Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Translatio Deformis?

I return once more (with apologies) to “Traditio Deformis,” one aspect of which was treated previously here.

This post too treats a rather technical matter having to do with translation. Prof. Hart wishes to make much of the fact that Romans 9.22 is expressed in the form of a condition. He writes: “And so, what if (ei dequod si) God should show his power by preparing vessels of wrath, solely for destruction, to provide an instructive counterpoint to the riches of the glory he lavishes on vessels prepared for mercy, whom he has called from among the Jews and Gentiles alike (9:22-24)? Perhaps that is simply how it is: The elect alone are to be saved, and the rest left reprobate, as a display of divine might; God’s faithfulness is his own affair. Well, so far, so Augustinian. But so also, again, purely conditional: ‘What if…?’ Rather than offering a solution to the quandary that torments him, Paul is simply restating it in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair.” He goes on to claim that Paul “unambiguously reject[s] this provisional answer altogether” in the next two chapters.

I’m not going to deal here with whether that is in fact the case; instead, I’m going to focus on whether the conditionality itself in 9.22 can bear the weight he puts upon it–as “purely” provisional, unreal, unrealizable.

In fact, the form of expression is not so vague as he indicates. Notice how he translates: “what if God should show…?” This indicates that the condition is future-less-vivid. But that is not what Paul says. How do we know? From the form of the condition. Paul writes: 22 εἰ δὲ θέλων ὁ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι τὴν ὀργὴν καὶ γνωρίσαι τὸ δυνατὸν αὐτοῦ ἤνεγκεν ἐν πολλῇ μακροθυμίᾳ σκεύη ὀργῆς κατηρτισμένα εἰς ἀπώλειαν…

The verb is aorist indicative, and so the condition is either past simple (fact) or past unreal (contrary-to-fact). Since the apodosis of the condition is suppressed, we cannot use that to determine the form. Is the Latin any help here? Prof. Hart would surely think not, but let us set it out just in case: Quod si Deus volens ostendere iram, et notum facere potentiam suam, sustinuit in multa patientia vasa irae, apta in interitum… . The Vulgate translator, then, did not read the condition contrafactually (if so, he would have translated sustinuisset); he also did not read it as future-less-vivid (in that case, he would have said sustineat).

I don’t know of any English translators who read it contrafactually, either. The ESV is one example: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction…”. Again, the NASB: “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” The KJV: “What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction…”. The RSV: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction…”. All of these translations indicate that most readers take the protasis of the condition here as expressing a fact that is supposed, not an idea expressed only to be denied.1

This is not to say that the kind of construction Paul uses in Romans 9 can never be used contrafactually. Luke uses a similar locution in Luke 19.41-2 to express an unfulfilled wish:  41 Καὶ ὡς ἤγγισεν, ἰδὼν τὴν πόλιν ἔκλαυσεν ἐπ’ αὐτήν, 42 λέγων ὅτι Εἰ ἔγνως ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ταύτῃ καὶ σὺ τὰ πρὸς εἰρήνην— νῦν δὲ ἐκρύβη ἀπὸ ὀφθαλμῶν σου (“And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying,“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” [ESV]). 

In Acts 23.9, however, he uses a construction that parallels Paul’s in Romans precisely: ἐγένετο δὲ κραυγὴ μεγάλη, καὶ ἀναστάντες τινὲς τῶν γραμματέων τοῦ μέρους τῶν Φαρισαίων διεμάχοντο λέγοντες· Οὐδὲν κακὸν εὑρίσκομεν ἐν τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ τούτῳ· εἰ δὲ πνεῦμα ἐλάλησεν αὐτῷ ἢ ἄγγελος (“Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, ‘We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?’ [ESV]). And in this instance, the condition is clearly not contrafactual: the Pharisees believe this, or at least wish to appear to believe it.

If that is the case in Romans 9.22, then the condition cannot, I think, do the rhetorical work Prof. Hart would like it to; for, in that case, Paul says what he says as fact–in other words, he is (indicative) waxing Augustinian, to the chagrin of many readers since. If that is so, then the prejudicial sleight-of-hand in the paraphrase above (“should show”) makes Paul appear to waffle where he actually stands firm. We must at least consider the possibility that the condition does indeed offer Paul’s solution to his “quandary.”

A small matter? Perhaps; perhaps not. But in an essay devoted to the evils of misprision, precision should not be too much to ask.2


  1. With good reason, I would say, given the rest of the argument–but that “rest” is exactly what I said I was not going to discuss!
  2. For more on conditions (yes!), see here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.