Congressional Moral Mayhem and Pope Francis’ Lord’s Prayer Retranslation
I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll look at the moral mayhem of last week in Congress, we’ll look at our brave new world of political morality, we’ll see why Christians should be deeply troubled by surrogate parenting, and we’ll consider the pope’s proposal to change the translation of the Lord’s Prayer.
The moral mayhem of last week in Congress
We are living in one of the most genuinely tumultuous times in American political history, but it’s not just politics, we are looking at major tectonic shifts in terms of the political landscape, the historical landscape, the cultural landscape, and as Christians understand there are inescapably unavoidably moral issues front and center as well. Trying to figure all these things out as the world is in motion represents a rather significant challenge, and we’re looking at two of the most tumultuous weeks in modern political history. I speak of last week and this week, both weeks are certain, even as now we’re speaking just on Monday of this week, to be tumultuous and to be very significant.
First, last week we saw the resignation of no less than three major congressional figures. First came the resignation of Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives in office for 52 years, who left after multiple accusations by women of sexual misbehavior. Then on Thursday came the resignation of Minnesota Senator Al Franken. It was one of the strangest resignations, it was one of the strangest resignation speeches ever in the history the United States Senate. And then, even as those two resignations were shocking enough came Friday’s even more bizarre resignation of yet another member of Congress, in this case Representative Trent Franks of Arizona. We’re facing moral mayhem here, and it’s playing out at one of the most hyper-politicized moments in American history. We’re also looking at some of the most urgent and sometimes most bizarre moral charges made against anyone in public leadership. It appeared that something like a dam was breaking just a matter of weeks ago in terms of the revelations first against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, but then we have to put this in a longer historical context and understand that even in terms of the immediate wave this goes back to the charges made against Fox News figures Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes and their subsequent firings or resignations. You then come to understand that we’re looking at something that seemed to begin with TV news and then went to Hollywood and has now arrived in Washington DC. At least when we’re talking about John Conyers and Al Franken the charges were understandable, most Americans could understand what was being alleged here, and when it comes to someone like Al Franken, or for that matter to someone like Congressman Conyers, what might be most significant about their exit from the United States Congress is the fact that they went out without anything that could adequately be called an apology. The editors of the Wall Street Journal responded to Senator Franken’s sort of resignation speech with an editorial entitled, “Al Franken’s Non Sequitur.”
As the subhead on the editorial said,“The Minnesota Senator says he’s innocent but resigns anyway.”
In the aftermath of the senator’s announcement, spellbinding enough in terms of the drama on the floor the United States Senate, what was missed is what becomes apparent when you look at the text of the senator’s statement. What he said was that he was innocent of doing anything that would bring shame upon the Senate during the time that he was a senator. Now that seems to be something of an acknowledgment that he did participate in actions that would bring shame upon the Senate even though they were committed before he entered the Senate.
In the same newspaper, former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan described his departure as being without grace, but Peggy Noonan also pointed to something that was very important to understand about Al Franken long before these accusations and his announcement that he was leaving the Senate. As she writes,
“Mr. Franken’s weakness as a political figure was having no sympathy for those who disagree with him, not bothering to understand how the other side thinks, while always claiming for himself the high moral ground. This now common attitude,” she says, “frays political bonds; once it was considered poor political comportment.”
All that was very much on display in the senator’s speech on Thursday in the United States Senate because the senator seemed to say that he thinks of himself as a strong defender of women and their rights and their dignity even as he basically has admitted to actions that would contradict those beliefs. But in one of the most interesting analyses of the Franken situation, Gail Collins, a major opinion writer at the New York Times says that the entire controversy about Al Franken really isn’t about Al Franken. She writes this,
“Ten years from now, do you think we’ll be talking about where we were when Al Franken announced he was resigning from the Senate? You never can tell.” She then says this, “It was an historic moment that had virtually nothing to do with Franken himself.”
