“I know the Church is true, and that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.”

I can’t count how many times I stood up in front of my Mormon church on the first Sunday of the month as a child, and said these words. Though no one ever told me (nor anyone else) to say these particular words, it’s about as close to an official Mormon statement of faith as you can get. (The next part is usually, “I love my family, inthnameofJesusChristamen,” the last part said as a single breathless word.)

What do Mormons (or, if you prefer, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) mean when they say, “I know the Church is true”? I can’t say for sure what everyone else meant by it, but as a young man, I meant something like, “I have complete confidence that the teachings of the LDS Church are true, and that the LDS Church is the only church that’s following what God really wants, the only one teaching the true, restored gospel.”

But in fact, everyone who believes that the Bible is the only infallible rule for faith and practice should know that this unofficial Mormon statement of faith is not true. It is not true that God was once a person on another planet who was so good that he became God. It is not true that we can become gods too if we’re good enough Mormons. It is not true that God told Joseph Smith to marry other men’s wives, and God certainly did not tell Joseph to tell his wife Emma to shut up and stop complaining about Joseph taking on “wives” without her consent. The teachings that are unique to the Mormon Church are not true, and Joseph Smith is not a true prophet of God. 

How did I come to understand these things, after bearing my testimony to the truth of the Mormon Church? That’s a story for another day, but in short, the Holy Spirit opened my eyes, shone His light of truth through the message of the Bible, and helped me see that while much of what I had learned growing up was true and in agreement with God’s Word 1, many other things were not. In other words, it was the truth of the Bible—the “sword of the Spirit,” wielded by the Holy Spirit, that convicted me of sin, showed me that Jesus’ death and resurrection were the only solution to my sin and the sins of the world, showed me the nature of God as revealed in the Bible, and revealed to me therefore that Joseph Smith must be a false prophet, since he spoke things in God’s name that God never spoke (Deuteronomy 18:20). The Bible itself was essential for me to come to learn and understand the truth. And oh, what a beautiful, freeing truth, and how I longed for everyone to know and live in this truth!

The deep gratitude I felt for God’s Word is what led me to enter into the work of Bible translation as a linguist. As someone whose worldview had been transformed by the light of God’s Word, I felt a deep desire to bring the Word of life to others. Imagine my surprise, then, when I encountered trends in Bible translation that advocated for changing some of the most crucial terms in the Bible, in ways that made this precious truth blend in more seamlessly with other religions and worldviews. Translators who embrace this approach said they were translating the Bible in a more “clear” and “natural” way, so that more people could come to faith in Jesus without being tripped up by misunderstanding. That part sounded good… but was the resulting work a faithful translation, or syncretism?

I had to wonder: when I was a practicing Mormon, would I have been helped or hindered by a Bible whose translators wanted to use Mormon terminology in translation?

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine a Christian—let’s call him Dave—believes that the Bible alone is infallible and God-breathed, and wants to reach his Mormon neighbors with the true gospel. After reading and speaking with many LDS members, Dave realizes that they use Christian terms and phrases differently than people do in evangelical circles, and, therefore, thinks that many standard Bible translations lead Mormons to understand wrong meaning. He wants to create a Bible translation that is “accurate, clear, and natural” for a Mormon audience, whose “heart language” is different from their non-Mormon neighbors.

Our friend Dave further believes (perhaps not consciously) that all God wants from us is to repent and believe that Jesus saves us from our sins, and that to add any other requirements of faith is to impose “Nicene” Christianity onto Mormons, instead of allowing indigenous Mormon believers in Jesus to develop their own theology from within their own socio-religious environment. He feels that requiring Mormons to reject their socio-religious upbringing means they are more likely to face persecution from their family and church, and means that fewer people will really hear the message of the gospel and be saved. Instead, he thinks all they will hear is a rejection of their Mormon ethno-religious heritage, of their families and of all the truth contained in the Mormon church in exchange for the cheap grace of televangelists. Therefore, he  strives to break down barriers that might prevent Mormons from accepting Jesus as their Savior within their Mormon environment, to be “Mormons for Jesus” who continue to worship in the LDS church and follow its “laws and ordinances of the gospel,” which are merely spiritually neutral cultural norms.

