Fellowship and the Tower of Babel

I had an occasion last week to be confronted by a Protestant fundamentalist “street preacher.” Wearing a cassock and a cross in public clearly identifies me as a priest (though in this part of the world most people know nothing of Orthodox priests). It also makes you a target for some who want to have arguments about religion. Thus, last week, while doing work on the local university campus, I was approached twice by different “preachers.” The first conversation was relatively short and generally non-confrontational.

My second encounter was less pleasant. The gentleman who approached me wanted an argument and tried his best to draw me into such a conversation. He eventually left in frustration. However, one of his questions has stayed with me. He asked, “What do you think salvation is?” I answered, “Salvation is union with Christ.” He had obviously never heard that answer and wasn’t sure what to say in return (he changed the subject). I realized on reflection that he had no idea what I meant – which brought another thought to mind: how can you have a conversation about faith when the most basic vocabulary is riddled with contradictions? The words are the same (salvation, Baptism, Church, etc.) but the meanings are utterly different. We both spoke English, but the two of us did not share a common language.

There is a relatively small number of words that come up repeatedly in my writings: mystery, union, communion, participation, icon, iconic, etc. It is not so much that my vocabulary is greatly restricted – rather our common vocabulary is restricted. Some words are deeply essential in sharing the Orthodox life. Unless such words are understood, no conversation can take place. The ancient Greeks used the word Barbaros (“barbarian”) for those who did not speak Greek. The etymology of the word was simple: those who spoke a foreign (non-Greek) language sounded as though they were saying, “Bar, bar, bar, bar, etc.” Those with whom no language is shared are often the most foreign to us. I have also found it to be true that even when I do not share a common language with someone, if I share a common faith, they are no longer foreign – conversation takes place at a deeper level. I have served in liturgies in which there were at least three languages present in the altar and not mutually understood – and yet, the liturgy went smoothly despite the shifting languages. There was the common language of priesthood and liturgy – in many ways, an experience of Pentecost.

I ask patience on the part of my readers if my blog postings occasionally seem repetitive. Many things have to be spoken and repeated for understanding to take place (thus comments are of very great value). It is not common language we seek in the end – but a common God – the good God who loves mankind.

The following is an article on a key word – a word that would have changed the conversation last week that failed. The Tower of Babel is much closer than we think.


Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The creation of abstract nouns from adjectives (common in Greek thought) was a critical component in the rise of philosophy within that culture.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two discrete individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





73 responses to “Fellowship and the Tower of Babel”

  1. Fr. Justin Frederick Avatar
    Fr. Justin Frederick

    Another example is paradosis, which the NIV translates as “tradition” when the text is negative about it (those evil traditions of men) but “teachings” when it is used positively (“hold to the tradition”).

    Good reflection on koinonia. You’ve got me thinking about it. Thank you.

    We live in a world of debased, debauched language in which it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate. Unless we strive to refine our use of language and use it well, with precision, the ability for minds and hearts to meet through speech will continue to decrease.

  2. Steve Avatar

    I had a similar experience in an online forum yesterday, where someone responded (to something I had written on the need to distinguish between evangelism and proselytism):

    Do you believe the “most holy traditions” of the Orthodox Church are co-equal in redemption with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross?

    Apart from observing that the questioner appeared to confuse the map with the territory, and to think that I also suffered from that particular delusion, what can one say?

    And it is possibly in similar circles that “fellowship” is a verb. People ask “Where do you fellowship?” Apart from the consumerist assumptions, it seems an almost blasphemous trivialisation of the Body of Christ.

  3. Jeremiah Avatar

    I just happened to have experienced something similar, but not in a confrontational context. I went to a Protestant memorial service for a friend. Her grandson led the service, and shared how he had baptized his grandmother in an impromptu event that is typical of this Evangelical Fundamentalist group. He said that baptism “doesn’t save”. Interestingly, years ago this kid sat under my teaching on occasion when I was a youth leader at that same church, teaching the same doctrine.
    At that moment, I realized what you articulated in this post. We use the same words, but we mean completely different things by them. I never discussed the issue with him, as I may have done in the past. I can be quite argumentative, which is something I am trying to steer away from.
    I was also thinking about the trite phrase that most Evangelicals throw around, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” and thought how this is a more fitting phrase to describe Orthodoxy than Protestantism (if properly understood, and not said so flippantly).

  4. Eric Avatar

    A mere philological quip: Ancient languages such as the Semitic languages were very capable of abstract thought. Hebrew, for example, is quite adept at creating abstract nouns, which it does most often with feminine nouns of certain patterns derived from the tri-literal root. Whether or not the ancient speakers of such languages felt a need to coin abstract words was not a function of their linguistic abilities.

    I don’t mean to detract from the main point of your post, which is very important, but the myth that non-Greek ancient languages were deficient in their ability to produce abstract nouns needs to go away.

