Smoke, Mirrors, and Misdirection in Bible Translation

rabbit in the hatIncreasingly ‘Allah’ is being used as a word for ‘God’ in non-Semitic language bible translations produced by organizations like Wycliffe, Frontiers, and others and this has raised concerns with the local churches where these translations are being introduced, missionaries who work with these churches, and other bible translators who are concerned about the legitimacy of these new translations. These new Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) are being produced in languages like Amharic, Russian, Persian, etc… that have used other words for God for centuries. In these languages, the use of ‘Allah’ as a word for ‘God’ is a foreign concept ; in these cultures they understand ‘Allah’ much as we do in English i.e. as a name of the Islamic God. In many of these cultures the Christian community has had a very long history of bible translation in which the native word for ‘God’ in their language has been used for centuries. In these cultures, the introduction of a bible that replaces the word ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ is as offensive as it would be if the bibles we read in English made such a replacement. For more information on the use of ‘Allah’ as a name for ‘God’ please read this article.

 

Here is the Story told

Frequently missionaries who support the use of ‘Allah’ in non-Semitic languages will point to the Frontiers Turkish translation as an example of a non-Semitic language that legitimately uses the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’. And they are right, Turkish is one of the unique cases where ‘Allah’ can legitimately be used in a non-Semitic bible translation. In the Missions Perspective coarse I took, the session that addressed the use of ‘Allah’ in Christian missions and bible translation presented such an argument. The story we were told in class went something like this:

Well meaning, but misguided, missionaries insisted that the Turkish word ‘Tanri’ be used in bible translations despite the fact that ‘Allah’ was the word that the culture understood as the legitimate word for ‘God.’ These misguided missionaries did not understood is that the word ‘Tanri’ was the word used by the Turkish people to describe a ‘little god’ and not the ‘Supreme God’ and their mistake in choosing the wrong word caused the bible to be misunderstood and largely rejected by the Turkish people. Frontiers came to the rescue with a new bible translation resolved this problem by introducing the word ‘Allah’ as a translation for the word ‘God’ allowing the non-Christian Turkish people to understand the message of the bible for the first time. Unfortunately the existing Christian church in Turkey, who no longer understood how ‘Tanri’ was understood by the larger culture, was angered by this new translation and its use of the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God’ and has been fighting against using the very terminology that allows the larger culture to finally be able to understand the message God intended.

The story presented in my Missions Perspective class is a great story and one that is often repeated but, unfortunately, it is mostly smoke, mirrors, and misdirection intended to deceive. Prior to taking the Missions Perspectives course I had had a number of discussions with bible translators about the Frontiers Turkish bible translation and because of those discussions I had  taken a little time to study the history of Turkish bible translation. Because of this background I knew that the dispute in Turkey in regards to the new Turkish bible produced by Frontiers has never been about the use of ‘Allah’ as the word for ‘God.’ What troubled the Turkish church were the terms used for familial language i.e. calling Jesus the “representative of God” instead of the “Son of God” and calling God “Guardian” rather than “Father.” In Turkish ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are truly considered synonymous word for ‘God.’ Within the Christian church today, older bibles use ‘Allah’ and newer bibles, because of the language reforms, use ‘Tanri’ and the use of ‘Allah’ has never been a significant issue within the Turkish church. The dispute has been entirely about the translation of familial language which until the introduction of the Frontiers version, has been translated consistently in every bible translation including the original Muslim produced translations from the 17th and 18th century. Here is the responses to the Frontiers Translation from the Turkish alliance of Protestant Churches and  the response from Thomas Cosmades (One of the most respected scholars in Turkey and translator of a Turkish NT). Note that in neither letter is the use of Allah in Turkish in dispute.

 

Here is what really happened
Because Turkish (which was originally written in the Arabic Script) was very heavily influenced by Arabic and Islamic culture, the Turkish language presents an unusual case where a non-Semitic language has truly adopted ‘allah’ as a generic word for ‘god.’ The first Turkish translations of the bible were produced by Muslims in the 17th century and were produced for Muslim audiences; these translations used the word ‘Allah’ for ‘God.’ Christians began using these translations centuries ago and continued to use them until new terminology was adopted as a result of the Turkish language reforms of the 1920’s and 1930’s. These language reforms were not driven by Christian missionaries but by the predominantly Muslim Turkish Government. In the late 1920’s Mustafa Kemal, a secular Turkish president, began a campaign of language reforms that replaced the Arabic Script with the current Latin Script and attempted to create a pure Turkish language free from its Arabic influences. As part of this language reform he insisted that many Arabic words be purged from the Turkish language and that Turkish words be used in their place. One of the most controversial mandates was his insistence that the Turkish word ‘Tranri’ be used by Turks as the name for a divine being in every religious context (even Muslims were required to make this change). The adoption of ‘Tanri’ in Christian bible translations was the result of these language reforms and not a result of a movement within the church initiated by well meaning but misguided missionaries as is claimed by some MIT proponents. The following is a quote from a Time Magazine article written Feb 20, 1933 that speaks about this issue. “A hard father to his people, Mustafa Kemal told his Turks last December that they must forget God in the Arabic language (Allah), learn Him in Turkish (Tanri). Admitting the delicacy of renaming a 1300-year-old god, Kemal gave the muezzins a time allowance to learn the Koran in Turkish. Last week in pious Brusa, the “green* city,” a muezzin halloed “Tanri Ulndur” from one of the minarets whence Brusans had heard “Allah Akbar” since the 14th Century.”

