Ten years ago, Biblical Missiology led a petition asking Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL International, and Frontiers to stop replacing or removing the terms “Father” and “Son of God” from Bible translations. The petition came only after years of efforts to address the problem privately, and after we saw the wisdom and pleas of local churches being repeatedly sidelined and ignored. The petition led to Wycliffe and SIL asking the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) for an external review that ended up slightly changing their policies, while Frontiers made no changes. We believe now is a helpful time to consider what happened at that time and since then, as well as the current status of the Father-Son issue and other issues in what are often called “Muslim Idiom Translations” or “Religious Idiom Translations.”
As a preface, this piece will necessarily focus in part on the situation within Wycliffe and SIL, since the Wycliffe family of organizations were the only groups involved in the external review by the WEA and subject to their guidelines. However, it is important to state at the outset that we do not want to single out Wycliffe and SIL as organizations, nor do we believe that problems with Muslim Idiom Translations are specific to them alone. Some contributors to the Journal of Biblical Missiology are former SIL members who have served on SIL projects for years, and we know God is doing great things through many faithful Wycliffe members, who are often completely unaware of the actions of their leadership and translators outside their own areas. In addition, as we will see, the problems that remain in Muslim Idiom Translations are by no means restricted to Wycliffe and SIL. What is written here is written in a spirit of loving correction, and a desire to see Wycliffe, SIL, and all Bible translation organizations thrive and serve the church, faithfully using their gifts to God’s glory.
Indeed, it is specifically our desire to see Bible translation organizations thrive that leads us to speak publicly about some admittedly difficult issues. We believe the Church needs an open, accurate account of what is happening in order to make informed decisions. We encourage the Church to engage on these issues in a spirit of love—love for God’s people, whom He desires to be like-minded and gracious with each other, and love for the purity of God’s Word, a rich treasure that He has given us to share with the whole world.
With that in mind, let us consider the situation ten years ago, and consider where we have come to today.
The petition launched by Biblical Missiology arose as a response to translations geared toward Muslim audiences, in which translators in Wycliffe, SIL, Frontiers, and other organizations were replacing “Son” or “Son of God” with terms like “Messiah” or even “Caliph,” and replacing “Father” with terms like “God” or “Guardian.”
The translators responsible argued that in some languages, terms meaning “Father” and “Son” are used only to describe a biological relationship, and to describe God and Jesus as “Father” and “Son” means that God must have had a sexual relationship with Mary to produce Jesus. Therefore, their alternative translations captured the “true meaning” of the terms “Father” and “Son” in reference to God better for these audiences than words that actually describe a familial relationship, and that Muslims will be offended and not read the Bible if it contains the normal familial words.
However, there is no known language in which the normal words for “Father” and “Son” are used only to describe biological relationships. The reason Muslims often believe that “Son of God” refers to the offspring of a sexual relationship has nothing to do with the inherent meaning of the words for “father” and “son” in these languages, but instead is a result of Islamic clerics falsely teaching that this is what Christians believe. Correcting this misperception is not accomplished by changing the words used in a translation, but by teaching Muslims what Christians really believe.
All human cultures have normal words for expressing the father-son relationship. The original inspired Greek terms for “Father” and “Son” could also have been misunderstood in a sexual way by pagan Greeks, but the Holy Spirit nonetheless used this central and universal human relationship to convey His truth. Deep and beautiful biblical meaning is lost when alternative terms are used. Using words that don’t clearly indicate the divine Father-Son relationship are not faithful to the meaning that God has revealed.
After a couple months of misleading denials and deflection (which we responded to here), Wycliffe and SIL asked the World Evangelical Alliance to draw up guidelines for translating these terms, and agreed to abide by those guidelines. The World Evangelical Alliance formed a panel to address this question for Wycliffe and SIL, which was released April 2013 and can be read here. Frontiers, meanwhile, defended their translation practices, and to our knowledge, has not made any changes to their translations of these terms to this day.
The WEA report slightly tightened SIL’s previous guidelines on translating Father-Son terms in “Scripture products.” Unfortunately, news reports in Christian media focused mainly on this tightening. As a result, many who were concerned about Wycliffe and SIL’s translation of “Father” and “Son” were left with the impression that there was no longer a problem, and that Wycliffe and SIL had learned their lesson and re-committed to faithful translation practices. Others (like ourselves) were more cautious, noting that much depended on how the guidelines were actually implemented, and whether Wycliffe and SIL used the report as an opportunity to shift directions and to specifically acknowledge and correct past errors, or treat the report as permission to continue to follow the underlying philosophies that led translators to remove “Father” and “Son” terms from the Bible, and would avail themselves of every possible loophole that the WEA guidelines provided them.
After ten years, we have a much clearer sense of the direction that Wycliffe and SIL, and the Bible translation world in general, has taken. Sadly, it’s quite clear that major issues of overly contextualized translations remain, both in relation to Father-Son terms and to other issues of deep theological significance.
Problems With the WEA Guidelines and Their Implementation
The “Scripture-Based Product” Loophole
In the last ten years, we have seen many examples of Wycliffe and SIL finding and using loopholes in the WEA guidelines to remove or obscure the biblical meaning of “Father” and “Son” terms.
First, the WEA guidelines allow translators to call their works a “Scripture-based product” and thereby avoid having to follow any of the restrictions on translating “Father” and “Son.” Some of the most egregious translations from before the WEA continue to be distributed or developed using this loophole. For example, the Bedouin Arabic “Stories of the Prophets,” which Wycliffe translator Rick Brown described as an “audio panoramic Bible,” translates “Son of God” as “God’s Caliph” in Luke 1:35 (hear it for yourself). For those who don’t know, “Caliph” in Islam is a term used for the successors to Muhammad and leaders of the Islamic Empire, related to the word “Caliphate.” This translation was done before the WEA guidelines were issued, but because Wycliffe and SIL chose to classify it a “Scripture-based product,” they are able to continue distributing it. In fact, this translation was uploaded and distributed to the public by Wycliffe/SIL subsidiary Sabeel Media as recently as December 2019.1Sabeel Media is primarily funded by Wycliffe and SIL, and is led by SIL International Media Consultant Stephen Coats. Sabeel Media uploaded the Bedouin Arabic translation onto their SoundCloud page in September and December 2019.
This is not simply a matter of “old work” continuing to exist on the internet. Since the WEA report was released, Wycliffe and SIL have used the “Scripture-based product” loophole to translate “Son (of God)” as “Messiah” in newly released translations as well. For instance, Wycliffe released the Sudanese Arabic version of the “Stories of the Prophets” series in 2018 through Sabeel Media,2See Sabeel Media, 2018 Annual Report (March 2019), 5. in which God the Father says at the Transfiguration in Luke 9:35, “This is the Messiah, the uniquely beloved one” (listen here). Sabeel has uploaded translations replacing “Son of God” with terms like “Messiah”3From Acts 9:20, Sudanese version. as recently as this year (2022).
Wycliffe and SIL continue to use terms like “Caliph” and “Messiah” for “Son of God” because the WEA guidelines allow them this loophole. (This is despite influential translators like Rick Brown and the “Grays” (pseudonym) saying that they had changed their minds about “Messiah” as an adequate translation of “Son of God.”4See Rick Brown, Leith Gray, and Andrea Gray, “A New Look at Translating Familial Biblical Terms,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 28:3 (2011):117.) Indeed, Ruedi Giezendanner, a Wycliffe translator, has acknowledged directly that Wycliffe translators are utilizing the “Scripture-based product” loophole to give themselves “creative freedom” to translate “Father” and “Son” with words that don’t indicate a Father-Son relationship.5Ruedi Giezendanner, “As much as I resonate” [Comment on the online forum post Can a video be ‘the Bible’?], MAP (Modular Aggregation of Principles for Bible Translation, April 28, 2020), accessed March 23, 2022.
Giezendanner is quite right that the WEA guidelines allow translators to take out Father and Son as long as they simply label their works “Scripture-based products” rather than “Scripture.” We have even seen that they are actively doing this in new translation projects, while also continuing to distribute many older works that remove terms meaning “Father” and “Son” entirely. How many Wycliffe and SIL donors or partners realize that they may still be funding work that removes the concepts of God being Father and Son by virtue of this loophole—a loophole that Wycliffe translators themselves have publicly acknowledged they are actively using?
Another loophole in the WEA guidelines allows translators to add modifiers to Father-Son terms. For example, Wycliffe produced a translation into Kazakh that called Jesus the “spiritual Son” of God6In Kazakh, рухани Ұлы instead of just “Son” of God. The addition of “spiritual” weakens the force of the Father-Son relationship as revealed in Scripture, and calls into question whether Jesus truly is the Son of God. The Bible Society of Kazakhstan rejected the addition of “spiritual,” stating that Wycliffe’s translation of “Son” terms in Kazakh “diminishes the person of Jesus Christ.”7Quoted from “Guidance document to translate the Biblical text into Kazakh,” the translation brief for the Bible Society of Kazakhstan’s translation project after Wycliffe’s translation was found to be unsuitable. They therefore felt they had no choice but to reject this translation and embark on their own.
Another modifier allowed under the WEA guidelines is to call Jesus the “Son who comes from God,” rather than simply “Son of God.” This type of translation had already been used in Indonesian, in the Kitab Suci Injil translation.8The Indonesian phrase is Sang Anak yang datang dari Allah. In contrast, the inspired Greek text makes clear that Jesus is not just someone’s son who comes from God (just as Muhammad is “someone’s” son who “comes from God” as a prophet, in their view), but that He is in fact God’s one and only Son. When Jesus asks the Pharisees whose son the Messiah is (Matthew 22:42), and then shows them that he cannot simply be David’s son, readers of a faithful translation will know the unspoken answer to Jesus’ question: He is God’s Son! Sadly, readers of the Kitab Suci Injil, as well as any others that follow the WEA guidelines’ allowance of this kind of phrase, would not.
Meanwhile, in Wycliffe’s Chadian Arabic translation, published in 2019, most instances where “Father” is used in reference to God are expanded to “Allah the Father” (or “God the Father”). But in a number of instances, the Greek term for “Father” is translated as just “Allah,” omitting the familial term found in the Greek text. The former is troubling, but the latter is a direct violation of the WEA guidelines.9One example where “Father” is translated as “Allah” in the Chadian Arabic Bible, in violation of the WEA guidelines, is John 3:35.
Most Organizations Have Not Agreed to the WEA Guidelines
The Wycliffe/SIL family of organizations is certainly large and influential. But they are by no means the only major player in Bible translation. The WEA guidelines, developed at Wycliffe/SIL’s request, apply only to them. While some translation organizations have signed the Arlington Statement or committed to only using literal terms for Father and Son, translators in organizations like the United Bible Societies, Frontiers, and the Navigators are still free to remove “Father” and “Son” from their translations any time they want to.
Andy Warren-Rothlin, who heads the United Bible Societies’ efforts to “contextualise” Scripture for Muslim audiences and who sits on the board of directors for SIL, acknowledged that many organizations are completely ignoring the WEA guidelines, a fact that he speaks of approvingly:
[T]he 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 organizations (including of several contributors to this thread) that would not choose to impose such restrictions on their translators…
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.10Andy Warren-Rothlin, “Sure, Ruedi—I’m sure we’ll all agree” [Comment on the online forum post Can a video be ‘the Bible’?], MAP (Modular Aggregation of Principles for Bible Translation), 28 April 2020, accessed March 23, 2022.
Warren-Rothlin, and likely others at UBS and elsewhere, consider the WEA guidelines, along with other “rules and fixed boundaries,” a “trap” to avoid “falling into.” While Wycliffe and SIL agreed to external oversight in response to donor pressure, translators in other organizations with the same translation philosophy, which treats “Father” and “Son” as expendable terms that Muslims don’t need to know, are happy to continue removing these key biblical concepts as they did before.
Seeing the WEA Guidelines Accurately
It is certainly true that the WEA guidelines slightly modified SIL and Wycliffe’s previous policies on translating “Father” and “Son.” Yet in the years since the panel report came out in 2013, the difference between the WEA guidelines and those committed to communicating the divine Father-Son relationship simply and clearly has often proven unbridgeable.
For example, Wycliffe Associates—a separate organization from Wycliffe, founded in 1967 for volunteers to serve Wycliffe translation projects—broke off from the Wycliffe Global Alliance in 2016, after Wycliffe/SIL failed to guarantee that Wycliffe Associates personnel would not be involved in projects that used modifiers or nonliteral terms for Father and Son.11There were also significant differences over Wycliffe Associates’ new translation method, called “MAST.” Sadly, Wycliffe Associates has since then been reported to the ECFA on questions about their fundraising and financial practices, and Wycliffe Associates responded by withdrawing from the ECFA rather than remain under investigation. Similarly, in 2018, the Assemblies of God World Missions discontinued their working relationship with Wycliffe. The following were their main stated reasons:
“Associated members of the broader Wycliffe community hold a position contrary to AGWM’s position on the translation of divine familial terms in translations of Scripture for Muslim contexts that conflicts with the Assemblies of God doctrinal statement. There is disharmony between AGWM’s position paper www.fatherson.ag.org and the World Evangelical Alliance guidelines designed for the translation of the divine familial terms in Muslim contexts.”12From https://www.agwm.org/quicklinks/wycliffe-agwm/, accessed August 21, 2021.
In other words, translators and theologians who are committed to straightforward translation of “Father” and “Son” with normal terms that describe human father-son relationships, and who have looked carefully at the WEA guidelines and Wycliffe/SIL’s implementation of those guidelines, see clearly that the WEA guidelines contain significant loopholes that allow translators to remove or obscure Father-Son terms in their translations, loopholes which Wycliffe and SIL have been using.
No Change of Heart Seen
When Wycliffe and SIL solicited the WEA’s help and asked them to draw up guidelines on translating “Father” and “Son” for them, they were facing tremendous financial pressure. Donors, including large denominational partners like the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), were threatening to withhold funding if the issue was not resolved. Yet Wycliffe/SIL leaders continued to believe that their way of translating was right.
By appearing to tighten SIL’s guidelines, the WEA report helped ease Wycliffe/SIL’s financial pressures. Yet SIL’s statements and actions, both at the time and since then, demonstrate a lack of public repentance or accountability for unfaithful translation practices. Freddy Boswell, Executive Director for SIL at the time that the WEA’s report was released, made this statement:
In reviewing this report, we recognize that SIL contributed to the controversy through our failure to communicate translation standards and practices clearly. We also recognize that our processes for monitoring translation of Divine Familial Terms have been inadequate. We apologize and will endeavor to correct these shortcomings.
