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1. Question

In Phil 2:12, How should "Work" be translated, and why is "Out" injected?

Setting aside doctrinal presuppositions of faith/work/eternal salvation --

Phil 2:12, NASB - 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work [out], (κατεργάζεσθε) your [own], (τὴν ἑαυτῶν) salvation, (σωτηρίαν) with fear and trembling;

Syntactically, why isn't the passage translated as:

"Accordingly, Work - [emphasizing the importance of "Work"] with fear and trembling of your own salvation."

Or alternatively: "With fear and trembling of your own salvation, [where fear and trembling of your own salvation takes emphasis]--Work!


2. Why is "Out" Injected?

"Work Out", is idiomatic in English, potentially implying:

  1. "Figuring Out", a process of reasoning, ".. Figure out your own salvation ..."
  2. "To resolve a difference", such as actions taken to resolve a conflict.

Injecting "Out" seems to add a bit of ambiguity in the already "cloudy" issue of "faith-only/salvation" doctrines.


3. A Traditional Understanding:

Modern translations / teachings suggest:

With fear and trembling, work out - with fear/humility - figure out ... your own salvation - What salvation means to you, and don't worry about the validity of the salvation of others ...

This seems to imply a subjective pursuit.

NOTE: This word/root, work, (εργ) is used a significant 13 times-ish -in this book. It always seems to denote "actual work, actions" - but never "figuring out". Also, there doesn't seem to be a sense of subjectivity.

4. Is this related to word order?

No Ambiguity in Romans 16:4, and Phil. 2:21, etc.

... After their own interests, they seek

Phil 2:21, NASB - 21 For they all seek after their own interests, (τὰ ἑαυτῶν ζητοῦσιν), not those of Christ Jesus.

Perhaps, that could be interpreted as "they sought [out] their own interests ..: (but the pragmatic meaning doesn't change, and "out" isn't necessary.)

...Their own necks, they laid down:

Romans 16:4, NASB - who for my life risked their own necks, (τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον ὑπέθηκαν), to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles;


4. Restatement:

So syntactically, does the writer want to stir up a sense of "urgency" about "the work", stirring up a sense of fear regarding the "fragility of salvation"?

Or perhaps, is there really a sense that "salvation" is a subjective truth, that one should be fearful of meddling in the "salvation" of others - and that it is necessary to figure out, and worry about, one's own salvation?

Or, something else?

  • @e.s.kohen The point of the question seems to be about the "figuring out" interpretation, which isn't really present in the NASB... – curiousdannii Jun 23 '15 at 2:53
  • Isn't this subjecive? – Jay Jul 7 '15 at 4:59
  • @e.s.kohen This is not clear from the question title. The question title just asks for a generic "how should this be translated". – Jay Jul 8 '15 at 7:39
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OP: Why is "Out" Injected? Many modern doctrines/translations inject "Out" into this passage, "Work Out", which implies "figuring out", implying a process of reasoning, ".. Figure out your own salvation ...”

The word “out” is “injected” because:

  1. κατεργάζομαι does not simply mean “work”.
  2. The word “work” in English is usually intransitive.1 I briefly looked through the 23 instances of κατεργάζομαι in the GNT (21 of which are within the [traditional] Pauline corpus), and from what I can tell it always takes an object.

Whether “work out” an appropriate alternative to “work” (obviously) depends on what this idiomatic English means and whether it corresponds with the intention of the Greek.

Gordon Fee, in his Philippians commentary summarizes the meaning of κατεργάζομαι:2

Its basic sense it “to accomplish” something, not in the sense of “fulfillment,” but of “carrying out” a matter.

As for the usage of English idiom “work out”, I think this probably falls into the usage:

To solve or resolve something by work or effort

I disagree with your statement that “work out” needs to imply “figuring out”. Certainly that is one possible usage, but the object in that case is a riddle, or a puzzle, or an answer. When the object does not fall into that category, a different idiomatic usage should be identified.

The implication of this verb/object pair has been discussed in another Q&A, but since it has direct bearing on the meaning we are attempting to translate, a note about how this clause is being used:2

The context makes it clear that this is not a soteriological text per se, dealing with “people getting saved” [...] Rather it is an ethical text, dealing with “how saved people live out their salvation” [...] At issue is “obedience,” pure and simple, which in this case is defined as their “working or carrying out in their corporate life the salvation that God has graciously given them.”

 

OP: What Should the Actual Reading Be?

I think “work out your own salvation” is a good rendering. In accordance with Fee’s commentary, “carry out your own salvation” may be a reasonable alternative. The latter is somewhat odd English, but I agree that the former may be ambiguous if taken out of context.

OP: The Greek word "work" is used throughout this context, and seems to denote "actual work, actions”.

I don’t know what you mean about the first part, but I agree that “actual work, actions” is a part of κατεργάζομαι here, and I think it is reasonably conveyed by “work out.”

The addendum about other passages using a similar Greek construction I understand to be a reflection of your concerns about word order differences between Greek and English that were expressed in a previous iteration of the question.3 These examples do involve the same shift in word order between Greek and English as Phil 2:12. I’m not sure why they were brought up as a concern, but if it’s helpful to see how this works elsewhere:4

  • Phil 2:21: οἱ πάντες γὰρ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ζητοῦσιν

    Actually a somewhat different construction because ἑαυτῶν is being used substantially, but the article τὰ is accusative and marks the phrase τὰ ἑαυτῶν as accusative in the syntax of the sentence. Similar to 2:12, the word order is adjusted in English to place the object after the verb: “They seek their own [interests].”

  • Romans 16:4: τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον ὑπέθηκαν

    Indeed similar to Phil 2:12. Again, τὸν ἑαυτῶν τράχηλον is an accusative phrase, requiring the English to move the object after the verb, “they risked their own necks.


1. There are several ways to use it transitively, but they have very specific meanings: “She worked him too hard” or “He worked the land”. On the other hand “working” one’s salvation just doesn’t make a lot of sense in colloquial English.

2. Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 234-235.

3. OK, so English does allow a little bit of flexibility on this. :-)

4. Since no colors are available, I’m using italics for the object and bold for the verb to illustrate the point.

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  • Thank you for the feedback; I also thought Fee's explanation was helpful. In the context of the second quote, I think "work out" and "carry out" probably do go hand in hand, but I have added the alternative as you recommended. (Although I see where you're coming from, my sense is that the "figure out " sense of "work out" is really limited to its usage with an object like "puzzle", "riddle", "answer", or "how....".) – Susan Jun 25 '15 at 0:28
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κατεργάζεσθε carries a semantic range of: to achieve, to acquire, to complete, to conquer, and to work toward a goal (Liddell and Scott lexicon). But context is vital in choosing which part of the semantic range to use. Paul goes on after this verse to explain what is clearly striving to live a holy life, not striving for salvation. That is, in context Paul seems to be saying that people who are saved should act accordingly, which is in line with the overarching teaching of the "fruit of the Spirit", where fruit is the outward result of having been born again.

What it cannot mean, either by semantic range of κατεργάζεσθε or context, is that people have to figure out how to be saved. The word does not include the meaning of solving a problem or puzzle, and the context explicitly states that it is the power of God rather than people.

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  • Tothe, You make a claim that context clarifies something here, but could you provide an example? For example, why do you think this passage is referring to "God's work", rather than a command for people to "work"? I am sorry, but I forgot to be explicit about the word order part, do you have any insight for this? – elika kohen Jun 23 '15 at 1:54
  • Phil. 2:13 begins, "For it is God who is empowering you". The "for" refers back to vs. 12, and then vs. 15 says, "so that you will become blameless and un-compromised children of God, flawless in the middle of a crooked and perverted generation". Thus we have: work out your salvation by God's power, so that you will become blameless. The word order does not change anything, as Greek is not dependent upon that but upon inflection. We know which words go together by their affixes. – user9863 Jun 23 '15 at 2:02
  • I hope it's okay for me to link to a simple interlinear I put online. Go to link and choose the reference, and you can hover over each word to see its parsing and brief semantic range. – user9863 Jun 23 '15 at 2:11
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The adverb 'out' is required by the context of the text in question. Philippians 2:12 itself does not speak of working for our salvation which have the sense of saving ourselves from what Christ had saved us from. Rather, it speaks of showing or expressing our salvation by obedience.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,

13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13 (ESV)

Furthermore, the verb phrase 'work out' (v.12) coheres with the verbs phrase 'work in' (v. 13) which shows that God and man work together (synergistically) with different works having one purpose.In the former, the believer works out or showing salvation by continued obedience and the latter, God working from within the believer, enabling him/her both to will (desire) and to work (out his/her salvation v. 12).This is the sense which James 2:18 explicitly conveys ("I will show you my faith by my works").

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,

13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13 (ESV)

Conclusion:

The adverb 'out' is deliberately supplied in the English translation of κατεργάζεσθε to form the verb phrase 'work out' to clearly expresses the Greek that is otherwise ambiguous in English verbatim.

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  • Radz - I forgot to ask ... You seem to argue that "Work out" implies that one should "Work Outward" what is being "Worked Inward"--A juxtaposition used to illustrate the direction of the "work"--and who is responsible for what. This seems reasonable. However -- (Syntactically), is this "juxtaposition" between "outward/inward efforts" seen in other contexts which lead readers to inject "outward"? My hope is to cite /another/ textual basis to support this argument--without relying on any traditional doctrines. – elika kohen Oct 20 '15 at 4:11
  • @elikakohen, for God it is who is working in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13 YLT) for which also I labour, striving according to his working that is working in me in power (Colossians 1:29 YLT). – Radz Matthew C. Brown Oct 22 '15 at 8:45

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