The story told about the Frontiers Turkish translation has become part of missionary folklore and is one of the many fictitious that are being repeated by far too many missionaries. Some repeat these stories because they too have been deceived but, sadly, some repeat these stories with the intent to deceive both their supporters and their fellow missionaries.

Turkey’s government is concerned about deceptive practices of some western missionaries

counterfeit-us-dollarFor several decades some missionaries[i] from organizations like Frontiers, Wycliffe, SIL, YWAM, and others have adopted a form of contextualization known as C-5 contextualization (or “Insider Movements”). These missionaries believe that followers of Christ should remain in the religion of their birth i.e. a Muslim should remain a Muslim, a Hindu should remain a Hindu, etc… Many of these missionaries suggest that asking someone to convert to Christianity is wrong. In Muslim contexts, “C-5 believers” frequently hold views about Christ that mirror the beliefs of the general Muslim population. They may continue to identify themselves as Muslims, continue to affirm Mohammad as God’s prophet, continue to affirm the Qu’ran as God’s word, and reject a belief in the divinity of Christ. Western missionary organizations promoting C-5 contextualization have produced new translations of the bible that harmonize the place and people names with those used and the Qu’ran and replace terms like Father, Son, Baptism, etc.. with alternative language that Muslim audiences find “less offensive.”

For more than a decade the Turkish church has expressed its serious concerns about the methods used and translations produced by these western missionaries. In 2007, Thomas Cosmades[ii] (one of the leading biblical scholars and translators in Turkey), in an open letter, expressed his concerns about a translation being produced by Frontiers. When those concerns were ignored, the Alliance of Protestant Churches wrote a warning letter to the churches in regards to the later published “Muslim friendly” translation.

Today, the pleas of the Turkish church remain unheeded and now leaders (mostly Muslim) in the Turkish government have taken notice of these practices and issued a warning about these missionaries, their practices, and their bible translations. The following is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Turkish news yesterday (January 19, 2014).

TURKEY’S CiA (MIT) warns government (Prime Minister and Ministry of Religious Affairs) about foreign Christian undercover missionaries posing as Muslims operating under a branch named C-5 in a mission agency called Frontiers. Also mentioned by name are Jeff Carvey in Bursa and Bruce Privatsky in Tekirdag. The article also mentions the attempts of creating a Muslim-friendly Bible translation to entice Muslims. ​

The complete article (in Turkish) can be found here.

The news article (in English) is now available here

C-5 contextualization and its accompanying translations are hindering the evangelistic work of our brothers and sisters in Christ in many parts of the world because it is angering the Muslims they are trying to reach; Muslims who believe Christians are trying to deceive them. When Muslims react in anger to the deceptive methods that our western missionaries have employed, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who live among them that suffer. Please listen to the pleas of our brothers and sisters in Christ and make sure the money you give to missionaries is not being used to promote the deceptive practices of C-5 contextualization, practices that hinder the Gospel and endanger our brothers and sisters in Christ. More information on this issue can be found on the Biblical Missiology website.

 


[i] While the leadership of these organizations remains supportive of these methods, many of their own missionaries reject these new methodologies and are very concerned about this new direction in missiology.

[ii] Thomas Cosmades went to be with the Lord in September 2010.

Woodberry endorses “Conversional Protestantism”

uturnThose supporting “Insider Movements,” like Dudley Woodberry, have been telling us for decades that “conversional protestantism” was ineffective, unwise, and even damaging to the cultures where we have sent our missionaries. They argue that we should not be converting people to Christianity but rather we should be helping them to come into the kingdom of God through their own religious contexts. They say that Muslims should remain Muslims, Hindus should remain Hindus, etc…. So, it was surprising to read an article by John Piper about a research paper published by Woodberry that shows that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  However, before you get your hopes up believing that a change of heart may have taken place, realize that it is Robert Woodberry, and not Dudley Woodberry, who did the research. I truly hope the many Christian missionaries who have forgotten the Great Commission and have endorsed leaving people in the bondage of false religious systems will take the time to read Robert Woodberry’s research because it demonstrates the truly transformative power that accompanies genuine faith in Christ.

Piper’s summery of this research can be found here.

Robert Woodberry’s research paper can be found here.