Pope Francis’ call for a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer has wide theological problems

It has been reported that Pope Francis wants to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, he is unhappy about the line, ‘lead us not into temptation’. He argues that this translation suggests it is the Lord who induces temptation. God, he avers, does not lead us into temptation; that is Satan’s department.

He comments:

It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation. I am the one who falls; it’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.

A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.

What are we to make of all this?

It is worth noting that most modern translations, due to advances in textual criticism, have amended the ‘traditional’ English version of the Lord’s Prayer – drawn from the King James Bible – to reflect the strongest manuscript evidence of the original autographs. The English Standard version, for example, renders the entire prayer thus:

9 Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.[a]
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,[b]
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,[c]
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.[d]

The most up to date rendering of the Greek text, based on the best manuscript evidence, has been produced under the editorial oversight of Dr Peter Williams (Tyndale House, Cambridge) and Dr Dirk Jongkind (St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge). In respect to the verse that offends Pope Francis, they render the Greek:

καί μή εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς είς πειρασμόν, ἀλλά ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ.

Kai mē eisenenkēs hēmas eis peirasmon, alla rhusai hēmas apo tou ponērou.

And not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from [the] evil

Now, however you cut that, Jesus is praying directly to the Father asking him not to lead us into temptation and, conversely, to deliver us from evil.

The issue Pope Francis seems to have is with the idea that God might be leading us into temptation. He demands a rethink of the English translation based on what he perceives to be a theological problem. He wants to argue that God does not tempt us; only Satan tempts us. Indeed, that would be in line with the theology of James, ‘let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire’ (James 1:13f).

Of course, there are other passages that tell us God is in control over world events. Indeed, the Bible is quite clear that God is sovereign over evil things (cf. Amos 3:6; Isaiah 45:7, 53:10; Job 1:21f, 2:10; Psalm 105:17; Genesis 51:10; Acts 2:23, 4:27f). In the truest sense, he is sovereign over all things (cf. Job 42:2; Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11). If God is sovereign over all things, including evil things, it is surely right that God is sovereign even over temptation.

The question, then, is how do we square that circle? How can God be at one time sovereign over all things and yet, at another, unable to tempt us whilst, at the same time, being able to ‘lead us not into temptation’? What is more, how is it Satan that leads us into temptation when God is sovereign over all things? We get an interesting case study when we compare 2 Samuel 24:1 with its parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21:1.

Bruce Ware, in his book God’s Greater Glory, rightly points to the asymmetrical nature of God’s sovereignty in relation to good and evil. There is what Reformed theologians have usually termed God’s causative will and God’s permissive will. Ware goes slightly further and terms these things direct-causative divine action and indirect-permissive divine action. The former involves God actively causing events to come to pass; the latter is God’s allowing certain events to come to pass that he could otherwise prevent. On this latter side to God’s sovereignty, this is still rightly considered to be an action of God because he is actively allowing these events, and only these events, to come to pass by choosing not to intervene when he otherwise could. It is an active choice made by God for the purposes of ordering events in the world.

What this means is that God is capable of directly causing events in the world to come to pass by effecting the hearts and circumstances of men in the world. However, God is also capable of indirectly permitting events in the world so that when sin occurs it can rightly be described as under God’s sovereign control (that is, he could intervene to stop it) but it is, nonetheless, not directly caused by him. What this means is that God permits some sin – sin that he is rightly sovereign over because he could act to stop it – but he chooses to permit that sin in order to serve his greater purposes. This would be seen most fully in the death of Jesus Christ. This event was rightly deemed sinful (cf. Acts 2:23, 4:27f) but was, nonetheless, planned by God and permitted according to his sovereign will to serve his plan of salvation and greater glory. In this way, God is not the author of sin but he may permit sin for sufficient reason, to use the terminology of Liebniz.

With that said, in respect to our case study from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, who caused the sin? Was it God who incited David according to 2 Samuel 24:1b? Was it Satan who – according to 1 Chronicles 21:1 – incited David to disobey? Or, was it David who – according to both verses – was the one proactively sinning? The reality is that all three are true. How does God incite us to sin? He simply permits our hearts to behave in the way they naturally would. Likewise, Satan cannot make us sin but rather may tempt us according to our own sinful desires. He can only do so within the permissive will of God; that is, Satan only tempt us as God permits him to do so. Similarly, though God can stop sin he may permit it for his own glorious purposes. This means we are responsible for our sin, Satan may tempt us and yet God still remains sovereign over all.

To come back to Pope Francis’ problem with the Lord’s Prayer, if he had a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty it wouldn’t present an issue for him. Lead us not into temptation is simply another way of asking God, in his sovereignty, to not allow us to go after the sinful inclinations of our heart. Indeed, Reformed theology teaches that without the work of the Holy Spirit upon our heart we can do nothing other than sin. This request is followed up with the other side of that coin, ‘deliver us from evil’. Again, for God to deliver from evil requires him to be sovereign over that evil to begin with.

Whether we take the view that the particular line of the Lord’s Prayer should be translated as ‘deliver us from the evil one’ i.e. Satan or, we point to Jesus’ words that evil flows from our own hearts and, therefore, it is a request to be kept from sin; the point remains the same. Satan cannot cause us to sin but can only tempt us. When we sin, it is because we have yielded to the sinful desires of our heart instead of the Spirit who dwells therein.

Either we are asking God to keep us from Satan’s temptations so that we won’t sin in line with our sinful desires; or, we are asking God to keep us from the sin to which our hearts incline and, by extension, from the successful temptations of Satan. In either case, we are not suggesting God leads us into temptation but are specifically asking him not to allow us in his sovereignty to be tempted. That is, do not permit Satan to tempt us and keep us from the sinful inclinations of our heart to which we naturally tend and cannot avoid without God’s intervention.