    In fact, it could just as easily be said that the presence of abstract nouns is the very cause of so much ambiguity that arises in attempts at translation. Perhaps if more “concrete” concepts were used, there would be less confusion. But that idea is just as flawed as the other.

    It’s usually the best to leave philology out of the discussion unless one possesses full mastery of the languages in question.

  5. eleftheria Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for your postings. There is much to be gleaned in all of them.
    It is, as you say:”translations frequently mislead”. Adding to the problem is the fact that the mistranslated words are frequently ascribed today’s definitions, as in this one from Luke:
    “…a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
    It is much more than merely a shame that people everywhere ascribe the word ‘rather’ its negative connotation: ‘instead’, whereas the original Ancient Greek word, menoune, means: indeed.
    “Blessed indeed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

  6. Robert Avatar

    Good reflection.

    Babel is descriptive of our state of fragmentation – the opposite of unity and wholeness in Christ. Babel is pride, wisdom of this age, destruction of worth, loss of meaning, machinations of man, perversion of creation, height of alienation. But praise be to God, the gates of Paradise have been opened to us.

  7. Seraphim Avatar

    It is often said that the authority of Church is somehow a function of magnitude (be it either one of space or time). Thus, or so the logic goes, the bigger and louder the Church, the closer she must be to the ultimate Truth.

    Biblical experience does not support this hypothesis.

    Time (and space for that matter) is purely a function of the One who declares, in John 8:58, that “before Abraham was, I Am”. Thus, the Kingdom can appear at first, a strange, even unfamiliar place. Nonetheless it is a place where Truth is always in the ascendancy.

    History does not afford a very clear view of the One Who Is. (Thus we note that history must constantly be re-written).

    If I might just borrow a phrase from E.F. Schumacher, small really is beautiful.

  8. Dino Avatar

    Being Greek-English bi-lingual, I always struggle with the paucity of English in this area.
    My main problem is that while in Greek you can have your cake and eat it – combining exact precision with vivid conciseness – in English you are forced to choose just one of these qualities…

    Some of the most important words (Logos, Nous and Nypsis being three good examples) require at least a whole paragraph to render in English!

    If you add the problem of popular ‘vulgarization’ of some of the most noble words, in all languages, (e.g. the word Love), as well as the identity crisis of others, then it is a kind of Babel…

  9. Seraphim Avatar

    Dino you are being generous, but that is precisely what the Kingdom is all about.

  10. John M. Avatar
    John M.


    As a Protestant stumbling along towards more fully Orthodox understandings of the Kingdom, I thank you for your teaching and your being patiently repetitive.

    This communion in the Light, this sharing in one and the same life, that is what I am desirous of.

    Thank you again.

  11. Margarita Avatar

    “discreet individuals”

    In the interests of accurate language, I must point out that the word is “discrete.” “Discreet” means something like “capable of holding one’s tongue.”

    A very good post, Father. It is communion that I long for, not coffee hour.

  12. Valja Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for raising this issue. Although I am not Orthodox, I am a classicist (married to a linguist) and so when we approach the Bible we do so with an eye to the original text. It can be very frustrating, when, for example, my Calvinist father insists that predestination is a Biblical concept when, in fact, the term ‘praedestinare’ is a Latin translation of the Greek ‘tasso’ which never had the meaning of predestination in the Calvinist sense. Sadly, I find that most of my religious friends are either unaware or unconcerned with the differences between different translations (and the motives of different translators) as they have been raised with a particular translation which (naturally) suits their beliefs.

    This reminds me of a comment my undergraduate Greek professor made when some of us asked him why the New Testament class was no longer taught. He replied that his predecessor had hoped it would be an interesting course for relatively new students of the language, but it turned out to be a very difficult class for him to teach, as many students became quite upset when they started translating the Koine text only to find that it did not say what they thought it would say. Being a classicist and not a theologian, he felt himself ill-equipped to deal with the arguments that ensued among the students and decided to stop offering the course. No one had wanted to teach it since then.

  13. Blake Helgoth Avatar
    Blake Helgoth

    You have hit a very important point regarding ecclesiology. Communion with Christ is what makes the Church, or makes one part of the Church. This is the critical point which so many in our modern times miss and then build a false ecclesiology based upon this initial error. So much erronious thining could be corrected if this one point was were proclaimed unitl all had heard it.

  14. Jon Neely Avatar
    Jon Neely

    Excellent Father Stephen. Thank you.

  15. Lucille Avatar

    Recently, the saying”we don’t argue about politics or religion” has been demonstrated to me to mean, “i’m right, you are wrong”. I treasure and am blessed to know that questions asked of our priests come from someone seeking.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have edited the paragraph to a more congenial form. Of course I did not say that Greek was the only ancient language with this ability. Theoretically, many had it. The observation, interestingly, seems to begin with Cicero in his first stab at writing philosophy (in Latin). He began to do much the same thing as had been done in Greek, coining abstract nouns (and apologizes to his readers). He flatly stated that he was trying to prove that philosophy could be written in Latin as well as Greek if such neologisms were permitted. Obviously, many cultural forces contributed to the rise of philosophy in Greek, but their use and flexibility with their language was certainly somewhat unique in antiquity.

