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NIV and NET improved their translation of Colossians 1:16

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NIV and NET Improve Their Previous Translation of Colossians 1:16

Bentley C.F. Chan

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16, NIV 2011)

Colossians 1:16 begins with the crucial words, “For in him all things were created,” where “in him” refers to Jesus Christ. This is the literal and straightforward translation of Paul’s words. But some Bibles such as ESV and NASB prefer the non-literal translation, “For by him all things were created”. The difference of one tiny phrase—in him versus by him—carries immense implications for trinitarianism. That is because “by him” promotes trinitarianism by suggesting that Jesus Christ is God the Almighty Creator, the one by whom all things were created.

Semantically and grammatically, however, there is no doubt that the correct rendering is “in him” and not “by him,” as admitted by many trinitarians. For a detailed discussion on this, click here. We won’t go into the technical details in this article, for it suffices for our present purposes to summarize a few salient points:

  • The key phrase in Colossians 1:16 is en autō, a Greek term which literally means “in him” rather than “by him”. In fact en is the standard Greek word for “in”. If the spelling of en looks familiar to us, it is because the English “in” comes from the Greek “en” via Latin “in” and Old English “in” (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • It is crucial for us to note that ESV, a highly trinitarian Bible, is inconsistent in how it translates en autō in Paul’s letters when it refers to Christ. The inconsistency is not merely the kind of stylistic variation that is normal in writing and speaking, but one that is so narrowly targeted as to serve a specific theological purpose. ESV translates en autō as “by him” in Colossians 1:16, but in the rest of Paul’s writings, even the very next verse 1:17, ESV translates en autō differently as “in him” without exception! The same is true of NASB, another trinitarian Bible.
  • By contrast, many mainstream Bibles, including NIV, NJB, RSV, NRSV, REB, translate en autō in Colossians 1:16 as “in him” (this is the literal and straightforward rendering).
  • Surprisingly or perhaps not, the trinitarian rendering “by him” for Colossians 1:16 is rejected by many trinitarian authorities, including: Vincent’s Word Studies, Robertson’s Word Pictures, Nicoll’s Expositor’s Greek Testament, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Pulpit Commentary, Lange’s Commentary, Meyer’s Critical and Exegetical Commentary, Henry Alford’s Greek Testament, and many others.
  • The trinitarian rendering “by him” for Colossians 1:16 is also rejected by the standard BDAG Greek-English lexicon which doubts the instrumental meaning (“by him”) for Colossians 1:16, a verse that BDAG places instead under the 4th definition of “en” with the heading, “marker of close association within a limit, in” (italics BDAG’s).
  • Finally, there is no scriptural basis for rejecting “in him” in Colossians 1:16 when “in Christ” is already a central concept in Paul’s writings, being the sphere in which God carries out His work of salvation (e.g., Rom.3:24; 6:23; 1Cor.1:30; 2Cor.1:21; 5:17; etc.).

This brings us to the heart of our present essay: Two standard Bibles, NIV and NET, have reversed their previous trinitarian translation of en autō in Colossians 1:16, probably because of the overwhelming biblical evidence against it.

The first edition of New International Version (1984) had “by him” for Colossians 1:16. But in its second edition (2011), NIV reversed course and changed it to “in him”. The reversal is seen in the following screenshot of the Olive Tree Bible program, where the upper half shows “by him” in NIV 1984, and the lower half shows “in him” in NIV 2011:



More recently I got a mild shock when I saw the exact same reversal, from “by him” to “in him,” in the second edition of New English Translation (NET), another mainstream Bible. (The shock comes from the fact that NET’s senior New Testament editor is Daniel B. Wallace, an ardent trinitarian). The NET Bible in its first edition (2005) had “by him” for Colossians 1:16. But in the second edition (2017), this was changed to “in him”. The change is documented at https://netbible.com/changes, which has a full list of changes between the first and second editions. NET’s revision of Colossians 1:16 is seen in the following screenshot of the Firefox browser (the strikethrough and the red highlight are NET’s):



Catholic Bibles generally translate Colossians 1:16 correctly

Catholic Bibles generally translate Colossians 1:16 correctly, and certainly more accurately than most Protestant Bibles. (Note: I was a Protestant for three decades but have never been a Catholic.)

I own six Catholic print Bibles, three of them English, three of them French. My English ones (New Jerusalem Bible, Revised English Bible, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible) all have “in him” for Colossians 1:16. Among my French ones (Parole de Vie, La Bible Nouvelle Traduction, La Bible en Français Courant), the first two have “en lui” (in him) and the third has “par lui” (by him).

I also have three Catholic Bibles in e-book format (New American Bible, TOB, Bible de Jérusalem), all of which have “in him” or the French equivalent “en lui”.

Hence, with just one exception, my nine Catholic Bibles all translate Colossians 1:16 correctly as “in him”.

For a long time I puzzled over the fact that Catholic Bibles generally translate Colossians 1:16 correctly, but not so with Protestant Bibles even though Catholics are not any less trinitarian than Protestants.

This is what I think is the reason: The Catholic church has two pillars of doctrine, that is, two rules of faith: the Holy Scriptures and Church tradition. In actual ecclesiastical practice, however, it is church tradition which ultimately governs the interpretation of Scripture. So even if a verse such as Colossians 1:16 does not fall in line with trinitarian doctrine, the Catholic church can fall back on church tradition for its interpretation. But Protestantism has no such recourse because they nominally have only one rule of faith: the Holy Scriptures. (I say “nominally” because Protestants, in their defense of trinitarianism, would often appeal to tradition and to church councils such as the Council of Nicaea of 325 convened by the Roman emperor Constantine.) But without the backstop of church tradition in Protestantism, at least in theory, there is the subconscious pressure to tweak a Bible verse for doctrinal conformity.

For a long time I was unsure of this pessimistic assessment, but became more sure after getting the book “Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology” (2008, Eerdmans), by the trinitarian theologian Jason E. Vickers. Chapter 3 of the book, “The Protestant Dilemma,” is a detailed account (33 pages) of the inner tensions within Protestantism a few centuries ago in the face of theological pressure from the Catholic church as well as academic pressure from biblical scholarship which presented strong biblical evidence against trinitarianism. In the face of pressure from various directions, including the biblical evidence, some Protestants grappled with the question of what constitutes the rule of faith, and whether to restore church tradition as a rule of faith (ultimately at the expense of Scripture) in order to safeguard trinitarianism. In reading this chapter, I got the impression that trinitarian doctrine is often regarded as more important than Scripture.

But I like to be positive about books, Bible translations, and people even if I disagree with them. So I want to say something positive about ESV: I am confident that no improper motive ever came into play in the translation of Colossians 1:16, even if it was subconsciously influenced by trinitarian doctrine. Despite my early concern that ESV’s General Editor is not a Hebrew or Greek specialist but a theologian (who later became Theological Editor of the ESV Study Bible), I have never doubted anyone’s good intentions in the ESV translation project. They ultimately did a careful translation, producing an accurate Bible (apart from a few critical verses, in my opinion), which is why the ESV is one of my three favorite Bibles.

 

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church