Review: One Bible, Many Versions

onebiblemanyversionsMany of issues addressed in Dave Brunn’s new book are things that I wish every Christian knew about bible translation and at points I found myself almost cheering for Brunn as he began his explanation of the bible translation process. He does a wonderful job explaining many of the challenges bible translators face and masterfully demonstrates how similar answers to those challenges have often been chosen by translators who have embraced very different translation philosophies. Before reading Brunn’s book, I had already read several reviews which admittedly had shaped my expectations and so I was surprised to find that I was initially agreeing with him far more than I had anticipated. However, as I continued to read, I soon realized that my original expectations were not as far off as I had thought. While Brunn explores aspects of bible translation that I wish every Christian understood, too often he stops short in his explanations and leaves the reader with an impression that is not entirely accurate. I would like to explore some of the places were I believe Brunn’s explanation falls short.

 

The meaning or words

Brunn does an excellent job explaining how a single word in the biblical languages can have many different meanings in English, he explains how the meaning of words in different languages are almost never identical and how words used in translation seldom perfectly convey the meaning of the original language. One of the myths held by many Christians is that the bible they use is a  “word for word” translation and Brunn does an excellent job illustrating why a true “word for word” translation would be impossible to produce. Unfortunately, Brunn also significantly overstates the ambiguities that bible translators face when determining the meaning of a given Hebrew or Greek word. One of the ways in which these ambiguities are amplified in his book results from his failure to explain the difference between lexical meaning (the meaning of a word as defined in the dictionary) and actual meaning (the meaning of a word in real a sentence). In every language, grammar, context, and form almost always limit the meaning of a word to a small subset of the possible meanings found in the dictionary. For example, if we look at the lexical meaning of the English word “saw” we find multiple meanings.

saw – noun, a tool used for cutting; noun, a proverb; verb, to cut; verb (past tense of) to see; verb, to move back and forth.

But if I were to use this word in the following sentence:

“I saw a man using a saw to saw wood.”

I would find that each instance of the word “saw” in this sentence is limited to exactly one meaning. Grammar and context prevent any misunderstandings about what meaning was intended in each of the three specific instances where this word is used. While the lexical meaning of the word “saw” has at least five different possible meanings, the actual meaning of each instance of “saw” in this sentence has exactly one possible meaning. While context and grammar do not always eliminate all but one choice, as they did in this example, a word’s actual meaning is almost always limited to a small subset of its lexical meaning.

 

The limits of dynamic equivalency

After demonstrating why “word for word” translations are impossible, Brunn does a good job of showing why every translator must adopt a “meaning for meaning” methodology to some extent. However, he fails to adequately explain the boundaries that should constrain the translator. One of the stated translation goals of many English translations has been to leave interpretation, as much as possible, in the hands of the reader. By striving to interpret as little as possible, the translator avoids introducing his own sectarian biases into the text. Brunn rightly points out that in some circumstances this goal is truly unattainable (which is something every translators understands) but he then concludes, wrongly in my opinion, that if it can be shown that an interpretive choice must be made for the reader in any circumstance then it is acceptable to do so in every circumstance. Rather than cautioning the translator to avoid introducing their own interpretations into the text, he opens the door wide open for this practice with very little being said about practical boundaries. While I am sure that, in practice, Brunn recognizes that there are boundaries that should not be crossed, he does a very poor job communicating those boundaries in his book. To illustrate why it is important for a translator to avoid overly interpretive translations, I offer the following “translations” of Hebrews 6:4-6. The first interpreted according to Reformed theology and the second interpreted according to Arminian theology.

The Reformed version

It is impossible for those who appeared to have once been enlightened, who have pretended to taste the heavenly gift, who have fooled us into believing that they have shared in the Holy Spirit, who may even have themselves thought they had tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)

The Arminian version

It is difficult for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who are now falling away, to be brought back to repentance. While they continue to rebel, they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)

While these “translations” might legitimately reflect the interpretations offered in commentaries, neither of these “translations” belongs in any bible. Both of these translations are overly interpretive and resolve theological debates that are not resolved in the text itself. While either of these interpretations might reflect the meaning of the text as it is understood by the translator, offering either of these translations in a version of the bible would be crossing lines that should offend us all; it should offend us even if we happen to agree with the interpretation offered.

 

Philosophical differences

Brunn makes almost no mention of the philosophical differences related to understanding language itself that have shaped the different translation theories he explores. While it is true, as Brunn aptly demonstrates, that people who hold very different philosophies about language can come to the same conclusions about the meaning of a particular text, understanding those philosophical differences helps one understand why they frequently come to very different conclusions about meaning. At the heart of this difference are questions about the beginning of language itself i.e. did language originate with God and are there common ideas expressed through language that transcend culture or did language originate with man and is every idea constrained by the experiences of the culture and/or individual? Eugene Nida, considered the father of the Dynamic Equivalent translation theory holds strongly to the latter position. According to Nida, words do not have any inherent meaning, they are simply symbols used to communicate ideas and no two speakers associate the exact same ideas with the same symbols. Nida says that he does “not believe in truth apart from experience and cultural experience.” Here is an excerpt from Nida’s lecture where he attempts to explain the process of communication to his students.

“Now he [i.e. the source, or initiator of communication] has to, in order to express that, to communicate it, to select from his own background, mind you, he selects from his background, those particular symbols which to him best represent that experience and he then puts them together in the way in which he has learned to put them together.  Now this is a very important point because his use of symbols depends entirely upon his experience and background with those symbols.  No two people ever have the same background; therefore, no two people ever mean exactly the same by the same symbols!  This is discouraging for communication, isn’t it?  Nevertheless, this is really the way it operates and unless we’re aware of this fact we can get tied up in all kinds of misunderstandings.”, lecture that Nida gave in 1962.

And in a lecture at Asbury Theological Seminary in 1994, Nida suggests that there are no absolute truths that can be determined from Scripture. His position is typical of many evangelical postmodern theologians who accept the existence of an absolute truth but reject the idea that anyone other than God can know anything at all about that truth.The assumption is that if one does not have an infinitely perfect understanding of truth then they cannot have any assurance that anything they believe is true and because none of us can have infinite and perfect knowledge, we are all left without any hope of being able to determine truth at all. While Nida, in theory, affirms the existence of an absolute truth, in practice he leaves us with nothing more than theological and moral relativism. Here is an excerpt from his lecture at Asbury.

Yeah, but if you, you cannot define God how can you then have an absolute?  Only God himself is absolute.  I’ve had people say to me, “God couldn’t have done that because it’s contrary to Scripture” meaning, contrary to their interpretation of the Scriptures.  And God is the only absolute.  And once we try to get an absolute out of a variety of cultures we’re just kidding ourselves because all of those are contained within culture and therefore, every one of them is limited.  And if you’re going to put a bunch of limited things together you’re not going to come out with something that is unlimited – an absolute.  So, add up as many as you like.  But it’s not going to be completely supracultural.

