The long history of defective Christian scriptural exegesis occasioned by problematic translations is a luxuriant one, and its riches are too numerous and exquisitely various adequately to classify. But I think one can arrange most of them along a single continuum in four broad divisions: some misreadings are caused by a translator’s error, others by merely questionable renderings of certain words, others by the unfamiliarity of the original author’s (historically specific) idiom, and still others by the “untranslatable” remoteness of the author’s own (culturally specific) theological concerns. And each kind comes with its own special perils and consequences.
But let me illustrate. Take, for example, Augustine’s magisterial reading of the Letter to the Romans, as unfolded in reams of his writings, and ever thereafter by his theological heirs: perhaps the most sublime “strong misreading” in the history of Christian thought, and one that comprises specimens of all four classes of misprision. Of the first, for instance: the notoriously misleading Latin rendering of Romans 5:12 that deceived Augustine into imagining Paul believed all human beings to have, in some mysterious manner, sinned “in” Adam, which obliged Augustine to think of original sin—bondage to death, mental and moral debility, estrangement from God—ever more insistently in terms of an inherited guilt (a concept as logically coherent as that of a square circle), and which prompted him to assert with such sinewy vigor the justly eternal torment of babes who died unbaptized. And of the second: the way, for instance, Augustine’s misunderstanding of Paul’s theology of election was abetted by the simple contingency of a verb as weak as the Greek proorizein (“sketching out beforehand,” “planning,” etc.) being rendered as praedestinare—etymologically defensible, but connotatively impossible. And of the third: Augustine’s frequent failure to appreciate the degree to which, for Paul, the “works” (erga, opera) he contradistinguishes from faith are works of the Mosaic law, “observances” (circumcision, kosher regulations, and so on). And of the fourth—well, the evidences abound: Augustine’s attempt to reverse the first two terms in the order of election laid out in Romans 8:29–30 (“Whom he foreknew he also marked out beforehand”); or his eagerness, when citing Romans 5:18, to quote the protasis (“Just as one man’s offence led to condemnation for all men”), but his reluctance to quote the (strictly isomorphic) apodosis (“so also one man’s righteousness led to justification unto life for all men”); or, of course, his entire reading of Romans 9–11 . . .
Ah—thereby hangs a tale.
Not that Paul’s argument there is difficult to follow. What preoccupies him is the agonizing mystery that the Messiah has come, yet so few of the house of Israel have accepted him, while so many Gentiles—outside the covenant—have. What then of God’s faithfulness to his promises? It is not an abstract question regarding who is “saved” and who “damned”: By the end of chapter 11, the former category proves to be vastly larger than that of the “elect,” or the “called,” while the latter category makes no appearance at all. It is a concrete question concerning Israel and the Church. And ultimately Paul arrives at an answer drawn, ingeniously, from the logic of election in Hebrew Scripture.
Before reaching that point, however, in a completely and explicitly conditional voice, he limns the problem in the starkest chiaroscuro. We know, he says, that divine election is God’s work alone, not earned but given; it is not by their merit that Gentile believers have been chosen. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (9:13)—here quoting Malachi, for whom Jacob is the type of Israel and Esau the type of Edom. For his own ends, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He has mercy on whom he will, hardens whom he will (9:15–18). If you think this unjust, who are you, O man, to reproach God who made you? May not the potter cast his clay for purposes both high and low, as he chooses (9:19–21)? And, so, what if (ei de, quod si) God should show his power by preparing vessels of wrath, solely for destruction, to provide an instructive counterpoint to the riches of the glory he lavishes on vessels prepared for mercy, whom he has called from among the Jews and the Gentiles alike (9:22–24)? Perhaps that is simply how it is: The elect alone are to be saved, and the rest left reprobate, as a display of divine might; God’s faithfulness is his own affair.
