Friday, April 27, 2012

Wycliffe Trips Over Trinity Words

OK.  I can talk about it now.

Last year, a friend who works as a linguist for Wycliffe, the international Bible translation organization, told our Bible study group a secret.  A full-blown controversy had erupted within the tight-knit community of highly-educated language experts, and it had begun to cause deep divisions within the ranks.  This friend of ours asked us to not talk about it amongst our other church friends, since nothing had yet been resolved.  She had become so frustrated and burdened by it herself, she felt if she didn't tell us, she'd explode.

Yesterday, the Associate Press posted the story online.  Last month, Wycliffe agreed to have this controversy reviewed by an independent Christian organization, the World Evangelical Alliance.  Nobody knows if this audit will resolve anything, but it means the controversy has moved outside of the Wycliffe camp into the broader evangelical community.

So now, I can talk about it.  See?  Sometimes I can keep a secret!

Too bad what I kept secret is nothing to celebrate.

This controversy at Wycliffe involves recommendations by experts in Arabic languages for changing long-used terminology describing the Trinity to less-confusing words in Bibles intended for Muslim readers.

Specifically, what you and I know to be "God the Father" and "God the Son" would become "God the Lord" and "God the Messiah," respectively.  The reasoning is that Muslim cultures can't easily relate to God having mortal familial associations, phrased in "divine familial terms," as linguists would call it.

In other words, Muslims don't believe a god worth following would debase its holiness and allow itself to be described in a paternalistic sense.  Nor do they believe anybody can claim to be a supreme being if they were born of another supreme being.  Not only is that hard to fathom, that would be heretical to them.

Fortunately for us, the supreme, holy, utterly righteous God of the universe loves us so much, He did indeed give us His Son!  Who is also supreme, holy, and utterly righteous.  The Gospel is gutted without that amazing fact.

Whether we understand it or not.

Explaining the Trinity

Of course, the first problem right out of the gate in this Wycliffe controversy is anybody trying to simplify the Trinity.  True, as a word, "trinity" doesn't even appear in the Bible, and as a concept, no theologian has ever been able to fully grasp the idea that God is three in one.  We have a working understanding of the concept, but nobody can make a flowchart or graph of how the Trinity functions.

So what makes Wycliffe think it can?  Proponents of the terminology changes say they want to avoid assumptions Muslims may make about Christ's paternity, such as God having intimate relations with Mary.  But are Muslims the only people group who struggle with the inter-related aspects of the Trinity, and how Christ could be born after existing since before the creation of the world?  Isn't the immaculate conception a mystery every Christian puzzles over, and at which we marvel? 

Just because the Trinity isn't easily explained, should it be dumbed-down for a particular people group?  Especially by erasing crucial terms which define the Trinity's inter-related roles?  Might Muslims whom Christ redeems unto Himself feel patronized by Wycliffe once they learn the truth about Who God really is?

We discussed racial profiling the other day.  Isn't what Wycliffe proposes a form of racial profiling to the lowest common denominator?  

The Holy Spirit's Role

Sometimes, groups of professionals get so involved with their work, they forget what they're supposed to be working towards.  Yes, translating the Bible into the heart language of all people groups is a virtuous endeavor, but Who is the only person who can reveal the truth of the Bible?  We can read words, but the Bible is the only life-giving book in the world.  Who is the only person who can give us new life through the appreciation of concepts like the Trinity?  Who is the only person whose saving grace can be translated not through words, but through the miracle of salvation, whether we live in the United States or Saudi Arabia?  It's the Holy Spirit, right?

Why, then, should Wycliffe be so concerned about appeasing a particular culture's presumed confusion over God being both Father and Son, let alone the Holy Spirit?  That's God's job; we're to simply present the Gospel as a testimony of God's grace.  God's Word is a lamp, which would be nonsense unless Somebody could take a stack of papers with words on them and turn them into something that illuminates eternal truth.

Yes, words are important.  And yes, sometimes translators have to adjust the wording of books for new cultures to make the overall concepts relevant to people groups who, say, have never seen a wheel.

Or know anything about anatomy.

Back when I was a kid, my parents had some missionary friends who told us that a particular tribe with which they were working deep in some jungle had no concept of the heart.  They believed life came from the throat, since that's where their voices seemed to emanate.  So after huddling with their Wycliffe experts, the missionaries decided that it wasn't theologically incorrect to teach that Jesus wants to come and live in their throats, instead of their hearts.  These missionaries said they had to check themselves whenever they left the jungle and talked to Western audiences, because they'd become so used to asking Christ into your throat!

