Today, I’m privileged to have Collin Hansen and J.D. Greear join me for a conversation about ministry to Muslims and the boundaries of contextualization.

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.

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45 thoughts on “Islam and Contextualization: A Conversation with Collin Hansen & J.D. Greear”

  1. Ken Anwari says:

    It is interesting that in one of the most complete & earliest Gospel presentations of the story of Jesus, Peter speaking to Cornelius in Acts 10: 34 – 43 does not mention (avoids?) the title “Son of God”. Although Cornelius was in sympathy with monotheistic faith of Israel, his Greco-Roman culture’s religion was rife with stories of deities (most prominently Zeus) impregnating human women who later gave birth to sons of gods, called demigods e.g. Hercules. Might this be a reason why Peter did not use this easily misunderstood title? Comparing Luke 23:47 & Mark 15:39 gives yet another perspective of how a Roman might have understood this title.

  2. Cliff says:

    Really interesting talk here on how language affects the transferance of ideas and concepts. I, for one, have never considered modifying words in translations for the sake of other cultures. When it’s for the sake of clarity, if it’s put into a cultural context that expedites comprehension, why not switch it up a little? Yet, I really like J.D.’s assertion that God’s metaphors are intentional and therefore should remain, largely, untampered.

  3. Bart Barber says:

    I’ve seen the original article and now this interview. Missing from both of them is this fact (a pertinent one, it seems to me): What the Bible describes God as having done to Mary is not that far away from that which offends the Muslims. The Holy Spirit overshadowed her. She conceived by the explicit and temporal action of God.

    It is not illicit. It is not portrayed as titillating. We do not know that Mary could even tell when it happened. But God did indeed impregnate Mary, and although this clearly was something other than sexual intercourse, I don’t know that it’s being something other than intercourse really overcomes the Muslim objection. It was definitely physical (Mary’s physical egg became a physical human being as a result of physical changes).

    So, for those who elminate “Son of God” language, how do they then handle the story of Jesus’ conception? Pretend it isn’t there and try not to talk about it?

    Any form of evangelism interested in hiding portions of the scripture is sub-Christian and unethical.

  4. Trevin Wax says:

    That’s a good part, Bart. Is there the possibility that these missionaries are removing the stumbling block, offensive element of the Incarnation – not just the misconception?

    I think there is, which is why I don’t think we have the freedom to change titles. Better to explain them than to change them.

  5. donsands says:

    Healthy dialog. I hate to use the word balanced, but it sort of fits. Words are very essential. But we can be, and must be wise as serpents.
    I have argued with a few Muslims, and I have some better knowledge now to take with me from this post. Thanks for psoting.

  6. Adam says:

    Thank you for this post.

    As someone who is involved in ministry to Muslims but even more importantly, is committed to reading the Bible through each year because of my faith in Jesus Christ, I find it absurd that not only are certain “missionaries” removing “Son [of God]” but also “Father” and rephrasing “Son of Man.” Is there a language and/or culture that does not have the words and concepts of “father,” “son,” and “man”? Unfortunately, it seems that some of the advocates for “Muslim-idiom translations” (a title based on a linguistic absurdity as “Muslim” is not a language) did not accurately convey what Rick Brown and other SIL and Wycliffe personnel have done in two different “translation” projects in Arabic by completely eliminating “Father” in reference to God and when using “Son of God” places in parentheses: “Beloved of God” or just uses “Messiah.” The notion that these people are not altering the message is mistaken.

    Secondly, the claim that many Muslims are coming to faith because of these translations is unverified and I am very disappointed that this claim seems to be taken at face value by Hansen. Rick Brown, writing in an IJFM article, also advocates for “Insider Movmements” which in a Muslim context means that a person can believe in Jesus Christ and retain one’s Muslim identity. IM proponents also claim great numbers of “believers” but this too consists of many unverified claims. The amount of lying, deceit, and evasiveness regarding the issues of “Muslim-idiom translations” (as well as IM) is contrary to the nature of God and falls into the category of things that “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:25-30).

    Finally, it is the work of God the Holy Spirit to save people, not modern-day targums of the Bible. It seems that in our “zeal” to win Muslims to Jesus that we have forgotten the exhortations to not alter God’s Word:

    “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. (Prov 30:5-6, NIV)

  7. Roger Dixon says:

    “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.”
    I,for one, have actually heard some of those who have been involved in changing the filial language admit that they did it intentionally so that the message would be more palatable to Muslims. Now these same people are backing off that position in interviews because of the reaction of theologians and Bible scholars. Let us not be naive about what is happening in “religion friendly” translations.

  8. Max says:

    I appreciate the open and candid discussion here. The challenge of taking on such a topic and doing one’s homework at the same time is commendable. However, I’m sure there is the temptation to throw out odd examples as if they were common practice. As a Bible translator, I think I can say with near certainty that the substitution of lamb for swine is rejected by well trained and informed translators. Perhaps the translation mentioned was an older one.

  9. Max says:

    Adam, I also happen to live in a Muslim country, though my work does not involve muslims. I have heard, however, that the “muslim” Jesus followers you mention are not what we in the West would presume. If I remember right, the word muslim means “faithful.” And believe it or not, these Jesus believers think that we Westerners should become “muslim” like them! Of course, I have a hard time with that, but I am not a cultural insider in that part of the country so won’t judge. The intersection of culture, faith and identity goes deep and something we should all pursue a better understanding of, which I am sure you are doing. God’s richest blessings on your ministry, brother.

  10. Max says:

    Excuse me for being verbose, but just one more comment. I think there might be a misunderstanding regarding Rick’s role in all this. The perception might be that he has some kind of authority regarding what ends up in a translation, which I highly doubt. My guess is that his primary goal is to analyze what is going on in these communities.

    The local translators themselves are the ones who are in charge of their own translation. These are intelligent people who understand the issues and are capable of making their own decisions. And if they feel that a certain phrase has been demonized in their culture/language, then they themselves, in cooperation with the community, are in the best position to make a judgment on it.

    It is hard for us in the West to understand the dynamics that go into this, but I think we need to let the local translators make those Spirit-led choices, just like we do in regard to our own translations. It is easy to attribute motives to Rick (and other missionaries) based on isolated comments and rumors, but if you believe like I do, that God is totally sovereign, neither the gates of hell nor a translation you don’t agree with will keep God from reaping a harvest. (Do I hear an “Amen!”) Pray for people like Rick and the local translators in these areas that God’s holy Word will be both accurate and impact people for his kingdom.

  11. Steve says:

    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. – Collin Hansen

    So I must ask two questions:

    1. Is it OK then to use this approach with say, non-Muslims when they are confronted by something they find offensive in the Bible? For example – Oprah found the term “jealous” in regards to God offensive and thus rejected the God of the Bible. Does this mean, instead of explaining this term effectively, we just ignore it or come up with another word to somehow get around not offending anyone?

    2. Does the Muslims offense, that brings about the change to a non-literal translation in order to be less offensive, in the final analysis lead to the Muslim believing another Gospel – or at the very least, believing Jesus to be something less than He is?

  12. Gary D says:

    Maybe I’m ignorant on the topic, but I think JD has lost his mind to come out and say “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.”! Even if he were grammatically correct, how does such a statement add anything to the discussion?
    I dont know much about JD, so maybe I’m way off; but I know if he truly believes this, I’ll take anything else I read/hear from him with a little more discernment. wow….

  13. Salaam Corniche says:

    Greetings. Post in 2 parts.

    Greetings.
    I am an ambassador who is sent to unashamedly proclaim the gospel that has the power to save in a Muslim context. I do not have the right to fudge the message that I have received from my Head of State, King Jesus. If I would, I should be dismissed for poor execution of my charge.
    Yet, behind the scenes, there seems to be some kind of thinking that one can “tweak the message”—to greater or lesser degrees—to accommodate the listener.
    Yet, in effect the message that I have as an ambassador for the King of Kings is to diplomatically state the following: “On behalf of the All-Victorious Jesus, the Son of God, I declare that he is advancing with his armies. He has never lost a battle, and I declare to you the terms of surrender. He offers his terms of peace today, but if you refuse, certain destruction will come.”
    This is about as politically incorrect as it comes.
    Frankly, I have to wonder if much of this discussion is more about political correctness, pleasing humans, having a human centered view of our ambassadorship, and wanting to be friends with all at all costs. Sure I see some pendulum swing correctives, but many have gone way too far.
    Shalom, Salaam

  14. Salaam Corniche says:

    Part 2 of 2
    Greetings
    As much as I appreciated a number of comments by Rev. Greear, his statement, “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 ” made me wince.

    It seems, and I hope I am wrong, to be a reflection of a ‘Christianizing’ of Islam, that is to say, reading Christian thinking into Islamic constructs. This is a most common fault of well-meaning Westerners.

    Would it not be much better to say, that ‘Isa is Muhammad’s name for the kind of Jesus that he saw fit to create. Look at the Qur’an carefully and you will see this Jesus to be a major promoter of Muhammad. Ditto for ‘Allah’ for the God he saw fit to create.
    I would refer the reader to: The Names and Titles of Christ in Islam and the Bible (it is on-line)for a closer look at a Biblical view of the real nature of the Muslim ‘Isa. Secondly there is an article in the St. Francis Magazine called “Allah of Islam and the ‘I AM’ of the Bible: Same, Similar or Different?” or maybe it is called “Are Allah of Islam and the God of the Bible the same.” (also online)
    May God bless your ability to have iron sharpen iron, as we walk in the truth.

  15. Keith Farmer says:

    Bart’s comment…”Mary’s physical egg became a physical human being as a result of physical changes”…begs a question:

    Where does one come to such a conclusion from scripture?

    The passage that tells us about the conception of Jesus says nothing of the sort:

    “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

    1 Corinthians 15:45-50 gives a bit of detail between the contrast of Adam and Jesus. Of particular interest is this passage…vs 47:

    “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.”

    Calvin said that the Manichees perverted the understanding of this passage by suggesting that Jesus brought a body from heaven to the womb of the virgin…perhaps that is so. But I must suggest that Jesus was born in sinless perfection…without the taint of sin that, if one believes in original sin, affects all of mankind. If, therefore, Jesus was a product, albeit only partially, of Mary’s egg would that not necessarily be a mixing of the profane with the holy?

    Also, Genesis 3:15 concerns the incarnation of Christ somewhat so turning to George Whitefield for commentary on this passage one reads:

    “By the seed of the woman, we are here to understand the Lord Jesus Christ, who, though very God of very God, was, for us men and our salvation, to have a body prepared for him by the Holy Ghost, and to be born of a woman who never knew man…”

    Seems that Whitefield saw that Jesus’ physical body was not a product of Mary’s egg but a specially prepared body by the Holy Spirit.

    Just seeking clarity here so thoughtful responses would be in order.

  16. Will says:

    Does the language “beloved son who comes from God” obscure the meaning or clarify the meaning of “Son of God”? It seems the addition of adjectives clarifies a concept that is obscure already. That is, “son of God” is such a strange phrase that it must cause any first time reader to ask, how is he the son of God?
    Now the Bible goes on to clarify this, but some things require the understanding of this metaphor. I once heard D.A. Carson explain that the concept points to Jesus’ likeness to God in every way: just as the son of a carpenter would have become a carpenter, so to the son of God does what God does and does it like him.
    Some questions follow: does “beloved son who comes from God” accurately convey that? Should we allow scripture to clarify the meaning of “son of God” for itself? Or is this such a strong stumbling block that most readers would never proceed past the first use of “son of God” to find an answer? Could a book like John’s gospel begin with translations like, “Son who comes from God” and proceed at later points to the more exact translation after the reader has progressed in his reading?

    A lot of questions that I don’t really have an answer for.

  17. Thanks, Trevin, for the article. I would like to correct an error:

    “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)”

    There is absolutely no debate about “Allah” in Arabic contexts. “Allah” is used equally by Christians and Muslims, and it is used in every known Arabic translation of the Bible.

    “Allah” is only an issue in non-Arabic Muslim contexts. In these cases, foreign “contextualizers” have promoted the word “Allah”, against the wishes of local Christians, who associate “Allah” with Islam and use other names for God, like “Khoda” (Persian), or “Tan-ru” (Turkish).

    As far as the Arabic word for Jesus, there are two. The original Arabic name for Jesus is “Yasua3″, and is used by Christians. The uniquely Islamic name for Jesus is “3isa”. Unlike “Allah”, this issue of “Yasua3″ vs. “3isa” is a source of controversy.

  18. Will,

    “Son of God” is a much stranger phrase in English than in Arabic or Hebrew. Arabs respond to “Son of God” in the same way that Jews did, which indicates it’s accuracy. Unlike in English, “Son of God” carries the connotation of equality with God in Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic (sister languages with a common ancestor).

    “Beloved son who comes from God” in Arabic drastically changes this meaning, stripping deity out of the equation and reducing Jesus to a prophet. All prophets “come from God” in Islam.

    For Muslims, the stumbling block is Christ’s deity, crucifixion, and resurrection. The sexual connotations are just a polemic against Christianity.

  19. Salaam Corniche says:

    Greetings again.
    I would like to respond to Wil’s question and to underline something Pierre said.

    “The Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” is producing ‘dramatic fruit’

    Is this a situation of Islamizing Christianity? I would like to submit that a Muslim could easily accept this term, as it pretty much puts Jesus on par with Muhammad.

    This is the whole objective of Islam, as Samuel Zwemer noted, that M’ds mission was to “eclipse of the Sun of Righteousness by the moon of Mecca.” (THE GLORY OF THE CROSS p. 41)
    Look at the phrase with me through Muslim eyes. In both cases, Muhammad, “the praised one” of whom the Shahadah says, “I confess that M. is Allah’s messenger” and of whom the call to prayer the Adnah says, “I witness that M. is the messenger of God” is declared to be sent from God.
    M’d is called Beloved in a tradition surrounding the events just before his death where the angel Gabriel is told, “Go down to the earth, to Mohammed my beloved, and take to him a handkerchief of Sindis-silk” This uniqueness, which I suggest is a parody of Christ, is part of a tradition which M’d suggests gives him superiority over all other prophets.
    Abu Huraira reported that the Messenger of Allah said: I have been given superiority over the other prophets in six respects: I have been given words…..the earth has been made for me clean and a place of worship; I have been sent to all mankind and the line of prophets is closed with me.: ( Sahih Muslim) Book 004, Number 1062
    Thus a beloved Son, i.e. a most favored Son, is in the Muslim mind, just what M’d was. He was sent from God, and is the one who is to be obeyed along with Allah in Surah 4:80 “O believers, obey Allah and obey the messenger”

    So what is the big deal? Maybe a Muslim tradition that Zwemer points out in his book the Moslem Christ (p.160) about M’d says it all: “No man in whatsoever condition he is can resemble God so much as thou dost. But if there could be an image to represent God as He is, it could be no other than thyself.”

    The failure of Rick Brown and company to assert the divinity of Jesus, and to fudge the lines between the Islamic view of Christ and the Biblical one—one of the prophets and not the King of the Prophets, one of the righteous and not the Righteous, one of the messengers and not The Messenger, one of the apostles and not The Apostle and High Priest of whom we confess etc, is dishonoring to His Majesty King Jesus.
    I wonder if Colin Hansen should have been talking about some other fruit–like perishing/plastic, rather than dramatic?

    Shalom, Salaam

  20. Roger Dixon says:

    In connection with Salaam Corniche’s entry, I would like to add that the “Muslim friendly” N.T. translation in Indonesian uses the word Junjungan for Lord. Junjungan is a term used to describe any honored leader. Muhammad is called junjungan as is also the president of Indonesia.
    “Kita siap membela Gus Dur. Gus Dur adalah junjungan kita.” gusdur.net. We are ready to defend Gus Dur [the nick name of the Indonesian president- Abdurrahman Wahid] He is our junjungan.

    The translators of this N.T. saw no problem in using this word which has no connotations of divinity to translate the Greek word for Lord; the term used in the O.T. for the ineffable name of Yahweh- YHWH.
    How can these translators hold their heads up?

  21. J.D. Greear says:

    Gary, I’d love to know what it was about that point that provoked such a strong reaction in you. Do note that I am not saying that our concept of God had, in any way, it’s origins in pagan tribal deities–God’s self-revelation came down entirely from God, with no addition in any way from the idolatries of men–My point was only that our English word, “God,” had its origins in Germanic paganism. Believers took that word and filled with Christian meaning. The fact that Gott had prior associations with paganism did not keep us from taking it and filling it with new meaning… The relevancy to the discussion is that Christians who choose to take the name “Allah” from Arabic and fill it with Christian meaning are not doing something altogether different than what we have done in English with “God.” Allah means simply “the deity”, and has been used by Muslims to refer to the creator of heaven and earth. Yes, they reject Jesus’ sonship and the Trinity (much like the Jews of the Apostles’ day did, saying that YHWH was in no way a Trinity), but perhaps Christians can take that name, Allah, and give it true Christian meaning. There is rich precedent for that in Christian history.

    I’d love for you to help illuminate, a little more, the major problem you see with that and why it provokes such a strong reaction from you.

  22. Adam says:

    Trevin,

    I would like to know why you removed my last post.

  23. Adam says:

    Trevin,

    Oops! My mistake. It has not been removed.

  24. J.D.

    The “Gott” argument is a classic example of what D.A. Carson calls “The Root Fallacy” (#1 in his book “Exegetical Fallacies”.

    Yes, “God” has its origins in “Gott”, which has pagan origins. However, if one looks at the historical and linguistic context of how these terms were adopted, it becomes clear that it was a completely different situation than the use of “Allah” in non-Arabic contexts.

    By the time the German language Bible was widespread in Germany, Catholicism had dominated the land and culture for hundreds of years. When Luther’s German translation came out, the predominantly Latin scriptures were unintelligible to the masses, who, in their vernacular already used “Gott” to refer to the God of the Bible. That’s why “Gott” got into the Bible! Not because of a translator’s linguistic engineering, trying to “fill” a form with a new meaning, but because of the vernacular meaning of the word. To Germans, it did NOT carry pagan meaning.

    “Allah” in non-Arabic Muslim contexts is totally different. In Arabic, it’s a non-issue since “Allah” predates Islam and is therefore used by Christians.
    But in every non-Arabic Muslim context that I know of, “Allah” has an explicitly Islamic connotation. This is why believers in those contexts have naturally selected other, pre-islamic names for God from within their language (Turkish “tan-ru”, Persian “Khoda”, etc…). National believers from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds unequivocally prefer these non-Islamic words for God, even though they have ANCIENT roots in pagan deities (just like “Gott” and “God”).
    It doesn’t matter where the word came from- it matters what it means to the people now.
    It’s not the translators’ job to tell the people what word they should use. It’s their job to use the word that already has the most proper connotations.
    To Iranians, Turks, Afghans, Pashtos, Uyghers, Pakistanis, Malays, Indonesians, Huis and more, “Allah” means “the God of Islam”. Why can’t we trust the believers of those groups, and use the words that they feel are right? Westerners hold the purse-strings and control these translations. That’s the only reason this is an issue. If we want to contextualize properly, we have to start respecting knowledge and guidance of the local believers.

  25. Neil Shenvi says:

    Did anyone else see Vern Poythress’ response to the Christianity Today article?

    http://www.frame-poythress.org/poythress_articles/2011Bible.htm

    He gives a good synopsis of the article and puts some of his quotations into context.
    -Neil

  26. J.D. Greear says:

    Pierre, those are helpful thoughts. I can most definitely see, as you note, some differences in contexts.

    However, I would not agree that this is all neatly dismissed under DA Carson’s “Root fallacies.” Carson’s point, as I understand it, is that chasing a word’s root down does not determine it’s meaning in the present context. Carson’s point could be used, thus, to establish the case for either use of Allah or non-use.

    I also challenge the neat dividing line between Arabic and non-Arabic users. Arab Muslims do not walk around with the etymology of their words in their head with a great deal of knowledge about what the words meant pre-700AD and what they meant after. As far as they are concerned, Allah is the name of the one God, who is the Muslim God. Muslims took the existing Arabic word for God and filled it with Muslim meaning. That meaning was partially correct, partially incorrect, just like the Samaritan woman’s understanding of YHWH in John 4. Our role is to tell them the truth about the God they worship.