I believe it is important to understand the philosophical assumptions held by the leading proponents of this translation theory and to understand how those assumptions have affected the underlying tenets of the theory itself. By recognizing the underlying philosophical assumptions, we can better understand why there are frequently very different choices made in translations produced by those who have adopted these principles compared to those who have not.The practical rejection of absolute truth combined with a belief that words are merely “symbols” that are associated with ideas only in the mind of the speaker/author has opened the door to translation practices that have begun to challenge Christian orthodoxy itself. The recent Turkish translation which translates “Father” as guardian and “Son of God” as “God’s representative” or the Malay translation that translates “Yahweh” as “Allah” are good examples of how far astray a translation can go when we accept the philosophical propositions that are foundational to the Dynamic Equivalent theory of translation. To be clear, I am not suggesting that everything encompassed in Dynamic Equivalent theory is itself wrong or that every translator who has adopted Dynamic Equivalent translation practices has accepted these underlying philosophical assumptions. Much of what is called Dynamic Equivalency today has been a part of translation for as long as their has been translation and, as Brunn points out, it would be impossible to translate without accepting the validity of some of these ideas. Unfortunately, he does not address any of the underlying philosophical questions that are wrapped up inside the modern theory of Dynamic Equivalency and that is where the biggest disagreements exist.

 

Are all versions equal?

One of the areas where Brunn and I most strongly agree is in regards to the wealth that English speakers posses because we have been so richly blessed by having access to so many good English bible translations. One of the questions I am frequently asked is “Do you need to know Hebrew and Greek in order to understand Scripture?” and my answer is always, absolutely not! Because there is such a wealth of bible translations available in English, English speakers can gain valuable insights into the text just by comparing a number of good English translations. Unfortunately, this is also where I think Brunn and I disagree most. Brunn leaves the impression that each translation is an equally valid representation of the original text and that is a proposition I do not accept. While I agree with Brunn that there is no such thing as a perfect translation and that each translation has its strengths and weaknesses. I also recognize that the original authors of Scripture intended to communicate specific meanings in the words they chose and a translation that communicates that intended meaning more accurately is better than one that does not. When two translations communicate very different meanings for the same text, at least one has miscommunicated the meaning intended by the author. By using multiple English translations, an English reader can more easily identify texts that presented challenges to the translators but this does not mean that an English reader should accept every meaning found in each bible translation as valid, rather these differences should indicate areas where more study is needed when seeking to understand the biblical text. When we compare multiple bible translations, we usually find that there is general agreement about the meaning of the text. When one version diverges from that general agreement far more frequently than do others, it should be treated with much more caution. If one version presents a very different meaning for a given passage in Scripture, then the translators of that version should be able to articulate a very strong objective argument that explains why so many other translators have misunderstood the text that they alone have understood. In the absence of that explanation, it is typically best to assume that the meaning conveyed by the majority of translations is the meaning the author intended.

One additional area where English speakers are truly blessed comes from the accountability translators face because there are so many English speakers that read the biblical languages. If the translator of an English version of the bible veers to far from the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts, there will many people who understand these languages that will begin to raise the alarm. Unfortunately, people groups that have only one translation of the bible also seldom have this kind of accountability. There are seldom any text books available in these languages for students wishing to learn the biblical languages and even the translators themselves seldom have sufficient training in the biblical languages that would enable them to work directly from the original texts. Often the barriers preventing the kind of accountability we have for our English translations are almost insurmountable. When the translators of bibles intended for these remote people groups accept the underlying tenets of Dynamic Equivalent translation theories (as most have been taught to do) it sets up the perfect storm for potential abuses in translation with almost no accountability when a translator goes astray. Frightening translation choices, that would have raised alarms long ago if any English translator had ever attempted them, have survived almost completely undetected for many years in some languages. When comparing translation theories, I believe it is helpful to understand what is being produced in languages that lack the accountability that typically keeps the English language translator in check. There, more than in English, the fruit of each theory is revealed.

 

How accurate are Brunn’s examples

Most of the time Brunn’s examples are very accurate but occasionally his examples demonstrate his own misunderstanding of the biblical languages. For example, when he argues that the Hebrew word BRK means both “bless” and “curse,” he fails to recognize that there is much more involved in this example than just simply the meaning of the word; the challenges in this passage have been the subject of many articles in journals of the Biblical languages. Ironically, the verse he chooses to illustrate his point is the one verse (out of the four in the beginning of Job) where the meaning of “curse” is most frequently disputed by Hebrew scholars, some believe that Job’s wife may have gotten a “bad rap.” Sometimes his examples are a little bit of a reach. For example when he argues that one “word” in another language can often mean much more than an English word, he fails to mention that one “word” in many languages is frequently the equivalent of an entire phrase in English because pronouns, prepositions, verb conjugations, etc.. are prefixed, suffixed, and/or infixed together to form what appears to be one word to those who do not understand the language. Some of his examples really demonstrate the structural differences between languages rather than the idea that a single “word” in these languages really means much more than words do in English. On the whole, most of Brunn’s examples are very good and the most common difficulty arises from what he has not said rather than what he has said.

 

Conclusion

Brunn’s book has a wealth of good information that would be helpful to anyone wanting to understand more about the process of bible translation and it has an abundance of examples that help illustrate the points he is making. Unfortunately, his book overemphasizes the ambiguities that translators face and provides almost no information that describes how these issues are typically resolved. Because information about bible translation that would bring balance to the topic is frequently not discussed, this book often leaves the impression that the meaning of the original text is almost unknowable and that every attempted translation is equally valid. At times, Brunn hints at the idea that there are boundaries that translators should not cross but unfortunately he never really discusses these boundaries and ends up leaving the impression that, if these boundaries exist, the line is very, very blurry. I do wonder whether Brunn would accept the legitimacy of the translation practices of many who see his book as an endorsement of the troubling translation choices that have made?

Addendum 8/3/2013: After publishing my review, I have had the opportunity to dialog with David Brunn and he graciously answered many of the questions I have raised. His responses can be found here. I would encourage all to read his response. 


Notes:

  1. “Dynamic Equivalency” is an older term and most recent discussions about translation use the term “Functional Equivalency” in its place; however, “Dynamic Equivalency” is the term understood most easily by those who don’t frequently read about translation practices.
  2. Finding translators who are willing to invest their life learning the languages of the many people groups that do not yet have a bible, often under primitive conditions in remote locations is a huge task. Requiring these translators to also learn Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew would make this task nearly impossible. My statement about the lack of language skills was only a statement of fact and not itself a criticism. I am concerned about the methodology that is used by many of these translators because it does allow for a little too much latitude in translation and when combined with limited knowledge of the original languages and, as is too frequently the case, a limited understanding of Christian theology and history, it has opened the door to some very troubling translation practices.

