A Lack or Absence of A Biblical-Theological Emphasis: Muslim Idiom Bible Translations (MIBT)

This article is posted as a 5-part series. You can find the other parts here:

A Critical Evaluation of Three Contextualization Proposals

II. Muslim-Idiom Bible Translations (MIBT)

Theoretically speaking, two paradigmatic approaches have been utilized in various Bible translations: the Formal Correspondence (FC) translation and the Dynamic Equivalence (DE) translation. Muslim-friendly Bible translations (MIBT) stand on the theoretical underpinning of dynamic equivalence theory in the communication theory. Certainly the theory of dynamic equivalence may have some advantages in cross-cultural communication, but one must remember that this theory has critical limitations in Bible translations. 1

The major arguments for MIBT stand on the following reasoning. One can communicate the gospel message more effectively by increasing acceptability of the readers. This acceptability implies that all the unnecessarily offensive terms or expressions to Muslims are substituted by dynamically equivalent terms while securing the same meanings. 2 More specifically, Muslims are repelled by the familial terms in the Bible, such as the Father, the Son of God, and the Son. Therefore, it is suggested that all these familial terms be replaced with dynamically equivalent terms depending on the meaning in each case. 3 One such term, which aroused much debate among evangelicals, is “the Son of God.” Some alternative terms for replacing “the Son of God” or “the Son” include “God’s Beloved Christ,” “God’s Beloved,” “God’s Eternal Word,” “the Christ whom God loves as a Father loves his Son,” “the Spiritual Son of God,” “the Prince of God,” and “the Beloved Son who comes from God.” 4 Brown, for instance, contends that the “Son of God” in the Bible is functionally equivalent to “the Messiah” or “the Christ” and that they are interchangeable. 5

One must ask whether these alternative terms can deliver the same biblical meanings about the deity, the humanity of Jesus Christ, and the relational dimensions between the Father and the Son in the Bible. This question is of upmost importance for any Bible translation and certainly demands careful biblical and theological investigations. In other words, this controversy is far beyond a simple missiological application of certain linguistic or communication theories favoring one method over another. Georges Houssney, a long-time missionary among Muslims and a Bible translator of several languages including Arabic, argues that there cannot be an alternative term that can replace the Bible’s term “Son” for the rich meanings it contains. 6

Concerning Brown’s claim for “the Son of God” is an equivalent term to “the Messiah” in the gospels, long-time cumulative research results proves otherwise about this unique familial term “Son of God.” This term reveals the comprehensive essence of who Jesus is in terms of His uniquely intimate relationship with God the Father, His pre-existence, and His divine nature whereas the term “Christ” emphasizes the ministry and mission of Jesus. 7 No other words can express such a deep and inclusive meaning in the same manner. Brown’s attempt for changing “the Son of God” to “the Messiah,” inescapably causes a serious theological reductionism.

Even though some biblical terms may become obstacles for Muslims when they try to read and understand the Bible, one can serve them far better if one clarifies and explains these distinctive terms within the biblical theological framework. This will further provide a clear and better understanding to Muslims because the identification of Jesus Christ is directly and deeply connected to the essence of the gospel. Vern S. Poythress states the following: “Language that explicitly indicates a sonship relation between Jesus and God the Father needs to be present in translations, both for accuracy and for the spiritual health of the church. The same goes for translating the word ‘Father’ (Greek pater). The Father-Son relation is an important aspect of Trinitarian teaching, which needs to be communicated clearly in translation.” 8 As demonstrated above, the proponents of MIBT rely more on dynamic equivalence theory and linguistic arguments than on sound biblical and theological considerations to attempt to support their arguments. 9

