Confusion at family devotions
Not long ago, a friend of mine was reading the Bible with his family. His kids had picked out some new Bibles – New Living Translations – so he brought home another copy he had at the office so they could all be on the same page. He started reading from John 1, but he didn’t get far before red flags began to fly. In verse 3 he read, “He [the Word] created everything there is.” Wait a minute, he thought. That goes against what I believe about creation and the distinctive roles of the members of the Trinity! The confusion only grew as his kids chimed in, “Daddy, that’s not what mine says!” (Their NLT said, “God created all things through him.”) My friend decided to check his Greek New Testament, and discovered that the word θεὸς did not even occur in this verse. What was going on here? Why were these two NLT versions so different from one another and from the other English versions he knew? And most importantly, do these differences reflect arbitrary translation choices, or are they theologically significant?
John 1 is indeed a treacherous passage to translate. Our understandings of the Trinity, Christ, creation, and more depend to a large extent on the words contained in these verses. And as this anecdote illustrates, translations are not entirely in agreement. In this post, I’ll be looking at John 1:3 in the Greek, ESV, and two NLT versions (there are in fact more than two editions, but the 1996 and 2004 editions are most significantly different.) I will briefly assess the theological significance of these variations. Here are the versions:
Greek: πάντα διʼ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο
ESV: All things were created through him
NLT (1996): He created everything there is
NLT (2004): God created all things through him
Our understanding of this verse largely hinges on how we understand διʼ αὐτοῦ (“through him”). The preposition with the genitive is most commonly understood here as agency, but does this mean that the Father (not stated explicitly in Greek, as the verb is passive) created everything through the agency of the Logos, or that the Logos was the sole agent? These prepositions are slippery little creatures, and from a linguistic standpoint, both options are possible.
We know from elsewhere in Scripture that the pre-existent Christ was active in creation. In Heb. 1:10, God says about the Son, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.” In Col. 1:16 we read, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth.” (Most English versions render ἐν αὐτῷ as ‘by him,’ though interestingly, NLT 2004 prefers “through him.”)
It is entirely appropriate to suggest that Christ created the heavens and the earth, but this is not the whole picture. The Father clearly had a prominent role to play in creation as well (Gen 1:1, 1 Cor. 8:6, Heb. 1:2). Even the Holy Spirit was there at the beginning, “hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). The entire tripartite Godhead was there at creation bringing the universe into existence.
It is entirely appropriate to suggest that Christ created the heavens and the earth, but this is not the whole picture. The Father clearly had a prominent role to play in creation as well.
Is it then contradictory to suggest that the Father created the world, while at the same time affirming that Christ created the world? Not at all. In his Systematic Theology, Millard Erickson uses the helpful illustration of building construction to demonstrate how various people in different roles can all be called “builders.” The contractor, the construction worker, or even those paying for the work can all claim to have “built” a house. This is the theological reality we see in Scripture. While we may see the members of the Trinity playing distinct roles in creation, they can all be said to have “created” the heavens and the earth. They are distinct persons, but they are all fully God, and worked together in fashioning all creation.
This is the picture we see in Scripture. But what is John saying in 1:3? What is his particular angle? Is he saying that the Logos created the world, or that God created the world through the Logos? In his commentary on John, D.A. Carson suggests that it may be preferable to render this verse, “all things were made by him.” He backs this suggestion by arguing that the pre-existent Christ as creator is a common theme in the New Testament.
Leon Morris takes a different approach. He agrees that “John is saying that everything owes its existence to the Word,” but he advocates a “through him” rendering for theological reasons: “This way of putting it safeguards the truth that the Father is the source of all that is.”
Both Carson and Morris appeal to theological arguments to justify their preferred renderings. I would venture to say that the three English versions presented above are also theologically motivated. I have not seen any compelling case for one rendering over another from a purely linguistic standpoint. This verse illustrates well that we cannot separate translation from theology. To do translation is to do theology.
Are the differences between these versions theologically significant? They are certainly distinct, but they are not all that different. They all point to the same truth, albeit from different angles. They do not contradict one another, and none contain blatant theological error. But the question remains: can we understand precisely what John intended here? I’m still mulling this one over, but one thing is clear: the Logos is front and center in John’s mind. We can attribute the creation of the world to his hand. The Father’s role in this event is in the background of John 1:3, if it is in mind at all.
This article was first published on Ben’s blog, Finding the Right Words, on September 12, 2019.