Daniel and Proselytizing

One of my jobs is that I am the administrator of a counseling center in the Philippines. My wife is a chaplain and we teach pastoral care/pastoral counseling.

We teach that one does not proselytize in counseling. Or at least if one does proselytize… it is done by permission or request from the person… and never at the beginning of the conversation.  There are good reasons for this.

  1. In many settings, our ability to serve (such as in a hospital, jail, or evacuation center) is dependent on abiding by set policies. Such policies may include no “cold call” evangelizing.
  2. In times of crisis, encouraging a person to make a major life change can be detrimental (destabilizing an already unstable psychosocial situation). And any positive response (such as saying the sinner’s prayer) is likely to not be a heartfelt response since it was offered at a time of mental chaos.
  3. It may be interpreted by the client/counselee that the motive of the counseling is not to help but to rack up another score for one’s church.
  4. It may close down conversation before one has had an opportunity to demonstrate God’s love in a manner that is understandable and recognizable to the counselee. (Front end evangelism may actually reduce the likelihood of conversion/ transformation instead of increasing it.)

There are other reasons… but this is a good, if short, list.

But some say that this is ridiculous. If one is counseling a non-Christian, that person is unregenerate and so one must focus on evangelism first. The argument is:

  • Being unregenerate they are unable to make meaningful change without the Holy Spirit indwelling them.
  • Salvation is more important than any other problem they may have. (This is the strongest of the three points here.)
  • Our call is to share the Gospel. Anything else we do, with regards to the world, is a distraction.

As an Evangelical Christian, from a revivalist tradition, I find these arguments to be relatively strong and logical. Yet, it is not our tradition that should guide us, but God’s Word.

The example of Christ makes it clear that we are to always demonstrate God’s love and message in both word and deed. With Christ, however, God’s love is often demonstrated before the presentation of God’s message of redemption. Further, it seems doubtful, at best, that Jesus limited the rest of his teaching/counsel only to individuals who responded to His message to follow Him. Jesus’ ministry should challenge the view that evangelism must always be the priority in all counseling encounters with non-Christians. But there is still room for differences of opinion.

A difficulty is that there are few examples of long-term counseling between a believer and a non-believer in the Bible. Thankfully, we do have at least one good example. That is Daniel.

Daniel served as a counselor to the rulers of Babylon and Medo-Persia. These were all pagan rulers. There is pretty good parallelism to the situation of many Christian counselors… especially chaplains. Daniel was a follower of the one true God serving as a counselor to unbelievers. Daniel’s role was, in part, because of his spiritual role (he was chosen not simply for being wise, but seen as having access to a god). Additionally, Daniel was under the obligation of the Abrahamic covenant to be a blessing to all nations. As such, a call to repent and turn to God (Yahweh) was certainly a critical (if not THE critical) activity.

But didn’t Daniel share his faith? Absolutely. There is ample evidence of that in the Book of Daniel. But was that all he offered? Nebuchadnezzar appears to have become a follower of God at the end of his life… but for most of the time of the interaction between Daniel and himself, he was not a believer. As far as we know Belteshazzar, Darius, and Cyrus never got further than a pagan’s respect for the god of Judah. It seems quite evident that Daniel did not see his role as a counselor as wasted in guiding pagan rulers.

We know that God’s message to these rulers through Daniel was not limited to proselytization. Even for the conversations that are not recorded in the book of Daniel, one cannot assume that Daniel would have maintained his role as a counselor for many decades if the only real counseling he gave was a call for the rulers to become Jewish proselytes.

I am not downplaying evangelization or proselytization. I am simply questioning the presumption that our role with unbelievers is meaningless unless it starts with classic evangelism and is to be limited to classic evangelism (up until conversion at least).

It seems to me that Daniel does provide a balanced approach.

