The Flesh

Since we’ve had a thread going on this blog about Bible translation, I figured I’d continue to stir the pot.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that for the current portion of our Romans study (chapters 6-8), I am using the ESV translation of the Bible rather than the NIV. The change is prompted by the way the NIV translation committee chose to render the word “flesh.”

“Flesh” (sarx in Greek) is a complex word in the New Testament. Sometimes it refers simply to the physical body, as in Ephesians 5:29: “For no one ever hated his own body, but nourishes and cherishes it…” (note that the NIV has rendered sarx as “body” in this instance). But even casual readers can see that in Romans 6-8, Paul uses sarx to speak of something deeper and more elemental to our fallen human nature. Different commentators have spoken of sarx in Romans 7 as “the false and fallen self” (John Stott), “human nature as corrupted, directed, and controlled by sin” (John Murray), and “all that belongs to men, apart from the Holy Spirit” (Charles Hodge).

Here is where the NIV translation committee chose, in my view, to interpret rather than to translate. Instead of writing “flesh” for sarx in Romans 6-8, they opted for the term “sinful nature.” That is not necessarily a bad translation; it certainly gets at a piece of what Paul is saying. But neither is it an accurate translation. Instead of telling you what Paul actually wrote and making you figure it out, the NIV translators are essentially telling you: “Even though Paul wrote the word flesh, what he meant to say was sinful nature.” This rendering is overly limiting. It suggests that our struggle against “the flesh” is an internal battle, as if we are at war with ourselves in some navel-gazing, self-deprecating way. And that is not the case.

Instead, the battle against the flesh is a struggle to live the kingdom life. It reflects the tension of aligning our lives under God’s rule and reign. In the words of Herman Ridderbos, “The Spirit… [is to be taken] not first and foremost as an individual experience… but as a new way of existence… being in the Spirit… means you are no longer in the power of the old [age] [i.e. the flesh]; you have passed into a new one, you are under a different authority” (Ridderbos, When the Time Had Fully Come).

If, as the NIV suggests, the struggle against the flesh is primarily a fight against my own sinful nature, then it’s a pretty individualistic battle. But if conquering “the flesh” is about reversing the effects of the Fall by submitting to God’s rule and reign, then community is essential. My subjective struggles are part of a greater objective struggle. They typify the fight between the “kingdom of this world” and “the kingdom of our Lord and Christ,” which will not be finally resolved until Jesus’ return (cf. Rev. 11:15). We who seek for God’s kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” must use every resource available to help each other orient our lives around the deep spiritual realities of that kingdom.

So we will preach from the ESV in order to capture the full range of Paul’s intended meaning in this passage. Don’t throw away your NIV… it’s a still good and reliable translation. But Romans 6-8 is a good case study for the importance of reading and studying from multiple translations of the Bible.


Leave a Comment

  1. translation is always interpretation. hence the italian proverb traduttore, traditore: a translator is a traitor (loosely translated, of course). My guess is the NIV’s reasoning was that “sinful nature” is the nuance of flesh that Paul is using. But I agree that it’s too limiting. I appreciate that Coram Deo utilizes different translations to take advantage of their different strengths; those who use one translation all the time miss out. For our Hebrew homework we always poll half a dozen translations at least to see how they are wrestling with communicating the ideas in English.

    Don’t know if you’ve looked at it much, but from what I’ve seen the Holman Christian Standard Bible is comparable to the ESV in hitting a good balance between dynamic and formal equivalence.

  2. …And Holman is a publishing company. Maybe I’m strange, but I have a hard time buying a Bible translation when the entire project was funded by the publisher who stands to make money off of its consumption. I generally like the HCSB’s translation, but my assumption is: Holman is in business to make money. Therefore it is ultimately profit motive, not concern for Scripture, that drove them to offer a new translation. After all, why come out with a new translation that’s basically the same as the NASB and/or ESV? Answer: because we can make money off it.

    Also, both the NIV and ESV folks are pretty liberal with their copyrights, in contrast to the HCSB and NASB, who tend to want you to footnote their publishing company every time you quote a verse. The Bible is the word of God. Any publisher that makes me footnote them in order to quote God makes me nervous.

  3. No one would want to see this. . .but I’d actually be interested in a case like this going to court. What copyrights would they claim? As a worship pastor, this comes up from time to time, . . (and in fairness, it seems like most of the time they just want citation that you did in fact read from the NIV, NAS etc. . ). . .

    But, to take this to court would probably require someone to say that a) they have a corner on the “word of God” or b) they are owed “credit” for their interpreting work. Both, kind of dubious. . .


  4. This is a great example of selecting a translation to fit the context–ESV is probably at its very best when preached or studied by someone who can dig out the meaning as Bob has done.

Leave a Reply