With this goal in mind, Dave begins to create a Bible translation in the heart language of members of the LDS Church. He reaches 2 John 1:1, and decides to translate it as, “The general authority to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know that the Church is true.” (For comparison, the NASB here has “The elder to the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in truth; and not only I, but also all who know the truth.”)

Why replace the phrase “the truth” with “that the Church is true”? “Well,” Dave says, “that’s the natural Mormon way of affirming the truth of the gospel, and the truth of the gospel is what the apostle had in mind here. Mormons use different terms than evangelicals, so a literal translation here would mislead and confuse Mormon readers. We translate the meaning, not the form.”

“But,” you ask Dave, “Is ‘know that the Church is true’ really an accurate translation?”

“Sure!,” he replies. “After all, ‘the truth’ here means ‘the true teaching about God,’ the ‘Church’ (Greek ἐκκλησία) is simply the ‘gathering’ of all believers in Jesus, and the Church is ‘true’ because it teaches the truth about God. Bible-believing Christians can affirm that the ‘Church is true,’ because the gospel is true, and the true ‘Church’ consists of all followers of Jesus, whether they worship in a mosque or a Mormon ward. So this is an accurate, clear, and natural translation for LDS members,” he tells you. “And why not, after all? Don’t you too believe that the gospel is true, and that the true gathering of believers teaches the true gospel? And don’t you want Mormons to be saved? Or are you just anti-Mormon?”

Smuggling Lies into the Book of Truth

Thankfully, to my knowledge, no one has actually tried to create such a translation for Mormons. But a strikingly similar problem is happening today in translations for Muslims. Whereas Mormons have the unofficial statement of faith, “I know the Church is true, and Joseph Smith is a prophet of God,” Muslims have the very similar statement of faith known as the Shahada:

لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا ٱللَّٰهُ وَ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُولُ ٱللَّٰهِ

There is no god but Allah/God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God

It will come as a surprise to many people to learn that several Bible translations for Muslim-majority language groups, done by mainstream evangelical Bible translation organizations, include the first part of the Shahada: “There is no god but Allah/God.” In fact, several translations include this phrase more often than the Qur’an itself does!

What is their reasoning? Well, they argue, “There is no god but Allah/God” (Arabic: La ilaha ill’ Allah) is just the clear and natural way that Arabic-speaking Muslims have of affirming monotheism. So when you find a verse in the Bible that affirms monotheism (e.g., Psalm 18:31 “For who is God, but the LORD?” 2 or 1 Kings 18:39 “The LORD—He is God! The LORD—He is God!”), the “clear” and “natural” way to translate this concept for Arab Muslims is with the first half of the Shahada. And why not, after all? Don’t you too believe that God is the only God? Should we not affirm the true monotheism already present in their belief system? So, they argue, including this verse from the Qur’an enables an accurate, clear, and natural translation for Arab Muslims.

What these arguments completely miss, however, is that words do not exist in a vacuum. They fail to take into account the context in which words are used (which is ironic, given the importance these translators typically place on context determining meaning), and the function that those words have. When a Muslim says, “There is no god but Allah,” he or she is not only affirming some kind of general monotheism that would just as easily apply to the monotheism of the Bible as of the Qur’an—he or she is affirming that Allah as revealed by Muhammad is the one true God.

A Mormon who says, “I know the Church is true” is not just tautologically affirming that the true gathering of believers teaches the truth, but also the next words of the Mormon testimony: “and Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.” This second element inevitably colors the meaning of the first words in Mormons’ minds. In the same way, the second half of the Shahada—“and Muhammad is the messenger of God”—cannot be separated from the meaning of the first half in Muslims’ minds. Such translations therefore remove biblical meaning—that YHWH, the God of Israel, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the only God—and replace it with Islamic meaning.