What could she possibly be saying here? She’s saying that Franken was basically just the symbolic victim of a massive change, a massive moral and political change in the United States. Later in her column she writes this,
“Franken was a good politician, and many Democrats hoped he might grow into a presidential candidate. But,” she writes, “it was his destiny to serve history in a different way. He was caught up in a rebellion of epic proportion, one that was not just about unwanted groping but a whole new stage in the movement of women into the center of public life.”
Now remember this is written by a major opinion writer well known to be a feminist at the New York Times. She argues, absurdly, that the entire controversy that led to the resignation of Senator Franken really isn’t about Senator Franken at all. Instead, he is simply a creature of political destiny. His destiny, however, was not to be a future president of the United States under the Democratic banner but rather “his destiny,” she says, “was to serve history in a different way. … caught up in a rebellion of epic proportion.” A rebellion she says, which is basically about, “the movement of women into the center of public life.”
All this points to the fact that no matter where one falls on the political spectrum something about what it means to be human is to try to understand these events over against some big tableau or landscape of history. For Gail Collins that means arguing that what she calls the “Great Al Franken Moment,” wasn’t actually about Al Franken at all.
Our brave new world of political morality
But when we get to the third resignation, a stunning resignation that came Friday, we are entering entirely new moral territory in terms of our brave New World and the United States Congress. For reasons of modesty I’m going to have to paraphrase the New York Times article just a bit here. Katie Rogers writes that
“Representative Trent Franks announced Friday that he would resign from Congress immediately after accusations emerged that he had offered $5 million to a female [Congressional] employee to be a surrogate mother for his children, and that she and another female employee worried that the lawmaker [intended to bring about the pregnancy himself.]”
Rogers then reports, “Mr. Franks, Republican of Arizona and one of the House’s most ardent social conservatives, had said Thursday that he would leave the House in January, and he admitted that he had discussed surrogate pregnancies with two employees.”
We now know beyond this, that the House Ethics Committee had opened an investigation, but we know something else, we know that the Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a speaker as the very same party as the congressman, came to the conclusion that whatever he had talked about with these women was absolutely intolerable.
Now one of the old rules in Washington is that if you have really bad news you want to drop it on Friday afternoon, it often gets lost. This is one of those new stories that shouldn’t get lost. In terms of how Christians should understand this we need to understand that we are looking here at the intersection of modern biotechnology and assisted reproduction, and we’re looking at moral and political issues that no previous generation ever had to confront. The New York Times was right to identify Representative Franks as one of the most socially conservative members of the United States Congress. Throughout his political life he has been a reliable pro-family and pro-life vote. But in the news attention that came to us on Friday with the announcement of the congressman’s resignation, we came to understand that he and his wife have a child that was made possible by in vitro fertilization and the use of a gestational surrogate. It appears that the congressman with or without the knowledge and cooperation of his wife had proposed gestational surrogacy to at least two other women, in this case employees in his congressional staff.
Why Christians should be deeply troubled by surrogate parenting
But in terms of Christian worldview concerns this is where the situation goes absolutely bizarre because it isn’t yet clear exactly what the Congressman asked these two women to do. This is where we need to understand that if we are talking about surrogacy, we’re talking about something that is one of the most lamentable developments in terms of the modern age and assisted reproduction; we’re talking about something that from a biblical worldview perspective involves several issues of complicity. In the first place, this is impossible, true surrogacy, without in vitro fertilization and one of the big problems in in vitro fertilization is the creation of embryos outside the normal biological process, and many, indeed it is now believed perhaps most of those embryos, are never even transferred into a womb, instead they are simply put into deep-freeze and eventually destroyed. True surrogacy, in terms of the fact that you have a couple who has a biological embryo that is gestated within yet another woman, that requires in vitro fertilization, so this kind of surrogacy was impossible until the last several decades when IVF has become more common and, at least as it is sold, more effective. But this involves something else and that is the fact that you’re looking at hiring a womb. Now there may be any number of biological reasons why this would be necessary, there may be any number of reasons why a woman would not be able to carry her own embryo as a baby developing in her womb to term. But we’re also talking about something that is extremely morally complicated, just consider the fact that this modern biological technology has now allowed someone to be hired as a womb for rent, so to speak, and this is where we have to understand that God has made us in such a way that a woman cannot simply carry a child, as if it is some kind of product, there’s a relationship in that gestational period between a woman and the unborn child within her; there is something deeply unnatural about severing that bond. Furthermore, we’re looking at the fact that this is highly commodified and very commercialized. We are told in the United States, often described as the Wild, Wild West of modern reproductive technologies and arrangements, the average price for a gestational surrogate is something like $30,000 plus current support plus all kinds of medical support, you’re talking about only the very wealthy being able to afford this kind of surrogacy. In an interview published at National Review, Jennifer Lahl, a nurse who’s been working with a broad coalition against surrogacy for years, she’s the head of an institution known as the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, she very rightly pointed out to National Review that you’re looking at an economic imbalance here that she could describe very powerfully in these terms, you will might hear of a Hollywood celebrity hiring some kind of domestic servant to be a surrogate, you never hear of the transaction the other way around.
