Could God’s character attributes, such as love, grace, mercy, and justice, be mutually exclusive?

Hi!

My question: could God’s character attributes, such as love, grace, mercy, and justice, be mutually exclusive? I get that they each have different meanings, but I’m wondering if they sort of have an overlap or synergistic effect?

That’s a question in and of itself. However, the implication is of equal or greater importance to me: if God’s mercy, love, compassion, etc are mutually exclusive, then different Bible translations have significantly different meanings for the same verses. For example, in Psalms, some translations say “because of God’s love we are not consumed,” whereas others say “because of God’s mercy we are not consumed.” I was always taught love and mercy are two different things, so the verse would have a different meaning depending on which word is used.

Thanks in advance for your reply!

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Hi Sarah,
@selmer231

Thanks so much for your question! Your thoughts are definitely in the right direction. To extend grace and mercy, for example, could be said to be a very loving thing, especially where love, at its highest form, is said to be an act of self-sacrifice (i.e. sacrificial love). Forgiveness, which is an act of God’s grace to us, involves absorbing a debt that you no longer require another to pay, which is a merciful act of self-sacrificial love by taking another’s debt upon oneself.

Now, the ultimate example of this is Christ on the cross who absorbed the consequences of sin (our debt to God) in an act of love for us. Interestingly, however, is the fact that this is also a massive injustice, because Jesus is the only one who can stand righteously before the Father having incurred absolutely no debt through sin. So, it’s actually unjust that he would take on that penalty. The just act would be for each of us to be held accountable for the debt we incur through sin, but Jesus willingly stands in our place.

Paradoxically and beautifully, God upholds his justice through the extension of his mercy to us by giving his one and only Son to die on the cross, so that we by believing in him may have eternal life. So, in his act of sacrificial love God extends mercy to us in a way that preserves his justice - truly amazing! Personally, this is one of the richest parts of Christianity that I find massively compelling.

So, all this is to say that there is definitely overlap in these characteristics as they are displayed in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and future coming of Jesus Christ, but I don’t think they’re in any way competing or contradictory. On the contrary, I believe that they are deeply complementary and together give us a fuller picture of God’s true nature as he has revealed himself to us.

One of the major sources of that revelation is scripture, which you have mentioned. It’s true that different Bible translations sometimes use slightly different English words as a translation from the original Greek writing, but in the cases where there are differences we can use resources to investigate the full range of meaning of the Greek word in the original text. It has been my experience, so far, that these kinds of investigations have yielded a richer understanding of God’s character and not shown any sort of tensions in the text that are beyond explanation. However, I’m happy to consider any specific texts that you see as particularly challenging or confusing with respect to translation from the Greek.

Thanks again for your question! I hope this is a helpful start. I welcome any additional thoughts or questions you may have.

Best and Blessings,

Michael

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Thanks for your response!

Below is the most troubling difference in translation due to resulting unclear meaning. I would appreciate your thoughts on it.

Zephaniah 3:17: ESV says “the Lord quiets you with his love” whereas NIV says “in his love he will no longer rebuke you”. The former brings to mind the image of a parent gently comforting their distressed child whereas the latter brings to mind a parent who is not punishing their child but not necessarily doing anything to helpful the child through their distress. These have significantly different implications and I need to know which is true and if there is biblical support for the former picture.

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Hi Sarah @selmer231,

I can definitely understand where you’re coming from and agree that there’s a different connotation. I briefly looked at the Hebrew and from my initial reading can’t quite understand why the NIV translators took the approach they did here. I’m going to do a little more research and get back to you about that, but my snap reaction is to side with the ESV translators.

I will say that when it comes to Bible translation the scholars do their very best to work with meaning conveyed through ancient languages. There are certain instances where ancient languages do not translate well into English, so translators do their very best not to compromise the text.

For example, in Genesis 1:1 we read in English, “the heavens and the earth,” and, as English readers, usually think, "Ok, so the author means the creation of two separate things here: 1) the heavens and 2) the earth. However, to the original reader (thousands of years ago) she would read these words in Hebrew הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת וְהָאָ֗רֶץ and immediately recognized them as an idiomatic expression (figure of speech) meaning absolutely everything that is physical and metaphysical. So, in English meaning we could say that in Genesis 1 the author wrote: In the beginning God created all that exists in and outside of the cosmos.

Cases like this present challenges to translators who want to convey the correct meaning without straying too far from what was written in a more literalistic sense. Some translations require more interpretive work than others - i.e. the translators don’t take as much liberty to interpret - whereas others apply that step. I think it’s generally accepted that NIV is slightly more interpretive than ESV.

I can understand the challenge posed to translators, but this in no way makes me doubt the legitimacy of the Bible or God’s Word. It simply means we may have to do a little more work to understand the original meaning, and it also means that people might make mistakes from time to time. Where there are discrepancies in translations, like in Zeph 3:17, we can do deeper research to determine why one translator came to a conclusion that another did not. In this case I’m going to have to do a little more research, but I’ll get back to you with what I discover. Thanks for presenting the opportunity to delve into this text. I will keep you posted!

Best,
Michael

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IHi Sarah,
@selmer231

From what I can tell, the difference in translation centers on the Hebrew phrase translated by ESV as, he will quite you by his love. This is the same Hebrew phrase that is translated by NIV as, in his love he will no longer rebuke you.

In terms of the exact wording the ESV’s, he will quite you by his love is a more accurate translation. However, I am assuming the NIV translators chose to apply some previous content from Zephaniah in their translation of this verse to clarify what might otherwise be a potentially confusing phrase to the reader. After all, we may be left asking, “What does the phrase, he will quiet you by his love, actually mean?”

I believe that in an attempt to make the verse more accessible to a reader who may not have access to a commentary or other resources to help illuminate that phrase, the NIV translators may have chosen to take some interpretive license here.

I’ve done a little research into what that phrase might mean and came across an insightful devotional by Jim Cymbala of The Booklyn Tabernacle: https://www.brooklyntabernacle.org/devotional/20180124/he-will-quiet-you-his-love

It seems that in this verse the NIV translators chose to emphasize the contrast of God’s prior judgement (his rebuke) with his present comfort that quiets the fears and burdens of the hearts and minds of his people. Rather than a voice of rebuke, God is now singing a song of delight and comfort.

In light of this broader context I can see why the NIV translation is true to the text, but also consider this verse to be a pretty strong example of interpretive license taken by the translators. As one who is willing to ponder poetic language and meditate on the richness of a phrase like, he will quiet you by his love, I personally prefer the ESV translation for Zephaniah 3:17. I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Best,
Michael

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