this way solely from a Greek viewpoint. However, we know that what we actually have after “demonstration” is “of Spirit and of power.” A translator cannot legitimately ignore “of Spirit” and jump to “power.” Either both terms must be handled the same way, or if one of them is turned into an adjective, it would have to be “Spirit” rather than “power.” That would make little or no sense here, so only the first alternative is left, and if both terms are made adjectives, we would have, “…with a Spiritual [or spiritual] and powerful demonstration….”

To fully understand what the HCSB translators did, however, let’s assume that it is somehow possible to jump over “Spirit” and attach only “power” to “demonstration.” In the Greek, “Spirit” and “power” have the same grammatical form and are linked by “and,” which indicates that they are being used the same way. We see this in the repetition of “of” with each term in the NASB and ESV. This grammatical balance was completely ignored in the HCSB. We already know that “demonstration” was turned into an adjective; to “Spirit” the translators added the preposition “by,” making the Spirit the agent performing the demonstration.

How would they come by such an idea? It happens that the genitive construction can be interpreted this way. So the HCSB translators chose two different interpretations of the genitive construction that occur elsewhere, but were not possible together in the combination that we see here. Changing the grammatical structure of the OL text resulted in a translation that sounded good (I think), but was in no way equivalent to it.

You may wonder whether anything was lost in this process, or anything added to the meaning of the passage that did not belong. We have to consider, first, what Paul was actually saying. Let’s assume that “Spirit” was in fact the Holy Spirit. We have already maintained that “Spirit” and “power” are being used the same way because of the grammatical balance. While the Spirit could have been the one performing the demonstration, the same idea would not make sense for the impersonal “power,” so it follows that Paul’s preaching or actions demonstrated the Spirit and power. With that, we immediately see that “powerful” is not implied with “demonstration,” and that the Spirit was not the one demonstrating as portrayed in the HCSB.


Moving on to the NIV as a DE/FE translation, we will not see anything more creative for this passage than we just saw in the HCSB. The NIV reads,

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power….

In comparison with the HCSB, I think we do see a little more paraphrasing here (i.e. in terms of quantity, not quality). First, we find “wise and persuasive words” instead of “persuasive words of wisdom.” To me, this is a classic case of stylistic change for its own sake within the flexible boundaries of the DE/FE philosophy. The term “persuasive” matches the Greek, as we have seen, but the Greek noun “wisdom” has been changed by the translators to the adjective “wise.” I’m sure many people would say that it is functionally equivalent to the Greek.

It is very unlikely that I could back-translate from this wording into the original Greek, but aside from that, the first word I read is “wise,” which sounds fine. What is wrong with using wise words in preaching? Then I see “persuasive,” which could refer either to the same wise words, or to other words that were not necessarily wise, but were persuasive. “Persuasive” hints of being corrupt, like a sales pitch that does not tell the full story.


Now let’s consider what Paul actually says in the literal “persuasive words of wisdom.” The first word I see is “persuasive,” and instead of being an addition to “wise” (NIV), it sorts out from all the wise words those that are distinctly persuasive. So, the attribute of persuasion is given center stage, and Paul’s point is that, unlike the great orators of his time, he deliberately avoided rhetorical devices to convince his listeners.

Someone may argue that this is a slight nuance, but I would counter that we are talking about equivalence, and “wise and persuasive” is not equivalent to the Greek. What is perhaps worse in this case is that there appears to be no good reason to rephrase the OL, unless the change is for simpler English, and even minor simplification has a higher priority than accuracy in the NIV translation philosophy.

Let’s move on to “a demonstration of the Spirit’s power….” Here, the NIV translators tampered with the Greek much less than their HCSB counterparts did. The term “Spirit’s” is the possessive form in English, and this is expressed in Greek mostly by the genitive case, which a beginning student would be taught to understand in English as “of” with the word in that case. Thus, a back-translation would typically be, “of the power of the Spirit.” In the word-for-word translation above, we actually have “of Spirit and of power,” so the NIV wording is a match to the actual Greek cases.

Of course Paul actually separates the terms “Spirit” and “power” from each other by his use of the conjunction “and.” As we already observed, he is telling us that in his preaching or actions he somehow demonstrated both, and since the Greek for “power” could have reference to a miracle, I suspect that he demonstrated both miracles and the speaking ability that he gained from the Spirit. The NIV translators chose to ignore the conjunction and turn the two objects of Paul’s demonstration–the person of the Spirit and the power–into one, i.e. the Spirit’s power. They could say that this is a contextual interpretation focusing on the work of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s take a mental side road for a moment and explore the concept of “contextual interpretation.” In Bible study, contextual interpretation is a very good thing, even a necessity, for doing it properly. Preachers, who are usually pastors, have nothing valid to say without it. You may be getting the impression, however, that I am opposed to it when it is used as a tool for translation. In that case let me clarify that I am opposed to doing interpretive translation unless it is unavoidable, which includes passages where all translation options represent an interpretation. When interpretation is an unavoidable factor in the translation process, then to have any validity it absolutely must be consistent with the context.

