Too Readable: Reflections on Romans 8:9 “αὐτοῦ”

Derek Ouellette —  March 4, 2011

In a previous post I had commented that the problem with a translation that is too readable (the extreme “thought for thought”) is that it runs the risk of exchanging “the Word of God for the views of men” and that Romans 8:9 is a classic example.

Now let me unpack that a little. Here are three ways in which this text has been translated moving from most literal (“word for word”) to most readable (“thought for thought”):

  • “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” NRSV
  • “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” NIV
  • “And remember that if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ living in him, he is not a Christian at all.” – Living Bible

The Greek reads: “δέ τις πνεῦμα Χριστοῦ οὐκ ἔχει, οὗτος οὐκ ἔστιν αὐτοῦ.” It’s that last part, αὐτοῦ, that I want to draw your attention to. The word simply means “him” and a literal translation would keep to the Greek as the NRSV does above.

As an interpreter the question we might want to ask is, “‘him’ who?” But as a translator we should make every effort to avoid asking those questions and instead, present the text as near as possible to how the original author did without trying to read his mind (as it were) while translating.

This is not always possible of course, and interpretation is often necessary when translating the text, but Romans 8:9 does not fall in that category. When “αὐτοῦ” is translated as “Christ”, or worse, as “he is not a Christian at all”, this reflects a clear and narrow bias on the part of the translator or translation team.

The issue at stake in this discussion is that it forces people who read only one bible translation such as the NIV into the belief of the translator that if one does not have the Spirit of Christ, he or she is not a Christian at all (the Living Bible only said what the NIV implies). Not every Christian tradition believes this and in fact most don’t.

Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and virtually all liturgical traditions (so far as I know) teach that one enters the Church through the rite of baptism – and is thus a Christian – and only later receives the “Spirit of Christ” through “Confirmation”.

So these traditions would interpret the “αὐτοῦ” of Romans 8:9 as a reference to the third person in the Trinity, not the second. The “him” in context would refer – as grammatically it should – back to the subject of the sentence which in this case is the “Spirit of Christ”, not Christ himself.

Translating the text literally allows the different Christian traditions to engage one another – and the text – based on what Paul actually wrote. It would also clear away confusion during bible studies when the teacher is trying to show that we may be “on the way”, that the born again process “began” but that that does not necessarily mean that we have received the Spirit of Christ. There are many carnal Christians out there who need to receive the Spirit which is given to those who obey (Acts 5:32).

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://harrysheresy Harry

    Is it a matter of having “received” the Spirit or having “quenched” the Spirit here? I would agree that the born again experience is a series of events (Heb 6:1-2) Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God,
    2) instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
    Notice “a foundation of REPENTANCE from acts that lead to death, and of FAITH in God (which is BELIEVING), instruction on Baptisms (water and Spirit) following the example of Jesus and the early church was indeed the way to the born again experience. Paul has already written about Justification up to Chapter 5 and in chapter 6 begins speaking about sanctification. My question would be “”why would Paul be questioning their salvation in a place where he is talking about their Christian walk? Wouldn’t it be possible that he may be asking here about HOW they are walking (in spirit or in flesh)? You see the definite article is not used before “Spirit” which would refer more to the Spirit’s power rather than His Person. Also I would note here Paul here is not thinking of their past but present condition, like the Galatians who started in Spirit but now tried to finish their walk in flesh. Another thing here to note is the verbs are in”the present continuous tense” which would affirm Paul’s concern about the “now” condition. The Phrase could read “But you are not in the flesh but in Spirit, if Spirit of God goes on residing in you, but if anyone does not go on having Spirit of Christ, this one is not of Him”. This would change Paul’s focus not on whether they were Christians but whether the were Christians walking in the flesh or Spirit.

    • Derek Ouellette

      So the whole passage isn’t talking about whether someone has or does not have the Spirit, but whether or not they are walking in his power. I knew that. (Forgot)
      That would only point further away from the NIV and LB bias, since those translations assume that the questions is: is this person a Christian? The test is whether or not the Holy Spirit is living in them. But that’s not what the text is getting at.

  • brad dickey

    I don’t see where it makes a difference. If you don’t belong to the Spirit, which the verses before said you would be obeying the Spirit, do you think you can claim to still Know Him? When you don’t obey the Spirit?

    The really controversial thing here is with Positional Sanctification that ultimately concludes you can’t be fully mature in this life, and will die with a sinful nature. This verse shows a complete removal and only the SPIRIT, IF the Spirit indwells you.

    Now that’s controversy. If you claim to have the INDWELLING SPIRIT and a sinful nature, you are clearly not biblical. You have the Spirit working on you, (AGO GAL 5:18) but not yet IN you.

    As a sidenote there are times that you need to add some english to make clear the understandable differnece in the Greek thought, perception, and ours in english. AN example of this is the NIV using SINFUL NATURE vs FLESH.

    FLESH people tie to our physical bodies, and in lieu of scripture that gets plain silly at times. I’ve never seen a skeleton in Church, and yet scripture says that flesh is removed of living people in the church. Contextually saying FLESH feeds ignorance and misinformation. Sinful nature more accurately conveys the thought.

    AND then there are risks, such as 1 john 3:9 where the NIV adds the “continuing” after the conjunction where it reads a FIRM NOT SIN, (OU HAMARTANO) and has no continuing tense/sense at all. They tried, they failed on that one, but they succeeded on the sinful nature part. And I can’t fault them for trying.

  • Brian LePort

    I am not sure if I would see autou as Christ or the Spirit here, but I do think it is a better decision to leave it vague because the text seems to leave it vague.

    • Derek Ouellette

      That’s pretty much my point.

  • FrGregACCA

    Actually,while “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” is indeed associated with confirmation/chrismation, no liturgical tradition of which I am aware would deny that the Holy Spirit is also active and given in baptism. The best practice, of course, is that of the Eastern Churches in which chrismation follows immediately after baptism and first holy communion is given as well, thus keeping the integrity of the sacraments/mysteries of Christian initiation intact.

    However, that said, I’m pretty sure that “Christ” is the referent. A very literal translation is, “If anyone has not the Spirit of Christ, he is not of him.” Note the parallel genitives: “of Christ”, “of him”. Are you aware of any translation which suggests that the “auto” here refers to the Spirit? (It could, grammatically, in that while “spirit” is neuter in Greek, “autou” is the singular genitive form for both masculine and neuter.)

    This, of course, is not to deny that Christians need to keep walking the walk. Conversion is of course an ongoing process, and the experience of the ages suggests that a number of crisis points can indeed occur in that process.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Greg, everyone believes the spirit is active, but is he “indwelt”, or does that come later (i.e. confirmation)?

      If I said “brother of derek… of him”, grammatically the “him” I am refering to is not “derek” but the “brother” of derek. The brother is the subject of the sentence.

      In any case, as my friend pointed out, the “person” either Christ or the Holy Spirit may not be the focus, but rather the power of the Spirit. Note the lack of the personal definate article in front of pnuma and the fact that the context is whether or not someone is living by the flesh or by the Spirit – i.e. in his power. Maybe that is the way we should read this?

    • brad dickey

      My heterodoxy flared up.

      if the Spirit of God is indwelling you, you don’t need to walk the walk anymore.

      You won’t have a chance, it is in control.

  • http://harrysheresy Harry

    Brad – Do you think the Corinthians were “obeying” the Spirit. Most of that letter is a rebuke to how they were living. 1 Cor 3 Paul still calls them brothers but also “carnal” proving at that point they certainly were NOT walking “in Spirit” but clearly HAD “the Spirit” or why call them “brothers”. The Galatians are another example. Chapter 3:3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
    Gal 3:4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing?
    Gal 3:5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
    Again what does Paul mean in Gal 5:7-13 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?
    Gal 5:8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.
    Gal 5:9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”
    Gal 5:10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.
    Gal 5:11 Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.
    Gal 5:12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
    Gal 5:13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
    How could they indulge in the “sinful nature” if there wasn’t one?
    Again Gal 5:15 says “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
    Is that the sinful nature or not? If not, the following verses make no sense either.
    Gal 5:16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
    Gal 5:17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.
    It seems to me that there will be a battle going on between the flesh and Spirit till we die. Brad you are correct in saying English doesn’t always give us an accurate understanding of a passage like 1 John 3:3,9 where the word “continues” to sin in NIV is used. It clearly says “sins not” a big difference. But what about 1 John 3:3 where it says everyone who has the hope of seeing Jesus as he…

  • http://harrysheresy Harry

    con’t ….. purifies himself, just as he is pure. What would be the sense of continuously purifying oneself if he is ALREADY pure?

    • brad dickey

      Do we really want to clutter up Derek’s site with this discussion? I’ll give you a hint without the full conversation.

      Not every Xian is a mature Xian. Paul speaks different things to the mature than the immature, or not yet mature. The MATURE need not have a lot of conversation, the Spirit is in control. or do you disregard gal 5;16 entirely?

      The problem is, every verse will fit into my understanding with no conflict, however holding your position there are numerous verses that will require acrobatics.

      May I suggest before we start, taking a gander at 1 john 1, and figuring out what it means that JOHN and his posse were in fellowship with GOD, and the people he wrote to were not. YET, both have a mediator in Christ, so therefore both were Xians. Both are Xians and yet, one side of the conversation was not yet in fellowship with God. That was why John wrote the letter, to get them in fellowship with God.

      Which means they walk in the light, just as Jesus did, and in Him is no darkness/sin.

      This “state” isn’t associated with man’s accomplishment, and isn’t a goal of a believer, it’s a result of achieving the goal of love God and love Neighbor, which is accomplished in you and through you by Him.

      If you ever once walk by the Spirit, it would be a temptation to walk away from the Spirit, and the vs says HE won’t let you surrender to temptation.

      So there is no, sometimes walk in and sometimes walk out of the Spirit. As if romans 8:9 doesn’t make that clear.

      I guess your post of a myriad of verses was to prove how Paul got it wrong in the one verse, 8:9 of Romans, as your view seems to stand in contradiction to his statement which is very direct. if the spirit of God indwells you, you aren’t in the flesh.

  • http://harrysheresy Harry

    Brad, you’re right, lets not clutter up Derek’s site. Just one thing even though the Spirit is in us can He leave as He did with King Saul?, or can we quench Him and put out His fire, or even grieve Him by sinning? or lie to Him and lose our lives? I didn’t overlook Gal 5:16 but quoted it. I agree if we would ALWAYS walk in the Spirit we would never sin, but do we?

    • brad dickey

      He’s got a whole new job description in the New Testament. Yes, he could leave. But I don’t think he would leave. That would be God sinning against God. that is a precarious position to defend.

      However, was Saul with the Spirit UPON Him, or indwelling Him. I know of no OT occurance of the Spirit indwelling someone. And even if there is, I’d still argue the Spirit is clearly of a different expectation in the new testament.

      What does my supposition of the Spirit and Saul have to do with anything though. Consider, the verse says what it says. If we understand it or not, is really irrelevant. Would you argue that SAUL’s life proves Paul wrong? If your belief doesn’t reconcile all the verses on the issue to a cohesive whole, then you simply aren’t there yet. By YOU I mean the third person all of us. if you really wish to engage on this conversation, it’s a passion of mine.

      Consider this,
      Gal 2:20 it’s no longer me who lives but he who lives in me.
      “I” live through the whole process.
      “I” die during the process, or some aspect of me.
      “HE” replaces the death of the other.

      What is the I the I and the HE?

      The first I is the SOMA greek for body, God’s temple/Castle.

      The second I is the SARX greek for flesh/sinful nature, that which inhabits said temple and is the master/king of it. Col 2:11.

      The HE is the Spirit of GOD, romans 8:9 which appears IN you and no longer working ON you at some point of maturity.

      If the Spirit of GOD indwells you, and you are no longer in the spirit, if you read the context most prior to 8:9 you’ll see it’s speaking of CONTROL. This is one of the few places I think the NIV does us a good service. You may read the NASB or ESV and walk away with one picture, and it not meet up with the NIV. But if you read the NIV and then the NASB, and work your understanding from seeing if the NASB COULD mean what the NIV translated, I think it will make more sense.

      If you are of the spirit you obey the spirit.
      It doesn’t say sometime.

      If you are of the flesh, you obey the flesh.
      It doesn’t say sometime.

      you are one or the other.
      If you obey the Spirit would it ever tell you to leave? That is the only way you could change allegience.

      People assume because of an altar call and magic bath they are Xians and therefore anything written in the NT applies to them. Totally oblivious that some comments are to varying levels of maturity…

  • Stephen Johnson

    Everyone here seems to be getting caught up in various theological positions, but the real issue at hand is translation. I would like to suggest that you are making an unnecessary distinction between word for word and thought for thought translations.

    In this case, the word for word would actually be something like this – “…but if anyone does not have the Spirit of/from Christ, he is not his/of him.” There are interpretive issues at the forefront that can never be resolved by the grammar. Is this Christ’s spirit or the spirit that Christ sends? Does it mean we do not belong to that spirit, whichever it is, or that we are not “of him”, which can mean “like” him, “coming from” him, or even “in” him?

    I don’t see how you can translate word for word without making interpretive decisions. Also, you could translate the thought just as accurately by saying something like, “if you don’t have the spirit of Christ, you aren’t his.” Its not word for word accurate (which we can’t get anyway without it being very annoying English), but it is no more interpretive than the example you prefer.

    My point is this – using thought for thought translation does not require you to do more interpretation in this case. Its just that some do. And it becomes invaluable when translating idioms or puns. As many have stated, the key for most of us is to use different translations. Even using language tools without studying the languages more in depth can lead to gross errors, such as forcing all the possible meanings of a word into one use of a word. This is the biggest fallacy I see among those who you Strongs or other single word look-up sources.

    So, please don’t make a false distinction between word for word and thought for thought translations. One is not inherently more accurate than the other. It all comes down to the skill and theological commitments of the translators.