Sending, Mission, The Trinity and Us

There is nothing quite so simultaneously frustrating and encouraging as reading a paper or article that says things that you have been teaching for years, but says them much more clearly than you ever could.

I had a strong case of these mixed emotions when I read Graham Tomlin‘s excellent paper Mission, Evangelism and The Nature of God. Because you will need to subscribe to in order to read the paper, I’ll attempt to give a brief outline below.

Tomlin kicks off by retreading familiar ground pointing out that though the term mission does not occur frequently in most English Bible translations, its root lies in the notion of sending, which does occur a great deal.

In John’s gospel, there are three movements of ‘sending’. The first is the sending of the Son. Repeatedly, Jesus refers to the Father as the one who sent him. God is “the one who sent me” (1.33), he is himself “the one whom God has sent” (3.34). He describes his task as to “ do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work,” (4.34) and  so on…

The second movement of sending is the sending of the Holy Spirit. John 14.26 speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”

He then briefly explores the notions of sending, begetting and proceeding  in Trinitarian theology (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds). This allows him to root mission in the eternal life of the Trinity.

Theologically speaking, mission begins with the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Father. It starts with the Trinitarian life of God before it ever involves the creation, let alone the human part of that creation. We have discovered a doctrine of mission and so far, humanity has not even come into the picture. There is at the very heart of God this movement outwards, the eternal begetting of the Son, and the eternal procession of the Spirit which issues in the sending of Son and Spirit into the world. This is not a secondary activity of God but is part of his very being, and it further enables us to say in the fullest sense that God is truly Love.

From here, Tomlin demonstrates that it is the Trinity which allows us to talk about God being love in an eternal sense. If God were not Trinity, he could not love until he had created an object for his love. This is something that I’ve mentioned on this blog from time to time and which anyone who has heard me lecture on mission will be well aware of.

It is this love which leads to God’s mission:

Love of course, is closely associated to mission. The movement outwards that we see in the eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit is his love; it is also carried on into the sending of the Son and Spirit into the world. It is part of the same impulse, an expression of the divine nature. That “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes inhim shall not perish but have eternal life” is not a secondary activity of God, a subsequent thought or action that he resolves to put into place once the world has gone wrong: it is an expression of the very nature and inner being of God himself…

From here, we move onto the way in which God sends the church out into the world.

There is however a third movement of ‘sending’ in John’s gospel, one which is different from, but related to the other two: the sending of the church. As Jesus speaks to his Father, he prays: “as you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (17.18), and at the end of the gospel heannounces to his disciples: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (20.21).

The next step is to show the way in which the sending of the church is distinct to the way in which the the Son and Spirit are sent into the world, before setting out the nature of the mission of the church.

Why then is the church sent into the world, according to John’s gospel? The simple answer is to bear witness to this missionary God who sends Son and Spirit, reaching out to his creation, rescuing and winning it back to himself.

This paragraph is extremely important. Our mission is to bear witness to God’s work, not to do it for him. Far too much missionary publicity and literature misses this point and seems to imply that God needs us to do some things because he can’t do them himself. Tomlin continues.

Now it is important to understand precisely the role of the church here. The church is not a ‘continuation of the Incarnation’ or called in any way to complete the unfinished work of Christ. In the most important sense, the work of Christ is complete (John 19.3). In another sense, Christ’s work is unfinished, in that the world is not yet fully redeemed, but that is the work of God through Christ in the Spirit. The church’s  task is to bear witness to the God who created the world through Christ(1.3), redeemed the world through Christ (3.17), and who will bring it to completion through the Spirit.

He then goes on to suggest three ways in which the church can bear witness to this creator, redeemer God; Uniting (building communities), Demonstrating (doing work like Jesus’ work) and Telling (proclaiming the Good News). To my mind, this last section is the weakest one in the paper. It’s not that I can argue with the importance of Uniting, Demonstrating and Telling, I’ve argued for all of these quite recently – and often on the basis of similar thoughts as Tomlin’s.

However, I believe that by digging straight into the ‘what should we do’ sort of question, Tomlin has missed a prophetic, counter-cultural message within the passages he has examined. I would argue that John 20:21 talks about the manner in which the Father sent Jesus, not so much about the things which Jesus came to do. I wrote about this years ago:

God sent Jesus in humility, to serve and finally to sacrifice himself. Likewise, we should expect humility, service and sacrifice to be part of our lives as He sends us out. This sits very uneasily with some of the quasi-military rhetoric about marching and capturing and so on which is part of the current church scene. Our call is to be humble servants, not conquering heroes (and churches need to be prepared to support humble servants and not expect every prayer letter to be full of success stories).

