The Arlington Statement on Bible Translation, a new statement on faithful principles of Bible translation, has been released. Biblical Missiology is one of the statement’s initial signing organizations (click here for the full list).
Since Biblical Missiology is only one of several groups involved in the drafting of this statement, we cannot speak to the beliefs of all the signers; the statement itself is the best source for that. However, we believe it is important for us to share our own reasoning for signing the statement, for the global Church to know and prayerfully consider.
Commitment to faithful translation principles
Many authors who contribute to this journal have critiqued translation practices that we believe depart from a faithful presentation of God’s holy Word—yet critiques of these practices can only arise from a vision of what faithful translation is. Though the Arlington Statement does not lay out every possible tenet of faithful Bible translation, it starts with the most important principle, wherein ultimately lies the root of all other faithful principles of Bible translation—the perfect, flawless, God-breathed nature of the Bible. When people recognize that the Bible is exactly the way God wanted it to be, they are naturally less inclined to change things unnecessarily, or accommodate unbiblical worldviews in their translations. This does not mean a blind unawareness of differences between the grammar and words of different languages, as the statement makes clear, but it does mean a healthy, reverent fear of handling the Word of God inaccurately or mixing in our own fallible words with God’s pure words.
Inclusion of “There is no god but Allah/God” in Bible translations
The Arlington Statement includes a paragraph that specifically speaks against the inclusion of the first half of the Shahada (لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله “There is no god but Allah/God”) in any Bible translation. Translators who include this distinctly Islamic phrase in the Old Testament do so based on the faulty idea that the Hebrew name YHWH (“the LORD,” the faithful God of Israel) and the Arabic “Allah” are interchangeable, and the idea that the first half of the Shahada is a “functional equivalent” of Bible verses like Psalm 18:31 (“For who is God, but YHWH?”) or 1 Kings 18:39 (“YHWH—He is Godǃ YHWH—He is Godǃ”). In the New Testament, some translators have included the first half of the Shahada in verses stating that there is one God or that God is one, many of which occur in very Trinitarian contexts (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, Ephesians 4:4-6).
It is not faithful translation practice to include the Shahada. Muslims hearing the first half of the Shahada will naturally think of the second half: “and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah/God.” The Shahada for Muslims invokes a strongly anti-Trinitarian concept of Allah’s absolute oneness, and implies underlying acceptance of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s prophethood, denial of the Fatherhood and Sonship of God, and denial of Jesus’ divinity. In other words, the Shahada is a distinctly Islamic phrase whose connotations are fundamentally at odds with true biblical meaning, and there is no passage in Scripture that would straightforwardly be translated with this phrase. As such, it cannot be faithfully included in the Bible.
Jehovah’s Witness–style translation of kyrios “Lord”
The Greek word κύριος “Lord” applies to the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. It also applies to other human “lords” like Caesar, or to masters and lords in parables (who nearly always represent the Father or Jesus in some way). Furthermore, it is used by the New Testament authors to represent the Divine Name, יהוה (the four consonants YHWH, known as the Tetragrammaton). The use of this same term which represents YHWH as a title for Jesus is highly theologically significant, and this is put to good use in the many passages where the New Testament authors take a quote including the Divine Name in Hebrew and apply it to Jesus (e.g. 1 Peter 2:3 quoting Psalm 34:8, 1 Peter 3:14-5 quoting Isaiah 8:12-13, Romans 10:13 quoting Joel 2:32).Yet several Muslim Idiom Translations treat references to the name YHWH in the New Testament differently from instances where kyrios applies to Jesus as a title. The argument made is that using the same term to translate “Lord” for both God the Father and Jesus is “confusing” to Muslims, because they do not understand how both the Father and Jesus can be God. But should we change the doctrine of the Trinity because some people find it “confusing”? 1
The key term kyrios is rich in Trinitarian theology—this is precisely why heretical groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the Trinity and the full divinity of Christ, find ways to weaken its Trinitarian implications by separating out YHWH references (which they translate “Jehovah” in the New World Translation) from other instances of kyrios (which they translate “Lord”). This is an unfaithful translation practice which, in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, is explicitly intended to deny the Trinity and weaken the divinity of Christ.
We have no doubt that translators making Muslim Idiom Translations are not intentionally imitating the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But can we really expect that their readers will end up with an orthodox Trinitarian understanding of God, when these translations in many ways parallel those made specifically to buttress the teachings of a heretical anti-Trinitarian group?
“Father,” “Son,” and “Son of God”
Some readers might be under the impression that the question of how to translate “Divine Familial Terms,” as they are often called, was resolved several years ago. This is, sadly, not the case. The World Evangelical Alliance responded to the request of the Wycliffe/SIL family of organizations to produce guidelines for the translation of Divine Familial Terms. The resulting report did tighten these organizations’ previous guidelines.
The WEA deserves credit for being willing to take on a controversial problem that they did not create. However, the situation with Father-Son terms as it stands today is still highly problematic.
For one, many Bible translation organizations are still completely unrestricted in their translation of Father-Son terms. Take this recent quote on a public Bible translation forum from a very high-level translation consultant involved in Muslim Idiom Translations:
As for the Divine Familial Terms issue…do remember that the WEA guidelines only apply to certain organisations such as SIL that have chosen to adopt them. There are very many other Bible translation projects in the world that are untouched by (and unaware of) them, and churches and organisations…that would not choose to impose such restrictions on their translators, nor such definitions of what does and does not constitute a Bible translation. So those projects, organisations and individuals need to look elsewhere (hence this discussion) for what constitutes a Bible, especially, as you say, in what the church wants.
