Saturday, November 20, 2010

Which is it? The Translation of Acts 13:48

All of God’s word is powerful and useful without exception but naturally there are certain passages and verses that will have a huge impact on our understanding of particular doctrines or positions. Few doctrinal arguments have resulted in the proliferation of collections of such verses on each side as the Calvinist Arminian debate. Over the years supporters of each side have stockpiled proof-texts like so many missiles at the ready to be launched at any potential challenger.  In addition to these missile texts there are also what I call grenade texts; proof-text that get lobbed over where if the person on the receiving end is quick enough, they can be hurled right back. These “grenade” texts can really be confusing because the argument regarding them often revolves around nuanced grammatical or contextual issues. One such text is Acts 13:48.

The ESV renders this verse the following way:

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.


Calvinists often quote this verse because it seems to be clear support for their view of predestination. In addition they often quote from traditional translations such as the KJV that give the verse a strong predestinarian emphasis.

”And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.

Arminians, however, argue that this verse may not be as clear an example as the Calvinists believe it to be. Dr. Jack Cottrell, who is one of the most capable contemporary advocates for the Arminian view, says the following when discussing this verse:

The verse is “almost uniformly translated in a way that pleases Calvinists: ‘As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.’ How can this be reconciled with the Arminian view? There is no need to invoke an implied foreknowledge here, nor to seek some esoteric meaning for the verb tasso. The key is to understand that the verb form (tetagmenoi) should be taken as middle (reflexive) voice, not passive. (Grammatically the form can be either.) Using the common connotation “to place, set, order, or arrange in a certain position,” we can see that the statement can quite validly be taken thus: “As many as arranged themselves unto (eis) eternal life believed,” or “As many as turned themselves toward eternal life believed.” This agrees with the context, where the Jews’ response to the gospel is being contrasted with that of the Gentiles. Whereas the Jews rejected the gospel and judged themselves to be unworthy of eternal life (v. 46), the Gentiles received it gladly and embraced the message of eternal life (v. 48). In both cases the decision was a matter of free choice.

This Arminian interpretation of Acts 13:48 is essentially the opposite of the usual translation. We therefore have two possible translations of the same Greek text which are worlds apart in their theological implications. The obvious question is based upon the plain understanding of the language itself, apart from preconceived theological convictions, which of these translations is more accurate?

As expected, answering this question is not simple and I certainly am not qualified to give any final or definitive opinion on the matter. My purpose in this post is rather to describe the debate and to use it as a template to highlight the need for working through these kinds of issues with a commitment to let the text drive our conclusions rather than imposing our theology upon it.

The verse in Greek is:

ἀκούοντα δὲ τὰ ἔθνη ἔχαιρον καὶ ἐδόξαζον τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου, καὶ ἐπίστευσανὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον: 

The primary argument revolves around the word τεταγμένοι (tetagmenoi) which is a form of the Greek verb tassw (tasso). The verb tasso means to draw up in order, to arrange, assign, fix, determine, appoint, or position. It is a word that is derived from the positioning of units in military order. The verb form in this verse, Tetagmenoi, is in the perfect tense meaning that it implies past action that has ongoing consequences (at least to the time of the writing). It is also part of a phrase that can be taken to be a past perfect (pluperfect) construction. This simply means that it establishes some point in the past (the time of the events in the narrative) and then describe some action prior to that time (tetagmenoi).

This brings us to the crucial part of the argument. If the verb is taken to be in the passive voice, meaning that the subject is receiving rather than doing the action of the verb, then the common translation is preferred. If, however, we understand the verb to be in the middle or reflexive voice, meaning that the subject acts upon themselves and both gives and receives the action of the verb, then Dr. Cottrell’s translation would be preferable. The problem is that τεταγμένοι, could be either middle or passive since the form of the verb would be the same in both cases. Since both the middle and passive renderings of the word are grammatically indistinguishable the decision on which is being used has to be made based upon its usage and context.

Arminians make a contextual argument from the overall passage in Acts that the middle voice makes more sense (see Olsen etc.) and of course, Calvinists argue for the passive voice (see Wallace etc.). There have been other scholars such as Alford who have argued based upon context and grammar that the verse should be interpreted “as many as were disposed believed”If this is correct it would essentially remove the argument at least one step from this particular verse because whether it was human or divine agency that produced such a disposition cannot be determined conclusively from this verse.

There is the question of why, if this is such a contested verse, the preferred Arminian rendering is so rare. Many Arminians argue that the traditional translation is popular as a result of tradition but I find it difficult to believe that virtually every translator would be loyal to traditional renderings. In any case, regardless of which side of the theological argument we happen to be on we must always be honest in our approach to the text. It seems to me, despite my Reformed theological commitments, that the word τεταγμένοι should not be translated as “were ordained” or “were destined” as some older translations render it. It seems that the word more accurately means “were appointed” or “were arranged” as the ESV translates it. Based upon the context I do not think that these people arranged themselves for eternal life therefore understanding the verb in the passive voice makes more sense to me.

The goal of looking into these matters should never be to win arguments. We must always faithfully follow the scriptures wherever they lead us. No major doctrine ever rests upon any single verse. The flinging of proof-texts back and forth in argument is generally unproductive and can be dishonoring to God who has revealed a unified truth to us in His word. This does not, however, mean that we should not wrestle over the meanings of these verses. We must always be willing to sit in subjection to scripture and carefully investigate, understand, and consider the biblical arguments of brothers and sisters who disagree with us so that we may grow in our understanding and our pride may be kept in check. May the Lord who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing grant us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.

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