Deep in the Amazon jungle an Ocaina Indian returned recently to his tribe. While away he had heard the Gospel explained in simple Spanish and had put his trust in Christ. Neither his education nor his elementary Spanish, however, had enabled him to read and understand the Spanish Bible. Forced to rely on his memory, he began to tell his fellow tribesmen of God’s Son who had come to earth and died for them. “But why did Christ have to die?” they asked. “Well,” he reported later, “I couldn’t quite remember what had been told me, but I told them that people have to die or the world would get too populated, so Christ showed us how to die.”
This man did not mean to pervert the truth. He was desperately in earnest as he tried to answer the honest questions of his listeners. But he had no place to find the answers. He needed the Word of God in his own Ocaina language, written right then, not years later.
The young Ocaina believer was not the first to fall into error for lack of the written Word. Centuries before, Mohammed had undertaken to proclaim to his people in their own language the true religion which he recognized had been communicated in Judaism and Christianity. He had some knowledge of what the Bible said, gained apparently by hearsay from poorly instructed Christians. Inevitable distortions were the result, and an apocryphal Christ—not the Christ of the Christian Scriptures—emerged in the Koran. When Moslems came to examine the Scriptures placed in their hands by tardy Christians, they concluded from their disagreement with the Koran that the Jews and Christians had corrupted the primitive revelation of Mohammed! During the past 400 years oral tradition without the written Word in their own language has given the Ixil Indians of Guatemala a travesty of even the simplest Gospel facts. “God” is a crochety old man who cannot control his world any more. Therefore he has his strong young son to keep order and prevent skullduggery. “Jesus Christ” is the son and has some very effective tricks whereby he keeps things under control. For example, one day Jesus was captured by some Jews who tied him up in a corner and sat down to celebrate with a pot of chicken stew. Jesus blessed the chicken. It jumped in the pot splashing chili into the eyes of the Jews. While they were wiping their eyes, Jesus escaped. The “apostles” are the twelve men who hung Jesus on the cross. Of the two thieves crucified with Christ, one was a liar, thus very bad, and could not be forgiven. The other was a good man who had merely killed another man, so Jesus could pardon him!
Surely God never intended that the millions of Islam, nor the 25,000 Ixil, nor even the few hundred Ocaina should have such a frightful caricature of the truth concerning His Son. All alike are the victims of oral tradition, doubly dangerous across language boundaries. That it might not be so, He gave mankind a book, “written that ye might believe” and “that thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.” The Church’s missionary responsibility to give the authoritative Word of God to every man in his own language at the earliest possible moment is not a matter of population statistics. It is a matter of divine principle. God’s revelation of himself and his Son should be given to every man as God himself by his Spirit delivered it to the Church—written and in the language of the people.
The Cutting Edge Of Evangelism
The strength of evangelical Protestantism has always been in a personal living relationship to the risen Lord and a knowledge of, and obedience to, his written Word. From the “It is written” of Christ and the apostles to its twentieth century counterpart “The Bible says,” the written Word of God in the language of the people has been the cutting edge of evangelism, the source of strength and growth of believers, the rule of faith and practice for the Church, the bulwark against error, and the final authority for the spoken message. It is no mere happenstance that from its earliest days the Christian Church has been known as “the people of the Book.”
In carrying out her Lord’s command to preach the Gospel to every creature, the Church has recognized down through the centuries the importance of putting the actual written Word in the hands of the people in the language they are best able to comprehend for themselves, whatever the problems or cost of doing so might be. Even before Christ, Alexandrian Jews produced the Septuagint so they might understand the Scriptures read in their own synagogue. Jerome left his large congregation to find another preacher while he translated the Vulgate. Ulfilas invented an alphabet for the hitherto unwritten Gothic language. Wycliffe, Oxford scholar and linguistic pioneer, first translated the entire Bible into English, and he and his followers made by hand over 170 copies of this the first English Bible. Waldo hired priests to translate, then memorized whole Gospels in order to preach the Word. Elliot translated for a now extinct race, but his Pequot Bible served some 3,600 converts and 24 native preachers in its generation. Carey alienated supporters at home by giving time to the writing of grammars and dictionaries in order to lay a foundation for scholarly translation. The Serampore group translated and published Scriptures for languages among whom there were at the time no believers. By the time the Bengali New Testament came from the press there were four believers waiting for it. Four more opened their hearts to the Saviour the very first night after a copy was left in their village for any who could read. Morrison, in the face of opposition from employers, the death penalty for readers, and criticism from friends at home, plodded on to complete the whole Bible in Chinese. These and scores of others like them bear eloquent testimony to the high priority the Church has given to vernacular Scriptures.
The Language Of The People
This deeply ingrained realization of the need of the Scriptures in the everyday language of the people is further evidenced by the unprecedented demand today, on the part of national churches, for revision of existing Scriptures and further translation for those who as yet have only a part. Major revisions are now going on in more than 90 languages and further translation in another 175.
