Following criticism from many quarters and official rebuke from the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Wycliffe Bible Translators and its primary implementing partner, SIL International, issued new guidelines in August saying familial language for God should normally be maintained in the text of Bible translations.
SIL convened an August meeting in Istanbul for translators and consultants to set standards. They then released a best practices statement that reaffirms belief in the eternal deity of Jesus Christ and says, "Scripture translations should promote understanding of the term 'Son of God' in all its richness, including his filial relationship with the Father, while avoiding any possible implication of sexual activity by God." Many Muslims balk at the Bible's familial language, because the Qur'an teaches that God could not have a son. Yet critics have pushed back against some translations promoted by scholars connected to SIL that substituted "Christ" for "Son of God" in order to avoid turning off Muslim readers.
The new statement satisfies some scholars by affirming the importance of the relationship between the divine Son and his Father. Still, SIL has preserved some wiggle room for translators, saying such terms "should normally be maintained in the text but should not be insisted upon at the expense of comprehension." The process laid out in the statement allows translators to consider non-literal translations of "Son of God" so long as they "conserve as much of the familial meaning as possible" and include the literal translation in the paratext (such as footnotes or introductions).
A similar statement also released in August by Wycliffe and prepared in Orlando affirms that in most cases the literal translation of "Son of God" will be preferred. It also requires any alternatives meant to avoid confusion among Muslims to maintain the concept of sonship. Russ Hersman, senior vice president of Wycliffe, offered "beloved son from God" as one such alternative that balances "faithfulness to the Word of God with faithfulness to God's intended message." He said this option avoids mistaken Muslim assumptions that Jesus is the "procreated son of God."
Scott Horrell, professor of theological studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, is writing a book about translation issues surrounding "Son of God" and Muslim readers. He agrees that it's not enough for translations to affirm Jesus as God. The eternal Son-Father relationship helps Christians understand orthodox Trinitarianism.
"My sense is that SIL/Wycliffe has taken wise steps forward on the issue," Horrell says. "Languages vary so much that an either-or position on 'Son of God' translation in Muslim (or any other) idioms seems extreme."
Nevertheless, Horell's research has not yet uncovered earlier Bible translations for Muslims that modified the literal phrase "Son of God." Supporting this view, a spokeswoman for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board explained that their policy says, "It is best in all cases to translate 'Son of God' as 'Son of God.'" Many apologists have long avoided the phrase, but not translators. Muslims often seize on such changes to argue that Christians change the Bible to suit their purposes. "While minor recent exceptions may exist, Wycliffe is establishing precedence with this move," Horrell explains.
Translation has become a hot topic among Muslim-background believers who object to what they see as accommodating Islam. Familial language was not the main topic of a September 29 meeting at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. Nevertheless, the conversation did touch on translation. Imad Shehadeh, founder and president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, said the group emphasized several points, including the necessity of leaving phrases such as "Son of God" alone, because "familial language is the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity."
A five-day meeting in June at Houghton College in New York drew together translators, scholars, and activists on both sides to clear up misunderstanding and identify points of agreement. Columbia International University professor Warren Larson attended and said Wycliffe translators "want to keep familial language in the text, and we basically all agreed that explanations for'Son of God' should be given in footnotes, preface, text, or glossary," Larson said. "It seems to me that Wycliffe has made a commitment to keeping 'Son of God' in the text. It's true they have not promised to do it all the time."
This position may not placate the PCA, which approved a "Call to Faithful Witness" at their General Assembly in June. This overture, originally drafted by pastor Scott Seaton of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, "declares as unfaithful to God's revealed Word, Insider Movement or any other translations of the Bible that remove from the text references to God as 'Father' (pater) or Jesus as 'Son' (huios), because such removals compromise doctrines of the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and Scripture."
Seaton, a former missions pastor and head of the PCA's Mission to the World ministry to Muslims, told CT that he did not have Wycliffe/SIL in mind when he began planning in 2010 to take official action in the PCA. He had clashed with another agency active among Muslims in Bangladesh that he said modified biblical language and encouraged new followers of Jesus to return to their roots in Islam.
"Churches are supporting this, and they don't even know it," says Seaton, who attended the Atlanta meeting with concerned pastors who work among Muslims.
His overture calls on PCA congregations to investigate the missionaries and agencies they support to determine whether or not their translations alter familial language for persons of the Trinity. Should they discover such actions, the overture encourages them "to pursue correction, and failing that, to withdraw their support." Larson questions why the PCA would move forward with the investigation, given the new statements by Wycliffe/SIL. But Seaton points out that the overture stipulates that references to God as Father and Jesus as Son must remain in the biblical text itself, not the paratext.
PCA moderator Dan Carrell told CT he expects to appoint a study committee on Insider Movements before the end of this week. This committee would assess PCA missions partners to see if they support non-literal translations of familial language and encourage new followers of Christ to continue identifying with their Muslim culture and practices. But Roy Taylor, stated clerk of the PCA General Assembly, said his office has not yet received any financial contributions to support the work of the committee.
Hersman confirmed that Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama—one of the largest and most influential PCA congregations—is reviewing its relationship with Wycliffe and six other agencies following the General Assembly action. Briarwood has notified missionaries working with these ministries that the church will put their financial support in escrow as of January 1, 2012, until June 2012, when the PCA study committee is scheduled to report. At that point Briarwood will decide whether to send this money to the missionaries and renew monthly support or formally discontinue these payments on the basis of their agencies' positions and practices.
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See our coverage on "Missionaries to Muslims Agree to Soften Criticisms of Each Other."
Previous Christianity Today articles on evangelism to Muslims include:
The Son and the Crescent | Bible translations that avoid the phrase "Son of God" are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. (February 4, 2011)
Why We Opened Our Church to Muslims | A response to "Muslims in Evangelical Churches." (January 27, 2011)
Muslims in Evangelical Churches | Does loving your neighbor mean opening your doors to false worship? (January 3, 2011)
From Informant to Informer | The "son of Hamas" senses God in his life before coming to Christ. (June 8, 2010)