Wycliffe, SIL Issue Guidelines on Translating 'Son of God' Among Muslims
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."