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.

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.’”

Questions for our missionaries

Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis published the following set of questions to be answered by the missionaries they send. These questions are an excellent resource for every church missions board.

1. How will you help a new believer express his identity in Christ within his community?

Biblical guidelines to consider: The person who trusts in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17-18). He is one whom God has miraculously rescued out of the darkness of idolatry and rebellion and into his own family (1Peter 2.9) that they might be to the praise of his glory in Christ (Eph. 1:12). The new believer’s personal identification with Christ is a declaration of this change of allegiance (1 Thess 1:9, cf. 1 Kings 18:21). Ethnic, social, economic, gender, and class distinctions no longer primarily define a new believer (Gal. 3:28-29, 6:15). Rather, for those who are in Christ, their identity is organically tied to Jesus himself and those elect for whom he died (2 Cor. 6:14). Thus, the new believer’s identity is not to be understood in purely individualistic terms, nor simply hidden within former religious community terms, for he is part of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13-27).

Sub-questions to consider:

What aspects of the culture and former religion should be considered “darkness,” from which new believers in Christ should repent and walk in “newness of life”?

When does the missiological goal of “staying within one’s community,” as new believers in Christ, violate Christ’s warnings in Matthew 10:32-39 of loving family more than him?

2. In your ministry context, what aspects of the local culture may be retained, and which aspects must be rejected?

Biblical guidelines to consider: While “culture” is a morally neutral term, there are positive potentials and intrinsic vulnerabilities in every culture. In a culture intimately tied to a religious system, discerning what should be retained and what should be be rejected is crucial for the clear communication of the gospel—both in the lives of new believers and through their lives to the larger community. The new birth, allegiance to Christ alone, identification with the local and global expression of Christ’s church, and the implications of persecution and suffering will deeply affect answers to this question (Acts 19:17-20). Our emphasis must be the clear communication of the gospel and a clean conscience. We must encourage what cultivates faith and removes confusion (2 Cor. 4:2; Heb 12:1-2). We must also be careful not to advocate liberties or adherence to former religious practices that would violate the consciences of new believers and miscommunicate/confuse the gospel message within his/her community (Romans 14, 1 Cor 8:1-13).

Sub-question to consider:

What terminology (or terms of identity) of the surrounding culture is so closely tied to the predominant non-Christian religion that, if the new believer were to continue using them, would cause the non-Christian community to believe that the so-called new believer still adheres to the non-Christian religion?

3. As a minister of the gospel, how will you communicate your identity in Christ to those whom you seek to minister among?

Biblical guidelines to consider: While there is no biblical mandate to call oneself a “Christian,” our aim is to communicate in a way that honestly and clearly identifies us with the Christ of the Bible (2 Cor. 4:5-6). Language is important (Psalm 19:14; Matt. 16:15-18; 2 Cor. 2:17). We must reject any community-dominant religious terminology that would bring reproach upon Christ or leave our identity with the God/Christ of the Bible in question (Daniel 3; 2 Cor 4:2)

4. How will you communicate the identity of Jesus in the language and culture of the context in which you minister?

Biblical guidelines to consider: The identity of Jesus is at the center of the gospel (Mt. 16:13-18; Acts 4:12). The Gospel writers go to great lengths to show the significance of Jesus’ unique and historically significant titles. Jesus, in fulfillment of prophecy, is the Messiah, the one-of-a-kind Son of God (a title for the Savior, Jesus, used 37 times in the New Testament), and the divine Son of Man (a title for the Savior, Jesus, used 43 times in New Testament, 29 times in Matthew’s Gospel alone). Jesus is the one by whom, and for whom, all things were created (Col. 1:13-20). The resurrected Christ taught his disciples that only through an understanding of the Old Testament will the deep significance of his death, resurrection, and global proclamation be seen as the apex of all of redemptive history (Lk. 24:44-49). From the beginning of the church age, the apostles’ task was to communicate these deep realities in different cultures and contexts—even when the concepts themselves were highly offensive (or ridiculous) to their hearers (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

The confession that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God, first ventured by Peter at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:16), is the heart of the Christian faith. This confession makes one a Christian, and all Christian theology is thinking in the light of this confession. The first major theological decision of the church resulting from such believing thought was the affirmation of the essential deity of Jesus as the Son of God. As such he was declared to be of one essence with the Father and the Spirit (the dogma of the Trinity promulgated at Nicaea, AD 325).

