Theologically acceptable translation

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As a student of linguistics*, a lover of the Bible, a missiologist interested in contextualization, and a frequent transgressor of the Eleventh Commandment, (“Thou shalt not hold strong views on controversial issues”) it’s no real surprise that I have a thing or two to say about the Son of God translation fracas. It seems very reminiscent of the equally silly debate about whether or not Bible translators should use the word Allah for God in Arabic translations of the Bible.

I was growing up in a fairly charismatic Evangelical church in the UK at the time that debate once reared its head, and in a sense it was the perfect storm, hitting the buttons of latent Islamophobia on one side, with an instinctive mistrust of theological meddling on the other. You see, for Evangelicals of that era, stressing the absolute authority of the Bible, theology was unnecessary—you read the Bible, you did what it said. “Theology” was seen as a liberal plot to put God into a box and rationalise away our failure to accept the plain truth of Scripture. If we must suffer theologians at all, they should take as their point of departure the “Biblical data” (yes, we really did talk like that) and make inferences from it, and if the Bible said something they didn’t like, well, their theology just ought to change. So any talk of theologians demarcating the boundaries of what the Bible “should” and “shouldn’t” say was beyond the pale, another attempt to remake the Bible to fit their own preconceptions. No, theology should be built on Scripture, not the other way around!

All of that formative background must still be part of me somewhere, because I found it difficult to join in the rejoicing that the Son of God debate has been kicked across to the WEA to arbitrate. “Respected Evangelical theologians and biblical scholars” will join translators and linguists to “set boundaries for theologically acceptable translation methodology.”

“Theologically acceptable translation”? Are they serious? Is the cart driving the horse now?

I am not against peer review. I think peer review is an incredibly important process, but “peer review” is made up of two words, and only one of them is “review”. My gut, that theological hindbrain formed by those early Christian years, tells me that theologians and translators are not peers; their activities are not even on the same level. We do not ask chefs to review the work of farmers, because even if chefs know how to make carrots taste great, they may not know the first thing about how to grow carrots. Theologians “cook” the Biblical ingredients, but surely they don’t get to choose what those ingredients are! In my gut, to consider theologians as the peers of translators is to consider the Bible to be a mystical object, inapplicable to “objective”* disciplines of secular linguistics and translation studies, but requiring a priestly class to mediate and interpret—in short, everything Enlightenment Christianity tells me it isn’t.

But I have travelled a long way from that small charismatic Evangelical church, and there are now a variety of theological identities within me, and some of them are telling me that my gut is wrong. I don’t just think in those simplistic, functional terms of theologians “manipulating” Biblical “data” any more, and I am starting to think that Athens doesn’t have all that much to do with Jerusalem after all; in other words, I more and more understand the Bible as a document both by and for a community of faith, and in that light I can see that there is certainly a place for those within the faith community to take ownership of that document and point translators to how that community understands it. The Bible did not drop fully-formed from heaven, but was collated, transcribed, copied, edited and curated by the Church; it is a product of the Church, and so I believe that the deposit of faith within the Church—what some traditions call “Tradition”—dialogues with the written word of Scripture as an equal partner in expounding the faith to the Church.

So in that sense, as a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, I am entirely comfortable with what the WEA is doing in bringing in theologians to set boundaries for how the Bible should be translated, even if, as an Evangelical, I still find it strange and slightly abhorrent.

*No, really; my undergraduate thesis was on maximum entropy segmentation of Japanese.

*Yeah, I know.