Monday, September 29, 2014

Calvin Mistranslated Acts 3:21?

Below is a Lutheran evaluation of the Reformed rejection of the real presence in the Lord's Supper (taken  from the CARM boards, emphasis in the original):

The Reformed insist that Acts 3:21 makes it IMPOSSIBLE for JESUS (the inseparable God/Man) to be anywhere but in heaven. This objection...  is(sadly) based on Calvin's unique mistranslation of the text. Here's the verse: "Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began." Acts 3:21 KJV "whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago." Acts 3:21 ESV "whom heaven must receive until the times of universal restoration of which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old." Acts 3:21 NAB. But Calvin mistranslated the verse in his Geneva Bible of 1599, "Whome the heauen must containe vntill the time that all thinges be restored, which God had spoken by the mouth of all his holy Prophets since the world began." See

The argument being proposed is that the Reformed believe Christ now has a body that can only be in one place at a time, so he cannot be physically present in the Eucharist. Hence the Reformed commit heresy by dividing the two natures of Jesus (or limiting the divine nature of Jesus). Calvin mistranslated Acts 3:21 in the 1599 Geneva Bible using the word "contain" rather than "receive," thus locating Christ only in Heaven and therefore denying his presence in the Eucharist.

Basic Refutation: Calvin did Not Translate the 1599 Geneva Bible
What's blatantly right about this argument is that the Reformed who historically follow in the footsteps of Calvin do indeed hold that the human body of Christ is in Heaven and therefore not physically present in the Lord's Supper. What's blatantly wrong about this argument is that Calvin did not translate the Geneva Bible of 1599. It would be enough to leave this here, but there are some other historical and theological factors that need to be addressed.

The Book of Concord on "Receive"
The Lutheran argument mentioned above was probably not original, but rather appears to be a muddled version of something from the Book of Concord, or more exactly, The Formula of Concord (1577). There it states,
8. Likewise, the teaching that because of his bodily ascension to heaven Christ is so confined and circumscribed by a certain space in heaven that he is neither able nor willing to be truly and essentially present with us in the Supper, which is celebrated according to Christ’s institution on earth, but that he is as far or as distant from it as heaven and earth are separated from each other. In support of their error, some Sacramentarians have deliberately and maliciously falsified the words in Acts 3:21, “Christ must take possession of heaven,” to read “Christ must be received by heaven”—that is, Christ must be so taken in or circumscribed or comprehended by or in heaven that he in no way can or wills to be with us on earth with his human nature. [Tappert, T. G. (Ed.).  The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  (Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959) (p. 590)]
Note how The Book of Concord says part of the translating error is "received" while the CARM Lutheran argument at the top of this entry says "received" is the correct translation! Then in its place, The Book of Concord would rather the translation be, "Christ must take possession of heaven." If the charge of creating an English version to comply with theological paradigms is to be applied anywhere, it seems to me this Lutheran translation of Acts 3:21 is a more fitting example. The Lutherans argue that "Christ" is the subject of the sentence, so "Christ must take possession of heaven." The Reformed say "heaven" is the subject of the sentence. so “Christ must be received by heaven.” Grammatically, either is possible. Of the major English versions I checked, none follow the Lutheran grammatical structure- even with some putting forth "He must remain in heaven" which undercuts the Lutheran argument (see this parallel web-page, and also this parallel web-page for examples of English translations of Acts 3:21).

Chemnitz on "Receive"
What's interesting about the history of the Formula of Concord here is that this criticism of using "receive" and locating Christ in heaven may not originally have had only Calvinists in view, but rather another group of Lutherans. According to Theodore R. Jungkuntz (author of Formulators of the Formula of Concord) the initial disapproval of  "receive" was voiced by previously by Martin Chemnitz. For a good description of this Lutheran faction see Robert Kolb, Martin Luther as Prophet, Teacher, and Hero,  pp. 105-112. Kolb notes it's misleading to refer to these Lutherans as "Crypto-Calvinists," and rather prefers the phrase "Crypto-Philippists" (105-106).  Kolb says the doctrinal agenda of this group "developed, however, far less under Calvinist influence than through continuing adaption of insights gained from Melanchthon's Christology and sacramental theology" (106). For the exegetical view of Chemnitz on Acts 3:21, see the addendum below. The irony here is that Lutheran argument presented initially doesn't seem to realize this in-house squabble- that it wasn't simply Calvinists that were using Acts 3:21 to locate Christ's body in heaven, but Lutherans as well

