(WNS) — In the basement of a hotel in Istanbul, 30 people from around the world met in August to talk about how to translate the phrase “Son of God” and “God the Father” in Muslim contexts.
Wycliffe Bible Translators and a close partner, Dallas-based SIL International, called the private gathering, which included its own translation staff as well as outside scholars. The issue on the table — translation of the familial titles for God and Jesus Christ — was one that has divided Wycliffe members and alarmed supporting churches and missions agencies, leading a few Wycliffe members to leave the organization and some churches to consider withdrawing their support.
The controversy is defining for Wycliffe, the largest Bible translation organization in the world, whose nearly 70 years of work have made it the gold standard for all Bible translation projects. Wycliffe and its translation partner SIL work in more than 90 countries, and Wycliffe’s goal is to have a Bible translation program for every world language by 2025.
Through several days of conversations between attendees in Istanbul who had been deeply divided on the matter, the participants agreed on new translation standards. The problem with translating “Son of God” and “God the Father” literally in Muslim contexts, translators say, is that it implies that God had sexual relations with Mary. Some translators have turned to non-literal renderings, like “beloved one of God.”
The new Wycliffe/SIL standards agreed to in the Istanbul meeting read, “[I]n the majority of cases a literal translation of ‘Son of God’ will be the preferred translation,” but the standards allow for “an alternative form with equivalent meaning” if the literal translation “would communicate wrong meaning. ... The alternative form must maintain the concept of ‘sonship.'"
Wycliffe and SIL acknowledge backing translation work that didn’t render “Son of God” and “God the Father” literally. The new standards tighten which non-literal renderings are acceptable, they say. In the 1990s, translators were “experimenting” with some alternative terms like “Messiah of God” or “Christ of God,” said Russ Hersman, a Wycliffe USA senior vice president. “What we would say explicitly today: They don’t carry the meaning of sonship, so they’re not adequate,” he told me.
Such terms, Hersman said, are “outside the borders.” Hersman estimated that of 200 translation projects Wycliffe/SIL linguists have undertaken in Muslim contexts, about 30 or 40 “employ some alternate renderings” for the divine familial terms. One example Hersman gave of an alternate rendering would be translated in English as “beloved son of God” or “beloved one from God.”
“To them it says, ‘Ah, that means a divine family relationship, a divine social relationship, but not a procreative relationship,’” Hersman said.
The stricter standards aren’t satisfactory to some in Wycliffe, though. At least two families decided to leave the organization after the Istanbul statement, because they felt the organization wasn’t changing its position, leaving loopholes for different renderings of “Son of God.”
Wycliffe insists that it plans to convey the proper divine familial relationships in all its translations. “We’ve never felt the need to state something so clearly,” said Hersman. “We’re committed to the eternal sonship of Christ.”
Before the Istanbul meeting, David and Deana Irvine left Wycliffe over the translation issue. David grew up in Iran until he was 18, the son of missionaries there. He longed to return to the Middle East, but his life unfolded in America: He and his wife Deana, a midwife, had four children, he had a stable job in law enforcement, and before he knew it, he was retiring.
The Irvines glimpsed an opportunity to do missions work in the Middle East, though Deana was reluctant to leave with seven grandchildren in the United States. She hadn’t traveled anywhere abroad until several years ago, when the couple went on a short-term missions trip to Iraq, but that trip changed her mind. David started learning Arabic, and after considering other organizations, the couple finally settled on working with Wycliffe Bible Translators because they admired Wycliffe’s structure and mission.
David joined the organization to work in government relations in a Muslim-majority country (David won’t reveal where for the sake of Wycliffe workers there now). The couple raised their own support and went through training — and that’s where questions about the organization began to arise.
Wycliffe required David to read Muslims, Christians, and Jesus, a book by Carl Medearis, an advocate of several ideas associated with the “insider movement,” something the Irvines didn’t know anything about at the time.
The movement generally questions the need for outward “conversion” to Christianity as long as someone has a personal relationship with Christ, and “contextualizes” Christian teaching and practice for Muslim cultures by finding common ground between the two.
The Irvines also began hearing that Wycliffe translators were altering Scripture’s filial language in Muslim contexts. David kept working on visas, and Deana worked on packing. But, Deana told me, “There was starting to be this tension because we were both having questions and we didn’t want to talk about it because you don’t want to be the one that doesn’t want to do it.” The Irvines began reading discussions on an internal SIL message board on the topic. (Wycliffe recruits members then seconds them to SIL to do translation.)
As the Irvines struggled, David began sending questions to people in Wycliffe about the issue.
“I wasn’t getting specific answers," he said. "I was just being given more things to read that were supportive of this contextualization idea."
