One of the many crosses my children have to bear in having me for a father is that I find it hard to stop being an editor.
“Me and Elle are going to the beach today, Dad. Can you give us a lift?”
“Not until you can say: Elle and I are going to the beach today.”
“Oh Dad!” Then smiling sweetly, “Father, can you please drive Elle and I to the beach?”
“Not until you say: Can you drive Elle and me to the beach?”
There follows much eye-rolling, and the inevitable mini-lecture from their editor-father (“You wouldn't say: Can you drive I to the beach. So why would ask me to drive Elle and I?”).
I harbour a (probably vain) hope that years of this sort of torture will have had some effect. I hope that one day they will teach their own children that ‘versing’ is not a word (as in “Who are you versing in football today?”). I hope that they will come to appreciate the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’. I hope that somehow the idea will have seeped into their image-addled Gen Y brains that words matter, that words are powerful, and that choosing the right word can make all the difference.
This is certainly true in theology. Choosing the right word can make all the difference in the world.
I was reminded of this recently while browsing through Tyndale's New Testament.1
Tyndale's Bible (which was the forerunner and basis for the King James Bible) shaped the English language. His words and phrases are part of our history and our daily speech: “let there be light”, “my brother's keeper”, “the salt of the earth”, “the powers that be”, “a law unto themselves”, “filthy lucre”, “fight the good fight” and plenty more.
Where he couldn't find a suitable English word to render something from the original languages, Tyndale came up with his own new words. It was Tyndale who gave us words such as ‘passover’, ‘atonement’, ‘scapegoat’ and ‘mercy seat’.
Tyndale's translational decisions also helped make the gospel clear for the many millions who have read his words since. For example, in the Latin Bible that was the standard version in Tyndale's time, the Greek word metanoia was translated ‘penance’, a rendering which well-suited the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine of sinners making amends for their sin through acts of contrition (like saying the rosary a certain number of times). Tyndale translated metanoia more accurately as ‘repentance’, the turn-around of mind and heart and life that happens in response to the gospel.
However, not all of Tyndale's word choices made it into the King James Bible, and so have not flown on into the standard English translations we have used ever since. No doubt this was quite right in some cases. But I have always thought it a great shame that Tyndale's translation of ekklesia didn't make the cut. Tyndale translated this important New Testament word as ‘congregation’; it was changed in the King James Bible to ‘church’.
‘Congregation’ was (and is) much the better rendering. Like ekklesia it is an ordinary, everyday word rather than a specialized religious one (as ‘church’ is). And like ekklesia it really only has one meaning, ‘a group or gathering of people’. ‘Church’, on the other hand, has a number of meanings that aren't part of the semantic domain of ekklesia (such as ‘a building for Christian religious activities’, ‘the institution that organizes and governs the regular gathering of a group of Christians', ‘the denomination that consists of several of these institutions’, ‘all the Christian people of the world’, and so on).
In this sense, ‘church’ is not a New Testament word (or is no longer). It overlaps with ekklesia, but has many meanings and associated concepts that are some considerable semantic distance from ekklesia. And we can't help but have all these other meanings and associations in our minds when read ‘church’ in our Bibles.
This is why it is so illuminating to read Tyndale, who translates ekklesia as ‘congregation’ wherever it is found in the New Testament—even in Acts 19:32 where the riotous mob in Ephesus is called a “congregation” that is “all out of quiet”.
Tyndale's use of ‘congregation’ helps us see a whole range of verses with fresh eyes. Here are just a few examples:
- “… thou art Peter: and upon this rock I will build my congregation. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)
- “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, whereof the holy ghost hath made you overseers, to rule the congregation of God, which he hath purchased with his blood.” (Acts 20:28)
- Paul by vocation an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and brother Sosthenes. Unto the congregation of God which is at Corinth. To them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all that call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, both of theirs and of ours. (1 Cor 1:1-2)
- To the intent that now unto the rulers and powers in heaven might be known by the congregation the manifold wisdom of God … (Eph 3:10)
- Unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, be praise in the congregation by Jesus Christ, throughout all generations from time to time. Amen. (Eph 3:20-21)
- Husbands love your wives, even as Christ loved the congregation, and gave himself for it, to sanctify it, and cleansed it in the fountain of water through the word, to make it unto himself, a glorious congregation without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing: but that it should be holy and without blame. (Eph 5:25-27)
- And he is the head of the body, that is to wit of the congregation: he is the beginning and first begotten of the dead, that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. (Col 1:18)
- Now I joy in my sufferings which I suffer for you, and fulfil that which is behind of the passions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the congregation … (Col 1:24)
- … but and if I tarry long, that then thou mayest yet have knowledge how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the congregation of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth. (1 Tim 3:15)
Tyndale's translation constantly takes us back to a gathering of people. It keeps prompting us to ask, “Which congregation? Which people? Where are they gathering? And why?” It's a shame our modern translations have lost this.
Mind you, who is to blame? I guess I have to face the truth. It was all the fault of an editor.
1 David Daniell, Tyndale's New Testament (in a modern-spelling edition and with an introduction by David Daniell), Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.