Why I Oppose Changing the English Translation of the Our Father

We shouldn’t change our translation of the Our Father—we should teach, explain and root ourselves more deeply in it.

Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount”, 1877
Carl Bloch, “The Sermon on the Mount”, 1877 (photo: Public Domain)

Recent remarks by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, cast doubt on the traditional English rendering of the Lord’s Prayer. To be fair to the Pope, reports that he is calling for the Our Father to be changed are incorrect. He did not propose any change to the Greek text. What he did say, in a recent interview with an Italian Catholic television network, was that the current English translation “lead us not into temptation” is not a good one because God does not lead people to sin. Pope Francis suggested using “do not let us fall into temptation” instead. He added, “It is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell … A father does not do that; a father helps you to get up immediately.”

All of this is fair enough, but I have seldom heard anyone argue that God directly tempts us to sin. Scripture itself makes this clear: Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire … Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:12-14).

While the petition “lead us not into temptation” may seem a bit confusing to some, retranslating it as “do not let us fall into temptation” is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, “lead us not in temptation” is the most straightforward and linguistically accurate rendering of the Greek καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν (kai me eisenenkēs hemas eis peirasmon). Almost every commonly read English Bible renders it as “lead us not into temptation” or “do not bring us into temptation.”[**] The Latin Vulgate translation is et ne nos inducas in tentatione.

The Greek text is not complex and its accuracy is not disputed. Eisenenkēs is an aorist subjunctive in the active voice. “Lead us not” is simply the clearest and most accurate translation of me eisenenkēs. To instead render it “do not allow us” is to read into the text an extended meaning that is not there. While the intention may be to assist the reader to understand that God does not tempt us or directly cause us to fall, the effect is to imply that the inspired Greek text is inadequate.

Second, in the English-speaking world the Lord’s Prayer is one of the few prayers we have in common with non-Catholics. While unity with Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians is not our highest theological priority, we ought not to consider lightly making unilateral changes to the one prayer we do have in common.

Even many of the unchurched have it committed to memory. The Our Father (even with archaic words like “art,” “thy,” and “hallowed”) is a treasured prayer familiar to the majority of English-speaking world.

I am not sure if the Holy Father considered the pastoral and ecumenical loss that a change to the translation by Catholics might cause in the English-speaking world. I say this because his remarks were impromptu.

Third, if we change the translation, we miss a teachable moment. Although the phrase “lead us not into temptation” may confuse some or give the false impression that God directly or intentionally causes temptation, this confusion provides a teachable moment in which an important truth about God can be explained.

We live in an age in which empiricism and scientism strongly predominate. We tend to give great weight to physical, material, and human causes for things that happen. These causes are secondary, though, because they themselves owe their existence to God, who is the primary cause of everything. Things and people owe their existence to God, who is existence itself (ipsum esse). Thus, I am not the primary cause of anything I do; I am the secondary cause because I myself am caused and held in existence by God. God, therefore, is the primary cause of everything that is.

In this age, so focused as it is on secondary causality, we have moved God to the margins and are easily forgetful of God’s “essential” action of holding all things in existence. We tend to think that we are the first cause or that some physical reality is the first cause of things that happen. This is not correct from either a biblical or theological standpoint.

In more ancient and believing times, people were more aware of and conversant with God’s role in sustaining and being the primary cause of all things. They were more comfortable with attributing things to God’s primary causality, things that today are more often attributed to the secondary causality of physical nature or man. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out regarding the more ancient appreciation of primary causality, This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (# 304).

This brings us back to the request in the Lord’s Prayer that God “lead us not into temptation.” Surely God does not tempt us in any direct sense. He does not will to entrap us or to confound us so as to make us fall. However, because He is the first cause of all existing things, He is also the first cause of things that tempt us. So, in asking God to “lead us not into temptation,” we ask Him, who providentially holds us and all things in existence, to lead us forward with the graces we need to resist it. This will allow us to enjoy the good things He gives without giving way to the temptations of our inordinate desires.

To say that God “leads” us is to acknowledge that He is the first cause of our movement through life. Although we have free will in our decisions, He sustains us in those decisions and thereby “leads” us as the first cause of all we do. He sustains us even when He does not approve of what we do. Thus each of us asks, in effect, “Please, Lord, in your provident and sustaining causality of all that I do, lead me in your grace to resist sin and to do what is right.”

This petition in the Our Father holds an important truth about God as the first, the primary cause of all that happens. We cannot go forward unless God leads us and holds us in existence. Mysteriously, God sustains us and leads us by causing our existence, even when we stray from His will for us.

The Holy Father is right in this: God does not “throw” us into temptation, as if He were wanting us to fall. We cannot blame God for our sins, but we ought not to surrender the truth that God does “lead” us in all things by being the first cause of all that is, including every step we take and every decision we make. Again, as the Catechism says, we must profoundly recall God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world.

I argue that altering the English translation of the Our Father (which is an accurate translation of the Greek) in order to make us more “comfortable,” surrenders an opportunity to ponder the mystery of the interaction between God’s providence and our freedom.

I therefore respectfully disagree with any suggestion that we consider changing the translation of the Our Father. I think we should teach, explain, and remain rooted in the translation of the Lord’s Prayer that has sustained and united the English-speaking world for hundreds upon hundreds of years.