Wednesday, 9 January 2013

An Open Letter to Don Carson

Dr Carson,

Let me first say how glad I am that you have got involved in this topic*. On the other hand I do wish Theologians like you and John Piper would talk to Missiologists like Martin Goldsmith and David Bosch (were he still alive), and vice versa. Otherwise what tends to happen is the Theologians give a doctrinal answer, which is rather conservative, and the Missiologists give a pragmatic answer, which is based on the situation they have observed out there where the rubber hits the road, but the two don't match up at all. What we need is for some serious listening, serious debate, and even more importantly for each to be mini-experts in the other person's field. So Theologians (including church leaders) should have experience in Mission work, preferably overseas. Missiologists should have degrees in Theology, keep their Theological learning up-to-date, and spend time talking to home-based church leaders. Without this mutual understanding we will never reach agreement. I know that's an ideal, but we need to be committed to excellence in all that we do, so let's aim high.

As for your article, let me comment on your three final observations:

'First, the new approach to Bible translation is in danger of cutting off its ‘converts’ from the history of the confessionalism of the universal church. It is not a light thing to stand aloof from the authority of those early councils and creeds.' - Good point, and I agree whole-heartedly. The only thing we can do is keep trying to meet with the leaders of the new movements in Muslim countries. If they are willing to keep meeting with us, despite our differences (and the perceived threat from Western 'Big Brother' churches), some progress can be made.

'Second, a considerable literature has arisen from Muslim-convert believers who are aghast at these developments, arguing on both technical and personal grounds that these new translations are the product of Westerners who are imposing their work on local churches.' - True, but many of those who have left Islam have also left or been forced out of their communities. They have then found refuge in Western or Christian-culture communities. For example those in Turkey might start going to an Armenian or Greek church, rather than a Turkish one. This is very common, and means that they are having fellowship with those who are traditionally against the Turks. This causes them to take up views which are contrary to their upbringing, some of which are unnecessarily negative towards the culture or cultures from which they originate (I'm using the famous British understatement here, I hope you picked that up!).

'Third, the spread of the gospel in the early church saw the dissemination of Scripture along with the provision of missionaries and pastors. One wonders if at least some of the tensions over Bible translations spring from providing translations without simultaneously providing missionaries and pastors.' - Well I have never heard of such a thing happening. All the translations I know are being carried out in areas where either the church asked for it in the first place, or where the church grew very quickly, with church leaders who were using the translation. In very remote, pioneer situations there are often two couples, one of which spends time working in church-planting, and the other in translation work. The couples work closely together, so the translation team are well aware of the need for certain books of the Bible to be translated prior to others (e.g. Genesis before Esther, to pick an obvious example). If the translation is being carried out in an area where there are both Muslims and Christians, then the team try to listen to the majority Christian view-point, while producing a translation that isn't unnecessarily foreign-sounding to the Muslim reader's ears. For example, it is possible to translate Elohim/Theos (God) as Allah, or as Tanry in Turkish. The vast majority of Turks would use Allah for Elohim, so it makes sense to have Allah in a translation for Muslims. Tanry would only appeal to the minority secular audience, who don't, in any case, want to read the Qur'an or the Bible. This is an acceptable translation, just as acceptable as 'God' was when first chosen by the translators of the Bible into English (though they had the advantage of several centuries since the demise of the Norse religions that once used the term). If Tanry were chosen, those from a Muslim background simply wouldn't read it. That would be unfortunate, to say the least.

Lastly, a comment on these statistics: ' ...yet when certain tests are made, 46% of such converts avow they prefer to read the Qur’an than the Bible and 72% continue to think of Muhammad as the final prophet. How many of these conversions are spurious?' - I would like to know where these statistics come from, who made them, and at what point in the person's life? If it is within the first year or two (or five?) of their life following Jesus, then of course they are likely to think of Muhammed as the final prophet (after Jesus). It takes time to realise that Jesus is the only name given by God, the only rescuer, the only hope. For a period of one-five years after becoming a believer in 'Isa' (the Arabic version of 'Jesus'), the person struggles with thoughts of returning to Islam, of visiting shrines, of wearing amulets, or using charms. That is their old way of life and it doesn't always disappear overnight. If someone in the US or the UK takes six months to adapt and leave their old way of life, it's going to take ten times as long for someone in Saudi Arabia. Let us not be unaware, my brothers and sisters, of the seriousness of a Muslim turning to faith in Jesus the Messiah. They may lose their life. They are likely to lose the support of their family and friends. They need our prayers, not our criticism.

Here are links to my own papers on the subject:

Yours, in Christ, Dave G

*Don Carson has a new book out, 'Jesus, the Son of God'. If you haven't got it, have a read of this summary:


Peter Kirk said...

Great letter, Dave! Have you actually sent it?

Just one point: concerning "providing translations without simultaneously providing missionaries and pastors", you write "Well I have never heard of such a thing happening". But this is just what was happening, widely, in the city where I used to work and probably in many other cities in the region. Bibles and NTs were being sold on the streets to all-comers, many of whom had no contact with Christians. This was partly due to the policy of certain publishers. But it can happen anywhere, including in western countries, where secular bookstores make a good trade from selling Bibles, many of them surely to people with no church links. It is also the deliberate policy of groups like The Gideons to distribute Bibles to unchurched people.

Is this a good thing? Debatable. But in any case it is a distribution channel which cannot be ignored when one considers what to put in a translation, and in end matter and notes in a published version.

DaveG said...

I understood him to mean that there were literally no mission workers or pastors in the place - which was not the case where you lived and worked. Of course there will always be those who come to the Bible without anyone to help them (as did the Ethiopian in Acts, until Philip was sent by the Holy Spirit to help him) but I don't think our translations can cater for all audiences simultaneously. If we aim the translation at those who are reading it but have someone to ask then I think we will have done a good job.

DaveG said...

PS. I have now sent it to Don personally.