Calvin, the Geneva Bible, and "Must Contain"
The question still remains as to whether or not Calvin deliberately mistranslated Acts 3:21 with the word "contain." When one does check Calvin's commentary on Acts 3:21, one finds the verse translated as "Whom heaven must contain until the time that all things be restored" and then the following commentary from Calvin:
21. Whom the heaven must contain. Because men’s senses are always bent and inclined towards the gross and earthly beholding of God and Christ, the Jews might think with themselves that Christ was preached, indeed, to be raised up from the dead, yet could they not tell where he was; for no man did show them where he was. Therefore Peter preventeth them, when he saith that he is in heaven. Whereupon it followeth that they must lift up their minds on high, to the end they may seek Christ with the eyes of faith, although he be far from them, although he dwell without the world in the heavenly glory. But this is a doubtful speech; because we may as well understand it that Christ is contained or comprehended in the heavens, as that he doth comprehend the heavens. Let us not therefore urge the word, being of a doubtful signification; but let us content ourselves with that which is certain, that we must seek for Christ nowhere else save only in heaven, whilst that we hope for the last restoring of all things; because he shall be far from us, until our minds ascend high above the world. 
The Lutheran charging Calvin with error appears to not realize that Calvin did not write this in English. This English translation is from Christopher Featherstone, 1585 (made not that long after Calvin's death, 1564). Henry Beveridge edited it and updated the English in 1844. Beveridge's English version of Featherstone is what is popularly found today.  In fact, as far as I can tell, Featherstone's (Beveridge) translation is the only complete English translation available of Calvin's Commentary on Acts (For an interesting look at Featherstone, see this link). Could it be simply that Featherstone was familiar with the Geneva Bible's rendering of Acts 3:21 when he translated Calvin's Latin? The entire Geneva Bible was published in 1560. Could this be the simple reason Calvin is translated as saying "must contain"?

The first thing I did was check the Latin version of Calvin's comments on Acts 3:21.  Corpus Reformatorum vol. 48 reads, Quem oportet coélum cape, which is literally something like, "whom the heaven must take" (p. 72). Earlier Calvin offers the following translation of Acts 3:21, "quem oportet coelum capere usque ad tempora restitutionis omnium, quae loquutus est per os omnium sanctorum prophetarum a sacculo." The phrase in question is something like "He must get to heaven." The idea is that Christ is to be received and taken into Heaven. In Latin, "Take" and "contain" both have capere as an equivalent. Capere is the present infinitive of "capio."
Capio: Verb present active capiō, present infinitive capere, perfect active cēpī, supine captum
1. I capture, seize, take.
2. I take on.
3, I take in, understand.
According to this source: "To take in, receive, hold, contain, be large enough for"

All this being said, the English translation of "must contain" is within the realm of possibility for the Latin, but does not appear to be the most concise rendering. This old source cites Wescott (who cites P. Cotton) noting "three or four instances of unfair bias in favor of Calvinistic doctrine in the English Genevan Version."  Acts 3:21 is used as an example for "must contain" and this "unfair bias."

I do not have the historical sources to determine if Featherstone followed the Geneva Bible, if he followed a Reformed translation paradigm of the times (i.e., an "unfair bias in favor of Calvinistic doctrine"), or if his English rendering of Calvin's Latin was his own. That being said, there are also a few scattered references in Calvin's writings in which the English word "contain" is used in regard to Acts 3:21, but I have neither the time, primary texts, or language skills required to look them up to compare and contrast. Calvin though had both received and contained in mind. For instance, In Book 4 of the Institutes, Calvin says:
For as we do not doubt that Christ’s body is limited by the general characteristics common to all human bodies, and is contained in heaven (where it was once for all received) until Christ return in judgment [Acts 3:21], so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it to be present everywhere (Institutes, IV,xvii,12). 