The failure of the local church

“The best kept secret of mission agencies in our day—speaking ever so broadly–is that the mission force is less equipped for service than the people they serve.” Rollin Grams

Earth boyRollin Grams has written a good article (The loss of Mission)  that outlines some significant problems within evangelical missions today. Tragically, many of the issues he raises are spot on but relatively unknown to those in the churches that have funded these missionary endeavors for decades. Ultimately, the responsibility for many of the failures he outlines in this article lay solely at the feet of the local church which has, for far too long, closed its ears and eyes to problems that it needed to address decades ago. Many of these problems laid the foundation for for some of the most divisive and heartbreaking battles that have erupted within mission organizations in the last few years.  By ignoring these issues for so long, the church has allowed them to grow into the monsters that we are facing today. Here is an outline of the issues addressed in Rollin Grams’ article, it is an article every Christian should read!

  1. Denominations have, by and large, lost the vision for mission.
  2. Independent churches cannot hold the vision of mission by themselves—they cannot hold it intelligently, adequately, accurately, efficiently, or appropriately.
  3. Local churches have lost the vision for mission.
  4. Many churches think that overseas exposure trips are mission work.
  5. Many churches do not want to meet with their missionaries or get to know them well.
  6. Many churches like to collect missionaries like exotic, salt-water fish.
  7. Many churches like to define what the mission should be.
  8. Most mission agencies have lost the vision of mission.
  9. Missionaries have little understanding of the mission of the Church and little training to accomplish this mission.
  10. The approach to financing missions is disconnected to the mission of the Church.

It is time for each of us, as part of the body of Christ, to again become intimately involved with the missionaries we send. Only then will we begin to understand the tragic failures of the past and then hopefully, in repentance, we will seek to bring godly correction so that the Gospel message will not be hindered.

 

Is Allah the God of the Bible?

AllahIt is becoming increasingly common to hear Evangelical Christian missionaries suggest that “Allah” is the name we should be using for “God” in Islamic contexts and many bible translation organizations are now frequently using “Allah” in the translations they produce for Islamic contexts.  Because there has been so much misinformation from both those opposing and those supporting this practice, trying to evaluate this practice has often proved to be very difficult for those on the outside who are trying to understand this issue. The difficulty in evaluating the claims being made has often lead people without direct knowledge of the issues involved to simply defer to the “experts,” leaving the door open to some very troubling practices in the mission’s field today. It is my hope to bring some clarity to the questions surrounding this issue so that we can better understand when this is the right practice, when it is wrong, and when the answers are not as clear as we would like them to be. It is important to recognize that anyone who tells you that the practice of using ‘allah’ as the word for ‘god’ in the bible is always right or it is always wrong either does not himself understand the issues or he is being deceptive; the answers to these questions are not quite that simple. With that background I would like to evaluate the following common arguments used in this debate.

  1. Allah is a generic noun used to describe a divine being and is the proper word to use to describe God.
  2. Allah comes from the same root as Elohim in the bible and is the proper word to describe God.
  3. Allah was originally the name of the pagan moon God and should never be used in a bible translation; it is Satanic.

Is “allah” really a generic noun for divine being?

Missionaries who advocate using “allah” as the word for “God” in Islamic contexts tell us that the word “allah” is simply a noun used to describe a divine being just as the word “god” is a noun used to describe a divine being in English. These missionaries will point out that “allah” is the word used for “god” by Arabic speakers in most religious contexts including Christian contexts and just as we properly use the word “god” to describe the Hindu god, or Mormon god, or Buddhist god, etc…, those in Arabic speaking countries use “allah” in a very similar way. These claims are all true and these answers seemingly suggest that the claims made by these missionaries are valid. However, there are many more questions that still need to be asked before coming to that conclusion and if we stop here we will have made a tragic mistake.

In order to understand the real issues involved in this controversy, it is important to understand that there is almost zero concern by anyone with experience in Arabic cultures about the appropriate use of ‘allah’ in Arabic bible translations. Georges Houssney has been a vocal critic of missionaries and bible translators who have inappropriately used the word ‘allah’ in bible translations and yet the modern Arabic bible translations produced under his direction use the word ‘Allah’ for God. Obviously, this question is not “should ‘allah’ should be used in translations of the bible?,” the question is “when and where should it be used?” In an Arabic bible translation, ‘Allah’ is the appropriate word to use when translating the Greek word ‘theos’ (god), the Aramaic word ‘elah’ (god), or the Hebrew words ‘el, eloah, or elohim’ (god). However, in other languages, like Persian, Amharic, French, English, etc… the word ‘Allah’ is not a generic noun, it is a proper name. In these contexts, the name ‘Allah’ brings to mind only the deity of Islam.The Al-Kitab English translation of the bible demonstrates this issue quite well. In this translation, Duet. 6:4-5 is translated as 4Hear, Israel: Allah is our God, Allah is one: 5and you shall love Allah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In the original Hebrew text, ‘elohim’ is the generic noun used for ‘god’ and it is twice translated as the generic noun ‘God’ in the Al-Kitab translation but the proper name ‘Yahweh’ is translated as the proper name ‘Allah.’ Clearly the translator of the Al-Kitab understood that, in English, ‘Allah’ is a proper name and not a generic noun. His translation1 demonstrates that he believes that Allah (of the Qu’ran) and Yahweh (of Scripture) are one and the same and it is this point of confusion about Christian theology that we should be careful to avoid. As was done in the Al-Kitab, some missionaries are now proposing that we use ‘Allah’ in languages where there has already been a long history of bible translations that uses other words to describe God. Within these cultures, these new translations are raising as much alarm with the local churches there as would be raised in our own churches if we were given the ‘Al-Kitab’ version to use in our English speaking churches. Our Christian brothers and sisters are rightly concerned about these new ideas in bible translation and we who are funding much of this translation work should stop and hear their concerns.

 

Does Allah really come from the same root as Elohim?

Missionaries supportive of IM will often point out that the word “allah” is derived from the very same Semitic root as “elohim” (The word used for God in the Hebrew bible) and while this is correct, it is also misleading. Unfortunately, this too often becomes the bases for the claim that these are essentially the same word and therefore interchangeable and that is incorrect. Looking at the words for god in Arabic (“allah”), Aramaic (“Elah”), and Hebrew (“Eloah”) written in a Hebrew script it seemingly confirms that these are in fact the exact same word and it is easy to see how someone could be easily confused.

Here are all three words in Hebrew:

allah-elah-eloah

If you cannot tell the difference, you are not alone. Without knowing the vowels or the context even a native Hebrew speaker would not be able to tell these words apart; they are truly identical. However, that does not mean that a Hebrew speaker would be confused about which word is being used in daily speech. When we speak, we always include the vowels and when written with the vowel markings, the differences between these words is very easily discernible. See below:

allah-elah-eloah-pointed

While it is true that these words are derived from the same root, it is simply not true that they are understood the same way. A Hebrew speaker who hears the pronunciation “allah” will always assume that the speaker is referring to the Muslim god. Here is how “allah” is defined in Abraham Even Shoshan’s Hebrew dictionary (The Hebrew equivalent of Webster’s English dictionary):

Allah-milon-ivrit

This dictionary reference reveals two interesting facts. First, the word “allah” is understood specifically as the Muslim god by Hebrew speaking people despite its common root. Second, the word “elohim” is understood in Hebrew as a generic noun for “god/gods;” this form is used almost identically to the way ‘allah’ is used in Arabic. While both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages that share a common root for the word “god,” in Hebrew “allah” is used only in reference to the Muslim “god” and “elohim” is used as a generic word for “god.” In Arabic we have the exact opposite situation; the word “elohim” is used only in reference to the Hebrew God and “allah” can be used to refer to any “god.” The idea that words derived from the same Semitic root are themselves the same cannot be supported when we examine how these words are used in real life situations.

