Eddie and Sue Arthur

Why I think Bible Translation is Important.

This is a rough piece of work that I vaguely hope will become the basis for my MTh thesis. I’m putting it out in public view now so that I can get feedback and ideas which will help me develop my thoughts. I would really value any comments you might make. Please log on below to make comments.

As a starting point for a reflection on Bible translation as a part of God’s mission to humanity I’d like to take John 20:21

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

I think there are a number of ways in which we can reflect on this verse that will help us to explore our responsibilities and also to get to the heart of what Bible translation is all about.

Jesus Invested in People

By the time of his ascension, Jesus had eleven close disciples and an indeterminate number of other followers. In terms of measurable success, Jesus earthly ministry did not produce a great deal (in today’s culture he might have been in danger of having his funding pulled!) Jesus invested the best part of three years in the lives of his disciples: this is an amazing commitment of time and energy from the creator of the world. Just think of all of the miracles he could have done if that’s what he’d chosen to do.

Of course the result was that despite the unpromising start, Jesus’ disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, built a world-wide movement. I would argue that Jesus example shows us that the first task of any mission work is to invest in people so that have the capacity to carry on the work themselves and even to reproduce themselves. See my post comparing John 20:21 and 2 Timothy 2:2. For Bible translators, this implies that their primary responsibility is to equip translators, not simply to translate the Scriptures themselves. Thinking about this, it is worth noting that even at his ascension after three years of close contact, Jesus did not view his disciples as capable of carrying his work on – he told them that they should wait for the coming of the Spirit. Likewise, preparing Bible translators is a slow and multifaceted task. Academic training is part of the package, but translators need some sort of wider support structure if they are to be truly equipped to do the job. There are no short cuts.

There is an interesting post on discipleship and mission here.

Jesus Came as a Sacrifice

Serving Christ is a deep privilege, but we must never lose sight of the fact that it is also a life of sacrifice. We aren’t called to take things easy, but to take up our cross (Luke 14:27). Everyone involved in Bible translation, be they mission executives, supporters at home, expatriate missionaries or local translators is called to a life of sacrifice and service. Some give up time and money, others sacrifice far more even to the point of giving their lives. There is a trend in Western Christianity to see the Christian life as being essentially one of self fulfilment – essentially we are believers for what we can get out of it. There is no doubt that there is a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment which can be derived from involvement in mission (and translation in particular) but that isn’t what it’s all about.

Jesus Came Preaching the Kingdom.

Jesus did not come preaching a typical evangelical Gospel sermon; he came announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God. (Mark 1:14,15) This is not just the future Kingdom that will be ushered in on Christ’s return, but the present Kingdom demonstrated in the life of his people, the Church. A clear strand of Jesus teaching is that the Kingdom is not just about spiritual salvation, but also about justice and righteousness and a concern for the poor and oppressed. (Luke 4:17,19).

This world may indeed be “enemy occupied territory,” but the Enemy has got no property rights in it. He is a thief and a liar. Our responsibility as Christians is to be good stewards of the King’s property. (Max Warren)

Bible translation is fundamentally a Kingdom activity. As Lamin Sanneh has shown, Bible translation not only gives people access to the Scriptures, it also gives value to communities and helps poor and marginalized peoples to become more developed. The process of language development and literacy increases the educational opportunities for minority groups and helps them to move out of the poverty which so often enslaves them. It is tempting to fall into the modern Evangelical trap of seeing mission as being confined to ‘spiritual’ ministries and to ignore the wider Kingdom agenda in Jesus teaching. To do so is to reduce Bible translation to little more than an effective (if long-winded) method of preaching the Gospel message. A more rounded understanding of Jesus’ message places ‘spiritual work’ in a much broader context and helps us to appreciate the full effect and importance of Bible translation work.