5. What will cross-bearing look like for new believers in your context? And in what ways are the new believers to be “salt and light” in their communities? Are new believers truly ready to suffer for Christ? How will you prepare them?

Biblical guidelines to consider: While there are many places in the world where visible persecution on account of Christ does not occur, the Bible anticipates suffering as part of every believer’s experience (Phil. 1:27-28, 1 Pet. 4:12-19). The apostle Paul experienced great persecution as a missionary and reminded fellow believers that anyone who desires to live for Christ will also be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). Jesus taught that his followers would experience suffering and persecution on account of him, sometimes coming from their own friends and family (Matt. 10:16-33). When persecution occurs, there must be prayerful discernment whether to stay and endure persecution or to flee from it (Matthew 10:23; Luke 21:21; Acts 9:24-25). The all-surpassing pleasure to be found in Christ enables and drives radical self-denial in the life of the believer (Lk. 9:23-26).

Sub-questions to consider:

When does “salt lose its saltiness” in your host community? How is the light of Christ shining, or hidden under a bushel in your host community (Mark 9:42-49)?

How are God’s “chosen ones” proclaiming the excellencies of him who called them out of darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9)?

6. How will you present the gospel in such a way that Jesus is the stumbling block (not cultural practices, leadership style, dress, customs, habits)?

Biblical guidelines to consider: Paul strove to communicate the gospel clearly and compellingly both in his speech and his lifestyle. When his financial support was an obstacle, he made tents to support himself (1 Thes. 2:5-9). His aim was to orient his life in such a way that the only stumbling block to faith was the message of Jesus crucified (1 Cor. 1:18-31). He rejected the notion of avoiding persecution by adhering to former religious practices (Gal. 6:12-14). Paul’s evangelism was grounded in the reality that, though Paul planted and Apollos watered, only God could give the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Because of this precious reality, there was no impetus for Paul to impress people with flawless oratory or esoteric knowledge (1 Cor. 1:17, 2:1-5).

7. How will you proclaim the gospel with gentleness, respect, and with all boldness in your host context (especially in highly restricted areas)?

Biblical guidelines to consider: The apostle Peter teaches that in a hostile environment we should communicate the gospel with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). Yet when Peter is dragged before local leadership, beaten, and told not to preach the name of Jesus, he declared “we cannot but tell all that we have seen and heard.” This was followed by fervent prayer with the body of Christ for greater boldness as the Word of God was fulfilled (Acts 4:29-30).

As ministers of the gospel, we are being sent out as sheep in the midst of wolves (Lk. 10:3). Jesus exhorts us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16) in our gospel-ministry. When we are dragged before religious authorities and secular governors we will have opportunity, in the midst of persecution and physical suffering, to communicate his supremacy. We find confidence in the Father’s promise to give words to speak by his Spirit (Matt. 10:19-20).

8. What role will the predominant holy books of the people (like the Qur’an) have in your ministry? How will you demonstrate the supreme and exclusive authority of the Bible among peoples whom revere other so-called sacred texts as the supreme authority?

Biblical guidelines to consider: While the New Testament indicates that there is a place for using brief quotes from local religious or cultural literature as a pointer to Christ (Acts 17:23, 28; Titus 1:12), the apostles were exceedingly careful to show that God’s Word alone is the ultimate and authoritative truth (2 Tim 3:16-17). The ongoing comparative study of the Bible with any other religious book is unheard of in the New Testament and runs the risk of subtly affirming the other religious book as equally authoritative to the Bible. We must be careful in our discipleship to distinguish the supreme authority of the Bible above every other “holy book,” striving to understand the uniqueness of the Word of Christ and its purpose in redemptive history (Jn. 17:17; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Romans 10:17).

Sub-questions to consider:

Will using extensive quotes or studying local “holy books” (like the Qur’an), in an attempt to point to the supremacy of Christ, serve to undermine or confirm one’s faith in its divine inspiration?

