NIV “flesh” or “sinful nature”

Thanks to Doug Chaplin, Mark Goodacre and Matthew Montonini for providing a chain of links to a paper by Douglas Moo, chairman of the CBT, the group charged with the revision of the NIV, entitled Flesh in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator.

The NIV has long been criticised for its rendering of the Greek word sarx, as used by Paul in his letters, as “sinful nature”, rather than the traditional “flesh”. In his paper, on the first page, Moo reveals that after 1995, so presumably in the preparation of TNIV, this translation choice was reviewed, but

The committee as a whole decided in the end to retain “sinful nature” as the usual rendering for the negative use of sarx in Paul. I am not sure that I agree with this decision … in all thirty places where the NIV translates sarx “sinful nature” the TNIV has done the same …

The remainder of the paper is an in depth analysis of how Paul has used sarx in Romans and of the translation options for this word. As far as I can tell from a skim read, this is a model example of how to approach this kind of difficult exegetical and translational issue, and provides useful insight into how the CBT and other translators go about their work.

Moo concludes:

The decision on whether to pursue a generally concordant translation or a dynamically equivalent translation of sarx depends, in the last analysis, on translation philosophy and intended audience. Neither decision is right or wrong apart from such variable considerations. …  If we are to hope for a Bible which an entire congregation can use, the readability of a more contextually nuanced translation such as the TNIV may be the best option.

Nevertheless this is an issue which the CBT is bound to revisit in their renewed discussions in preparation for the NIV 2011 update. And since their chairman is “not sure that [he] agree[s]” with the NIV and TNIV renderings, this is one place where we may well see a change in 2011. While I’m sure they will genuinely welcome any contributions to this debate, they may well have seen them all before.

Posted in: NIV

33 thoughts on “NIV “flesh” or “sinful nature”

  1. Joel says:

    Not surprisingly, it’s a well written and informative essay.

    To get a sense of the issues regarding sarx, imagine translating the word “adult” from English into another language. “Adult” in English means “not a child anymore,” but it also means “pornographic.” While the meanings are related, they certainly are not the same, and not all languages use “adult” the way English does.

    These sentences demonstrate:

    Only adults get to vote in America.
    That’s a conversation for adults.
    That’s an adult conversation
    That’s a book store for adults.
    That’s an adult book store.

    The first would be easy to translate into another language. So would the last. But we would have to use different words in each case if the other language didn’t use “adult” the English does.

    The second sentence is pretty clear, too.

    But (3) and (4) are really tricky. They’re ambiguous (at least in my dialect). Worse, look at how close (4) and (5) are. It would be easy for a non-English speaker to make a mistake. And it looks like (2) and (3) are close in the same way that (4) and (5) are close, but as an English speaker I know that they’re not.

    Now to really get a sense of translating sarx, try doing (1)-(5) in 2,000 years.

  2. Craig L. Adams says:

    No. The phrase “sinful nature” is not an acceptable translation of σάρξ in the Pauline epistles. No. It is not “dynamic equivalence.” This translation posits the existence of an entity *the sinful nature* whose existence is not necessarily implied by the use of the term σάρξ.

    I say this fully aware (and partly because) those of us in the Wesleyan tradition have been the WORST of all in positing the existence of an evil entity in human nature that needs to be *eradicated. (If you care see: If you don’t care, skip it, it’s long.)

    The NIV makes the Bible teach a *good entity vs. bad entity* approach to the Christian life sometimes deemed the Doctrine of the Two Natures (or whatever).

    But, in the teachings of Paul he may simply be speaking of natural human drives and tendencies which need to be denied and curbed. He is not necessarily positing the existence of a little nasty demon-thing inside of us!

    This idiosyncratic NIV translation of Paul’s letters is one of the reasons I no longer personally use the NIV or recommend it to others.

  3. CD-Host says:

    One of the core dichotomies of John flesh vs. spirit. Paul makes use of flesh frequently in a similar way. If you are going to do flesh as “sinful nature” then spirit must become something like “divine spark” otherwise you lose the theme. I think it is a bad translation in general and the NIV/TNIV deserves the criticism for this.

    Craig == excellent point on the theological implications of this in terms of holiness writers. Thank you, you taught me something there.