Well, so far, so Augustinian. But so also, again, purely conditional: “What if . . . ?” Rather than offering a solution to the quandary that torments him, Paul is simply restating it in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair. But then, instead of stopping here, he continues to question God’s justice after all, and spends the next two chapters unambiguously rejecting this provisional answer altogether, in order to reach a completely different—and far more glorious—conclusion.
Throughout the book of Genesis, the pattern of God’s election is persistently, even perversely antinomian: Ever and again the elder to whom the birthright properly belongs is supplanted by the younger, whom God has chosen in defiance of all natural “justice.” This is practically the running motif uniting the whole text, from Cain and Abel to Manasseh and Ephraim. But—this is crucial—it is a pattern not of exclusion and inclusion, but of a delay and divagation that immensely widens the scope of election, taking in the brother “justly” left out in such a way as to redound to the good of the brother “unjustly” pretermitted. This is clearest in the stories of Jacob and of Joseph, and it is why Esau and Jacob provide so apt a typology for Paul’s argument. For Esau is not finally rejected; the brothers are reconciled, to the increase of both precisely because of their temporary estrangement. And Jacob says to Esau (not the reverse), “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s.”
And so Paul proceeds. In the case of Israel and the Church, election has become even more literally “antinomian”: Christ is the end of the law so that all may attain righteousness, leaving no difference between Jew and Gentile; thus God blesses everyone (10:11–12). As for the believing “remnant” of Israel (11:5), they are elected not as the number of the “saved,” but as the earnest through which all of Israel will be saved (11:26), the part that makes the totality holy (11:16). And, again, the providential ellipticality of election’s course vastly widens its embrace: For now, part of Israel is hardened, but only until the “full entirety” (pleroma) of the Gentiles enter in; they have not been allowed to stumble only to fall, however, and if their failure now enriches the world, how much more so will their own “full entirety” (pleroma); temporarily rejected for “the world’s reconciliation,” they will undergo a restoration that will be a “resurrection from the dead” (11:11–12, 15).
This, then, is the radiant answer dispelling the shadows of Paul’s grim “what if,” the clarion negative: There is no final “illustrative” division between vessels of wrath and of mercy; God has bound everyone in disobedience so as to show mercy to everyone (11:32); all are vessels of wrath so that all may be made vessels of mercy.
Not that one can ever, apparently, be explicit enough. One classic Augustinian construal of Romans 11, particularly in the Reformed tradition, is to claim that Paul’s seemingly extravagant language—“all,” “full entirety,” “the world,” and so on—really still means just that all peoples are saved only in the “exemplary” or “representative” form of the elect. This is, of course, absurd. Paul is clear that it is those not called forth, those allowed to stumble, who will still never be allowed to fall. Such a reading would simply leave Paul in the darkness where he began, reduce his glorious discovery to a dreary tautology, convert his magnificent vision of the vast reach of divine love into a ludicrous cartoon of its squalid narrowness. Yet, on the whole, the Augustinian tradition on these texts has been so broad and mighty that it has, for millions of Christians, effectively evacuated Paul’s argument of all its real content. It ultimately made possible those spasms of theological and moral nihilism that prompted John Calvin to claim (in book 3 of The Institutes) that God predestined even the Fall, and (in his commentary on 1 John) that love belongs not to God’s essence, but only to how the elect experience him. Sic transit gloria Evangelii.
I have to say that, as an Orthodox scholar, I have made many efforts over the years to defend Augustine against what I take to be defective and purely polemical Eastern interpretations of his thought, in the realms of metaphysics, Trinitarian theology, and the soul’s knowledge of God (often to the annoyance of some of my fellow Orthodox). But regarding that part of his intellectual patrimony that has had the widest effect—his understanding of sin, grace, and election—not only do I share the Eastern distaste for (or, frankly, horror at) his conclusions; I am even something of an extremist in that respect. In the whole long, rich history of Christian misreadings of Scripture, none I think has ever been more consequential, more invincibly perennial, or more disastrous.