Theological Jargon at Mars Hill

Words vs Thoughts at Mars Hill

Stated vs Meant at Mars Hill

Words Carry Meaning at Mars Hill

This is the fourth entry into my series reviewing the reasons why Mark Driscoll’s church, Mars Hill, uses the ESV translation of the Bible. In this entry we run into a major point of contention in the translation debates. So let’s get started.

Here is the fourth point in full,


One of the more popular arguments for thought-for-thought translations and paraphrases is that people don’t understand the theological nomenclature that Scripture uses to express doctrinal concepts. The reasoning goes that words like “justification” and “propitiation,” which the original text of Scripture used, should be replaced with more modern everyday wording that people can understand.

An example will help clarify this point. One of the central debates of the Protestant Reformation was how a sinful person is justified before a holy and righteous God. This issue was contentious enough that people died over it and Christianity split over it.Romans 3:24 is one of many places where “justification” is mentioned in the original text of Scripture. An examination of various translations, however, shows how the word is sometimes omitted altogether:

  • (ESV) justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . .
  • (NASB) justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus . . .
  • (NIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (TNIV) justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
  • (KJV) Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (NKJV) being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  • (CEV) God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.
  • (TM) Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.
  • (NLT) Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

Some of these translations might not be problematic if they were presented as commentary. But they are simply unfit to be the biblical text of Romans 3:24 because they don’t say what God the Holy Spirit said through Paul; the reader would have no way of knowing that they were reading commentary instead of Scripture.

Which theological words should be changed because the average person doesn’t understand them? The sad truth is that we live in a culture that has very little biblical knowledge, and many of the central words that Scripture uses are unfamiliar to the average person. I was once writing an article for a non-Christian newspaper, and in my column I said that God had convicted me of a sin in my life. The editor responded that I would need to explain what “conviction” meant, because they were not familiar with the word and assumed my readers would not know what I was talking about. Outside of Christianity, even something as simple as conviction is not understood.

Words open up worlds of new truths. But if people don’t know the words of Scripture, we should not give them new words that close off new truths. Instead, we should give them the old words of the original text, literally translated into English, so that a new world of truth can be opened to them. Because we love the people God entrusts to our care, we who preach and teach Scripture should explain the words people do not understand so that they can fully appreciate what God is saying to them through Scripture.

Theological jargon. Complex words that spark a lot of debate. The formal equivalence translations prefer to use these scholarly terms, like justification, whereas dynamic equivalence translations like to expand the term into something easier to understand. But here’s the thing. The Greek terms that bring these translations about are often disputed terms themselves. I bring two examples that Driscoll mentions in his entry.

First is the term “justification” which comes from a group of Greek words that contain the root dik–. So you might have dikaioo or dikaiosune which are rendered by the ESV as “justify” and “righteousness,” respectively. But here’s the thing. There is no English word that corresponds 1:1 with these Greek terms, particularly the verb dikaioo or “justify.” The verb is referring to the act of declaring someone righteous. Which creates confusion when the verb is justify. Justify has been used more for the sake of tradition than it is the literal word. Thus when translations like the NLT says, “God…declares that we are righteous,” it is a great translation of the verb δικαιούμενοι, “justified.” Scholars use the term “justification” for this concept simply from a lack of a better term.

Staying in the Romans 3 context there is the Greek term ἱλαστήριον, hilasterion. Romans 3:25 (ESV) reads, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed overformer sins.” This is a hotly debated term in Christian circles. It could mean that Jesus is an offering to appease the anger of the Jewish god, and thus be translated as “propitiation.” It could also mean that Jesus is an offering that carries away sin like the old Jewish scapegoat in Leviticus 16, thus translating the term as “expiation.”

There are other options. The NIV renders hilasterion as “sacrifice of atonement.” The NLT translates it as “the sacrifice for sin.” These two translations refer to the goat that was killed in Leviticus 16. Then there is the NET which renders the term as “mercy seat.” The mercy seat is a golden object that sits atop the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle and then Temple. When the goat was slaughtered its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat to make atonement. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the LXX, or Septuagint, the Greek term hilasterion was used to translate the Hebrew term referring to the mercy seat. Is this what Paul is doing, following the LXX?

Which of the choices is the correct translation? Each translation presents a different sentence that changes how one reads Paul’s theology. Or does it? There is no way to translate these terms. Jargon doesn’t provide the answer. It provides only one possibility, and even then the jargon itself is highly contested.

My point is this. If scholars can’t agree on what the Greek terms refer to, how can we expect the laity to understand them? Using complex jargon that scholars debate as well, isn’t the answer. Declaring someone “just” isn’t necessarily the same thing as “righteous” in the ancient world. We can’t know if Paul is following pagan uses of hilasterion and saying “propitiation” or is he following the LXX and referring to the “mercy seat.” Unless we read words as they appear in their context to see what Paul is actually saying. Then we can know what he means. That’s what Dynamic Equivalence does. They look at hilasterion or dikaioo in its context to see what Paul is actually saying and they simplify it into English that laity speaks. Hence the NLT uses “declares us righteous” in Romans 3:24.

Driscoll is right. Jargon opens up a world into which people can walk into and explore. But sometimes, often actually, that world is a confusing mess. I conclude with Driscoll’s example of conviction. The person who didn’t understand conviction the way Driscoll did was sad to me as well. It signifies that Christianity has lost its influence on the culture in a way that terms that we use easily are not understood by those outside of the church. But rather than keep using the jargon, I’d rather just say what I mean in a way that other will understand me so that the language barriers and confusion is bypassed. I want to share Jesus, not make him harder to understand to the uninitiated.

And what’s funny to me, is that when Christians say there is a lack of biblical literacy they often mean non-Christians don’t understand the jargon anymore. The game is no longer played on our terms, but on theirs. I literally mean that. We have to communicate in terms that non-Christians understand because they don’t get ours. Sometimes I read Driscoll on this point and feel like he’s upset over losing not so much concerned with getting the message of Jesus out there to the masses.

~ by hankimler on September 5, 2013.

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