Tyndale and Theology – How does Scripture define sin?

‘Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law’. So reads the Authorised Version of 1611 at 1 John 3.

‘Whosoever committeth sin, committeth unrighteousness also, for sin is unrighteousness’. So Tyndale renders the same passage.

The two versions obviously differ: does the difference between them matter, or is discussion of it mere verbal quibbling? It will be contended here that the difference between the two versions is far from trivial, and that it is Tyndale who more nearly approaches the sense of the Greek original.

Most recent translations give us ‘sin is lawlessness’, though the widely used Good News Bible, in a decidedly free translation, gives us ‘Whosoever sins is guilty of breaking God’s law because sin is a breaking of the law’. Of the older versions Geneva 1557 agrees with the Authorised Version while the Rheim’s New Testament (1582) is nearly identical with Tyndale: it gives us ‘sin is iniquity’.

To define sin as the transgression of the law is to run into serious difficulties in understanding other parts of scripture – certainly if we confine our thoughts to the Mosiac law: St Paul writes of those who have sinned without the law, and contrasts them with those who have sinned under the law. There can be no doubt that Tyndale and Rheims give the sense better than Geneva or the Authorised Version.

‘Sin is lawlessness’: we may take it that this gives the true meaning of St John’s definition of sin. What does he mean? Quite certainly he is not thinking of the Mosaic law: rather he is defining and analyzing the nature of sin in general. For him sin is not so much the infraction of a legal code as a refusal to admit the importance of moral principle. It is the denial, not of the law but of the principle of law itself.

The Geneva and Authorised Versions (and some modern translations) mistranslate this passage and in doing so mislead the reader. Tyndale does far better. But why did Tyndale not use the term lawlessness which expresses St John’s teaching most precisely? The answer may seem a little surprising: the word does not appear to have been in use in Tyndale’s day. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it first appeared in Spenser in 1591. We should curb our astonishment and remember that English was then (as now) in course of development: the vocabulary of 1525 was not the same as that of 1591. Tyndale used a word which he knew would convey St John’s thought and which would be understood by his readers. He was surely right in doing so.

A verbal quibble? Far from it: the point at issue here is of considerable theological importance.

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