Yet again the pope has captured the headlines of the mainstream secular press, both in the UK and the USA, as elsewhere. The coverage is generally laudatory, with +Francis presented as courageously facing sacred cows that have had their day, or never should have had a day at all. The issue this time, as you know, is the Lord’s Prayer. Pope Francis feels that “lead us not into temptation” is “not a good translation”. A father does not “push” his child into temptation, but only Satan leads into temptation, and we can fall or not. Well, that’s his case in a nutshell.
There are just two things I would dare to note.
The first is that, in the biblical understanding of things, God may tempt us, or allow us to be tempted. So in Genesis 22:1a we find an interesting phrase. In the King James version it is translated as
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham…
In the RSV (CE) version it is
After these things God tested Abraham.
In the Jerusalem version it is
It happened some time later that God put Abraham to the test.
In all these translations it is clear that the initiative and action is God’s. The temptation/test is for Abraham to slaughter his son Isaac in sacrifice to God. The Book of Job portrays God acting more passively, not no less deliberately, allowing Satan permission to afflict Job.
Be it actively or passively, God tests the faith of his holy ones. That is the key: temptation is always the opportunity to prove our faith before God. If we view temptation implicitly as always an entry hall that leads as good as inevitably to sin then we misunderstand the value of temptation and we condemn ourselves to an utter lack of faith and want of virtue.
Be it actively or passively, God tests the faith of his holy ones. That is the key: temptation is always the opportunity to prove our faith before God.
Perhaps those who fret most about God as testing us are those who fail such tests more often than not, and so doubt their ability ever to resist and so grow in virtue. Christ was allowed to be tempted by Satan, and in so doing he witnessed to the supremacy of God. The Father allowed Jesus to be tempted. This, as with all temptation, is not a curse but an opportunity. And remember, Satan too is subject to the will of God. Nothing happens without God’s will allowing it, be it actively or passively.
In other words, the translation can be justified in biblical terms and has the warrant of unbroken usage since ancient times. Any problem that arises is basically a defect in our understanding. God can test us; God can allow us to be tested according to his will: we are asking God to go easy on us and have mercy on the weakness of our faith, since we are (most of us) no Abraham, no Job, no Jesus Christ.
The martyr to Nazi terror, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in Creation and Fall; Temptation, pp.111ff), has something very insightful to offer us, not least in his christological understanding of temptation:
Why does God give Satan opportunity for temptation? First, in order finally to overcome Satan. Through getting his rights Satan is destroyed. As God punishes the godless man by allowing him to be godless, and allowing him his right and his freedom, and as the godless man perishes in this freedom of his (Rom 1.19ff), so God does not destroy Satan by an act of violence, but Satan must destroy himself.
Second, God gives opportunity to Satan in order to bring believers to salvation. Only by knowledge of sin, by suffering and death, can the new man live.
Third, the over coming of Satan and the salvation of believers is true and real in Jesus Christ alone. Satan plagues Jesus with all sins, all suffering and the death of mankind. But with that his power is at an end. He had taken everything from Jesus Christ and thereby delivered him to God alone. Thus we are led to the knowledge from which we set out: Believers must learn to understand all their temptations as the temptation of Jesus Christ in them. [my emphasis] In this way they will share in the victory.
But how can the Bible say that God tempts man? It speaks of the wrath of God, of which Satan is the executor (cf. 2 Sam 24.1; 1 Chron 21:1). The wrath of God lay upon Jesus Christ from the hour of the temptation. It struck Jesus be cause of the sin of the flesh which he wore. And because the wrath of God found obedience, for the sake of sin, obedience even unto the righteous death of him who bore the sin of the whole world, the wrath was propitiated. The wrath of God had driven Jesus to the gracious God, the grace of God had overcome the wrath of God, the power of Satan was conquered. But where the whole temptation of the flesh, all the wrath of God, is obediently endured in Jesus Christ, there the temptation is conquered in Jesus Christ, there the Christian finds behind the God of wrath who tempts him the God of grace who tempts no one.
God uses temptation to allow us to grow in faith, to grow in grace, and to defeat Satan, and in all those to grow ever closer to Jesus Christ, whom God allowed to be tempted and to suffer for us. Jesus, in his great prayer, is asking that our trial, our testing, be gentle. He is not assuming that we can never be tempted, nor that God would ever spare us from all temptation. Christ endured it and emerged the winner; saint after saint witness to the torment and to the value of temptation.
My second point is more prosaic, and is really for the anglophone world. Even after the banalization of the liturgical vernacular from the 1970s, we kept an “archaic” translation of the Lord’s Prayer, complete with thees and thous. Why? For ecumenical reasons. The authorized version of the Lord’s Prayer has entered the common currency of the English language, and is part of our culture. It also acts as a point of unity in prayer between the different denominations.
My suspicion is that this ecumenical consideration will prove, for the bishops, an immoveable object against which the irresistible force of amendment will founder. So at least for English Catholics, we need not be too alarmed. Move on; there is nothing to see here.