In the past few posts, I have begun to reflect on the idea of the body as the center of Christian redemption. In this post, however, I want to bring this to bear on how we interpret and translate the Greek of Romans 12.1-2. Here is a standard translation of the passage from the NRSV:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
If you notice the bolded section, the NET, NIV, NASB, and ESV all have a very similar translation, using the preposition “by” there. The Greek τῇ ἀνακαινώσει is in the dative case and these translations all seem to be taking the dative here as what Daniel Wallace describes as the dative of means/instrument. This translation suggests that a person becomes transformed by the renewal, specifically of a person’s mind.
There are four problems with this translation though, two exegetical and two theological. Firstly, in the first part of 12.2, the phrase “this world” (τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ) is also in the dative. However, the dative in this case is treated as an indierct object, point to the pattern one is to be changed into. Howeer, both datives are used in relation to verbs describing types of change. It would be odd to have such a parallel structure in terms of both grammar and semantics for the datives to be translated in very different.
Secondly, this tradtional translation leads to the relationship of transformation and then the discernment of God’s will being unclear and abruptly entering into place. What does transformation have to do with discernment? While we can probably try to conjecture some ideas as to how they are related, we have to note that Paul doesn’t describe the relationship but simply assumes it would be understood. As such, the relationship of transformation and discernment probably needs to be something that would have been intuitively understood, not something we just conjecture as to how they are related. We could more readily imagine a relationship between the mind and transformation, but the renewal of the mind has been translated as the cause of transformation, not the effect or purpose of transformation. One could say that the renewal of the mind leading to transformation leads to discernment, but this essentially leads to a circular statement. While certainly possible, we should be suspicious of this circularity to explain Paul’s meaning.
The third problem is related to the body as the primary zone of Christian redemption. If this is the case, then the traditional translation of Romans 12.2 seems to contradict this, suggesting it is the mind that is first changed and then there is a transformation of the person. As Paul has explicitly connected the redemption in Christ with the usage of one’s body in Romans 6.1-14, this interpretaton should be treated with caution.
Now, we can say that this pattern certainly follows the pattern of change in philosophy, such as the Stoics, who put theory first followed by practice, which would then lead to a changed life of wisdom. However, 1 Corinthians 2.1-3.4 works decisively against this pattern of trasnformation, as Paul places the way the Corinthians live together as preceding comprehension, not following it. According to my research, Paul rejects the rationality-then-practice way of coming into wisdom, but rather orders it faith-then-obedience-then-wisdom. In that case, the renewal of the mind comes as the result of one’s faith and practice.
For these four reasons, then, I would put forward that a better translation of Romans 12.1-2 would read as follows:
Therefore, I am appealing to you, brothers and sisters, through God’s compassion to present your bodies as sacrifices which are living, holy, and pleasing to God. Do not be comforming to this age, but be transforming for the renewal of your mind so that you may examine what the will of God is – good and pleasing and mature.
Here, τῇ ἀνακαινώσει is taken parallel to the τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ, treating it as the ‘telos’ of transformation rather than the means of transformation. In addition to treating the datives as parallel, it also makes sense of of 12.2 as a whole, as the renewal of the mind as the purpose of transformation intuiviely explains the purpose clause about examining God’s will, as examination is an activity of the mind. Furthermore, by not interpreting the renewal of the mind as the cause of transformation, it allows the offering of the body in as if a sacrifice in 12.1 is to be implicitly understood as the cause of transformation in 12.2, which is consistent with what Paul has said previously in Romans. As a result, there is not an implicit Stoic pedagogy being smuggled into the reading of Paul here.