The WEA panel decided that in certain key respects, SIL’s translation practices for Father-Son terms were unfaithful. If SIL leaders had agreed, they would have apologized for the translations themselves, and for needlessly tampering with God’s holy Word. Instead, they apologized for their “failure to communicate” clearly and for inadequate “processes.” SIL presented their problems with Father-Son terms as simply a matter of not explaining what they were doing more clearly, and not having enough bureaucratic checks. Nowhere is the notion that they were actually translating unfaithfully found—because, in our view, Boswell and others in SIL still believed they were right. Financial pressures had forced them to go to the WEA, but there was no apparent change in heart.
A true change of heart would also have resulted in those who had promoted unfaithful translations either publicly repenting, or being demoted or fired. Instead, top leaders who had misled the public remained in their positions, while consultants like Rick Brown and “Leith & Andrea Gray” (pseudonyms) continue within Wycliffe and SIL the same as before, consulting on translations without any public repentance over their discredited approaches. The corporate response from Wycliffe and SIL was to do what was necessary to make the PR and financial problems go away, but not to actually repent over their unfaithful translations or overhaul their translation philosophy. Kirk Franklin, Director of the Wycliffe Global Alliance from 2008-2020, demonstrates the Wycliffe/SIL leadership’s condescending attitude toward critics in regards to the Father-Son debate in his thesis, written during his tenure as director:
This particular debate is a good example of the interplay between two perspectives: 1) well-meaning Western theologians and their church denominations who have not actually done Bible translation in vernacular languages; and 2) those who are engaged in Bible translation in non-Western contexts and have translation experience that employs expertise in linguistics and anthropology. Navigating between these two perspectives can be filled with tension and misunderstanding.13Kirk James Franklin, The Wycliffe Global Alliance – From a U.S. Based International Mission to a Global Movement for Bible Translation (University of Pretoria thesis, 2012), 44.
Such characterizations give the impression that Wycliffe/SIL leaders mainly saw the issue as “we experts” versus “you well-meaning but ignorant and inexperienced critics.” This ignores the fact that many top PhD Bible translators, linguists, and theologians, from SIL and other organizations—including Muslim-background native speakers of languages such as Arabic, Turkish, and Bengali in which unfaithful Father-Son translations were done—have strongly rejected Wycliffe/SIL practices on translating “Father” and “Son.”
To be clear, if Wycliffe/SIL leaders truly believe that no significant change or repentance was necessary, and that the only mistakes they made were in “communication” and “inadequate processes,” then one cannot ask them to apologize for something they do not believe to be wrong. However, it is important to realize that without a true change of heart, translators who believed they were correct would find ways to continue engaging in the same practices under new rules as much as possible. This is, indeed, exactly what has happened.
What About Now?
Despite the lack of visible change of heart among Wycliffe and SIL leaders following the WEA report, there was some hope that over time, new leadership would appreciate the damage done by unfaithful translations and make greater efforts to establish clear, faithful boundaries for contextualization and Muslim Idiom Translations. Unfortunately, recent events and actions have shown this to be far from the case. Rather than making efforts to rein in overly contextualized translations, recent corporate actions by Wycliffe and SIL show that just like their predecessors, the current leaders continue to favor proponents of Muslim Idiom Translations—including those who have publicly criticized or minimized the value of the WEA guidelines as being too restrictive—while actively opposing efforts to establish tighter boundaries for contextualization in the translation of “Father” and “Son” and similar issues. This goes beyond the continued development and distribution of translations using terms like “Messiah” in place of Son of God, as stated above.
At the Bible Translation Conference of 2019, for example, translators and linguists from SIL and other organizations requested and received permission to advertise their workshop on “Alternatives to Religious Idiom Translations” on the conference website. Yet conference organizers from SIL removed this link the following month, despite the fact that the conference advertised “Religious Idiom Translations” as one of the themes of the conference, and despite a detailed agenda of the workshop being sent to a conference organizer in SIL weeks before. Conference organizers made clear that the link was being removed because workshop participants were approaching Religious Idiom Translations from a more conservative standpoint than SIL. Meanwhile, conference organizers retained the link to the post-conference meeting of the Abraham Center at Dallas International University, at which professors who train SIL translators going into Muslim contexts advocated for the position that Muhammad could be considered a true biblical prophet of God.
As noted above, Andy Warren-Rothlin made public comments in March 2020 calling into question the value and relevance of the WEA guidelines. Warren-Rothlin is also a strong proponent of Muslim Idiom Translation practices such as including the Islamic profession of faith (La ilaha illa Allahu, “There is no god but Allah”; see below) in Bible translations. Despite these public stances, Warren-Rothlin continues to sit on the SIL board of directors, head the United Bible Societies’ efforts on Muslim Idiom Translations (known as “TAZI”), and consult on SIL translations.
Similarly, last year, Dallas International University (DIU), the main training school for SIL translators, brought on Patrick Krayer to teach at the Abraham Center. Krayer has publicly criticized the WEA guidelines for being too conservative and for reflecting a “colonial praxis and discourse,” and has suggested that Arab and Turkish Christians who oppose Muslim Idiom Translations are doing so for “ethnocentric” reasons. In his role at DIU, Krayer now trains translators for SIL, Pioneer Bible Translators, and other organizations to work and translate among Muslim-majority groups.
In contrast to its full acceptance and institutional support of Muslim Idiom Translation proponents such as Warren-Rothlin and professors at DIU’s Abraham Center, SIL put significant pressure on its members who were involved in the drafting or signing of the Arlington Statement on Bible Translation. The Arlington Statement did not name Wycliffe, SIL, or any translation organization, nor any specific translations or translators as being involved in any practices critiqued by the statement, but focused exclusively on the translation principles that signers commit to follow. Statement drafters repeatedly reached out to translators and leaders in SIL, UBS, and other organizations for feedback on the draft, including asking for critical feedback. In response to this request for feedback, SIL leaders told two members of an SIL entity that if they wrote to anyone else outside SIL for feedback on the Arlington Statement draft, they would be forced to resign, would lose their SIL-sponsored visa, and their family would be forced to leave their country of service within seven days.
In other words, SIL is content to have its translators going into Muslim areas taught by professors who believe that Muhammad is a true prophet14In addition to the Abraham Center meeting previously mentioned, another professor at Dallas International University’s Abraham Center, “Harley Talman” (pseudonym), wrote an article arguing that Muhammad may be considered a true biblical prophet (“Is Muhammad also among the prophets?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 31.4 :169–190). Ayman Ibrahim gives an excellent series of rebuttals to Talman’s claims. or that SIL was pressured into following the “colonialist” WEA guidelines, but is not willing to allow discussion or even private solicitation of feedback regarding the translation of Father-Son terms and other Muslim Idiom Translation issues for those who come from a more conservative view. Is it any wonder that Wycliffe and SIL have found and exploited the loopholes given them in the WEA guidelines?
Not Just “Father” and “Son”
Much of this review has focused on the translation of “Father” and “Son,” because this issue has received the greatest public scrutiny, and was the subject of the 2012 petition. However, other important theological issues have arisen in Muslim Idiom Translations as well, which have received far less attention.
For example, many translations today, including translations done by Wycliffe, SIL, UBS, Frontiers, the Navigators, and other organizations, have included the Islamic profession of faith in their Bible translations. They argue that the words La ilaha illa Allah, “There is no god but Allah,” are the natural “functional equivalent” for biblical expressions of monotheism such as “Yahweh—He is God!” (1 Kings 18:39), or “For who is God, except Yahweh?” (Psalm 18:31), and therefore put this Islamic phrase into the Bible.15The words “there is no god but Allah” (لا إلهَ إلاّ الله) are found in 1 Kings 18:39 in the Arabic True Meaning translation, recently produced by a Frontiers translator with Wycliffe/SIL help, and the Chadian Arabic Bible produced by Wycliffe/SIL and UBS in 2019. Likewise, the same phrase is inserted into Psalm 18:31 of the Arabic Sharif Bible (done with input from Wycliffe/SIL translators), the Al-Zabbur translation (done by Navigators translator Jeff Hayes), and the Chadian Arabic Bible. This, however, fails to recognize the difference between the meaning of biblical affirmations of monotheism and the Islamic meaning present in the words “There is no god but Allah.” Whereas the Bible affirms that the only true God is Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the words “There is no god but Allah” in Islam are always followed by the statement, “and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Saying “There is no god but Allah,” then, indirectly affirms Muhammad’s prophethood.
Wycliffe, SIL, and UBS leaders have continued to promote and defend these translation choices even after these issues were raised. This should not be surprising, since, as mentioned before, most SIL translators going into Muslim areas are trained by professors who believe Muhammad actually should be considered a true prophet in some sense. Why would connotations of Muhammad’s true prophethood bother them?
