confess vs. declare

In my preceding post I surveyed BBB readers to  find out what your understanding of the usual, ordinary meaning of “confess” is. Thank you to each of you who answered the survey; your answers confirmed my own intuitions about the usual meaning of “confess.” Oh, I also enjoyed your creativity in the fill-in-the-blank answers.

I also posted my survey on the Bible Translation Email Discussion List. Today one of the subscribers to that list wrote a followup message:

I like that wording by the “God’s Word” Bible. The word “declare”
seems better English to me, and perhaps more easily understood by those unfamiliar with Biblish.

I’ve been reading a bit from the God’s Word Bible recently, and
generally am impressed by it. I understand a new publisher is in
charge of that version now, and it can actually be found and
purchased. Just a short while back I could not locate new copies of that Bible.

I replied:

I declare, ____! That’s exactly where I was headed with this. I’m glad you wrote it. I don’t think that the word “confess” is used in current English to state anything other than a wrongdoing. There is the church English usage, such as “Let us confess our faith,” but I don’t think that usage is understood by anyone who has not learned the church English dialect. It seems to me that English Bibles would more accurately translate the meaning of Peter’s “confession” if they translated it as Peter’s declaration.

Compare following Bible translations using the traditional word “confess” and translations which use words which more accurately communicate to current English speakers that no wrongdoing is being admitted to. (It is possible that English speakers in the past actually used the word “confess” both about admitting a wrongdoing as well as a declaration of faith, but if so, that is no longer the case, except in Church English which is no understood by most English speakers today.)

John 1:20, quoting John the Baptist (boldfacing added):

CONFESS, etc.

And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. (KJV)

He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” (ESV)

He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Christ. (NIV)

He confessed – he did not deny but confessed – “I am not the Christ!” (NET)

He spoke openly and, remaining true to himself, admitted, “I am not the Messiah.” (ISV)

DECLARE, etc.

John did not refuse to answer, but spoke out openly and clearly, saying: “I am not the Messiah.” (TEV/GNB)

He told them plainly, “I am not the Messiah.” (CEV)

John didn’t refuse to answer. He told them clearly, “I’m not the Messiah.” (GW)

He did not refuse to answer, but he declared: “I am not the Messiah.” (HCSB)

He came right out and said, “I am not the Messiah.” (NLT)

Rom. 10:9

CONFESS, etc.

That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. (KJV)

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (ESV)

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (NIV)

because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord a and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (NET)

If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved. (TEV/GNB)

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (NLT)

if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (HCSB)

DECLARE, etc.

If you declare that Jesus is Lord, and believe that God brought him back to life, you will be saved. (GW)

If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (ISV)

So you will be saved, if you honestly say, “Jesus is Lord,” and if you believe with all your heart that God raised him from death. (CEV)

It requires an extra step of mental processing for those within a faith community to recognize that the usual meaning of “confess” is not used in these two passages. For many (perhaps most) people who are not members of faith communities, this non-standard usage of “confess” in John 1:20 and Rom. 10:9 will not communicate that the intended meaning is “declare”. And not communicating the right meaning is a form of inaccurate translation. We should not have to further translate words in a translation for people to understand that translation. The purpose of a translation is to allow people who speak their own language to understand the meanings of words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and other linguistic forms in the original biblical language texts. Both churched as well as non-churched English speakers understand the Bible more accurately when it is translated in a standard dialect of English, not a special religious dialect.

25 thoughts on “confess vs. declare

  1. codepoke says:

    Well said, Wayne. Thank you for the correction.

    I thought of you when I read “wine on the lees” last night in the NKJV. I still haven’t gone and looked it up. I wonder how many blessings are lost because our grandmother tongue sounds more pious than our mother tongue.

  2. Wayne Leman says:

    The TNIV is conspicuously absent.

    That is because it is no longer being published. Instead, the NIV will be revised and published as the NIV, following a tradition other Bibles versions (KJV, RSV, GNB, NLT, HCSB, NET, etc.) have had of retaining their name throughout revisions.

  3. Theophrastus says:

    (1) The TNIV is still being published, as a quick glance at Zondervan’s website will confirm. Furthermore, according to Zondervan it will continue to be published after 2011 — only new editions will include the “NIV-one-one”.

    (2) Can you list any major dictionary that indicates the usage you term “religious dialect” is archaic?

