Friday, February 29, 2008

'Grace', a mistranslated word and misunderstood concept

The word charis, often translated 'grace' is quite heavily used in the New Testament. For many Christians and denominations, particular understandings of 'grace' shape their understanding of Christianity. Even though it means different things to different Christians, 'grace' (charis) is commonly heavily used and an important theological and emotional term. It is therefore, in my view, immensely important to accurately understand the meaning of the Greek word charis as it was understood by the original writers and readers of the New Testament. A multitude of sins, eisegesis, and bad theology, can be built on a misunderstanding of this word.

Amongst Classics scholars there is no debate as to what this word means. Surviving documents from the ancient world contain hundreds of passages that give us great clarity about their understanding of charis and the role this word and its concepts played in their society. Charis was the key-word in what scholars call "the reciprocity system". This system operated according to time-delay exchanges where goods were given and then at a later time goods of relatively equal value were returned to the giver. These goods could be tangible (money, material goods) or intangible (public acclaim, authority). An obligation existed to repay favors owed, they were not 'free' in the sense we would understand it - it is just like when a bank gives you a loan the money is not 'free'. (It is due to this reciprocal nature of the transactions that scholars label it the Reciprocity System.) Essentially the system was an informal system of economics. The word charis itself is best translated with the English "favor" in the sense of talking about favors given and favors repaid. Greek makes no linguistic distinction between the first favor given and the second favor to repay it, calling each a charis. Greek also uses charis to refer to a positive attitude toward someone - we would speak in English of this as "regarding them favorably" or "having their favor".

Of course, a century or more ago, such information simply wasn't available. People interpreting charis in the Bible had to use what information they had and try to make some sense of it. Reformation Christianity is famous for seeing charis as being "free grace" and being the opposite of human effort. These concepts have heavily influenced many Christians' understandings of 'grace' today, but have nothing to do with the actual meaning of charis in Greek. The translation 'grace' is not a good one, it is not 'free', and it isn't the opposite of human effort.

These historical misinterpretations of 'grace' have led to correspondingly incorrect interpretations of passages that use charis. Romans 4, for example, contrasts the Reciprocity System to a Contractual system (a rather subtle contrast) which has historically been exegeted as the difference between human effort and reliance on 'grace'. Similarly Ephesians 2:8, due to the ambiguity in Greek about givers and receivers of favors clarifies that God is the giver of the favor and we the receiver, and yet this has historically been exegeted as speaking about lack of human effort.

Unfortunately, nothing endures and propagates quite like bad theology. At certain points in history, theologians have constructed theologies based on certain incorrect understandings of 'grace' and these theologies remain influential today and taught as biblical even when scholarship regarding the meaning of these words has long moved on. Mistaken ideas about charis continue to influence many Christians who are convinced that 'grace' means salvation is in no way by human effort.

11 Comments:

Blogger Bryan L said...

I seem to remember DeSilva making a similar point in Honor Patronage, Kinship and Purity. That's one of the things that really stuck out to me in that book.

BTW is seems like you are failing to take into account the different 'senses' of the word charis as well as the fact that charis is defined by it's context. Instead you seem to want to jump right into making charis a particular concept or technical term and then read that into the NT whever it's used. This is the same mistake people make when they see the word charis as being equivalent to a theological concept of the English word grace.

I'm sure charis was probably used in reciprocity language however that does not mean it was the only context charis was used in or that that particular usage must be transferred to the other scenarios in which charis is used in the NT.

Blessings,
Bryan L

1/3/08  
Blogger Andrew said...

In understanding the meanings of Charis we obviously have to take into account biblical usage just as we take into account usage from other ancient greek documents. There is no substantial difference between the two, so this is not really an issue. Charis does have a few more meanings in Greek not directly related to the reciprocity system, which are not overly relevant. In choosing to use Charis the NT writers choose to use a particular word that was associated with particular concepts in the minds of their readers - they didn't have to use such a word, but they chose to.

The problem I am trying to point out is that many Christians understandings of key theological concepts like Charis, predate a decent understanding of Greek. In the nineteenth century many believed that koine Greek was a 'heavenly dialect' of Greek because of the lack of other surviving documents written in koine Greek. As a result their ideas about what koine Greek words meant were derived from almost entirely from the bible and their theology, and from attempts to reconstruct the etymology of words (this is now seen as a really inaccurate linguistics technique).