Jesus Became a Man

The incarnation of the Son of God on the earth is the central fact of the Christian faith and our primary responsibility is to bear witness to his life, death and resurrection. Our message is not a philosophical system or a religion, but the man, Jesus Christ. The incarnation is not only the heart of our faith; it is also at the heart of Bible translation providing both the possibility of translation and the model for translation.

In Jesus, God became a man who could be seen, touched and heard (1 John 1:1,2). God had a physical presence on our planet accessible to our senses and crucially, to our language. Human language strains at trying to describe a transcendental God. The Old Testament prophets pile image upon image trying to capture the grandeur of God and still leave us grasping to understand. In Jesus, however, we see the glory of God in human form (2 Corinthians 4:6) and while all the books in the world might be enough to describe everything he did (John 21:25) human language clearly has no trouble talking about him.

The reality of Jesus Christ is expressible in any language for the simple fact that “he became a man and dwelt among us”. If God had not chosen to communicate with us on our terms, rather than on his, then none of our languages would be adequate.

The incarnation of Christ not only provides for the possibility of translation, it also provides our model. In becoming a man and leaving heaven for the earth, Jesus made a cross-cultural journey which is beyond human imagining. Our calling to cross boundaries with the gospel is not rooted in finding efficient communication methods (though we want to be efficient) but in the fact that he did it first.

Through the incarnation, Christ was metaphorically translated so that humanity could understand the nature of God (he also gave sanction to the idea of Bible translation by quoting from the OT in the Septuagint translation). Because of the incarnation, the Christian faith is, in Andrew Walls’ words, ‘infinitely translatable’. There is no human language or culture which cannot appropriate the truth of God’s revelation in Christ. You do not need to adopt the language and culture of first century Palestine in order to become a follower of Jesus. This was underlined at Pentecost where God did not reverse the tower of Babel as some have said, but actually underlined Babel by allowing everyone to understand Peter in their own language. God powerfully gave his own approval of the indigenising of the Christian message.

Across both geography and time, the expression of faith in Christ varies enormously in its outward expression. Indigenous language Scriptures are part of the larger picture of a translated faith with indigenous forms of worship and community life. This indigenisation is right and proper contributing as it does to the expression of the greater Glory of our God.

The full confession of God’s grace and glory can only take place through the assembled choirs of all human tongues and cultures. Guder. The continuing conversion of the church. P.80

The responsibility of the people of God then is to develop an indigenous expression of the Gospel in their situation. Viewed from this context, the translation of the Scriptures is no longer an optional extra but it is absolutely central to what it means to be a Christian community. We often say that Bible translation is a great help to evangelism. I’d like to suggest, somewhat radically, that in the light of the incarnation it is actually the opposite which is true. Translation of the Scriptures is the fundamental missionary responsibility of the Church.

The Conversion of the Translator

“Missionary translation always includes the continuing conversion of the translator evangelists. The Spirit, in wonderful ways, makes their telling and showing into their own hearing and responding.” Gurder p.89

This theme is not related to John 20:21, but it flows naturally out of the discussion above, so I will include it here. It is a fundamental truth noted by many authors that the process of taking the Gospel across cultures inevitably changes the person who carries the message. This is especially true of translators. The struggle to express the truth God’s revelation within the bounds of a new language and culture inevitably opens up the translator to new insights and understandings about the nature and character of God. Gurder says; “Translation is a powerful process. It can uncover dimensions of a message which have not been recognized in quite the same way in previous translation processes.” What translators rather dryly refer to as looking for key terms is in fact an exciting theological reflection on God’s revelation to us. Things which are unclear or opaque in one language or culture become crystal clear when expressed in another. The translator has a responsibility to continually be learning. In addition, if we are to take the idea of a multi-cultural world wide church seriously, then the translator must also be willing and able to bring these insights from the new culture back to his host culture.

