The cover article in Christianity Today, February 2011, focused on the issue of translating the phrase “Son of God” into languages of Muslim people such as Arabic. It has been suggested by Rick Brown and others within Wycliffe International (SIL & Wycliffe Bible Translators are under their umbrella) and without, that Bible translations in Muslim countries should not push the sonship of Christ in the face of Muslims. It is very offensive for Muslims to hear or read in the Bible that Jesus is the son of God. Alternative phrases were suggested. The following is a critique of that article.
Jay Smith’s critique of the article entitled: ‘The Son and the Crescent’
I am so glad that the popular American Christian journal, Christianity Today, has finally opened up the debate concerning whether it is proper to replace filial words with more ‘dynamically equivalent’ words for Muslim readers in new translations of the New Testament for the Muslim world. Before continuing with this critique, you should be familiar with the article entitled: ‘The Son and the Crescent‘, written by Collin Hansen.
This issue is probably the most explosive of a number of suggestions being proposed by advocates for the new missiological methodology known as the ‘Insider Movement’ which is being championed within certain Christian missiological circles to the Muslim world. Having studied at Fuller Seminary, when the contextual methodology was initially popularized there in the 1980s, and then modelling it myself in West Africa soon after, I am not surprised at the eagerness of certain mission bodies in attempting to ‘contextually’ alleviate the problems faced by believers from a Muslim background.
Changing scripture to allow for such an accommodation, I believe, is going too far and therefore it was with interest that I read Hansen’s article. I came away, however, somewhat frustrated and even disappointed, for a number of reasons. Let me go thru my difficulties with the article one by one with quotes from the article in italics, followed by my specific rebuttals to those quotes.
1) West versus East: The article is written almost as a debate between Rick Brown, a native English-speaking American, and George Houssney, a native Arab-speaking Lebanese; and therein lays the problem, though many readers in America would probably not have caught it. How can an English speaking American ‘linguist’ know better what the Arab Christian or Muslim needs to understand their Arab Bible, then that of an Arab speaking Lebanese linguist?
This is compounded by the fact that Hansen tells us very little about Rick, outside of suggesting that he is a “Bible scholar and missiologist“… as well as a consultant for linguistics and Bible translations, but for how long and exactly in which languages we are not told, nor whether he has been involved in any previous successful translations.
George, however, we are told quite a bit about; that he has been translating the Bible into Muslim languages since at least 1974, has worked in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Kurdish, and the Kabyl languages, and that when translating into Arabic he had already tried to do away with the ‘Son of God’ title, but then desisted, once he saw just how hostile native Christian Arab leaders reacted to such a change.
The calibre of George Houssney, and the fact that he not only is a native speaker, but has been involved with this question for almost 40 years should have skewed the argument in his favour, but throughout one had the distinct impression from Hansen that the two antagonists had equivalent credentials. This is typical of Americans (of whom I am one as well). We go to other cultures and tell them what they need, even after they have already had those ideas rejected.
At one point Rick Brown almost assumed George’s Arab background was an inherent disadvantage, saying that the reason he and other Arab Christians living in Muslim lands rejected new translations was because of fear, coupled with scepticism, “…of anyone who suggests that [previous Bible] versions might be the reason they don’t see their friends and neighbors come to believe in Jesus“. Yet, if he had read Houssney correctly, he would have seen exactly why he and other Arab Christian leaders reject such translations. Their objections go beyond fear, and include the fact that these ‘compliant translations’:
- Are concessions to Islam
- That they would confuse new believers
- That they would prove Muslims correct who say we changed the Bible
- That this would thus prove to Muslims the Qur’an’s superiority over the Bible
- That they would be seen as attempts at duping Muslims
- That the words they replaced them with would simply adopt Qur’anic meanings
Hardly any of these very real problems were addressed either by Rick, or by Hansen in his article.
2) Confusing the name ‘Allah’: “Allah, the word for God that Muslims know from the Qur’an, actually predates Islam. Some translators have recovered it so that Muslims reading Scripture for the first time won’t immediately reject the Bible as foreign to their culture“.
While Collin is correct, the term ‘Allah’ was used by Arab-speaking Christians before the Qur’an used it, the meaning they gave to that word proved that the early Christians who used it had a completely different God in mind, one who was Triune, not simply a ‘monad’ as we find in the Qur’an. Therefore, Muslims, reading the term ‘Allah’ in the Bible, not knowing this historical precedent, will assume that the ‘Allah’ they are reading is the Qur’anic monotheistic god, and not our Trinitarian monotheism? How then will that help them understand just how different our God is from theirs? Perhaps the translators believe the two ‘Gods’ are equivalent, which may be the agenda behind their usage of this name.
