This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I can be found here.
Over the last couple of decades there has been a growing divide among missiologists related to questions about how we can best share the Gospel of Christ with those in other religious contexts, and what levels of contextualization are appropriate for outreach to those in other religious contexts. The core of this divide is centered on the question, “Do we call those who have chosen to follow Christ to leave their social/religious context (“convert”), or do we encourage them to continue to remain within the social/religious context that they were a part of before becoming a follower of Christ?”
While these questions have arisen in many different social/religious contexts, the issues are easier to understand if we focus on a single context, and so for the remainder of this article I will focus specifically on the Islamic context. In the Islamic context missiologists are asking the questions like: When a Muslim comes to Christ, should he identify as a follower of Christ and worship in a church with like-minded believers, or should he continue to identify as a Muslim and worship in the same Islamic Mosque where he had worshiped before coming to Christ? Should a Muslim who has become a follower of Christ reject Mohammad as God’s prophet, and/or the Qu’ran as God’s inspired word, or are questions related to Islamic doctrines like these open to the personal conviction of each believer?
Many evangelical mission organizations, like Wycliffe/SIL, Frontiers, YWAM, OM, Common Ground, and others have refused to take a position on questions like these, and some missionaries within these organizations are deeply committed to the idea that followers of Christ should not leave their prior religious communities. In Islamic contexts, they believe that followers of Christ should continue to identify as Muslims and continue to worship within the Islamic Mosque that they had been part of before putting their faith in Christ. Wycliffe has publically stated, in a page that has recently been deleted, that “[their] goal is not to ‘convert people’ from one religion to another. The goal is to convey hope from God’s heart to theirs in a language they can clearly understand.” 1 and a number of prominent leaders within Wycliffe strongly affirm the legitimacy of believers in Christ remaining within their prior religious communities. Because many of organizations that hold these views are also involved in the work of bible translation, questions about what level of contextualization is appropriate in a bible translation have become increasingly common. Questions related to an Insider Movement approach to missions are not within the scope of the WEA working group and will not be addressed by the WEA.
Common Translation issues in bibles being produced in Islamic contexts.
In Islamic contexts, the primary questions raised are related to the translation of familial terms for “God” i.e. “Father” and “Son,” the translation of name YHWH, the use of “Allah” in new translations produced in linguistic contexts where existing Christian bibles have traditionally used other words for “God,” and the use of Quranic terminology and imagery. Of these issues, only the translation of familial terms is within the scope of the WEA working group. The other translation issues are not within the scope of the WEA working group and will not be addressed by the WEA.
A hypothesis influencing modern Bible translation
Issue related to the translation of familial terms stem from the recognition that many Muslims misunderstand what Christians mean when they say that Jesus is the “Son of God” or that God is “his Father.” For example, many Muslims believe that Christians teach that Jesus is the biological offspring of God and Mary. While there is little disagreement regarding the nature of that misunderstanding, there is very significant disagreement about why this misunderstanding has taken place, and what are the best ways to address this misunderstanding. Rick Brown, a Wycliffe/SIL translation consultant, has published several articles 2 that suggest that the source for this misunderstanding in Arabic contexts is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Arabic word for ‘son’ (ibn). In his articles, Brown contends that the word ‘ibn’ (son) always conveys the idea of a biological relationship to Muslim audiences. For this reason he suggests that Muslim audiences will always conclude that Christians using the phrase “Son of God” will believe that Jesus is the biological son of God and Mary. His solution to this problem is to use alternative terms when translating Scriptures that use familial terms that describe God’s relationship to his Son; he suggests avoiding familial terms or significantly qualifying them. Brown’s arguments have become foundational to this debate and are frequently cited by those involved in publishing Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) which replace or qualify familial terms. While Brown has offered little evidence in support of his hypothesis, his hypothesis has become the foundational argument for the significant changes that are being made in many new bible translations, not only in Arabic speaking contexts, but now in almost every linguistic contexts where Muslims reside. Alarmingly, changes in how we translate Scripture were adopted without ever addressing the question “Does Brown’s hypothesis accurately reflect the reasons why Muslims misunderstand what we mean when we say that Jesus is the “Son of God?”
Is Brown’s hypothesis valid?
