Friday, March 4, 2011

Stewards of Mystery

My reading this morning came from 1 Cor. 4:1-5. Normally I read from the New Living Translation. After reading from that version as usual this morning I felt a desire to see how other translations handled these verses, because something about the NLT's translation left me curious how much they had interpreted in the process of translating. So I went to the English Standard Version, which is not one I commonly use but to which I find myself referring with increasing frequency. What I found was that in its effort to make sense of the passage, the NLT goes farther than I would in explaining it to the reader. One verse in particular caught my attention for today. In the NLT verse 1 reads:

"So look at Apollos and me as mere servants of Christ who have been put in charge of explaining God's secrets."

But in the ESV we read:

"This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God."

I can see how the NLT translators reached their version from what I read in the ESV, but I'm uncomfortable with the way they have handled it, particularly the final phrase. According the the NLT, Paul and Apollos (and arguably, by extension, contemporary preachers or teachers) have been put in charge of explaining God's secrets. I understand that to mean that when they have done their work, those who hear them will have understanding of things they don't currently understand. But the ESV's translation strikes me in a different way. If Paul and Apollos are stewards of the mysteries of God, it could mean that they are to protect these mysteries, to care for them well, to make sure they are not diminished or harmed or lost. To steward something does not inherently mean to explain it. In fact stewardship doesn't inherently have anything to do with explanation.

I wonder if the difference has to do with our Western Protestant inclination to unpack everything theological. We are uncomfortable with mystery. We struggle to write systematic theologies that account for all of God's nature and his work and we argue over issues like human freedom and divine sovereignty because we in our human minds can't reconcile the two. It is, in that sense, a mystery. If I take the NLT's translation here my job is to try to explain that mystery--to make it understandable and acceptable to our rational minds. But if I take the ESV's translation (at least my understanding of it), our job is simply to steward that mystery--to make sure that it is not lost or distorted (such as by emphasizing one aspect at the expense of another).

My thinking on this is likely affected by my current reading of Philip Yancey's book Reaching for the Invisible God. He writes:

"Over time, I have grown more comfortable with mystery rather than certainty. God does not twist arms and never forces us into a corner with faith in himself as the only exit. We can never present the Final Proof, to ourselves or to anyone else. We will always, with Pascal, see 'too much to deny and too little to be sure...'."

I for one am much more comfortable being a steward of the mysteries of God rather than feeling that I have to explain God's secrets, most of which I don't fully understand myself.