  4. Tim Worley says:

    While I have no problem with contextually warranted renderings “sinful nature” for the traditional “flesh”, and “live” for the traditional “walk”, these seem to be the two most prominent areas of criticism not related to overall translation philosophy or to gender. And I’ll admit that as I read from the HCSB this morning (which retains “flesh”), the point really came home to me in a way that it doesn’t normally when reading from the (T)NIV. While I believe context should direct decisions on rendering ambiguous terms like “sarx”, I do see value in retaining perhaps a greater degree of concordance. And from a practical standpoint (not that translation decisions should be driven by marketing), I’d be willing to venture that the two decisions to change “sinful nature” to “flesh” and “live” to “walk” would remove about 75% of the non-gender related criticisms of the NIV.

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Well, Tim, these changes might remove criticisms from one direction, but they would attract a lot of new criticism from other directions.

    I don’t think it would be a smart move from the NIV camp, in terms of general acceptability, towards more formal equivalence as you suggest. In that direction there is a crowded market, with ESV, NASB, HCSB and NRSV to compete with. But they would be in danger of losing more of their core market, readers and churches who don’t want a formal equivalent translation, to NLT.

    I think it is NLT which is picking up the largest number of former NIV readers – probably more so than ESV which is more likely picking up readers from KJV, RSV and NASB. I tend to think the NIV team would do better to move a little bit closer to NLT to avoid too much loss of readership from that direction. But I would be surprised to see more than a marginal change in the translation philosophy of the 2011 update.

  6. CD-Host says:

    I agree with Peter that Zondervan is not going to drop the mediating ABCD philosophy. It is far too core to the product and frankly this mediating aspect is what makes their product good. The NRSV, ESV and NASB are in the KJV tradition though and lack a high degree of concordance. I do think there is room for a more concordant formal translation, I’ve noticed the Concordant Interlinear has been getting very popular among the Internet crowd. So I wouldn’t confuse concordance with formal since the popular formal translations have a low degree of concordance.

    In terms of Jason’s essay I don’t think the only alternatives are “flesh” and “sinful nature” you just have to do it as a pair with spirit. Body works just as well, and there is a notion of sin originating from the body that still exists in modern english. Right now “sinful nature” is just a bad translation because it doesn’t pair with spirit. But lots of pairs work (though some have different shades of theology):

    spirit / body
    spirit / matter
    authentic being / corporal being
    divine spark / sinful nature
    essence / substance
    nothingness / substance


    So there are lots of good pairs. If it were me I would just have a big essay in the study bible on 5 dichotomies of John and footnote flesh in the translation to that essay. 21st century Americans are not raised in an environment of middle Platonism this isn’t fundamentally a problem of translation it is a problem of transculturation (to use Wayne’s word)

    So I’m not sure concordance is going to move things too much in the direction of formalness. I have the same pet peeve with the lack of concordance on aion. As far as the NLT I think the NIV2011 has 3 ways to go after it:

    1) More accurate (ABCD philosophy)
    2) More liberal (the NLT is much more conservative than people think), but the NIV2011 would need to move further left to make this a selling point. But again they could move left and push their “balanced philosophy”. We balance between secular scholarship and faithful scholarship, being consistent with archeology, linguistics without rejecting our Christian heritage
    3) Which leads to better scholarship
    4) More sophisticated study materials. The TNIV Study bible still has an edge and they could expand on that edge.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    CD, I doubt if it would help NIV to go more liberal, in any explicit way. To do so would certainly alienate its core market which is theologically conservative. In that market it would also find itself in competition with NRSV, REB and CEV. Perhaps more to the point is that there aren’t so many liberal Christians around and they don’t read the Bible so much – and the the liberal academics are happy with NRSV although it could do with some updating.

    Jonathan, the answer has to be both. Accuracy is of course primary, and is the first of the ABCD values which CD-Host mentions. But there is more than one way to be accurate in translation. And one which sells a lot of Bibles is going to get the accurate Word of God into more readers’ hands and hearts.

  8. Jonathan Morgan says:

    If the choice is between one translation and another (e.g. ESV vs. NIV) then it is easy to see it might affect Zondervan’s sales (and Biblica’s), but harder to see that it really affects people getting the word of God. In my personal opinion, anyone relying solely on one translation is probably making a mistake, since the nature of translation is such that there cannot be a perfect translation. My instinctive reaction is that if anyone is making a translation decision solely on the basis of sales it is probably wrong, and that (rightly or wrongly) is what I read in the comment.

    BTW, I’m deliberately not defining accuracy here, since it can mean so many things.

