In Pursuit of a Faithful Witness

In Pursuit of a Faithful Witness

Editor's Note: We welcome the Rev. Scott Seaton, an ordained minister in the PCA, to introduce our readers to an issue that is fast becoming a major topic in mission boards, denominations, and among those on the mission field. For background articles, click here, here, and here.

"And a voice came from heaven,'You are my beloved Messiah; with you I am well pleased.'" This declaration is the familiar pronouncement of God's favor upon Jesus, at the time of his baptism.

Well, not quite. That verse is actually from the Injil Sharif, a 2005 Bengali translation of the gospel of Mark. A missions agency based in Atlanta worked with translators in Bangladesh to produce a version of the gospels with a twist: the word "Son" in reference to Jesus is consistently replaced with "Messiah," and "Father" with "Guardian."

The group in Bangladesh represents what is known in missions circles as an "Insider Movement." Advocates of these initiatives say their followers believe Jesus as Savior, yet "remain inside their families, networks and communities, retaining the socio-religious identity of that group."[1] The idea of encouraging believers to "remain" within Islam and "retain" their identity as a Muslim is one of the most controversial issues in missions today. Arguably the most contentious practice of some of these groups is to produce Bible translations that remove familial language for God, due to the offense Muslims have towards the idea that God is Father and Son. Thus, "Son" is removed from Mark 1:11 to read in the Bangladeshi translation, "You are my beloved Messiah."

Most Christians, however, have never heard of Insider Movements nor of these translations--though they may have been unwittingly supporting them. To address this issue, and to give guidance to their churches, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in June 2011 approved "A Call to Faithful Witness." The key resolution of this overture declared "as unfaithful to God's revealed Word, Insider Movement or any other translations of the Bible that remove from the text references to God as 'Father' (pater) or Jesus as 'Son' (huios), because such removals compromise doctrines of the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and Scripture." 

Because advocates of these translations can describe their work in ways that appear acceptable on the surface, the overture was intentionally specific and objective. Using terms other than "Father" or "Son" in the text was expressly deemed unfaithful. In other words, relegating those terms to the footnotes, or using "non-familial alternatives" would be compromising the very essence of the Christian faith.

In order to focus on the issue itself, the overture intentionally did not reference any missions organization. Prior to the Assembly, however, the leadership of Wycliffe/SIL asked SIL translator Larry Chico to prepare a response, called "Considering Overture 9,"  to be sent to the PCA. Though not formally received by the Assembly, the document was distributed to pastors and elders in attendance. The Wycliffe document "extracted the key claims and statements" from the overture and provided a "response based on comments and feedback from translators and consultants directly involved in translation projects done for Muslim language communities." Thus, "Concerning Overture 9" offers an important insight into the thinking of certain Wycliffe/SIL translators.

Subsequent to the Assembly, critics of these "Muslim-Idiom Translations" asked me as lead author of the overture to prepare a response to "Considering Overture 9," given its public nature. That response, which includes all seven pages of Wycliffe/SIL's paper and the final version of the overture, is entitled "Towards A Faithful Witness" can be found here: Towards A Faithful Witness.pdf

Those who are concerned about the direction of world missions (which should include all Christians!) are encouraged to read the article in full, to come to their own conclusions. But given its length, a representative sampling of the exchange may whet one's appetite. I have sincerely tried to represent Wycliffe's position fairly, even while offering a direct critique. Thus, Chico's comments in each section are included in full, both here and in the longer article. To make it clear who wrote each section, I put the excerpts that Chico cited in bold and italicized my comments, which follow Chico's response.

The first excerpt Chico cites is the overture's claim that "some groups have produced Bible translations that have replaced references to Jesus as 'Son' (huios) with terms such as 'Messiah' . . ."

[Chico:] The scholars who are most aware of Bible translations that have been done for Muslim audiences are not aware of any approved Bible translations that systematically use the term "Messiah" for the term huios tou theou in Greek, nor are they aware of any that do not present and explain the Father-Son terminology of the original-language text. Consultants always insist that where a functional or non-familial alternative to the traditional translation for "Son" or "Father" is used, that the paratext (introductions, glossaries, articles and footnotes accompanying the Scripture text) explain this and provide the traditional rendering.