  1. He lived a life of integrity and godly witness even in a potentially hostile environment.
  2. Served faithfully, seeking to meet felt needs of his counselees, while not blind to their actual needs.
  3. Did not feel limited in sharing the message God had for his counselees… regardless of its nature.

Theology and Anthropology, Part 3

I think of this part as a bit more straightforward. Cultural Anthropology is important in contextual theology.

Theologian role AConsider the above image. The Bible comes to us as divine revelation that is embedded in certain source cultures (Ancient Jewish and Hellenstic-Roman particularly). If we accept that the canon of Scripture is closed, and identify that the ancient cultures are dead– no longer existing today, we can say that the Bible from this aspect is STATIC. However, the Bible also exists as translated word within different cultures… particularly the faith communities in these cultures. Since living cultures are DYNAMIC, the Bible in this sense is DYNAMIC, not static. Linking the dynamic community of faith with static divine revelation is a theological or contextual bridge (all of this can be described as “Correlation.”). Since cultures are dynamic that means that theology (at least effective theology) is DYNAMIC… changing..

So how does cultural anthropology impact this very fluid situation?

1.  In Biblical Theology. Understanding the Bible, divine revelation embedded in source cultures, requires deep understanding of the source cultures. This is necessary to interpret the meaning of the Bible. Understanding such dead cultures utilizes archaeology (a subfield of anthropology) and cultural anthropology… among other tools.

2.  In Translation. To translate from one language to another requires linguistics… one of the traditional subfields of anthropology. But solid translation also deals with culture. The Bible must be culturally accessible and relevant to be translated well. It needs to relate to and impact the culture it is embedded in, utilizing recognizable symbols. The tools of cultural anthropology are greatly beneficial here.

3.  In Theological Contextualization. A community of faith in a culture can be indigenized (locally accessible and challenging) or it can be foreign and unfamiliar… irrelevant. The message of God needs not only to be translated well, but must be tied to a community of faith with symbols of the local culture. The community must be self-theologizing… dynamically contextualizing God’s message and character to the culture. While this may be a local activity, it may benefit from both an emic (insider) understanding and an etic (outsider) understanding. Since the key character of cultural anthropology methodology is “Participant-Observer,” bridging the gap between emic and etic, there is much that cultural anthropology can offer in contextualized theology.

4.  All Theology. We sometimes act like there is real, unchanging, systematic theology and little locally contextualized theologies. But since the source cultures of the Bible are dead, God’s message is always translated and interpreted culturally. All active theologies are contextual. Some do a good job of this… while some do a bad job. Some do contextualization explicitly… while some do it implicitly (often not knowing they do it… a bad thing). Since all theology (even more so… all GOOD theology) is contextual, cultural anthropology always has something to say in the activity of theology.

Arguably, this is a bit high-end viewing. the exact methodologies from cultural anthropology are not directly brought out here. That must be for another day. However, I would like to think that these three posts demonstrate the intimate link between cultural anthropology and theology. Such a link should not be disregarded.

 

 

Theology and Anthropology, Part 2.

The previous post, quoted Hans Frei. This post expands the idea.

Theologian rolePreviously it was noted that a theologian working with a sacred text (particularly, in our case, the Holy Bible) must recognize that it is part of the community of faith, providing guidance and meaning for that community, and given its status by that same community. As such it is integrated into a religious culture. Based on that role in culture, the theologian must think as a cultural anthropologist, understanding the text as the text of a faith community first. Historical criticism may have its place, but as a tool is limited by its own assumptions and methodology. Now we can move forward.

Hans Frei goes on to suggest that there are two forms/methods of social (cultural) anthropology. He describes them as “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “hermeneutics of description.”

The hermeneutics of suspicion has a statement that may be explicit, but is more likely implicit. It is something like this: “The people say they do _______________ because of ___________________. But the real reason they do it is ______________________.” I was always taught that this was simply BAD Anthropology. Cultures with this hermeneutic are filtered through a presumptive model. There are many different ones. Well known analysis filters are Marxist, Psychoanalytic, or Evolutionary models of behavior.There are many many more.

