The Son and the Crescent
Last year, representatives from several prominent mission agencies, both national and expatriate, met to compare notes about the progress of their respective ministries in one Muslim-majority country. (The country's name is withheld for security reasons.) The representatives rejoiced that more than 1,000 "fellowships," as they call them, have been established for people from Muslim backgrounds. In fact, many of the fellowships had already planted new fellowships, and those fellowships had planted still more. Many thousands of Muslims in this nation alone, then, had found faith in Jesus.
Several of these fellowships can be traced back to small networks of Muslims who had encountered Christ and in turn began sharing with family and friends what they had discovered. In one case, a middle-aged working mother had inductively studied a new translation of the Bible for a few years. Among other language choices, the translation she used did not refer to Jesus as the "Son of God," due to confused and angry reactions from Muslims who mistakenly believe this phrase means that the Father engaged in sexual relations with Mary. To avoid this misunderstanding, the new translation called Jesus "the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God."
The woman, who eventually professed Jesus as Lord and Savior, began inviting friends and family to read the Bible too. At first, about 10 people met with her. This was cause enough for celebration, since Muslims in her country rarely study any religious books other than the Qur'an and the Hadith (collections of Muhammad's sayings and deeds). Three months later, another group formed nearby to discuss one New Testament chapter per week, and an elderly member of the family accepted the Good News of Jesus. Within two years, seven more reading groups had sprung up. Today, no one knows exactly how many such groups have formed. But new believers in Jesus have spread the message to nearby towns, and several hundred professions of faith can be attributed to this network alone, according to a group of long-term field workers in the country.
These and many other Muslims live in places where Bible translations have been available in their languages for decades, even for more than a century. So why the sudden surge of interest in Scripture? Some translators attribute the response to the new Bible versions that use religious vocabulary familiar to Muslims. And that's precisely the problem, according to other translators and missionaries who work among Muslims.
They charge their colleagues with compromise that undermines belief in Jesus Christ as the pre-existent, only begotten Son of God. Both sides eagerly long to take the Good News to the nations and make it discernable to Muslims in their heart languages. Both respect Muslims; neither wants to alter Jesus' message. Yet a dispute over the most faithful and effective way to render the common biblical phrase "Son of God" is dividing missionary from missionary, scholar from scholar, in a time of evident mistrust between Western Christians and Muslims.It also underscores how few Christians in the West themselves understand this common biblical title for Jesus.
Compromise or Comprehension
Bible translation and contextualization have long divided Christians working to fulfill the Great Commission. When missionary pioneer William Carey translated the Bible into Bengali in 1809, he used the Hindu word for the supreme being, Ishwar, to refer to God. Critics charged him with making a fatal compromise in the name of comprehension. Today, "Son of God" is hardly the only point of contention among missionaries to Muslims. For example, they also tangle over whether Bible translations should use Allah to refer to God. Both sides make a compelling case. Muslims understand Allah in terms of simple monotheism rather than the dynamic Trinitarian theology that Christians profess. Yet Allah, the word for God that Muslims know from the Qur'an, actually predates Islam. Some translators have recovered it so that Muslims reading Scripture for the first time won't immediately reject the Bible as foreign to their culture.