The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

What were they thinking? Romans 12:1


Every now and then when I’m looking at a particular passage of Scripture I’ll come across a verse, scratch my head and think, “what were they thinking”? I don’t mean the author, I mean those responsible for the translation. Now I’m not the world’s greatest Hebrew or Greek scholar by any means, so I’m not talking about translations where the actual meaning is debatable, depending on subtleties that are frankly beyond my knowledge or abilities. I’m thinking of the kinds of translational… well, blunders (or so it seems to me) that are frankly surprising. So I thought – Why not start a blog series on verses like that, and ask for input from the readers?

That’s what I decided to do, and this is the first such blog. This time I have the NIV (among others) in my sights because of the way that they translated Romans 12:1. In Greek, the verse reads:

Parakalo oun hemas, adelphoi, dia ton oiktirmon tou theou parastesai ta somata humon thusian zosan hagian euareston to theo, ten logiken latreian humon.

I’ve highlighted the part that I want to draw your attention to. The verse is rather literally translated by the King James Version as follows: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

That phrase “reasonable service” could have been translated a number of ways. It’s translated from the Greek phrase logikon latreian. The term logikos basically means logical. Not necessarily in a strict mathematical sense, mind you, but of course it includes that. It means logical, rational, or perhaps reasonable. In context it indicates that giving ourselves wholly to God as living sacrifices is the sensible, reasonable or logical thing to do (Young’s literal translation says “your intelligent service”). In verse 3 the writer gives his reason for saying this, starting his sentence off with an exaplanatory conjunction “for…” (the greek word gar): “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Given who God is, and given that we shouldn’t think more highly of ourselves than we really are, and given God’s mercy towards us, the only sensible thing we can do in response is to give ourselves completely to God.

In the year 1900 the American Standard Version of the New Testament was published (followed by the Old Testament in 1901). This new translation contained an idiosyncrasy that I cannot find any example of in the nineteenth century or earlier. It’s an idiosyncrasy that is no longer idiosyncratic, because from initially only one version, it has spread to quite a few translations. Here’s that post-1900 innovation, represented in various translations. You can see how over the years that innovation has itself sprouted others that were based on it:

1900, American Standard Version: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.”

1958, Amplified Bible: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, {and} beg of you in view of [all] the mercies of God, to make a decisive dedication of your bodies [presenting all your members and faculties] as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service {and} spiritual worship.”

1973, New International Version: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”

1989, New Revised Standard Version: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

1991, New Century Version: “So brothers and sisters, since God has shown us great mercy, I beg you to offer your lives as a living sacrifice to him. Your offering must be only for God and pleasing to him, which is the spiritual way for you to worship.”

2001, English Standard Version, “?I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

How did “your reasonable service” evolve into “the spiritual way for you to worship”? Here’s my question: Why did people start, in the twentieth century, to translated logokos as “spiritual” here in Romans 12 – but for some reason, only in Romans 12?

What were they thinking when they did this? Are they all just parroting the American Standard Version? Can anyone versed in New Testament Greek offer a justification of this?


Easter: The Mission is the Message


Episode 034: On Original Sin


  1. Max

    The ASV also translates this word as “spiritual” in 1 Peter 2:2.

  2. Hmmm, several other versions do as well I see. I missed that verse – it’s the only other occurence of that word in the New Testament. The word is common in the ancient Greek world, though, where it means logical, reasonable etc.

  3. Max

    I think that in our language there is almost a dichotomy between “rational” or “logical” on the one hand and “spiritual” on the other. But in Greek the word logikhn held both of these meanings. This tells us something about how the mindset of the writers of these letters differed from our own. Similarly the “heart” was seen as the seat of the intellect (often drilled into those who learn Greek…) but also the seat of the emotions and the spiritual. If you can think of an English word that sums combines the ideas of rational and spiritual at the same time this would probably give a good translation…

  4. Yeah it’s true that there’s no real distinction between the rational and spiritual in the Bible, but rational or logical sure doesn’t mean spiritual. Similarly, there’s no distinction between hard work and spirituality, but the Greek word for “hard work” shouldn’t be translated as “spiritual” either.

    It would also be unexpected for Paul to randomly use the word normally used for “logical” here to mean “spiritual,” when he routinely uses pneumatikos for that purpose.

  5. Max

    “Yeah it’s true that there’s no real distinction between the rational and spiritual in the Bible”… I meant more than this., The word itself holds both ideas.

    “rational or logical sure doesn’t mean spiritual.”.. not in English! But the Greek word includes both of these concepts.

    I don’t see it as randomly using a different word. I see it as a word which has both connotations. The ASV is just picking up a different nuance of the word to the KJV…. neither are wrong.

  6. I’m doing some browsing around online to see what others have said about this verse, and it’s encouraging to see that I’m not alone.

  7. As it only occurs twice in the NT, at some point soon I’m going to have a look at how the word is used in Greek philosophy.

    I’m unsatisfied with the proposal that the word itself contains “spiritual” as part of its very meaning. I think that proposal is merely a result of the fact that our service to God can in fact be called both logical and spiritual.

  8. John Heller

    Over at your American friends are putting things straight with their conservative Bible project. No more Bible translations with Liberal distortions! You may want to check out what they are up to as you could find a passage to confirm your conservatism! See here;

  9. Max

    I don’t think you are wrong. I would probably translate as reasonable or some such… but spiritual is not a totally whacky “what were they thinking” sort of translation. Maybe on the edge of the linguistic scope.. but not too far out.

  10. John, what? Since when is “spiritual” a liberal distortion? I didn’t realise that troll was on the menu, but it looks like I just got served some.

