Islam and Contextualization: A Conversation with Collin Hansen & J.D. Greear
Collin wrote the February 2011 cover story for Christianity Today, “The Son and the Crescent”, which chronicles the debate over how best to translate the title “Son of God” in Arabic.
J.D. is pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh, NC and author of Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every Muslim. (See my review of the book, as well as a Q&A with J.D.)
Trevin Wax: Because of immigration and demographics, the landscape of the United States is quickly changing. Evangelicals have an unprecedented opportunity to share the gospel with Muslim friends and neighbors. Many Christians have answered God’s call to foreign fields to minister among Muslims, sometimes in places they cannot name for fear of retribution. At the same time, the increase in mission work in Muslim countries has been accompanied by a major debate over how much contextualization is possible without compromising core Christian convictions.
Collin, your recent cover story in Christianity Today records the debate surrounding the translation of “Son of God” and why some missionaries advocate other renderings. Can you start us off by briefly summarizing the discussion about how to translate “Son of God” and why it matters?
Collin Hansen: According to missionaries and translators in the field, nothing is so offensive to Muslims as the idea that God has a Son. They mistakenly assert that Christians believe God the Father had sexual relations with Mary.
Missionaries often avoid discussing Jesus’ sonship when sharing the gospel with Muslims, at least in their early interactions, in order to prevent the conversation from halting at an early roadblock. But translators cannot avoid this concept, for the Gospels are full of references to Jesus as the Son of God.
Trevin Wax: What has been the result of downplaying the concept of Jesus as the Son of God?
Collin Hansen: I learned from informed sources that some translations adopting a non-literal rendering of “Son of God” have contributed to growing numbers of Christians in predominantly Muslims countries. Presumably Muslims are willing to learn more about the God of the Bible when not immediately confronted by a phrase that offends them.
The question, though, is whether you can accurately convey Jesus’ sonship with less literal phrases than “Son of God,” such as “spiritual Son of God” or “beloved Son who comes from God.”
Trevin Wax: There’s a similar debate surrounding the use of “Allah” as the name for God in Arabic-speaking contexts. Some missionaries don’t want to use the Arabic for Jesus (Isa) or God (Allah), because they believe these titles are so connected to Islamic notions that they cannot be properly unpacked in a Christian context.
J.D., you did mission work in a predominantly Islamic country. How did you decide how best to address this issue?
J.D. Greear: Personally, I do not have a problem using the Arabic words for Jesus (Isa) and Allah (God). By “Isa” Muslims mean the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth and by “Allah” they mean the one Creator God, the God of Adam and Abraham and the prophets.
Our role, I believe, is to show Muslims where they are in error in their understanding of God. When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman at the well, he did not tell her that she worshipped a different God. He told her that she didn’t know the God she thought she worshipped, and that He could teach her what God was really like.
Likewise, when the Jews of the Apostles day rejected Jesus (and thus the Trinity) the Apostles did not say that those Jews were worshipping an entirely different God, nor did they insist on calling God by a new Greek name. They simply maintained to the Jews that in rejecting Jesus they had rejected the very God they thought they knew.
Trevin Wax: Isn’t it true that plenty of non-Christians in our own context have errant conceptions of “God”? Many people envision God in Deistic fashion, the elderly grandfather somewhat distant from our life. Yet, we don’t change the English terminology for “God” in our evangelism; instead, we seek to fill that term with Christian content, right?
J.D. Greear: Yes. That’s why I don’t think we need to get hung up on the fact that Muslims have previously assigned wrong definitions to the words “Allah” and “Isa.” Our English word “God” has roots in the German “Gott,” a name often associated with a pagan tribal deity. Every time we use the word “God,” we are using a name that had its origins in idolatry. But when we use the word “God” today, we mean the one, Almighty Creator of heaven and earth.
That said, I think the questions of which names to use is more of a practical question, not so much a theological one. If a missionary determines that those to whom he is speaking just cannot separate “Isa” and “Allah” from the wrong conceptions Muslims have about God, I think they should feel free to use the Greek or Latin translations of those names instead.
Collin Hansen: Following Jesus’ example does indeed help us think through these issues more clearly. He understood that contextualization isn’t merely our ability to understand and respond to the nuances of every distinct culture.
Rather, he showed that we can relate to every human being in every culture by responding in truth and love to humanity’s universal need for a Savior from their sins. We should reject any and all evangelistic strategies that claim to unlock the secret to reach a culture but do not deal with this fundamental separation between Creator and creation.
Trevin Wax: So – whether or not you agree with the translation choices – you are saying that these missionaries are genuinely seeking to faithfully proclaim the gospel in a difficult context.
Collin Hansen: That’s right. The missionaries and translators I talked to said they wanted to help make God’s Word more comprehensible. They did not intend, as far as I could tell, to change the essential shape of Christianity to accommodate Muslims.
In fact, they see themselves following in the footsteps of missionary pioneer William Carey. When he translated the Bible into Bengali in 1809, he used the Hindu word for the supreme being, Ishwar, to refer to God. At the time, critics charged him with making a fatal compromise in the name of comprehension. Now we view him as a hero.
Trevin Wax: What about the debate over translating “Son of God”? This topic moves beyond Arabic translations of names to the question of how we can accurately transfer difficult concepts from culture to culture.
J.D. Greear: I do not believe that moderating the “Son of God” language in Scripture is allowable or helpful.
Trevin Wax: Why not?
J.D. Greear: Evangelicals believe the Bible is verbally inspired, meaning that not only concepts but individual words were chosen by the Holy Spirit. That means that Biblical analogies are chosen by God, and for reasons known ultimately only to Him. Altering the metaphor tampers with God’s self-revelation, and thus tampers with the formation of the faith itself in our hearts. Diluting the Sonship of God must also necessarily dilute the Father’s Fatherhood, a central component in biblical faith, and one that Muslims deeply yearn for (even though they may not recognize it).
Trevin Wax: So you’re saying that there are certain metaphors or expressions that need to be translated as literally as possible.
J.D. Greear: Yes. For example… Years ago I encountered in a journal a story about some missionaries who had gone to live in a Polynesian tribe where the pig was the sacred animal. This had never seen or heard about sheep. Some missionaries thus began to translate “Jesus the Lamb of God” as “Jesus the Swine of God.”
The problems with such a substitution should be obvious. Lambs have certain characteristics that God found useful in communicating His attributes to us, and simply substituting “lamb” for “favorite animal” or “lion” for “powerful, scary animal” seems to me to dilute the truth more than to help it.
Trevin Wax: What do you say, though, to the missionary who wants to remove this offensive language when preaching the gospel?
J.D. Greear: Muslims aren’t the first culture to be offended by the truth of the Gospel.
One might argue that Americans would be more likely to believe in Jesus if His teachings on exclusivity and sexual purity were muted or at least downplayed a little. The Samaritans would have been more likely to accept Jesus’ Lordship had He hidden His Jewish roots. But He plainly told the woman at the well “salvation is of the Jews.” To hide the Jewishness of the biblical faith may have won Him a convert more quickly, but it would also hinder the woman from developing true Biblical faith.
Collin Hansen: I hear what you’re saying, J. D., about expecting the gospel to confront and offend every culture.
Robert Yarbrough, a NT scholar who frequently works among former Muslims in Africa, said as much in my article. Islam and Christianity are radically different. “In one,” Yarbrough told me, “God is utterly transcendent and unknowable and without peer or parallel of any kind in creation. He is, quite simply, inscrutable; we cannot call him ‘Father’ and so forth. The God of Abraham and of David and of Jesus is not like this. The ‘Son of God’ language in the New Testament is the tip of an iceberg.”
At the same time, we need to acknowledge that none of us reads the Bible just as God said it. (Certainly not now that I’ve forgotten some of the Koine Greek Dr. Yabrough taught me in seminary.) Even our more literal translations take liberties with the ancient languages so we can understand God’s Word today.
To be sure, we should not jettison “Son of God” just because Muslims don’t like it. But might it be okay to explain Jesus as “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” if that helps avoid the ignorant initial opposition to reading Scripture?
J.D. Greear: Yes, Collin, that is fair, and perhaps I should have been a bit more tempered in my response. Those making the translation are not trying to obscure the fact that God is a Trinity, merely to communicate Jesus’ Sonship in a way that avoids some of the baggage.
Translators for years have struggled to put Greek and Hebrew concepts into words that cultures very far removed from the original context could understand. That said, it seems in this case that the additional/altered wording is not designed to make the original language clearer, but to obscure it (for the purpose of avoiding offense).
“Son of God” is not just a phrase to translate, but a dominant theme of Matthew and John. By pre-qualifying the title, we are pre-determining what people think when they see the phrase from there on out. “Spiritual Son of God” and “Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” certainly make the point that Jesus was not the offspring of sexual union, but do they not, at the same, limit the other ways Jesus relates to the 1st Person of the Trinity as Father?
Trevin Wax: That’s my concern. Not that missionaries are denying Christ’s divinity, but that they are unintentionally altering our view of the Father-Son relationship so prominent in the Gospels.
J.D. Greear: Right. Jesus’ Sonship is not just “spiritual,” it is positional; Jesus does not merely “originate from” or “come from” God, He is God. I realize that “Son of God” does not make either of those points definitively, but it also does not limit them in the way “spiritual Son” or “Beloved Son who comes from” does.
So again, I’d rather err on the side of a much more literal translation than a translation that limits (and in some ways obscure) the author’s original meeting. I think the translator’s role should be to make the original intent as clear as possible.
Trevin Wax: So how would you recommend that we maintain “Son of God” and yet avoid the connotations that many Muslims have when they hear that title?
J.D. Greear: Why not keep the more literal translation as the text and put a footnote beside the text that explains what the passage does and doesn’t mean? Isn’t that where textual and study notes have historically been placed?
Trevin Wax: Is there any justification for avoiding “Son of God” language when ministering to Muslims?
J.D. Greear: I do think that because Muslims have such a misunderstanding of what Christians mean by Sonship, there is wisdom in leading with the equally-Biblical metaphors for Jesus such as “the Messiah” or “the Word.” These resonate more with Muslims and with less baggage, and I have found leading with them to be very helpful.
But when I place in their hands the Word of God, I want them to read it just as God said it. And what does the Muslim, who has been taught that even the pronunciation of the words of the Koran are inspired by God, do when he finds out that we felt the freedom to moderate the wisdom of the Almighty?
Trevin Wax: What about the reports of Muslims coming to Christ because of the ministries of these missionaries who choose to tweak the “Son of God” title?
J.D. Greear: As to the report that Muslims are coming to Christ more quickly in places where Bible translations downplay the Son of God, I am not really in a position to comment, as I have no access to those facts. That said, I am somewhat cautious about those kind of evidential claims, as everyone seems to have stories and evidence as to why their approach is the best.
God has chosen which images by which to reveal Himself, and His resurrection power accompanies those words. What Muslims most need is the regenerating power of God, and that power is found in His word. We cannot escape the need to contextualize the message, but when our contextualization causes us to compromise our doctrine of the Word of God, we have gone too far.