    (3) Certainly “declare” is the wrong word to suggest as a substitute for expressing a religious belief or affiliation. I cannot “confess the sky is blue” although I can “declare the sky is blue”. The word you are thinking of is not “declare” but “profess”.

    (4) Do you object to names such as the English King “St. Edward the Confessor” or “St. Maximus the Confessor”. If so, what do you suggest the Latin and Eastern churches rename all their confessors of the faith (recall that all saints are classified either as martyrs, evangelists, apostles, virgins, or confessors)?

  4. Jason A. Staples says:

    “Declare” is way better than “confess” most of the time, but I would argue that there are times where the Greek “homologew” is best translated “pledge fealty/allegiance” rather than “declare.”

  5. Wayne Leman says:

    Theophrastus, thanks for your comments, as always. I’d like to interact more with your comments, but it’s bedtime now and I must sleep since we fly home tomorrow and I have only a day at home before flying to Alaska for a week with my parents. I need to be rested for my trips.

    I do need to emphasize that I have blogged about *current* English, not English of the past. The English word “confess” may have fit in non-pejorative contexts in the past. It doesn’t today, as my small sampling of survey results shows, except in church English, which often retains older meanings of English words.

    Perhaps “profess” is better than “declare” in some environments, but current English has a meaning component to “profess” that invites the inference that what one is saying is not true, e.g. “He professes to be honest, but we all really know what he’s like,” “He professes to be a person of faith, but we’d never know it by how he acts.” I don’t think I, personally, could say, “He professed the Apostles’ Creed.” I think I would have to say, instead, “He declared that he believes/affirms the Apostles’ Creed.”

    I hope I can return to your comments before too long, maybe when I’m visiting my father and he falls asleep. There is Wifi in the care facility.

  6. Tapani Simojoki says:

    I don’t tend to write here, although I read most posts. However, this one got my goat, so I will break the silence.

    (1) At the risk of committing an etymological fallacy (as defined by DA Carson), the trouble with declare (or indeed profess) as translations of ‘homologeo’ is that it loses the ‘homo’ of the word. Now, it is true that in ‘confess’ it’s pretty well hidden to modern eyes that aren’t familiar with Latin and have no idea what the ‘fessing’ bit is all about. Of course, ‘homologeo’ is used in more than one sense in the NT, but taking the Rom example given above: it’s not simply that one is ‘declaring’, but one is con-fessing, that is, declaring-with, or con-professing, or some other monstrosity.

    (2) Which brings me to the second point. I am not unsympathetic to the desire to make the Bible speak English as the English (or, if needs must, other English-speaking nations) speak it. However, there is a certain amount of ‘technical’ terminology that will forever remain Biblish, or at least Church English–because it is theologically significant. Yes, there may be a secular equivalent for the secular Greek word, but you can only use that at the cost of losing significantly the intended meaning of the text. ‘Hilasterion’ in Rom 3 is one example. I would argue that in Rom 10, ‘homologeo’ is another.

    As I know no-one here would dispute, the job of the translator is to make the translation communicate to the modern reader as closely as possible what the original reader would have heard. And since the biblical writers, esp. in the NT, frequently subverted current language for theological ends, translations must do the same. Add a footnote if need be.

    [Disclaimer: I know the above states the obvious more than once. No insult to the intelligence of the reader is intended.]

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    Cynthia Lennon writes, “John confessed to me that he had been unfaithful.” Did he confess it, declare it, or profess it to her?

    Jutta T. Bendremer writes, “Bertha confessed that, although she has never lost complete faith, she ’sometimes feel[s] there is no God.’” Did Bertha confess, declare, or profess her feelings?

    Abraham Lincoln says, to the surprise of some of his listeners, “Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social, and political evil.” Does the presidential candidate really confess, or does he only declare or has he merely professed his contra-biblical, counter-cultural, anti-consitutional position?

    Haven’t these writers and speakers used “confess” in natural and even acceptable ways in 2009?

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Haven’t these writers and speakers used “confess” in natural and even acceptable ways in 2009?

    What are the dates when each of your quotes were made, Kurk?

    The Lincoln quote especially sounds outdated to me for current English.