    The “myth” has been around since antiquity – and was widely accepted within the Roman world (perhaps the Greeks started the myth). The myth occasioned Cicero’s philosophical attempts.

    I do not claim full mastery of the languages – but I was trained as a classicist and read Hebrew as well. The questions (even philological) are worth raising, even if the conversation provokes a correction by readers from within the comments. We all learn a little. Thanks.

  17. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dale E., Veronica du Bruyn and Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο, Fabio Leite. Fabio Leite said: Fellowship and the Tower of Babel: I had an occasion last week to be confronted by a Protestant fundamentalist “st… http://bit.ly/a81F3O […]

  18. practicinghuman Avatar

    I do think that salvation is union with Christ packages a rich truth in a form suitable for consistent mediation. Thank you for this rendering.

  19. Prudence True Avatar

    Simple. True. And almost impossible for modern Christianity to absorb.

    “With the fear of God, and faith and love, draw near . . .”

  20. Robert Avatar


    True communion is possible, even at coffee hour.

    Perhaps your complaint is directed towards false substitutes. Alas, this is not limited to coffee hours.

    Otherwise, your comment does not make sense to me.

  21. Douglas Cramer Avatar

    Father bless!

    A very powerful reflection; thank you for this!

    I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the difficulty of communicating anything around the word “sin”. So much of the modern American immediately moves towards the realm of “sinners in the hands of an angry God” rather than towards our Orthodox conception of sin as “missing the mark”.

    Thought you might be interested in my own reflections on koinonia here:


    Christ Bless,

  22. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    What is salvation? That was a good answer. I’ll use that.

    One of my favorite stories comes from Rusty, a former member of our parish in Chattanooga (now Father George). His dad was a good ole’ Baptist preacher in Dayton, Tennessee whose claim to fame was preaching his last sermon, sitting down, and taking his final rest right then and there.

    Being Orthodox was not easy during family reunions and church suppers, and at one of those get-togethers a church deacon struck up a conversation about his Orthodoxy.

    “I just want to ask you one question, that’s it,” he said.
    “Okay,” says Rusty.

    Pause. “Do you believe in salvation?”

    Pause. “Why . . . yes we certainly do.”

    “That’s all I need to know,” said the deacon, who shook his hand firmly.

  23. Mike Avatar

    I wonder if I might ask whether the Orthodox version of the Septuagint is the same or different to that used for the Vulgate.
    The Douai bible uses “fellowship” and when I dropped the alongside Greek text of 1 John 1:6 into Google translate it came out as “fellowship”

    6 ἐὰν εἴπωμεν ὅτι κοινωνίαν ἔχομεν μετ’ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν τῷ σκότει περιπατῶμεν, ψευδόμεθα καὶ οὐ ποιοῦμεν τὴν ἀλήθειαν:

    6 If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth.


  24. Thomas Avatar

    More philology (sorry, folks):

    Of course languages other than Greek are capable of expressing abstract thought. Probably there are far more abstract nouns derived from adjectives in English than in Greek or Hebrew…only there is no regular, productive formation that can be used to accomplish this, just a number of historical relics from various sources (including Greek), e.g.: -t/th, -ness, -dom, -ment, etc.

    The expression of these abstract ideas in Greek (and Latin) is more regularly formed than in English. There are two different endings: the late Proto-Indo-European feminine ending *-a: and the neuter *-m. The feminine ending *-a: (long ‘a’) < earlier Indo-European *-eh2 (where there was a consonant *h2 but we don't know what it was) originally expressed collective and abstract ideas. This is related to its role as the plural ending of the neuter singular *-m (Greek neuter singular -on : plural -a), as the neuter initially referred to inanimate nouns and concepts. Thus -on and -a: (long alpha or eta in Greek) are thus both common endings for abstract nouns.

    The early Semitic feminine ending, -at, seems to be also connected somehow with the expression of abstract and collective concepts. This was clear to me from my study of Arabic (not Hebrew), but I have also heard of the opinion being held among Semiticists. There is nothing natural about the category of gender in nominal morphology, and it seems generally to arise from other semantically-motivated word classes (often active vs. inactive).

    There is a common misconception, ultimately a political dogma, among modern linguists that all languages can express all ideas equally. The truth is they can all attempt to express the same ideas, but the mode of expression of these ideas is not inherently equal. All languages are capable of expressing abstract thought, but not all languages are equally adept at it. Ultimately, the Semitic languages are highly expressive lexically, in having an extremely high catalog of nuanced roots, but their inflectional and derivational morphology permits a far less precise expression of the tense/aspect/voice framework of situations and events. And I say that with my little Semitic background being in Arabic, which has more verb forms than Hebrew. Much of the misunderstandings permitted in modern Biblical translations are the result of a lack of capability of the modern target languages to express certain verbal categories, or the combination thereof (e.g., aspect + voice), in so precise a manner as Greek.

