Monday, April 30, 2007

Free Will or Willingly

I’ve made it clear in previous posts that I thoroughly enjoy the ESV. It is my primary Bible of choice. Yet, as with any translation, there are some passages where I would have chosen to do it a little differently. One such place is Philemon 1:14.

In the most recent printing (I’m looking at my new Single Column Reference ESV), the text reads like this:
But I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.
Philemon 1:14

However, in my early printed editions, the text read like this:
But I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.
Philemon 1:14

The Greek word in question is ekousios: translated originally as “free will” and now as “accord.” The word is only used once in the New Testament, but it is used often in the Old Testament to refer to “freewill offerings.”

One of the benefits of an essentially literal translation is the consistency in rendering of key words or phrases. The greater the consistence the more useful the translation will be for study.

It appears to me that the translators had to weigh two important issues with this Greek word. First, they had to determine how relevant the Old Testament concept of freewill offerings is to this passage. Second, they had to weigh how the phrase “free will” would be understood in today’s context.

While there is a very real conceptual connection in this passage to the Old Testament freewill offerings, it appears the translators determined that the use of the phrase “free will” would be too easily misunderstood today. In a very real sense, I think they are right. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament teaches “free will” the way it is understood today.

However, we (even we Reformed folk) do have a concept of volitional acts for which we are held responsible. I’m not sure “accord” accords well with that understanding. Maybe they could have used the word volition instead. I think I would have simply tried using the word “willingly” somehow. Note: my solution changes the word from a noun to an adverb, which I don’t like either, but what can you do? In any case, a footnote referring to freewill offerings may have helped.

Luther’s little book The Bondage of the Will is the best piece I’ve read on the function and abilities of the will of man. I hear Edwards has done a good job too, but I haven’t read that yet. Though we acknowledge the volitional acts of man, man’s will has no ability to save. In this crucial area, it is the will of God that makes all the difference.

Speaking of volitional acts, here is my assessment of how the will of man functioned in the various stages of world history and the history of man.

Stage One: Pre-fall
Adam was able to choose what he would do each day
He was able to avoid sin, yet also able to sin
It was possible for him to please God

Stage One: Post-fall at Birth
Man is still able to choose what he will do each day
He is no longer able to avoid sin
In this state, it is impossible to please God

Stage Two: Post-fall at New Birth
Man is still able to choose what he will do each day
By grace he is able to avoid sin, though he stumbles often
Thus he is able to please God and grieve the Holy Spirit

Stage Three: New Creation
Man is still able to choose what he will do each day
He will no longer be able to sin ever again
It will be impossible to grieve the Holy Spirit!

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