Wycliffe Bible Translators accused of downgrading Jesus ‘for Muslim sensitivities’
Mission is a complex and multi-faceted pursuit, with a plethora of models of praxis. The work of Bible translation is intrinsic to and inseparable from the work, for one must be constantly sensitive to cultural shifts and developments in language, for neither is as conveniently fixed as the unchanging Logos. Some Christians view culture as antagonistic to the gospel, and so adopt a confrontational approach. Others see culture as being essentially ‘on our side’, adopting the anthropological model of contextualisation, looking for ways in which God has revealed himself in culture and building on those. Those who adopt the ‘Christ above culture’ model have a synthetic approach and adopt a mediating third way, keeping culture and faith in creative tension. And those who see Christ as the transformer of culture adopt a critical contextualisation which by no means rejects culture, but is prepared to be critical both of the context and of the way we ourselves perceive the gospel and its meaning. Thus culture itself needs to be addressed by the gospel, not simply the individuals within it, and truth is mediated through cultural spectacles.
Mission relates to every aspect of a culture in its religious, political, economic and social dimensions, and is necessarily mediated through language. From the moment God ‘translated’ himself at the Incarnation, the task of communicating a Hebrew gospel to a Greek audience became a missiological imperative. But what does ben mean in the culture of the huios? How much of an âb is a patêr?
From the moment the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, it became clear that the Word was to be shared in a myriad of diverse words in disparate cultures. There was some regress, of course, when Latin became the lingua franca and the élite asserted an inviolable uniformity of linguistic expression to expound their soteriological certainties. It took the Protestant Reformation to reawaken the need for the ploughboy to be able to read the scriptures once again in his own tongue, since which time the task of Bible translation has been the foundation of Christian mission, and linguistic science has become its most crucial tool.
Wycliffe Bible Translators must surely understand the imperative of witnessing to the truth in a postmodern age of aggressive secularism and relativism. Yet they stand accused of producing an Arabic Bible that uses ‘Lord’ instead of ‘Father’ and ‘Messiah’ instead of ‘Son’. They produced a Turkish translation that uses ‘guardian’ for ‘Father’ and ‘representative’ or ‘proxy’ for ‘Son’. There is also concern that God is rendered ‘Allah’. And in the Bengali Injil Sharif, references to ‘Son’ were rendered ‘Messiah’, and the succinct ‘Son of God’ becomes ‘God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One’. The allegation is that by excising these terms from Scripture, they fail to portray God as who He is: the familial, eternal, loving God the Father, Son and Spirit: ‘The deity of Jesus is obscured, and thus the self-sacrifice of God on our behalf.’
This has led a US group called Biblical Missiology to sponsor a petition for the retention of the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ in the text of all translations. His Grace has some sympathy with the observation of John Harrower, Bishop of Tasmania, who said:
This is an impoverished and incorrect attempt at contextualisation which results in syncretism: the mixing of belief systems/religions that produces a new belief system/religion that is not true to any of the original belief systems/religions. Changing fundamental words of Scripture such as "Father" and "Son" will also fuel the Muslim claim that the Bible is corrupted, full of errors and has been abrogated by the Qur'an and example of Muhammad. For the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, please stop this malpractice.The observation that ‘tampering’ with Scripture merely reinforces the chronic Islamic assertion and belief that the Bible is corrupted is moot. But it must be observed that it is also a strength of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which has ever been syncretic. Christians do not believe (or most of them, at any rate) that God miraculously imparted an immutable book in an eternal language with universal meaning through an infallible agent at a single point in history: the Bible is God’s revealed truth mediated throughout millennia of history by men and women of faith, who were manifestly flawed, confined by culture and bound in time. We may disagree with each other as we struggle to distinguish which are God’s words to all peoples for all time from those which are aimed at a specific people in a particular time. But we can only engage in the process as we open our eyes to higher criticism and historical scholarship; as we examine a particular political and societal context and discern the Sitz im Leben of Scripture.
