Pope Francis on the Lord’s Prayer: Leading Us into Temptation

Pope Francis

Image credit: Catholic News Agency

Like the rest of the New Testament, the Lord’s Prayer was originally written in Koine Greek (though Jesus likely spoke it in Aramaic). When we read it in English, we are reading a translation. Pope Francis recently argued that scholars should seek a different translation of the line of the Lord’s Prayer traditionally translated, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4, NIV). (Incidentally, Francis expressed this view in a television interview in which he was not speaking ex cathedra. Thus, faithful Roman Catholics need not interpret his view, here, as infallible.)

Francis’s concern is that the traditional translation is theologically suspect, since it seems to imply that God might actively push us or guide us into a situation where we are likely to sin (a state of “temptation”). According to Francis, as a good father God would not do this. “It’s Satan who leads us into temptation — that’s his department” (Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2017).

For this reason, Francis would prefer a translation that implies a more passive role for God, like “Do not let us enter into temptation,” or “Do not let us fall into temptation.” The implication of these alternative translations is that when we find ourselves in temptation, we have led ourselves there; God has merely allowed us to do so.

What should we make of Francis’s call for a revised translation?

The Greek Text

One concern we can set aside is that Francis might be undermining the authority of Jesus’s words as recorded in the New Testament. This is decidedly not the case. Francis is not calling for a change to the Greek text of the New Testament. Rather, he is simply calling for a different translation of the same text.

What exactly does that text say? The Greek words of the line in question (“Lead us not into temptation”) are as follows:

μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν

The second word, “εἰσενέγκῃς,” seems to be the focus of Francis’s attention. According to the best Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament I know of, in the context of Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4 this word is a form of a verb (εἰσφέρω) meaning “to bring in,” “to carry in,” or “to lead in”. Given this meaning, the more passive alternative translations like those above (“to let us enter” or “to let us fall”) aren’t going to cut it. The meaning given in the lexicon has no hint of passively “letting” something happen. Rather, it expresses active “doing” of something (namely, “bringing in,” “carrying in,” or “leading in”).

Reading Theology Into Scripture: Cart Before the Horse

So, it does not seem that the linguistic data are driving Francis’s suggestion. As I noted above, what really seems to be driving Francis’s call for retranslation is theology: Francis thinks the implication that God would actively lead people into temptation (and, thus, that we should ask God not to do so in the Lord’s Prayer) is contrary to God’s loving character. God loves us, and so God just wouldn’t do that.

But, this reason for re-translation gets the cart before the horse. The first thing to notice is that translating scripture is typically understood as part of interpreting scripture. Most good commentaries will begin the interpretation of a passage of scripture with a translation of the passage from its original language, be it Hebrew or Greek. (Actually, most good commentaries start one step further back by trying to pin down what the actual text in the original language is, since there are typically multiple manuscripts with slight differences.) Translation is one of the most objective steps in interpreting scripture, since rules of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary guide the process. But, it is not completely objective, and is still part of the interpretive process.

Now, one of the first lessons of interpreting scripture a seminarian learns is that, as much as possible, you should not come to the interpretive task with a preconceived conclusion about the meaning of the passage you are interpreting. Why not? Because if you do, then your interpretation will just give you the theological answer that you started with. You will just reconfirm your prior theological bias; there will be no room for scripture to challenge your view, no room for scripture to teach. When we take this erroneous approach to interpreting scripture we “read our theology into scripture.”

Instead, what a good interpreter should do is read her theology out of scripture. On this approach, the interpreter comes to a passage with as few preconceived ideas about its meaning as possible. If she has prior theological convictions, she strives to set them aside and concentrate on the language of the passage (e.g., the Greek grammar and syntax) and the cultural, historical, and literary context of the passage (e.g., the who, when, where, and why of the passage). This approach gives the interpreter a better shot at understanding the author’s intended meaning and a better shot at actually learning something from scripture.

To be fair, it is impossible to set aside all of our preconceived theological ideas when interpreting a passage. So, the approach above is an ideal and not a reality. Nevertheless, it is an ideal worth striving for, and one we can get close to, I think, especially if we interpret scripture together with people who are different from us: others can help us correct our theological biases. Hence the magic of group Bible study.

Now, as I see it, the problem with Francis’s call to retranslation is that he seems to know in advance what the line should say. He rejects what seems to be the best translation (given the linguistic data) in favor of his prior theological conviction. In short, he is reading his theology into the verse. But, if we do that, what can we possibly learn from it? If we take this approach, rather than allowing scripture to be an authority over us, we assert our authority over scripture. And this, in my view, gets the cart before the horse.