If you want to see more of my thinking on this, you could read my ebook on the Great Commission; the links are in the sidebar.

Despite my slight quibble with the application, this is a superb paper. I just wish I had written it.

Whose God: Whose Theology?

“… until recent years, systematic theology has at its best tolerated interpretations of Christology from outside the mainstream academic quarters, that is, mostly Euro-American and predominantly male theologians. Toleration has meant paying lip service to the role of “exotic” interpretations of Christ stemming from the soil of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and non-dominant cultures in the Global North. At the same time, these interpretations have been marginalized, put in separate volumes and essays – apart from the “serious” dogmatic and systematic works.” (p.70)

The Best Books On Mission (Again)

This, dear reader, is the definitive list of the best books about world mission. In this case, “definitive” has a rather vague sense and basically means “until I get round to updating it”.

The Best Book On Mission

Without a doubt the best book on mission today is Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity by Miriam Adeney. That being said, you’ll have to work pretty hard to find any mention of mission or missionaries within it’s pages. Essentially, it is a book about the world church, or if you like, a book which results from the the success of the 19th and 20th century world mission movement. From my point of view, this book should be compulsory reading for anyone in church or mission leadership. You cannot understand world mission today without taking into account the development of world Christianity (though some try) and, for my money, this is probably the best place to start.

Best Biblical Overview of Mission

Demonstrating regrettable indecisiveness and a failure to understand the meaning of the world “best”, I’m actually going to list three books in this category.

First, and most obviously, comes Chris Wright’s magnum opus; The mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. This book does what it says on the tin. Rather than starting with the normal mission texts, Wright starts with Genesis and demonstrates how mission is a key theme running through the whole of Scripture. He doesn’t present a Biblical basis for mission, but a missional basis for the Bible. The downside is that the book is long and heavy; not only will your mind be engaged, but reading it will develop your forearms too! If you are feeling lazy or can’t afford another big book, you can download a pdf of a booklet by Chris Wright which covers some of the same themes (but that would be cheating).

Covering similar ground to Wright’s book is Dean Flemming’s excellent Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling. Like Wright, Flemming works his way through the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation looking at the theme of mission. Flemming’s key thesis is to integrate character, action and proclamation into a holistic view of mission across the whole of the Bible. There is nothing new here, but it is excellently presented.

My final selection in this category is The Message of Mission (The Bible speaks today) by Peskett and Ramachandra. The Bible speaks today series are all excellent and this is no exception. Unlike the other two I’ve mentioned, this does not work through the whole of Scripture but expounds specific texts in order to illustrate various concepts and ideas in mission.

Best Overview of Current(ish) Mission Issues

There is no doubt that the best overview of (more or less) current mission issues is Global Missiology for the 21st Century. It is almost fifteen years old, so it isn’t entirely up to date, but it is very comprehensive and it has the wonderful advantage of being a free download. I really can’t conceive of any reason why you would not download it (well, perhaps you are on a very expensive internet connection).

The Best History of Mission

This one poses a bit of a problem. I’m sure that the best history of Christian mission is Kenneth Scott Latourette’s 24 volume work. However, unless you are a library, you are unlikely to want to give up enough shelf space or money to get hold of it. In which case, you might find a second-had copy of his one volume abridged history (still a weighty tome) but you might prefer to get hold of the Pelican History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neil. Sadly, it seems to be out of print at the moment, but I’m sure that the usual online-second hand book shops would find you a copy. You can’t have mine!

Best Book of Mission Praxis

There really is only one contender for this title: The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Biblical Theology for Life) by Chris Wright is absolutely excellent. In some ways it forms a companion volume to the Mission of God which I mentioned above, but it is much more accessible. Essentially, it is an overview of different activities which fall under the head of mission and an explanation of their biblical basis and a short exploration of how they can be carried out. It’s another one that needs to be on lots of peoples shelves.

The Best Overview of Mission Theology

There is no getting away from this, it has to be TRANSFORMING MISSION (American Society of Missiology). Bosch is the book! It gives an excellent overview of the development of mission thought historically and a broad canvas of where things are today. Some readers of Kouyant might object that it isn’t an Evangelical book, but I would actually argue that this is a part of its value. Much Evangelical mission theology seems to assume that nothing happened before William Carey, thus discarding three quarters of the life and history of the church. By adopting a broader sweep, Bosch allows us to learn from the thoughts (and mistakes) of others which we might be otherwise unaware of.

