One of the largest Bible translators in the world is undergoing an independent review after critics claimed language in some of their translations intended for Muslim countries misses the essential Christian idea of Trinity: the father, son and the holy spirit or ghost.
Critics argue that using words like “Messiah” instead of “Son” and “Lord” instead of “Father” badly distorts the doctrine, in which God is said to be one being in three persons.
“If you remove ‘son,’ you have to remove ‘father’ and if you remove those the whole thread of the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation is unraveled,” said the Rev. Georges Houssney, president of Horizons International, a Christian organization that works extensively with Muslims and himself is a translator of the Bible into Arabic.
Orlando-based Wycliffe Bible Translators argues the translations have never been about avoiding controversy but about choosing words that most accurately reflect the Gospels, that some concepts relating God to family members don't make sense in some cultures, so the language needs to reflect that.
“People are saying we're trying to do translation work that's not offensive to Muslims and that's just not true,” Wycliffe CEO Bob Creson said. “We are committed to the accurate translation of God's word. That is our highest value.”
Translating the collection of ancient documents assembled together as the Bible has never been easy. Disputes over biblical language date from the early centuries of Christianity, when the original Hebrew and Greek texts were brought to new countries, to making the Shakespearean language of the King James Version more understandable to modern readers.
In March, Wycliffe agreed to an independent review of its policies by the World Evangelical Alliance which plans to appoint a panel of experts to determine whether Wycliffe and affiliated groups are improperly replacing the terms “Son of God” and “God the Father.”
The decision came after a growing number of critics decried the materials as attempts to avoid controversy that fundamentally altered Christian theology. The dispute moved from Internet forums and online petitions to concern from large Christian bodies. The Assemblies of God — one of the largest Pentecostal fellowships, with more than 60 million members in affiliated churches worldwide — announced it would review its longstanding relationship with Wycliffe.
Wycliffe, an interdenominational group that works with a wide variety of churches and missionaries, says it won't publish any disputed materials until after the WEA panel issues its findings.
Creson said that in some cases what are known to scholars as the “divine familial terms” — God the Father and the Son of God — don't make sense in translation in some cultures. Islamic teaching, for example, rejects the notion that God could be involved in a relationship similar to a human family and Creson argues that people in such cultures might be immediately put off by those terms.
“Translation is a very laborious process because you have to understand the culture of the community and you don't understand that overnight,” he said.
Houssney, along with other critics on the Biblical Missiology website, helped launch a petition online calling on Wycliffe to drop the disputed translations.
The Most Rev. John Harrower, Anglican bishop of Tasmania, was an early signatory of the petition. He calls the translations inaccurate and argues that they make missionary work more difficult in the very communities where they're used.
“Changing fundamental words of Scripture such as ‘father’ and ‘son’ will also fuel the Muslim claim that the Bible is corrupted, full of errors and has been abrogated by the Qu’ran and example of Muhammad,” Harrower wrote in an email.
For critics like Houssney, the changes aren't simply a matter of word choice but theological choice.
“God says, ‘This is my Son’ and we can't put other words in His mouth,” he said.
The issue is at least partly philosophical, something that's long been an issue when it comes to presenting the Bible in new languages. Wycliffe, which is involved in more than 1,500 Bible translation programs in roughly 90 countries, generally prefers a method known as “dynamic equivalent translation,” Creson said, in which a literal, word-for-word approach is less important than conveying the essential meaning of a text.
The other major approach is generally known as “formal equivalent translation,” said Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University. That approach strives for as close to a literal match as possible.
The importance of translation springs from the early centuries of Christianity, when the books of the New Testament, originally written in Greek, were translated by believers in places where that language wasn't spoken, said Ray Van Neste, director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University.
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