Fill In the Blank

Here’s a quiz: 

“For God so loved the world…”

“If at first you don’t succeed, …”

“That’s one small step for a man, …”

“Ask not what your country can do for you, …”

Most of you can probably not only fill out the rest of each quote, but know the function this quote plays in people’s thinking. In a real sense, the meaning of the quoted words includes the unquoted words as well. Affirming the literal truth of the quoted words alone, isolated from their meaning in context, is exactly the type of error that gets many translators frustrated over what they view as advocates of “overly literal” translations. So, when you include the first half of the Shahada in a Bible translation, you are including the connotations of that phrase as well, namely: “and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” along with the entire Islamic worldview contained therein.

Of course, that’s not actually a problem to many proponents of Bible translations known as “Muslim Idiom Translations.” Dozens of translation advisors in mainstream Christian Bible translation organizations are being trained by professors who actually believe that Muhammad is a true prophet. 3 So why would including connotations of Muhammad’s prophethood bother them? This should trouble  those who love the truth of God and want to see people set free by it, and give us reason to believe that such translators may not be taking proper care to avoid connotations of Muhammad being a true prophet.

True Love for Muslims

A friend of mine recently heard a translator claim that those opposed to Muslim Idiom Translation practices are merely “Islamophobic” and “don’t care if Muslims are saved or not.” I believe the strongest voices in response are the many former Muslims who have embraced Jesus as Lord, and who have vigorously opposed Muslim Idiom Translations. 4

And as a former Mormon, let me add my voice to theirs:

I have been the butt of stupid, bigoted polygamist jokes from Christians. I have been asked if I wear “holy underwear.” I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of religious prejudice at the hands of those who wear the name of Christ. I love my Mormon family and friends. I have learned so much from them: The two songs I sang when God convicted me of sin and drew me to faith in Jesus, “Amazing Grace” and “Come Thou Fount,” were both songs I learned from my Mormon church choir. I still cry as I did as a Mormon teenager when hearing the words to “I Stand All Amazed,” one of my favorite hymns in the Mormon hymnbook. 5 I admire the connectedness of Mormon wards and the practical ways they serve each other. I cheer for BYU football, love Mt. Timpanogos, and have a great time at my parents’ ward’s social functions (where everyone has always been sweet and welcoming to me). In short, I love Mormons!

And it’s because I know and love my Mormon family and friends, and all members of the LDS Church, that I want more than anything for them to know the simple, freeing truth of God’s Word, to enjoy all that is good in their teaching and culture, all that has its ultimate source in the Bible, without the darkening, crippling, and destructive lies that Satan has mixed into their teaching—the lies about God having “become” God, the lies about polygamy and marriage and power, the lies that tell people they can be gods if they are just good enough Mormons, when the Bible clearly teaches us that NONE are good enough, but that “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26)—even the salvation of a sinner like me.

Loving Mormons means freely sharing the whole counsel of God with them (Acts 20:27), the only “words of eternal life” (John 6:68), the only gospel that can truly save them, at the right times and in loving, humble ways. It does not mean minimizing the differences between what the LDS Church teaches and what the Bible actually says, because those differences are exactly what they need to hear—what I needed to hear. I thank God that my friends shared the whole counsel of God with me, not a watered-down version that masked the truth I needed to hear or ignored the real differences. There is no excuse for prejudice, rudeness, pride, or impatience with God’s timing as a person struggles to understand the truth—but no one should ever make a “Bible translation” that avoids the unadulterated truth of God or mixes in lies.

In the same way that I love the people of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and desire them to not only know the saving grace of Jesus, but to drink deeply from the living water as lifelong disciples, my opposition to many practices employed in Muslim Idiom Translations comes not out of prejudice against Muslims, not out of apathy toward their salvation, but toward a deep desire to see them fully set free from falsehood and walking in the full counsel of God. I oppose Muslim Idiom Translations because of their inaccuracies, and because I believe Muslims and all people need the true, pure, and unadulterated Word of God.