If you’ve read Bosch and are looking for something else, you might appreciate: Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology) or Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology (American Society of Missiology).

The Best Overview of the Great Commission

If you are looking for a short, readable and cheap overview of one of the key Bible passages relating to mission, you could do far worse than get The Great Commission for your Kindle. Then again, if you don’t have a Kindle or if you are really mean, you can get the same work for free here.

Closing Thoughts

This is a somewhat updated version of earlier posts on the best books in mission and missiology. It is undoubtedly as flawed as those earlier posts were, but I hope it will give you something to think about. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions of books I’ve missed, feel free to suggest them in the comments – even better, buy me a copy! If you think the whole list is hopeless, then this is probably a good time to start your own blog and make your own list!

Books I Have Read: The King In His Beauty

Without doubt, Schreiner’s King in His Beauty, The: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments is a contender for the best book I have read this year.

Essentially, it is a trip through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, showing how the theme of the Kingdom of God links the different books into a coherent whole.

The different chapters are given over to introductions to books or series of books of the Bible. To be honest, it would be worth paying the purchase price for that alone – this is one of the best introductions to the Bible I’ve ever come across. However, it is in reading the book as a whole and seeing the way in which the chapters demonstrate the coherence of the Bible as a single narrative that it really comes into its own.

This isn’t the first book to give an overview of the Biblical narrative, but it is the most thorough.

Even though I think it’s an excellent book, I would be a little reluctant to suggest that you pay the full hardback price for it; it’s not cheap. However, it is available for Kindle at what is a very reasonable price for such a large and thorough book. If you can bear not being able to write in the margins nor underline the good passages, this would be a great ebook purchase (the links I have given are to the Kindle version.)

I will be turning back to King in His Beauty for years to come, it’s that good.

A New Reformation?

Church historians sometimes downplay one of the key planks of the Protestant Reformation; the use of indigenous languages in Bible study, worship and disciple making. A great deal is made of the theological influence of Luther, Calvin et al, but language gets much less attention.

However, the Reformation both encouraged and depended on the use of the indigenous languages of Northern Europe. The increasing number of translations of the Bible, prayer books and hymnals encouraged an increase in theological thinking which solidified the break with Rome and led to distinctive expressions of Christianity across the region. The Reformation was not just a theological event it was a cultural and linguistic event too.

Today, we are living through an explosion in Bible translation and indigenous Christianity which dwarfs the Reformation. I wonder what the theological fallout will be from this as people start to read the Scriptures in their own language and apply them to their own situations. I also wonder what side of things the historic Reformed churches will find themselves.

Just thinking.

Do We Need The New Testament?

From time to time I post something about my perception that Evangelicals, even Bible translators (or a talk here), don’t pay sufficient attention to the Old Testament. However, it isn’t often that I come across someone suggesting that we may not actually need the New Testament; but that is the excellent issue that John Goldingay raises in this excellent article.

Do we need the New Testament because the Old Testament focuses exclusively on Israel and we would not otherwise know that God was concerned for the whole world? Did God not reveal his concern for the nations before Jesus came? In fact, that concern for the nations goes back to the beginning. God created the whole world and was involved with the development of all the nations. The aim of God’s appearing to Abraham was not simply to bless him but to drive the nations to pray for blessing like Abraham’s. God’s judgment of the Egyptians and the Canaanites does not mean God is unconcerned about other nations, as God’s judgment of Israel and God’s judgment of the church does not mean God is unconcerned about Israel and about the church. Prophets look forward to a time when nations will flock to Jerusalem to get Yahweh to make decisions for them. Psalms repeatedly summon all the nations to acknowledge Yahweh with their praise. (Emphasis mine.)

Though he doesn’t actually say that we don’t need the New Testament, Goldingay successfully points out that there is less difference between the two testaments than we sometimes suppose and that some of the things which we see as being specific to the NT are actually shared by both. It’s a great read.

If you are a reader, then you might enjoy Goldingay’s web page which has a wealth of articles on the Old Testament as well as on a wider range of theological and biblical issues. If you are not a reader (and shame on you) then you can see him lecture on whether we need the New Testament in a video that I posted yesterday.

Issues in Mission: Elements of A New Paradigm

We need to completely rethink our approach to mission and to supporting mission work from the UK. Tinkering at the edges and solving problems are no longer enough.

