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Communicating the gospel to the Islamic world

July 2013 | by Victor Atallah

The recent World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) report on behalf of Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT), on translating the Bible for Muslim readers, should be seen in the context of some continuing controversies.

The 33-page report, released in April 2013, can be accessed at http://worldea.org/news/4212/wea-independent-bible-translation-review-panel-concludes-its-work-issues-report-with-ten-recommendations-for-wycliffe-and-sil

It begins: ‘In the spring of 2012, the World Evangelical Alliance leadership agreed to facilitate an independent external review of Wycliffe and SIL International’s practice of the translation of the words for “God the Father” and “Son of God”.

‘The review was intended to focus on SIL’s Statement of best practices for Bible translation of divine familial terms, to set boundaries for theologically acceptable translation methodology particularly in Muslim contexts, and to suggest how to implement the recommendations practically’.     

Recommendations

Lying behind this preamble are the assumptions of some missionaries to Muslims that describing the triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are so alien to an Islamic understanding of God as unitary, as to prove an almost impenetrable barrier to the gospel.

The report is conservative in its recommendations. These include:

‘1. The WEA Panel recommends that when the words for “father” and “son” refer to God the Father and to the Son of God, these words always be translated with the most directly equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients.

‘In the case of languages that have multiple words for “father” and “son”, translators should choose the most suitable words in light of the semantics of the target language…

‘2. The Panel recognises that there is significant potential for misunderstanding of the words for “father” and “son” when applied to God, and that in languages shaped by Islamic cultures, the potential is especially acute and the misunderstandings likely to prove especially harmful to the reader’s comprehension of the gospel.

‘Therefore, in case of difficulties, the Panel recommends that translators consider the addition of qualifying words and/or phrases (explanatory adjectives, relative clauses, prepositional phrases, or similar modifiers) to the directly translated words for “father” and “son”, in order to avoid misunderstanding.

‘For example, as the biblical context allows, the word for “father” might be rendered with the equivalent of “heavenly Father” when referring to God, and the word for “son” might be rendered with the equivalent of “divine Son”, “eternal Son”, or “heavenly Son” when referring to Jesus…’

It also states that the WEA ‘remained totally independent from the work of the Panel, and it was agreed that the [report] … would not necessarily reflect the official view of the WEA’.

Victor Atallah, director of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF), explains to ET readers the issues that surround this report:

The alarm bells sounded over recent years by conservative theologians and church leaders in regard to WBT’s slide into liberalism have been well justified. It seems that WBT did the right thing in seeking the help of the WEA for this report, not least because WBT’s support base among conservative evangelicals has weakened.

As with many other mission groups, WBT’s approach to biblical hermeneutics has raised serious questions.   

Errors

There is no doubt that WBT has had its share of personnel pushing liberal agendas, over such issues as the interpretation of Genesis 1–3, Noah’s universal flood, the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea, the authorship of the Bible books, universal salvation, the role of the sexes, sexual orientation, the existence of hell, and ethno-theology.

One of WBT’s handicaps seems to have been its lack of solid and trained biblical theologians, committed to the finality of biblical authority. Moreover, it has given away far too much to the concept of ‘cultural conditioning’ of the Bible and adopted a very loose application of ‘dynamic equivalence’ in its translation procedures.

Also, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the contextualisation movement has impacted many working in missiology, especially those seeking to overcome what they call Islamic resistance to the gospel. WBT’s approach to Bible translation has undoubtedly not been immune to some erroneous principles proceeding from that movement.

For all these reasons perhaps, WBT has been venturing into the seriously wrong practice of replacing the original meaning of certain terms such as ‘Son of God’, to make the Bible’s message more acceptable to Muslims. 

Balance

What the WEA panel has now recommended may breathe life into WBT’s sinking ship. In response, WBT has made a mild public statement admitting lack of care in some of their translations. They have also publicly accepted the WEA set of recommendations, which seem to be quite balanced and helpful.

I am convinced, however, that when it comes to Bible translation into the languages of Muslim peoples, the work must be done under the oversight of well trained and theologically sound nationals, who are committed to the finality and full authority of the Word of God.

For the very few smaller language groups not yet reached by the gospel, emphasis should be put on reaching those among them who understand other languages into which the Bible has already been translated.

In most situations there are such people; and even educated believers who speak related languages can be most helpful in providing a safe and appropriate level of dynamic equivalence in the translation.

There are two assumptions wrongly held by many Western evangelicals. First, they wrongly assume that all Muslims really understand Islam and know exactly what they believe. The fact is that the vast majority of Muslims in the world today understand little (and in many cases next to nothing) of what the Koran says or what Islam stands for.

Second, Westerners wrongly assume that a large majority of Arab Muslims, in whose language (or an archaic version of it) the Koran was put together, understand the Koran.

The result is that most Westerners preparing to work among Muslims spend far too much time studying Islamic teaching. They end up knowing more ‘classical’ bookish Islam than most Muslims, including a large number of imams.

Assumptions

I have met quite a number of missionaries who seem to be more concerned about educating themselves in Islamics than equipping themselves biblically and theologically to share the gospel with average Muslims.

Terms like ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of man’ in reference to Jesus are not difficult to explain to Muslims. A Muslim can easily be reasoned with to realise that these terms are inspired by the Holy Spirit, in a way that is not strange to our human experience.

Everybody knows what the words ‘father’ and ‘son’ mean. Most Muslims do not even know why Mohammed and the Koran rejected the idea that Jesus was to be worshipped. In fact, most do not even know that the Koran denies that Jesus was crucified, or why.

The ‘quick fix’ approach of replacing terms with ones that render different meanings does not resolve the difficulty many find in reaching Muslims.

Islam itself has always faced many difficulties over the centuries in adapting its teachings and practices to different cultures and languages, and changes brought about through education, economics and politics.

Islam is certainly having a rough time reconciling its Koranic and Hadith foundations with the requirements of modernity, pluralism, human rights (including the equal rights of women), globalism and personal freedom.

Muslims are sinners like all of us. They are no more difficult to reach than atheists, agnostics, humanists, or even many nominal Christians. The key to reaching them cannot be in soft-peddling the teaching of the gospel or adapting it to the many Islamic milieus and cultures.  

Love

The key is in our level of commitment to self-giving love for Muslims. Pray for them, befriend them, listen to them, and earn their interest and trust in a Christ-like manner. All difficult terms can, in time, be explained.

I am yet to meet a Muslim convert who struggles with or desires to redefine terms like ‘Son of God’. In fact, who Jesus is and what he taught and did, seem to be the main starting point for many conversions to Christ from among Muslims.

Mixing the gospel with unbiblical ‘Christianity’, Western politics, Western lifestyles and the self-preserving interests of a local ‘Christianity’, seem to be the most prevalent obstacles today to reaching Muslims with the gospel.

All in all, the WEA recommendations ought to help WBT and others retreat from their recent unsound pursuit of adapting the Word of God to culture.

Please note that we too, in MERF, were aware of the dangers this trend poses to gospel work when we formulated our own summary statement of faith. In this connection, I would like to quote MERF’s Article 7, which is relevant to the subject at hand:

‘While the gospel has implications for all areas of life, its main purpose is to reconcile sinful man to the sovereign God; it is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes”. The gospel is not relativised by human culture, but rather transcends and redeems it’.

Victor Atallah