Similarly, many Muslim Idiom Translations translate instances of the Greek word kyrios “Lord” differently for verses which the translators believe refer to God the Father than for those they believe refer to Jesus. For example, according to Wycliffe/SIL translators Rick Brown and the “Grays” (pseudonym), Arabic translations produced with help from Wycliffe translators, such as the Sharif Bible and some versions of the JESUS film, have translated kyrios as “Allah” for God the Father,16To be clear, we do not oppose the translation of elohim or theos as “Allah” in Arabic, which is the normal word for God used for centuries by Jews and Christians before Islam. However, “Allah” is not at all an adequate translation of the word kyrios “Lord,” which plays a key role in establishing Trinitarian theology in the New Testament. It is especially problematic when God the Father is called “Allah” but Jesus is merely called “master,” when the original text uses the same exact term, kyrios, for both. This obscures the equality of the Father and the Son, and makes the case for the divinity of Christ much harder for readers to see in such passages. but “master” (sayyid) for Jesus.17Leith Gray and Andrea Gray (pseudonyms of two Wycliffe/SIL translators) write that “a recent Muslim-sensitive translation of the Bible, The Noble Book (Al-Kitaab al-Shareef)…uses the term as-sayyid (the master) when ‘the kurios’ is found as a title for the Messiah, and Allah when the the [sic] Greek kurios is referring to God” (“A Muslim Encounters the Gospel of Mark: Theological Implications of Contextual Mismatch,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 25.3 :128). Likewise, Wycliffe/SIL translator Rick Brown writes that the Greek text of the New Testament “makes a subtle grammatical distinction between ‘Lord’ as a name for God and ‘Lord’ as a Messianic title,” a distinction “followed in some recent versions of the JESUS film and in al-kitâbu sh-sharîf,” such that the “name of God is translated as Allah…and the Messianic title ‘Lord’ is translated as as [sic] sayyid” or other terms that distinguish the two (“The ‘Son of God’: Understanding the Messianic titles of Jesus,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17.1 :51). The erroneous claim that the New Testament authors make a distinction in Greek between “Lord” as a name for God and “Lord” as a Messianic title, as well as the claim that Muslim Idiom Translation advocates are basing their translation decisions on this supposed grammatical distinction rather than on theological considerations within an Insider Movement context, has been thoroughly rebutted in Seth Vitrano-Wilson’s “Kύριος in the New Testament: Christology, Trinity, and Translation,” Journal of Biblical Missiology (2022).
More than any other term, the New Testament authors used kyrios as a linchpin of Trinitarian theology. Removing this linchpin in translation makes the truth of the Trinity much more difficult for readers to piece together, weakening the case for the divinity of Christ and the identity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God. Both of these issues are crucial for Muslims to understand, as well as for all readers. Indeed, this is one reason why kyrios is one of the main terms that Jehovah’s Witnesses change in their Bible translations, in order to accommodate their heretical anti-Trinitarian theology. Translations with highly problematic renderings of kyrios continue to be published by Wycliffe, SIL, UBS, and others despite leaders being made aware of these problems.
Translations Designed to Help Muslims “Stay Muslim”
The development of Muslim Idiom Translations has not taken place in a missiological vacuum. So-called “Insider Movement” theology has played a central role in driving Islamicized translations. This goes beyond merely using vocabulary and terminology that Muslims are familiar with. Instead, translation choices are designed specifically to help Muslims stay within the structures of Islam. The inclusion of the first half of the Islamic profession of faith is the clearest example of this, given the absolutely critical role this profession plays in Muslim life, but it is by no means the only example.
At a recent meeting of the mission and translation organization Frontiers, a field leader gave a candid acknowledgement of the tight link between Muslim Idiom Translations and the Insider Movement. Speaking in praise of Muslim Idiom Translations, she said:
Praise God, I think it is absolutely one of the main keys to see Muslims come into the Kingdom and be able to stay Muslim because they have a translation that sounds like the way they talk.18From an audio recording of the meeting; emphasis added. Date and location withheld for security reasons.
Again, the goal she expresses is not merely that they understand the meaning, but that the translation is produced in such a way that enables them to “stay Muslim”—that is, to continue calling themselves Muslims and worshiping at the mosque, where they will continue to affirm the prophethood of Muhammad and the authority of the Qur’an.
Not Just Wycliffe, and Not Just Among Muslims
Perhaps the most concerning recent development is the effort to spread the same translation philosophy that has produced mistranslations of Father-Son terms, and the other issues just mentioned, beyond Muslim contexts. Up to now, for various historical and theological reasons, the great majority of work on Religious Idiom Translations has taken place in Muslim contexts. However, a 2020 email from UBS leader Andy Warren-Rothlin to SIL translators makes clear that serious efforts are underway to spread the Religious Idiom Translation philosophy into Hindu and Buddhist contexts, and perhaps other contexts as well.
In the email, Warren-Rothlin says that his efforts in Muslim contexts include the development of “deeply contextualised” translations that are “not bound by formal constraints on how translators render things.” He mentions a “new UBS policy document on ‘Bible for other Faiths,’” and says that he and his colleagues would like to form groups of translators working in majority Hindu and Buddhist areas for the following purposes (with emphases added):
- “Promoting communication between those working in such contexts across the world
- Developing a website where resources and ideas can be shared, and best practices developed
- Organising conferences at which we can push forward our thinking
- Developing strong rationales for contextualised translation strategies (including what justification there can be for using particular Sanskrit etc. key religious terms in Bible translations)
- Working for unity between our organisations working in the Hindu and Buddhist world”
The clear purpose of Warren-Rothlin and others involved in his efforts is not simply to neutrally follow “what the church wants,” as he states elsewhere, but in fact to push the church toward accepting “deeply contextualized” translation approaches with no guardrails. Given the dangerous record of similar efforts in Muslim contexts, the church must wake up and push back.
