Wycliffe, the venerable Bible translation organization, has gotten itself into hot water recently with some of its Bible translation practices. Various Evangelical groups, including Biblical Missiology, Horizons International, the Assemblies of God and the PCA, have criticized Wycliffe for its tendency to replace terms like “Son of God” with “Caliph of God”, or “Father” with simply “God”. The Assemblies of God has gone so far as to produce a position paper directly opposing these practices, and has threatened to break off relations with Wycliffe.
This would obviously be bad news for Wycliffe. As a result, they jumped at the opportunity to have the World Evangelical Alliance lead “an independent external audit” of their translation practices. Among other things, this independent review gave the Assemblies of God some aircover, and it appears they’ve decided to postpone any decision about Wycliffe until the WEA releases its report. And from my perspective, the WEA’s choice of Robert Cooley to lead the independent audit seems to be a positive first step.
Still, I find it a little troubling that Wycliffe specifically selected the World Evangelical Alliance to conduct this independent review. As I’ve mentioned previously, although the WEA has a long and distinguished history, since 2007 it seems to have come under the increasing control of David Jang and his associates. David Jang, of course, is the controversial leader of the Evangelical Assembly of Presbyterian Churches (not to be confused with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church), Olivet University (not Olivet Nazarene University), Christian Today (not Christianity Today), Christian Post, and the International Business Times, among others. I’ve documented elsewhere the unsettling and sometimes unethical practices that his groups have been involved with. In general, David Jang seems to be very intent on making his organizations appear as large and mainstream as possible, with the oddly paradoxical result that they end up looking pretty shady.
Consequently, David Jang’s involvement with the WEA is a little worrisome. He was accepted onto the WEA’s “North American Council” in 2007, while the WEA was in some financial distress, and by all appearances has since become an integral part of its operations. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere:
Jang paid for the WEA’s move to New York City in 2007.[Edit 7/11/2012: In 2007, the WEA opened a new office in Jang’s New York City offices. I am told that Jang’s community pays for Geoff Tunnicliffe’s NYC apartment, and that they contributed to the WEA’s formal move to their NYC offices in 2010.]
- All three of the WEA’s offices are colocated with organizations associated with David Jang.
- Jang hosts and runs the WEA website.
- One of Jang’s close associates, Chris Chou, is now the chief of staff of the WEA.
All[Edit 7/11/2012: Apparently the vast majority of] WEA leadership courses are hosted at Olivet University, the school Jang founded.
- More recently, WEA and Olivet University joined in a bid to move onto the Green family’s campus in Northfield, Massachusetts.
- Etienne Uzac, one of the owners of IBTimes, is married to Marion Uzac, the former PR director for the WEA.
- The WEA gets a cut of every transaction handled by GivingWire.com (one of David Jang’s companies).
- David Jang’s media companies are promoting the WEA extensively.
- I was told by a source inside Olivet that David Jang has stated his intention to take over the WEA.
- Jang is closely associated enough with the WEA that ZoomInfo’s automated version of LinkedIn concluded (incorrectly) that he was actually the President of the WEA.
Maybe all this is just God’s way of providing for the WEA through some hard times. And maybe none of this has any impact on the WEA’s arbitration of the Wycliffe translation controversy. But it’s worth noting in this context that Jang’s reputation and orthodoxy is itself in dispute. He apparently taught at a Moonie seminary at least through 1992, and perhaps as late as 1998. He’s been the subject of several heresy investigations in China and Korea, at least one of which found solid evidence that his followers had acclaimed him to be the “Second Coming Christ”. I’ve also heard from two inside sources that his organizations engage in widespread unethical and perhaps illegal practices beyond what I’ve outlined previously.
In other words, there’s a certain irony here. The WEA has declared itself to be so orthodox that it may pronounce authoritatively on the orthodoxy of others; while at the same time, the man who seems to largely control it may have followers who think he’s the Second Coming Christ. If I were in Wycliffe’s shoes, and wanted a respected, neutral arbiter whose judgment and reputation were beyond question, I don’t think that I would have selected the WEA. I have no evidence that the WEA has a particular dog in this fight: but neither is it clear to me that its leadership is in a position to sit in judgment on anybody’s orthodoxy.
On my side, trying to weigh the limited evidence I have as best as I can, my initial take is that the instances I’ve seen of the WBT/SIL approach to translation certainly don’t rise to the level of heresy, nor are they a particular threat to Trinitarian orthodoxy, but they’re nevertheless at least a little troubling. Folks like Eugene Nida, who advocate a “dynamic equivalence” theory of translation, have a point, that all images of God are partial, and that translations which create incorrect impressions may not be helpful. That idea, of course, is not original with Nida, but goes back (at least) to the analogia entis of Thomas Aquinas. In other words, because I understand what Wycliffe is doing, even if I disagree with them and don't think it's terribly helpful, I'm having a hard time being as emotionally invested in the fight as the folks I've talked to from, say, the Biblical Missiology group.
Still, I think that the plain sense of Scripture, not to mention the history of Christian theology, makes it clear that certain images (not just certain texts) have canonical status, and that when there are translational or cultural difficulties, a good footnote or explanation is better than changing the canonical images altogether. This is especially true when engaging with Muslims who have already been told that the Bible has been subject to manipulation and corruption. I actually liked what the SIL folks did in the "Lives of the Prophets", by having the narrator engage in an explanatory dialogue with a member of the audience in the middle of the retelling of the nativity story.
Narrator (reading from Luke 1:26-27): God, the praised and exalted, sent the angel Gabriel, upon him be peace, to the village called Nazareth, in the region of Galilee in northern Palestine. He sent him to a virgin girl who was engaged to a man named Joseph from the lineage of our master David, upon him be peace. The girl’s name was Mary.
Audience Member (interrupting): Good leader, not to interrupt your talk, but we know that there are people who say of our master Isa [i.e. Jesus], that he is the Son of God. I beg forgiveness from God for speaking like this!!! I don’t understand why they say this thing!
Narrator: It is known that this is an extremely important thing to them. You must know that this [kind of] talk is a title for the awaited Messiah. [His] birth doesn’t mean a [natural] birth from a woman. The purpose [of this] is that God, the praised and exalted, chose our master Isa to be the king over the Lord’s Kingdom [lit. the Lordly kingdom] which He promised in the time of the prophets. He [i.e. Isa] is the agent/deputy who became God’s Caliph over the people. Because of this we can say that he is God’s Caliph in place of “Son of God” because God put him over the Lord’s Kingdom. Good! When they call him God’s Caliph it is certain that he is someone important [lit. big] among the people. Yes, Oh Mutlaq [name of the man the narrator is speaking to], may the audience not take offense [that I singled you out and did not mention every one by name] while we read the Honorable Injil [i.e. the New Testament]. Surely our master Isa was originally the word of God that became a human in the virgin Mary’s womb. This is for the purpose of expressing the glorious nature of God.
The translation's mistake was not in providing an explanation, but in immediately afterwards abandoning the rich and complex imagery implicit in υιος του θεου and switching to a different image (“Caliph of God”) that came bundled with a completely different set of translational and cultural problems. I don't think you can become truly Christian in your thinking without a great deal of pondering on all the concepts inherent in the phrase “Son of God”. Translations which try to avoid any difficulties associated with that image may make it more difficult for their readers to truly grasp and be transformed by the Gospel message.
Another way to put it is to say that a C5 missional strategy and related translation philosophies have an unhelpful understanding of culture. The SIL translations in question seem to assume that a given society's culture is all-pervasive and all-consuming, that there is virtually no common human nature underlying the various cultural norms, and that it is practically impossible to learn or understand new concepts. This certainly doesn't seem to be the Biblical view, and in an increasingly globalized world, it’s directly contradicted by the facts on the ground. It's a mistake to make such an idol of culture, for one of the purposes of the Gospel is, in fact, to change each and every culture into which it comes in contact. This is at least as true for our own culture as for Muslim cultures, and the difficulties that make it difficult for Muslims to truly hear the Gospel have painful parallels right here in the US. There are always points of contact and points of critique whenever the Gospel enters a culture: new conceptual frameworks must be learned, existing concepts must be transformed, and some old concepts must be abandoned in their entirety. If our presentation of the Gospel neglects either the points of contact or the points of critique, we’ve done a disservice not just to the Gospel but also to those who hear it.
[Edit 26 July 2012 – I initially stated that the WEA had moved their offices to NYC in 2007. In an email, Geoff Tunnicliffe pointed out that the WEA had not moved their offices to NYC until 2010, and another source confirmed that date. It turns out that I had misinterpreted a press release. The press release stated that the WEA had opened an office in NYC (co-located with the EAPC) in 2007; I incorrectly took that to mean that that is when they moved their offices down from Canada. I was wrong, and I’ve corrected the date above.]