    Finally, it is nearly impossible to have full mastery of a dead language, and, therefore, that should be no barrier to commenting on philological details. In any case, it never seemed to me that Fr Stephen was making any comment about other ancient languages' ability to express anything.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am not sure on the text behind the Vulgate – but the NT text should generally be the same. Google is simply drawing on standard Protestant translations – I am surprised that the Douai uses “fellowship” although the Catholic doctrine on union and participation was not a strong point at the time of the Douai.

    Of course, it is also true that “fellowship” itself has changed meaning in English over years. In its oldest meaning it would approximate koinonia, though still not as strong as “communion” or “participation.” St. Paul speaks of the koinonia of Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10) – also rendered as “fellowship” in Protestant translations – but in our modern usage of the word fellowship, such a statement doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Bible translation has long been a difficulty. I was recently reading about various translations that surfaced in Russia several hundred years back. There were consistent problems of Protestant influence, or borrowings from translations based on the Vulgate. Translation is a very difficult matter – never simple and straightforward. Doctrine and the consciousness of the Church will always necessarily guide some renderings. It is something people need to be aware of and consider when looking at Scripture.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for an informative reflection. I will confess that most of my attitude on the topic (of abstracts) was formed during my reading of Cicero (who is credited with the first Philosophical work in Latin). He comments on this himself and was swimming upstream in his culture. The generally accepted thought within Roman society at the time was that Greek was the only language in which philosophy could be studied. Cicero took exception and wrote his work, contributing a number of newly coined words that have passed down even into English. I have read philosophy in both Greek and Latin – and will simple observe that, in my experience, there is a subtlety of expression and nuance in Greek that Latin never really achieved (though it was pressed into great service by the Scholastics). By the same token, there are things within Hebrew that make very good sense within Hebrew, but are hard to translate.

    I attended a conference back in the 90’s on translation and liturgy, conducted by Orthodox scholars. The number of languages (mastered) and used by them in their discussion was fairly staggering – particularly since it drew not only on Scripture but also the liturgical history of the Church. I have never encountered anything to compare with the discussions of that week.

    I would note a weakness in my own education – though I majored in classical Greek and Latin – I was taught by Protestant scholars. The longer I have been Orthodox, and exposed to a consciousness that is largely Hellenic, the more I realize that we often failed to appreciate many aspects of the text in front of us.

    I also think that it is not incorrect to recognize that various languages bring insights into the Gospel and the faith that might not be apparent in other languages – thus I do not think that we should ever confine ourselves only to the original text. As an English speaker, I feel that it is part of my place within the culture to suggest better English translations of a phrase, or to at least unveil the politics/theology that underlie certain choices.

    Many thanks.

  27. easton Avatar

    one of the last things my father shared with me before his death was this very point. he said,”you must be very careful when studying the bible because the many translations have changed the meaning.” i have thought of this many times. thank you for this post.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your father was wise. It’s one of the reasons that reading the Scriptures while immersed within the fullness of the Tradition makes sense to me.
    Many blessings!

  29. Yannis Avatar

    Lets hope Richard Dawkins is not amongst the readers;

    I can see him suggesting that the corruption of meaning of scripture through translations follows evolutionary principles.

  30. Yannis Avatar

    …and perhaps showing that eventually – assming they have been translated many times – they will turn into the “origin of the species” 🙂

  31. FR VAL Avatar
    FR VAL

    thanks fr stephen for that beautiful insight…will use your teaching to correct my charismatic members using fellowship here in my community, manila, philippines, and that insight on koinonia!

    father val

  32. Justin Kolodziej Avatar
    Justin Kolodziej

    Hi everyone. I am a Roman Catholic (maybe drifting Eastward…) and I couldn’t help looking up what koinonia became in the Latin.

    It looks like in the Clementine Vulgate, “koinonia” was rendered “societatem”. That becomes “fellowship” in all the Catholic Bibles I can get to easily, except the pre-Challoner Douay-Rheims which has “societie” transliterated.

    What is interesting is that in the Vatican’s revised “Nova Vulgata”, they have used “communionem” instead. hmmmm…

    Of course what would be really interesting is what the “Old Latin” versions say before St. Jerome put together the Vulgate, or if that word got changed over the 1000 years.

    One last thing: Last Sunday I wonder if we heard what the results of having “fellowship” and not communion with God are…?