The problem with contextual interpretation is similar to what we encounter with outlines of Scripture: like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike. Everyone seems to find something different in a context of several verses or more. So in the present case, the NIV translators are fully entitled to gather from the context what they feel it means or what they see as the main point. But it was unnecessary to change the structure of the OL here, and it is fair to say that the translators may have misinterpreted Paul’s intent.


What was gained or lost in the NIV translation of “Spirit’s power”? If I am a reader with nothing but the NIV in front of me, I see that the Spirit is powerful, and that is surely a good thing to know whether it was Paul’s point or not (perhaps Paul would agree). If I read the literal translation I only see that the Spirit is in some way present. On the other hand, as I pointed out, the literal suggests that Paul performed a miracle. If I am not sure what Paul means by “of Spirit and of power,” I have something to explore further. In contrast, “Spirit’s power” in the NIV is clear, and no exploration is encouraged.

Turning to the NLT, we might expect something only loosely connected to the OL, and that is what it delivers:

And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.

The changes to “not in persuasive words of wisdom” probably would please any English stylist who prefers positive statements to negative. I myself tend to avoid negatives even to the point of attaching “un-” to an adjective or adverb if I can thereby get rid of a “not.” So kudos would go to “very plain” as a kind of antonym to “not persuasive words of wisdom.” However, I might not know exactly what “very plain” meant, if it were not followed by “Rather than using” etc. What we see from this point on is essentially a paraphrase of the NIV’s paraphrase, again avoiding “not.”

 We see one very significant difference here between NIV and NLT: instead of “but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,” the NLT has, “I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.” “I relied only on” bears no resemblance at all in meaning to “with a demonstration of,” which refers to proving something. Paul’s demonstration established his credibility for what he was preaching. Undoubtedly Paul did solely rely on the power of the Spirit in his preaching, but this is clearly not what he is talking about. The best explanation for the translators’ choice of wording is again contextual interpretation, and this illustrates what we just discussed in our digression on that topic. Interpreters will glean different nuances or points of view from the same context. If the translation philosophy allows interpretation to take precedence over literal meaning, we will see some unique variations in the RL text.

1 Corinthians 2:4 is a simple and non-controversial passage. Let me close this chapter with an analysis of two passages that are quite provocative and nearly identical, where a large part of the issue is the tense of the verbs: Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. Here is a WFW translation of 16:19:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, and whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in the heavens, and whatever you loose on the earth will have been loosed in the heavens.

Matthew 18:18 is virtually identical in the binding and loosing:

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth will have been loosed in heaven.

“Whatever” is singular in Matthew 16:19 and plural in 18:18, and there seems to be no significant difference in concept between “heavens” and “heaven,” or the article (“the”) is present or not.

Since the differences are so slight, I will just start with the NASB version of Matthew 18:18:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

Typically, it is the translator’s choice whether to use the article with “earth” and “heaven” or not. Other than that, the NASB reading is virtually word-for-word. The use of “shall” instead of “will” is an interpretive decision to emphasize the future-tense verbs or treat them as commands, which can be done (cp. OT commands with “he shall…”).

What is interesting about the Greek is that the verbs of binding and loosing are complicated constructions that produce the future perfect passive. “Whatever you bind/loose” refers to future actions, and the future perfect passive indicates that when a decision is made on earth, it will have already been made in heaven.  Some expositors believe the timing is important because it means that the church leadership (Jesus mentions the church in v. 17; Peter in 16:18) does not control God’s decisions, since his anticipates theirs. I think it provides the leaders great comfort in knowing God has already made a difficult decision that they in effect repeat.

I should quickly add that church leadership is never infallible, nor do they have God on speed dial (or any kind of dialup). The decision may even be a bad one; God has sometimes punished people through leading them to bad decisions. Still, I think it is comforting to know that the decisions required of church leadership are a reflection of God’s own decisions, whether the results prove to be positive or negative.

Let’s return to the Greek. As I said, this verbal construction is complicated, and it is seldom seen. The concept is one that we encounter almost every day, however. We have two future events: X and Y. By the time X takes place, Y will have already taken place. For example, if my wife has told me more than once that she wants me to check the air pressure in her tires before she drives somewhere later, and I feel as though she is nagging me, I might reply, “By the time you’re ready to leave, your tires will have been checked, and the car will be ready.” I would be careful about my tone of voice, of course.

