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Response to the WEA report on Bible translation

June 2013 | by Victor Atallah

 

Victor Attallah responds to the WEA (World Evangelical Alliance) report which was commissioned after deep unease over moves to replace divine familial terms (like ‘Son of God’) perceived to be offensive when translating the bible into languages which will be used by Muslims.

Wycliffe Bible Translators have committed to implementing the recommendations of this report in full.

 

 

The full WEA report is available here.

Wycliffe Bible Translators response to the report is here.

The response of SIL International is here.

Victor Attallah is the director of MERF – The Middle East Reformed Fellowship

The bells of alarm sounded by a number of conservative theologians and church leaders in regard to Wycliffe’s slide into liberalism have been well justified. It seems that Wycliffe did the right thing by seeking the help of the WEA in light of the fact that its support base among conservative evangelicals weakened.

Like with many other ‘missions’ groups, Wycliffe’s approach to biblical hermeneutics has over the years raised serious questions.  There is no doubt that, like with other missions groups, Wycliffe has had its share of personnel pushing liberal agendas such as universal salvation, the ordination of women, denial of the existence of hell, ethno-theology etc.  One of their major handicaps seems to have been the lack of sufficiently trained and well-informed solid biblical theologians committed to the finality of biblical authority.  Moreover, they seem to have increasingly given way far too much to the concept of cultural conditioning of the Bible and to very loose application the concept of ‘dynamic equivalence’ in Bible translations. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the ‘contextualization’ movement or philosophy impacted many in the area of ‘missiology’, especially in seeking to overcome what has been viewed as Islamic resistance to the gospel. Wycliffe’s philosophy of Bible translation undoubtedly has not been immunized against the underlying principles of that missiological movement. For this reason they ventured into replacing the original meaning of certain words/term, such as ‘Son of God,’ to make the message more ‘palatable’ or acceptable to Muslims.

What the WEA panel recommended may breathe life into Wycliffe’s sinking ship. Wycliffe has made a mild public statement admitting lack of care in some of their translation works. 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 translations into languages of Muslim people, 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 to 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, who can be most helpful in providing a safe and appropriate level of dynamic equivalence use in the translation.

There are also 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 strong majority of Arab Muslims, in whose archaic language the Koran was put together, understand the Koran or care to follow Islamic teachings.  Thus, most Westerners preparing to work among Muslims spend way too much time studying Islamic teaching.  They end up knowing more ‘classical’ bookish Islam than most Muslims, including a large number of imams. I met quite a number of ‘missionaries’ who seemed to be more concerned about educating themselves in Islamics than about 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.  Muslims can easily be reasoned with to realize that the 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/the Koran rejected the idea that Mary and Jesus are 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 is not the resolution of the difficulty many find in reaching Muslims.  Islam itself has always faced many difficulties over the centuries adapting its teachings and practices to different cultures, languages and the changes brought about by education, economics, politics etc.  It is certainly having a very 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 Muslims cannot be in soft-peddling the teaching of the gospel or adapting it to any of the many Islamic milieus and cultures. The key is in our level of commitment to self-giving love to Muslims. Do we pray for them, befriend them, listen to them and earn their ears 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 lifestyle and self-preserving local ‘Christianity’ seem to be the most prevalent obstacles to reaching Muslims with the gospel.

All in all, the WEA recommendations ought to help Wycliffe and others retreat from the recent unsound pursuit of adapting the Word of God to culture.  Please note that we too in MERF were aware of the dangers this poses to gospel work when we formulated the summary statement of faith.  In this connection, I would like to quote 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 relativized by human culture, but rather transcends and redeems it.

 

Victor Attallah,  Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF)