A Potpourri of Translations:
Here is Colossians 1:12 from a variety of English translations:
I chose these translations deliberately, because I think they’re each excellent and they reflect different translation philosophies:
- I did my own pitiful translation for my own edification, and because I’m a nerd. You can read it here, if you wish.
- The NASB is famous for being very formal in it’s translation. The preface stated, “[w]hen it was felt that the word-for-word literalness was unacceptable to the modern eader, a change was made in the direction of a more current English idiom,” (iii). You can count in this translation to not be interpretive when it redners Koine Greek into English
- Tyndale, KJV, ESV and the LEB are not quite as formal as the NASB, but they each stick very close to the original language. Tyndale was a linguistic genius who produced the first complete New Testament translation in English directly from Koine Greek in 1526 (revised for the last time in 1534). The KJV essentially followed Tyndale in many places. The ESV is a very popular, excellent new translation. The LEB, from Logos Bible Software, began it’s life as an interlinear.
- The ISV and the NET are a bit more interpretive. The ISV’s New Testament was edited by David A. Black, a well-known teacher and author of several books on Koine Greek. The NET was produced largely by a team of scholars centered around Dallas Theological Seminary. Neither of these translations are particularly “well known,” but they’re excellent. I would put their translation philosophy in the same class as the NIV.
- As far as Greek text goes, Tyndale and KJV used what would become known as the Textus Receptus. The ESV, NET, NASB and ISV used the current version of the United Bible Society critical text (UBS-4 for each, I believe). The LEB used the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) Greek New Testament.
God Made You . . . What!?
The first issue I want to focus on is the words I translated as “made you acceptable,” (ἱκανώσαντι ὑμᾶς). What does it mean? The standard Koine Greek lexicon defines the word, in this context, as, “to cause to be adequate,” (BDAG, s.v. “3692 ἱκανόω”). Different English translations take this different ways:
- “Acceptable” (Me, KJV, Tyndale)
- “Qualified” (NASB, LEB, ESV, NET)
- “Enabled” (ISV)
Now, the average reader has to admit that there isn’t a lot of difference between these three options. We read either one, and we get it. Paul’s point is that we are not acceptable to God. In order to give His elect eternal inheritance, salvation, redemption and forgiveness, He must first make us acceptable to Him. We cannot do this; God must do it to us. This verb is in the simple active voice, and God is performing the action. We have no part to play here. God’s chosen and called out people simply receive an action God does to them.
Each of these translations are glosses suggested by major lexicons (e.g. BDAG, Gingrich, Friberg, Danker, etc.). They each capture a different nuance or shade of meaning. They each convey subtly different meanings, but the same basic concept. When I translate from Koine Greek, I always have a Merriam-Webster dictionary and a good thesaurus at hand. I need to make sure I chose an English word which actually says what the Koine Greek meant, and I need a thesaurus to help me find synonyms to give the translation some stylistic flair, or else the whole thing will be as dry as a stale saltine cracker. Consider the nuance each translation option brings to the table:
This was my choice, and I obviously think it’s the best one. Merriam-Webster tells us that this means “capable or worthy.” This is good stuff. We’re not worthy, but God can make us worthy “according to the good pleasure of His will,” (Eph 1:5). We’re not capable of doing this; we have no capacity to right the hostility between ourselves and God, to earn His grace, mercy and forgiveness, or to stop our willful rebellion and hatred of Him. We will always be trying to “break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” (Ps 2:3). I like “acceptable.” I think it gets the point across very well.
However, the word “acceptable” can also conveys a sense of bare adequacy, not excellence. Like being told by your boss, “Well, your performance these past six months has been adequate, nothing more, nothing less.” It’s not a word that really conveys a sense of security. It’s like getting a “C-” on a final exam.
But, context is always key. The context is God making us competent and acceptable to share in the inheritance of the Kingdom of Light. God doesn’t do things half-way or merely adequately – He always does them well. He created creation and pronounced it “good!” Therefore, the word “acceptable” is an excellent choice. It gets the point across.
Merriam-Webster says this means to be “fitted for a given purpose.” It’s clear that there really isn’t much difference between “acceptable” and “qualified.” In fact, I almost translated this as “made you fit.” We are not fit for salvation and we do not deserve mercy, love, grace or kindness. Yet, for a Christian, God has changed all that. He qualified us to share in the eternal inheritance in the Kingdom of Light! He made us fit, because we cannot make ourselves fit.