One example of this might be my experiences trying to understand the nature of the atonement in Kouya culture. The Kouya see salvation as primarily a deliverance from spiritual powers; a transfer of allegiance from the kingdom of darkness to God’s Kingdom. Their understanding of the atonement does not deny penal-substitution, but it adds a depth and breadth of understanding that is absent from much Western commentary. However, as our society increasingly denies absolute morality and the reality of sin, the Kouya understanding of the atonement may well communicate more clearly to the British than the traditional message. I could add to this, the lessons learned from seeing the Gospel applied in a much more relationship/community based society than the UK.

It seems to me that this reflecting back of experience to the home culture must be a central part of any mission or translation strategy. The reasons for this are not purely missiological; there is also a degree of self interest. If we can bring the learning and understanding gained during the translation process back to churches in the UK, then I suspect that the churches at home would be more inclined to support and pray for translation work.


So where does all this leave me? I think the key issue is one of vision. My motivation and vision for mission start with the incarnate Christ, bursting upon history holding nothing back but emptying himself and eventually submitting to death on a cross. As Christ came to the world, so his people spread out across the globe spreading the Good News of a God who translated himself so that we could understand him. The centre of this Good News is the creation of indigenous redeemed communities expressing the Gospel manifold cultures and all adding together to create a symphony of praise to our God. The translation of the Scriptures lies at the very heart of this. Translation is not simply a way to convey the message: translation is the message.

The incarnation translates and embodies God’s love for creation. That translation of God’s love into human history, commencing with Abraham and climaxing in Jesus, is the great and gracious risk of the mission of God. That risk of translation became global as the gospel of Jesus became the missionary message of the early church. The church was empowered and directed to cross boundaries and to take this message to the ends of the earth. (Guder p.78)

This is what drew me into Bible Translation in the first place. (When we looked much younger!)

A rather younger Sue and Eddie: Ivory Coast December 1992

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After the Locusts: Review

After the Locusts
You can read my review of Meg Gillebaud’s book after the locusts at the Christianity Magazine website.

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Blog Problems

I’ve been having some problems with our blog software over the past few days and, unfortunately, I don’t have time to work out what is going wrong. To smooth things out, I’ve had to remove the photograph gallery and I’m also having trouble including photographs into posts in the way that I want. Sorry about this, normal service will be restored as soon as possible!

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Vanity, vanity…

While waiting for a phone call (which never came) I spent some time looking up my name on Google (let’s admit it, we all do it!) and I came across some of the papers which I helped write years ago when I was working in plant sciences. This is an interesting example with good quotes such as:

From shortly after its emergence from the apical bud the elongation of internode 3 was attributable mainly to cell expansion. Total and specific activities of acid invertase in this internode rose to a maximum at the time of most rapid elongation and then declined.

I’m far from convinced that I understand it all now.

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What I did on my non-holidays

Waiting in line for passport control at Bole airport in Addis Ababa, I had plenty of time to talk to my neighbours; a couple from Manchester who were on their way home after a few weeks touring the country. They told me that they had done the usual tourist trail visiting Gonder and other exciting places. Meanwhile, I had just spent two weeks in Addis, most of it sitting in a conference room listening to people talking. They’d had a much better time of it than I – or had they?

Coffee.jpgNo doubt my tourist friends had seen lots of interesting and exotic Ethiopian cultural sites; most of them arranged for the benefit of paying visitors. I, on the other hand, didn’t see much like that. But when I did see coffee made in traditional fashion, it was being made by a friend who had invited a group of us round to her house for lunch. Friends from other countries and cultures are one of the most precious gifts I know.

On another occaission I ate Ethiopian food, not in some anonymous restaurant, but in an open air canteen surrounded by workers from the surrounding shops and offices. There with Alex and Doug (an American, I first met in the UK) I tore off lumps of injera (Ethiopian bread) and dipped it into the firey meat and vegetable sources. Great stuff.