The Need For Accountability
There are fundamental differences in translation philosophy between advocates of Religious Idiom Translations like Andy Warren-Rothlin and others at UBS and SIL on the one hand, and those with more conservative approaches on the other. Many in Wycliffe, SIL, and UBS have tried to frame this debate as simply a continuation of the “dynamic versus literal” translation debate, but this is a serious misrepresentation. Translators on the more “literal” side are of course opposed to Muslim Idiom Translation practices like removing “Father” and “Son”—but so are a great number of proponents of “dynamic equivalence” and “meaning-based translation.” Indeed, there was deep and widespread opposition among experienced “meaning-based” SIL translators to translations that removed “Father” and “Son,” a fact not reported on at the time because of SIL policy that forbade public discussion of the issue, and even some private discussion (a policy still being enforced today).19Indeed, this policy was recently used as the basis for threatening members with forced resignation and loss of their visa, as mentioned above. The policy may be read here. Translators from other organizations who fully accept “meaning-based translation” principles still oppose the unfaithful practices found in Religious Idiom Translations because of the way the meaning is changed. The fundamental difference is not “literal” versus “dynamic,” but whether translators are authorized to make whatever changes are necessary to meet “the needs and expectations of the target audience,”20Christiane Nord, 1997, “Defining translation functions: The translation brief as a guideline for the trainee translation,” Ilha do Desterro 33, p. 51. or whether loyalty to God’s Word must come first, even if audiences may sometimes be offended or find the Bible’s teaching challenging to their worldviews.
These fundamental differences are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Just as the WEA guidelines did little in the end to “resolve” the problem of unfaithful translations of “Father” and “Son” terms, we should not expect the leadership of Wycliffe, SIL, UBS, and other organizations to have a sudden change of heart, barring a glorious work of God. Sadly, disagreements on these issues will likely continue for many years, perhaps until Jesus returns. Protestant evangelicals have no “pope,” and even when global evangelical bodies such as the WEA issue opinions, they are not universally accepted as the final word.
The only way forward, then, is for translators to be fully transparent about their approaches, enabling partnering churches, donors, members and staff to be fully informed on such issues and make prayerful decisions accordingly. This need for transparency applies to translators and organizations with more conservative approaches as well. If partners and donors understand what kinds of translations are being done and believe they honor God, they will ultimately stand or fall to their own Lord (Romans 14:4). The job of every Christian is to study the Word of God and submit to God’s truth in regard to translation, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and apply this as best we can. We can reason, pray, and discuss, but there is no way to require others outside our authority to do as we believe should be done.
But potential partners and donors also have responsibility to ask more questions, and to avail themselves of the information that already exists. We can and should insist that translators and translation organizations be fully transparent about their translation practices and philosophies, but human nature being what it is, we should not expect that they will always want to divulge every detail that partners and donors would consider relevant. Churches and individuals involved in translation projects, therefore, need to ask the questions that they consider important when it comes to applying faithful biblical teaching to the translation of God’s Word. Contrary to Warren-Rothlin’s desire that funders not set “rules and fixed boundaries,” donors will honor God by insisting that translations follow faithful, biblical principles. There should be no “blank checks,” literally or figuratively.
Churches also need to become more involved in the task of Bible translation, and not assume that the “experts” always have the right approach. Theologians, Bible scholars, and Greek and Hebrew experts, from all over the world with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, should all have a greater role in translation worldwide. Organizations can work together to develop free tools and resources for native speakers of different languages to develop their own theological, biblical, and language skills, rather than relying unquestioningly on large Western organizations.
A Prayer for Faithfulness
Since the Biblical Missiology petition went up ten years ago, unfaithful translation practices and thinking have grown in influence and are considered acceptable by far too many translators.
Let us pray that God will convict the hearts of those who have produced deeply problematic translations, embolden those sitting on the sidelines to speak out in support of faithful translation practices, and strengthen those who have remained faithful to keep the course.
Finally, let us pray that God will raise up faithful servants committed to everyone being able to know, love, and obey His Word through faithful translations that honor God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God, one Lord, just as He has revealed Himself to the nations.
- 1Sabeel Media is primarily funded by Wycliffe and SIL, and is led by SIL International Media Consultant Stephen Coats. Sabeel Media uploaded the Bedouin Arabic translation onto their SoundCloud page in September and December 2019.
- 2See Sabeel Media, 2018 Annual Report (March 2019), 5.
- 3From Acts 9:20, Sudanese version.
- 4See Rick Brown, Leith Gray, and Andrea Gray, “A New Look at Translating Familial Biblical Terms,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 28:3 (2011):117.