The hermeneutic of description does not focus on “the real reason” but understands behavior in terms of collective perception of the culture analyzed. The goal is to understand the culture on its own terms… understanding how the community sees its own behavior. For example, In historical Christianity it is common to call community members “brother” and “sister.” If asked, most Christians would probably identify with the symbol of “church as family.” A few might point to the “Fatherhood of God” and their collective status as “joint heirs with Christ” A Freudian model may come up with a very different “real meaning” behind familial terms (I have no idea… haven’t asked.) Hermeneutics of description (induction without presumption) would, to me, describe GOOD anthropology.

An interesting example of the difference between a hermeneutics of suspicion and description is in the area of LAWNS. Why do we have lawns around our houses? I read a theory proposed that we have lawns around our houses because of our evolutionary history. Our primitive ancestors were scampering around the savannahs of Africa and that racial memory leads us to desire lawns around our house. That is hermeneutic of suspicion. To me it has a Procrustean feel to it.

However, a hermeneutic of description leads to a different view. Consider three different cultural settings I have visited. Culture 1 is in Buffalo, NY when a homeowner some years ago was told that he could not let his yard stay unmanicured. Culture 2 is in a Georgia swamp where an old home there had the area around it immaculately swept sand. Culture 3 is in Pampanga, Philippines where my wife’s grandmother every day ensured that the area around the house was hard-packed clay devoid of any plants or mess. The interesting thing is that the reason given by each of these cultures for the ideal of relative barrenness around the different houses was the same “Keep away the vermin.” From a hermeneutic of description, pulling in an evolutionary “real reason” is not considered helpful. But I am tempted to go further. In this case, not only is the “Savannah Theory” not viewed as helpful, it does not even appear to be correct. Many cultures don’t have lawns… and even the three cultures listed above don’t look like each other and none of them look like the African savannah.

Summarizing this first post, cultural anthropology helps us understand the Bible within the context of the practicing community of faith. While historical analysis has value, the presumptions of historical analysis often war with religious dogma. As such, historical analysis tends to work from a hermeneutic of suspicion. What is needed is description… understanding the Bible, first of all, from the collective perception of the community for which it is sacred or central to their conduct and understanding.

The third post will look at context and correlation as it connects to theology and anthropology.

Theology and Anthropology, Part 1

Theology means Study of God (at least etymologically). Anthropology means Study of Man (again, etymologically). I would like to suggest that Theology has cultural anthropology as a powerful tool (perhaps most powerful tool from the human sciences) in its development from revelation and context. The material here is a bit heavy (for me at least) but I think it suggests a healthy move away from over-reliance on historical or philosophical analysis.

“I am persuaded that historical inquiry is a useful and necessary procedure but that theological reading is the reading of the text, and not the reading of a source, which is how historians read it. Historical inquiry, while telling us many useful things, does not tell us how we are to understand the texts as texts. I am persuaded that in the search for an answer to the question of how to understand the texts as texts, the closest discipline to theology is not history at all. When I ask what external discipline is potentially most useful in theology, I come up with an answer that surprises me, and it is in a certain kind of social anthropology that bears some relationship to a kind of literary inquiry also. Why? Because I take it that Christianity, on which theology reflects, is first of all a religion. It is not a network of beliefs, it is not a system, first of all. It may be an intellectual system also, but not in the first place. Further, it is not first of all an experienced something, an experienced shape, an essence. Rather, it is first of all a complex, various, loosely held, and yet really discernible community with varying features– a religious community of which, for example, a sacred text is one feature that is typical of a religion. And the sacred text usually (and certainly in Christianity), in the tradition of interpretation within the religion, comes to focus around a sacred story. The word sacred is terribly loaded, let’s simply say it focuses around a central story, certainly in the Christian religion, in the Christian community. It is this kind of approach that I discern in looking at religion, the Christian religion, not under any high-powered comparative system, but under the aegis of the rather humdrum science, anthropology.”

