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).