    ‘Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where (you) are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’ And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.’ Luke 13:23-28

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I had a brief conversation with a Baptist preacher friend of my a couple of years ago. He was talking about one’s relationship with Christ. I simply mentioned to him that I liked the word inter-relationship better because that allowed for a deeper more permanent and enduring reality than a simple relationship (often viewed as disposable and of no real depth). The concept of sharing life with Christ in real and living communion is also in the term but that was far beyond the scope of our brief conversation.

    There is also inherent in the modern meaning of the word ‘fellowship’ and ‘relationship’ the idea that God and we are equal.

    I remember my bishop once (unknowingly) shocked some protestant visitors once by proclaiming in his homily that there was no such thing as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Only in communion are we able to live with Him.

    The lack of understanding of even such basic words as sin follow. For many, it seems, sin is simply immoral acts. If one is not acting in an objectively immoral manner, one is not sinning. Sin (in Latin an archery term) is not just missing the mark, it is anything that disturbs or inhibits our communion is it not?

    With the continued degradation of the written and spoken language, it would seem to me that icons will play an increasingly important role in communicating the faith, won’t they?

  34. St. Susanna the Martyr Avatar
    St. Susanna the Martyr

    Great post and discussion. It is for all these kinds of reasons that I have thought that we American Orthodox should not be so eager to translate every single word into English. I’ve noticed for example some churches won’t even use the term Theotokos, and I have been vaguely uncomfortable that the word “Birthgiver” loses some important subtlety of meaning. When you start using an unfamiliar word, you recognize that you may not fully understand its meaning and work on slowly becoming aware of its fuller meaning. But when you just substitute a more familiar word, you think you already get its full meaning and have nothing more to learn about it. Maybe we need to use a little Greek not just to be more precise but to humble ourselves into realizing that we have much yet to learn.

  35. Seraphim Avatar


    In a very real sense, mankind has been charged with the task of writing an icon of himself. Having been created in God’s own image, it is the undiminshed and glorious vision of God alone that can sustains the task.

    Interestingly, the Semitic root of the verb Torah (“teach” in the second person is Yarah (“see” in the third person). But the residual power of sin is that it blinds. Fallen man is no longer able to see God and the iconicity of His goodness in all. The word “good” is found seven times in the first chapter of Genesis and behold on the sixth day God sees “all that He had made” and declares “it was very good.”

  36. Seraphim Avatar


    In a very real sense, mankind has been charged with the task of writing an icon of himself. Having been created in God’s own image, it is the undiminshed and glorious vision of God alone that can sustain the task.

    Interestingly, the Semitic root of the verb Torah (“teach” in the second person) is Yarah (“see” in the third person). But the residual power of sin is that it blinds. Fallen man is no longer able to see God and the iconicity of His goodness in all.

  37. […] Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion. Father Stephen […]

  38. Bill M Avatar

    What a good conversation. I’ve always appreciated how Fr. Stephen works hard to explain the words he chooses, and chooses carefully. I’ve had seasons of discouragement over the past several years as I’ve seen the disintegration of language, and the increasing difficulty in communication, especially over matters of the soul.

    This past Sunday a lady at our church asked me how I was doing (knowing something about the faith struggles I’ve endured in recent months). I appreciated that she asked me, but I was at a loss how to answer her with something more complete and truthful than “I’m doing OK.” I know I would have used words that meant one thing to me, and something else entirely to her.

    If this is the difficulty with communication between people who know each other, in the same context, with similar backgrounds, how can we ever hope to talk meaningfully with people who’s context is radically different? Here, perhaps, is where Michael’s comment about icons comes into play.

  39. Theophany Avatar

    Father Bless:)

    You nailed it.

  40. Fr. Vasile Tudora Avatar

    You bring a very good point Fr. Stephen. We do associate same words with different concepts. I guess if the Anglicans would have really understood the term communion as “koinonia” they would never have made the mistake of giving Holy Communion to a dog… Very sad…

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Vasile,
    Traditionally Anglicanism had a fairly good grasp of communion. Some of their prayers in the Eucharist are excellent (particularly in the traditional liturgy). I understand that the person who gave communion to a dog was indeed disciplined. In Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism, I such an act would cause the priest to be deposed.

  42. Lou. Avatar

    As part of the process of studying Old English, students read passages of Scripture that were translated long ago into Anglo Saxon (often taken from the body of sermons). The idea is that you already know what the passage says, so it should be easier to grasp the operation of the words, tenses, voice and the like.

    I found the differences stunning. It was like going down from a palette of oils to a small box of crayons. For instance, when the “housholder” was told about the wheat being sown with tares, he shouted, “A feonda hath done hit!” There is no wide choice of words: all enemies — human, natural, supernatural — are conflated in the limited vocabulary. The immediacy — almost blantancy — of that language is not subtle but seems particularly suited for parables.

    This process made me sensitive to some of the challenges facing contemporary Bible translators. It helped me realize we have nothing but what others have faithfully passed on to us — usually at great cost. And it taught me that language is not a barrier to God — the human pride of Babel is redeemed in the gift of the divine Spirit. (Or, for your Anglo-Saxon readers, the Holy Ghost). ;o)

  43. Larry Pryor Avatar
    Larry Pryor

    Fr. Stephen,

    Just a quick question. What do you think is the best translation of Sacred Scriptures in English?

  44. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you for this posting, Fr. Stephen. I work in a Protestant setting and often have similar reactions with regard to the use and various meanings of words. This week, part of my work involved being present at a protestant communion service. Much was sung and read about the body and blood of Christ and our union with Him and with each other because of our ability to come together at His table. However, when the communion part of the service was begun, the gifts were distributed in little plastic cups like creamers with a wafer cellophaned on top of the grape juice. They fit neatly into the silver trays with little holes that used to hold tiny glasses. When people were asked to partake, you could hear little plastic pops all over the auditorium. The remains were, sadly, treated like garbage. I found it unbearable to see even what is only considered to be a symbol of the Eucharist treated this way. I think I would have been shocked even when I was Protestant! There was something always very special and sacred about those tiny glasses 🙂 The disconnect between the words and the practice didn’t seem to phase my protestant colleagues. My colleagues are highly educated and many are biblical scholars who are aware of the changes in meaning over time and can read the original Greek and could probably speak eloquently or write copiously about the various translations. Knowledge of meanings and the process/politics of translations is no guarantee that understanding occurs.

  45. Seraphim Avatar


    I would take this a step further and add that knowledge is a guarantee that misunderstanding will occur. Knowledge of course, is not the same as knowing (unless of course we are given foreknowledge of our own sin — which is the “gold” of heaven — the sign that our redemption draws nigh).

    Well said.

  46. fatherstephen Avatar

    It sort of depends on what you’re looking for. There are certain things quite excellent about the King James, and some with the RSV. For me, the more contemporary translations have too many weaknesses. The most recent, such as the NRSV, is too politically correct and in error. I read the English (in my parish we use the KJV by direction of the Bishop) but I study in the original.

  47. Joe Avatar

    I am fascinated by what I am learning from wading thru the greek NT. Metanoia is more of a change of mind than what we call repentence in English, truth or aletheia is “unforgetting” a-lethe-ia, agape is worth looking at too. Thanks for your post.

  48. Joe Avatar

    I almost forgot many Protestant/Fundamentalists have a very strange sense of the the word λόγος as being a reference to the bible itself as the “word” rather than a more mystical idea about the λόγος as expressed at John 1:1

  49. Fr. Vasile Tudora Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. Is good to know that some action was taken. I was afraid it will just slip by like nothing happened.

  50. Doug C. Avatar
    Doug C.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, I am reminded daily in my reading and contact with others that “words matter.”

  51. Robert Travis Avatar

    May I use some of your blog, duly quoted of course, in our parish paper? Please email me if I may. I’m working on developing Koinonia Groups and you discuss very clearly what I have been trying to articulate about the depth of koinonia vs. fellowship.
    Fr. Rob Travis

  52. Larry Pryor Avatar
    Larry Pryor

    Fr Stephen,
    I was curious as to what versions the Orthodox used. I’ve been reading all over the map from the Douay-Rheims, Confraternity, RSV-2CE and the Jerusalem NT (not the New one) and use the NKJV with my Protestant friends. I can’t seem to settle on one for study. I’m afraid I’m letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Much thanks.

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’d use the RSV or KJV even the NKJV with a good concordance.

  54. Fotina Avatar

    “if I share a common faith, they are no longer foreign – conversation takes place at a deeper level. I have served in liturgies in which there were at least three languages present in the altar and not mutually understood – and yet, the liturgy went smoothly despite the shifting languages. There was the common language of priesthood and liturgy – in many ways, an experience of Pentecost.”

    Reminded me of the miraculous “Pascha at Dachau”, here’s excerpt:

    In the entire history of the Orthodox Church there has probably never been an Easter service like the one at Dachau in 1945. Greek and Serbian priests together with a Serbian deacon adorned the make-shift “vestments” over their blue and gray-striped prisoners uniforms. Then they began to chant, changing from Greek to Slavonic, and then back again to Greek. The Easter Canon, the Easter Sticheras – everything was recited from memory. The Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word” – also from memory.

    And finally, the Homily of Saint John Chrysostom – also from memory. A young Greek monk from the Holy Mountain stood up in front of us and recited it with such infectious enthusiasm that we shall never forget him as long as we live. Saint John Chrysostomos himself seemed to speak through him to us and to the rest of the world as well! Eighteen Orthodox priests and one deacon – most of whom were Serbs, participated in this unforgettable service.


  55. george Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I just posted a link to this post last evening on my blog. Today was followed by this very issue being fleshed out in real life for me. It is such a difficult thing to work through especially when the person on the other end has no intention of really hearing another perspective. It is a discussion that quickly becomes argumentative, petty and fruitless for both parties. I am learning more and more that stopping the conversation short is probably the best rout to take when things progress in that manner.

    thank you for all your insight and kindness.


