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.