However, the word “qualify” can also open the door for a more synergistic view of salvation, whereby God and man cooperate in some form or fashion to achieve redemption. Somebody could interpret “qualify” to mean something like “eligible.” For example, “You’re qualified for a 30-year home mortgage with a low 25% interest rate!” Indeed, Merriam-Webster notes that a second definition for “qualified,” depending entirely on context, is, “having complied with the specific requirements or precedent conditions.” Therefore, God qualifies people to have eternal inheritance, but it is up to the individual to take advantage of God’s grace and repent and believe the Gospel. This is, in fact, what the concept of prevenient grace teaches – that as a result of Christ’s sacrificial and substitutionary death on the Cross, the Holy Spirit works on everybody’s heart, mind and will so they can either accept or reject the Gospel message.
Now, this is not what Colossians 1:12 teaches, and it is not the sense in which the word “qualified” ought to ever be taken here. After all, is it the translator’s fault if a preacher spends his time doing English word studies instead of opening his Greek New Testament!? Not at all! However, I think the potential theological landmine with the word “qualified” makes it an “acceptable” choice (see how much context matters!), but not necessarily the best choice.
This is a very good word choice. After all, if somebody enables you to do something, it means that you are made able to accomplish what you could not formerly do. Merriam-Webster defines “enabled” as, “to make (someone or something) able to do or to be something.” We cannot ever gain or earn the privilege to share in the saints’ inheritance in the jurisdiction of light. We’re not acceptable to Him. We’re terrorists and criminals in God’s universe, naturally serving our father, the Devil. This is the message of the Bible. David wrote, “God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one,” (Ps 52:2-3). But, God has enabled Hs children to share in that inheritance.
However, the word “enabled” could also open the door for an un-Biblical and synergistic view of salvation. “God enabled us to choose, and now we decide to choose Him.” This could imply a two-step process in salvation where God and man work together. After all, God makes us able to choose Him, and the rest is up to us! This made me hesitate to use the word “enabled.”
Let me emphasize this very strongly – anybody with an agenda can take any English word or phrase and twist it completely out of context. That is not any translator’s fault. It is the reader’s fault. Most English-speaking Christians don’t know Koine Greek. They’re not going to consult BDAG, Danker, Gingrich or Friberg. Even if (heaven forbid!) an enterprising Christian has a copy of Strong’s Greek Dictionary handy, the information is next to useless if him if he does not understand how it works in the grammar and syntax of a particular sentence. This is where good English translations come in. Let me explain . . .
The Story of Diligent Christian
Pretend an average man, Diligent Christian, loves and likes the KJV. He reads Colossians 1:12 and is puzzled; God “hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” What on earth is “meet!?” Diligent Christian is an enterprising fellow, so he logs onto Biblegateway.com to compare different English Bible versions. He sees that many English versions use the word “qualified.” He immediately leaps to an erroneous conclusion about what the Apostle Paul meant by this statement. Diligent Christian is a member of an Arminian, independent, fundamental Baptist church with roots in the Sword of the Lord tradition. He has been conditioned by years of preaching and Bible study to interpret salvation synergistically. He sees no problem with “qualified.” By default, however, he interprets this “qualification” as prevenient grace.
But now, Diligent Christian is a bit confused. He looks at the ISV, and sees the translation “enabled.” This is a tad bit different, because it seems to have slightly more deterministic overtones. By some remarkable coincidence, he actually stumbles upon this pitiful little blog, and sees my own translation of “acceptable.” Diligent Christian is now having to grapple with the idea that God alone makes elect sinners “acceptable” to Him. We contribute nothing to this transaction.
He returns to the KJV, because that is his favored version, and decides to figure out what “meet” actually means once and for all. He reaches for his bookshelf, and pulls down Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, which his Pastor recommended he use when he wants to figure out archaic words from the KJV. It defined “meet,” in this context, as “fit; suitable; proper; qualified; convenient; adapted, as to a use or purpose.” With this meaning firmly in mind, Diligent Christian now completely understands the sense in which “qualified” and “enabled” should be taken in these English translations. Indeed, he even browsed Merriam-Webster and found that this is still a valid use for the word “meet” (as an adjective) even today.
Now, Diligent Christian leans back in his chair, sips his coffee, and ponders the mercy and love of an infinite God who would qualify criminal sinners, enable them to be partakers of such a marvelous inheritance and make them acceptable and fit to be His servants. He is particularly happy to have so many good English translations to help him interpret the Scriptures!