    We discover current usage by surveying current native English speakers. For those who are not satisfied with the number of responses I got to my survey, I am not either. However, I am fairly certain that if we surveyed a thousand more native English speakers today, from a random sample, we would get the same results. The primary meaning of “confess” is to admit to some wrongdoing. I believe that current evidence demonstrates that most English speakers today do not have a meaning for “confess” other than that one. I am, as always, happen to be proven wrong. Some English speakers today are able to experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when they encounter a sentence such as the one uttered by Lincoln. When we experience such dissonance, we automatically search in our mental lexicon for possible meanings other then the primary one we know for a word. Some of such speakers, due to their literary background (of older literature, or experience with higher registers of English), will be able to find in their mental lexicon the meaning that Lincoln intended.

    Gotta stop. Have to eat breakfast and head to the airport.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    And since the biblical writers, esp. in the NT, frequently subverted current language for theological ends, translations must do the same.

    I have seen this claim before. I have yet to see proof that it is true. My sense is that the NT authors used the Koine Greek words with the same meanings that they had throughout the Roman Empire. Obviously, people tweak words slightly whenever they speak, in different contexts. But that tweaking is not usually enough to create a new technical meaning. Sometimes it is, but the fact that English theologians consider certain Greek words to be technical words and so translate them with English technical terms does not prove that they were technical terms originally. That would be the tag wagging the proverbial dog.

    To prove the claim we need to compare NT usage of Koine (Hellenistic) words with usage of those words in contemporary literary. Quite a bit of this research has been done. It used to be believed that the Greek of the NT was a unique dialect. Many papyri have since been discovered that demonstrate that Koine Greek was used in everyday communication, for business exchanges, etc. The language of the NT is the same language used throughout the Roman Empire, so the evidence demonstrates.

    John used the word Logos to the Christ. But he was still using the word in the same way that others in the Roman Empire understood the word Logos. It was a meaningful word and that is why John used it. John then *applied* the meaning of that word to the Christ. That does not mean that Logos became a technical word. It still retained its original meaning but now took on more more allusion, for Christians, to the Christ.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Wayne, Thanks for the reply before breakfast, before you got on the plane!

    Cynthia Lennon writes in 2006 and Jutta T. Bendremer in 1997. Abraham Lincoln speaks in 1858.

    The context for Mr. Lincoln’s comment what one historian calls “the most famous political debate in American history.” He’s positioning himself against the stronger, more popular candidate in the debate, Senator-Judge Stephen A. Douglas. Mr. Lincoln is confessing (yes also professing and declaring perhaps) himself to be part of the minority; he’s admitting to a democratic public that he’s in a weaker position. It’s great rhetoric!

    Wayne, you may be correct in saying, in 2009 in America, “The primary meaning of ‘confess’ is to admit to some wrongdoing.” You also may be right to think the “The Lincoln quote especially sounds outdated.” Lincoln’s self-reflexive use of “confess” may be a minor position in the extreme, linguistically and rhetorically, with respect to “current English.”

    But does that mean that historians and publishers of the most famous Lincoln-Douglas debate have to update the English? Do we editors and translators have to be ever mindful of the possibility of “cognitive dissonance” in majority readers?

    And more importantly, won’t we all lose something by reading that Lincoln now “declares” or “professes” what so powerfully in 1858 he was able to “confess” (yes, “confess,” ironically, as if he were seeming to admit somehow he might indeed be in the wrong for opposing the then-popular, then-biblical, then-legal American stand for slavery)?

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk wrote:

    Wayne, Thanks for the reply before breakfast, before you got on the plane!

    You’re welcome, Kurk. Just got back home. Can’t figure out what time zone I’m on!

    But does that mean that historians and publishers of the most famous Lincoln-Douglas debate have to update the English? Do we editors and translators have to be ever mindful of the possibility of “cognitive dissonance” in majority readers?

    It sounds to me like your question has to do with whether or not to update English that was written or spoken in the past. I have to leave that question for others. As a translator, I must wrestle with how to translate texts that originally were written in Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to languages currently spoken, including English. Changing the words of original texts is outside of my job description and outside the scope of this blog post.

    Personally, I think that *if* people want to read Chaucer or Tyndale’s Bible translation or the KJV or the L-D debates, they should be free to do so in their original form, learning the differences in the English from current English, in order to understand those documents as accurately as possible. I enjoyed reading and memorizing Chaucer, the KJV, etc. In this blog post

    In this blog post and other blog posts, I do *not* call for revision of any documents originally written in English. I am trying to stimulate discussion about what are the most appropriate words to use in translation of the biblical language texts for *current* English speakers.

