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February 8, 2011Culture, Missiology

Scripture, Translation, Contextualization and Ministry to Muslims

Collin Hansen has written an article in Christianity Today about the current controversy in missiology relating to ministry to Muslims. At the heart of the controversy is how to best translate the Bible. But, it's not just a matter of translation. It is also an issue of contextualization. For example, is it appropriate to use the word "Allah" (a title older then Islam) to refer to God in these new translations? Another key translation issue is what to do with Jesus' title, "Son of God." Since last week's discussion of the MissionSHIFT book was focused on contextualization, it seems this might be a worthwhile addition to the topic.

While this title and its meaning are very important to identity of Jesus, proponents of dropping the term indicated that Muslims become confused over it and "believe this phrase means that the Father engaged in sexual relations with Mary." If you have ever had a serious conversation with a Muslim, this always comes up. I mentioned this is my talk at the Global Faith Forum, with Muslims, Christians, and Jews all in attendance. To overcome such a misunderstanding, one translation instead refers to Jesus as "the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God."

This has been discussed in the scholarly missiology literature for a bit, but the Christianity Today article will make it an open discussion. As is usual in cases like this, those involved want to to see the gospel advanced. Those opposing the idea are concerned they are giving up too much in the process of reaching out. In other words, those involved generally have the right motives, but many are rightfully considering the result of those decisions.

One missiologist who argues in favor of not translating the title literally, but in ways Muslims may more easily comprehend, is Rick Brown. Brown has has been involved in outreach in Africa and Asia since the mid 1970s's and "regularly consults on language development and linguistics, including Bible translations." Hanson explains,

Brown says Muslims have less trouble believing that Jesus is divine and that he was crucified and resurrected than they do with hearing or saying "Son of God." So what can translators do to overcome this particular stumbling block? One option is to stick with "Son of God" and deal directly with the objection--if Muslims overcome their fears to begin with. Alternatively, translators may find a word for son in the native language that carries metaphorical connotations. (Translations that opt for a phrase other than the literal "Son of God" commonly include it in the footnotes to preserve connection to the biblical authors' word choice.) Or, they can nuance it with a more descriptive phrase, such as "spiritual Son of God" or "beloved Son who comes from God." These phrases have been shown to clear up the biological misconceptions

.

Other scholars, however, are not just uncomfortable with such an approach, but ultimately believe it to do more harm than good. Robert Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, teaches pastors in Sudan every year. He argues,

"We are really dealing, at some point, with the whole notion of imago dei and not just a single technical point of Jesus being called 'God's Son,' " Yarbrough says. "This is a key point where the nature of God vis-à-vis creation is just categorically different in the two religions. In one, God is utterly transcendent and unknowable and without peer or parallel of any kind in creation. He is, quite simply, inscrutable; we cannot call him 'Father' and so forth. The God of Abraham and of David and of Jesus is not like this. The 'Son of God' language in the New Testament is the tip of an iceberg."

Head over to Christianity Today and read the entire 7 page article, "The Son and the Crescent." Read it carefully. Then come back to here to discuss. What do you think? Can we substitute another word in place of the title "Son of God" without doing harm to the word of God? Is this good or bad contextualization? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

I will post a long response later.

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Scripture, Translation, Contextualization and Ministry to Muslims