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Wycliffe Associates Leaves Bible Translation Alliance over ‘Son of God’ for Muslims

Debate over how to best convey the Trinity continues.
Wycliffe Associates Leaves Bible Translation Alliance over ‘Son of God’ for Muslims
Image: Wycliffe Associates
Bible translators in Cameroon use the MAST process in 2015.

A long-running debate among Bible translators over how to best convey the Trinity to Muslims has led one group to distance itself from others.

Wycliffe Associates (WA)—a smaller and separate organization from Wycliffe USA (the American chapter of Wycliffe Bible Translators)—is leaving Wycliffe Global Alliance (WGA), a partnership of more than 100 Bible translation agencies around the globe.

WA cited several reasons for its decision, starting with controversy over the language used to describe Jesus. In some Bible translations, the language of Jesus’ relationship to God the Father (e.g. “Son of God”) is softened to stem confusion and anger from Muslims who mistakenly believe this means that God engaged in sexual relations with Mary. (CT devoted a 2011 cover story to the controversy.)

"For [us], literal translation of Father and Son of God is not negotiable," WA president Bruce Smith said in a March statement explaining its commitment to support only Bible translations that use the phrase “Son of God.”

MAST translators meet in Cameroon last year.
Image: Wycliffe Associates

MAST translators meet in Cameroon last year.

The debate isn’t a new one. In 2012, Wycliffe USA pulled one controversial Bible translation from circulation and halted publication of several others after the 3-million-member Assemblies of God threatened to boycott the ministry over language concerns.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) investigated, and in 2013 released new guidelines that translators should choose "the most suitable words in light of the semantics of the target language." For example, "qualifying words" such as "heavenly father" could be used for God and "eternal Son" for Jesus.

Another reason for WA’s withdrawal from the alliance is its plan to provide free access to Bible resources to local churches as they work to translate the Bible. (The appropriateness of Bible copyrights is debated.)

"The local body of Christ has both the responsibility and authority as stewards of God’s Word in their language,” Smith stated. “[WA] supports the Church’s authority in Bible translation.”

The WGA, which was called Wycliffe International before 2011, partners with ministries such as Faith Comes By Hearing, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the WEA.

“We regret that [WA] has decided to withdraw from affiliation with [us],” the WGA stated. “We thank WA for their important contributions to the global Bible translation movement and pray for them as they continue to serve. Translation that faithfully communicates the meaning of Scripture has always been and continues to be a foundational principle for all of [our] more than 100 organizations.”

This technology kit accelerates Bible translation in rural areas.
Image: Wycliffe Associates

This technology kit accelerates Bible translation in rural areas.

Last summer, WA rocked the translation world when it claimed a new method could cut the time spent translating the whole Bible down to mere months. But a review group raised concerns about the new process known as Mobilized Assistance Supporting Translation (MAST).

Meanwhile, leaders from SIL International, The Seed Company, Wycliffe USA, Biblica, the United Bible Societies, and the American Bible Society explained to CT why speed must be balanced with accuracy.

CT examined in depth how Bible translations that avoid the phrase “Son of God” are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims, yet such a translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed. CT also noted the WEA’s recommendations for how to resolve the controversy.

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