Sorry – not even a Pope can do that

Pope Francis has reportedly endorsed the opinion of “Vatican experts” in revising the Italian wording of the Lord’s Prayer so that it reads (in English translation, of course!) “Do not let us fall/be abandoned into temptation.”

Apparently the Vatican team says that “From a theological, pastoral and stylistic viewpoint,” the translation from the original as “lead us not into temptation” is incorrect. Hmm.

The Pope himself is also quoted as saying “lead us not into temptation” is “not a good translation.” “A father doesn’t do that , a father helps you to get up immediately,” Francis said. “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.”

The problem with this is that it appears to start with a theological conclusion – in this case, ones own human judgement on what constitutes a good father – and changes the divine text to match it. This is something I learned to expect from the liberal evangelical contingent at BioLogos over the years (“God would not create something as awful as virus or bird-eating cats”), but this is being done by Roman Catholicism’s “vicar of Christ,” and he is supposed to maintain the teaching of Christ, not improve upon it. How to translate the Lord’s prayer is a matter neither of theology, nor of pastoral care, nor of style – but of language. Unless everything follows from that, you might as well be the Watchtower Society bending the Bible’s words to your particular favoured prejudice.

We need to remember that the Lord’s prayer is not only the words of the Bible, but the words of the Lord Jesus himself, instructing his disciples how to pray, and therefore how to conceive of their Father in heaven. And the words are recorded in identical form by two Evangelists, both of whom use the verb εισφερω, literally “I carry (or bring) into.” The same word is used in 1 Tim 6:7 of what we (don’t) bring into the world at birth, and in Heb 13:11 of the sacrificial blood a priest brings into the holy place – so if anything, the word is even more active on the Father’s part, and passive on ours, than the English “lead” would indicate. It is arrogant to suggest that two apostolic writers misheard or mistranslated what Jesus actually taught: he taught not that we fall into situations of trial, but that our Father (not to put too fine a point on it) pushes us.

There is a biblical difficulty with this, of course, in that James tells us:

When tempted, no-one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own [evil] desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

But this is one of the very reasons the text of the Lord’s prayer is known to be authentic from the lips of Jesus – for Pope Francis’s difficulty was obvious to the earliest generations who possessed both gospels and James’s letter, and yet it was not harmonised. And that is why faithful interpreters who believe in the integrity of inspired Scripture have always sought to understand how the passages fit together. For example, the “Angelic Doctor” Thomas Aquinas, of unparalleled authority in the Roman Church, in his exposition of the prayer, wrote:

Regarding [what temptation is], it must be known that to tempt is nothing other than to test or to prove. To tempt a man is to test or try his virtue. This is done in two ways just as a man’s virtue requires two things. One requirement is to do good, the other is to avoid evil: “Turn away from evil and do good.” Sometimes a man’s virtue is tried in doing good, and sometimes it is tested in avoiding evil. Thus, regarding the first, a person is tried in his readiness to do good, for example, to fast and such like. Then is thy virtue great when thou art quick to do good. In this way does God sometimes try one’s virtue, not, however, because such virtue is hidden from Him, but in order that all might know it and it would be an example to all. God tempted Abraham in this way, and Job also. For this reason God frequently sends trials to the just, who in sustaining them with all patience make manifest their virtue and themselves increase in virtue: “The Lord your God trieth you, that it may appear whether you love Him with all your heart and with all your soul, or not.” Thus does God tempt man by inciting him to good deeds.

As to the second, the virtue of man is tried by solicitation to evil. If he truly resists and does not give his consent, then his virtue is great. If, however, he falls before the temptation, he is devoid of virtue. God tempts no man in this way, for it is written: “God is not a tempter of evils, and He tempteth no man.”

BBC Radio’s usually pretty dire religious affairs programme Sunday (you would think from it that every Christian in Britain occupies their time mopping up pastoral child abuse, arguing over Transphobia, or discussing the demerits of President Trump) had an interesting discussion on the matter this morning, between a Catholic Spokesman, I believe a magazine editor, and a biblical scholar.

The scholar pointed out, as I have, that the language of the gospels is quite clear and the usual translations good. But she also pointed out the two biblical examples of God’s leading believers into temptation which Aquinas also cites: those of Abraham, when God calls upon him to sacrifice Isaac; and the whole book of Job, which explores the sufferings of a man subjected to severe trial by the permission God (actively) grants Satan to plague him. As I’ve pointed out in discussing Job before, Job addresses all his complaints to God, never having any inkling of (or apparent interest in) Satan’s role, and in the last chapter the narrator speaks of his being comforted and consoled “over all the trouble the Lord had brought upon him.”

The Catholic editor’s only riposte was that those passages could be “interpreted” as God’s simply allowing things to happen which he could have prevented – which not only flies in the face of the texts, but seems to be morally equivalent to interpreting them in the obvious manner anyway.

