A controversial decision by a number of Bible translation companies to remove the terms "Father" and "Son" from Arabic Bible versions is stirring a debate over the importance of semantics.
The words "Father," "Son" and "Holy Spirit" are integral to preserving the true meaning of the Gospel and should never be tampered with, some ministries say. But some Bible translation organizations – such as Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), have argued that in certain cultures, keeping the literal translation creates the wrong context and does not portray the relationship between God and Jesus Christ correctly.
Controversy is swirling around the Arabic and Turkish translations of the Bible. The word "Father" is replaced with "Allah" (meaning God in Arabic), while "Son" becomes "Messiah."
Biblical Missiology, a consortium of mission groups based in Boulder, Colo., has started a petition on Change.com, which they hope will convince Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL to reconsider their decision to translate the words in such a way.
According to Yahoo News, representatives of the organizations have already sat down with leaders from the Bible translation companies in question, but have failed to reach an agreement.
One example of this change in the text concerns Matthew 28:19, which instead of "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" becomes "Cleanse them by water in the name of Allah, his Messiah and his Holy Spirit."
The reason for this modification, both Wycliffe and SIL say in similar statements released which address the concern, is so that Muslim readers of the Bible are not confused into thinking that the relationship between God and Jesus is a physical father-and-son one, where God is the biological father of Jesus.
"We, along with all other Wycliffe organizations worldwide, strongly affirm the eternal deity of Jesus Christ and require that it be preserved in all translations. Scripture translations should promote understanding of the term 'Son of God' in all its richness, including His filial relationship with God the Father, while avoiding any possible implication of sexual activity by the Father," The Wycliffe branch in Canada explained in a statement.
However, a number of experts in Christian-Muslim relations are saying that such a change is unnecessary.
"(These efforts are) a western imperialistic attempt that's inspired by cultural anthropology, and not by biblical theology," said Rev. Bassam Madany of Middle East Resources, an organization dedicated to approaching the challenge of global Islam from a Christian and historical perspective.
"This translation is 'an all-American idea' with absolutely no respect for the 'sacredness' of Scripture, or even of the growing Turkish church," added Turkish church leader Rev. Fikret Böcek.
Other experts have warned that regardless of cultural needs, we should be looking to preserve the Bible as is.
Founder and president of Teaching The Word Ministries, Dr. Paul M. Elliott, who holds a doctorate in Biblical exegesis and has written four books and hundreds of articles and booklets, explained that the most important aspect concerning translating and interpreting the Bible should be preserving the meaning of the original source.
"We need to have the authentic source text – of course, that has been an issue that has been debated a lot. But translators who come to the Bible (and want to use) a proper approach must be faithful and accurate in translating it, and must to the extent that is humanly possibly, not impose our theological, political or cultural agendas," Dr. Elliot said.
"The issue first and foremost is that we need to recognize the issue of the Bible as a religious book – it is in fact the Word of God – it is a supernatural book. We do not have the right as human beings to do that kind of manipulation of the text. We need to be faithful and accurate in translating it from the original language. It is not legitimate to do what is in fact not a translation, but an interpretation," he said, addressing Wycliffe's contextualization of the Scripture for Muslims.
As a response to Wycliffe and SIL's claims that such a cultural-specific translation is necessary, Biblical Missiology produced a "fact-check" document that addresses the different contentions the Bible translation organizations have made.
"This must be clearly stated at the outset: the "impression" of the reader never justifies replacing or removing "Father," "Son," or "Son of God" from the text of Scripture, regardless of the reader's misunderstanding or objections. The nature of the reader's offense has no bearing on what God actually says and means in his Word," the document positioned.