[Seaton:] The central premise of the overture is this: there simply is no"functional alternative" for God's identity as Father, Son and Spirit. He exists eternally and ontologically as God the Father, Son and Spirit, and thus he reveals himself in those familial terms--not as metaphor, but as who he is in his person. To replace "Father" and "Son" with a "non-familial alternative" is to portray God as exactly that: non-familial. But 1 John 4:14 says, "We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world." Thus, it is God as Father who sent God the Son. The Sonship of Jesus cannot be obscured; it is at the very heart of the gospel: Without the Son, there is no cross. Without the cross, there is no gospel. 

The overture never claims a "systematic," one-for-one replacement of "Son of God" with "Messiah," and its claims cannot be dismissed simply by saying "scholars" are unaware of translations that "systematically use the term 'Messiah' for the term 'huios tou theou.'" What the overture asserts is true. Translations indeed exist that replace references to Jesus as "Son" with terms such as "Messiah." For example, the 2005 Bangla translation of the "Injil Sharif" that was financed by Global Partners For Development explicitly replaced "Son" with "Messiah." . . . "The Lives of the Prophets" ("Stories of the Prophets") produced by SIL, and "The True Meaning of the Gospel of Christ," produced in conjunction with an SIL advisor, similarly replace "Son" with other terms. . . .

Larry Chico confirms SIL's approved practice of removing familial language in the statement, "where functional or non-familial alternative to the traditional translation for 'Son' or 'Father' is used." This is deeply disturbing and would alarm most supporters. Moreover, this practice is not mitigated by saying that consultants "always insist" that explanations are given in the paratext when alternatives are used. This may be SIL's official position; however, the overture does not refer to the "insistence" of any particular Bible translation agency, but only to actual translation practices. But more importantly, the overture expressly rejects removal of familial language from the text itself. In other words, relegating familial language only to the paratext is not adequate for God's purposes of revelation. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that Scripture is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." While paratext is helpful, as a pastor, I teach, reprove, correct and train from the text, not the footnotes. The text--not the paratext--should be considered authoritative, as God's words "breathed-out." . . .

Chico then cites the overture's claim that "some groups . . . have replaced references . . . in order to be more acceptable to Muslims,"

[Chico:] What Muslims find unacceptable about kinship terminology is not the theological meaning associated with it, but the sexual implications that they perceive in the phrases themselves. Professional Bible translation specialists and the local translators they work with are strongly committed to faithfully communicating the original meaning of the inspired Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic sources, making them clear, natural and accurate. They work to communicate this meaning as fully and accurately as possible, using expressions native to the language rather than imports from other dialects and communities. They test draft translation passages with members of the target audience, using alternative wordings, to find out how each wording is understood by them. The local translators and leading believers then decide which terms and wordings should be used, based on the testing.

 [Seaton:] Every generation of the Church is given a sacred trust. As Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, "We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts." (1 Thess 2:4).

We also have been given a stewardship, to faithfully guard and proclaim the gospel. What we say cannot be determined by whether the audience is pleased by the message.

Thus, the overture intentionally does not specify the reasons why Muslims find "Son" objectionable, because their reaction has no bearing on what God actually said. Determining whether the offense to Muslims is the sexual implication or the divine implication--or something else entirely--is not the focus of the overture and should not be the focus of a translation. Again, audience understanding is important in the challenging work of translation, but it cannot alter what God has revealed. . . .

While objections of any sort cannot change God's revelation of himself as Father and Son, many missionaries and believers from Muslim backgrounds disagree with the premise that, "What Muslims find unacceptable about kinship terminology is not the theological meaning associated with it, but the sexual implications . . ." The experience of many serving in the Muslim world is that Muslims' primary objection to the term is not sexual but theological. "Son of God" indicates that God's nature exists in more than one person, and that he is immanent. This Scriptural teaching, affirmed by the historic and global Church, is offensive to the Islamic understanding of absolute monotheism and transcendence. The solution is not to remove God's own term for himself from the text, but to explain it in the paratext. Certainly, this explanation will take time. But the witness of tens of thousands of Muslims around the world who have come to faith in Jesus as the Son of God, is that the Holy Spirit indeed is able to speak to their hearts, too.

[Chico cites footnote iii of the overture:] It is implied that translations for Muslim audiences "alter primary doctrines such as the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, and the necessity of Christ's atonement."

[Chico:] We have not seen that the translations in question provide any less evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and the necessity of Christ's atonement.

Translators would be very concerned if this were the case, and would want to revise them, because they are concerned to accurately communicate Biblical truth. It is for this reason they choose to use language and explanations that accurately communicate what the Bible in its original languages teaches. Translators repeatedly test the translations with members of the audience to find out how they understand them, so they would know if the translation was not conveying biblical doctrine correctly.