When asked, native Arabic speakers, whether Muslim, Christian, or secular, overwhelmingly reject the suggestion that the Arabic word ‘ibn’ (son) is limited only to biological relationships. And when Arabic dictionaries are consulted, we find no evidence that validates the suggestion that the meaning of ‘ibn’ is so narrowly understood. In my experience, the only arguments for this narrow definition of ‘ibn’ have come directly from those who have a vested interest in the production of Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s), and that is troubling. It is like asking those who work for Philip Morris (the largest producer of cigarettes) whether smoking cigarettes is bad for your health and not taking into consideration the bias that might be inherent in their answer. In discussions with missiologists and bible translators, concerns about the validity of Brown’s hypothesis have been frequently raised, and most of those involved (even those who support the use of MIT’s) privately acknowledge that there is little evidence to support the idea that the word for ‘son’ in Arabic, or in any other linguistic context, can only be understood in terms of a biological relationship. For those who are involved in bible translation work in linguistic contexts where these issues exist, the concerns stated above are well known. This concern was acknowledged in the original 2013 WEA report which stated that “The Panel recognizes that the challenges of communicating divine familial relationships to Muslims are not primarily linguistic, and therefore does not consider that such challenges can be overcome by translation alone.” 3 For this reason, it was both surprising and alarming to read, without qualification, the concluding statements of the WEA report released in 2017 4 that state “In some languages and cultures, the word for “son” communicates the wrong meaning (as in cases when the word communicates nothing but the idea of a biological relationship).” 5When the validity of this claim is rejected even by those who support the legitimacy of MIT’s, one must wonder how an “unbiased” panel could appeal to this reasoning in support of an apparent exception for translations that may not conform to the guidelines that the WEA published in 2013.
Why then do Muslim’s misunderstand the phrase “Son of God?”
Most Muslims misunderstand what Christians mean when the speak of the “Son of God,” not because they have misunderstood the word “son,” but because they have been taught by their Imams that Christians believe that the Trinity is composed of God, Mary, and Jesus, and they have been taught that Christians believe that Jesus is the biological son of God and Mary. The Muslim commentator Zamakhshari, writing on Sura 4, says, “According to the evidence of the Qur’an, the Christians maintain that God, Christ and Mary are three gods and that Christ is the child of God by Mary,” The Sunni commentary Tafsir al-Jalalayn on Sura 4 says, “So believe in God and His messengers and do not say that the gods are ‘Three’ God, Jesus, and his mother.”, and Tafsir Ibn ‘Abbas states that, “Jesus became a son without a father. (So believe in Allah and His messengers) all the messengers including Jesus, (and say not “Three”) a son, father, and wife. (Cease!) from making such a claim and repent ([it is] better for you!). (Allah is only One God) without a son or partner.” Over, and over again we similar examples where Muslim leaders teach that Christians believe that Jesus is God’s biological son and Mary is God’s wife. With such an abundance of teaching from Islamic leaders that consistently misrepresent the beliefs of Christianity, there is little reason to search for an alternative explanation for the common misperceptions held by Muslims about Christians beliefs. Those who have been exposed to Islamic teaching about Christianity, will misunderstand what Christians believe even when the familial terms themselves correctly communicate the Father’s relationship to his son.
How do we resolve this misunderstanding?
Misunderstandings about what Christians believe are nothing new; throughout history people have misunderstood what Christians believe and we can be assured that people will continue to misunderstand our beliefs in the future. One of the earliest documented examples comes from the 2nd century when many in Rome had been told that Christians were adopting children to use in cannibalistic rites. Those who followed the pagan religions of Rome had been taught a very distorted interpretation of the Lord’s supper by their leaders, and in response Minicius Felix wrote 6 about a dialog between a Pagan named Caecilius Natalis and a Christian named Octavius Januarius. In this dialog, Octavius explains what Christians truly believe, and why they have been misunderstood. Throughout history the response to misunderstandings like these has been to offer explanations about what we truly believe. The idea of changing the biblical text to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings would have been an anathema to all prior generations of Christians.