 

Is ‘Allah’ really the name of a pagan moon god?

No, it is a word used in reference to many different deities (including a pagan moon god) in the same way that the English word ‘god’ can be used in reference to many different deities. In the title of this section the word ‘god’ is itself used in reference to a pagan moon god; however this does not mean that the word ‘god’ is the “name” of a pagan moon god any more than a similar use in Arabic confirms that ‘Allah’ is the “name” of a pagan moon god. Confusing proper names with generic nouns is something that is, unfortunately, frequently done in arguments presented by both sides and it is always wrong. On the other side, it is not uncommon to hear those proposing that we use ‘allah’ in Islamic contexts suggest that the Greek words ‘theos’ and ‘kurios’ were “names” of pagan gods, or the Germanic word ‘gott’ (from which the English word ‘god’ is derived) was the “name” of a pagan deity. Confusing proper names and generic nouns is one of the quickest ways to cause confusion because it is often difficult for those who do not understand these foreign languages to recognize the difference. Arguments, on both sides of this debate, that begin with the claim ” the word __fill-in-the-blank__ is the name of a pagan god” are almost always in error. When you hear these kinds of arguments it should cause the alarm bells to start ringing!

 

Another consideration

Sometimes ‘Allah’ has been used to translate words other than ‘god’ and that is always wrong. When it is used as a translation for words like ‘father’ it is the wrong word to use (even in Arabic translations) and is a reflection of serious compromise. Islam teaches that god has no familial relationships and some translators have attempted to resolve this conflicting claim between Islam and Christianity by replacing familial language in Scripture with alternative words that lack a familial understanding. In some cases, the word chosen for the translation of ‘father’ has been ‘Allah’ and this mistranslation obscures one of the most important truths in scripture i.e that God is our Father! Even in contexts where ‘Allah’ is the correct word to use for the translation of ‘god’, using ‘Allah’ to translate other words like ‘father,’ ‘lord,’ ‘Yahweh,’ etc… is never correct.

 

Sometimes the answer isn’t quite black and white

When a different cultures interact with one another it is common for one culture to adopt words from another. In English we use the words like ‘hors d’oeuvres’ (French), ‘angst’ (German), ‘pro bono’ (Latin), ‘tour’ (Hebrew), sometimes without even recognizing the foreignness of the word itself. Adopting words from other languages is an extremely common practice that affects every spoken language. In languages that have been heavily influenced by Arabic cultures this can create a situation where questions about the use of ‘allah’ are not nearly so easy to answer. For example, due to Arab influences, Turkish adopted many Arabic words including the Arabic word for God. Turkish was originally written in the Arabic Script and the very first bible translations were translated by Arabic speaking Muslims beginning in the 17th century; these translations were then used by Christians for centuries. These early translations used the word ‘allah’ for ‘god’ and its “Turkishized” plural ‘ililar2‘ for ‘gods.’ So while this was not a Semitic language, it had adopted this Semitic term and used it to describe many different deities. However, Turkish also has its own Turkish words for ‘god’ and ‘gods’ i.e. ‘tanri’ and ‘tanrilar’ and, because of the history of the Turkish language, modern translations of the Bible typically use these Turkish words for god. In the 1920’s and 30’s the president of Turkey instituted a series of language reforms in an attempt to create a pure Turkish language. As part of his reforms, he changed the Script used to write Turkish from its historical Arabic Script to its modern Latin Script. He prohibited the use of many Arabic loan words (including the word ‘allah’) and ordered that translations of religious texts like the Qur’an and Bible use the Turkish words for God. As a result, today in Turkey both ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are understood and used as generic and equivalent words for God. Because of this unusual linguistic history, it is not unusual or unreasonable for Christians in Turkey to use the word ‘Allah’ in reference to God but it is also not the only choice and it may not be the best choice to use in a modern bible translation. This is one of the few cases where there is a considerable amount of gray area to consider when trying to answer questions about the use of ‘allah’ in Christian ministry and/or Bible translation.

 

Concluding thoughts

While in some languages ‘Allah’ is the correct word to use when speaking about the God of Scripture, it is never correct to say that the god of Islam is the same as the God described in our Christian Scriptures. The picture of God presented in Islam is very different than the picture of God that is presented in our Scriptures and trying to harmonize these divergent ideas about who God is can only lead to confusion. So as we evaluate specific instances where ‘Allah’ is used in bible translation or Christian outreach, we need to be asking primarily whether this usage is likely to cause people to associate the God of Scriptures with the god of Islam? Because the stakes for misunderstanding who God is are so high, we need to be diligently ensuring that we and the missionaries we support are making good biblical choices in these areas and that takes a little bit of diligence on our part. Here are some questions we can ask that can help us understand whether using ‘allah’ as the word for ‘god’ is appropriate in the contexts that we, or our missionaries, are involved.

  • Is there and established history of bible translation in this language?
    • When there is already a history of bible translation in a particular culture, the words they have already chosen to describe God are the words that should typically be used. Alarm bells should be ringing when a translator chooses to ignore the traditional terminology used in existing bible translations.

     

  • How has the local Christian church received these new translations?
    • In many cases, the strongest objections to these new translations has come from the local Christian churches in the countries where these bibles have been produced. If local Christian churches are opposing these newer translations because they are concerned that the terminology being used has been chosen to harmonize Islam with Christianity, we too should be concerned. Too often our Christian brothers and sisters abroad have felt abandoned and powerless to intervene when our western missionaries have begun ministries and bible translation projects that use terms that have created confusion about the differences between Islam and Christianity. It, unfortunately, is becoming more frequent for missionaries to be working in opposition to the local church instead of working with them.

     

  • In the language of this culture is ‘Allah’ a generic noun or a proper name?
    • There are many questions that should be asked in order to make this determination. Are there other words for ‘god’ that are commonly used? What terms have religions other than Islam used? Is there a plural form of ‘Allah’ that can be used to describe ‘gods?’ If possible, ask a native speaker that does not have a stake in this debate because their understanding will almost be certainly better than the missionaries (on either side of the issue) that are not native speakers of the language. If the answers to these questions suggest that ‘Allah’ is a proper name, then it almost certainly is the wrong word to use for God in bible translation or Christian ministry.

     

 


Notes:

1. The Al-Kitab includes a translation of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Qur’an.

2. As a result of the Turkish language reforms, the cultural understanding of ‘ililar’ as a plural form of ‘allah’ has been almost completely lost. It is found in old Turkish bible translations but this form is not used in modern Turkish.

