Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Generous Charis

I grew up hearing and reading the Bible during the transition from KJV to NASB and NIV. In my church setting, the transition was mostly welcomed, except by a few pious old-timers who were certain that our prayers were more acceptable to God if they included a generous portion of thees, thous, and Elizabethan-era verb endings.

The KJV had the interesting effect of making some very ordinary words into technical religious terms, since the words dropped out of ordinary use in the centuries since the KJV was translated. One of those words is "grace." Interestingly, the NASB, the NIV, and even (often) the NLT continue to use this word to translate the Greek word charis, even though the meaning of "grace" in English has changed over the centuries.

In modern English, "grace" primarily means something like beauty, charm, or refinement - a meaning that rarely fits what the NT authors meant by charis. Of course, Christians usually learn to fill in a technical religious meaning for the word grace, but charis in Greek did not have a uniquely religious meaning.

Charis has a variety of meanings depending on the context (like all words), but in the sorts of passages where it is translated "grace," it normally means something like "generosity" or "generous gift" (the same meaning it had in English when the KJV was translated). As I have been reading the NT recently, I have been translating charis with "generosity" or "generous gift" wherever such a translation works. Look at some of the passages:

Eph 2:8-9 For by [God's] generosity you have been saved... it is the gift of God.
Gal 1:3 Generosity and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Phil 1:7 It is only right for me to feel this way about you... since you all are partakers with me of [God's] generosity.
1 Cor 15:10 But by the generosity of God I am what I am [that is, an apostle]; and his generosity towards me was not wasted, but I labored more than all of them; yet not I, but God's generous gift which was with me.

There are some other passages where "generosity" seems to be a less fit translation, expecially in Romans. I haven't yet checked what the standard references (BDAG, NIDNTT, EDNT, TDNT, etc.) have to say on this, but it seems that charis is used in these passages to describe God's generous forgiveness. For example:

Rom 5:20 The Law came in so that transgression might increase; but where sin increased, [God's] generosity overflowed even more.
Rom 3:24 ... being justified freely by his generous gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

Although this started for me as a thought experiment in translation, it has resulted in a great deal of thought about God's generosity. It is striking that Christ's life and death on our behalf is described as a generous gift to us. Paul's calling as an apostle, and our calling to serve in the church today, is a generous gift. Paul chose to start most of his letters with a prayer for God's generosity and peace. I do not think often enough of God as a generous God, a gift-giving God, a God who is characterized by his beneficence. Yet he is.

Charis to you and peace from our generous God in 2009.

The picture: An altar piece, ca. 1260, by an unknown German master. The middle panel is a gnadenstuhle or "Pillar of Grace," a common way of depicting the Trinity. The side panels depict Mary and John.

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