Archive for August 22nd, 2010

Fellowship and the Tower of Babel

August 22, 2010

I had an occasion last week to be confronted by a Protestant fundamentalist “street preacher.” Wearing a cassock and a cross in public clearly identifies me as a priest (though in this part of the world most people know nothing of Orthodox priests). It also makes you a target for some who want to have arguments about religion. Thus, last week, while doing work on the local university campus, I was approached twice by different “preachers.” The first conversation was relatively short and generally non-confrontational.

My second encounter was less pleasant. The gentleman who approached me wanted an argument and tried his best to draw me into such a conversation. He eventually left in frustration. However, one of his questions has stayed with me. He asked, “What do you think salvation is?” I answered, “Salvation is union with Christ.” He had obviously never heard that answer and wasn’t sure what to say in return (he changed the subject). I realized on reflection that he had no idea what I meant – which brought another thought to mind: how can you have a conversation about faith when the most basic vocabulary is riddled with contradictions? The words are the same (salvation, Baptism, Church, etc.) but the meanings are utterly different. We both spoke English, but the two of us did not share a common language.

There is a relatively small number of words that come up repeatedly in my writings: mystery, union, communion, participation, icon, iconic, etc. It is not so much that my vocabulary is greatly restricted – rather our common vocabulary is restricted. Some words are deeply essential in sharing the Orthodox life. Unless such words are understood, no conversation can take place. The ancient Greeks used the word Barbaros (“barbarian”) for those who did not speak Greek. The etymology of the word was simple: those who spoke a foreign (non-Greek) language sounded as though they were saying, “Bar, bar, bar, bar, etc.” Those with whom no language is shared are often the most foreign to us. I have also found it to be true that even when I do not share a common language with someone, if I share a common faith, they are no longer foreign – conversation takes place at a deeper level. I have served in liturgies in which there were at least three languages present in the altar and not mutually understood – and yet, the liturgy went smoothly despite the shifting languages. There was the common language of priesthood and liturgy – in many ways, an experience of Pentecost.

I ask patience on the part of my readers if my blog postings occasionally seem repetitive. Many things have to be spoken and repeated for understanding to take place (thus comments are of very great value). It is not common language we seek in the end – but a common God – the good God who loves mankind.

The following is an article on a key word – a word that would have changed the conversation last week that failed. The Tower of Babel is much closer than we think.


Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The creation of abstract nouns from adjectives (common in Greek thought) was a critical component in the rise of philosophy within that culture.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two discrete individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.