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February 2018 Credo

Recently, Pope Francis approved the move to change the English translation of a petition in the Lord’s Prayer. The change is made to the sixth petition from ‘Lead us not into temptation’ to ‘Don’t let me fall into temptation’.

Suggesting that the current translation is bad and misleading, the pontiff said: ‘It’s Satan who leads us into temptation … that’s his department’. ‘It is I who fall’, the pope explains further. ‘But it is not he [God] who pushes me into temptation’.

Bad translation might lead to bad theology. In this case, it might urge some to think that it is God who is directly responsible for enticing people to commit sins.

The Pope is surely right to disabuse anyone who is inclined to adopt such a view. God cannot tempt anyone to commit sin. He cannot be the author of evil.

Scripture is unequivocal in this. In James 1:13, we read: ‘Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one’. The reason for this assertion is clear: God, being perfectly good, is incapable of deceit and evil.

However, Scripture also tell us that ‘Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’. Thus, although God does not (and cannot) tempt us, he sometimes does bring us into situations in which we will face temptations.

In fact, there is a sense in which temptations can never be totally avoided.

As Nicholas Ayo has rightly pointed out, ‘… everyday life leads everyone into temptations of one kind or another. All earthly life is a temptation to exaggerated self-love and self-importance without God. Even the right things can be done for the wrong reasons’.

Scholars agree that the Greek here is difficult to translate. It can mean both ‘do not allow us to enter into temptation’ and ‘do not let us yield to temptation’, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church rightly points out. An older translation of this petition renders it as ‘Do not bring us into temptation’.

This has led some theologians to maintain that the second sense is meant in this petition, namely, ‘do not let us yield to temptation’. Read in this way, this is not a petition for God to shield the believer from temptation. Rather this is a plea that God would grant the believer the strength to persevere in temptation (James 1:12), so that he might not yield to or be led ‘into’ temptation – that is, so that he might not sin.

This petition therefore echoes the prayer of the Psalmist: ‘Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in the wicked deeds along with those who are evildoers’ (Psalm 141:4).

This is the way in which a number of Church Fathers have understood this petition. For example, Origen in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer notes that the petition has to do not with the avoidance of all temptation as such, but with the ability to resist and not be overpowered by them.

In the Old Latin text, this petition is rendered ne nos patiaris induci in tentationem, which can be translated as ‘do not suffer us to be led into temptation’. The main thrust of the petition, according to this rendering, is not that we be immunized from temptation, but that God will not allow the temptations that assail us to bring us to ruin.

Both Augustine and Jerome understood the petition in this way, namely, as a plea that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability. This recalls what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10: 13: ‘God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it’.

Assured of God’s presence and protection, the believer who trusts in God in the midst of temptations and trials knows that ‘all things work together for good’ for those who love God and are called to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

In this way, the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is inextricably connected to the next: ‘But deliver us from evil’. Temptation, when yielded to, results in the evil of sin, that willful rebellion against God. Thus, the pleas that we should not be brought ‘into’ temptation and that we might be delivered from evil are of a piece.

The great Cappadocian theologian Gregory of Nyssa could therefore say that ‘temptation and the evil meant one and the same thing’.

Augustine, however, offers a slightly different perspective by arguing that the sixth petition (‘Lead us not into temptation’) has to do with the preservation from evil, while the seventh petition (‘Deliver us from evil’) is a plea for God to rescue us when we are already in the jaws of evil.

However one interprets these petitions, their profound relationship to one another cannot be denied – the one sheds light on the other.

This way of understanding the sixth petition does not in any way diminish the sovereign agency of God, as some have argued. Rather, it underscores the fact that God is in control even of the evil that he does not desire or will, and that he can use the things that are inimical or antithetical to his own intentions to serve his purposes.

So, what should we make of the Pope’s suggested change in the English translation?

The proposal to change ‘Lead us not into temptation’ to ‘Don’t let me fall into temptation’ is, in my view, uncontroversial and not at all theologically problematic.

In fact, one English translation of the Protestant Bible (The Living Translation – first edition, 1996) has nicely captured the essence of the Pope’s interpretation of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer by rendering it as ‘And don’t let us yield to temptation’.

This translation more accurately captures the meaning of the sixth petition, and how the representative theologians of the Church since Origen have understood it.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.