Conversely, is the term ‘Allah’ only reserved for the first person of the trinity, or are we going to use it for all three persons? Dr. Paul Blackham shows how problematic this practice will be, when he says, “if we give the impression that the Father is Allah alone, but that the Son is not, then are we not giving the impression that the Son is not God in the same way as the Father? If the word ‘Allah’ was used for the Father, Son and Spirit then I could at least see the logic of it, but to use ‘Allah’ only for the Father is extremely dangerous”.
3) Biological Sonship: “Muslims misunderstand the phrase ‘Son of God’, because the Qur’an explicitly states that God could not have a son. In Arabic, the word ibn (“son of”) carries biological connotations”
In Arabic, this is not always true. There are two words in Arabic for ‘son’, ‘Walid’ which implies a biological union, and ‘ibn’, which implies ‘the same nature as’. This should not be difficult for an Arab speaker to understand, or someone who is familiar with the Qur’an, since there are times when the Qur’an also uses ‘ibn’ to denote the same nature as, as well as inheritance, or relationship. Take the example of Sura 2:177 where ‘Ibn ul Sabeeli’ means ‘Son of the Road’ referring to a traveller. A Muslim reading that would not suggest that the traveller had a biological relationship with the road. So, when we use ‘ibn Allah’, and not ‘Walid’, we are claiming that the son inherits the same nature as the father (i.e. the two are equally divine), and it is this idea which is in direct conflict with the Qur’an, and therefore with every Muslim.
4) ‘Allah has no wife’: “Muslims reject the possibility that God could have produced a son through sexual relations with Mary“.
This is not exactly true again, as Sura 39:4 allows even this possibility to exist. What the passages confronting Allah’s human nature in the Qur’an prove (i.e. Sura 5:72-75, 116; 6:101), is that the author/s of the Qur’an simply didn’t understand what the Bible was saying concerning Jesus, proving that either the Qur’an was in error, or the author/s hadn’t done proper research of the Biblical rendering of that title. Nonetheless, the Bible rejects this notion of God having sexual relations with Mary as well, and so do we as Christians, so why not simply say so and explain what the Biblical ‘sonship’ really means?
5) Straw Man argument: “Even those who lack such devout scruples think hearing or reading “Son of God” will bring bad luck. Many avoid associating with Westerners altogether, regarding them as polytheists who harbor strange views about God’s family“.
I believe Rick is overstating the case here. I have never in my 27 years of working with Muslims seen such a reaction as this. Almost invariably, once I explain the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the son, the Muslims I talk to get it, and what they get is that I am equating the Son with the Father, and in doing so claiming divinity for Jesus. It is then that they reject what I am saying, but for the right reason! Yet, that is precisely the point. The reason we are cursed in the Qur’an, and the reason Muslims refuse to even hear us repeat that Jesus could be ‘God’s Son’, is because they know if Jesus is God’s Son, then he inherits God’s divinity. In other words they all know that Jesus, by using this title, is claiming to be God, alongside God, which commits the unforgiveable sin, commonly known as ‘Shirk’ in Arabic. Yet, that is precisely what the Bible says He is, and to change this title is to take away his claim to divinity! It confronts everything Muslims believe about who God is, yet we must not compromise on Christ’s divine claims, because then Christ will become nothing more than a prophet, like Muhammad and the others?
6) Christ’s Demotion: “Translators can nuance it with a more descriptive phrase, such as “spiritual Son of God” or “beloved Son who comes from God.” These phrases have been shown to clear up the biological misconceptions”.
In using these supposed alternatives, Brown has played right into the hands of his Muslim counterparts, since in the mind of the Muslim each of these phrases simply demotes Jesus to nothing more than a representative of God, alongside the other prophets who are also ‘beloved’, and ‘spiritual’ messengers of God. Once you have used these phrases, how then will you persuade your convert that you really mean Jesus is ‘one with the Father’?