The scholar then pointed out that only a couple of chapters before (in Matthew), Jesus is “led [lit “led up”] by the Spirit into the wilderness [in order] to be tempted by the devil.”

The Catholic editor responded with the same weak argument he used before (does he really believe that Jesus would have just happened to end up being tempted in the wilderness unless stirred to go there by the Spirit he had received at his baptism?). But he added that no general conclusion should be drawn about our dealings with our heavenly Father by the unique case of Jesus.

But there are two problems with that, which were not actually discussed in the radio programme. The first is that what was unique about the Sonship of Jesus was that he is the “Only Begotten,” the perfect, archetypal, Son in perfect relationship to the perfect, archetypal, Father. In contrast, we are God’s children only by adoption into Christ: what is true of the Father for us is only so because it is true for us in Christ. So if a “perfectly loving Father” would be deficient in his love by leading us into temptation, then how on earth could he be less loving towards the “Son he loves” (Col 1:13)?

But there is another corollary from his argument, which relates back to the kind of argument Pope Francis himself is reported to have used by talking about how fathers act towards children they love. If Jesus’s temptation is not pardigmatic of our own, because Jesus is a unique kind of Son, is it not equally true that God is a unique type of Father, and his activity should not be defined by the norms of human fatherhood? Ephesians 3:15 tells us that all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named from God – not the reverse. That latter, anthropocentric, approach is what has become so wrong in much Christianity today – and it’s a shame to see it adopted by the Pope.

At root, the question revolves around one’s understanding of the sovereignty of God, and I would argue that the Lord’s wording of the whole prayer, as well as the “sixth petition” shows his high view of that  – or else there would be no temptation to monkey with his words. Our lives are disposed by the providence of God, and yet (as Jesus and all the NT writers insist) that is quite compatible with his Fatherly love and concern. Indeed, our appreciation of that love and concern depends on the conviction that all things come from him, even our trials. To be tested is to grow, and the Father’s – or any good father’s – principal concern is to bring us to maturity. In fact, perhaps the best conclusion to this piece would be to quote the Scripture that most directly relates temptation to sin with the Father’s discipline, for our good, Hebrews 12:4-11:

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

So I think I’ll keep praying the Lord’s prayer as Jesus taught it, if you don’t mind. He seems to know what he’s talking about.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Sorry – not even a Pope can do that

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    I agree with your argument, Jon.
    However, the prayer does raise the question of why we would need to ask God not to lead us into testing if, in the providence of God, testing is good for us and if we can rely on God to make the right choices for us – ‘And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear’.
    I understand the need for prayer, of course, and have used the prayer many times, being painfully aware of my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But I sometimes wonder if by praying thus I am demonstrating a lack of trust. Surely God knows my weakness better than I do.

    I’ve heard it said that this (aorist imperative) request was necessary for the disciples because they had not received the Holy Spirit. Consequently they did not have the spiritual armor of God with which we have been provided – they were more vulnerable to the evil one. But that idea doesn’t resolve my question since, for the disciples also, God would have ensured that their testing was commensurate with their ability to cope with it.
    I suggest that for us at least it makes sense to imply some meaning in the prayer that isn’t necessarily obvious in the text. So, rather than praying, ‘Don’t lead us into [any] temptation’ (which, clearly, God isn’t going to agree to), it is more meaningful to pray, ‘Don’t lead us into [unbearable] temptation’; and this is more in keeping with the rest of Scripture.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Peter

      The points you raise are good – and good particularly because they involve thinking on the basis of what the Lord taught, rather than adapting it to fit what we teach!

      I agree the “lacking Holy Spirit” argument is no good, not least because on any reckoning Matthew and Luke only put it into their gospels as a universal prayer years after the Spirit was given. They were teaching us prayer, not historical anomalies.

      Perhaps another way of looking at it is simply to recognise our human weakness as pray-ers: if we were condemned to burn at the stake, it would be natural and good to pray (as even Jesus did) “Let this cup pass from me,” and (I guess) in those circumstances not being spared becomes, for us, a sign of God’s will for us rather than evidence of his neglect for us.

      In other words, just as the prayer for daily bread reminds us that all our provision is from God (whilst not claiming that no Christian ever starved to death), the prayer against temptation reminds us that it is usually the Father’s will to spare us hardship, but his good will not always to do so.

      Perhaps the rare opposite example shows that, in the form of Ignatius of Antioch, whose letters contain rather masochistic sounding appeals to bring on the lions, and the hungrier they are the greater the glory!

  2. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    I wonder — if Benedict were still Pope, would we ever have seen a statement like this? I have my doubts.

    President, North American Branch
    Movement to Bring Back Benedict XVI
    (founded June 12, 2019)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      OTOH the Vatican, almost alone amongst rapidly retreating denominations, has just issued a document rejecting the transgender agenda on doctrinal, scientific, historical and whatever grounds. That is swimming against the tide!

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