–“Types of Chrisian Theology” by Hans W. Frei. Yale University Press, 1992. pgs 11-12.

Again… a bit heavy, perhaps, but let’s consider what I believe is being said. Theology is tied to sacred text and to a faith community. To develop theology requires understanding of the faith community and the understanding of the sacred text as it exists in the faith community.

  • Christianity is a religion… an area of study of cultural (social) anthropology.

  • A faith community is a culture and as such is understood anthropologically.

  • A sacred text provides meaning to a religious community and has meaning bestowed on the text by that same community. As such, understanding the text is, in part, a cultural anthropological activity.

Hans W. Frei

Often theology is seen as being assisted more by historical analysis (or philosophical/critical analysis) rather than cultural analysis. Historians like to look at a text as source material for analysis. However, understanding a text in terms utilizing the tools of the historian is fraught with problems when it comes to sacred text… such as the Bible.

The problem is that historical analysis is built on presumptions that is problematic in most religions… including Christianity. Historical analysis seeks to find meaning in past data based on the presumption of natural (and local) progression and causation. This seems fairly reasonable. But what happens when it comes to sacred texts. Consider the question of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ. Historical analysis starts from the assumption of natural occurrences and so it is ill-equipped to deal with the miraculous (unless of course the proper response is rejection). Likewise, the Bible points to an eschatological history— God working in and through history with a long-range active plan. This implies a plot to history… placing itself more in the area of literature than history. History books have authors, but the assumption of these same books is that history itself has no author. Additionally, and for similar reasons, historical analysis cannot deal with predictive prophecy, except to reject any such predictions beyond educated hunches.

If this is not obvious, consider the following: Suppose you were writing a history of the stone images on Easter Island. Suppose you did a lot of research and finally turn in your findings for peer review. Your findings were that in approximately 1325AD, a miracle happened and all of the statues suddenly appeared on the island. <NOTE: I am making no such claim… just making up an example.>  Such a viewpoint would never make it through peer review. It might make it onto the Internet or “Ancient Aliens” on television. But for historical analysis, there is a presumption that events connect through natural and local causation. One cannot deny the (highly unlikely) possibility that something amazing MIGHT have happened and the statues suddenly appeared around 1325AD. Rather, such an unlikely possibility is not considered in historical analysis.

Therefore, theology grounded on historical analysis will inevitably be pulled into a naturalistic worldview.

This is, of course, not to say that understanding sacred text is not potentially aided by historical analysis. This is particularly true of the Bible.

  • The Bible was written in history, and, in fact, over a considerable period of time historically. This is unlike the view of adherents to the Quran who believe that it existed and exists ahistorically.

  • The Bible writes about identifiable historical events over a wide range of history. This is unlike the Book of Mormon that, although written in a historical style, does not appear to link to identifiable “real” history.

  • The Bible emphasizes the relevance of history in its message. This is unlike much of the Hindu sacred texts in which history is not really seen as relevant to the message.

So historical analysis is an important tool, but not as important as the tool of cultural anthropology.

The next post will continue the thought from Frei. The third post will look at the role of context in theology and its relationship to cultural anthropology.

Proclaim God. Don’t Prove Him.

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DOES NOT DOES TOO
In the first post of this series, I suggested that many people might settle for a sub-biblical view of monotheism. My second post summarized the way that ancient Jews conceived of the one true God’s “divine identity.”

Now, I want to talk about application. In an upcoming post, I’ll suggest ideas for contextualizing the gospel for animists. Today, I will address apologetics or “pre-evangelism.”