I wrote these words a few days ago in a blog post which suggested that we need a completely new paradigm or set of wineskins for overseas’ mission today. In this post, I’d like to suggest three elements for this new paradigm.

We Need Structural Change: this is probably the easiest one to describe, but perhaps the hardest one to do. Surveys show that the number of Christians in the UK is falling; conversely the number of mission agencies is increasing. This isn’t sustainable and at some point in the future we are going to see a lot of agencies closing down in a very short time. Assuming that most of these agencies are doing something useful, this would be a huge shame. The only alternative is to manage the drop in numbers by looking to merge and combine mission ministries before it is too late. This means that agency boards and management have to look beyond the narrow interests of their own organisations and to focus on the long term survival of the work they are involved in. My experience shows that this is far harder to do in practice than you might imagine.

We Need Relationship Changes: Western churches and Christians have been accustomed to believe that they are the centre of the Church; the ones who call the shots in leadership and mission; this recent post highlights this. The comparative rates of growth of the Church in the West and in the Global South give the lie to this assumption. Those of us who are Westerners need to get used to the idea that we have a huge amount to learn from the church in the wider world. This means that mission agencies need to give serious attention to blessing the Church in the traditional sending countries through the things that God is doing in the erstwhile mission fields.

On the other side of the coin, we need to realise that the West still has something to contribute. Many writers from the Global South and many missionaries who have compared the growth of the Church worldwide with their home situations have written off the contribution of the Western church. They see it as needy and moribund, with little to offer. This is as much of a mistake as seeing the West as the Centre of things: in truth the body of Christ worldwide is interdependent and needs to learn how to function in this way.

Mission agencies have a huge amount to contribute in helping to develop this interdependency. However, agencies often have a vested interest in promoting the old paradigm where Westerners are sent out in large numbers to the wider world. This was highlighted in the original post which prompted me to write this series of articles.

The mission agency is struggling in its home office to fund the operation, and its leaders are glad to get new recruits who will have to pay 13% operational funds.  There may be other benefits to the agency or its key members as new recruits contribute some of their support to the overall work of the mission.  The mission agency needs to keep accepting missionaries to fund its operations and replace missionaries who have left the mission.

We Need To Learn to Think Theologically: mission agencies are great absorbers of management and leadership literature. Effectiveness, impact and speed are terms that crop up all over missionary literature. However, effectiveness and impact are often achieved at the cost of relationships, service and sacrifice. The Biblical model of taking up our cross and following Christ is less attractive than changing the world. We need a radical refocus of planning and consultation processes to be more theologically thought through and focussed. Some might call this missiology, but I have become rather allergic to the term.

There is a lot more could be said, but this will do for a start.

Hyphenated Theology

I believe in a global theological accountability. We are all shaped by our contexts, personal and communal concerns, anxieties, questions and capabilities. This shapes how we read the Bible, how we develop theologies, what tools of interpretation we utilise, which metaphors we use and what topics we cover.

This is not relativism, not a denial of universal and absolute truths, but the humility of knowing that God and his truths are often beyond our man-made creations and perceptions. That is why we need the experiences of the global and historical Church, with all of its shades and colours, to be with us if we are to advance his Kingdom and ignore pitfalls of our own bubbles. Church history is full of episodes where a particular country and the Church in it gets carried away with its own social and political constructs, all along thinking that ‘God wills it’.

Thus, as I try to develop a theology for today’s Middle East, I need Christians from Latin America, East Asia and North America as well as Europe to keep me accountable; to challenge me where I need to be self-critical and to learn from my experiences. Simply put, without such a theological accountability, we are vulnerable to confusing our own constructs, culture and nationalism with the truths of God.This, however, is not happening and, where particularly Western Evangelical Christians are concerned, is truly far from this ideal.

Allow me to give two symptomatic examples of this. The first is the sloppy phrase of ‘contextual theology’ used for the writings of non-Western Christians. Works of African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern theologians are designated as ‘contextual’ whereas works of British or American theologians are marked as ‘theology’, as if they were not also products of their context, as if they do theology outside of parameters of a language, culture and preferred methodologies of interpretation and application. This grants Western theology a supra-contextual status and relegates non-Western theology to an inferior, semi-theology status. Obviously, such a classification is not empirical, but merely a sad reflection of how Western Christians see themselves in relation to the rest of the world…

A Middle-Eastern theologian writing under a pseudonym in the latest edition of Catalyst from BMS World Mission.