His Grace is (though he says it himself) really quite knowledgeable on such matters, and learned in Hebrew and Greek. He is also acutely aware that many Wycliffe workers operate in missiologically 'challenging' parts of the world. It is very easy for us to engage in lively academic armchair debate on contentious matters of translation while, for Wycliffe missionaries, the task is not only a matter of the eternal lives of those who are being saved, but also the reality of torture and death should their work be revealed and their confession made public. There is a long-standing convention in the missionary world that organisations do not give out the names or locations of those working in sensitive areas. All missionary organisations have agreed to this and it has been respected, until now. Some websites critical of Wycliffe and some of the emails in circulation make it possible to identify some of the people, missionaries and local believers who are in very sensitive situations. This is utterly irresponsible: indeed, it is an assault upon the work of God.
There is absolutely no question of Wycliffe Bible Translators being engaged in some subversive activity to undermine the Christian faith in order to make Scripture somehow more palatable to Muslims. All Wycliffe workers are required to sign an orthodox confession of faith; they believe unequivocally that the Son is begotten of the Father and conceived by the Spirit. One of the problems (if not the principal one) is that the sound-bite ‘Wycliffe have removed the Son of God from the Bible’ is a much easier message to impart than a nuanced discussion about the nature of the Trinity, the vagaries of language and the imprecision of meaning. There are complex and legitimate questions to be asked about the way in which terms such as the ‘Son of God’ are translated in some contexts. These cannot easily be discussed on febrile blogs or in 140-character tweets. And those who have pledged to withhold their tithes as a result are acting like children.
Wycliffe have given a public assurance that they would ever be involved in a translation which does not translate the terms ‘Son’ or ‘Father’ or ‘Son of God’. To say that they are removing them from the Bible is, they say, simply not true. However, translating the original Greek into some languages can devalue the Trinitarian relationship by reducing it to purely physical conception. This limitation is a linguistic reality (not dissimilar from the poverty of the English language when we translate ‘love’, for which the Greeks had four distinctly different words). Because of this, in some cases, translators seek to spell out the meaning of the term, rather than render it word-for-word, in order to convey the biblical concept more clearly. In cases where this is done, it is invariably with input from both local Christians and inculturated translation consultants and only after a rigorous process of checking has made sure that the translation carries the full force of the biblical message. It is also normal practice that direct translations of (say) ‘Son of God’ are included as footnotes for clarity.
Consider, for example, a culture in which to be a father involved the routine rape (by Western definition) of one’s young daughters; one in which to be a 12-year-old son involved being pimped out (by Western definition) to older men for ‘mentoring’. These ‘coming of age’ rites of passage are traumatising for children (by Western definition), though by no means aberrational: they are culturally normative, socially engrained, and inseparable from that culture’s understanding of hierarchy, patriarchy, order and justice. The Christian missionary is presented with a choice: either to devote decades if not centuries attempting to transform the culture in order that it might be receptive to what the Bible says about fatherhood and sonship, by diligently and patiently labouring incarnationally in the process of re-education while souls are being lost. Or he/she can find ways of communicating the essence of God the Father which does not present the stumbling block of the Father being an oppressive rapist; and ways of talking about God the Son which detaches the Son from the normative submissive penetrative sexual act. This might mean that ‘Father’, for that culture, is translated (say) ‘Parent of Nurture’, and ‘Son’ is rendered (say) ‘Child of Purity’, where ‘purity’ is culturally understood as being physically inviolate. These are not perfect: they are not remote equivalences: they are the initial thoughts and crude drafts of possible terms by which ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ in the biblical doctrine of the Trinity might be detached from the physical act of sex in and for this culture.
Translation is an art, not a science. There are those, of course, who will demand that we stick with the terms ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ in all languages, and insist on translating the Bible ‘as it is’, and work out our doctrine afterwards, rather than imposing translations that suit our doctrines. There are others who favour a more ‘artistic’ dynamic equivalence. There is an ongoing debate about this question and there are legitimate arguments on both sides. Inevitably, some people will be unhappy with the approach taken in and with some languages, but this should not be used to undermine one of the world’s greatest works of mission – to translate the Bible for every tribe and tongue on the planet, and they are on target to achieve this part of the Great Commission by 2025. All of Wycliffe’s translations are checked according to a set of standards agreed internationally by all Bible agencies. They would never publish a translation which systematically removed Jesus’ relationship to the Father and they certainly would not make translation choices in order to mitigate the offence of the Gospel of Christ. When many risk their lives in some hostile societies, the allegation of diluting or dumbing down Scripture is absurd.