  9. Peter Kirk says:

    Jonathan, I didn’t mean to imply that “anyone is making a translation decision solely on the basis of sales”, and I don’t think anyone else was either. We were more speculating on what the effect of certain changes would be on sales. For Zondervan, as a commercial company, of course sales have to be an important consideration. But they also value their independence from the CBT which makes the translation decisions, as explained in this post here at BBB written by Stan Gundry of Zondervan. It is largely because of that independence that I wrote that “I would be surprised to see more than a marginal change in the translation philosophy of the 2011 update.”

  10. CD-Host says:

    Peter —

    Interesting comments. First off the numbers of evangelical and liberals may be closer than you are thinking ( ). Moreover liberal churches need a mediating translation the CEV is fully dynamic and the NRSV formal. I would agree with you the REB is a fantastic dynamic but….

    1) The reading level is higher
    2) It uses British English
    3) It is being marketed by Oxford, who couldn’t sell ice cubes in the Sahara

    I don’t think it has any US market share or likely to get any. And the REB is my recommendation for a bible to people.

    The NIV got to be the standard by being the conservative version of the NEB. There were no good. conservative mediating translations when the NIV came out. I think the situation on the left is closer. And I just don’t see how you appeal to the right and the left of the evangelical market today:

    * Do you read the NT into the OT?
    * Do you use gender accurate pronouns or mimic the Greek?
    * Do you harmonize between the gospels?
    * Do you assume a theologically educated audience or one that isn’t as educated?

    Those are either/or choices.

    The way I see it the NIV2011 can compete with the

    HCSB, original NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, NET

    or the NRSV, CEV, The Voice

    which would you rather compete with? More importantly the ESV and the NLT are highly non-scholarly while Zondervan has always been sort of pseudo-schoarly. I do really think they have a good point of attack here. IMHO Zondervan pretty much blew their lead they are could very easily end up where they were with the TNIV, a popular also ran rather than a major seller.

  11. CD-Host says:

    Johnathan —

    I think Zondervan is doing is exactly right. The aim of CBT/IBS/Biblica should be accuracy and aim of Zondervan should be market share.

    None of the mainstream bibles are exclusively focused on accuracy. I pick non-mainstream translation like the NET, REB, Gaus, Price, Brown and Comfort because I care so much about accuracy. So I wish mainstream translation were but they aren’t. The Isaiah 7:14 test ( ) is a good indication of that. In general moving left allows a bible to be more accurate because they can more freely break with tradition.

    The REB (mentioned above) is a great example of what happens to a terrific bible with incompetent marketing. And incidentally so is the TNIV. If the battle is between Crossway and Zondervan the NIV2011 has a chance. If it is between Wayne Grudem and Douglas Moo the NIV2011 is done for.

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Jonathan, obviously (I hope), the highest goal of any Bible version should be accurate translation. IF a translation is accurate and if it is promoted well, it may also get market share.

  13. Eric Rasmussen says:

    No phrase is a perfect replacement for σάρξ (sarx), but why not “human nature” (as in the TEV/GNT but no other major English translation)?

    “Sinful nature” is an understandable choice, but in my experience most people don’t read “sinful” as an adjective for “nature”, they read “sinful nature” as a compound noun and think Paul is teaching a “two natures” doctrine — that of a lower, sinful nature and a higher, spiritual nature existing side-by-side, rather than the conflict between the natural order and the Spirit, between human desires and the Spirit.

    As Craig Adams suggested in an earlier post, a person’s understanding of σάρξ can have serious practical implications in what they understand the ideal Christian life should be striving for — and a misunderstanding can be a major stumbling block.

    “Human nature” has a naturalistic connotation that will be understood by the non-Christian. And if a reader has been exposed to concepts such as Original Sin or Total Depravity, “sinful nature” is implied by and can easily be inferred from “human nature”.

  14. Eric Rasmussen says:

    I would keep the traditional NIV translation of capitalized “Spirit” for πνευμα (pneuma).

    That might be a different shade of theology than what for example a pairing with your interesting suggestion of “divine spark” might imply, but I think (as Moo pointed out in his essay on the problem in Paul) that the opposition here is of two realms — the human and the divine, the corrupted and dying (“carnal”) natural order of this physical world, with the point that the autonomous self of the sarx is a part of this corrupted order and therefore the seat of corrupted desires. Against this is the Spirit (pneuma which breaks in utterly from outside of this natural realm. (To me, “divine spark” might be taken to imply a second entity within us in this realm, much like the Two Natures misconception I am trying to avoid.) Pneuma is such a key term itself that I wouldn’t change it when it is paired with sarx.

