Divine Familial Terms Controversy

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From time to time I receive emails from concerned church members over controversial Bible translations. The translations in question are seven Wycliffe/SIL projects in Muslim contexts where the translators sought to put the Word of God into language that could be easily understood by the intended audience. This kind of translation is called a Muslim Idiom Translation. At the center of this controversy are the names God the Father and Son of God, which we call divine familial terms. In certain Muslim contexts these terms can be easily misunderstood and so translators use different language.

Muslims believe that Allah cannot beget nor be begotten nor can He have a consort (Mary). This has led to the idea among Muslims that Christians believe that God and Mary produced a child through a physical relationship and produced a demi-god, much like the gods of ancient Greece. The intent of the translators was to avoid this misunderstanding by using other words to describe God as Father and Jesus as God’s Son. So Son of God became Beloved of God and God the Father became Guardian. However, many church members in the USA and Canada were not happy with these choices. In fact a petition was circulated that eventually garnered 50, 000 signatures.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) was asked by Wycliffe/SIL to arbitrate this dispute. The WEA recently released their report with 10 recommendations to Wycliffe/SIL to guide their best practices in translation. Perhaps the most important recommendation was the decision to maintain the more literal wording of these divine familial terms but to allow the use of qualifying words. In order to avoid the idea of God’s involvement in a physical relationship producing a son, Jesus is called the Divine Son of God or the Beloved Son of God in the target language. In the same way God can be called Heavenly Father or Everlasting Father. This preserves the biblical terminology used in Scripture but allows information to be added to help the intended audience understand the terms more clearly.

My hope is that now that the WEA report has been published, Wycliffe/SIL will be able to move forward again in the very important work of Bible translation and with the full support of their constituency. Those of us in the CRCNA who support the work of Wycliffe/SIL should know that they have taken seriously these concerns, and with the help of the WEA, have addressed them and are taking steps to correct them. Let us as a church put our full support behind this organization as they continue the important work started by Uncle Cameron Townsend and the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Translating Scripture into the heart language of every people group in the world is the goal. The task remains before us and it continues to be a very important one.

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