  56. William Gautsch Avatar

    Hi. I’m new to this Orthodoxy stuff. I love most of it.
    Here’s a little offering in response to some of what I’ve read here.
    Communion with Christ is when you go for a walk with a burdened heart and find your self kneeling in the sand for some undetermined epoch having lost all sense of time and space in the wonder of His presence. And after being with Him , just being with Him, you realize the burden real wasn’t.
    Communion is what you call the experience of having heard the voice of Many Waters with someone else who heard it too.
    Communion is what you do when you wake back up in your body after a heart attack.
    Communion is how you cry when your daughter is dying from cancer.
    Communion is the way you fast when your country is dying and you are asking God to relent for ten.
    Communion is what happens when that song moving you carries you to the place where the strings being played are your heat and the musician is the Lord.
    Communion is when your broken heart empties your eyes and when the heaves of your body and wails of your soul turn the room into the private inner chamber of you Heavenly Father.
    It is the Holy Presence when all else have fled and forsaken you and you are left with your lonely self for all the most painful and blameworthy reasons. And then He comes near again.
    I don’t know the Greek words for all this. But i’ll bet their are many folks who may not get the preciousness of the clarity of the translations who know the meaning of communion. The “communion” of His sufferings is plentifully available to all.
    I told a dear brother once about a wonderful sermon I heard where my preacher did word study in the Greek. He just smiled, set his hammer down and said, “Well brother that’s nice. But it dosen’t matter what language you understand it in if you don’t DO IT.”
    So, please explain more of these things I long to understand. I want to DO IT.

  57. Seraphim Avatar


    Great post.

    The fig tree, naturally, produces figs. . . and the devil is speaking his own language when he lies.

    Truth or communion is always “pathological”; that is, it is God’s Word (Gk Logos) directed towards the root of “suffering” (Gk pathos) — which is a direct consequence of man’s loss of his Glorious vision.

    What one does in essence, is a function of what one is.

  58. Dave Wallace Avatar
    Dave Wallace

    Your definition of fellowship is:
    > In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two discrete individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship.

    I prefer the translation of communion rather than fellowship. But at least for protestants in my background “fellowship” is a very tricky word and can simply mean having coffee after church but it can also have much much stronger connotations as in:

    > “Fellowship”, referring to individual Christians who are in Communion (Christian) with each other

    This is not the first time I have meet confusion as to how protestants use this word. Thus IMO the linguistic barriers between different branches of the Christian Church occur in all branches more or less equally. Although that is not to say that some do not have a better word use in some instances and that we should not learn from each other.
    Dave W

  59. Micah Avatar


    You might want to read Fr. Stephen’s post Grace and the “Inverted Pyramid”. Here’s the link:


    Here’s another one. Archimandrite Zacharias’ introduction to the theology and life of St. Silouan is most edifying. Here’s the link:



  60. Tate Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I need you to answer a question. I shared this bog entry with a devout Protestant friend I work with (I myself am Catholic). He understood your use of the word communion as the type of communion within a church that is a very tight knit community, where everyone knows everyone else, and there is a very strong comradeship. I my self being a Catholic understood it in quite a different sense. My friend said that he understood the article to mean “how we should do church” (which I understand as meaning the that communion, not just fellowship, should exist at the local church, parish, level; he said that he did not believe you to mean how we should “do communion”, i.e. the Lord’s Supper (as he would put it)). The question that came in our last conversation was what was your exact meaning in that regard.

  61. Tate Avatar

    or feel free to email me.

  62. JohnTB Avatar

    The Tower of Babel is here today.

    Just got to Orlando. Trinity Broadcasting is building “the Church of All Nations Auditorium.”

    Jan Crouches way of getting closer to god. What a tragic waste of money and time. NOT how charity should be spent.

  63. simmmo Avatar

    Wow, what a Protestant smack down! Coming from a Protestant background, I can tell you that the individualism in our tradition is really really detrimental. Both in doctrine, but, more importantly, in living the Christian life. There is little sense that we have a responsibility for one another. There is nothing in doctrine that would encourage this. Having communion with one another sounds too Roman Catholic and left wing for many American evangelicals to stomach. Instead they only want to have “fellowship” with people who believe exactly the same things they believe. They have made an idol out of their ideology. It’s a joke and I’m glad you have called them out on this.