So let’s see how the ESV handles this verse:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This may at first glance look identical to the NASB, but notice that the ESV has “shall be” instead of “shall have been.” The difference is significant. “Shall be” is the simple future passive, not the future perfect passive, and there is no indication that the binding and loosing in heaven will take place before that on earth. God’s decisions are represented as echoing those of the church leadership, as he acts either simultaneously with the leadership or at a later time.

This is a very big difference, letting the leaders lead as God follows, validating their decisions. Is there justification for the simple future passive here? Greek verbs usually do not have all the grammatical forms that are possible for a verb, so one question would be whether these verbs have a simple future passive form, making the more complicated forms found here unnecessary. The answer is, yes. The verb for binding has a form that does not occur in the NT, but it is found elsewhere, and the verb for loosing has a future passive that does occur in the NT.

Therefore, we know that Jesus (or Matthew) could have expressed what he says here and in 16:19 in a simple construction that would be properly translated as it is in the ESV text (“shall be”). To their credit, the ESV translators have a note providing “shall have been” as an alternative. Nevertheless, given the fact that we do not find the simple “shall be” in the text, when it could have been, I think it is fair to say that the readings in the text and the notes should have been switched, if “shall be” were acknowledged at all. And it is certainly fair to say that “shall be” is not a “functional equivalent” for “shall have been.”

In the HCSB we find paraphrases. Here is Matthew 18:18:

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.

We first find “I assure you” for “Truly I say to you.” The two concepts are related but different; “assure” is basically a promise or guarantee of something, often said to comfort a person who is worried. “Truly I say” means that the speaker is telling the truth as opposed to lying. Jesus used this terminology frequently, but we see no one else in the NT using it.

The paraphrase that I find significant is, “is already.” The HCSB translators were sensitive to the theological issue and wanted it to be very clear that event Y (God’s decision) precedes event X (a decision by church leadership). To assure the reader of this, they replaced the future “shall” with “is” and added the adverb “already.” Thus, the element of futurity is completely discarded. As far as Jesus’ disciples are concerned, all of the church’s decisions have already been made by God.

I do not have a problem with the theology to which the translators seem to be catering here, because I think it can be harmonized with Jesus’ words. But I can find nothing in the context that provides any basis for the translation. It appears to be based entirely on theology.


The HCSB translators redeem themselves somewhat by including notes providing us with a future passive wording. However, as we have seen, this wording is not really justified. What I would prefer to see instead are notes supplying the literal future perfect passives.

The NIV version of the verse is nearly identical to the ESV, so we can deal with it easily:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

I should point out that this is the 2011 edition. Interestingly, the 1984 edition had “I tell you the truth,” which was close to the OL except that the word for “truth” is not a noun. The change to “Truly” made it a literal translation. Of course what we said about the future passive in regard to the ESV applies here as well because the NIV also has the future passive in the text. Not only that, to their credit the NIV translators, like their ESV colleagues, included a note providing “shall have been” as an alternative. The only problem I have with either camp is that the notes are “Or” notes: they present the future perfect passives as options, when in fact they are the literal Greek.

So then, for this verse, the NIV does just as well as the ESV and better than the HCSB in terms of fidelity to the OL. It remains for us to examine the NLT, which reads:

I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.

 This NLT begins as the 1984 NIV did, with a minor alteration to the Greek for “truly.” I might have expected something more like the HCSB’s “I assure you.” But the elephant in the room as far as the translation of this verse is concerned is the word “bound” and its companion “loosed,” and as a looser translation than the NIV, I would have been disappointed to find the NLT keeping these two terms intact.

Once the restraint of accuracy to the OL is removed or loosened, these two words all but beg to be adapted to clearer English. Did you notice how I just used “loose” in a different way from its meaning in the verse? These are abstract meanings, so what exactly does the word mean as Jesus used it here? The NLT translators have provided us answers for both words that seem to make good sense. They probably derived these meanings from the ancient rabbis, who described forbidden practices as “bound,” and permitted practices as “loosed.”

The translators also include notes providing the literal meanings of these words, though they introduce them with “Or” instead of “Lit,” which is giving too much credence to the substitutions. Also, the literal future perfect passive construction is not noted, but we would not necessarily expect this level of care to be taken in the NLT.

If “forbidden” and “permitted” make good sense, is there any reason for a DE/FE translation like the NIV to keep the literal meanings, which sound awkward and obscure by comparison? For that matter, should I as an NASB translator consider the substitutions, which can be covered by notes? The rabbinical usage gives me a solid historical precedent. On the other hand, obscurity can sometimes be a good thing in Bible translation, as long as the translation accurately represents the OL. It can keep us from committing ourselves to an understanding of the text that is simple but wrong, and it can send us to good experts or sources to find the correct understanding.