Since that time we have discovered thousands and thousands of koine Greek documents and we are in a much better position to understand the meanings of Greek words. Charis is a word which scholars have gained a great deal of knowledge about the meaning of as and there have been plenty of studies done in this area. In recent years scholars have also become far more interested in understanding how society work in the ancient world and understanding the role words took within that social framework. Our understanding of Charis, has, as my post made clear, been something that has greatly benefited from this type of study.

The problem is now that Christian theological preconceptions about 'what grace means' that have been passed down by tradition from times when they were just guessing, are so ingrained within many Christian communities that they refuse to give way to actual evidence.

It may seem like my post hasn't 'proved' my case, and that I'm therefore being overly hasty in my conclusions. Of course my post itself hasn't proved anything, I'm just reporting the conclusions of dozens of books an articles written by scholars on the subject.

1/3/08  
Blogger Bryan L said...

Again Andrew I think you are investing more meaning into the word charis than is actually there and making the same mistake that people who you are criticizing are.

"Charis does have a few more meanings in Greek not directly related to the reciprocity system, which are not overly relevant."

As far as I know there is really only one lexeme of charis and various senses (4 main ones I think) so then what sense does the meaning you are arguing for charis apply to?

"The problem I am trying to point out is that many Christians understandings of key theological concepts like Charis, predate a decent understanding of Greek."

The problem is that the whole idea of the theological concept of charis is related to the critcism's Barr made of the TDNT years ago and the idea that words have special theological meaning that the writers of the NT have invested into them so that they have new or different meanings (such as agape). Maybe you could speak about the NT's view of grace but you would have to take into account more words than just charis. It would be wrong to talk of the theological concept of charis.

You stated that you were "reporting the conclusions of dozens of books an articles written by scholars on the subject."

Any of them you'd care to list?

Thanks.

Blessings,
Bryan L

1/3/08  
Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Andrew, I'm not quite sure if I understand the reciprocity systems you have in mind. But I rather think you mean something like the following: A gives something to B (described in Greek as charis). A expects B to give something in return. If B does not give in return, B is considered to be a bad person, and will not receive further charis at least from A. But A will not attempt to retrieve from B the previously given charis; indeed A has no right to do so because formally it was a gift.

Let's put this into theological language. A is now God, and the charis given is eternal salvation. God gives salvation to B. B is expected to give something back to God, in this case obedience and loving service. If B does not give this, B is considered to be a bad person, and will not receive from God the further rewards offered to a faithful believer. But God will not attempt to withdraw from B the salvation already given and promised.

So there is no inconsistency, I think, between what you write and orthodox Christian teaching. You are certainly not contradicting the position "that 'grace' means salvation is in no way by human effort".

2/3/08  
Blogger Andrew said...

Peter,

As you point it, it still could potentially be the case that given an improved understanding of charis that the NT teaches a post-Augustinian concept of grace. A better understanding of the word doesn't in and of itself disprove any given theological concept, but the exegesis that results from taking it into account might. Obviously I haven't done that in my post.

5/3/08  
Blogger Ron said...

Grace - the desire and power to do God's will

Grace is the work of the Holy Spirit

1/7/09  
Blogger aristarchus22 said...

Most of the NT concert was not come out of the blue, NT writer were Hebrew themselves and here is some studies on the same word in Hebrew.
http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/emagazine/058.html#biblicalword

9/5/12  
Blogger CRIE Natural said...

Thnx for this point Arista. The fact is that the writers were Hebrews in a Greek world, so much of the language used was to take Biblical truths and connect them to the Greek reality. The thing is as believers our main focus and objective should be to confess, believe in Christ and honor God by spreading the Gospel to those in darkness. Let us not argue about interpretation of Scripture and find ourselves turning into the very people Christ came to deliver us from. (Religious leaders) Be Blessed

22/7/12  
Blogger George Y said...

Been doing a study on grace and stumbled across this blog. Some great input here. Thanks to all of you who has a love for God's word.

Here is my understanding of charis.

I think all the input above on this word has merit. I especially agree with Andrew’s statements concerning the tendency of Christians to embrace and hold on to bad interpretations in spite of differing evidence.

