All Together Now: Why Bible Translation is Important II

This is a follow on to an earlier post (sort of).
In the Garden of Gethsamane, Jesus prayed for his followers:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20,21)

There are a number of important things in this passage which I’d like to highlight:

  • Jesus is praying for the people who will believe in Him through the message of his disciples – that’s you and me folks! This is what our Lord wants for us and we can’t afford to ignore it.
  • He prays that we will be one just as He and his Father are one. He wants to see the unity and closeness of the Trinity reflected in the lives of His people.
  • That oneness is a profound testimony to the rest of the world, those who don’t believe, that Jesus really was sent to the world by His Father.

This call to unity is deeply profound. In a world where people naturally split into smaller and smaller groups which become hostile to one another, Christians are called to reflect the unity of the Trinity as a living declaration of the truth of Jesus’ message. Unfortunately, living in unity isn’t something that we are very good at. Clearly, there are times when it is important for Christians to take a stand against doctrinal error, but the capacity for believers to fragment into different camps around theological or cultural issues must cause pain to the one who prayed that we would be one.

Bible translation is one area in which Christians from different confessions can unite in order to advance the Gospel. The Scriptures are above our theological differences; there is no premillenial Bible as opposed to a post or amillenial one. The faithful translator strenuously avoids placing their personal slant or theological spin on their work – and where inevitable mistakes occur there is a rigorous checking procedure to ensure faithfulness to the original. If we are truly Christians, of whatever background, our concern must be to make God’s revealed word available to the millions of people around the world who still can’t read the book in their own language. Placing the Bible and God’s desire to communicate through it, above our own theological and cultural convictions is a liberating experience. It allows Christians who might never meet or who might, in other circumstances, be hostile to one another to work together towards a cause that is bigger than them and their secondary convictions.

I mentioned recently that a number of colleagues from Bible translation organisations across Africa were really encouraged by the way that translating the Scriptures drew Christians from across the spectrum together. It is a tragedy that in taking the Gospel around the world, Western missionaries also exported (and magnified) their denominational structures and divisions. With hundreds of people groups in Africa still without access to the Scriptures in their own language; Bible translation provides a solid opportunity for these divisions to be overcome – and it must please our Lord when he sees it happen.

But, Bible translation doesn’t always draw people together. It also has the capacity to pull Christians apart – quite dramatically at times. While two thousand or so languages in the world don’t have any access to the Scriptures, the English language has more Bibles than anyone could hope to read in a normal lifetime. Yet, despite this (or perhaps because of it) vast amounts of print and internet space are taken up with English speaking Christians criticizing one another for their approach to translating the Scriptures. Some of the attitudes on all sides of the various debates, must cause real pain to the Lord.

Yes, some translations are better than others and there is certainly room to debate the merits of different translation theories, but let’s start from the charitable assumption that people who translate the Scriptures are seeking (to the best of their ability) to communicate God’s Word to a needy world. That being said, I wonder if part of the problem in the English speaking world isn’t simple indigestion. At the risk of being uncharitable myself, I wonder whether it would not be better instead of expending energy on arguing the merits of the TNIV verses the ESV (or whatever) some English speaking Christians couldn’t put their considerable talents to the service of the millions who still don’t have any Scriptures in their own language. I’m convinced that if we worked together on the things that can unite us, rather than scratching at the itches which continually divide us, our Lord would be very pleased.

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