The PCA General Assembly’s consideration of the Insider Movement report

Written by Andrew C. | Wednesday, June 26, 2013

kingdom CirclesThe Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met in Greenville, South Carolina 17-20 June 2013 for its 41st General Assembly. Commissioners flying and driving into that growing and vibrant Southern city may have gotten more than they paid for. As a long-time observer to the GA, I can say that meetings are sometimes long-periods of boredom occasionally interrupted by moments of inconsequence. Doing things “decently and in good order” does not generally make for engaging theater.

This GA lacked nothing in the category of drama. One of the more anticipated events in the four days was the consideration of the PCA Study Committee on Insider Movements, which included both a majority report and minority report. This missiological creation referred to as the insider movement, teaches that people come to Jesus most effectively when they do not leave their families, communities, and (here is the rub) their birth religions. Translation for those who do not know “anthropology-speak”: Rather than going to Jesus outside the camp (Hebrews 13:13) in faith, and leaving behind their former way of life, including their religious practices, converts are urged to remain inside their former religious affiliations.

This idea, championed on the floor by some prominent church leaders: Mark Bates, pastor of Village Seven PCA in Colorado Springs, Rick Hivner, and Nelson Jennings, formerly of Covenant Theological Seminary (the denomination’s seminary), supported the minority report in adopting a taxonomy distinguishing absolutely between different degrees of “Muslim.”

I was confused. Having read both reports, it appeared to me that Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, the author of the minority report, was asserting that being a nominal Muslim was better than being a strict one. Perhaps I need to go back to school, but it seemed to me to imply that one kind of Muslim was further away from God than another. Two questions came to mind: Is there any such thing as a Muslim not fundamentally shaped by religion? And is there any such thing as an Islam closer to God than some other form of the same religion? Is not Islam a fallen religion, a structure like the Tower of Babel, erected by inherently religious humans to worship a false God?

It seemed that in the drama of the General Assembly that the church was perhaps sleepwalking away from its historical understanding of the relationship of Christ to the visible, historical church (equated to Christendom in the minority report) and to the religions of the nations. You could feel the beginnings of a change in the climate after the assembly boxed itself into a corner. Rather than choosing be either the majority or minority reports, it voted to follow the lead of Pastor Bates and vote to combine both reports into a single report, by appending the minority to the majority report. I wonder if the sense of the assembly mirrored the feeling of the designer of the Titanic when he descended below decks and discovered that the hole in his boat was a lot bigger than he thought.

Tensions rose when the commissioners engaged in an extended debate on the floor concerning the Arabic word for God, “Allah.” It was passionate and quite confusing. From my perspective as an observer, it tangled up two ideas: (1) That “Allah” is an Arabic word and (2) that the God of Muslims is or is not the same God worshiped by Christians (from my perspective, of course, he isn’t!).

While Dr. Jabbour carefully explained that Arabic Christians have historically called God the Father “Allah,” he disclosed what seemed to be two more problems with his ideas. First, the God of Muslims is monistic. It is only one and never three. It can never be the same God as the God of the Bible. It could also never be the God of either Christians or of the Christian church. In other words, the very idea of God irreducibly divides Muslims and Christians.

Jabbour and other’s use of Allah is not wrong because it is an Arabic word. It is wrong when it obscures the fact that a religion of light cannot also be a religion of darkness. Perhaps Jabbour has no choice. Maybe that is the only way he can justify keeping followers of Christ in the mosque. I am sure that he could not do so if he felt that Islam was inherently evil. It was self-evident that he does not, neither Hivner nor Jennings, believe that Islam is completely fallen. Rather, it has to be seen by them as in some way redeemable, transformable from the inside.

That brings to me a scoring of style not just content. On this basis, the advocates of the minority report clearly almost won the day. If the vote to recommit the reports back to the study committee had not been narrowly won, the PCA would have been on record of accepting radically different ideas concerning the nature of religion, the nature of the church, the nature of conversion, and the exclusive connection between Jesus and his church. How did such a state of mutually assured destruction (think of the day when Americans and Soviets came close to blowing up each other and our planet) almost win out? That one is easy. Style.

The advocates of the minority view were masters of style. They quickly promoted a wholly ambiguous, homey, emotional, and misleading report by presenting it as being eminently practical and compassionate. It rated high in emotional intelligence (EQ). It was the love report. The majority report, a masterful and balanced (perhaps over-balanced) treatment of truth, religion, a covenantal reading of Scripture came across as somewhat obscure and fussy. It needed to be more direct in its conclusions and recommendations. Finding bottom lines at times required a magnifying glass. Its introduction was erudite and profound but, in this reporter’s view may have sailed over the commissioners’ heads.

Well, the PCA received a reprieve this week. It came dangerously close to plummeting off a cliff it did not even see coming. The committee has another year to refine and resubmit its report. It is hard to see how the minority report can change unless it becomes even more indistinct and misleading. Perhaps it can apply more camouflage to hide the fact that it thinks that Muslims can remain Muslims and not leave the mosque. No amount of assurance that syncretism is avoided or that doctrinal standards required by the Bible are maintained can alter the fact that, at the end of the day, Islam remains but Christianity is not needed. With that said, the majority report needs its pencil point sharpened; it needs to make its points clearly and simply.

The constituencies behind each will also begin to mobilize for next June. In this GA, it was clear that advocates of the minority report were prepared. They crowded the microphones and set the pace. The advocates of the majority report were unprepared and late. They get one more chance to get it right.

Andrew C. lives and works East Asia in a sensitive country.

The original posting of this article can be found here.

That’s just your interpretation!

QuestionThe cry “That’s just your interpretation!” is something that is echoed over and over again in discussions about theology and Scripture today. In our postmodern culture, both inside and outside of the church, it has become acceptable to believe that each person is free to decide what the text of Scripture means for them personally without regard for what the author himself intended to say. It is assumed that the meaning of the text is determined by the reader’s response to the text alone. As part of my study of the Psalms, I have been reading “The Psalms as Christian worship: A Historical Commentary”  by Waltke and Houston and was both surprised (and encouraged) by their unrestrained condemnation of postmodern reader/response theories. I wish more Christian leaders would speak as boldly as they have done here. Postmodern reader/response theories are at the heart of the translation controversy that has involved many well known bible translation organizations and it is good to see well respected Christian leaders and scholars step up and address this issue.

Here are a couple of quotes from their commentary:

“Let me segue here. The allegorical approach of Christian commentators cannot be used to defend postmodern interpretation, which gives priority to the reader’s response to the text, not the author’s intention. To be sure, both the “allegorizers” and the postmoderns impose meanings on a text not intended by the author, but postmoderns basterdize the Christian commentator’s allegorical method. The church’s commentators allegorized the text, but they were orthodox, pastoral, and above all Christ-centered, whereas postmoderns are, for the most part, apostate, anthropocentric, and self-serving, and so deconstruct the author’s intention to foist their own political and/or social agenda on Scripture to validate their elitism, while accusing the Biblical writers of doing the same thing.”

“The psalms also are and effective “read” for the emotionally disturbed Christians, more enthusiastic than wise about their faith. With the loss of transcendence today, it suggests we need the Psalmist once more, to lead us through the confusions of postmodernism, to consider how lacking in Biblical integrity is much that purports to be ‘Christian.’”

Is Jesus the product of sexual relations between God and Mary?

Jesus in IslamInsider Movement[i] proponents tell us that we cannot use the words “Son” or “Father” in reference to Jesus or God in translations of the bible intended to be used in Muslim contexts. They insist that these words are understood by Muslims to refer only to biological relationships that result from sexual intercourse and that when a Muslim hears these words used in reference to God or Jesus, they will understand these words to mean that Jesus was the product of sexual relations between God and Mary. While it is true that Muslims often do misunderstand the title “Son of God” to mean that Jesus is the biological offspring of God and Mary, the reasons for this misunderstanding is very different than what IM proponents have suggested. Let’s look a little more deeply into this issue and understand why this phrase has been misunderstood by Muslims and why some suggestions for correcting this misunderstanding by replacing these words in translations of the bible with alternative phrases are misguided.

  1. Insider Movement (IM) proponents suggest that the words for ‘son’ and ‘father’ in languages spoken in Islamic contexts can only be used to describe a biological descendant. However, in languages like Arabic, Amharic, Turkish, Bengali, etc… where these claims have already been evaluated, they have been demonstrated to be false.  In these languages words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ are used very similarly to the way that they are used in English, Greek, and Hebrew (and many other languages). Arabic speaking Muslims use a wide range of idiomatic expressions that use the word ‘son’ to refer to non-biological relationships like ‘son of the Nile[ii] (ابن النيل)’ ‘son of the Road[iii] (ابن السبيل)’, etc… which demonstrates that these words are not limited to the narrow semantic range of meaning that IM proponents have suggested. It is true is that Muslim believe that Christians teach[iv] that Jesus is the biological offspring of God and Mary but this is a very different issue than what is often presented by those promoting IM. To date, bible translators who have proposed that we use other words in place of ‘father’ and ‘son’ have not identified a single language where the natural words for ‘son’ or ‘father’ only describe a biological relationship. Note: I have spoken personally with dozens of native speakers of these languages and with missionaries who serve in countries where these languages are spoken and they have all denied that this limited semantic range of meaning is inherent in the words, like ‘father’ and ‘son,’ that describe familial relationships.

  2. Sometimes IM proponents will suggest that because Muslims, in general, only refer to their own biological descendants as ‘sons’ that this proves that the word ‘son’ can only be used to refer to a biological descendant. While the claim about how the word ‘son’ is used in many Islamic contexts is mostly true the conclusions that form the basis of IM arguments are not. To understand what is actually happening, it is helpful to know a little more about the related Islamic law and its origins. In Islam, adoption is absolutely prohibited for Muslims; however, Muslims do understand what adoption is just like we all understand what adultery, lying, and theft are even though these are also prohibited. Muslims recognize that others do adopt sons and they recognize those relationships as father/son relationships. In the Arab culture, adoption was once embraced and most Arabs had adopted sons. Even the prophet Mohammad himself had an adopted son named Zayd. However, when Zayd was grown and married, Mohammad desired to have Zayd’s wife for himself but the existing law prohibited a father from taking his son’s wife. Conveniently, Mohammad had a new revelation from God that abolished the practice of adoption and nullified all existing Muslim adoptions. With adoption abolished, Mohammad was now free to marry his former son’s wife (which he did). Today, Muslims recognize that Zayd ibn Mohammad (زيد بن محمد)[v] was Mohammad’s adopted son. They remain unconfused about Mohammad and Zayd’s relationship even when direct familial language used in to describe their relationship. Because Islam teaches that God does not have sons nor does God adopt sons, Muslims can never call God ‘Father’ and that is a significant issue that must be overcome when ministering to Muslims.

  3. The alternative phrases that IM proponents have proposed (or used) in bible translations targeted for Islamic contexts fail to communicate important aspects of sonship i.e. the rights of authority, inheritance, etc… that are integral aspects of being a son. These ideas about sonship are shared by Islamic, Hebrew, and western cultures when speaking about the rights of a son and are reflected in stories like the Parable of the vineyard in Luke 20:9-16  where the legal rights of a son are an integral part of the story itself. Christ’s rights as the true heir of God is an important part of Christian theology and if a phrase used to translate the title “Son of God” does not communicate the legal rights of a sonship then it will miscommunicate God’s relationship to his only Son.

  4. Islam teaches that the Christian Scriptures have been corrupted[vi] and when we use alternative language for words like ‘father’ and ‘son’ in bible translations intended to be used in Muslim contexts, it provide proof to Muslims that claims about the corruption of the Christian Scriptures are in fact true. This makes it much more difficult for Muslims to overcome their inherent distrust of the Christian Scriptures.

The recently released WEA report raises concerns about translations that have tried to overcome misunderstandings about Christianity by changing the translation itself when these misunderstandings are better addressed through teaching and commentaries. By changing familial language in our bible translations, we are only trading one misunderstanding for others that are equally problematic. While it is true that Muslims really do understand the phrase “Son of God” to mean that Jesus is the product of sexual relations between God and Mary, it is important to understand WHY they believe this. It is not because the words for ‘father’ and ‘son’ are only understood to refer to a biological relationship as IM proponents frequently suggest, it is because Islam teaches that Christians teach that Jesus is the biological son of God and Mary. It is this misunderstanding about what Christians teach must be addressed through dialog, teaching, and commentary. Removing the words ‘father’ and ‘son’ from translations of Scripture will not resolve these misunderstandings because it is not the words themselves that have been misunderstood, it is the misinformation about what Christians teach that has caused this misunderstanding.


[i] The Insider Movement is an ideology that is being adopted by a growing number of evangelical missionaries who believe that one should retain their original religious identity when they come to follow Christ; conversion to Christianity is seen as unnecessary (or harmful). These missionaries believe that Muslims should remain Muslims, Hindus should remain Hindus, Buddhists should remain Buddhists, etc…  What this looks like in practice varies significantly among different groups promoting IM. Almost all believe that one should continue to worship in their prior religious communities and those on the extremes suggest that very little of a persons prior religious beliefs needs to change after they become “followers of Christ.” For example, a Muslim who comes to follow Christ may continue to reject a belief in the divinity of Christ, affirm Mohammad as God’s preeminent prophet, and the Qu’ran as God’s perfect inspired word. The beliefs of a “Muslim follower of Christ” often are far more compatible with Islam than they are with Christianity.

Note: The Insider Movement ideology has been adopted by a significant number of men and women in leadership positions of well know missionary organizations like Wycliffe/SIL, Frontiers, YWAM, etc… Many churches are unknowingly supporting missionaries who have adopted this controversial ideology. Many missionaries within these organizations still do oppose IM but determining who is supporting it and who is not can often be difficult (see deciphering the Missionary code). This is an issue that every church needs to address with the missionaries they support because there is a growing acceptance of IM within many missionary organizations.