Communities, Commission and Translation

For many evangelical Christians, mission and the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20 are virtually synonymous. Mission, it is said, involves making disciples and we should avoid anything which distracts us from that goal. For an organisation like Wycliffe Bible Translators, this paradigm means that we need to indulge in a little verbal gymnastics to justify all that we do. Mission is disciple making, and you can’t be a disciple without access to the Bible, so Bible translation is a necessary part of mission. Equally, you can’t read the Bible without literacy, so literacy can be justified even if it isn’t directly related to disciple making or mission.

However, God’s mission – to which we are invited – is much broader than making individual disciples. In this context we do not need to seek for proof texts to defend the place for Bible translation. Seen from the perspective of the mission of God, we are freed up to engage joyfully in Bible translation, language analysis, literacy and other activities, as these are all part of restoring the unity within the human community which God wishes for.

Mission Involves Communities

The Western mission movement has been deeply influenced by the highly individual nature of the society that gave it birth. Because of this, we have tended to operate in a context which sees the salvation of individual souls as the highest priority of mission and the success of mission measured by the number of people making decisions. However, when we consider that mankind is made in the image of the relational, Triune God, we are forced to confront the Western concept of the individual head on. Although the modern Western world is obsessed with individualism, a Trinitarian theology is a theology of relationships[i] and compels us to be involved in one another’s lives.[ii] Men and women cannot achieve the closeness of the perichoretic life of the Trinity but the life of the community must take precedence over the values of individual achievement and competition. In Viv Thomas’ words, “The individual is not the centre”[iii].

The mission of the Triune, relational God is to reconcile all things in heaven and earth and this must involve the creation of communities who will live out the reality of the kingdom of God in time and in eternity. People are not simply saved from something; they are saved into a community (see Acts 2: 42-47).

When we think about a missionary activity such as Bible translation, we need to remember that all of those who are involved, however tangentially, are part of a community. If we are first and foremost the Body of Christ; then mega-donors, leaders, administrators, translators, partners, members of language communities, etc. are all individually members of that Body. In God’s evaluation of our efforts can our work be deemed to be successful if any members of that Body are experiencing the process as dishonouring, demeaning or marginalizing?.

Whatever Western culture may insist upon, mission involves Christian communities responding to God’s call in order to see the community of Christians increased and grow.

“It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that include the church, creating a church as it goes on its way.”[iv]

This is another excerpt from my paper on the Mission of God and Bible Translation.

[i] Myers, B.L., 1999 (p.24)

[ii] Cunningham, D.S., 1998. These Three are One; The Practice of Trinitarian Theology. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford. (p.183)

[iii] Thomas, V., 2004. Paper Boys: A vision for the contemporary church. From delivery to dance through God as Trinity. Authentic, Milton Keynes. (p.44)

[iv] Moltman quoted in: Daugherty, K., 2007. Mission Dei: The Trinity and Christian Missions. Evangelical Review of Theology 31, 151-168. (p.163)

Books I Have Read: Inspiration and Incarnation

If truth be told, I wasn’t planning to read this book, but on balance, I’m glad I did. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns looks at three big questions related to the Old Testament.

There is a lot of similarity between some Old Testament stories and contemporary stories; for example the Genesis story of the flood bears a lot of resemblance to the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. Does this mean that the Old Testament is no more inspired or sacred than related texts?

There are times when the Old Testament seems to disagree with itself. Some of the Proverbs are contradictory and at times the details of stories in Chronicles differ from the same stories in Samuel and Kings. What does this mean for our understanding of the nature of the Old Testament?

The New Testament sometimes quotes the Old Testament in ways that the original authors could never have envisaged. What does this have to say about the way in which we interpret Scripture?

I’ve seen treatments of these questions before, but to be honest, most of them just tend to explain the questions away which might feel comforting, but it is far from satisfactory.

Enns takes the questions very seriously and certainly doesn’t try to explain them away. He sees challenges like these as helping us to really understand the nature of the Bible as a book with both divine and human origins. It is the human side of the equation that means leads to the issues that Enns is dealing with. It is not that Scripture is flawed, but that it reflects the cultural contexts out of which it arises. A longish chapter is devoted to each of the questions and Enns demonstrates how the issues that we find difficult about the Bible actually arrive naturally out of the cultural milieu out of which it arises. It is good stuff.

If you have questions about the Old Testament or are interested in the nature and inspiration of Scripture, you could do far worse. This isn’t the easiest book to read; it takes a bit of concentration, but it is well worth the work involved.