Is the theology really so bad?

Another question we might ask is whether the theology of the traditional translation—namely, the theology suggesting God might actively lead us into temptation—is really as problematic as Francis thinks it is.

The answer to this question depends, in part, on what “temptation” is. Above, I’ve been assuming it is a state in which there is a chance (likelihood?) we will sin. Francis seems to assume the same thing.

However, the word translated “temptation” (“πειρασμόν”, the last word in the line) can also be translated as “test” or “trial”—an attempt to reveal the character of a person (e.g., James 1:2; see also the NRSV translation of the Lord’s Prayer). And there doesn’t seem to be anything so objectionable about the idea that God might lead us into situations where our character is tested and revealed. After all, these situations provoke character growth—or formation into the image of God—which is arguably God’s central aim for his faithful (e.g., Romans 12:1-2Colossians 3:5-10). Thus, there is a way to understand the traditional translation that would avoid Francis’s worry: God might lead us into trial, not temptation to sin.

But, what if, in the case of the Lord’s Prayer, the word really is best translated “temptation” and not “test” or “trial”? Is there really a problem? Why not think God might actively lead us into situations where we are tempted to sin?

One possible reason to think God wouldn’t do this is James 1:12-14:

Blessed is anyone who endures temptation [πειρασμόν]. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it.

In these verses, the verbs “to be tempted” and “to tempt” are forms of “πειράζω,” which has the same root as the word traditionally translated “temptation” in the Lord’s prayer, so the same concept seems to be in play in both cases. And given James’s reference to temptation “by evil,” it seems he has in mind the idea of temptation to sin and not merely a test or trial.

Is James here denying that God would actively lead us into temptation to sin? Maybe, but I don’t think we have to read it that way. Strictly speaking, James denies that God tempts people, not that God leads people into temptation. This may seem like a picky verbal distinction that doesn’t really amount to anything. But, if we don’t make something like this distinction, we are going to have a serious conflict between James 1:13 and Mark 1:12-13Luke 4:1-2, and Matthew 4:1, the last of which reads:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

This verse (Matthew 4:1) depends on the very distinction I suggested for James 1:13 between “tempting” and “leading into temptation.” The devil tempts Jesus, but God—”the Spirit”—leads Jesus into temptation. In light of this verse, my picky verbal distinction doesn’t seem so picky and verbal. Rather, it seems like an idea built into scripture.

The account of Jesus being led by God into the wilderness to be tempted (by the devil) also suggests that Pope Francis might be a little too quick to reject the seeming theology of the Lord’s Prayer. If God led Jesus into temptation, why not think he might do the same with us on occasion? This might be a surprising and troubling conclusion, but that is no reason to reject it. After all, if scripture can no longer surprise or trouble us, we have likely gone astray.

Cold Comfort?

How should we respond to the idea that God might actively lead us into temptation? I think the possible double meaning of the Greek word ‘πειρασμόν’—either “temptation” or “test”—can help us here. I think of cases in which God leads us into temptation to sin as special kinds of tests aimed at growing our character.

Consider Peter’s denial of Jesus (Mark 14:66-72). In response to Peter’s rash claim that he would face death before denying Jesus, Jesus foretold that Peter would, in fact, deny him three times that very night before the cock crowed twice (Mark 14:26-31). And, of course, Peter did just that.

It seems this episode was a test of Peter’s character, orchestrated by God to expose Peter’s bravado. That Peter was “led” by God into this test seems implied by the precise nature of Jesus’s prediction and its fulfillment. But, this episode is also a case of temptation to sin. Peter was tempted to the sins of lying and betrayal, which he yielded to on that occasion.

My point in this example is that although Peter was divinely led into a temptation to sin, and in fact sinned as a result, the episode was a kind of test designed to humble him and lead him to growth. That Jesus had this in mind seems clear from the account of Peter’s reinstatement in John’s Gospel (John 21:15-19). There Jesus confronts Peter and makes him face what he has done, but he also brings him back into the fold, implying that his purpose had simply been to foster greater humility in Peter, not to destroy him.

In the end, then, I agree with Pope Francis’s instinct to defend the loving kindness of God. Without a doubt, God loves us. What Francis seems to have overlooked, though, is the fact that leading us into temptation can be perfectly consistent with God’s loving character. As tests that expose our character and lead us to growth, these episodes of temptation suggest just how seriously God takes our transformation into whole, virtuous people—God is even willing to risk our sinning, which God hates! In turn, this unyielding commitment to making us good reveals just how deeply God loves us.

What do you think?