[Seaton:] When God says in Deuteronomy 4:2, "You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it," it is because our doing so changes our understanding of God and his ways. Thus, on June 10, 2011, the Presbyterian Church in America overwhelmingly approved the overture, including its language that "such removals compromise doctrines of the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and Scripture."

Consider the doctrine of the Trinity, to see the impact of removing "Father" and "Son." "Trinity" is a word we use to affirm the biblical witness that God exists eternally as one God in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. These terms are not mere metaphors. Instead, they refer to God's eternal person. As theologian John Murray said in "Jesus, the Son of God," 

The argument for the eternal Fatherhood and for its correlate the eternal Sonship must be extended one further step. There is what may be called the theological consideration. The doctrine of the Trinity is concerned with the differentiation within the Godhead that is necessary, intrinsic, and eternal. If there is Trinity there must be the distinction of persons and therefore the distinguishing property of each person, a property that is incommunicable.[2]

Thus, there is the property of God as Father that makes him distinct from God the Son or God the Spirit. This distinction is not simply for our comprehension of God, but is "necessary, intrinsic and eternal." In other words, these eternal distinctions of God as Father, Son and Spirit are what "makes," so to speak, the Trinity. According to Scripture, God does not become Trinitarian by his works of Creation or Redemption. He is eternally one God in three persons, and therefore, "Father" and "Son" are not mere titles or analogies. They are terms that God uses for himself, eternally. Take away God as Father or Son, and you have no Trinity.

The overture also asserts that removing familial language compromises doctrines of "the person and work of Jesus Christ, and Scripture." . . .

[Chico cites the overture again:] "These same Bible translations of Insider Movements have replaced references to God as 'Father' (pater) with terms such as 'Guardian' and 'Lord.'"

[Chico:] Many languages have different expressions for a biological father and a nurturing father. God is our nurturing father rather than our biological begetter. For that reason some translations use the Arabic word rabb. This word comes from the verb for parenting children, and the noun is used for the head of a household. It is used of God to describe him as the one who nurtures and sustains his people. It describes the care and authority of a father without implying sexual procreation. Another Arabic term, waliyy, is also used for a nurturing parent but without necessarily implying sexual procreation. 

[Seaton:] "Waliyy" is Arabic for "guardian." To suggest that this is an acceptable alternative is to deny Muslims the biblical privilege of knowing God as "Father." That depth of intimacy is at the heart of the gospel, that God sends his Son to adopt us into his family--not simply to rule or guard over us. No human father would discourage his children from calling him "father" and instead direct them to call him "guardian." 

Several times I have heard the following defense for alternatives to familial language: "We must use alternatives to 'Father' or 'Son' because Muslims have implications for those words that are abhorent and unbiblical when associated with God. Those misunderstandings thus misrepresent the true character of God--and so we must use non-familial terms."

I completely disagree. If a woman has been abused by her biological father and finds it difficult to think of God as a good and loving heavenly Father, do we prepare a Bible for her that removes "Father"? Of course not! Instead, we show her how God is the true and perfect Father she never had, and her deep longing for a loving father can only be met with a right understanding of God the Father's perfect love and care for her.

If parents have a son who has publicly shamed and abandoned them, such that it is difficult for them to think of Jesus as the good and noble Son sent from heaven, do we prepare a Bible for them that removes "Son"? Of course not! Instead, we show them how Jesus is the true and perfect Son they never had, and their deep longing for a faithful son can only be met with a right understanding of God the Son's perfect honor and faithfulness.

In the same way, a Muslim's sub-biblical understanding of God the Father and God the Son can only be answered with who God really is--God the perfect, eternal, good, loving Father, Son and Spirit. Words are important. If a Bible translation fails to include references to Jesus as "Son" or "Son of God," Muslims will fail to think of him as such.

That last comment is perhaps a fitting summary of the concern over Muslim-Idiom Translations. The gospel is the astounding news that God the Father sent his Son to redeem the world. It is the self-sacrifice of God on our behalf and for his glory. Any other message is preaching another gospel. We are all equally in need of the gospel, and in the words of the overture, "Muslims should not be denied a full and faithful witness." Muslim-Idiom Translations are neither full nor faithful.

[1] Rebecca Lewis, "Promoting Movements to Christ Within Natural Communities," International Journal of Frontier Missions, Summer 2007.

[2] "Jesus, the Son of God" in "Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 4" by John Murray, p. 66.