One of the debates in translation work is whether there is meaning in the form of a sentence. If one word is an infinitive, for example, and the next is a participle, does it matter?
Those in the dynamic camp (NIV, NLT) tend towards answering, “No.” The question is how do I express the same meaning regardless of how I say it. So if the meaning of the Greek infinitive is best expressed with an English finite verb, so be it.
Those in the formal camp (NASB, ESV, HCSB, NRSV [setting aside the gender issues]) tend to answer, “Yes.” If the writer uses a subordinate construction, so should we, as long as it makes sense in English.
Notice that I say “tend.” The NIV often goes word for word, sticking close to the Greek word order. The ESV sometimes becomes interpretive when a word for word translation makes no sense, or worse yet would miscommunicate. The issue is one of tendencies.
If you have been following this blog very long, you know that I think there “tends” to be significance in the distinction between independent and subordinate forms. They help us know the primary point a passage is making (independent clause), and which thoughts tend to be secondary in terms of describing the main point (dependent clause).
This morning I read Hebrews 13:20-21. “And may the God of peace (Ὁ δὲ θεὸς τῆς εἰρήνης), who, by the blood of the eternal covenant, brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus, make you complete (καταρτίσαι) with everything good to do his will (εἰς τὸ ποιῆσαι τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ), accomplishing (ποιῶν) in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for all time. Amen.”
εἰς τὸ ποιῆσαι τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ is explicitly purpose. The author’s prayer is that God make us complete for the purpose of doing his will.
The NIV’s translation of ποιῶν is mystifying to me. It says, “Now may the God of peace … equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him.” What they have done is treated the participle ποιῶν as a second thought, parallel to ποιῆσαι and hence say that there are two purposes for for the prayer.
The only other translation to do anything like this is the NLT, and there it may be due to their desire to have short sentences. “Now may the God of peace … may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him.”
The structure of the sentence strongly suggests that there is only one expressed purpose, “to do his will,” and the following participle defines God’s will more closely; God’s will is that we do what is pleasing in his sight. There are not two purposes of the prayer, only one.
Even though I understand and support dynamic translation, I still think that the macro structure of a verse established by dependent and independent constructions is an important indicator of meaning and should be observed, if possible.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.