Today the rules have changed. No longer are some content to offer only an explanation about what we believe when faced with these kinds of misunderstandings, today some believe that the text itself must be changed to avoid these kind of misunderstandings. In Islamic contexts this has resulted in translations that exhibit a number of very serious issues that prevent them from accurately communicating God’s word to the audience they target 7. Many of today’s bible translators have taken on the role of both translator and commentator and, by inserting their commentary into the text itself, have made their interpretive choices indistinguishable from the biblical text. One of the conclusions of the original 2013 WEA report was that bible translators were seeking to do too much with their bible translations, “overloading the translation by attempting to address too many possible meanings and misunderstandings,” and the 2013 WEA report recommended that “other means can and should be utilized alongside the translation of Scripture.” .” 8 It has now been four years since the release of the 2013 WEA report and the first revision of a bible translation that had publicly claimed to adhere to the WEA guidelines has been published 9. This translation, “The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ,” demonstrates even greater overloading than did its predecessor, and the 2017 WEA report 10 appears to have opened the door even further to translations that make similar translation choices.
Issues related to the limited scope of the WEA working group
As mentioned above, the scope of the WEA oversight panel is limited only to the evaluation of Divine Familial Terms used in bible translations. While other very significant issues have been identified in Muslim Idiom Translations, these other issues are considered out of the scope of the WEA oversight Panel and will not be addressed by this panel. There are currently no plans to expand the scope of the WEA panel to assess other serious issues that have been identified with these translations, nor are there plans to form a new panel to assess issues not within the scope of the original panel.
The WEA panel will only assess translations produced by Wycliffe/SIL, and even when translations have been produced with the assistance of Wycliffe/SIL, they are not assessed if Wycliffe/SIL has subsequently withdrawn from these projects. Translation projects that did not involve Wycliffe/SIL are never assessed by the WEA. There are currently no plans to assess translations produced by the many other Evangelical organizations involved in bible translation despite the recognition that other prominent Evangelical organizations have also been involved translation projects that are non-compliant with the standards established by the WEA panel.
There is a complete lack of transparency in regards to the involvement of Wycliffe/SIL in non-compliant translation projects. There is no process for publicly identifying the projects in which Wycliffe/SIL has been involved, no accounting for the time that Wycliffe/SIL has been involved in these projects, and no accounting for the amount of funding provided by Wycliffe/SIL for these projects. Non-compliant projects are not identified, nor are the organizations that have produced non-compliant translations identified. The only requirement for Wycliffe/SIL is that they withdraw from projects that have been identified as non-compliant and, even when they are required to withdraw, there is no clear time table in which a withdrawal is expected to take place. The following are the guidelines from the WEA regarding the requirement to withdraw from non-compliant projects, “If either internal or external review demonstrates that a project is not in compliance with SIL standards and the other stakeholders in the project wish to continue with their current approach, SIL and Wycliffe organizations who are key stakeholders will withdraw from involvement by procedures agreed upon with the other stakeholders. SIL and Wycliffe organizations who are key stakeholders will not provide funding for translation projects that are not in compliance with SIL standards. Withdrawal of funding will be done according to proper legal and financial obligations in the project context.” 11
It is time for the Evangelical community to re-examine the WEA process to assure that all issues that have been identified in bible translations produced by the evangelical community, including the concerns raised in the 2013 WEA report are being adequately addressed. We must recognize that the very narrow focus of the current WEA working group prevents it from adequately addressing all of the issues that have a real potential to compromise the integrity of God’s word in translations produced and funded by the Evangelical community. The Evangelical community needs a new panel that will evaluate every serious translation issue that is identified in the bible translations we produce. Limiting a panel’s scope only to very narrowly defined issues prevents the possibility of a timely response to critical issues in bible translation as they arise. The issues related to the translation of Divine Familial Terms, which have taken more than a decade to address, demonstrates why this approach is flawed.
We need a panel that will evaluate the translations from all of our evangelical mission organizations, and not limit itself only to the evaluation of translations produced by a single organization. When a non-compliant translation is published, we need a panel that will identify the translation, the concerns the panel has with the translation, and the organizations that have chosen to publish it so that the Evangelical community is aware of these translations and can respond appropriately to them and the organizations that have produced them.