Calvin Mistranslated the Greek Text With His Latin?
The Greek word in question is dechomai. The basic meaning is "receive." In checking an earlier English translation of the section from the Formula of Concord cited above, more detail is presented, noting the alleged Latin mistranslation:
8. Again, when it is taught, that Christ, in consequence of his ascension to heaven, is so contained and circumscribed with his body, in a certain place in heaven, that with it he neither can nor will be truly and essentially present with us in the holy Supper, which is celebrated here on earth according to the institution of Christ, but that he is as far, or distant from it, as heaven and earth are from each other; as some Sacramentarians, for the confirmation of their error, have willfully perverted this text, Acts 3, 21: Oportet Christum caelum accipere; that is, It behooved Christ to receive the heaven; and instead of this translation, they have rendered it; Oportet Christum caelo capi; that is, It behooved Christ to be received by or in the heaven, or to be circumscribed and contained in heaven, so that he neither can nor will be with us on earth in any manner with his human nature [source] (alternate source).
Calvin probably began his Acts commentary in 1550, because by November of 1550, he had a large part of it finished. The commentary on chapters 1-13 were published in 1552. Chapters 14-28 came out in 1554. According to T.H.L. Parker's study of Calvin's commentaries, Calvin relied on the Greek texts available to him at that time. Parker notes, "he favoured a literal translation, even to the extent of preserving the word order where no difference between Greek and Latin forbade it" (Parker, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, p. 134). For a complete breakdown of the Greek texts thought to have been utilized by Calvin see Parker, chapter 6: "The Greek Text."

Calvin therefore did not prefer a Latin reading over the Greek text. It is believed Calvin did consult the Vulgate and the Latin text put together by Erasmus, but primarily his Latin translation was his own, directly from the Greek.  Parker says Calvin's Latin text "has therefore a decidedly eclectic character" (Parker, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, p. 190).  For Acts 3:21 the Vulgate has "quem oportet caelum quidem suscipere" (whom the heaven must receive). Erasmus has "que oportet quide coelu accipere" (which is what heaven must receive). Calvin has "quem oportet coelum capere."It appears Calvin did not literally follow either the Vulgate or Erasmus, but this doesn't imply there was devious Latin from Calvin's pen perpetuating translation bias. See Addendum #2 below for exegetical considerations as to why the Latin Lutheran rendering is to be rejected.

The question I would pose in response to the initial Lutherans argumentation is why is their translation "It behooved Christ to receive the heaven" or "Christ must take possession of heaven" not the preferred English translation? Would Lutherans be willing to argue for a cross-denominational translation conspiracy? [As an interesting aside, the NIV 1984 translates the passage as, "He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything...," whereas the 2011 NIV states "Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything..."].

I must admit that a definitive linguistic and historical study of "must contain" and the issues included here are beyond my abilities. One needs to be skilled in Biblical Greek, Latin, and French, have the historical tools to determine Featherstone's method of translation, have to survey the literature of the time period to see the use of "must contain," have access to historical studies on the translation of the Geneva Bible, have access to the primary sources of all Calvin's alleged "must contain" references,   do an analysis of early English Bibles and how they translated this verse, and if there was any change during the controversies of the late 16th Century... and the list goes on. With these caveats, I offer the following conclusions to the original Lutheran argument offered above:

1. Calvin did not translate the Geneva Bible of 1599. Certainly his was a great influence to it, but he did not translate the Geneva Bible (of any edition).

2. "Whom the heaven must receive" is not at odds with either Calvin or the Reformed tradition, but is a translation opposed to the Lutheran confessions. The Lutheran confessions are clearly opposed to it, offering instead their own curious English rendering which is at odds with the majority of English translations present today.