  64. fatherstephen Avatar

    It effects everyone in our culture. The Orthodox swim upstream on this, and it is frequently a problem within our Churches. The doctrine is there, but the praxis is very difficult. It has become, essentially, the culturally dominant mode. Therefore, don’t feel alone 🙂

  65. simmmo Avatar

    Father Stephen, At least in Orthodoxy the doctrine is there and is an essential part of the faith. We are all hypocrites in that sense because none of us love as much as we should, none of us forgive as much as we should, none of us repent as much as we should. And because the doctrine is there, the picture of God we find in Orthodoxy seems far more loving than that in the West, especially in Protestantism. That counts for a lot in my book. It seems, in Protestantism, that there is an almost deliberate attempt to distort the image of God and to conform this to their own image. The Western doctrine of atonement is a clear distortion as is the Western doctrine of hell, as is the Calvinist doctrine of predestination/election. I’m sick and tired of the self-righteous moralisms bandied about by Protestants (especially Calvinists) based on this notion that sin is the breaking some sort of immutable law and must be punished in the most extreme and cruel way. Rather than offering sinners hope of healing and redemption, there is only condemnation for these people. And they have the gall to call this “sovereign grace”. Is it any wonder why atheism abounds?

  66. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think in our modern world, the use of harsh imagery for God is counter-productive and indeed a cause for atheism. It frequently reveals a darkened heart. On the other hand, the “fierce” love of God (if I can be bold to use such an adjective) keeps some from seeing how profound and shocking the love of God is. Strangely, I get strong reactions when I write on topics such as the present one – strong reactions when I question the image of the “wrath of God,” but also strong reactions when I write on God’s call to us to practice radical forgiveness, etc. God loves us in a manner beyond our understanding, and invites us into His Life, that we should love in the same manner. Oddly, many seem to get it backwards – less love from God – and lowered expectations for us. It’s sad.

  67. simmmo Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I heartily agree with you on both counts! People who want to take the language of wrath extremely literally really do reveal their darkened hearts. And yes, those same people are usually the ones who want to limit, or even diminish, God’s love. I have a copy of the ESV Study Bible. The commentary on passage in 1 John where is says “God is love”, the first thing they write is “God is not only love”. I disagree with this interpretation of course because I think love is not just one of many attributes of God, but it is the source of everything he does. That this was the first comment they made on this text is revealing about their picture of God.

    I see a very strong resurgence of so-called “5 point” Calvinism. And I think Calvinism is responsible for much of what is wrong in Protestantism. The liberals of 50-100 years ago reacted against the sort of hateful and intellectually barren stuff fundamentalist Protestants put out. Now people, after realising that liberal Christianity was not the answer, are turning back to fundamentalism – and embracing all the worst elements of Protestant fundamentalism at that. And so “neo-Calvinism” is on the rise. And they are very zealous and outspoken. I feel something needs to be said against these people. I saw your post on “Calvinism as heresy” which I thought was facinating considering that it is the modern day Calvinists who seem to be so eager to excommunicate others (e.g. John Piper flippantly writing off fellow evangelical Rob Bell for daring to question the Western doctrine of hell). Perhaps an idea for a future blog would be to examine Calvinism and its ressurgence today. What do you think of the “5 points”? What do you think of Calvinism. I think people would be facinated to hear an Orthodox perspective on contemporary Calvinism. I certainly would!

  68. Niphon Avatar


    I am curious as to what you make of St. John Climacus’ “The Ladder”, especially the sections on the radical repentance of the monks. I once heard a priest criticize an article I brought to him on the love of God (written actually to a Calvinist) because he thought it ignored the fierce repentance required to save us.

  69. fatherstephen Avatar

    I love “The Ladder.” There are chapters on repentance that have always been recognized as too difficult (spiritually) to be read by most. Repentance is hard for many to understand because they get stuck in a forensic model, and radically misunderstand such repentance. It is the repentant heart that sees God and that God can make Himself known to. Such repentance must be driven be the desire to know God, and not the desire the be “clean” or something of the sort. This latter approach is psychological rather than noetic and will make you crazy. Indeed, most Christians (including Orthodox) frequently substitute a psychological existence for a noetic existence and remained entangled in the ego. For that reason they still judge, and condemn, they compare and contrast, and get trapped in details rather than in God. I’m an expert on the subject because I’m so good at getting stuck and doing the very thing I would not do.

  70. Karen Avatar

    simmo, keep reading here. Also you might like this site:


    What you describe in your comments reflects much the same struggle that led me from Evangelicalism to Orthodoxy (I was never Calvinist, however). If you have not yet read it, you would likely appreciate the essay by Orthodox M.D. Alexander Kalomiros, “The River of Fire.” There are some good comments at this site about that essay as well.

  71. Joanna Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    I wonder if we can have fellowship, and Communion?

    Sometimes life is so strained and people so isolated.. fellowship seems all that is possible until the blessed day of Communion arrives.

    I don’t know, just my musings, as a currently very isolated human!

    God bless.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s not an either/or. “Fellowship” in the modern sense is always possible, if people are able to get together. “Communion” in the proper NT sense is the gift of God.

  73. Joanna Avatar

    Christ is Risen! Thank you, Father. I missed Holy Communion last week and I think I’m really feeling it. God bless!

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