In April, three weeks before the Irvines planned to move overseas, they told Wycliffe that they were pulling out. Deana had listened to a sermon on false biblical teaching: “I said, ‘I have enough to answer for without that.’”
The Irvines aren’t translation experts. Criticism of alternate renderings of “Son of God” is arising from people who aren’t in the field or don’t understand the cultural and linguistic issues, said one Bible translator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his ongoing work in the Middle East. “It’s not as simple as ‘Just put the word for son,’” he said. “A lot of the people who object to this are thinking about this only in English. ... They hear a rumor that Wycliffe is changing the Bible and they say: ‘Oh no! Let’s stop them!’”
But translators are divided on the issue, too. Bob Ulfers, an SIL translator in Cameroon who has worked with the organization for more than 25 years, learned of the debate by email last year while living in what he terms “the bush,” surrounded by baboons. “I thought SIL would be like, ‘No, no, no ... we’re going to investigate these things,’ instead of, ‘Yeah, we do this,’” he told me. He found it “shocking.”
As a translator, he understands contextualizing translations for the receiving culture. In the Karang culture where he works, for example, he said that the leper’s comment to Jesus in the gospels, “If you are willing,” is an insulting phrase, like a taunt, so the team translated instead, “If it is within your heart.” But translations altering the divine familial terms are “conforming Christ to the culture,” he said. Cameroon is not a Muslim-majority country — about 20 percent of the population is Muslim — so “Son of God” is not such a big issue there. And the Cameroon branch has not altered the familial terms, according to the branch director there.
“It is very tricky,” said Dan MacDougall, professor of biblical studies at Covenant College. The original Greek in the Bible for “son” is huois, “the normal word for a child, but clearly Jesus’ sonship is different,” MacDougall said. “The word 'son' is not a word like propitiation. ... It is a very transferrable concept because of our basic nature as humans.”
MacDougall couldn’t address Wycliffe’s translations in particular, but for contexts where “son” is misunderstood, he said: “I would do it by explanation, but not by changing it. Beloved — that is closer, but it still isn’t the familial sense.”
The familial terms express the close, permanent relationship between God and Jesus, he said, but they have more meaning that “beloved” doesn’t capture. In the Bible, for example, Jesus the Son obeys God the Father — never the other way around: “A certain amount of the content of Christology is lost.”
In June, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) met for its annual General Assembly, and the body considered whether to pass an overture declaring that translations using the alternate renderings for divine familial terms were “unfaithful to God’s revealed Word.”
The overture, without mentioning any organizations, encouraged congregations to examine whether they were supporting such translations and potentially withdraw support. Before the vote on the overture, Wycliffe’s president, Bob Creson, submitted an analysis of “key claims” of the overture to the PCA. The paper, though not formally admitted into the assembly’s minutes, was printed and circulated.
The document doesn’t endorse or oppose the overture, but calls into question many of its assertions, like that translations had replaced “Son” with “Messiah.” The document also defends “God’s Uniquely Intimate Beloved Chosen One” as a plausible alternate rendering of “Son,” saying the title expresses “the deep relationship between God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Despite Wycliffe’s contentions with some of the overture’s claims, the overture passed in the assembly. Hersman told me later that Wycliffe agreed with “virtually everything” in the overture, except the old sticking point: “We would say if the literal translation conveys wrong meaning, then we’re not being faithful to what God intended for those people to hear and understand when they read the Scriptures.”
In a statement, Wycliffe said: “Based on our original reading of Overture 9, we were concerned that the PCA did not understand the depth of our commitment to effectively translating the Father-Son relationship. ... Our response was not intended in any way to lobby against Overture 9.”
Soon after the Istanbul meeting, Wycliffe/SIL officials began briefing staff members on the new standards, and later met with leaders from Assemblies of God World Missions. Hersman has been meeting with leaders of the PCA. In Birmingham, Ala., Briarwood Presbyterian Church, one of the largest churches in the PCA, has identified a number of organizations that appear to be involved either in controversial translations or in the broader “insider movement.”
The church has informed the individuals it supports through those organizations that the groups are under scrutiny. Beginning in January, the church will put these individuals’ support in escrow until the church makes a final decision on support in June, when a PCA study committee will present its report on the issue to the denomination’s General Assembly. Tom Cheely, missions pastor at Briarwood, served for 18 years on the board of JAARS, an arm of Wycliffe that provides air transport.
“This is one of the most agonizing things I’ve done in years,” he said.
Ulfers, the translator in the “bush” of Cameroon, said, “There are many wonderful SIL members doing very accurate translations. It would be a shame for them to lose support over concerns that [Wycliffe Bible Translators]/SIL is becoming ‘heretical.’ Yet on the other hand the issue needs to be pushed into the consciousness of the Christian public so that the church can hold Wycliffe/SIL accountable.”
Publication date: October 3, 2011