For an Informed Love of God
Paul likes to use word plays, and this literary device rarely makes its way into our translations. Most languages cannot express a play on words, and the translator needs to decide between meaning and style. What would you do?
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Paul has just finished critiquing the false teachers in Ephesus when he says they wish “to be teachers of the law even though they do not understand either what they are saying or concerning what things they are so dogmatically asserting (v 7).” Every indication in the Pastorals as to the content of the false teaching is that they were Jewish and had to do with the law.
But having said this, Paul wants to guard against someone misunderstanding his view of the law, so he affirms in the next verse, “Now we know that the law (νόμος) is good” but then adds a qualifier, “if someone uses it lawfully (νομίμως).” νομίμως occurs in the New Testament elsewhere only at 2 Tim 2:5. “Likewise, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive a wreath unless he competes lawfully (νομίμως),” i.e., “according to the rules” (NIV).
So what does it mean to use the law “lawfully”? On the surface, it is an odd expression that requires the reader to stop and try to figure it out. You can see some of the translations dropping the play on words and interpreting “lawfully”: “if one uses it legitimately” (NRSV, cf. CSB, NET), “uses it properly” (NIV), “when used correctly” (NLT). The ESV and NASB keep the play on words, “lawfully.
This is an easy-to-understand play on words because you can probably get to the right meaning with “lawfully.” But you still have to work at it, which generally is contrary to the rules of proper English style.
Related to this is when the biblical author uses related words. The ESV on Romans 12:3 keeps the connections. “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think (φρονεῖν) of himself more highly than he ought to think (ὑπερφρονέω), but to think (φρονεῖν) with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (also CSB, NRSV). The NIV omits the second “think” since such repetition is considered poor English style. “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
As is usually the case, translation is a matter of balancing different goals such as meaning, style, and readability.
But back to the issue of using the law lawfully. Some people go to one extreme of saying the law has no application today, even though nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament, and to use Paul’s language we are slaves of Christ, called to be obedient to him. On the other hand, there are people who go to the other extreme and everything is about law and nothing about grace. Christianity, they say, is about doing what is demanded of them, period.
Using the law lawfully is finding the right point between those two extremes. It is hard to find that mid-point, and it is hard to find the balance between the two extremes in our daily lives, but we are still called to use the law lawfully, as it is intended.