Injera.jpgOf course, life wasn’t all eating injera and drinking coffee (wonderful coffee – as befits the country where it was first roasted), I was there to work. But, you know, work isn’t all that bad. Sitting with Bible translators and administrators; Ethiopians, Americans, Brits, Germans and Finns trying to work out the best way to ensure that the Scriptures are translated into local languages isn’t a bad way to pass the time. Basically, my job boiled down to listening to them talking and then asking a few well placed questions that would help them to think through issues more deeply. We talked about training translators, developing the next generation of leaders, how to get the Ethiopian church more involved in translation – what more could I ask for?

Small Groups.jpgSmall group discussions, brainstorming, reflecting on the Bible and praying together – the time went quickly. I received a nice complement from one colleague who said that when I’m facilitating a discussion by asking questions, you hardly realise that I’m there. That’s exactly the situation that I try to aim for – though I’m sure that some of you who know me in other contexts find that hard to imagine.I didn’t get to do an interesting tour of Ethiopia, but I did get to share in the lives of people who are deeply commited to the country and who are working hard to see God’s word available to all of the different language groups in the country. It is a huge privelege and I wouldn’t have swapped it for the world. Not only that, but a charming young lady took pity on my bald head and gave me a very nice (though somewhat ineffective) parasol

Eddie and Sarah.jpg
There are more pictures of my trip in the photograph gallery if you want to see them.

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February News

Dear Friends,

For the last few years, I’ve spent most of January in Central Africa but this year I was at home for the whole month. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that in January, England is much colder than Cameroon. Still, I shouldn’t complain as this time tomorrow I’ll be in Addis Abeba, where if the BBC website is anything to go by the days will be pleasantly warm, though the nights will still be decidedly chilly.

I’ll be involved in three main activities in Ethiopia and I’d very much value your prayers for the time there:

1. Working with the SIL Executive Committee to explore their role, especially in regard to planning for the group’s future.
2. Working with the group’s planning committee on updating their three year plans for Bible translation in Ethiopia.
3. A one day workshop on developing new leaders for the group.

I fly back on the night of Feb 27 arriving home on Tuesday 28 Feb. Early on the Thursday morning I’m flying off for a two day meeting with my Africa Area supervisors in Germany. I’ll then be home for the weekend, during which time I’m preaching at Above Bar Church and the following week I’m due to give a seminar at a church planting conference in Sheffield. There is a complication here because there is a rumour that a number of seminars, including mine, have been removed from the programme – but I can’t get any confirmation of this. In any case, it looks like being a busy few weeks. It’s rather frustrating, things were relatively quiet up until Christmas and now lots of things are all happening at once.

I finished the first module of my MTh in January and somewhere in amidst these travels I’ve got to do some serious reading and then write someessays on ‘Contemporary Theologies of Mission’. Should be fun .

Sue meanwhile is working hard on the first part of her MA. She has lots of books and articles to read on different approaches to interpreting Scripture. It makes fascinating (if sometimes, heavy) reading and is of direct relevance to her work as a translation consultant in Madagascar. Speaking of which, she has a trip booked to go and do some consulting for the team translating into the Tandroy language (which sounds suspiciously like an Indian restaurant to me) for two to three weeks in April. Please pray for her in her preparations for this.

Both Dave and Sam have had nasty bouts of flu over the past few weeks (they are not alone, there has been a lot of flu in Southampton over the past month or so) but they seem to be back to full strength.

Dave has been asked to be the ‘Hall Rep’ for the University Christian Union next year. This would mean staying on in a hall of residence and helping to lead the CU group, rather than moving out into a shared house with friends. It’s a big decision, not only touching on where he will live, but also involving taking on leadership responsibilities. Please pray for the Lord’s wisdom and guidance.

Sam continues to make steady progress at college. He struggles with exactly the same parts of the chemistry syllabus that caused me problems thirty years ago: chemistry hasn’t got any better in that time. He is doing a broad range of subjects and enjoys aspects of most of them, so he struggles when he thinks about having to specialise over the next few years.

Dave and Sam are both planning to be involved in Christian activities over the summer. Dave is applying to help with the Keswick Convention youth team (which means that he won’t be able to join us for our family holiday as they clash) and Sam is hoping to join a party from Above Bar Church going to Spain.