The fact that 1,127 languages have now received the Scriptures either in whole or in part (only 215 have the whole Bible) is no grounds for complacency. Some 2,000 languages spoken in our world today are still without a single verse of Scripture. No missionary-minded believer questions that these remaining tribes, many of whom are quite small, have a right to hear the Gospel. But that the Scriptures should be translated and published for them too is challenged by some on the “practical” grounds of limited finances, limited personnel, limited printing facilities, perpetuation of language differences, and political and ecumenical expediency. That one convert has less need of the Scriptures than a thousand converts, is neither logically nor theologically defensible. As a business venture there is a world of difference, but the Christian missionary enterprise is not a commercial concern, nor is it to limit its activities to those that are commercially profitable.
That missionary work to reach the remaining smaller groups should shift from the divine precedent and the historic practice of the Church and proceed without the Scriptures in the language of the people, for any reason, is a serious matter. To present every man perfect in Christ Jesus is the goal of all true missionary endeavor. The Scriptures are God’s means, in the hands of the Holy Spirit, the missionary, and the convert, to bring this to pass.
One has only to see the fruit of giving the Word to a small tribe to realize that it is spiritually profitable and that even “practical” reasons crumble before God’s manifest blessing upon his own Word. Moran, a Piro chief of the upper Amazon basin, came to the translator with the request that she work out some sort of Bible study for the Piro women. “Most of them need the help of the Word” he said. “They aren’t growing in the Lord as are their husbands.” He then added: “My wife is kind of different from the other women. When she does something wrong, I say to her, ‘Nina, God’s Word says so and so.’ And she says, ‘Moran, is that what God’s Word says?’ So I give her the Word and she reads it for herself and then she doesn’t do that any more. When I do something I shouldn’t, she says to me, ‘Moran, sit down!’ And I sit down. Then she says to me (soft and meek, like she always is), ‘Moran, doesn’t God’s Word say thus and so?’ So then I go and read it and by God’s help I don’t do that any more.” Children of the jungle—members of the twentieth century Church of the living God—people of the Book! Of the 1,000 Piros in Peru, over 600 have been born again by the Word of God in their own tongue. Today they are carrying on services in 12 different places and have already sent missionaries to adjoining areas. Was it “practical” to produce the whole New Testament for 1,000 jungle Indians? The reader will be glad to know that now at long last portions of the Scripture are available for the Ixil and in process for the Ocaina.
Bible Translation Progress
It is worth noting that the Bible translation movement has steadily accelerated throughout the centuries. From 100 A.D. to 1450 A.D. 33 languages received Scriptures, a rough average of a new language every 40 years. By 1800, 71 languages had some printed portion (including some but not all of the above 33), an average of a new language every 9 (or less) years; 1801 to 1830 86 more, or 3 new languages per year; 1831 to 1937 851 more, or 8 per year. Between 1937 and 1955 the average dropped to 4.6 new translations per year, but in the 24-month period 1956–57 35 more languages received something for the very first time, an average of a new language every 3 weeks! As we face the formidable task of giving the Scriptures to the 2,000 languages still to go, may we not lose heart but rise to new heights of attainment and to the completion of the task!
Twenty-five years ago two organizations came into existence, one specifically dedicated to providing the Scriptures for those still without them, the other a training institute to prepare workers for the linguistic research which must undergird such a program. The combined efforts of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics have already resulted in portions of the Word being published for the first time in over 90 languages. Field work is in process in another 100 languages. Strategic planning for the extension of training facilities and placement of workers in the remaining 2,000 languages is now under way. This year, on the 25th anniversary of these two organizations, a “Call To Prayer And Special Effort To Reach 2,000 Bibleless Tribes In This Generation” has gone out over the signatures of outstanding Christian leaders in the earnest hope that God will stir the forces of all Christendom to the completion of this vital and basic task.
The essential nature of the task and the problems encountered are as they always have been. Unwritten languages are being given alphabets. Grammars, dictionaries and scientific linguistic articles are being published. Hand-typed copies, then limited field-duplicated translations, are tested and revised in actual use with the people before definitive printed editions are produced. Primitive tribespeople are being taught to read and are studying and teaching the Word of God. Because of the scientific and educational aspects of the work, governments have granted permission for and given substantial backing to the translation task, even where missionaries as such are prohibited. The modern science of descriptive linguistics plus developments in transportation and communication have made possible and speeded up the research and translation task even in the most primitive areas. The training facilities in America, Australia, and Great Britain, and the research and translation program now in progress in 11 countries in both hemispheres, have been of service to many missions and other organizations also dedicated to getting the Word of God to the peoples of the world and laboring in every part of the world.
Answer To The Problem
The answer to the problem of reaching the 2,000 Bibleless tribes is certainly not to be found in abandoning the divinely given and historically attested principle of giving the Word of God in the language of the people. The answer lies in a mighty working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of his own that will issue in a new sacrificial giving of time in prayer, of manpower, and of funds.
This is a strategic time for the Christian Church to reaffirm her unshakeable confidence in the Word of God, not only for her own need but also in the evangelization of the world. We are the “people of the Book,” but are we committed to giving it to all others in the same measure that we ourselves have received it, written and in their own language, whatever the cost? God is already committed to blessing such a program, for he has said: “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
George M. Cowan is President of the Board of Directors of Wycliffe Bible Translators and Director of the Extension Department. He holds the B.A. from McMaster University (Brandon College) in Canada, and the Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He was one of a team of four who translated the New Testament into the Mazateco language of Southern Mexico for publication by American Bible Society.
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