If the local “holy book” is regarded as “divinely inspired” (even in part) by the missionary, how does he explain the canonicity and ultimate authority of the Bible? (A 1995 survey of national C5 MBBs, representing 68 congregations from 66 villages, revealed that 96 percent still believed that the Qur’an was divinely inspired; 66 percent said that the Qur’an was the greater than the Bible; and 45 percent felt peace or close to Allah when listening to the reading of the Qur’an.)

9. How will you instruct the new believer in Christ regarding his/her involvement in former institutions of worship (like the mosque)?

Biblical guidelines to consider: The new believer’s understanding of his/her identity in Christ and the implications of being a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) and a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:7, 27), will affect his view of former institutions of worship (Eph. 19:18-20, 26-27). There are significant redemptive-historical differences between the interaction of early church believers with the Jewish temples and synagogues, and the believer’s interactions with other religious institutions (mosques, temples, shrines, etc.). Jesus himself declared, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus and the apostles preached a gospel that has the power to save all who believe solely from the Hebrew Scriptures (Lk. 24:44-49; Rom. 1:16).

Therefore, we must be careful not to assume that any religion or religious writings that bear similarities to Judaism (like Islam) be essentially equated with Judaism. Salvation is not from any other people or religion, nor do any other religious writings have the power to save. New believers who are truly repentant and growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ will eventually and inevitably feel compelled to sever all connections with their former Christ-denying religion and way of life. (Acts 19:18-20; 2 Cor. 5:17). Therefore, we should be careful not to violate the teachings of our Lord Jesus, or the consciences of new believers, by instructing them to remain cultural/religious “insiders” (Mt. 10:21-25; Lk. 9:59-62).

Sub-questions to consider:

For Muslim fields, will saying the shahada (explicitly or implicitly by being in a mosque at prayer times) be understood by the local community as your adherence to Islam?

What are other Muslim phrases or practices that could give the false impression to the community that you are a Muslim?

Dynamic Equivalent Translation – Revisited

Today, too many bible translators have failed to recognize the distinctions between acceptable modern literary translation practices and acceptable bible translation practices. While there are similarities in how translation is approached, the differing nature of these texts does require us to approach these texts differently. I would like to explore some of those differences here.

Modern literary translation

I am in near complete agreement with concepts presented in Edith Grossman’s book “Why Translation Matters;” in this book she captures many of the real challenges of modern (non-biblical) literary translation. However, I could not disagree more strongly with the bible translator who suggested that this book was a good guide for bible translation. To better understand the differences, it would be helpful to see a real life example of a dynamic equivalent translation. While not an example from her book, one of my very favorite examples of this method of translation is the translation of musical “My Fair Lady” in Hebrew; the translations are masterful! Here is an example:

“The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” becomes “ברד ירד בדרום ספרד הערב” (barad yarad bederom spharad haerev)

The literal translation might leave one scratching their head i.e. it is “Hail fell in the south of Spain this evening.” However, this translation captures the rhyme and rhythm of the original very well in Hebrew. While the literal meaning of the text is almost lost, the emotion and feel of the original is captured very well. Here is a video that of this scene from My fair Lady (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IX7gBxAOMU) for those interested in understanding how this sounds in Hebrew.

In her book, Edith Grossman expresses the freedom translators have to make these kinds of literary choices when she says, “I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves — forgive me, I mean ourselves — as writers, no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so.” And I believe she is right, a good literary translator will make many of these kinds of authorial decisions. In many aspects, they really do become as much an author as they are a translator.

Biblical Translation

That being said, I think a translation methodology for the bible that relies on the same kind of reader-response theories is a huge mistake in much the same way that a translation of a modern legal document that relied on reader-response theories would be a huge mistake. While it is reasonable for the translator of “My fair lady” to decide what meaning is important in the original and what meaning may be abandoned in order to elicit the correct emotional response, neither the translator of a legal document nor the translator of the bible are free to make these kinds of choices because accurately communicating the literal details of these types of texts is as important as communicating the emotional feel of the text. Additionally, in bible translation, we also need to remember that it is the author who was inspired by God to write Scripture and not the translator. A translator of Scripture should not feel free to abandon meaning in order to elicit a desired response like the translator of a modern literary work is free to do.  There are boundaries that must be applied to bible translation that are not appropriate for the translation of most other literary works.