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  1. Michael Marlow provides a thorough critical study on the dangers and limitations of the dynamic equivalence theory in Bible translation: “Against the Theory of ‘Dynamic Equivalence,” Revised and Expanded, 2012; [on-line]; accessed 23, February, 2016; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/dynamic-equivalence.html. D. A. Carson also sees the same limit of this theory in Bible translation. See his article, “The Limits of Dynamic Equivalence in Bible Translation,” Evangelical Review of Theology 9 (1985): 200-13.
  2. Eugene Nida, “Intelligibility and Acceptability in Bible Translating,” The Bible Translator 39 (1988): 301-302.
  3. Rick Brown, “Why Muslims are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God’?,” EMQ 43 (2007): 422-29. For objections to the Muslim-friendly Bible translation, see Matthew Carlton, “Jesus, the son of God: Biblical Meaning, Muslim Understanding, and Implications for Translation and Biblical Literacy,” SFM 7 (2011): 1-30; J. Scott Horrel, “Cautions Regarding ‘Son of God’ in Muslim-Idiom Translations of the Bible: Seeking Sensible Balance,” SFM 6 (2010): 639-66; David Abernathy, “Jesus is the Eternal Son of God,” SFM 6 (2010): 327-94. It is useful to read the dialogue between IM critics and IM advocates on this translation issue. See Rick Brown, John Penny, and Leith Gray, “Muslim-Idiom Bible Translations: Claims and Facts,” SFM 5 (2009): 87-105; David Abernethy, “Translating ‘Son of God’ in Missionary bible Translation: A Critique of ‘Muslim-Idiom Bible Translations: Claims and Facts,’ by Rick Brown, John Penny, and Leith Gray,” SFM 6 (2010): 176-203; Bradford Greer, “‘Son of God’ in Biblical Perspective: A Contrast to David Abernathy’s Articles,” SFM 6 (2010): 464-70; Roger Dixon, “Some Questions about Bradford Greer’s Principles of Exegesis,” SFM 6 (2010): 911-14. One recent introduction to this issue for general readers appears in Collin Hansen, “The Son and the Crescent,” Christianity Today (Feb 2011): 19-23.
  4. Brown, “Why Muslims are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God’?,” 422-29. A more recent example of Muslim-Idiom Bible translation is critically evaluated by Adam Simnowitz: “Jeff Hayes and Al-Injil: Another Mistranslation of the New Testament in Arabic Intended for ‘Insider Movements of Muslims’ or C5 (C5/IM)”; [on-line]; accessed 23, February, 2016; available from https://biblicalmissiology.org/2016/01/23/jeff-hayes-and-al-injil-another-mistranslation-of-the-new-testament-in-arabic-intended-for-insider-movements-of-muslims-or-c5-c5im/. When this issue drew public attention, many supporting evangelical churches could not endorse such Bible translation projects and placed a pressure on those ministry organizations. Wycliffe Bible Translators took a careful review of the principles and practices of Bible translation in partnership with World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). After the partnership with WEA, Wycliffe Bible Translators accepted the recommendations from WEA. http://www.worldea.org/images/wimg/files/2013_0429-Final%20Report% 20of %20the%20WEA%20Independent%20Bible%20Translation%20Review%20Panel.pdf.
  5. Brown, “Why Muslims are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God’?,” 428. John Travis agrees with Rick Brown by quoting his work: “Often in Scripture ‘Son of God’ is clearly an alternative term that simply means the Messiah. See Luke 1:32-33; 4:41; Mark 14:61; Matt 16:16, 20.” See Travis, “Producing and Using Meaningful Translations,” 75.
  6. Georges Houssney, “Meaning Discrepancy in Terminology Between Christians and Muslims, Part V: Translating Son and Father Terminology,” [on-line]; accessed 23, February, 2016; available from https://biblicalmissiology.org/2013/11/21/meaning-discrepancy-in-terminology-between-christians-and-muslims-pt-v/. For instance, Houssney provides a list of the biblical meanings of the Son under the following subheadings: “Heir of all things, Exact representation, Lord of the House, Exercise full authority, Self-sustaining, Equal with God.”
  7. Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 35; David Bauer, “Son of God,” in Dictionary and the Gospels, 772-75, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McNight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992). Matthew Carlton, “Jesus, the Son of God,” 22. Abernathy provides a succinct summary of the main claims of Brown et. al., “Muslim-Idiom Bible Translations,” and the major points of his response in “Translating ‘Son of God,’” 199-201.
  8. Requoted from “Like Father, Like Son: The Familial Language in Bible Translation,” A Partial Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Insider Movements to the Fortieth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2012; [on-line]; accessed on February 23, 2016; available from http://www.bible-researcher.com/pca.mit.report1.pdf.
  9. The proponents of MIBT have provided some biblical analysis for their claims, but their analyses are difficult to gain acceptance because of the skewed biblical theological reasoning. One such example is Brown’s claim that the Christ and the Son of God carry the same meaning.

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