Critics argue that using words such as “Messiah” instead of “Son” and “Lord” instead of “Father” badly distorts the doctrine, in which God is 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, the president of Horizons International, a Christian organization that works extensively with Muslims, and himself a translator of the Bible into Arabic.
Orlando, Fla.-based Wycliffe Bible Translators argues that the translations have never been about avoiding controversy but choosing words that most accurately reflect the Gospels: Some concepts relating God to family members don’t make sense in some cultures, so the language needs to reflect that, it says.
“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 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 taken to new countries, to making the Shakespearean language of the King James Version more understandable to modern readers.
Last month, 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 comes 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 evangelical alliance 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 Web site, helped launch a petition online calling on Wycliffe to drop the disputed translations.
The Most Rev. John Harrower, the Anglican bishop of Tasmania, was an early signatory of the petition. He argues that the inaccurate translations 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 Quran and example of Muhammad,” he wrote in an e-mail.
For critics such as 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.
“If you’ve got a culture that doesn’t have sheep, and you want to translate the word ‘sheep,’ you either explain sheep or you find an equivalent term,” Creson said.
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 that 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.
“In some of those languages, it’s the first written literature,” he said. “It’s part of the missionary impulse of Christianity that this is the very word of God, and that all people need the opportunity to hear it and read it.”
The rendering of the Bible into languages other than Latin was one of the major disputes of the Protestant Reformation; John Wycliffe, the 14th century scholar the Orlando organization is named for, was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for producing an English version of Scripture. At times, even particular translations can become so entrenched that believers reject the possibility of improvement, Beal said, noting that some American churches advertise themselves as “King James Only,” referring to the Shakespeare-era English translation.
“Translation is probably the most contentious topic in the history of the Bible,” he said.
Wycliffe is now waiting for the WEA panel to convene. Creson said there will be 14 members of the group, and he expects some to be sympathetic to Wycliffe’s approach and others to be critical. Messages seeking comment from the WEA were not returned.
“We’re submitting ourselves to a global consultation that will look at our translation practices and we’ll abide by the recommendations,” Creson said. “If they make a recommendation to do something we’ve not done in the past, we’ll go back and look at what we’re doing.”
It definitely won’t end the larger discussion in Christianity about the best way to bring the word of God to believers.
“Translation is theology,” Beal said. “You cannot translate without doing theology. Any time we translate a text, we’re really creating something new.”