Andrew wrote:

“A multitude of sins, eisegesis, and bad theology, can be built on a misunderstanding of this word.”

“Unfortunately, nothing endures and propagates quite like bad theology. At certain points in history, theologians have constructed theologies based on certain incorrect understandings of 'grace' and these theologies remain influential today and taught as biblical even when scholarship regarding the meaning of these words has long moved on. Mistaken ideas about charis continue to influence many Christians who are convinced that 'grace' means salvation is in no way by human effort.”

Andrew make a good point here but I disagree with his conclusion that grace is a human effort. Someone else mentioned above that we can not forget the work of the Holy Spirit and His influence when it comes to spiritual language. Let's look at the Strong’s definition or the word:

Let’s look at the Strong’s definition of the word and then let me give my intreptation of charis for consideration.

G5485
χάρις
charis
khar'-ece
From G5463; graciousness (as gratifying), of manner or act (abstract or concrete; literal, figurative or spiritual; especially the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life; including gratitude): - acceptable, benefit, favour, gift, grace (-ious), joy liberality, pleasure, thank (-s, -worthy).

Notice one important point that Strong makes; “…the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life; including gratitude.” It is a manner or act of God upon the life of the believer.

“The reciprocity system"? Yes. God gives believers divine influence expecting them to do something with it, so that a reflection of God’s life can be seen in the believers life. Look at Titus 2:11 with the consideration of this meaning and see how it brings understanding to the passage.

Titus 2:11 “For the grace of God, (that is His divine influence upon our hearts and its reflection in our lives which fills us with gratitude) that grace which defends and saves, has appeared to all men.
Titus 2:12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live
soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;…”

You see, the meaning of the word, I believe is, that grace is the empowering influence of God upon our hearts so that it causes us to express a life of gratitude and thus live soberly, righteously, etc in this present world. God give us something but expects a return, mainly thanksgiving.

Here is my paraphrase of Titus 2:11.

Titus 2:11 "For the Divine Influence upon our hearts and it's reflection in our lives fills us with gratitude, that same Divine Influence that defends and saves us has appeared not just to us but to all men." (Paraphrase)
Think on this and post your thoughts.

17/9/12  
Blogger George Youket said...

You guys are talking about the right meaning of the word grace. Most Christians today parrot the meaning as; "Unmerited Favor". However, this is closer to the Hebrew meaning. The NT meaning is what you have pointed out, "The Divine Influence upon the heart and it's reflection in the life."

Grace is a Divine attribute. That's why Christianity is the only religion in the world that understands this word. It's because our God, the one and only true God who is a God of grace. It says in John 1:17 "For the law was given by Moses, but grace (God's Divine Influence upon our hearts and lives) and truth came by Jesus Christ."

A good passage to see this Divine Infuence in action is recorded in 2 Cor 12:9. Paul had prayed three times that God would remove the influence of the pesky demon that was following him, but it was not sent away by Jesus. Instead Jesus says to Paul in verse 9, "My grace is sufficent for thee..." The words "for thee" are in the Dative Case, showing that it was because of Christ's Divine Influence that Paul was strengthend to endure the pressure, and as a result was full of gratitude as recorded in verse 10.

Here is how I translated verse 9.

And He said to me, My Divine influence upon your heart and life is enough to defend and strengthen you; for my power is accomplished through weakness. So then, with much gratitude I would rather boast in my weakness, so that the miracle power of Christ will rest upon me.

Grace is that miracle power of Christ working in us and through us as a result of us abiding in Him.

8/1/13  
Blogger James said...

Let's look at Paul's definition of Grace:
"And if by grace, then is it no longer of works: otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is because of works, then is it no longer grace: otherwise work is no longer work."
This proves that grace means "unmerited" "not deserved" and "not earned".
Thus, grace by the New Testament definition is still a gift that is "unmerited" by the recipient. The fact that the recipient responds to it with gratitude and service can in no way imply that the recipient is "paying" for the grace received. Jesus Christ "paid" for it with His own blood, so there is no need for someone else to PAY for it. "You are bought with a price" (Paul), "with the precious blood of Christ..." (Peter)

5/2/13  

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