Panel Seeks to Resolve ‘Son of God’ Translation Controversy

Late last month the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Global Review Panel presented a 33-page report with ten recommendations for Wycliffe Global Alliance and SIL International concerning their process of translating divine familial terms, like “Father” and “Son,” in Muslim contexts. 

Responding to several Bible translation controversies, Wycliffe and SIL requested last spring that the WEA review their process of translating divine familial terms. These controversies stem from the fact that Muslims often misunderstand the divine familial language found in the New Testament, believing that it implies that God had sexual relations in order to beget Jesus. This misunderstanding is found in the Qur’an (5:116; 17:111; 19:88-92) and leads Muslims to abhor the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. Therefore, in an attempt to avoid miscommunication some translations have avoided using the divine familial terms of “Father” and “Son.”

The WEA began forming an independent review panel last summer under the leadership of Robert Cooley, president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. By the end of September, the WEA global review panel was finalized with 12 evangelical biblical scholars, theologians, linguists, and missiologists from around the world, including from majority-Muslim nations. The panel first met in Toronto, Canada, on November 28-30, 2012, and then in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 9-13, 2013, to conclude their report.

The bulk of the panel’s report concerns translation methodology, which their first three recommendations address. The fourth recommends using additional kinds of literature to reach Muslims. The remaining six recommendations concern “guided processes for ensuring accuracy and accountability in Bible translation.” Recommendations 1-3 will be analyzed below since they address the heart of the controversy.

Needed Corrective

The panel’s report provides a needed corrective to Wycliffe/SIL’s process of translating divine familial terms; however, some might contend that the correction did not go far enough. In recommendation 1 the panel argues that when the words “father” and “son” are used to refer to God the Father and the Son of God, these should “always be translated with the most direct equivalent familial words within the given linguistic and cultural context of the recipients.” In other words, the terms “father” and “son” should be retained in the translation.

The panel includes compelling biblical support for retaining the divine familial terms. First, they include an exhaustive list of biblical examples that demonstrate that the words “father” and “son” are “among the most common ways the New Testament describes God and Jesus.” Second, they argue that the words “father” and “son” are among “the most important ways” the New Testament expresses Jesus’ divinity and relationship with God. Through the use of “father” and “son” the New Testament “conveys the central truth that Jesus is and has always been in a relationship as Son to his Father—derived from God and possessing the same divine characteristics (and thus fully divine), and yet distinct from God the Father as well.” Third, they convincingly argue that the word “son” is among “the most important ways” the New Testament presents salvation and “links believers to Jesus and at the same time distinguishes us from Jesus.” Jesus is God’s unique Son, while believers are adopted sons of God. The panel concludes that because of the centrality and importance of the words “father” and “son” in the New Testament, translators should render such words as directly as possible.

The panel concludes its rationale for recommendation 1 by arguing that avoiding divine familial terms may serve to support the erroneous Muslim belief that the Bible is corrupt. Not translating “father” and “son” in direct ways “could belie the Christian heritage of apologetics and add substance to the Muslim claim that Christians have corrupted the Bible.”

Potential Concerns

Some potential concerns surface in recommendations 2 and 3. In these recommendations the panel encourages translators to consider using “paratextual material” (footnotes, side-notes, glossaries, and mini-articles), as well as “qualifying words and/or phrases” to clarify and avoid misunderstanding. No problem arises if divine familial terms are translated as directly as possible and then explained in a footnote or side-note. However, adding qualifying words and/or phrases to the text itself is problematic especially if the translation does not make this addition known to the reader. Although the panel encourages the use of paratextual material, it does not appear to rule out the possibility of translators only adding qualifying words and/or phrases.

The panel states that “father” might be rendered as “heavenly father,” “God who is Father,” or “God who is the true Father.” The word “son” might be rendered as “divine Son,” “eternal Son,” or “heavenly Son.” The panel also notes that the phrase “Son of God” has varied nuances and therefore depending on the context could be rendered as “the Son belonging to God,” “the Son who comes from God,” “the Son who derives from God,” “anointed Son of God,” “royal Son of God,” “divine royal Son of God,” or even “royal Son who derives from God” (20, 23). If additional words or phrases like these are added, this should be made clear to the reader through the use of paratextual material. If not, what would prevent Muslims from using these added words in support of their claim that the Bible has been corrupted?

In faithfulness to God’s revealed Word and for the sake of consistency, it appears that it would be best to translate “father” and “son” as directly as possible, but then use paratextual material, like footnotes, to provide clarification.

Soon after the release of the report, Wycliffe expressed its gratitude for the WEA and the panel for its work, and stated that it will work with SIL “to take steps to develop a plan to implement these recommendations as soon as possible.” Translators, scholars, and other missionaries around the world will be watching to see in the coming months how the recommendations are implemented and if they will put an end to the controversy.

  • Jason Alligood

    Michael, Thanks for this. Great summation and use of positive and negative critiques. I agree with your assessment and recommendations.

  • Michael

    Why does no one make it more clear that at the end of the day we’re talking about whether “Son of God” should be explained in-line in the text or in a footnote, which it had been in-line? There was no heresy going on here, just getting across meaning and understanding.

    Most people have a narrow understanding of linguistics. Using the same argument of “added words or phrases” we should all read Greek and Hebrew or our English translations are in fact very “corrupt”.

    Many languages don’t have words for love, grace, gratitude, etc. What do you do? People with PHD in linguistics spend 20+ years learning a spoken language’s phonetics, developing it’s first alphabet, developing a dictionary, then translating the Bible.

    • Salaam Corniche

      Thanks for your comment Michael. One area that is overlooked in your list, however is the need for those working in Muslim contexts to understand the local culture and the potential pitfalls of ever so subtly Islamizing the Biblical text.
      How so you might ask? It has been proposed and even used in translation that Jesus the Son is called “the beloved of/from God.” Very nice phrase. Problem is that Muhammad is called ‘habib Allah’= the beloved of/from God. Another translation advocates putting pbuh behind the name Jesus. So what? That is a prayer that is used for the dead to show honor to them and to pray blessings on them. It was supposed to show honor to Jesus, but actually he has been reduced to someone who is dead and is on par with Muhammad.
      Did you know that Muhammad is looked on as being endued with eternal and heavenly light that emanates from God? So the translator has to take extra caution not to inadvertently reduce Jesus down to the level of Muhammad.
      Sadly the WEA committee did not rely on ex-Muslims to weigh in on these subtleties. I very much hope that WBT/SIL will avail themselves of this critical resource in their deliberations.

  • Mark

    Michael, thanks for the comment. However this is not simply a linguistic issue, it is a theological issue. For linguists to translate, they must understand ‘meaning’. If they inappropriately understand the meaning of ‘Son of God’ then you will get bad translations. And the Theology of Son and Father, and the Trinity will fall apart.

    Good news here, God is smarter than the translators and chose ‘Father’ and “Son’ on purpose. Every culture has a father and son. Every culture has the same type of Father and Son.

    If you believe there are some cultures without fathers or sons, then please, step out of theory, and start listing them. I doubt you’ll find any. Furthermore, you can be sure, Arabic, Bengali, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, and the other 48 Muslim Idiom Translations Wycliffe has admitted to doing this to all do have Fathers and Sons. You your linguistic point is not holding water. Their words for Father and Son have the exact, I mean exact same meaning and baggage as English’s Father and Son.

    Honestly, anyone’s PHD in Linguistics isn’t worth the paper it is written on if they don’t understand the meaning of the text. The Church, from the beginning has stated, the Sonship of Christ and the Fatherhood of God is an eternal sonship and fatherhood. This is not merely metaphorical. Christ is truly the Son of God. God the Father is truly the Father of Christ. They have for eternity past been in this very real and defined relationship. This is why The Holy Spirit revealed this, because it’s true. Not a metaphor that can be explained away by any other linguistic term. So terms like Guardian for Father fail. Terms like God’s representative fails for Son of God. The Beloved also fails because the real essence of God in Christ is missing, thus the Trinity. Theology matters, and Theology must guide translators throughly.

    I respect Bible translators because the task given them is a holy one, and therefore they hold a deep responsibility for their work as ‘teachers’. It is for their own sake that we hold them in strict accountability.

  • Mike Tisdell

    Michael, many of those who have spent 20+ years learning a spoken language’s phonetics, developing its first alphabet, developing a dictionary, and then translating the bible are among those most opposed to the these Muslim idiom translations. One of the most frequently repeated lies told by those promoting these idiomatic translations is that those who oppose them do so only because they lack understanding of linguistic and bible translation theory. The reality is that there are many well qualified, well trained, and very experienced linguists, missiologists, and bible translators who oppose these translation practices.

    If we allow those promoting MIT’s to continue to determine a person’s “qualifications” to discuss this issue based only on the degree to which that person agrees with their ideology then there can never be any honest dialog. It is time for those promoting these translations to stop trying to demonize the opposition and begin to engage in open and honest dialog. It is my hope that the WEA report, if it does nothing else, will force those promoting MIT’s to begin to engage in genuine dialog regarding these issues.

  • Don L.

    I have some concerns with the report, but I have a comment on this part:
    The panel also notes that the phrase “Son of God” has varied nuances and therefore depending on the context could be rendered as “the Son belonging to God,” “the Son who comes from God,” “the Son who derives from God,” …

    The reason “Son of God” has these varied nuances is because the Greek genitive is ambiguous and can have all of these nuances. The Greek is just two words — “son” and “God”, with “God” in the genitive case.

    In English, we often translate a genitive with “of” to preserve that ambiguity, but depending on context, it could be “who comes from,” “who derives from,” or “who belongs to.” These are all legitimate translations of the Greek genitive. These are not “added words” any more than translating the phrase as “Son of God” is adding the word “of”. In English you need to add words to translate the genitive case.

    For example, in the ESV, John 12:43 says “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” This uses simple genitives. The KJV renders it “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” The KJV is ambiguous: is “praise of men” the act of praising men, or the praise that comes from men? The latter is called the objective genitive, and the former is the subjective genitive, and it’s ambiguous in Greek. The ESV chooses wisely by translating it “comes from” to eliminate the ambiguity.

    In other languages, there may not be an ambiguous word like “of,” and you’re forced to choose other wording. See especially Dave Brunn’s new book “One Bible, Many Versions,” pages 138-141. He translated the Bible into the Lamogai, and in Lamogai there was no ambiguous genitive term. He had to eliminate the ambiguity every time he translated it.

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  • Jay Smith

    Don L, I appreciate your helpful comment that the Greek does allow the possibility to add qualitative words to explain the true meaning of ‘Son’ or ‘Father’. Thus, I assume you would therefore support the addition of these qualitative words in ‘Muslim Idiomatic Translations’, to help the Muslim reader understand the deeper meaning of ‘Son’ and ‘Father’, correct?

    I see two problems with that notion:

    1) We must understand our target audience, in this case Muslims, who have a high view of scripture, even higher than our own. For instance, they will not put their Qur’an on the ground, they will usually wash their hands before touching it, and they believe that the Arabic cannot be truly translated, thus an English translation is only ‘an Interpretation of the meaning of the Noble Qur’an’. Would they ever add qualifying words to the translation in their Qur’ans? Never, even in a translation they put qualifying words within either parantheses, or in a footnote at the bottom of the page. We should show an equal respect for our translations, and keep the translation secure and concrete, and then explain the meaning of the words in footnotes, outside of the text itself.

    2) Following on from that, by adding the qualitative words, you are adding to the already recognizable text of that translation. Remember that almost all of these languages already have a legitimate translation in them, which Muslims will already be familiar with, and certainly will refer to. These new qualitative words will be deemed by the Muslim reader as yet another example of corrupting our text, a common accusation, and a great tactic by Muslim clerics to prove to their Muslim disciples that our Bible is changed whenever we find a problem with it (which even our Wycliffe/SIL and Frontier friends claim in true).

    Let’s show respect for the Bible and what it says, remembering that Jesus purposely used the terms ‘Son’ and ‘Father’ with people who would have had similar misgivings for their meaning. Let’s keep the familial terms in the text of the Bible itself intact, and by doing so prove to our Muslim friends that we do not continually corrupt our scriptures, as they say we do.
    Hope that helps, Jay

  • Don L.

    Hi Jay, thank you for your response. Let me give a brief response.

    I assume you mean “qualifying words,” not “qualitative words.” My comment had nothing to do with adding qualifiers to explain Father and Son. Translating the genitive is not adding qualifying words. These words are part of the definition of the Greek genitive.

    The WEA report (pg. 20) helpfully distinguishes between adding qualifiers (such as ‘heavenly’ or ‘divine’) and rendering the genitive. It is the latter, not the former, that I am addressing. Unfortunately, the blog post above conflates the two ideas together, and I think that’s where you’ve misunderstood me.

    So my comment has very little to do with Muslim Idiom Translations, which I do not support, or adding qualifying words, which I am skeptical about, but that we should not put restrictions against “adding words” that do not understand Greek linguistics and how to translate it. As I noted above, any English version needs to add the word “of” in order to translate the genitive, and the ESV adds “that comes from” to translate the genitive. We ought not bracket or footnote every time we translate the genitive.

    For an introductory discussion of the Greek genitive, I refer you to those pages in Dave Brunn’s excellent book. At an intermediate level, Dan Wallace’s “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics” is an authoritative source.

    I hope that helps, Jay. There’s no replacement for an intimate knowledge of the original languages for understanding and discussing translation issues.

    I have a question regarding your points. I wrote above that I’m skeptical about adding qualifying words. You noted that Muslims put qualifying words in parentheses in their translations of the Qur’an. Would it address your two concerns listed above if Bible translators translated “(heavenly) Father,” “(divine) Son,” or “(royal) Son of God” in keeping with how Muslims translate?

  • Mike Tisdell

    Don L.

    I think that we would all agree that Greek genitives like ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεου and Hebrew genitive constructs like בן אל either need helper words (like ‘of’) in English or need to be rewritten as an English possessive. Neither would anyone (hopefully) translate both articles in the Greek example I provided into English. No one is suggesting that we need a literal “word for word” translation; I do think that most understand that such a translation would truly be impossible. The issue is whether these “qualifying words” help bring clarity to the translation or obscure its meaning. All of the examples I have seen suggested by SIL translators (like Brown) in the past obscure the meaning of the biblical text.

    One of the big issues in this debate is that SIL personal often present the idea that the words for “father” and “son” in other languages, like Arabic, themselves carry only a sense of physical / biological decent; however, in every language in which these translations have been produced (of which I am aware*) there are many examples of usages that show this claim to be false and, so far, no SIL/Wycliffe translator has provided any evidence of any existent language were the words for “father” and “son” themselves have this limited semantic range of meaning. Some translators have admitted that this is only a theoretical possibility and not a reality in any known language; they want allowances in the translation guidelines just in case such a language was discovered in the future. If you read through the literature produced by those advocating these translations you will find that all references supporting this linguistic claim cite Brown’s articles as their source and Brown’s articles do not provide any references for this claim at all. I have made several inquiries to Brown directly over the years regarding this claim but have never received any references from him in support of the claim he makes.

    The real issue is that Islam teaches that Christians believe that Jesus is the biological decedent of God and Mary; when Muslims hear the exact phrase “Son of God” in a biblical context, they assume what they have been taught about Christian teaching is true. This is a theological misunderstanding that should be corrected through teaching and not a linguistic misunderstanding that should have ever required a rewording of the biblical text. One of my greatest frustrations related to this issue is how misleading some of the arguments for these translations have been.

    *Note: SIL/Wycliffe has acknowledged that bibles in dozens of languages have been produced where non-familial terms have been used; however, they have so far refused to identify the languages involved. So far, all knowledge about specific Muslim Idiom Translations comes from outside sources who have obtained copied and not from those involved in producing them.

  • Josh Caudill

    Good article Dr. Clark. It’s very difficult to get past our own preconceptions regarding the significance English idioms as translated from Greek idioms play in our own theologically preconceived notions, so it’s difficult to acknowledge the possibility that a different theory of translation might be necessary in order to really convey the sense of God’s word to us. I don’t know what the answer will be, but I know that whatever the right path is for those working in translation, it will involve humility not only on the part of the translator or committee, but on the part of the reader, and that it will convey the truth of who God is to those from all cultural backgrounds. We have to be faithful in believing that God is greater than linguistic barriers, and that in a world in which languages exist that understand the world and metaphysics differently than those from a Greek-influenced worldview he is able to be understood by people from every tribe and tongue.

  • Don L.

    Mike T., I agree with you regarding the use of alternate familial terms. However, the WEA panel has already spoken decisively in favor of the most directly equivalent familial terms and against terms like “social son.” SIL has accepted it, and there is no one in SIL disputing it currently. In allowing the WEA to direct their policy regarding divine familial terms, they conceded that they may have been wrong. I praise God for SIL’s humility in that, am glad that they have agreed to reform that practice, and I don’t think it is profitable to continue criticism of a Christian organization on an issue that they’ve already conceded.

    Regarding familial terms used strictly in the physical/biological sense, I encourage you to read A Further Look at Translating “Son of God” by Michael LeFebvre and Basheer Abdulfadi from the Summer 2012 (29:2) edition of the International Journal of Frontier Missiology. To summarize, the way Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs use familial terms differ in practice. This is because the Qur’an (Surah 33) teaches that adopted children are not true children. Thus, for many Muslims, only physical sons are called sons, and adopted children are “social sons,” not true sons. There is a linguistic discrepancy between the way Muslim communities use words and the way Christian communities use words.

    (Based on that information, I can’t say with you that SIL’s arguments have been misleading, and on principle I always hesitate before I attribute deception to a Christian organization.)

    The practical ramification of this is as you said: “this is a theological misunderstanding that should be corrected through teaching.” A Bible translation is no substitute for teachers and evangelists. Not only do we need to teach Muslims what Son of God means, but we also need to correct their understanding of adoption: that God is our Father who adopts us; and when God adopts us, we are true sons, and as true sons, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). This is a truth that has the power to transform the hearts of many Muslims, and I pray for that to be so!

    • Mike Tisdell

      Don L,

      I agree with most everything you said. I am very aware of the Muslim prohibition against adoption and its origination with “Zayd ibn Mohammad” (The prophet Mohammad’s adopted son). One aspect that is not discussed in the IJFM article is that Muslims recognize that non-Muslims do adopt children and they refer to their children as “sons” and not “social sons.” Yes, I believe the Islamic view of adoption itself is a huge barrier to the Gospel and something that does need to be addressed when sharing with them. That being said, I think it is important to recognize that the Islamic prohibition against adoption is similar to a Baptist prohibition against drinking (they are not supposed to do it but they still understand well the meaning of what is being done).

      I think part of my cynicism related to how this issue has been presented by those promoting IM is that I have had many one one one discussions with one of the authors of many of the pro-IM articles in the IJFM when I shared office space with him. When I raised these questions with him the answers was always “those are very good questions.” However, he never attempted to answer them nor did he make any adjustments to what he was teaching others.

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