The problem Francis faces in calling for a different translation is that, in so doing, he undermines the doctrine of God’s sovereignty altogether. The Lord’s Prayer, read properly, does not suggest God tempts us. Rather, it suggests that God in his sovereignty may permit temptation to come to us and, likewise, may keep us from temptation and any resulting sin. The prayer is simply asking God not to allow temptation to come and, if it does, to keep us from sin. But by changing the translation two problems arise.

First, we undercut the reality of God’s total sovereignty over all things. We suggest there is an area of life over which God is not sovereign. Aside from standing against the weight of biblical data, that is the high road to Open Theism. There is a well-worn path that says God doesn’t control all things, which leads to the view that God only reacts to certain things, which shortly leads to the view that God doesn’t know all things which, in turn, leads to the views that God can change his mind and responds to future events capriciously as they arise. Such views undermine the entire concept of a foreknown, ordained plan of God in which we can be utterly confident going forward because God does not change and orders all events according to his sovereign good will.

Second, a change in the translation rather smacks of the tail wagging the dog. We typically translate scripture, try to understand it on its own terms and then handle the theological implications. We do not determine our theological position and then twist scripture in order to suit our predetermined views. Interestingly, Francis is suggesting precisely the kind of tactic beloved of progressive liberal Christians who are currently working to undercut millennia old biblical teachings to suit their favoured theological predilections. For a church that supposedly stands on the motto semper eadem (forever the same) it is remarkably close in method to that employed by those bent on changing all doctrine that does not accord with current cultural orthopraxy. To hear such things peddled by the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church is something of a surprise.

12 comments

  1. Worth a quick check but isn’t the same word used Hebrw and Greek for tempting and testing so God tests, context affecting translation.

    Like

  2. I have no issue with the sovereignty of God, and therefore of his ultimate responsibility for the temptation I receive at whoever’s hands – it is only temptation, after all. I am not lead to sin, only to the ‘testing’ of temptation. I am perfectly happy with the Job 1 position give us by the Bible, and the accurate translation of the word used by Jesus. It seems that the head of the Roman Catholic Church may in fact not be a Christian – but then I’ve been saying that for years.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Because I think and without looking, going to take a punt (without having looked) that this is how the venerable Archbishop goes that the then suggested gloss is that we are going to be tested but the question is whether that testing is for our refinement or whether to fall. God is sovereign and ordains testing for our good and growth -uses Satan as the direct causal instrument for it -his motive is for evil to cause us to fall.

    Like

  4. Another approach has been to think in terms of leading and guidance -echoes of Psalm 23 – where does God guide us, link to Lloyd Jones talking about how Paul’s 2I am not ashamed of the Gospel” is an understated way of negatively stating the positive “I glory in the Gospel” – lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil read together is a request to be led in paths of righteousness

    Like

  5. Whilst I don’t deny the difference between trials and temptations. Again, that is pretty much in line with Jamesian theology (Jame 1:12f). So, clearly what you say is true.

    However, the question for that interpretation in respect to the Lord’s prayer is two-fold. First, why have no translatators taken the view that it should be translated ‘trials’ if that is what is meant? Given the semantic range of the word, if ‘trials’ is in view I’d have expected to see it in common mainline translations, particularly those that favour dynamic equivalence. Only the New Testament for Everyone (NTE), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the International Children’s Bible translate it that way. Every other English version listed on Bible gateway translate it ‘temptation’. That is a lot of uniformity for a word that is meant to actually mean ‘trial’ or ‘testing’.

    Second, the immediate context doesn’t suggest ‘trial’ is the correct rendering. The keeping from evil (particularly if ‘the evil one’) makes more sense if the first thought was to keep us from temptation i.e. keep us from temptation AND the tempter. Contextually, that seems to make sense. Whilst I don’t think this second point is ultimately convincing, taken in conjunction with the former it seems to hold some water.

    Like

  6. Again, don’t disagree with that. But we can still rightly see God as sovereign even over our temptations and thus ask him not to allow Satan to tempt us. God is able to ‘lead us not’ into temptation by not allowing Satan, or our own sinful hearts, to tempt us. I think the issue is one of God’s sovereignty and is, as you say, stated negatively and positively.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Agreed. I suspect that what we are picking up on here are things we would want to unpack in exposition raising a further question – is the problem here that the Pope is treating something as a set public prayer when that probably wasn’t the original purpose. Oh you forgot Cliff Richard’s millennium prayer in your list of versions that translate as “time of trial” – how could you? 🙂

    Like

  8. Ah yes, that famed biblical scholar well regarding for his excellence on the Greek manuscript evidence. Dr Richard was a most unfortunate oversight – humblest apologies. Clearly we may now lay the matter to rest. It seems Pope Francis can rightly question the God who inspired the original manuscripts but no one should cast doubt on the excellencies of Cliff in respect to the intracacies of translation. Your rebuke has been noted.

    I suspect the bigger issue re Francis is not his reading of it as a public prayer per se but his Jesuit background. It often seems like, as principally evangelistically driven, where scripture doesn’t provide a “helpful” position for cultural reasons, Jesuits are prone to flattening the text to mean something more useful to their overarching aims. It is a tactic they employed during the counter-reformation and ever since – very often, specifically against the idea of God’s sovereignty. Molinism was birthed out of this sort of approach. It was a desire to ‘rescue’ God from the statements of his own word that they, or others, struggled with.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Glad that Cliff is getting appropriate recognition. We can also use his rendition of “I wish we’d all been ready” to put to bed debates about the rapture. Suspect you are right about the Jesuit tendency. On the question of reformed mission and Jesuit evangelism if Ian Shaw’s talk at Union on the Reformation and Mission is up on Vimeo it’s worth a look

    Like

Comments are closed.