If Brown truly was looking for a ‘dynamic equivalent’, then why didn’t he use the term ‘Allah’ instead of ‘Son of God’ for Jesus, since that would be a closer equivalent than the ones his chose, as it would make him God? The reason he didn’t choose this equivalent is that no Muslim would allow anyone but ‘Allah’ to use that name. Yet, that is precisely what we are claiming for Jesus, who certainly took God’s holy and personal name for himself in John 8:58. Could it be that Brown doesn’t want the same reaction Jesus received when he claimed Yahweh’s divine name for himself?
7) Qur’anic Christ: “After testing several options for rendering “Son of God,” translators opted for “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God.”
Once again Brown has acquiesced to the Muslim agenda, and brought Jesus down to the level the Qur’an defines him, a prophet, who is beloved by Allah, and who comes from Allah. Is it no wonder that the Muslims prefer this title? Yet, once again where in this title is there any reference to Jesus the Son being equal, or being divine, and thus one with God Himself? Whether we like it or not, we have to introduce the triune nature of God, a concept which is even more controversial and one which will just as readily be rejected by the Muslim reader. Once we throw out God’s Son, how then are we going to introduce his triune nature? Could that be Brown’s agenda as well?
David Abernathy, later in Hansen’s article underlines this problem when he says, in the context of replacing ‘Son of God’ with ‘Word’, that, “It is the eternal sonship that makes sense of calling him the eternal Word, but when that sonship is removed, the Trinity as we know it dramatically changes. There is no eternal Father-Son relationship, only an eternal God-Word relationship, which is conceptually very foreign to the doctrine of the Trinity as it has always been understood. The historic Christian understanding of the Trinity essentially collapses.”
8) Son of God = Taboo: “The biblical evidence for the Incarnation does not at all prevent Muslims from reading it or discredit the Bible in their eyes, but the taboo phrase [‘Son of God’] does both.”
Which Muslims is Brown talking to? Every Muslim we talk to has a problem with God’s incarnation, and the phrase ‘son of God’ is considered a problem precisely because it assumes the incarnate ‘son’ inherits that which God inherits…i.e. His divinity. If he believes the phrase ‘Son of God’ is taboo, then shouldn’t he be asking why, rather than simply trying to replace it, or demote it, or even eradicate it?
We must be so careful that we do not tamper with the gospel Christ has given us, nor change any phrase or belief within its pages (see Revelation 22:18-19), especially those which demote, abrogate or eradicate his nature. ‘Son of God’ was certainly understood as a title of divinity by the New Testament writers, most of whom were from a Jewish monotheistic background, and would have been the first to reject such a notion of Christ, had it not been true. If they chose to use such a title then, so should we now.
Furthermore, we should never allow the ‘other’ to dictate how we read and understand our own scripture. Every Sunday you will find many well-meaning Muslim apologists down at Speaker’s Corner who spend hours trying to ‘help’ us exegete our Bible for us; and one of their primary concerns is this practice, exemplified by Brown here, of demoting Jesus to nothing more than a prophet, a man like us.
Christ’s divinity will always remain the primary stumbling block between our two faiths. Yet, his sonship, properly defined within the context of the triune godhead is ‘the gospel’. How do I know this? ‘Rod’, a missionary working in the Muslim world helped me by pointing to 1 John, where he shows the great lengths the author, John, goes, to make sure we never have this kind of debate. For instance:
- With whom do we have fellowship? The Son (1:3)
- Who appeared to destroy the devil’s work? The Son of God (3:8)
- How do we know we live in God and God lives in us? We acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God (4:15)
- Who overcomes the world? The one who believes Jesus is the Son of God (5:5)
- Who is a liar? The one who does not accept God’s testimony that Jesus is the Son (5:10)
- Who has life? He who has the Son (5:12)
- Who does not have life? He who does not have the Son of God (5:12)
- In what name do we believe to have eternal life? The Son of God (5:13)
- How do we know truth and gain understanding? Through the Son of God (5:20)
Therefore, I believe it is a phrase and belief we must never give up, acquiesce to, or find an alternative for. It does not surprise me that the chief priest Caiaphas asked Jesus whether he was the ‘Son of God’ when questioned in front of the Sanhedrin in Matthew 26:62-66. And when Jesus said ‘I am’, look at the reaction of Caiaphas; he tore his robe and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?…He is worthy of death“. We should today expect the same reaction from our Muslim friends as Jesus experienced then. And just as Jesus refused to acquiesce, and went willingly to the cross because of his claim to be the ‘Son of God’, we should likewise, not acquiesce, but be just as willing to support and promote that name, that phrase, and its true significance.