While I think all bible translators would all agree that every translator is required engage in some amount of interpretation when translating the text, I believe that too many modern bible translators have become almost commentators of the text and are no longer just translating the text. The job of the bible translator is to get out of the way as much as possible and allow the text to speak for itself and, to the extent that it is possible, we should avoid interjecting our opinions and interpretations into the text. While the response of the reader to the text is important, it is a mistake to assume that a translation alone should always be able to elicit the right response; sometimes the right response comes only after a teacher explains the text. Unfortunately many modern translators have mistakenly assumed the role of pastor, teacher, and translator. A significant part of the MIT (Muslim Idiom translation) issue today is caused, in my opinion, by translators who have crossed boundaries that bible translators should have never crossed.

My thoughts on the WEA report

After reading the report and being involved in a number of discussions about this report since its release, here are my thoughts on the WEA report.

 

Things I think they got right:

1)      The report calls for much greater accountability for Wycliffe/SIL in the future.

  1. They must identify who sponsored the translation.
  2. They must identify who funded the translation.
  3. They must identify any of their staff involved in the translation.
  4. They must explain choices made about familial language in any translation where there is even a potential for controversy*
      1. They must form a committee that includes representatives from the local church and outside theologians.

2)      They must involve the local church body in the translation process.

3)      They must consider of how these translations affect secondary audiences (rather than just the target audiences) i.e. the local church; surrounding communities, etc…

4)      They must consider how MIT translations affect the Muslim perception that the bible has been corrupted.

5)      The committee recognized that Wycliffe/SIL has tried to do too much with their translations and they have recognized that bible teachers and/or commentaries are required to help people come to a correct interpretation of the text. The committee concluded that trying to mitigate all misunderstandings by manipulating the biblical text itself was a mistake.

 

Things that are still concerns:

1)      Despite the WEA’s original commitment to include Muslim Background Believers on the committee, no Muslim background believers were included. Because these issues affect them most, it is troubling that they were not permitted to have a voice.

2)      There are no clear guidelines regarding how the phrase “Son of God” should be translated and whether the offered explanatory phrases like “Spiritual Son” are sufficient to replace the entire phrase “Son of God”. Hopefully, the WEA committee will clarify this point.

3)      There are no clear guidelines regarding the use of phrases that might miscommunicate familial relationships i.e. “spiritual son”, “spiritual father” and how these phrases should be evaluated. For example, would a “spiritual son” have the rights of a true son, like inheritance, in the culture where this phrase is being used?

4)      There are no guidelines at all regarding the use of phrases that might validly describe Mohammad’s relationship with Allah. Phrases used to describe Jesus’s familial relationship with the Father should not also communicate the non-familial relationship that Mohammad had with Allah. This has been a problem in previous translations targeted for Islamic contexts.

5)      While they have made it clear that publications like “Stories of the Prophets” should not be called a “bible”, they have practically endorsed their continued use as long as they are not called a “bible”. Are these valid “books” to use in a fellowship in place of a bible? The report does not address this question.

6)      While the report recommends that committees be formed to deal with controversial translations, there no guidelines about public disclosure and very few guidelines about how them committees’ members are chosen. There appears to be a little too much room to form committees that serve only to add a stamp of approval to controversial translations.

7)      The only reference they cited in the report was a book about bible translation written by scholars from Fuller seminary that hold views fairly consistent with the practices that lead to this issue in the first place. Some of the recommendations in the report seemed to have been influenced by the ideology of this book; the report itself indicates this.

 

I am somewhat encouraged by Freddy Boswell’s response because he takes some responsibility for the past failures of SIL, I am less encouraged by Bob Creson’s response because in it, he still has taken no responsibility for Wycliffe’s past failures on this issue. Up until this point, there has been very little transparency about these practices within Wycliffe/SIL and this is reflected in the many recommendations for accountability in the WEA report. It is my sincere hope that Wycliffe/SIL truly takes responsibility for these issues and implements these recommendations in a way that truly holds them accountable to the churches in the communities where they are working. It would be tragic if Wycliffe/SIL interpreted this report only as license for doing business as usual. The response to this report will be much more important than the report itself. This is the conclusion of Biblical Missiology’s response found here.

 

Above all, let’s all remember to keep praying!

 

—–  Here are some additional resources: