Some perplexities of ἐν Χριστὸς & related translation blunders


Sometimes it can be confusing to figure out how a preposition is being used. Particularly those like the Greek particle έν—loaded with meaning and exploding with rich theological implications, especially when connected to other words like Christ. (Over at Cataclysmic, a while back, Chad was exploring this phrase ἐν Χριστῷ in particular). A week or so ago I was reading 2 Cor 5 in an English Bible and got curious about a thing or two so I switched to Greek. While in the Greek New Testament, I came across vs. 19 and was surprised to see the phrase θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ ("God was in Christ").

θεὸς ἦν ἐν Χριστῷ κόσμον καταλλάσσων ἑαυτῷ (2 Cor 5.19a)

God–was–in–Christ–world–reconciling–to himself

The reason this surprised me was because in my English translations (NASB and LEB) the way the translators punctuated the phrase (viz. without a comma) encouraged me to mentally merge it with the following participial phrase ("reconciling the world").

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (LEB; NASB)

In other words, the translators interpreted the Greek imperfect ειμι and participle as a periphrastic construction. (Periphrastic just means a round-about way of saying something with two "verb-ish" forms that could have been said through one).

Other translations that interpret the imperfect and participle the same might put "in Christ" up front in the sentence because they think this part is more important or emphasized in the Greek (as an aside: this is not the case; the phrase "in Christ" is in the default position and therefore remains unmarked. And in fact, it is "God" that is fronted and in focus, while "world" is fronted in the second phrase, as well).

in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (ESV; NET; HCSB)

Such a positioning of the two verbs—back to back—makes more explicit the idea (in the translator's heads) that the phrase is periphrastic. However, regardless of the word order, my point is that most translations seem to take the ειμι ("was") verb and the participle ("reconciling") as a single verbal expression: two parts conveying one activity (i.e. periphrastic). This, however, is not a sensitive rendering of what we see in the Greek text. 

To interpret the grammar as such confounds an otherwise simple explanation.

The most natural way to breakdown the phrases of 2 Cor 5.19a is to separate the two verbal expressions, in which case "God was in Christ" stands on its own, and "reconciling the world to himself" stands on its own. (Of course the two are logically related to one another, and the latter is grammatically contingent upon the former; but the phrase "God was in Christ" is a proposition that stands independently). A simple comma inserted between the two phrases might demonstrate the non-periphrastic nature of the Greek text.

God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (NLT; also the ESV's alternate note translation, which they should've stuck with)

Such an interpretation inhibits one (at least in my own mind) from making the error of interpreting the preposition ἐν as doing the same thing as δἰα ("through") in the verse above, viz. taking Christ as being the means through which God reconciled the world. Indeed, this is what vs. 18 says! But not here! Regardless, it seems that it is this expression of Means/Manner that most translations seek to suggest by their English word-order or punctuation; while some, just come right out and say it, like the CEB:

God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ (CEB; cf. TEV)

But this reading, I think, is off the mark.

No doubt, theologically, Paul believed that God used his son as an instrument to effect his grand plan. Look at vs. 18 ("God has reconciled us to himself through Christ"). But I don't think he's just repeating himself in the very next sentence for poops and giggles. No, he is expanding on what's just been said (indeed, see the connecting particles ὡς ὅτι).

In reverting back to the ἐν Χριστῷ phrase, most recently used in vs. 17 ("anyone In Christ is a new creation"), he is asserting that Jesus was a vessel that God inhabited—and that it was God himself at work in Jesus (note the fronting of "God"). Jesus was not simply a hammer in his hand (contra Garland, NAM: 2 Corinthians; Logos edition). I like how F.F. Bruce puts it: the phrase is parallel with the διὰ Χριστοῦ of vs. 18, but here, it stresses that both God and Jesus are one in this work of reconciliation (NCBC: 1 & 2 Cor; Logos edition).

What a statement! Not God was doing something through Christ. But the simple assertion, first, that God was in Christ. 

Such a reading is certainly in the minority (viz. the Exegetical Summaries on 2 Cor as found in Logos records that only Lenski understands ἐν Χριστῷ in this way, contra at least 12 other (typically) reputable sources)—but as my undergrad Hebrew professor always used to say: The majority was always wrong in the Old Testament. So I'm not nervous about being in this camp (especially when I'm joined by other—under-appreciated—linguists who think the same).

In closing I think it's important to see that although the phrase ἐν Χριστῷ is used with two different persons, metaphorically located within the same sphere, two different meanings are coded through this same preposition (although, do not even begin to undervalue the contribution that context brings to such construals).

  • We are in (ἐν) Christ: In this instance, the preposition ἐν describes one entity (i.e. me and you) that is metaphorically located within a container (i.e. Christ) in such a way that it hides and encompasses the contained. This is the Concealment sense.
  • God was in (ἐν) Christ: In this scenario, the preposition ἐν describes one entity (i.e. God) that is metaphorically located within a container (i.e. Christ) in such a way that this entity's presence exerts a controlling influence upon the identity and behavior of the container. This is the Control sense.

So in summary, when Paul says that we are in Christ, the effect is that his faithfulness conceals, hides, even supplants our own faithlessness. The container effects the contained. And when Paul said (which he only says once!) that God was in Christ, he meant that God animated his son's faithfulness. The contained effects the container. Two completely different propositions, (yet) relayed using the same preposition

Is God effecting change in you?