What is in an in? – part one

Bob MacDonald said: Prepositions are notoriously flexible, stretchable, and ambiguous. So true. In the case of NT Greek the most common and flexible preposition is ἐν. From a historical and phonological point of view it corresponds to English in, and it is often translated by an in. In fact, it is far too often translated by an in. There are so many other possibilities for translating it. The range of options can most easily be seen in the 21 senses that Louw and Nida suggest for the word:

1 in (location)

2 among (location)

3 on (location)

4 at (location)

5 in (state)

6 into (extension)

7 in union with (association)

8 with (attendant circumstances)

9 with (instrument)

10 with (manner)

11 with regard to (specification)

12 of (substance)

13 to (experiencer)

14 by (agent)

15 by (guarantor)

16 by (means)

17 because (reason)

18 so that (result)

19 when (time)

20 during (time)

21 in (content)

So, how do we decide between this array of possibilities? We need to look at the noun phrase the preposition governs as well as the verb it is connected to. It is also helpful to see if a similar construction occurs in other Greek texts.

Let me take one example from Galatians (more examples in a post to come later). The preposition  ἐν occurs 41 times in this small book. The first is Galatians 1:6:

Θαυμάζω ὅτι οὕτως ταχέως μετατίθεσθε ἀπὸ τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ἐν χάριτι [Χριστοῦ] εἰς ἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον I am shocked that you so quickly are being pushed away from the one who called you ἐν grace [of Christ] towards a different gospel.

I agree with Metzger that the reading without of Christ is likely to be the original reading, but it is impossible to be sure. We note that there is no definite article before grace, which gives it a qualitative sense. It is not referring to a particular act of grace, but to the kind or quality of grace that originates with God and Christ. The verb is “call”, so we would need to look at this verb in connection with ἐν.

We find an example in 1 Cor 7:15: ἐν δὲ εἰρήνῃ κέκληκεν ὑμᾶς ὁ θεός  But it is ἐν peace that God has called you. This cannot mean that God was feeling peaceful when he called you, nor did he use peace as an instrument or agent for the calling. It has to be into peace. In order to translate that into English NIV says: “God has called us to live in peace.” (It should have been “called you”, but that is a textual issue again.) It is legitimate to add the words “to live” in order to make an accurate and meaningful translation.

Another example is 1 Thess 4:7: οὐ γὰρ ἐκάλεσεν ἡμᾶς ὁ θεὸς ἐπὶ ἀκαθαρσίᾳ ἀλλ᾽ ἐν ἁγιασμῷ  You see, God did not call us to uncleanness, but rather ἐν holiness. Again, the NIV has correctly added the words “to live (a life)” and they say: “For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”  They might have said: “not to live in impurity, but in holiness,”  or they might have said: “not to live a life in impurity, but in holiness”. There is seldom ONE correct translation, but some translations are better than others – according to various criteria.

From these examples it is reasonable to suggest that the verb call followed by ἐν indicates the kind of life we are called to live. This fits well with Gal 1:6, and if we look at the new NIV2010, we find that they are actually saying: “the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ.” The addition of the definite article is caused by the genitive “of Christ”.  If we were to translate the text without this word – what Paul probably wrote – we could easily make it parallel to 1 Cor 7:15 and 1 Thess 4:7: “the one who called you to live in grace”. The Galatians were being pushed from a gospel of grace to a “gospel” of law which is not a gospel (good news) at all, as Paul went on to say in the next verse.


4 thoughts on “What is in an in? – part one

  1. Bob MacDonald says:

    What! a whole day and no comments! Well Iver, thanks for the lesson in in. I admire your precision but I question the appeal to adjectives better, meaningful, and accurate. I am always reminded of the French proverb – the better is the enemy of the good. I doubt that ‘in’ can be spelled out. (Joke) I find the addition of ‘to live’ unhelpful if innocuous maybe. I am not sure I can put my finger on why.

    Part of my problem is that it is God who is calling – to take the Thessalonian example – and without the engagement of the hearer with God, there is no explaining the meaning of the preposition except in an academic way. I know this is an appeal to faith. But here I am in the realm of the unspeakable. Therefore I am in the realm that belongs to a discourse based on something other than precision or accuracy. There is meaning to be sure, but not one that improves on the good that is its foundation in knowledge in the holiness that is in God and that was demonstrated in the flesh in the death and resurrection of the anointed Jesus.

    I admire accuracy and precision and am grateful for the freedom in translating a preposition into whatever fits into my decisions as a translator in English – but the point is engagement with God, not precision or accuracy in my answer to a technical question.

    I tried to use in as many times as possible in that answer above to show how flexible it is in this target or host language.

  2. Tony Pope says:

    Having agreed with you on the last post, I find myself at least half agreeing with you on this one. You are absolutely right to point out the other verses where καλέω “call” is connected with the preposition ἐν, and this is important for guiding us to a correct understanding of the combination, rather than taking a pick and mix approach out of the 21 different uses listed in the lexicon. But I question whether “to live in” gives quite the right focus in Gal 1.6. Is the kind of life we are to live exactly Paul’s focus here? I would rather go with Burton (ICC commentary) who talks about the state that the Galatians were called to be in. Grace is also viewed as a state in 5.4. Of course “to be in a state of grace” implies living in grace, so probably I’ll be accused of nit-picking, but it’s a question of focus. I’m also a bit surprised that you favour omitting the word χριστοῦ “of Christ”, as there is such good manuscript evidence for including it (and no editor I’m aware of cuts it out altogether). If by Metzger you mean the UBS Committee, I think you give a one-sided presentation of their approach as a majority of the Committee voted to include it. Nevertheless, the new NIV rendering “the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ” is a significant improvement in my view and indicates the revisers did some exegetical thinking as well as other things, which is good.

  3. Iver Larsen says:


    Thanks for the quote from the French philosopher Voltaire. I don’t know in which context he said it, but then I don’t agree with everything he said, partly because his engagement with God was one of disbelief. It was because of people of your persuasion that I added “according to various criteria.” We disagree on those criteria, but that is not what I wanted to discuss in this post.

    Voltaire also said: “He must be very ignorant, for he answers every question he is asked.” I won’t try to comment on your other paragraphs, since I do not understand what you are trying to say. I like to appeal to common sense, but that is also elusive and disputable – as Voltaire said: “Common sense is not so common.”

  4. Iver Larsen says:


    If you think primarily of actions for the expression “live in”, then I can see why you prefer “be in a state”. I prefer “live in” partly because that is how I would say it in Danish, and that may not apply to English. “Called you to be in a state of grace” does not work in my language, but “living in grace” implies a recognition that whatever I do and think must be permeated by grace. Actions of grace presuppose that the person has first experienced the grace of God in Christ.

    On Metzger I was thinking of his commentary where he writes “the absence of any genitive has the appearance of being the original reading.” But a majority of the committee were reluctant to put more emphasis on internal reasons than external ones, so they could not agree and ended up with the square brackets. I prefer to put greater emphasis on internal reasoning, but I don’t think we shall ever know with any kind of certainty what the original text was here. It does not make much difference to the meaning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s