[ii] Arabic speaking Egyptians refer to themselves as a “son of the Nile”

[iii] “Son of the Road” is a frequent phrase used to describe a traveler in the Qu’ran. S. 2:177, S. 4:36, S. 8:41, S. 9:60

[iv] Islam teaches that Christians believe that God, Mary, and Jesus form the Trinity, and that Jesus is the offspring of God and Mary. Some of the passages from the Qur’an which form that basis for this teaching are listed below.

 [He is] Originator of the heavens and the earth. How could He have a son when He does not have a companion and He created all things? And He is, of all things, Knowing. (Sura 6:101)

And [it teaches] that exalted is the nobleness of our Lord; He has not taken a wife or a son (Sura 72:3)

O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. (Sura 4:171)

They have certainly disbelieved who say that Allah is Christ, the son of Mary. Say, “Then who could prevent Allah at all if He had intended to destroy Christ, the son of Mary, or his mother or everyone on the earth?” And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and whatever is between them. He creates what He wills, and Allah is over all things competent. (Sura 5:17)

They have certainly disbelieved who say, ” Allah is the Messiah, the son of Mary” while the Messiah has said, “O Children of Israel, worship Allah , my Lord and your Lord.” Indeed, he who associates others with Allah – Allah has forbidden him Paradise, and his refuge is the Fire. And there are not for the wrongdoers any helpers. They have certainly disbelieved who say, ” Allah is the third of three.” And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. (Sura 5:72-73)

And it is not appropriate for the Most Merciful that He should take a son. (Sura 19:92).

[v] Zayd b. Mohammad is frequently referred to as Zayd b.Haritha Al-kalbi as a demonstration that adoption was abolished. More information about the incident with Zayd can be found at http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/zaynab.htm

[vi] “What Christians now hold in their hands is not the Gospel to which the Qur’an refers, but their gospels do contain parts of that text, which according to the Qur’an is corrupted” The Qur’an and the Gospels, Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah

Insider Movements – Gutting the Bible

Article by Philip Mark  June 2013

Abrahamic2Hindu-Followers-of-Jesus? Messianic Muslims? Is this something that we should be excited about? Or does it represent the most serious threat to the gospel that the modern missionary movement has yet encountered? David Garner’s article “High Stakes: Insider Movement Hermeneutics and the Gospel” (1) is important because it gets under the skin of certain innovations in missions and to the heart of what they are missing – an organic, all-encompassing, gospel-centered hermeneutic. The message of the Bible, not only in its whole, but also in each of its parts, is the story of God’s redemption of his people in Christ Jesus.
I have spent most of my life among missionaries and institutions dedicated to reaching Muslims with the gospel. Ours is a unique frontier of Christian presence in the Muslim world, an Evangelical subculture, a sort of ‘eco-system’, if you will. A variety of perspectives and approaches have been cultivated in this eco-system for good and for ill, including what are known as Insider Movements (IM). (Continued Here)

 

An Interview with James White about His Book, “What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an”

Need to know about the QuranThe following is an excerpt of an interview published on the Gospel coalition website.

Sometimes there comes a book that changes the way we think and talk about a subject. That book generally pushes us into deeper fundamental understanding of a theme and helps us see from there the things we did not know or somehow missed. Such books stir fresh thought, fresh zeal, and renewed efforts to see and act in the world according to truth. We need a book to do that for us and to us because we’re so prone to settle into intellectual ruts and hand-me-down assumptions.

I think James White’s new book, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an, is a book that changes the Christian understanding of Islam and its holy book. You can read an excerpt of the book here. I had the privilege of reading James’ book in manuscript and offering the following endorsement:

James White has given the thoughtful Christian a game-changer for Muslim-Christian dialogues about the Qur’an, the Bible, and our claims to truth. For too long, Christians have remained largely ignorant and even reluctant toward one of the world’s largest faiths. We no longer have reason for either ignorance or reluctance thanks to White. I know of no other introduction to the Qur’an and Islam that is as technically competent and easy to read as James White’s What Every Christian Should Know About the Qur’an. This book is my new go-to source and recommendation for anyone wanting a thorough introduction to the thought world of the Qur’an and the Muslims who revere it. For irenic, honest, charitable and careful discussion of the Qur’an, this is the best resource I know.

James deals extensively, charitably and clearly with the Qur’an itself. He’s not lobbing rhetorical grenades or wildly flinging accusations and half truths. He’s incisively investigating the history, theology, and transmission of the Qur’an in a way that’s accessible to any intelligent reader.

I had the privilege of sending James a few questions regarding the book. I hope you find this interview helpful and that you’re moved to buy and read this book.

1.       You write, “I believe the best, weightiest, most useful refutation is the establishment of the truth of the gospel” (p. 9). Some apologists appear to think all the other arguments are the “best refutation” of Islam. Why and how does the gospel best establish the truth and refute error?

Islam came after the Gospel (despite Islamic belief otherwise), and includes as part of its teachings the rejection of the heart of the Gospel itself (the Person of Christ, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and hence the exclusivity of Jesus the Messiah as the sole means of peace with God).  Hence, Islamic apologetics is first and foremost a “gospel” activity, and the goal of the Christian must always be to make sure the Gospel in all its glory and power and grace is made known to the Muslim who has almost never heard it with clarity.  Further, given the position of Islam as the “last” revelation, surely the argument is properly made that the Qur’an’s understanding of the faiths it seeks to correct or refute must be accurate, as God is said to be the author of the Qur’an.  But when we demonstrate error on the part of the Qur’an in reference to the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or the gospel, we are helping the Muslim to examine the claims of the Qur’an in an objective manner.

2.       Must Christians be experts in the Qur’an in order to engage their Muslim neighbors and friends about the faith?

If a believer were to be ministering in an Islamic country, or even in places such as Dearborn, Michigan, a knowledge of the Qur’an at a certain level would be necessary to be effective in the long run, to be sure.  The more we know about the presuppositions of those with whom we speak, about their worldview and language, the more effective communicators we will be.  One surely does not have to be an “expert” on the Qur’an to engage their Muslim neighbors, but just as having read the Book of Mormon is a great advantage in witness to a Mormon, being able to show the Muslim that you have respected them enough to gather some knowledge of the Qur’an is a tremendous advantage.  One of the great problems that exists between our communities is the fact that most Christians know very little about Islam and the Qur’an, and most Muslims know very little about Christianity and the Bible.  Both go on what they have “heard,” and that body of hear-say is normally far from accurate, and can be a great hindrance in any meaningful dialogue.

Read the rest of the interview HERE

Reaching Muslims with the Gospel of God

MuslimLigonier Ministries published an Interview with Abdul Saleeb, a former Muslim who has come to faith in Christ. His interview provides a lot of good insights about Islam and what it takes to reach Muslims for Christ. He rightly reminds us that “talking to Muslims will also challenge Christians to become better equipped in their own faith. It will require Christians to dig deeper into the Scriptures, theology, apologetics, and church history in order to respond to the questions that Muslims often ask”. Are you ready to accept the challenge to understand your own faith better?