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It’s All about The Story

A Word in Edgewise

The university where I teach, Houston Baptist University, is hosting a consultation this week for the International Orality Network. I will be attending the consultation and learning all I can regarding this new and important missions emphasis that recognizes that most of the world consists of people who are oral preference learners. What excites me about the movement is that they focus on sharing the gospel by learning to tell great stories from the Bible in the mother language of the unreached people. This is exactly what we hoped to do with The Voice Bible.International Orality Network 1

One of the articles I read in preparation for the consultation is from Tom A. Steffen, former professor at Biola University and missionary for 20 years in the Philippines. In an article entitled, “Why Communicate the Gospel through Stories?” Steffen tells his own story about trying to teach new believers a simple version of systematic…

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Is the Bible Translatable? Part 3

Part 1 of this overall topic I suggested options regarding the translatability of the Bible. I suggested that the Bible is translatable, meaning that the Bible translated is still the Bible. Part 2 suggests the ramifications of saying that the Bible is translatable. It is a challenging viewpoint. Abd al-Jabbar in 995 AD (reference “Translating the Message” by Lamin Sanneh) wrote considerably on (against) Christians and the “Hellenization” of the teachings of Jesus. Of course I would argue that the primary underlying purpose of Al-Jabbar’s book is to deal with the fairly obvious issue that Mohammed’s interpretation of Jesus is considerably different from the Apostle’s interpretation. Al-Jabbar argued strenuously that the problem was that Jesus was “Hellenized”— translated into Greco-Roman culture while the Quran portrays a Semitic (although not Jewish) culture. Much of the rest of al-Jabbar’s arguments appear to draw more from his personal aesthetics than logic. In other words, al-Jabbar liked the idea that God’s revelation is not, or at least should not be, translatable. If one does not share such a preference, the arguments become weaker. Since al-Jabbar had been enculturated into a language and culture quite similar to that of the original writing down of the Quran, his aesthetic preference is quite understanable… but would apply to essentially no one in the 21st century.

 

Image result for ibaloi bible
Ibaloi Translation of the Bible

 

The Bible, in my mind at least, argues strongly for God’s message being translatable.

1. Pentecost. It is sad that many miss fairly obvious point of Pentecost. Some like to take the “speaking in other languages” and ascribe it to ecstatics (in part a problem of sloppy application of 1611 lingo). In Acts 2, languages were languages and it is wonderful that this was true. How did the church start? The Holy Spirit came and filled the 120 initiating the church age. The defining character of the Pentecost was that the message of God was given to Jesus’ disciples translated into the languages (and cultures) of the different groups who were present.

The defining characteristic of the church from the start is that God’s words are God’s Words regardless of language or culture.

2. The Gospels. Jesus spoke mostly, if not completely, in Aramaic. However, all four Gospels were written in Koine Greek– the lingua franca of the common people. Church tradition says that the Gospel of Matthew was originially written in Hebrew and then later translated. There would be nothing wrong if that was true, but it seems doubtful. If one assumes that the traditional authors ascribed for each Gospel is correct, Matthew was a Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek.. Mark was a Hellenistic Jew who took the recollections of Peter, a Galilean Jew, and decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. Luke may have been Greek, but still took the eye witness accounts of Jesus life and words and translated them into common Greek. John was another Galilean Jew who decided to translate the story of Jesus into common Greek. In other words, it is not the case that Jesus’ message and story was taken over by the Greeks. Rather, the followers of Christ, the ones who were to carry the message of Christ to the world, made a conscious choice to translate the message of Jesus into the common language of most of the known world.

The OT (Hebrew Bble) referenced in the Gospels was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew text. The Gospel writers utilized the LXX when they were quoting the Hebrew Bible, and utilized the LXX when Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible. There was no undermining of the LXX by suggesting that it is “a translation of the message of the Hebrew Bible.”

3. Multi-cultural Bible. The Bible was written over many centuries (some suggest 1500 years… some less). During that time three languages were used: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. And language even changed during that time. Even more, there were numerous cultures over all of that time (from Pre-exile, to exile, to post-exile, to Roman era Judea, to Roman era Gentile regions). At the very least, this fact rejects the idea of a sacred culture or a sacred language.