A key concern underlying this discussion for me is still how we articulate these considerations to funders without falling into the trap of setting rules and fixed boundaries.
This quote makes it clear that many translations today are still removing “Father” and “Son” from Scripture. In light of this, we believe that the guidelines laid out in the Arlington Statement are helpful and necessary in this area. We also believe that funders should receive full transparency from organizations they support.
Secondly, the WEA guidelines allow translators to be exempt from any restrictions on Father-Son terms as long as they label their work a “Scripture-based product” instead of a “Scripture product.” Here, again, a helpful quote from a Bible translator on the same public forum:
…one very helpful ramification of the “Scr[ipture product]” vs “Scr[ipture]-based [product]” distinction is the freedom it gives to “Scripture-based” materials in the area of familial terms. The rules that have been imposed for something that is called “Scripture” are strict, but these rules do not apply to “Scripture-based” materials, thus making more creative and culturally appropriate approaches possible for at least some products. Eliminating the “Scr[ipture product]/Scr-based [product]” distinction without also eliminating this creative freedom may not be easy.
In other words, even in the limited number of organizations that the WEA guidelines apply to, translators can easily avoid these guidelines by calling their work a “Scripture-based product.” This allows translators the “creative freedom” not to use Father-Son terms for God.
Thirdly, even for projects where the WEA guidelines do apply, the guidelines allow several exceptions to the use of normal, unmodified Father-Son terms. For example, some translations approved under the WEA guidelines use the phrase “spiritual Son of God”—in at least one case prompting the local Bible Society to reject the translation and make their own translation. The guidelines also allow confusing rephrasing such as “Son who comes from God,” which does not directly answer whose Son Jesus is, but only that he “comes from God.” This description is one that Muslims would consider true of all prophets, including Muhammad.
In our experience, many Christians who are aware of the controversy around divine Father-Son terms are under the impression that the WEA guidelines solved the problem. We hope it is now clear that this sadly is not the case. Additionally, we hope people now understand that there are several other important problems involved in Muslim Idiom Translations that the WEA was not asked to address, and are therefore completely untouched by the WEA guidelines.
Hindu and Buddhist idiom translations
So far, the issues we have addressed are focused on translations geared toward Muslim audiences. However, the Arlington Statement was developed by translators and scholars from around the world, in many different religious contexts. Therefore, it contains general principles that apply to any context, and also includes examples from non-Muslim groups. We at Biblical Missology agreed that this broad applicability was important, but we only recently learned that some high-level leaders in favor of Muslim Idiom Translations have started to spread the same kinds of approaches for Hindu and Buddhist groups as well, and are actively recruiting more translators to follow in their footsteps. This expansion underscores just how timely and important it is that the principles in the Arlington Statement be applied to all groups generally, and for the global Church to be on its guard.
God’s glory in His Word and His Church
It is easy when reading the examples above, and realizing that such damaging ideas are spreading to new areas, to be driven by a passion for protecting the Word of God that fails to fully reflect Christian love. If we have not love, we are “a clanging cymbal,” and gain nothing. We at Biblical Missiology, as much as anyone, need God’s help to speak in love while unflinchingly opposing misguided ideas, and His grace whenever we fail to fully love others or fully love His truth.
Jesus prays earnestly that we may be “perfectly one” as He and the Father are one (John 17:21-23). He even commands us to love our enemies, let alone our Christian brothers and sisters. Many of us are personal friends with those who support and promote the translation approaches addressed in the Arlington Statement. In love, we recognize that proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations, as well as those who have already or soon plan on implementing similar ideas among other groups, translate as they do out of a sincere belief that what they are doing is good, and a belief that they are faithfully producing “meaningful” translations of God’s Word. Nevertheless, we believe that their approach to translation ultimately dishonors God by changing the meaning of key, beautiful truths that He has given to bless all people and transform our minds and hearts. We also believe that God wants us to stand up and promote faithful principles of translation that recognize the perfection of God’s Word and the need to be faithful to the biblical meaning, without accommodating or encouraging unbiblical worldviews, even unknowingly.
No one is immune from human failings; just as we at Biblical Missiology call in love for our brothers and sisters in the Lord to remain faithful to what God has given us, we also welcome others to do the same when we err.
A Call to Transparency
The Arlington Statement lays out principles that we, and all the other initial signers, publicly commit to following, supporting, and being held accountable to. We do not expect that those who are fully committed to Religious Idiom Translations will easily change their minds or their approach. However, we believe it is very important that Christians are able to make informed decisions about what type of translation work they wish to be involved with. Too many times, donors and others have supported Bible translation work, only to find out later that they were helping to create a translation that fundamentally violated their beliefs about what Bible translation should be.
We offer the Arlington Statement as one small part of a solution to this problem, by making a public commitment to following the principles in the statement. If you agree with those principles, please join us by signing the statement, sharing it with others, and participating in the work of Bible translators who publicly commit to following the statement.
May the Lord be gracious to us all, and lead us by His Spirit into a deeper love for Him, for His Word, and for each other in Christ, so that the world may know the LORD—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—just as He chose to reveal Himself.
- Arguments that treating YHWH references separately from other kyrios instances is justified by the presence or absence of the Greek article are based on faulty linguistic analyses and a failure to appreciate the theological coherence and intentionality of the New Testament usage of kyrios, as demonstrated by Vitrano-Wilson 2020. ↩