If these kinds of issues are merely acknowledged but never addressed by the WEA then it may be time to seek a broader coalition of Evangelicals to review the bible translations we fund to assure that they accurately communicate God’s word to a world that desperately needs to hear it. Here are some steps we can take to better ensure that the translations we produce accurately communicate God’s word to a world who desperately needs to hear it.
We must insist on Transparency – The current issues in bible translation developed largely in secret. For many years, it was impossible to get any answers from the organizations involved. Sadly, that situation has not significantly changed over the last few years since knowledge of these translation projects has become more widely known. While it is known (by the admission of the organizations that have produced them) that dozens of translation projects have involved the kinds of choices described in this article, very few of these translations have been identified by those outside of the organizations that have produced them. Today these translations are rarely made publically available, and knowledge of their contents is available only when these translations have been discovered by those outside of the organizations that have produced them. The issues we are facing in bible translation will not change until we demand transparency in bible translation. We should insist that the translations that we fund be made publically available for examination by native speakers that are not connected with the organization that published them. No bible translation produced by the ministries we fund should be kept secret! We need to insist that the organizations we fund provide a full financial accounting for each translation project they have helped fund and each project from which they were required a withdraw because the project was non-compliant should be noted.
We need to be involved – Most importantly, we need to be far more involved with the ministries we are funding, taking the time to understand their views about ministry. We need to examine more than just the beliefs stated in their statement of faith, we need to understand how their ministry practices reflect the beliefs they proclaim. Far too often it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the beliefs found in an organization’s statement of faith, with the practices of the missionaries and bible translators that serve in these organizations. Sadly, when we ask questions about these ministries, we need to make sure that the answers we receive are not misleading. When a missionary speaks about leading a hundred Muslims to faith in Christ and establishing a new church, we can no longer assume that we understand what this means without further inquiry. When we ask questions, we should not ask about the beliefs held by the missionary, but instead we need to ask about the beliefs of those within his ministry i.e. Do they identify as Christians, or do they continue to identify as Muslims? Do they worship in a Christian Church or an Islamic Mosque? Do these Christ followers continue to recite the Shahada [Islamic statement of faith] and pray from the Qur’an? Do all of these new Christ followers believe in the deity of Christ, or do they see some him as only a prophet? Do they believe that Christ died for their sins, or do they believe that his death was only an illusion? Too often those who engage in ministry practices like those described in this article have learned to communicate the practices of their ministry to the church at home in ways that do not alarm those who are funding their ministry, and it is becoming more and more important to dig a little deeper to ensure that we truly understand the practices of the ministries we are funding.
We must come to an Agreement on the limits of dynamic equivalency – When voices from within the Evangelical community began challenging the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, over 200 leaders and scholars from the Evangelical community came together and produced the Chicago statement on Biblical inerrancy 12. That statement clearly defined the boundaries of Evangelical belief about the inerrancy of Scripture. Today there are voices within the Evangelical community that are again challenging our view of Scripture in ways that are just as dangerous as those faced by those of a past generation. And like the past generation, we need to again come together as a united community of believers and define boundaries for the translation of God’s word that will protect the integrity of God’s word in the translations produced by and for the evangelical community of believers.
- I am currently awaiting a response from Wycliffe regarding this removal ↩
- http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/17_1_PDFs/Son_of_God.pdf ↩
- REPORT TO WORLD EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE FOR CONVEYANCE TO WYCLIFFE GLOBAL ALLIANCE AND SIL INTERNATIONAL, WEA, 4/15/2013 ↩
- Divine Familial Terms Translation Procedures, December 2016 ↩
- It is my understanding that this will be corrected but an updated report has not been yet released ↩
- Octavius, 2nd century AD ↩
- LINK to PART 1 ↩
- REPORT TO WORLD EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE FOR CONVEYANCE TO WYCLIFFE GLOBAL ALLIANCE AND SIL INTERNATIONAL, WEA, 4/15/2013 ↩
- Al Kalima is no longer claiming that their translations are approved by the WEA ↩
- Divine Familial Terms Translation Procedures, December 2016 ↩
- Processes for Accuracy and Accountability in Bible Translation of Divine Familial Terms, WEA, 11/24/2013 ↩
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Statement_on_Biblical_Inerrancy ↩