4. Jerusalem Council. Acts 15 speaks of the council regarding contextualization, or cultural translation. Can a Christian be culturally Greek and be a Christian, or must he (or she) become culturually Jewish. The council decided that based on the works of the Holy Spirit with the Samaritans, Cornelius and family, and in Antioch and Asia Minor, God accepted Gentiles as followers of Christ without taking on Jewish culture.

It would be hard to make the argument that cultural translation is blessed by God while believing that language translation is not.

This is not to say that there are not risks of cultural distortion. I would argue that the doctrine of the Impassibilty of God has more to do with Greek ideals (and reimforced by Islamicist ideals) than what the Bible actually describes. Present American Christian culture seems, in my mind at least, to see Jesus as a White upper-middle class Republican. We have to be careful of cultural distortion… but such distortion doesn’t negate the value of translation.

5.  Babel Narrative. In Genesis is the story of God confusing the languages. As Evangelicals, we would take this story as historical. Some read the story as a punishment. However, that doesn’t seem to be the big issue. The people were supposed to multiply and spread all over the earth. They refused so God gave them different languages so that they would naturally separate based on different languages, than became the basis, presumably, for language families. But note that language diversity happens naturally when groups are isolated. If they obeyed God and spread out naturally, their languages would have diverged from each other. They refused so God divided their languages and then they spread out. Either way, it was God’s desire for language and cultural diversity.

6.  Revelation 7:9 speaks of the ideal setting of worship— around the throne of God. It is a balancing of unity and diversity. United in the act of worship and the object of worship. They were also united in message, clothing, and at least one aspect of action (waving palm branches). Here however, is where the unity stops. In terms of diversity, the crowd is composed of all nations (ethnic groups), tribes (‘phylon’), peoples, and languages. The last one, languages, could simply point to the diversity. But it also could point out that all different languages are included in the worship. I don’t know, but drawing from the Pentecost event, I would like to see it as evidence of language diversity, not simply diversity of people.

I will stop here. The impact of translation on people’s lives around the world could argue in favor of the translatability of the Bible. One could also point out that cultures often appear to open people up to the gospel rather than inhibit it. But I will leave that for others to consider. Ultimately, The Bible is translatable and still be the Bible. That is a good thing for us since the languages and cultures of the Bible are gone.

Is the Bible Translatable? Part 2

This is part 2. Part 1 speaks of different views of translatability. This part looks at some practical reasons to accept the translatability of the Bible.

St. Jerome, translating the Bible into Latin

A. Since translation always happens anyway, recognizing the validity of translation helps ensure that distortion is minimized. This sounds backwards. Those who support the untranslatability of Scripture (whether it be Bible, Quran or something else) often do so with the tacit assumption that doing so removes or limits distortions. However, translation happens whether one acknowledges it or not. It happens either by skilled translaters or unskilled readers. If a person ls immersed in one culture/language and must interpret a holy writ in another language, translation still happens… but it is in the mind of the reader. The problem is that not all are equally competent of converting a less familiar language, and its associated subtlety of culture, into their own understanding. There are two ultimate choices one can make:

Translation by experts in translation versus translation by amateurs

Translation that is done and honored versus translation that is done and is disregarded

B. The Word of God is, for practical purposes, NOT the Word of God to a person who cannot understand it. When there is a language/culture gap between the Word and the recipient, the communication error is a failure of neither… unless translation is rejected and the reader is expected to do the change. I am not pulling a Neo-Orthodox inspired idea here. I am simply saying that if the message is so distorted in the mind of the reader or hearer, what they have in their mind is not God’s Word, but an untrustworthy distortion of God’s Word.