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The Church After Christendom

I’ve just finished reading Stuart Murray’s ‘Church After Christendom’. If you are interested in thinking through what the Church should look like in our current culture, it is a very good read.
Church After Christendom

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Moral Climate Change and Freedom of Speech: Bishop NT Wright

Last week Tom Wright gave an excellent speech in the House of Lords which did not seem to receive any publicity at the time. I have to admit that the speech is rather dense (I had to read it twice) but it is a good example of a Christian engaging with pressing social issues.

  • The nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies swept away the old moral certainties, and anyone who tries to reassert them risks being mocked as an ignoramus or scorned as a hypocrite. But since then we’ve learned that you can’t run the world as a hippy commune. Getting rid of the old moralities hasn’t made us happier or a safer. We have discovered that we do indeed need some guidelines if chaos is not to come again. But once the foundations have been eroded, where will you find firm ground on which to build new moral fences?…
  • Whose freedom are we talking about, anyway? Notoriously, the freedom of my fist ends where the freedom of your nose begins;

I’m going to have to be careful: I’ve been nice about a bishop and a the pope recently. It does my baptist credentials no good at all!

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The Heart of Mission?

I’ve just done a short exercise for my MTh course. Following on from some reading; the workbook asked, ‘which Biblical passages lead you to the heart of mission?’

I raised this question myself in a post a few months back, but my answer to the exercise today is different to the one I gave earlier. This could mean that I’m just forgetful, or it could indicate that I’m learning something. If it’s alright with you, I’ll go for the second one. So, which Biblical passages do lead me to the heart of mission? Actually, I had no hesitation in writing down two passages which are very key in my thinking and reflection: John 20:21 and 2 Timothy 2:2. Different influences and reading have brought me to consider these two verses as important, but I was surprised to see the way that they flow together when I wrote them down side by side:

He spoke to them again and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

You have heard me teach many things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Teach these great truths to trustworthy people who are able to pass them on to others.

The Father sent the Son, who, in turn, sends the disciples who have the responsibility to pass the things they have learned on down the generations. There are a number of things that strike me as I read this.

Firstly, there is the way that these verses tie me into the history not only of the people of God, but of the Father himself. He sent the Christ, who spoke to the disciples, who passed on the message to others, and down through the centuries faithfull men and women have passed the word on till it got to my brother Phil, who told me all about it (thanks Phil!) and now it is my responsibility to keep the chain going.

I’m fascinated by the way that these verses emphasise how mission flows from God himself. It isn’t an invention of the Church, it is something that God did first. All he asks is that we carry on doing what he did first of all. Don’t they say that a good leader never expects his followers to do something that he wouldn’t do himself? Well, our God certainly doesn’t expect us to do more than he has already done.

I’ve also found real encouragement in seeing the way that mission is based in the character of God. 2 Timothy 2:2 has long been a major motivation for my work. Translating the New Testament into Kouya was a way of passing on what I’d learned to others, as was teaching language and culture learning at ETP. These days, I spend much of my time teaching and training others in all sorts of areas; I don’t get much of a kick out of doing things myself, but I love to see others learn and grow. Putting these two verses together seems to show that this cascade of knowledge and teaching of which I’m part begins with the Father and springs from him. I’ve been struggling over the last couple of years to know exactly what it is God wants me to do with my life when I grow up. I’m still not entirely sure about the specifics, but I do know that I’m part of a movement from the Father to the Son and down through the years to the Church. I can live with that!

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Two Quotations

I enjoyed these two quotes I heard this week – one serious, one not quite so…

  • This world may indeed be “enemy occupied territory,” but the Enemy has got no property rights in it. He is a thief and a liar. Our responsibility as Christians is to be good stewards of the King’s property. (Max Warren)
  • That chap is like a bull who takes his own china shop with him (I’m not telling – but it wasn’t about me, though it probably could have been!)
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