  12. Gary Simmons says:

    Kurk (may I call you that?), there’s always tension between translating accurately, and translating in a way that sounds natural to readers, isn’t there? While an updated version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates might be helpful, it is not subject material that’s necessarily as universal in scope. I wish that we could wave a magic wand and dramatically increase the average reading level, but with that not a realistic option, what can we do to harmonize this tension?

    I apologize for making a tangential comment, but perhaps we could ask Socrates to give us his impressions on American football. A friend of mine just showed me this site, and I find it fascinating. Since I don’t read Classical, I only understand about half of this article. Other articles seem to be in Koine (or at least are intelligible to me).

  13. Kevin Sam says:

    I like Theophrastus’ suggestion of using “profess” instead of “confess” or even “declare”. I sometimes switch back and forth between confess and profess as if they were interchangeable but I do prefer profess because it is more accurate when I say: “Let us “profess” our faith together in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.”

    Maybe I ought to try it using “declare” and see if I get a reaction out of the people?

  14. Carl W. Conrad says:

    I guess that my own usage of “confess” is like Lincoln’s and it probably IS archaic: to assert emphatically a claim of my own that may be objectionable to others. Perhaps “admit” would be comparable. ὁμολογέω does indicate concurrence with what another or others are asserting,and I think it does appear in a judicial frame of reference. In John’s gospel I think there’s an ongoing forensic frame of reference; it’s not the only frame of reference running in the gospel, but it’s there: the presence of Jesus in the κόσμος puts the world on trial even as the world is putting Jesus on trial; there is a κρίσις in process and a κρίμα to be made by the world about Jesus and by Jesus about the world; there are μάρτυρες μαρτυροῦντες and there is μαρτυρία offered. It seems to me that what is used to convey the Greek ὁμολογέω in John’s gospel should not disguise its significance in that frame of reference. “Concur” might carry the same sense, but I don’t think it has quite the forensic overtones,and I don’t really think that “declare” does either. Of course, what’s applicable to translation of John’s gospel does not necessarily carry over to translation of other NT texts in which the verb appears.

  15. J. K. Gayle says:

    It sounds to me like your question has to do with whether or not to update English that was written or spoken in the past. I have to leave that question for others. As a translator, I must wrestle with how to translate texts that originally were written in Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to languages currently spoken, including English. Changing the words of original texts is outside of my job description and outside the scope of this blog post.

    Thanks Wayne! The distinction you’re making here, I confess, is not always as easy for me to make. Willis Barnstone tends to muddy this all up for me when he talks of the KJV as an English “Version” that “took not less than eighty percent of its New Testament directly from [the English of] Tyndale’s translation, albeit elevating its rhetoric to its own splendor” (p 62, Restored New Testament). Last night, a friend read to several of us from the KJV, and, quite honestly, every one of us went scrambling to our own other favorite versions and translations to see what that was saying. And yet, your questions get me asking, What really is “current English”? I do appreciate your work on this!

    Gary, Yes – my friends call me Kurk, so please do. You “wish that we could wave a magic wand and dramatically increase the average reading level, but with that not a realistic option, what can we do to harmonize this tension?” I do see what you mean; and yet, does a Bible translation that “sounds natural to readers” have to sacrifice being, as you say, “nuanced”?

    The trouble I have with Wayne’s field testing is not necessarily that the minority (i.e., “educated” readers who can handle “cognitive dissonance”) skew his majority (i.e., those who would not use, for example, “confess myself …”). The trouble is that the majority in the survey (whether via blog comments here) or a professional linguistic survey cannot so easily describe their own preferences. As a linguist, I have seen people saying one thing in public and quite other things in private, contradictory things, about their language. The language that we all can and do allow is not just a tolerance of funny-sounding words, it is also language that is playful, inventive, creative and so forth. If we won’t allow English wordplay (and I mean play in 2009 with words such as “confess”) then we might not acknowledge wordplay (i.e., meanings that Paul or John or Luke have, unintended by them but seen by readers) in Greek. (Gary, thanks for the link to Socrates’s fun!)

    Carl, Wonderful comment! Thanks for bringing in Greek in this discussion and for talking about your own English too.