For example (considering the Quran for the moment), if a person speaks only American English, then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are a hindrance to receiving the message of the Quran. Even if the Quran is “translated” into contemporary American English, it is not considered the Quran but something else. Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the Quran? It had no choice what language it was recited/recorded in. Is it the fault of those who are English-speaking Americans? No. It is the fault of those who won’t translate or won’t stand by their translation… yet do (effectivly) stand by the internal translation of untrained strangers.

Additionally, if a person speaks only American English then the language and culture “limitations” of the person are also a hindrance to receive the message of the Bible, IF the latest “real” Bible is AV-1611 (or perhaps one of its 18th century editings). The cultural (and language) gap between 1611 and 2014 must be overcome to understand the language. In the Philippines there are “KJV-only” churches. Many of the preachers and membership struggle with a dual language gap— mentally converting 1611 English into Filipino English and then into a Filipino heart language. There is a lot of place for error on that torturous route.

C. If the Bible is translatable, it is NOT appropriate to think of certain sacred languages or cultures. While in Islam there may be something sancrosanct in the culture and language from which the Quran was recited (or developed), with the Bible should hold no such sacred status. The Pre-exilic culture of Israel, the exilic culture of the Jews in Babylon, the post-exilic culture of Judea, and the Hellenized-Latinized culture of the Eastern Mediteranean in the first century are no more holy in culture or language than any other (although I do find some Christian groups here in the Philippines who seek to embrace a faux Hebraism because they think it is untainted by cultural distortion… not considering whether labeling a different culture as God-blessed is already a distortion of the message). God gave his message into and through those particular cultures… but the message could have come to and through any culture and have enriched it and have been enriched by it.

D. Related to the prior, if there are no sacred cultures, but find God working in several cultures… PERHAPS God is working in all cultures. And if God is working in all cultures… then translation, drawing as it does from the symbolic wealth of language and culture of a people, potentially involves taking the revelation of God and combining in a positive not destructive manner with the present work of God.

This suggests that if the Bible is translatable, we need a more dynamic view of inspiration. For Option 1A, such as the Quran, inspiration is dictation and occurring only once. For Option 1B, KJV-only, rabbinical view of the Septuagint and such, the inspiration may happen more than once but is limited and people are still likely to have a more passive role in the process. But if the Bible is God’s revelation that is being translated with reference to God’s work in a culture, then for the translated work to be still considered the Bible, the work is a divine partnership. On some level good translation involves divine partnership… a form of inspiration/illumination— a dynamic process of bringing God’s meaning out in different words.

E. Translation suggests that there is a message in the Word that is Supracultural. For example, when the 23rd Psalm describes God as my shepherd and I am one of His sheep, this is an ancient Semitic metaphor. When translated into a different culture, a different metaphor may be more understandable. Yet saying so only makes sense if one understands that language is culturally informed symbolism. Behind the symbolism is a core message. The process of translation helps us separate between the message (God as one who loves me and cares for me personally and sacrificially) and word (God as a Jewish sheepherder).

Now these points may seem strange, but I believe there are reasons, primarily in the Bible itself, for believing that God’s message is translatable. That will be in the next post,  Part 3.

Is the Bible Translatable? Part I

Is the Bible translatable? Now when I am asking that, I am not asking whether the words of the Bible can be translated into another language. I am asking:

  • Can the Holy Bible be translated into another language and still be the Holy Bible.
  • Can the Bible be translated and still be reliable?

These two questions are related. If the Bible is reliable and it is remains the Bible after translated, then the Bible is reliable in translation. There are two options. Option 1 is NO. Option 2 is YES.  I divide Option 1 into two sub-options. One simply remains NO while the other is Yes…. but NO.

I believe that the Bible is translatable (Option 2), partly because of internal affirmation of this point. But first it is only fair to look at the options. Then in part 2 I  consider the pretty strong consequences of such a view, and finally in Part 3 I look at why (I believe) that such a view is accurate.

OPTION 1. NO. The Bible is not translatable. There are then two sub-options.

