“I know the Church is true, and that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.”
I couldn’t count how many times I stood up in front of my Mormon church on the first Sunday of the month as child, and said these words. Though no one ever told me (or everyone 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.”
As I hope is clear to everyone who believes that the Bible is the only infallible rule for faith and practice, this unofficial Mormon statement of faith is not true. It’s not true that God was once a person on another planet who was so good that he became God, and that we can become gods too if we’re good enough Mormons. It’s not true that God told Joseph Smith to marry other men’s wives, or that God told 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. (Thank God that He helped me see this!)
Now, let’s do a little contextualization thought experiment. Imagine that a Christian, who believes that the Bible alone is infallible and God-breathed, wants to reach his Mormon neighbors with the true gospel. After reading and speaking with many LDS members, he realizes that they use language differently than his evangelical circle, and therefore 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.
He further believes that all God wants from us is to repent and believe that Jesus saves us from sins, and that any other requirements of faith are imposing “Nicene” Christianity onto Mormons, instead of allowing indigenous Mormon believers in Jesus to develop their own theology from within their own socioreligious environment. Requiring Mormons to reject their socioreligious 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, all they will hear is a rejection of their Mormon ethnoreligious heritage, of their families and of all the truth contained in the Mormon church in exchange for the cheap grace of televangelists. Therefore, anything that creates barriers for Mormons to accept Jesus as their Savior within their Mormon environment, to be “Mormons for Jesus” who continue to worship in the LDS church and follow the “laws and ordinances of the gospel,” are to be rejected.
With this goal in mind, our putative Bible translator 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.”
Why insert the phrase “know that the Church is true”? Well, he says, that’s the natural Mormon way of affirming the truth of the gospel, and the truth of the gospel is what John had in mind here.
But is “know that the Church is true” an accurate translation? Sure! 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 may surprise many people to learn that several Bible translations done for Muslim audiences by mainstream evangelical Bible translation organizations include the first part of the Shahada, “There is no god but Allah/God,” in their Bibles. In fact, several translations include this phrase more often than the Qur’an itself does!
What is their reasoning? Well, they say, “There is no god but Allah/God” (Arabic: La ilaha illallah) 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 (say, Psalm 18:31 “For who is God, but the LORD?”, or 1 Kings 18:39 “The LORD—He is God! The LORD—He is God!”), the “clear” and “natural” way to translate it 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 this is an accurate, clear, and natural translation for Arab Muslims, they say.
What these arguments completely miss, however, is that words do not exist in a vacuum. Ironically for theories promoted by linguists, they fail to take into account the context in which words are used, and the function that those words have. When a Muslim says, “There is no god but Allah,” he or she is not just affirming some kind of general monotheism that would just as easily apply to the monotheism of the Bible as of the Qur’an—just as a Mormon who says, “I know the Church is true” is not just tautologically affirming that the true gathering of believers teaches the truth. Just as the next words of the Mormon testimony, “and Joseph Smith is a prophet of God,” inevitably color the meaning of the first words in Mormons’ mind, even so 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.
… And Muhammad Really Is a Prophet, Anyway
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 could probably not only fill out the rest of the quote, but also knew the function this quote plays in people’s thinking. In a real sense, the meaning of the words quoted 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 what are called “Muslim Idiom Translations.” Many new translation advisors in mainstream Christian Bible translation organizations are being trained by professors who actually believe that Muhammad is a true prophet. 1So why would including connotations of Muhammad’s prophethood bother them? This, however, should be even more troubling to 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.
Aren’t you just “quarreling over words,” and promoting overly “literal” translation?
It is certainly true that translating “literally” can sometimes lead to real problems. God would not be pleased if we called Him “long-nostrilled” in Exodus 34:6 instead of “slow to anger” or “longsuffering,” even though the Hebrew phrase אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם consists of words that on their own can mean “long” and “nostrils.” And it’s also true that there is a certain level of “contextualization” that is just common sense in Bible translation. Someone doesn’t speak English? Translate into their language! Don’t know how to read? Here’s an audio Bible! Language changing? You might not want to translate Paul as saying, “Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:25).
But it is simply not true that only those who promote “literal” translations oppose the inclusion of the Shahada or other aspects of Muslim Idiom Translations. As someone who served in SIL or with SIL projects for over 10 years, I can tell you that there are many highly experienced translators in many organizations that are fully committed to what is called “meaning-based translation” who nonetheless vigorously oppose including the first half of the Shahada, calling Jesus God’s “spiritual Son” instead of His “Son,” or similar approaches found in Muslim Idiom Translations. Why? Because they believe that Bible translations should be “accurate, clear, and natural,” and that these translations are not accurate. (Of course, if they want to say so publicly, they may be forced to resign first like I was, giving a false impression that Muslim Idiom Translation practices are unopposed by the “experts.”)
As to the idea that we who oppose such translations are “quarreling over words,” I simply offer this: God Himself has entrusted His Word to us, and told us:
The words of the LORD are pure words—silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. (Psalm 12:6)
Every word of God is pure; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. (Proverbs 30:5-6)
Many of us believe that when people translate Psalm 18:31 (“For who is God but YHWH?”) or 1 Timothy 2:5 (“There is one God”) as La ilaha illallah, they are adding meaning and connotation to God’s Word that is not present in the God-breathed Hebrew. If others disagree, let them present their reasons to the church, and let us pray for God’s wisdom to be faithful. This is not “quarreling over words,” but seeking faithful and firm foundations for the believers of every language group.
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.
But 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. 2
I admire the connectedness of Mormon wards and the practical ways they serve each other. I cheer for BYU football, love Mt. Timpanogos, and still yearn for the ice cream from the BYU Creamery. 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 in—the lies about God’s nature, 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, the only “words of eternal life” (John 6:68), the only gospel that can truly save them, at the right times and in loving 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, or impatience with God’s timing as a person struggles to understand the truth. But no one should ever make a “Bible translation” based on word games and obfuscation that only serves to keep people in darkness.
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, we who oppose many practices found in Muslim Idiom Translations do so 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. We oppose Muslim Idiom Translations because of their inaccuracies, and because we believe Muslims and all people need the true, pure, and unadulterated Word of God.
Over-contextualized Bible translations such as Muslim Idiom Translations sound to educated Westerners like they are correcting past mistakes, learning new sensitivity to conquered and colonized peoples, and will lead to more effective kingdom work. However, 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 will only serve to keep people further from the life-giving truth we all need.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