  11. Definition over at the NET Bible. They use “reasonable” here, but note it can mean “spiritual” which they use in 1 Peter 2.

    Romans 12:1

    1 Peter 2:2

  12. Note that the ESV does footnote the alternative: rational.

  13. John Heller

    I just wanted to point out how other people see problems in Bible translation. Sorry if I was a ‘troll.’

    Anyway, what you think of Conservapedia’s little project?

  14. bethyada, yeah I’m not sure that “spiritual” is quite right in 1 Peter either. This is partly because it just doesn’t sit right with logikos, and partly because it’s not necessary for the context either. The KJV uses “of the word” (i.e. of the logos) there, which at least has more linguistic basis and also makes sense in context.

    Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.

    A few versions have a footnotes saying “or reasonable” or something like that, which obviously (in my view) is where the linguistic evidence would point. I can’t shale the gut feeling that people have said of Romans 12.1 something like “well, serving God is spiritual, so let’s translate the word that way because it’s about serving God.”

  15. James Rea

    Strong’s word number 3050 – logikos – translated ‘of the word, reasonable’ could be lumped in with ‘spiritual’ if the translators thought like so many Christian teachers do today that the human existence consists of body, soul (mind/intellect/logic) and spirit (eternal element). So often, the soul and spirit are interchangeable in such expressions, and thus you have the translation link between logic (from the soul) and spirit. If something fits the dualistic presupposition, well, let’s go ahead and stick to spiritual rather than the purer use of the Greek.

  16. Rather than the purer use of the Greek? Surely not. There’s nothing at all of dualism here. If you’re going to say that “soul” and “spirit” are interchangeable then you have to contend with the fact that Paul so often uses psuchikos (“natural” or literally “soulish”) as the opposite of pneumatikos (“spiritual”). But the very terms “soul” and “spirit” don’t even get a look in here. Neither of them appears in the passage in question.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to be pulling dualism into a text that says nothing to support it. if anything I advocate purging our theology of dualism, precisely because it has been such an unhelpful intruder into the Christian mind.

  17. We think everyone is over-thinking.

    Paul is simply saying what kind of service to God is fitting for humans. Presenting our bodies as a living, holy sacrifice is our normative (or at least should be) service.


  18. Haecceitas

    Just another example of what looks like a horrible mistranslation, though this one isn’t that relevant to you as you (along with 99.9% of the world’s population) belong to the lower class of non-Finnish-speaking people. 😉

    The 1992 Finnish translation translates psykhikon in 1. Corinthians 15:44 as “temporal” (or rather, the equivalent Finnish word, obviously).

  19. I remember digging into this a bit more on the 1 Peter side of things a few years ago. Don’t you think the “reasonable” translation is more difficult in that passage? I have a vague, vague memory of spiritual being defendable from extrabiblical sources. I’m going to try and dig that up.

  20. sorry to come to this convo so late. It is not really that two different meanings, spiritual/reasonable, are present in the same word, but that the word simply refers to the inner person, which includes what we might call the spiritual and reasonable. The problem comes, as Glenn rightly points out that spiritual has a specific use and meaning in Paul and so using “spiritual” here in the way that the bloke on the street might is potentially misleading for the english reading exegete.

    Of course this is where a dynamic translation would have an advatage over a literal one, where no word for word is possible or desireable. What Paul is trying to get across to the Romans is that those rational/spiritual things of the inner person must be manifested in our bodily life. Ie. it is not just what you believe and experience but what you do that is important. Whether you read rational or spiritual you should still get the message.

  21. Steven, in 1 Peter the KJV has “of the word,” rather than reasonable, as the word “logikos” very literally means “of the logos.” I think in context that makes sense.

  22. James Rea

    My last sentence was ironic, Glenn. As you say, the verse is not obviously supportive of dualism, but I suggest it is still in the background. The Holiness movement in the mid-19th C birthed Pentecostalism in the late 19th C. Their very clear declaration that a person is an eternal spirit inside a physical body (dualism, confirm?) that required baptising in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues was taking hold across much of orthodox Christianity. This understanding of scripture would have, no doubt, affected the Bible translations published in the 20th century.

    So, back to your blog question, in Phil 1:27 and Heb 12:3, for instance, Paul uses the psyche term, but it is rendered ‘minds’ rather than ‘souls’; so, since the word contains both ideas, it promotes the concept that emotion/intellect/seat of rational thought is akin to the soul (this is the understanding of most Pente/Charismatics). Consequently, if the ‘logikos’ was from the human mind and there is that link with the ‘psyche’, there now exists a bridge to ‘spiritual service’ in Rom 12:1 IF the translators are thinking dualistically. Hence the irony since I would agree that ‘dualism…has been such an unhelpful intruder into the Christian mind.’

  23. Ah, I didn’t spot the irony, james. 🙂

    I wouldn’t grant that “mind” is very accurate in Phil 1:27 or Heb 3, given that there’s already a perfectly adequate vocabulary for “mind” (nous being the obvious choice), and other words fit the context just fine. For example in Phil 1:27, the idea of people being of one soul (i.e. acting as one person) makes sense. The ASV disagrees witht he KJV’s “one mind,” as does the NCV, and the NIV (which has “contending as one man, which is what I would say). So I think “mind” is a very poor tanslation there. In Heb 12:3 most versions reject “mind” as well. The same versions that correctly reject “mind” as a fair translation of psuche are – in many cases – the same ones that want to introduce “spiritual” as a translation of logikos.

  24. Here’s my addition to the list of interesting tranlations.

  25. John Heller

    Just noticed that you have put this in the catergory ‘what where they thinking?’ The one in the scroll down menu on the right side of this blog. There is a spelling mistake in the title.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén