In Christ

I had an interesting chat over the summer with someone wrestling with how to communicate ‘in Christ‘ in his location/language. This is an ongoing and troubling translation issue, because clearly ‘in Christ’ is an important topic in Paul’s writing and yet a little difficult to talk about clearly because it’s actually rather odd English.

‘In Christ’ is a somewhat literal rendering of the original Greek ἐν Χριστῳ and quite possibly a Hebrew/Aramaic original concept may underlie it.

Many solutions have been proposed for English and other languages, but I first want to explain why I think this is a genuine problem in English. The same process could (should?) be followed to assess whether a literal translation is actually adequate – or on the other hand to establish whether there’s an actual or a suspected communication problem using a literal translation in any other language.

First, it’s not really good enough to establish that someone can take the words in Christ and deduce the right meaning with appropriate teaching. That’s a rather precarious approach to communication where you use some magic words and then hope that with the right instruction you can fill out the meaning properly. Yes, it’s quite possible for people to understand things that they haven’t exactly heard before, but that works because we don’t just learn the meaning of individual words and phrases, but we learn patterns.

Since Christ is either a name or a title (we’ll have that debate some other time), In Christ (εν χριστῳ) is either in (personal name) or in (title), which would both be part of the more general pattern in (noun). The problem with using English in this way is that this is not a commonly-defined pattern and so it’s unclear to a reader/hearer what it is supposed to mean. English does use in with nouns and other material in these ways:

  1. In <place>.  Means location.
    1. In Glasgow…
    2. In the house…
    3. In the city…
  2. In <time>.  Means time location.
    1. In the night…
    2. In 5 minutes…
  3. In <concept>.  Means part or context.
    1. In mathematics.
    2. In management.
    3. He seeks his worth in work.
  4. In <organisation>.  Means Membership
    1. In the army…
    2. In our family…
  5. In <situation>.  
    1. In darkness I bump into things.
    2. In light…
    3. In a crowd.
    4. In frustration, I kicked the goat.
  6. In <topic> (xxx has/have.)
    1. In Julie I have an amazingly capable support. = Julie is an amazingly capable support to me (implicitly compared to any other).
    2. In Christ we have the ultimate saviour.
    3. In Samwise Gamgee, Shelob had met her match.

I’m looking out for more, but that’s what I can think of for the moment.

Notice that we don’t have in <name> or in <title> listed. I don’t recognise those as common patterns in English. So if a normal person hears in Christ, they will have to match it to one of the patterns above. But which would seem most appropriate? Probably In <concept> or In <topic>. But neither is a particularly good fit because In <concept> usually uses an abstract idea, such as ‘mathematics’ or ‘management’ etc, not a personal name or title. And the pattern In <topic> requires something like the verb ‘have’ coming afterwards. Thus we don’t have a standard pattern for controlling the meaning of in Christ.

The well-known hymn In Christ alone is worth considering. Of course the ‘in Christ’ part has been poetically moved forward, so the line in question would prosaically read My hope is found in Christ alone. I think this fits In <topic> or In <location> most closely. Really ‘in Christ’ is a figurative extension of location, answering the figurative question ‘Where is your hope found?’ But I’m not convinced (see below) that this is a sufficient understanding of what Paul is meaning by ἐν Χριστῳ.

Of course, a common response would be that people can learn new patterns of words, and indeed it is possible for language to grow and develop. Probably the more you have studied the Bible and been taught what ‘in Christ’ means, the more likely you are to learn a new only-used-in-the-Bible pattern. But before we relax too much I’d caution us to check what the understanding really is.

Language works when a whole community uses words and phrases in similar ways. If one person (or one book) innovates, then unless the whole community picks it up, the innovation can’t be relied upon to really communicate what the author intends.

Note this is not the same  as using figurative language. When we use figurative language we stretch existing patterns so that people recognise the pattern but it’s not literally applied. But are we saying that Christ is figuratively a location in time or space? Was that even what Paul was doing?

In all honesty it seems that Greek uses a pattern which doesn’t match English very directly. It’s quite possible that other non-English languages can use the same pattern as Greek for the same effect, but it just doesn’t work in English. We’d be better to study all examples of Greek ἐν <name> or ἐν <title> and figure out from the context whether there’s just one sense or many, then work out how we would achieve the same effect(s) with standard English patterns. (Otherwise we risk readers merely ignoring the apparent gobbledegook, or coming up with unsafe or inaccurate interpretations. Translating literally may not be as safe as we might hope in English.)

Using Accordance Bible software you can find 757 occurrences of ἐν [NOUN] in the New Testament, but most of these are not relevant:

  • Locations: In Ephesus
  • Manner: In/with love

The very relevant 121 occurrences are:

  • In Christ
  • In (the) lord

Some others may be relevant:

  • In flesh
  • In darkness

If anything this brief study has made me realise how little I really grasp about what’s going on with this phrase, and so that’s where I’ll leave it for now.

Any thoughts? I’ll be coming back to this some time soon, I hope.

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