3. "Whom the heaven must contain" is probably an inferior English translation and appears to indicate a Reformed bias (though "contain" is within the realm of meaning).

4. Calvin did not mistranslate Acts 3:21 from Greek to Latin in his commentary on Acts 3:21.  

Addendum 1: Martin Chemnitz on Acts 3:21
The argumentation of Chemintz can be found here (see page 68).
The sequence and context of the entire speech demonstrate what the meaning of this passage in Acts 3:21 actually is. Peter is here making the point of his entire oration, namely, that the heavenly Father has adorned that Jesus who was crucified out of weakness 2 Cor. 13:41 with the highest and most incomprehensible glory and power, which He has demonstrated to some degree in the miracle of the restoration of the lame man. And by this argument he is encouraging those who denied and killed Christ that they should repent of that sin, lest they experience His vengeance. But at the same time He is showing by this very argument what those who believe can expect from that glory and power of Christ. However, because the objection can be raised that Christ did not exercise that glory and power of His in person, either in the face of His enemies or for the sake of those who believed in Him, Peter replies that Christ has received heaven itself. Moreover, there is a common Scriptural expression that God Himself is described as inhabiting the heavens, not in the sense that He is locked up there so that He cannot be on earth also, but in the sense that in the heavens He manifests Himself and His majesty and power more clearly and gloriously. For He shows that in heaven He is not to be known through means, but He reveals the quality of His majesty, glory, and power face to face for us to look at, and there He communicates His benefits without means, but He Himself fills all things with His blessing, so that there is no misery, no weakness, no confusion, no cause for sin there. . . . It is absolutely certain that this is what Scripture wants to say when it attributes to God that He dwells and has His habitation in heaven.And Peter is using this language when he describes the reign of Christ. (LS 217 f.)

Addendum 2 Exegetical Commentaries on Acts 3:21
Here are a few grammatical treatments of Acts 3:21. I plan on updating this as I come across sources. The only in-depth modern Lutheran grammatical treatment I'm aware of is that put forth by Francis Pieper: "As Pieper has pointed out, the Reformed “falsified the words” (SD VII, 119) by taking the Dexasthai as a passive instead of a middle voice; expressed in Christ was enclosed and circumscribed in heaven. For a detailed discussion of this text, see Pieper II,326–328." I do not have access to this volume yet. I'm speculating there are other Lutheran exegetical sources- perhaps my readers can provide me with some additional sources.

Source: Gloag, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (1870)

Source: Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles (1883)

Source: Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (1867)

Source: The Expositors Greek Testament


Brigitte said...

I have a hymn ringing in my head where it goes: und nimmt den Himmel wieder ein. Which means: and he takes in heaven again.

My parents' Luther Bible has: welcher muss den Himmel einnehmen. That would put Christ as the subject.

My confirmation Bible has: Ihn muss der Himmel aufnehmen. That one makes heaven the object.

As the nature of God and heaven are really a mystery to us at this point, it does not seem worth the quibbling. But since Christ said that this is his body and we must eat his flesh, will accept that in some way heaven and earth are united at the meal, has he said directly. A foretaste of the feast to come.

Brigitte said...

Sorry, makes heaven the Subject. (In the confirmation Bible).

Brigitte said...

The story line is: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ has ascended to heaven. Christ will come again visibly.

Whether heaven took him in or he took in heaven, can't be said from the syntax, so we can't build any theology on it; that would be the point.

James Swan said...

Whether heaven took him in or he took in heaven, can't be said from the syntax, so we can't build any theology on it; that would be the point.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (1599 Geneva Bible)

16 For the whole Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable to teach, to convince, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness,

17 That the man of God may be absolute, being made perfect unto all good works.

Brigitte said...

You know that you need to start with clear passages that speak to the subject, and that scripture interprets scripture, and all that. If it could mean Christ took heaven, or heaven took Christ, you cannot use that to construct a novel interpretation or take the text beyond what it intended.