    The Sarx is clearly not the body (soma) and is clearly not the desires themselves. There is no one perfectly adequate translation of sarx (and of course the NIV is not concordant with itself here as a comparison of Romans with John shows), but I think the term “flesh” has come to imply for many modern readers either the sex drive or an id versus superego struggle, and “sinful nature” tends to imply dual natures.

    Since Christ came “in the flesh” we are left with terms such as humanity or human. So I am still unable to think of a single better pairing than “human nature” versus “Spirit”.

  15. CD-Host says:

    Eric —

    Interesting. Most people do believe the spirit (or soul) is part of their nature not something that is breaking in from outside the natural realm. In other words I’m not sure your strategy and goal mesh well together.

    I also happen to think that is consistent with Hellensitic use that the soul has 3 parts: reason, appetite, and spirit. Where the spirit is geared towards honor and esteem.

    Which sounds a like, to use your Freud analogy and put it in modern terms:
    id = appetite
    ego = reason
    superego = spirit

    I think the problem is that Paul doesn’t live in a world with a clean separation between the natural and the supernatural. I agree that Paul is not using the word in a fully natural sense. I do understand the concern about two natures. I did a thread recently on the hypostatic nature where I started to ask questions and you can see that people are all over the place:

  16. Craig L. Adams says:

    I personally think Eric’s suggestion of “human nature” is a huge improvement over the NIV’s “sinful nature.” (Just letting you know that I’m still reading along.)

  17. Doyle l. Wesley, Jr. says:

    I also think Eric’s suggestion of “human nature” is a huge improvement over the NIV’s “sinful nature.” However, I noticed that when I’m discussing the topic, I have a tendency to actually refer to the “fleshly nature” rather than the “human nature”, sometimes interchanging “carnal” with “flesh.” This blog has given a bit to ponder on a very, very important issue.

  18. Eric Rasmussen says:

    CD, I personally believe Paul’s thought framework was more Hebraic than Hellenistic, although he certainly lived comfortably in both worlds.

    So if I understand your comments correctly we are both approaching the sarx/pneuma pairing from very different viewpoints of the interpretation of Paul’s thought, and both viewpoints have been commonly expressed elsewhere.

    One viewpoint sees both sarx (“flesh”) and pneuma (“spirit”) as relating to the doctrine of anthropology — parts of the soul or aspects of something within a person, even if the pneuma has a supernatural aspect to it.

    The second viewpoint sees the sarx as a single entity that is part of the (corrupted) natural order or realm, from which comes corrupted desires (the ephithumia of Romans 7 and Ephesians 2), and this viewpoint understands the pneuma in most passages to be the Holy Spirit as part of the new realm.

    (I think the passages in John line up with this nicely too.)

    This second viewpoint is what Moo describes in his essay and I believe is the reason “Spirit” is capitalized in the relevant passages in Romans and Galatians.

    So in that context, assuming the CBT is following the second viewpoint, I believe that this is exactly why a pairing of “human nature” with “Spirit” (capitalized) for sarx and pneuma should be used — it makes the most sense and expresses that intent in the most unambiguous way.

  19. Wayne Leman says:

    This blog has given a bit to ponder on a very, very important issue.

    Thanks, Doyle. We’ll take that as a compliment. We really do try to raise legitimate translation issues on this blog. And we encourage civil discussion about them. There are translation solutions which can do justice to the forms and meanings of the original biblical texts as well as the forms of translation languages such as English. As Scot McKnight is blogging (see my lastest post about his series), there may not be a single “right” solution. There may be a variety of solutions, often with advantages and sometimes disadvantages for each one.

  20. Jason A. Staples says:


    The biggest problem with using “body” is that Paul makes a subtle but clear distinction between “flesh” and “body,” especially in 1 Corinthians 15. Your breakdown of the three aspects of the soul is surely right, though, and the “flesh” is simply associated with the “appetite” part of the soul (the “id,” as it were). I still think the average English reader can get that out of “flesh” just as well as any other term.