Sub-Option 1A (Simply No). The Quran route. In classic Islam, the Quran is untranslable, inerrant, and always has been (uncreated) in 7th century Arabic. The recitations may be translated in the sense that its content can be put into a different language, but it cannot be described as being truly the Quran. It is now “a translation of the message of the Quran.” Of course, one might actually ask the question of whether the Quran meets that criteria itself of not taking other source materials and translating and redacting them into 7th century Arabic. But textual criticism and the Quran is a touchy matter for some and I will leave that for those who are more skilled in it (and more cautious in their media outlets). In classic Islamic sense, any translation of the Quran is not the Quran. Fairly simple.

Sub-Option 1B. Christians generally are more subtle in this one. Few say that the Bible is the Bible only if it is in its autograph languages (Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). What some Christians do is more of a Yes…. but NO.  For them, the Bible can be translated into another language… but that translation is essentailly part of the Holy Spirit’s work to preserve the message. In line with that, certain translations are blessed with an inerrant quality that puts them above criticism. These may include the Septuagint, Vulgate, Textus Receptus (compiled Greek), and KJV. Consider the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX the “official” Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible was, according to Rabbinical tradition, created by 70 rabbis translating for 70 days. After 70 days each of the rabbis brought his translation of the entire Hebrew Bible out to share with the other rabbis. To their amazement, all of the translations were exactly identical. Now, like with the Quran, we are not considering the historicity of such a belief… but the implications of such a belief. For 70 to all translate identically is absolutely improbable… ridiculous… on a human level. What is being said is that the LXX was not actually translated by man, but “RE-REVEALED” by God. The same logic has been applied to the Vulgate (Latin) translation of the Bible, as well as the Textus Receptus (Greek), and the King James Version (“AV 1611”). The argument is that the translation was not actually a human activity so much as a re-revealing of inerrant divine word. I think you can see why this re-revelation option is still pretty similar to the Quran option. Even though there may be Bibles in different translations, strictly speaking, the Bible (as in God’s revealed revelation) only exists in one, two, or three, or so specially inspired versions. Anything diverging from that is a human construct and not to be trusted. This sub-option is more subtle than 1A, but not much.

Option 2. Yes. The Bible is Translatable. To say that the Bible can be translated and still be the Bible does not negate the possibility of special status for the original revelation. One might say, for example, that the Bible is “Reliable” (or some other word suggesting that the Bible exists as a historic revelation given or inspired by God) in its original manuscripts (in their original languages), but it is possible to bring message forward into new languages accurately enough to be considered Reliable… and not something lesser. Again, I am not going to go into issues of inerrancy and reliability… but rather consider the implications that I believe follow from saying that translation of the Bible is possible and it still being the Bible.

In the next post, we will look at the ramifications of the belief that Yes, the Bible is translatable.

Quote on Indigenization of Faith

Quote of Reverand James Johnson (1836-1917). Quoted by Lamin Sanneh in “the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture,” chapter 5. Johnson (aka “Holy Johnson”) was an African assistant Anglican bishop of Western Equatorial Africa during the time of British colonization of the region.

 

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Bishop Samuel Adjai Crowther (1809-1891). Colleague of “Holy Johnson

“Christianity is a Religion intended for and is suitable for every Race and Tribe of people on the face of the Globe. Acceptance of it was never intended by its Founder to denationalize any people and it is indeed its glory that every race of people may profess and practice it and imprint upon it its own native characteristics, giving it a peculiar type among themselves without its losing anything of its virtue. And why should not there be an African Christianity as there has been a European and an Asiatic Christianity?”

Recognizing that God (the God of Abraham) is not Jewish or Arabic or American or any other race– neither in culture nor preference– is difficult for people to accept. Most prefer to think in terms of “Our God” (God with us and not with them) or “Their (foreign) God.” But if we can get beyond our own ethnocentrism, then  the quote above makes sense and we are called to localize our faith… throughout the world.