  16. trierr says:

    Wayne, I’m not sure I would say John was using the word logos in exactly the same way his hearers used it. First question is, who were the Romans who would have understood John? And why Romans? Is it not possible that John is heavily influenced by his Jewish roots? Is it not possible that he uses this incredibly elastic term in such a way that many Roman’s wouldn’t have picked up on? Or maybe he used it in a Greek philosophical sense (as did the early apologists) thus deliberately not conforming to the common sense that most others would have understood.

  17. Gary Simmons says:

    Ahh, concur. This reminds me of a skit on Friends when Matt LeBlanc pretended to be a soap opera doctor and kept dramatically saying “do you concur?” It was great. Carl, thank you for your perspective on John. I found that very insightful.

    Kurk, I think it’s hard but hopefully not impossible to make a natural translation with nuances. And that website has plenty more great stuff, but I realized it’s all classical. Too many optatives makes my head spin.

    And since the biblical writers, esp. in the NT, frequently subverted current language for theological ends, translations must do the same.
    Well, I can think of Paul’s pun greeting of charis kai eirene. Charis was used in place of the more usual chairein, right? This may not be a particularly crucial example, but language in the NT was adopted in unusual ways. Or “overcoming” (nikao) in Revelation referring to martyrdom. That’s a true paradox. Or for that matter, war language in general being used in reference to specifically non-military activities throughout the NT.

    But I confess/admit/concur that I probably am misunderstanding you, Wayne.

  18. Wayne Leman says:

    Wayne, I’m not sure I would say John was using the word logos in exactly the same way his hearers used it.

    You are correct, John did not. But he took the word, as his hearers understood it, and applied it to the Christ. That’s really quite clever!

    First question is, who were the Romans who would have understood John?

    The only Romans were in Rome. However, when Jesus was alive and for some time after that, the widespread government was that of the Roman Empire. The area they ruled included Palestine. The language of widespread communication was Greek.

    And why Romans?

    Perhaps you mean “Why Greek?” Because that was the language of the Empire and the writings of the New Testament authors would reach far more people in Greek than in Aramaic, spoken in Palestine. The Jews of the Diaspora were already speaking Greek and that called for the translation of their Hebrew Bible into Greek (LXX) quite some time before Jesus was born.

    Is it not possible that John is heavily influenced by his Jewish roots?

    It is not only possible, but it is very true. There is much influence from the Jewish roots of N.T. authors throughout the N.T.

    Just as Paul started with the known in Athens (“the unknown god”) and told the Athenians about what they did not know, Jesus as Savior, so John started with a known Greek philosophical concept, encapsulated in the word Logos, and applied it to the Christ. That’s powerful! In many cultures and languages throughout the world, the message of God gets spoken to people in their own languages. That message uses words people already know, are already speaking, and teaches them something new and important with those words.

    That is something to celebrate! It is still happening today, throughout the world, including in English, when people read or hear the Bible in the English that they already know. I remember how powerfully some new versions of English Bibles spoke to me as a young person because they were written in my own heart language, English, not a previous dialect of English or an English only spoken in a limited sphere, that of the church I attended.

  19. ACW says:

    Interesting discussion on the English word ‘confess.’
    The short answer, for me, would be to make the application in the ancient Hebrew context: That which is ‘specific,’ and understandable by the ‘senses’ and carrying ‘spiritual accountability’ (i.e. confession)…
    Confess is an abstract term that is so ‘mercurial’ that ‘it’ could carry most any selective and/or relative interpretation of one’s ‘feelings.’
    However, using the ancient Hebrew application there would be:
    1)Specifity of one’s intent. ‘I do’ with all my ‘being’ (ahava);
    2)Sensitivity of one’s intent. ‘You can know’ by what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell’ — by my ‘actions’ and ‘appearance’ — that ‘I do’ with all my ‘being’ what I say; and
    3)Spirituality of one’s intent. Because ‘I am’ what ‘I do,’ my attitude which you cannot see is in agreement with my ‘actions and appearance’ too.
    You see, for an ancient Hebrew to ‘confess,’ he would have confessed, not abstractly or relative, rather personal with his entire ‘being.’
    Oh yes, his word was ‘fruit/food’ from his vineyard of ‘being,’ which he ‘CONTINUOUSLY’ tilled.
    When one ‘confesses’ today, I am not sure they understand the ACCOUNTABILITY for which the word was intended.

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