BY DR. STUART PARSONS:
I assist the ministry GotQuestions.org by answering questions that readers pose. A man in Europe recently asked, “In Rom 8:31, ‘if God be for us,’ is the proper translation ‘since God be for us’?” The answer to this question helps us think about approaches to biblical translation. Even more importantly, it helps us think about God’s inexpressible love and grace. I hope that you enjoy my answer to this question:
Your question brings honor to God, because it evidences your high estimation of His Word and its authority. A few things could be said in response.
The question could be viewed in two different ways, either with a focus on the literal meaning of the phrase that you reference, or with a focus on the grammatical structure of the sentence in which that phrase is found. If we view the phrase in question in its most literal sense, then we must translate it as “if God be for us” and not translate it as “since God be for us.” However, if we put our focus on the grammatical structure of the sentence in which we find this phrase, then we may indeed translate it as “since God be for us.”
But what translation approach is best? The answer depends on our purpose. This is one reason that we have multiple Bible translations available to us. More literal translations, which tend to translate the phrase as “if God be for us,” are often very helpful for those who like to study the Bible on their own. The literal rendering of words and phrases gives opportunity to see details of the underlying original languages of biblical texts. There are nuances available in such highly literal translations that are unavailable in less literal translations. However, less literal translations, sometimes called “dynamic equivalence translations,” are also useful but in a different way. Less literal translations tend to translate the phrase in Rom 8:31 as “since God be for us” because less literal translations focus less on the literal sense of words and phrases and more on the grammatical structure of sentences. Although these translations are sometimes less helpful for Bible study investigations than more literal translations, they are able to convey more often the grammatical nuances of the sentence structure of the original language biblical texts.
Since this is the case, which of these translation approaches is inferior and should be avoided? The answer is neither. The best translation is no translation. Ideally, we all should be ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic experts, who can translate not simply proficiently but with world-class skills. However, for pragmatic reasons, very few of us are able to achieve this ideal. So what are we to do? Thankfully, God by His grace has provided helps such as biblical commentaries and other tools such as GotQuestions.org and even more thankfully, God has provided by His grace highly trained and attentive preachers and teachers who labor extensively in Scripture. We cannot merely isolate ourselves with our Bibles and rely only upon our own individual interpretations. We simply must hear the Word preached to us by those who “go the extra mile” by doing work in Scripture that we ourselves often cannot do.
But we should go even further with your important question by looking at the sentence structure of Rom 8:31. This verse contains a conditional, “if... then” structure. Ancient, biblical Greek used four kinds of these conditional structures, distinguishable by certain patterns in the Greek wording. One of these, called a second-class conditional structure, implies that the “if” portion is false. If Rom 8:31 contained a second-class conditional structure, the “if” portion could be translated, “if God be for us (but He is actually against us)....” However, Rom 8:31 actually contains a first-class conditional structure. With this kind of conditional structure, the implication is that the “if” portion is true. Hence, although its most literal translation is, “if God be for us,” the implication of the sentence structure surrounding the phrase means that we can indeed translate it as, “if God be for us (and He is indeed for us)....” More simply, we may indeed translate this phrase, “since God be for us....”
At this point, the best reaction is simply worship. Here we are reminded that the true God is infinitely loving, infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, and infinitely gracious. He ever pours grace upon His creation and upon us. God be praised, for indeed, He is for us!
Dr. Parsons holds a M.Div fom Western Seminary and a S.T.M. and Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He has taught Bible, ancient Greek, church history, and theology at Trinity College of Florida since 2006, and chairs the Bible and Theology Department. His scholarly specialty is early Christianity, especially early Christian use of Scripture. He is the author of Ancient Apologetic Exegesis: Introducing and Recovering Theophilus’s World.