  21. Cherie Goodpasture says:

    Down with the “sinful nature” and back to the “flesh”. Anything other than that is wrong. It gives people excuse to be pious christians who don’t take responsibility for their actions. The body or flesh is a vessel to be filled with a spirit. That spirit originally was the breath of Almighty God. We choose to fill it with other things. Now we have the advantage of the cross in which Christ conquered the flesh in the flesh and the permanant in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. So if you are still blaming things on your sin nature…get over it! Repent, renew your mind and work on being free!
    Now if we could only get the words “wicked” and “evil” figured out. Cause really all they are is “bad”.

  22. Gary Simmons says:

    I have to ask: how does basor in Genesis 6:2 relate to this discussion? Note that the NIV translates this as “mortal” with “corrupt” as an alternate. Both meanings are found in BDB’s entry for this word.

  23. John says:

    Here’s a question I asked on another post: Did first-century hearers think, “‘Flesh’—that’s a vivid metaphor,” or did they just think “Sinful nature,” in the sense that sarx was just a technical term?

    I realize this is separate from the question of communicative accuracy. If a majority of the target audience will not understand ‘flesh’, it might be a poor translation anyway. )My pastor is currently preaching a sermon on Romans 8, and since the church uses the ESV, he has to keep stressing that ‘flesh’ means more than it seems in English. He keeps reminding the congregation that it means ‘sinful nature’.

    So the second question is, if sarx is a metaphor, is it possible to translate it literally and still convey the same meaning? In other words, is the metaphorical meaning Greek speakers would have thought of for sarx the same as the metaphorical meaning English speakers think of for ‘flesh’?

  24. Peter Kirk says:

    John, as I replied on the other post, that’s an excellent first question which cuts to the heart of the matter. If for Paul sarx was “a vivid metaphor”, that might justify an English rendering “flesh”.

    I think the test is really whether Paul expected his readers to understand in advance what he meant by sarx. If he didn’t, but intended his meaning to be understood from the context, then I guess we can use a word intended to be understood from the context – although we need to make sure we have translated the context accurately and clearly (and we also need people to read that context, not to read verses or short passages out of context). Alternatively, if this was a dead metaphor or a technical term which Paul expected his audience to be familiar with already, then we need to render his term in a way that the audience for the translation is familiar with already – and as your pastor realises “flesh” is not such a rendering even in an ESV-using church.

    My own suspicion is that sarx was more of a technical term than a “vivid metaphor”, but I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

  25. Peter Kirk says:

    Gary, you also asked an interesting question. Yes, Genesis 6:3 could well be part of the background to Paul’s usage, as basar there does seem to be on the dividing line between “human nature” and “sinful nature” just like Paul’s use of sarx. I wonder if anyone has worked on this possible background.

  26. iver larsen says:

    Douglass Moo is an excellent theologian with a lot of experience in Romans. His paper is not surprisingly aimed mainly at theologians, and he is writing as a theologian, not as a linguist.
    In the paper he divides the semantic field of SARX into 5 senses (although BAGD has 7 senses.) He then says:
    “The problem with SARX is not only that it is a technical term, but also…a polymorphous term.”
    He does not give any reasons for why he considers SARX a technical term. Maybe that is a common theological assumption or axiom?
    I would expect a technical term to have only one sense, so I find his statement a contradiction. Maybe he meant to say that his sense 5 (the “ethical” or “theologically most debated” sense) is a technical term, but even so, I would not agree. But I come to the text more as a linguist than a theologian. In my view, many theologians are still caught up in the concept that meaning is to be crammed into the individual words, and therefore a translation should focus on the word level and be as word-concordant as possible. I am influenced by Relevance Theory and put much more weight on the context, including extra-textual context, so that a sentence is “living” unit where each word contributes something to the overall sense. So, if I as a translator cannot find one particular word or phrase that covers the various nuances of the original, then I can put some of these nuances into other words in the sentence, striving to get the overall meaning across to my intended audience, without being hung up on concordance issues.
    Even the (modified literal) TNIV has used 28 different words or expressions to render SARX, says Moo. I have not checked how many different words they have used to translate SARX in sense 5, and Moo doesn’t tell us.
    So, when I translate Romans, I don’t choose between “sinful nature”, “human nature” or “flesh”, but I choose for each context what I think best translates the overall meaning in view of Paul’s general theology. (Because of this last phrase, a translator is necessarily also a theologian.)
    I think it is matter of focus and approach. I am more of a linguistically trained translator than a theologian, others are more theologians than linguistically trained translators.

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