June 28, 2012
Translating the Trinity for Muslims
— Sarah Yardney
An online consortium for ministry to Muslims, Biblical Missiology, has accused Wycliffe Bible Translators of dismantling the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that God is three persons in one, in their translations of the Bible for Muslims. They claim that Wycliffe, a non-profit organization that has translated the Bible into over 700 languages for missionary purposes, has removed the titles "Father" and "Son" from their translations for Muslims in response to Islamic influence. Wycliffe defends its choices by explaining that in certain Muslim societies, the titles "Father" and "Son" give the impression that God physically had sex with Mary, and the organization wanted to avoid this misunderstanding. In lieu of "Father" and "Son," the titles used in the Wycliffe Arabic and Urdu Bible, among others, "are translated more accurately to the inspired Greek." Biblical Missiology, however, argues that the traditional titles give no such impression of carnality and that Wycliffe is distorting the word of God to avoid offending Muslims.
We cannot know whether Wycliffe has translated responsibly because the disputed translations are not available to the public: Wycliffe has agreed not to publish them until the organization's translational practices have undergone an audit by a panel assembled by the World Evangelical Alliance. But there are a few things that could be said in response to Biblical Missiology's accusations.
First, the claim that the Wycliffe translations fail to represent the Trinity is somewhat disingenuous. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which states that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and the same God, does not appear in the Bible. Although inspired by biblical texts (most importantly Matt 28:19 and 2 Cor 13:14), the doctrine did not take the form familiar to modern Christians until the Council of Constantinople in 381. Strictly speaking, therefore, a translation of the Bible can neither represent nor fail to represent the Trinity because the Trinity is not in the Bible. It is a concept that developed later.
Second, it is problematic that the whole debate, at least at the public level, is taking place in English. Biblical Missiology charges that instead of "Father" and "Son," Wycliffe is using terms like "Guardian" and "Representative." Clearly in English "Father" and "Guardian" are not synonymous, nor are "Son" and "Representative," but that is irrelevant. What matters is whether the terms Wycliffe has used in its translations are good equivalents for the Greek pater and huios, not whether Wycliffe's terms would be rendered into English in the same way the Greek is. A conversation about Wycliffe's translational choices cannot happen responsibly using only English equivalents; it requires precise discussion about the meanings of the Greek terms and the meanings of the terms in the target languages. Otherwise we simply do not know what we are talking about.
Of course, it is easy to see why Biblical Missiology prefers to stick to English and not get into the nitty-gritty of Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, Bangla, etc. The American Evangelicals whose support they seek probably do not know the languages in question and, more importantly, are emotionally attached to the traditional English titles. What Christian who has been going to church her whole life is going to feel comfortable hearing "God the Guardian" instead of "God the Father," or "This is my beloved Representative, in whom I am well pleased"? By keeping the conversation about English words, Biblical Missiology enhances the sense of threat to Americans' own liturgy and worship practices.
Finally, we should be a little suspicious of the charge of Islamic influence. The accusation that the Trinity is being removed from the Bible to avoid offending Muslims sounds rather like the fear that sharia law will supplant the American justice system. One has to wonder whether similar translations into, say, indigenous languages of South America would have elicited such a fervid response. Islam has become America's bogeyman since 9/11, and Americans tend to startle more easily when Muslims are involved. There may be valid objections to raise against Wycliffe's translations, but Biblical Missiology has not raised them.
Jeff Kunerth, "Wycliffe criticized over Bible translations for Muslims," Orlando Sentinel, April 29, 2012.
Fact Check: Biblical Missiology's Response To Wycliffe's Comments On "Lost In Translation"
Sarah Yardney is a PhD student in Bible at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a participant in the 2012 Jerald Brauer Seminar on translation.