Conclusion

As someone who grew up accepting a worldview in which other authorities took precedence over God’s Word, I plead with Bible translators everywhere: Please be careful not to undermine the authority of God and His Word by mixing in ideas from false prophets and false worldviews that would needlessly dilute or pollute the life-giving truth we all need.

Notes:

  1. For example, that God exists, that He is good, that the Bible is God’s Word, that God wants us to love Him and love other people, and that Jesus is our Savior—though I didn’t understand very well what this meant at the time.
  2. The Hebrew word rendered “the LORD” here and elsewhere is in fact the name of God, YHWH, which He revealed to Moses (Exodus 3ː15). It is not a general term for deity but the personal name of the only true God, meaning something like “He is.”
  3. For example, see Harley Talman (pseudonym), “Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets?”, International Journal of Frontier Missiology 31(4).169-190, 2014. Talman gives many caveats to his claim that Muhammad may be considered a true prophet of God, but he clearly believes that a positive assessment of Muhammad’s supposed prophetic role is both possible and desirable. Talman is not the only professor thinking in this way and influencing many future Bible translators working among predominantly Muslim groups.
  4. See for example Fred Farrokh (2016), Saluting Fresh Research on Muslim-idiom Translations; Fikret Böcek (2011), Regarding: Turkish Matthew Translation, “kitbın adı incil-i şerif’in yüce anlamı havari matta’nın kaleminden,” Hussein Wario (2011), Are new Bible Translations Pandering to Muslims?, or Mohammad Sanavi (2018), “The Insider Movement and Iranian Muslims,” in Ayman Ibrahim and Ant Greenham (eds.), Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts, pp. 441–446 (New York: Peter Lang).
  5. This song, like many in the LDS hymnbook, was written by a non-Mormon who loved the Lord. Thank God for so many faithful hymns like this included in the LDS hymnbook, which are avenues for God’s grace to reach Mormons.

4 Comments

  1. Seth, Your testimony is very genuine. Thank you for speaking out. I’m not sure if you came across what Rebecca Lewis wrote. Here’s a quote:
    “an ‘insider movement’ is any movement to faith in Christ where a) the gospel flows through pre-existing communities and social networks and where b) believing families, as valid expressions of the Body of Christ, remain inside their socio-religious communities, retaining their identity as members of that community while living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible.”
    She continues, “In my view, ‘insider movements’ are distinct from the C-scale in that, regardless of how Western or non-Western their forms, all that matters is that no new communities (no ‘aggregate churches’) are formed to extract believers from their pre-existing families and networks, so that they naturally retain their former identity. As such, ‘insider movements’ can take place within any socioreligious context, Western or not (such as Russian Orthodox, Mormon, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Chinese Communist, etc.), as long as believers remain inside their families, networks and communities, retaining the socioreligious identity of that group. So, while their new spiritual identity is in following Jesus Christ, and they gladly identify themselves with Him, they remain in their birth family and community and retain the temporal identity of their familial socio-religious context. ” Full article is here: http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/24_2_PDFs/24_2_Lewis.pdf
    Notice her reference to Mormon context.
    Shocking that she thinks messianic Jews did not go far enough into Judaism.

  2. Pierre Rashad Houssney on

    Excellent article- thanks for sharing your personal experiences and how they relate to Religious Idiom Translations!
    I love your point about how “fill in the blank” sentences carry the meaning of the blanks by evoking it in the reader’s head! Never thought about it that way before!

  3. Adam Simnowitz on

    Thanks Seth. The analogy that you make about “translating” Scripture using LDS terminology really helps drive home the point. In 2015, I visited a Muslim in the hospital who had received a MIT NT in Arabic from someone that I know. He has two Master’s degrees from the American University of Beirut and even taught there for a time. He is very familiar with the Bible in Arabic and can quote passages from it. When I asked him about who gave this book to him he began to complain about it and told me that it is far from being a good translation and whoever was responsible for it seeks to create a new religion. One positive outcome is that the person who was distributing this MIT no longer does so. He now only uses both the Van Dyck or the Kitab Al-Hayat.

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