I think the concepts of “forbidden” and “permitted” are promising for Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, but they bring with them some unwanted baggage. At the outset, it is easy for a person unacquainted with the Bible to think that Jesus is saying that questionable behavior on earth will either be forbidden or permitted in heaven, depending on how the church leadership rules on it. For example, if the church rules that dancing is permissible, then there will be dancing in heaven; but if it is forbidden by the church, then it will also be outlawed in heaven.

Then, I am not sure that forbidding and permitting covers all the decisions that church leaders have to make. It would be a little like requiring the answer to every question to be either “yes” or “no.” I can certainly see that “binding” and “loosing” are opposites, and I know that decisions amount to choosing between competing alternatives. So perhaps I am better off understanding the OL terms here as competing alternatives and nothing more, at least until information surfaces that allow me to form a better interpretation.

Before concluding our analysis, let’s examine the beginning of Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens…” (WFW translation). It is a very interesting statement, with plenty of room for interpretation and rich in possible implications for theology. So we might expect a lot of creativity when we compare translations. Yet, once we allow the singular “heaven” for “the heavens,” the uniformity of wording from one translation to the next is striking. The NLT differs by adding “And” at the beginning, but that is hardly significant and may be based on a different reading in the manuscripts.

The grammatical construction of the Greek is simple and, whatever Jesus meant by “keys,” the meaning of the Greek word is clear, so this is one of many cases where the DE/FE translators had no reason to deviate from a formal equivalency approach. They certainly could have substituted something for the cryptic “keys”; I note, for example, that The Message adds the phrase “complete and free access,” and further describes the “keys” as “keys to open any and every door: no more barriers between heaven and earth….” So how many doors are there into heaven, I wonder? Or was Peter given a giant ring with keys to all the rooms housing the redeemed in heaven, like a building superintendent?

My point is that if readers had nothing other than a DE/FE translation, they would have no way of knowing when the translation is a faithful representation of the OL and when it is not–with the possible exception of a very free translation (e.g., The Message) that constantly shows evidence of paraphrasing. It can be difficult to predict how translators will handle a passage within the DE/FE parameters.

To sum up, when we reduce the Bible to individual words and grammatical constructions, there are many places where both DE/FE translations and formal equivalency translations closely correspond to the OL’s. Active verbs usually remain active, passives remain passive, subject and object nouns in the OL’s remain so in the translations, the formal definitions in the standard lexicons are followed, and so forth. What we just saw in the handling of the “keys” in Matthew 16:19 is a somewhat surprising example. So when translators make a categorical distinction between DE/FE and literal translations, it is not an absolute but one that is a matter of degree. They all know this, and this fact alone pokes some holes in the artificial dichotomy between the two types of translations.

When there are differences that DE/FE translators call “functional equivalents,” however, the question is whether they really are equivalent in meaning to the OL, and the samples that we have examined are not. I am certain that we could go on examining many more passages and would arrive at the same conclusion. There may appear to be similarities, but the equivalency breaks down when we look at the details. What we have in its place is contextual interpretation by the translators. In effect they have answered the call of Nida’s professors to provide the reader with the meaning of a passage, and not just a translation of the words.

Like the scribes of old, translators are learned men and women, and their opinions of what a passage means has value. Nevertheless, I think the reader needs and deserves to know what the passage actually says, even if it is difficult to understand. As we have seen, contextual interpretation that ignores or deviates from the OL does not provide that, and since this kind of interpretation is a basic element of DE/FE translation, there is little or no “equivalency” to the OL in these passages at all. So on this score the distinction between DE/FE translations and literal translations truly is a false dichotomy. The real distinction is between translations whose philosophies permit this kind of contextual interpretation in place of literal translation, and translations that formally correspond to the OL as much as possible.

[1] Mounce begins his discussion of the word in this verse a little after the six-minute mark.

[2] We saw an example of this in the NLT’s use of “formed in a mold” for “cast” above (p. 67).

[3] I emphasize once again that interlinear translations are not to be confused with word-for-word translations, as they have been by some who have used the acronym “WFW” as a designation for interlinears.

[4] The significance of a loss of emphasis might not seem obvious, because the limitations of English have accustomed us generally to do without it in works of high literary quality like the Bible, and even in lesser works like modern novels. The significance becomes obvious, however, in spoken English where voice inflection (a change of volume or tone) is so important in conveying meaning or intent. To do the same thing in written English usually requires the use of italic or boldface print, often considered unacceptable. Even when used (as it is occasionally in this book), it must be used sparingly in works of quality.



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