For those who are interested there is a Kindle Edition.

Genesis and the Human Condition

Genesis tells the story of the creation from two angles, each one emphasising different aspects of the relationship between God, mankind and creation.

The first story (Genesis 1:26) highlights something about the nature and purpose of human beings. This story says that human beings, all of them, are made in the image of God. On one level, this means that we have the same capacity for freedom of thought, creativity and morals as God himself. Like God we can think for ourselves, we can imagine things that don’t exist and then bring them into existence, and we can make moral and intellectual choices. Being made in God’s image is a real privilege, but that isn’t all there is to it.

Why do people put photographs on Facebook? For most of us the idea isn’t to show off the photograph itself; the point of the photograph is to show off a place or an event. This is what our family reunion looked like; this is me on the beach in Spain and so on. Photographs are images and they exist to demonstrate the reality that lies behind them. God made us in his image, for just that purpose. Our role is to bear God’s image in the world and to demonstrate to the whole of creation how good, wonderful and caring God is. God doesn’t need a Facebook page – his image is all over the earth, every human being shows something about God.

The second creation story, in Genesis chapter 2 adds to our understanding of human beings. In this account, God first creates the man, Adam. He then looks at the man and says ‘it is not good for man to be alone’ before going on to create Eve. In this little story, we see how, at the most basic level, human beings reflect the nature of God. Like God, we are relational beings; we weren’t created to be on our own and God creates a partner for Adam. Like Adam, Eve is human and shares much of his character and form, but there are subtle differences too.

By the way, in writing about Genesis this way, I’m not staking out a position in the endless creation v evolution debate. If that’s something you want to argue about or comment about, there are plenty of blogs to keep you happy!

Language Culture and the Benefits of Bible Translation

Three years ago, I wrote a longish blog post (part of a chapter of my unfinished book) which included the following…

Just as each culture brings something new to humanity, so does every language. Each language is capable of expressing some things better than all other languages. Why else to coffee shops sell cafe latte rather than milky coffee? On a deeper note, each language has the ability to express itself in ways that other languages can’t quite manage. There are subtleties of meaning and inference that just can’t quite be transferred from one language to another without losing something. And this is really important, because that means that each language can say things about God and is capable of praising God in ways that other languages can’t quite reach. When God multiplied the languages at Babel, He also gave us the possibility of understanding Him and praising Him in new ways. Babel was a judgement, but at the same time God blessed humanity immeasurably and revealed even more of us to himself.

A recent article in Christianity Today by Jost Zetzsche covers similar ground, but takes things a step further than I did. Jost suggests that the wealth of translations available to us today gives us a breadth of insight that can’t be achieved through reading the text in the original languages.

Every new rendering of God’s Word in a linguistic set of human expression—a language—enriches the worldwide church in her understanding of God, regardless of whether we speak that particular language. Our thinking and imagination are necessarily confined and constrained by our own language and its assumptions. But when we encounter another language—and as it confronts and interacts with the biblical text—it can expand our understanding of God and our world. This is true in our dealings with the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic source texts, yes, but also the more than 2,000 target languages into which the Bible or parts of the Bible have been translated.

Take this example from a number of Chinese Bible translations. We know that God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is confined to heshe, and it. Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility. In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is he, 她 is she, and 它/牠 is it). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: . But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that God has no gender aside from being God. This translation discovery was an aha moment for Chinese believers. But knowing this benefits us as well—even if we don’t understand Chinese—because it expands our comprehension of God’s divine character.

There is no automation in this process. Translation is not a magical act where a unique facet of God is unearthed each time a new translation is published or a language is “conquered.” But as each faith community matures, discoveries like the Chinese divine pronoun can add to our understanding of God. In the case of the Chinese pronoun, it took a maturation process of 100 years and a member of the native church to reach this revelation.

Mission scholar Andrew Walls says similar things in parts of his work and the IVP Dictionary of Mission Theology article on language, linguistics and translation says the following (p. 201)

This means that divine revelation is much larger and richer than the capacity of any finite language to contain it. Consequently when the biblical message is translated into another language, whatever loss is incurred in subtle shades of meaning is always compensated by gains in fresh theological insights.

The implication of all of this is that translation is a part of God’s ongoing self-revelation to humanity and not simply a pragmatic add-on to solve the problem of incomprehension.

Whatever you think of these ideas, you should read the original article in Christianity Today and have your thinking challenged.