- 5Ruedi Giezendanner, “As much as I resonate” [Comment on the online forum post Can a video be ‘the Bible’?], MAP (Modular Aggregation of Principles for Bible Translation, April 28, 2020), accessed March 23, 2022.
- 6In Kazakh, рухани Ұлы
- 7Quoted from “Guidance document to translate the Biblical text into Kazakh,” the translation brief for the Bible Society of Kazakhstan’s translation project after Wycliffe’s translation was found to be unsuitable.
- 8The Indonesian phrase is Sang Anak yang datang dari Allah.
- 9One example where “Father” is translated as “Allah” in the Chadian Arabic Bible, in violation of the WEA guidelines, is John 3:35.
- 10Andy Warren-Rothlin, “Sure, Ruedi—I’m sure we’ll all agree” [Comment on the online forum post Can a video be ‘the Bible’?], MAP (Modular Aggregation of Principles for Bible Translation), 28 April 2020, accessed March 23, 2022.
- 11There were also significant differences over Wycliffe Associates’ new translation method, called “MAST.” Sadly, Wycliffe Associates has since then been reported to the ECFA on questions about their fundraising and financial practices, and Wycliffe Associates responded by withdrawing from the ECFA rather than remain under investigation.
- 12From https://www.agwm.org/quicklinks/wycliffe-agwm/, accessed August 21, 2021.
- 13Kirk James Franklin, The Wycliffe Global Alliance – From a U.S. Based International Mission to a Global Movement for Bible Translation (University of Pretoria thesis, 2012), 44.
- 14In addition to the Abraham Center meeting previously mentioned, another professor at Dallas International University’s Abraham Center, “Harley Talman” (pseudonym), wrote an article arguing that Muhammad may be considered a true biblical prophet (“Is Muhammad also among the prophets?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 31.4 :169–190). Ayman Ibrahim gives an excellent series of rebuttals to Talman’s claims.
- 15The words “there is no god but Allah” (لا إلهَ إلاّ الله) are found in 1 Kings 18:39 in the Arabic True Meaning translation, recently produced by a Frontiers translator with Wycliffe/SIL help, and the Chadian Arabic Bible produced by Wycliffe/SIL and UBS in 2019. Likewise, the same phrase is inserted into Psalm 18:31 of the Arabic Sharif Bible (done with input from Wycliffe/SIL translators), the Al-Zabbur translation (done by Navigators translator Jeff Hayes), and the Chadian Arabic Bible.
- 16To be clear, we do not oppose the translation of elohim or theos as “Allah” in Arabic, which is the normal word for God used for centuries by Jews and Christians before Islam. However, “Allah” is not at all an adequate translation of the word kyrios “Lord,” which plays a key role in establishing Trinitarian theology in the New Testament. It is especially problematic when God the Father is called “Allah” but Jesus is merely called “master,” when the original text uses the same exact term, kyrios, for both. This obscures the equality of the Father and the Son, and makes the case for the divinity of Christ much harder for readers to see in such passages.
- 17Leith Gray and Andrea Gray (pseudonyms of two Wycliffe/SIL translators) write that “a recent Muslim-sensitive translation of the Bible, The Noble Book (Al-Kitaab al-Shareef)…uses the term as-sayyid (the master) when ‘the kurios’ is found as a title for the Messiah, and Allah when the the [sic] Greek kurios is referring to God” (“A Muslim Encounters the Gospel of Mark: Theological Implications of Contextual Mismatch,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 25.3 :128). Likewise, Wycliffe/SIL translator Rick Brown writes that the Greek text of the New Testament “makes a subtle grammatical distinction between ‘Lord’ as a name for God and ‘Lord’ as a Messianic title,” a distinction “followed in some recent versions of the JESUS film and in al-kitâbu sh-sharîf,” such that the “name of God is translated as Allah…and the Messianic title ‘Lord’ is translated as as [sic] sayyid” or other terms that distinguish the two (“The ‘Son of God’: Understanding the Messianic titles of Jesus,” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17.1 :51). The erroneous claim that the New Testament authors make a distinction in Greek between “Lord” as a name for God and “Lord” as a Messianic title, as well as the claim that Muslim Idiom Translation advocates are basing their translation decisions on this supposed grammatical distinction rather than on theological considerations within an Insider Movement context, has been thoroughly rebutted in Seth Vitrano-Wilson’s “Kύριος in the New Testament: Christology, Trinity, and Translation,” Journal of Biblical Missiology (2022).
- 18From an audio recording of the meeting; emphasis added. Date and location withheld for security reasons.
- 19Indeed, this policy was recently used as the basis for threatening members with forced resignation and loss of their visa, as mentioned above. The policy may be read here.
- 20Christiane Nord, 1997, “Defining translation functions: The translation brief as a guideline for the trainee translation,” Ilha do Desterro 33, p. 51.