The notion that translation can be effected by internet petition (by people many of whom will have very little understanding of the host culture situation) seems like the very worst kind of Western Christian arrogance. We may know what ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ mean in English, but it does not follow that they must have the same semantic range in another language. Who but the Greek and the scholar of Greek can know what is meant by huios? Who but the indigenous and the participant observer can begin to grapple with the difference and distinction between biological and social familial terms?
To be a father in English may be understood both biologically (imparting DNA) and socially (in nurture). In some cultures, it may refer only to the biological. We may use the term ‘step father’ to denote a non-biological father, but as our own society has developed, the ‘step’ is increasingly discarded. We may similarly observe two categories of son. When it comes to New Testament Greek, huios is translated ‘son’ in English; the Old Testament ben is similarly rendered. Neither term carries an automatic assumption of biological procreation: indeed, they are frequently used of sonship in the social sense, as is the English ‘son’. But what of languages which cannot distinguish the DNA-begat son from the adoptive-social son? This is not as straightforward as ‘dynamic’ versus ‘literal’: the important thing to grasp is that the scriptures in their original languages do not contain the words 'Father' and 'Son': they have huios and
And so exegesis is necessary to determine meaning: exegetes generally work from the Hebrew and Greek, and are likely to be a speaker of the language into which the Bible is being translated. There is drafting and wide consultation with members of the local community to discover if phrases or expressions capture the sense of Scripture. This is rigorous and painstaking, and is followed by revision and further revision. Translators have to learn humility as their scholarship and professionalism are constantly criticised and not infrequently amended or even completely discarded. There is then a process of testing: the translators may believe they have done a fine job, but only by testing in the receptor community can this be established. When the translation has been tested it is checked and re-checked by scholars and consultants. These obviously have a deep knowledge of the biblical texts and the local cultural context. Every verse is examined to ensure that it is an accurate reflection of the original text for the receptor culture.
While debate and discussion on such a process are to be welcome, it is only fruitful when all parties are listening, learning and interacting. When it comes to the demands of expressing the mysteries of inter-Trinitarian relationships in a host culture, honest debate and questioning are both inevitable and (hopefully) helpful. However, the idea that a few thousand signatures on a petition should short-circuit the whole process of cultural engagement and careful reflection by people who are giving their lives to reach a given community with the gospel seems extraordinary. This is the X-Factorisation of Bible translation; argumentum ad populum.
We may be justifiably concerned that the Son in one translation is apparently not ‘begotten’. We may be even more concerned that this is the approach taken with every reference to the Son, apparently ignoring a spectrum of nuanced terms. Perhaps Muslim and Jewish converts in particular might be acutely sensitive to this, since the simultaneous Fatherhood and Sonship of God must represent one of their most significant revelations. Certainly, most Muslims balk at the Bible's familial language, because the Qur'an teaches that God could not have a son. And so they are likely to be as sincerely fervent and absolute in their Sonship doctrine as ex-smokers tend to be in the purity of their lungs. But if the term ‘Son of God’ causes instant repudiation and proves an insurmountable hurdle to dialogue and relationship, why not start with ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ in order to enlighten incrementally? Really, a work of mission which begins by telling the Muslim that Mohammed was a paedophile (by Western definition) isn’t going to get very far.
Which may lead some (if not a very great many) missionaries to the conclusion that a work of love which begins with those scriptures which give the impression of Jesus having been God’s procreated Son is unhelpful, and indeed likely to prove unfruitful if the inference in the receptor culture is of a blasphemous assertion that God impregnated Mary. And yet this Son, according to the Apostles’ Creed, was ‘conceived of the Holy Spirit’. But in Scripture this ‘conceived’ is not gennaō but sullambanō, and there are very subtle but important differences: while the former is the more usual term for biological begetting, the latter, while it may certainly admit that interpretation, also extends to embracing the possibility of the metaphorical. Suddenly, the ontology of conception, creation, procreation and begetting become neo-platonic theo-philosophical complexities, all bound up in the fourth-century religio-political difficulties caused by an irritant by the name of Arius, while the missionary in the field has to be concerned with communicating a gospel which may be received with the mind of a child. It is a tortuous dichotomy: mission is a work of profound depths with some joyous ecstasies. But let no-one dogmatically assert that communicating the Word is as simple as propagating and imposing the meaning of words.