It's mostly true anyway, isn't it?  Christ wants all of us, and that includes our throats.  It wasn't anatomically accurate, but it got the point across just as well.  And it didn't change the theology of the Gospel.

Islam's God Isn't Our God

Might the claims by translators who want to make it easier for Muslims to understand the God of the Bible sound an awful lot like the popular misconception that Muslims worship the same God that Jews and we Christians worship?  Particularly after 9/11, that fallacy has been etched into the public square by people like George W. Bush and other universalists, hoping that by claiming some common ground, a cooperative relationship can be established between Islamic cultures pursuing world domination and Western societies promoting pluralism.

Let's be clear:  the god of Islam is not the God of the Bible.  Mostly because Islam does not ascribe to Christ, Whom they believe to have been just a prophet, His rightful deity as a member of the Trinity.  This is one of the reasons why it's important not to water-down the doctrine of the Trinity.

Why worry if the God of the Bible doesn't fit the religious paradigm Muslims have been raised with in the Koran?  Our God isn't the god of the Koran, so the fact that our God can be described in divine familial terms is a further distinction for Him and proof that He desires to have a personal relationship with His children.  Isn't that part of the beauty of the Gospel?  Why deny Muslims the opportunity to read that for themselves?

Substitutionary Atonement  

Doesn't part of the Gospel's legitimacy come from the fact that God so loved the world, His creation, than He gave of Himself for our salvation?  How else could God do that except by having an heir?  That heir is Christ, Who was born of the virgin Mary, crucified, and risen from the grave.  Our sins were so heinous to God that a perfect sacrifice was necessary.  Substitutionary atonement; remember your eyes glazing over at that term?  Something - or Someone - was needed to pay the perfect price.  And Who else is perfect besides God?  His Son, right?

That's why it's essential for Muslims, like any other people group who need the Gospel, to have the Bible spell out Who the perfect sacrifice was - and, indeed, is today.

Frankly, it's baffling to me that an organization as grounded in the Scriptures as Wycliffe finds itself in such a controversy.  Of all the people groups to whom Wycliffe missionaries have translated the Bible over the years, suddenly this is the first one that can't grasp the concept of substitutionary atonement?

Is there something else about Muslims that has raised this red flag in Wycliffe?  Does this have anything to do with Islam's stunningly rapid ascent in terms of sociopolitical dominance in world affairs?  Does this have anything to do with the increasingly deferential attitude Western countries are portraying to Muslim countries and dignitaries?  Or is this simply an honest - albeit misguided - consideration regarding unprecedented peculiarities with Islamic dialects?

Word Up!

Now you can understand why my friend felt like she was ready to burst if she didn't share her anxieties over this issue with our small group.  The media may simply see this story as just another Christian group grappling sloppily with internal strife, but at its core, the fact that God is both Father and Son strikes to the very heart of the Gospel.

And in a way, this controversy may draw some distinctions between free-will Armenians, and predestination Reformists.  God's Word is foolishness to the unrepentant heart, but for us who are saved, it is life-giving power.  Reformists believe that those whom God is drawing to Himself will not be lost because their native culture doesn't immediately grasp the Gospel.  Because of sin, none of us would understand it without the power of the Holy Spirit.  Armenians may be tempted to assume the responsibility of watering-down texts so target audiences might understand it better - something seeker-sensitive contemporary churches have been trying for years - but what does watering-down do?  It dissolves the real thing, until it becomes fractured and unrecognizable.

Is Wycliffe simply the latest Christian organization to wander down the pathway towards irrelevance?  Hopefully not, especially since its leadership has agreed to an outside audit on their linguistic proposal.  Actually, this controversy might be helpful in reminding us evangelicals why Bible translation is important to begin with, and why getting it done right is important.

And even, indeed, why the Bible we have in so many translations just for the English language is vital to our lives and understanding of our Savior and our new life in Him.  Let's pray that our glut of peripheral translations doesn't help us forget that there are people groups around the globe who still don't have any of the Bible in a language they can understand.  Many of us take our Bibles for granted, but maybe now, we'll be reminded that it's not just ours to sit on a bookshelf or on an Internet server somewhere, waiting to be accessed.  We need to read it, believe it, and apply it.

Just remember, however, that the Bible contains God's words.  Not ours.
_____

Note:  for my readers who insist that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, please click here to consider the earnest words of Dr. John Piper on a related subject.

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