Now just to remind ourselves, we believe that every single human being at every point of development, that includes all of those embryos produced by IVF, we believe that every single human life is sacred and that that sacredness and dignity goes back even to the moment of conception; we remind ourselves that means fertilization. But we also have to remind ourselves of the fact that not every way of bringing about a baby is morally legitimate. To put the matter as bluntly as possible: In order for someone to achieve a baby by means of surrogacy, it generally requires not only the expenditure of a massive amount of money and also requires hiring someone who is virtually always in an inferior situation politically and economically to function as a gestational surrogate, it requires severing the baby once born from that surrogate, and it requires the creation of what we now know are tens of thousands of human embryos that will never even be transferred. If you think about the span of American presidential history, I think it’s fair to say that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, fast-forward to Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Milhouse Nixon, could understand the accusation against Senator Al Franken and the result, but none of them could possibly understand the exact charges made against Arizona Republican Congressman Trent Franks. These charges and his eventual resignation are actually only sensical in very modern times on the other side of the great bioethical and biomedical divide.
Gail Collins said last week, we were looking at what she calls, “The Great Al Franken Moment,” but by the time the week was over, we were looking at the Great Trent Franks Moment as well. All this seems to happen at the epicenter where we find happening simultaneously a sexual revolution and a brave new world of reproductive technology.
Very nature of New Testament as the Word of God at stake in Pope’s proposal to change the Lord’s prayer
Next, as we’re speaking about unexpected but rather important news stories Julie Zauzmer and Stefano Pitrelli reporting for the Washington Post tell us,
“One of the best-known prayers in the English language might need an update for the sake of theological clarity, Pope Francis suggested in an interview this week.”
The reporters go on to say, “The words in the Lord’s Prayer that ask, ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ can cause confusion, [the Pope] said. To make it clear that God would not lead anybody toward sin, the Pope suggested a better translation of the Greek prayer from the New Testament would be something along the lines of, ‘Do not let us fall into temptation.’”
Now as the report goes on, the Pope has been giving laxity to bishops around the world to revise and to re-translate the liturgy of the church, but as I told the New York Times in the immediate response to this news story, we are here talking about the Lord’s Prayer not about the Pope’s prayer.
Elisabetta Povoledo, Laurie Goodstein, and Alan Cowell reporting for the New York Times put it in a larger context:
“It has been a question of theological debate and liturgical interpretation for years, and now Pope Francis has joined the discussion: Does the Lord’s Prayer, Christendom’s resonant petition to the Almighty, need an update?”
“In a new television interview,” we are told, “Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer — ‘lead us not into temptation’ — was ‘not a good translation’ from [the] ancient texts. ‘Do not let us fall into temptation,’ [the Pope said,] might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.”
The Pope said, “A father doesn’t do that. … He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.” As the reporter said, “In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, ‘When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.’”
When called by the New York Times I did indeed say that I was shocked and appalled by the proposal, but I wasn’t alone, there are a good many Catholic traditionalists and others who were likewise appalled; although, not always for the same reason. My main concern is not with the long-standing tradition of the church or the elegance of the liturgy, my concern is with the nature of the New Testament as the very Word of God, speaking specifically of the gospel of Matthew, and my concern is not the fact that the Lord’s prayer in this petition or any of the text of Scripture might require some explanation, that’s actually the job of teachers and preachers of the Word of God. The biggest issue I have with this is what it insinuates about the nature of Scripture and what it misconstrues in terms of the task of translation. No one should underestimate the complexity of the translation task, we are looking in this case at words that were almost surely originally spoken by Jesus in Aramaic, they were later recorded, as we find them in terms of the Lord’s prayer in one form of the Gospel of Luke and another more familiar in the Gospel of Matthew, and then we’re looking at the challenge of translating from New Testament Greek into contemporary languages, for us that means contemporary spoken English. But the task of translation, as simply as we can argue, is not the same as the task of exposition or of explanation. It is the task of the church and the leaders of the church, the preachers of the church, to offer explanation and exposition. It is the part of translators to do their very best, to discipline themselves, to offer as close as possible a direct translation. The argument for this is formal equivalence, but even when it comes to what is called dynamic equivalence, most modern dynamic equivalence translations would not dare to go so far as what the Pope suggested here. Now the Pope was not theologically wrong to make clear that God does not lead his human creatures to sin. That’s not based upon papal authority, that’s right from the book of James chapter 1 verses 13 and 14. We are told that no one who sins can say that he or she sinned because God tempted the individual to do so.
In terms of translation what’s undeniable is that the Greek verb behind this petition of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew clearly involves God as an actor not just as a preventer of action. The Greek word that is most commonly translated temptation here, peirasmos, actually means either temptation or testing. This is where we need to recognize that as we pray, ‘lead us not into temptation’ we are praying to the God, who the Old Testament tells us did allowed Job to be tested; furthermore, we are told that the Lord, the Father, even led Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tested. In his massive commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the late New Testament scholar R.T. France of Great Britain got this exactly right. He writes, and I quote,
“The question is sometimes raised how the notion of God’s “bringing us into peirasmos” is compatible with his absolute goodness, but this involves two mistakes,” said professor France. “Firstly, a negative request is not necessarily imply that the positive is otherwise to be expected,” as he explains, “a husband who says to his wife ‘Don’t ever leave me’ is not necessarily assuming that she is likely to do so. Secondly,” France says, “Peirasmos is not in itself always be understood as a bad thing: it was after all the Holy Spirit who took Jesus into the wilderness ‘to be tested.’”
But my second big concern here has to do with the nature of Scripture itself because much of the discussion especially in the media and in the culture after the Pope’s pronouncement is based upon the fact that we have the right one way or the other to decide what Jesus actually meant and then to conform the text to our expectations. It is true that we do not have the Aramaic of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer but this is where the evangelical, the historic church doctrine of Scripture reminds us that we affirm verbal plenary inspiration. What does that mean? It means that we have in the Greek New Testament by the very sovereign power of God exactly the words we need to know exactly what Jesus said. It is the words that bear this inspiration — every single word the full weight of that inspiration. So what that means is that the fact that we lack the Aramaic of Jesus as spoken to the disciples is not a problem because we have the New Testament Greek with those very words in the Greek form as given to us, not only by Matthew but by the Holy Spirit. Those issues, I believe, are far more important than the issue of tradition, but even from an historic Protestant understanding, we do see that tradition is not unimportant. There is something very important to the fact that Christians throughout the centuries have used this language, and in the English language, we’re talking now for almost 500 years, using this very language in order, faithfully and rightfully, to pray the prayer that God taught his disciples to pray. If we are to tamper with the basic form of that translation that we had better have a very good argument based not in contemporary understanding but rather in translation.
Finally, and oddly enough, there might be no shortage of quasi-evangelicals who hearing of the Pope’s proposal think it might not be such a bad idea. That just might change the Lord’s Prayer into a prayer that some might think they like better, but we must affirm the fact that our sovereign, omnipotent, all-loving God does sometimes allow his creatures to be tested. Jesus taught his own disciples that it certainly is not wrong to pray to the Father that we not be tested, but it certainly would be wrong to change the translation to appear to make the Scripture say that God never tests us.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
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