What’s the issue?

This week I have been checking translation of the book of 1 John in another language. I actually check a literal English back translation, so I don’t have to know anything about that language. Here is approximately how 1 John 2:2 is back translated to English in this translation:

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world which have been atoned for.

There is possibly a serious translation issue with this translation. It looks like the translation does not reflect what the Greek text actually says. Can you spot the issue?

What relationship might the translation, as it stands, have with any possible theological position?

(We don’t know yet why the verse was translated as it was. It may turn out that there is simply some repetition required by the rules of the translation language. We’ll find out the answer to my question to the team when I get their response. I add this parenthesis because of our blogging guideline not to impute wrong motives to translation teams. I am not suggesting wrong motives on the part of this team. It may turn out to be a perfectly accurate translation without any theological bias. But we do need to be able to spot translation problems that *might* be based on theological bias, without accusing a team of wrong motives before we hear from them, something which has often happened with criticism of some English Bible translations.)

14 thoughts on “What’s the issue?

  1. codepoke says:

    Peter for the block! Our next category is theology, Alex. Peter controls the board.


    Yeah, as a limited guy, I’d love to like this mistake, but it sure looks like it’s utterly unfounded.

  2. DaveM says:

    This is very similar to the NIV:
    He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

    The only difference is the “which have been atoned for” on the end, but I don’t see how that changes the meaning.

    And this verse in general is used to argue against limited/particular/definite atonement, so I’d guess that this isn’t what’s meant, since Wayne is talking specifically about the translation, not the verse (I could be wrong though). Unless Wayne means that the addition changes the meaning so as to contradict the doctrine, though I’m not sure how…

    (Theological asides: this verse is surely just as problematic for the arminian as it is for the calvinist, as it _seems_ to support universalism. (I don’t see John 3:16 as being a problem for the calvinist position at all, though).

    And Peter: definite atonement is another name for the doctrine of limited atonement. Either this or particular atonement seem much better names than limited atonement to me, but this probably isn’t the place to discuss that!)

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Dave, I believe in a very definite act of atonement with very definite consequences, as described in the last part of this verse in NIV and any decent translations: the sins of the whole world have been atoned for. Any attempt to restrict the applicability of these words to only a subset of those sins, e.g. by adding “which have been atoned for” implying that there are other sins which have not been atoned for, is a denial of the biblical teaching on the atonement and of God’s love for the whole world, as expressed for example in John 3:16 and this verse. And any attempt to deny the true meaning of the unbiblical doctrine of limited atonement by renaming it “definite atonement” seems to be an attempt at obfuscation so that people don’t understand what they are being expected to believe.

  4. Dan Sindlinger says:

    The KJV translates the Greek term hILASMOS as “propitiation” in this verse. Where the same Greek term occurs in the Septuagint, the KJV translates it as follows:

    atonement – 2 times forgiveness – 1 time (Psalm 130:4)
    sin – 1 time (Amos 8:14) sin offering – 1 time (Ezekiel 44:27)

    The KJV translates the related Greek term hILASKOMAI as “make reconciliation” in Hebrews 2:17. The term occurs in only one other context in the New Testament, Luke 18:13, where the KJV translates it “be merciful”.

    The KJV translates another related Greek term hILASTERION as “propitiation” in Romans 3:25. The term occurs in only one other context in the New Testament, Hebrews 9:15, where the KJV translates it “mercy seat.” Where the same Greek term occurs in the Septuagint, the KJV translates it as follows:
    mercy seat – 23 times
    settle (NKJV, “ledge”) – 5 times
    lintel of the door (NKJV, “doorposts”) – 1 time

    The “mercy seat” was the lid of the ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence.

    While each of these related Greek terms convey the idea of atonement in some sense, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that any of them specifically refers to a substitutionary sacrifice, which I think is the implication in the undisclosed translation.

  5. DaveM says:

    Peter: Hmm, not sure that I see the addition in that way. I read is as:
    “the sins of the world, which HAVE been atoned for”

    i.e. NOT “only those which have been atoned for” – a clarification rather than a restriction.

    Perhaps that is issue that was being talked about, though.

    (As for “renaming” the names of doctrines, “limited” doesn’t appear at all in the translation of the Canons of Dort that I just looked at. TULIP seems to originate from around 1905. I’m not sure when the phrase “limited atonement” was first used, but from limited research the second half of the 19th century seems a plausible (I’ll happily be proved wrong on this though). “Particular Redemption” was the term used by Warfield, for example, so your argument here seems unconvincing. Some people’s version of the doctrine is certainly unbiblical. I do not know if that is what you’re rejecting, or if it’s that which I would consider to be found in Scripture, but we’re already at least semi-off-topic…)

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Dave, you may be right about the history of the term, but “limited atonement” is a clearer description of the doctrine as I understand, and reject, it. But this is not the place to go into details.

    I read the back translation on the assumption that it was in good English without the comma. I admit that in English with a comma it means something quite significantly different. I can only guess whether the language of the translation makes that same kind of distinction (not all languages do) and whether this nuance was presented correctly in the back translation.

    In any case, the phrase back translated “which have been atoned for” does not represent anything in the Greek, and this addition can only confuse readers. So unless it really is necessary for the structure of the target language it should be omitted.

  7. Tim Worley says:

    I’m coming at this with very little knowledge of Greek, and obviously no knowledge of the target language. I’m curious, though: is it possible that the phrase “which have been atoned for” is a clunky attempt to convey the idea:

    “and not only for our sins (which have been atoned for), but also for the sins of the whole world (which have likewise been atoned for)”

    Could this be an attempt to take an implied explanatory clause and rendering it inclusive of both sets of people (us and the rest of the world)?

    Also, while most of the discussion of the theological position behind the translation seems to focus on limited/definite/particular atonement, it seems there’s another possibility. Perhaps the focus is not on *whose* sins are atoned for, but rather *which* of our sins have been atoned for. Could this be taken to imply that only some of our sins are atoned for, and not others? I’m not arguing for that as a legitimate interpretation, but is it possible that something like that idea is being conveyed by this translation? That God will forgive one class of sins (e.g., impatience) but not another class (e.g., murder)?

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Tim asked:

    Could this be an attempt to take an implied explanatory clause and rendering it inclusive of both sets of people (us and the rest of the world)?

    Yes, Tim, it sure could be. And that is what I was trying to say in my post might be why that additional clause is there. I’m awaiting a response from the translation team to find out if that is the reason.

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    I agree with those who say this is linked to the extent of the Atonement in Calvinism. While Calvinists will answer differently the question of “For whom did Christ die?”, there is a further question involved in the mechanics of the sacrifice. The question would be of individual sins. Let’s take, for example, the so-called Unpardonable Sin. Was it atoned for? If it is never forgiven, then why say it was? Perhaps the explanatory phrase is an attempt to say, not so much that there are certain people not atoned for, but certain sins not atoned for. (I’m not a Calvinist myself, but think it’s worth understanding the position.)

    In my own reading, Calvinists have different ways of understanding this doctrine. For some (e.g. John Owen), the atonement was carried out with a specificity such that once done, it could only be applied to the elect. For others (e.g. Charles Hodge), there is nothing in the design of the atonement that prevents it being applied to anybody. It was ultimately intended for the elect, and will finally be applied to the elect only, but could hypothetically have been applied to anyone, even after it was carried out.

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