Abdul’s Interview is both enlightening and inspiring and a very good place to begin understanding how we can truly love our Muslim neighbors in a way that reflects Christ’s love in us.

Deciphering the Missionary code

Encryption2Jamie Wright posted an insightful, eye opening, and somewhat humorous article that deals with the deception that too often takes place in the mission’s field and the “missionary code” that is used hide what is really happening. Jamie’s article focuses on missionaries who are doing little more than vacationing in a foreign country but sending support letters that describe their “ministries” as almost beyond miraculous. My own recognition of the “missionary code” began in 2008 and many of my own personal experiences mirror the kinds of “coded” examples given by Jamie in her article but the motivation for speaking in “code” was a little different for the missionaries to whom I had spoken. They were not using the “code” to hide their lack of work, they were using the “code” to hide the kind of work they were engaged in; work that most of their supporters would not have invested in if they really knew what was really taking place.

What is the code?

Jamie describes the “Missionary code” as “Christianese on steroids.” Here is an example from Jamie’s blog post.

Random guy: “Wow, you’re a missionary? That’s cool. What do you do?”

Shady missionary: “Well, I partner with the local church to make disciples.”

Random guy: “Oh. How do you do that?”

Shady missionary: “I create inroads through intentional relationships.”

Random guy: “Soooo, you invite… people… to church… in another country?”

Shady missionary: “That. Plus, I initiate interest by engaging in Christ-centered dialog with locals.”

Guy: “… *blink blink*… Wait. What does that even mean?”

Shady: “It’s hard to understand from a limited North American perspective, but the Holy Spirit is hard at work in Peru/Italy/Cambodia/PickACountry, and I’m merely there to be a vessel. My job is really to just stay available to the call.”

Guy: “…Aaaand you get paid for that?”

Shady: “The Lord says a worker is worth his wages.”

Guy: “Of course He does.”

Random Guy walks away with a super unclear idea about what the missionary actually does, but has heard, in no uncertain terms, that the missionary has been “called” by God to this mysterious but important job. That’s the Code at work.

Jamie is right, we need to ask our missionaries lots of questions but we also need to make sure we are asking the right questions. Cracking the code can often be difficult because too often we do not know what questions to ask. In 2008 when I first realized that I needed to be asking questions, not only did I not know what questions I should be asking, I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. Because I was asking the wrong questions, the answers I first received seemed a little off but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong. Unfortunately that is where most stop asking questions.

Most missionaries will be able to answer your questions without resorting to evasive language and obscure ideas. But if they can’t? That should be a serious red flag and you should feel emboldened to push back until you clearly understand what they’re doing with their time. Jamie’s article provides a number of great examples of the “Missionary code;” I would like to add a few additions to the list she has already provided.

~ When a Christian missionary tells about the hundreds or even thousands that have come to faith Christ through their ministry, ask what it means to come to faith in Christ?  Ask if these new believers attend a Christian church, an Islamic Mosque, or some other place of worship? Ask if these believers identify themselves as Christians (or followers of Jesus), or do they identify themselves as Muslims or Hindus, or Buddhists? Ask if these followers of Jesus believe that Jesus is the Son of God or merely a prophet?

~ When a Christian missionary affirms their own personal belief in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, ask whether they believe these are essential for the believers to whom they minister or whether they are only essential for them personally? Ask them if the spiritual leaders within their ministry affirm these same doctrines?

~ When a Christian missionary tells us about those, who through their ministry, have come to trust Jesus as their Savior, ask them what it means to trust that Jesus is their Savior? Ask them if these believers believe that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was necessary for their salvation? Ask them if these believers even believe that Christ died for their sins?

~ When a Christian missionary tells us that they are ministering in culturally sensitive ways, ask them how they define “culture.” Ask them if they see a distinction between cultural expression and religious expression? Ask them if they see Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as expressions of cultural or religious systems.

~ When a Christian missionary tells us that the do not want to extract new believers from their “culture,” ask them if they believe that believers in Christ should leave their non-Christian religion? Ask them if they believe that one can remain in their culture and not identify as a member of its dominate religion.

I truly believe that most Christians would be truly shocked if they knew how some prominent leaders of Christian missions agencies would answer these questions and what their money has been supporting. Because these leaders speak the “missionary code” so fluently, these views have remained largely unknown to those who have not been in directly involved. Until very recently even many missionaries themselves were unaware of the direction that the leadership of their own agencies had taken. One of the most influential leaders and thinkers in missions over the last few decades has been Charles Kraft. While speaking about Kraft’s influence of modern missiology, his Fuller Seminary colleague Charles Van Engan said that “One might say that there is missiology before Kraft (BK) and missiology after Kraft (AK).”  Here is how Kraft has answered some of these questions in his own words.

“The issues that we deal with, even the so-called religious issues, are primarily cultural, and only secondarily religious… [The Muslim] doesn’t have to be convinced of the death of Christ. He simply has to pledge allegiance and faith to the God who worked out the details to make it possible for his faith response to take the place of a righteousness requirement. He may not, in fact, be able to believe in the death of Christ, especially if he knowingly places his faith in God through Christ, for within his frame of reference, if Christ died, God was defeated by men, and this, of course is unthinkable.” Charles Kraft

Are you surprised at his answer? Don’t be, these views are not unique to Kraft, they are shared by many of the most prominent thinkers in the missiology today and they dominate the missiological journals today. These are the views held by many of the men and women who are training our next generation of missionaries. The western church has unknowingly spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding ministries that promote these views because we haven’t taken the time to stop and ask the hard questions before we write our checks. It is time we begin to ask the kinds of questions that should have been asked long ago.  

 

Why the silence?

First, many of those engaging in this kind of ministry are so adept at using the “missionary code” that they have even fooled their fellow missionaries. Until very recently, many good missionaries involved in healthy and vibrant ministries were unaware of the involvement of their own missionary organizations in ministries that had stepped outside of Christian orthodoxy. Because of the autonomy (described in Jamie’s article) of most missionary organizations, few knew the details unless their own ministries were being directly impacted.

Second, there can be very negative consequences for those who dare to speak out. Satirically speaking Jamie says that revealing the code “will probably get me killed by the Knights Templar or something” and while satirical, it isn’t that far from the truth. Those who speak out often have at lot a stake; speaking out often means leaving (or being forced to leave) the ministry where they have invested their life and/or leaving the churches that they have called home. In the last year, some large missionary organizations have actually put out “gag orders” prohibiting their missionaries from even speaking about this topic in public. Because speaking out can mean that one must go against the direct instruction of their organization’s leadership, speaking out can be one of the most painful and heart wrenching decisions a missionary can face. Because I am not a missionary the stakes are not has high for me but I do know personally what it is like to be given a “gag order” from leadership that would prefer to ignore this issue and then have to make the painful decision to uproot my family because my conscious would not allow me to keep silent. I have a great deal of sympathy for those missionaries who, by speaking out, stand to loose so much more than I did.