    I lived in a non-Muslim SE Asian context, and that is precisely what “Allah” meant there as well. In fact, there were two different pronunciations of Allah, depending on whether the Christian or Muslim was using them. There is a certain meshing of all these things in the language. Carson’s point is that we must figure out what a word means to the user. I can say to the Muslim about Allah, “You refer to the name of the one true God as Allah. That is fine. Let me tell you what He is really like.” This is what the Apostles and Jesus did, and I see no reason to call foul.

    thanks again for the discussion. this has been helpful.

  27. Neil Shenvi says:

    I am confused by the argument that says both the newer tranlations and the use of Allah and Isa are wrong.

    In the case of Allah and Isa, the argument is that these words are so inextricably linked to Islam -in spite of the fact that they refer to “God” and the historical figure of “Jesus”- that we must use different words altogether for God and Jesus. The words Allah and Isa have been too tainted by association with Islam and Muslims will pour Islamic meaning into them if we use them.

    On the other hand, the argument is that the phrase “Son of God” must be translated as “ibn Allah” regardless of the cultural or religious associations this phrase has with ‘sexual offspring of God’. We have no liberty to translate the phrase differently despite the fact that the Islamic meaning will be poured into this phrase.

    Are these two arguments consistent?

    Also, I think JD’s point is a good one. Don’t the apostles talk repeatedly about “God” as “theos” when evangelizing Greek pagans in Acts? Wouldn’t this word have had all sorts of pagan connotations for the hearers? And yet the apostles had no problem using it and then pouring Christian meaning into it. Is that relevant to this discussion?

  28. Hi Neil,

    As far as “Allah” goes, it’s really important to specify which language we are talking about. When I am speaking Arabic, I use the word “Allah”, as do all Arabic-speakers, Muslim and Christian. There is no blanket rule for other languages. However, I believe that it’s best to follow the local believers’ lead in selecting a word that THEY are comfortable using for God.
    That is, in fact, the major problem- that foreign translators are trying to “Islamize” translations of the Bible, thinking (and claiming) that it will be more effective. Virtually all of the local believers have been against it, in all the scenarios I’m aware of. I have seen these types of translations in Arabic, and they frankly are deceptive, because when Muslims pick up the book, they think it’s a Muslim book, then at some point figure out that it’s a “Christian” book, with a distinctively Muslim look (and even Qur’anic verses in the introduction).
    Just imagine how you would feel opening a book that looks like a Bible, has a cross on the front, talks about “God” and “Jesus”, but then you realize it’s actually a Qur’an. You would, and should, be infuriated at the deceptive tactics of the Muslims behind the production of the book.
    If you can put yourself in that situation mentally, maybe you will understand why these translations are doing so much to convince Muslims that Christians are liars and have changed the Bible. Only naive Muslims fall for this stuff.

    It’s really sad, actually, how out-of-touch these translators are with the culture of the people that they are trying to contextualizing for.

  29. J.D.

    I agree with you that we should help Muslims to change their conception of God, even while using the same word that they use (when appropriate). When speaking in Arabic, I talk to Muslims about “Allah”, and they understand that I’m talking about my concept of God.

    Could you clarify for me who you mean when you say “they” in the comment:
    “As far as they are concerned, Allah is the name of the one God, who is the Muslim God.”

    What language/context are you speaking of?

  30. Neil,
    Sorry to keep commenting- I forgot one thing I wanted to say:

    As an Arabic speaker, I want to tell you that this whole thing about “ibn allah” meaning “sexual offspring of God” is not true at all. The word “ibn” is actually much more flexible in Arabic usage than the word “son” in English. I personally talk to a lot of Muslims about this concept of “ibn allah”, and yes, they do sometimes accuse Christians of believing that God had sex with Mary. But that has nothing to do with the meaning of “ibn”, and in my experience, all it takes to clear that up is to say “God-forbid, no Christian in the world believes that”, and they are usually open to understanding the term in a spiritual sense. This is why it’s good to put in footnotes that clear up that issue.

    But besides that, the point is that, in Arabic, even in light of Islamic culture, “ibn” is much closer to the Hebrew “ben” than even “son” in English. That’s why it’s the best translation.

    The reason it’s the only translation is that there is only one word for “son” in Arabic. Any other “translation” is not a translation, but a deception.
    When it comes to “God”, there are many words for God in many languages. That’s why it’s more complicated.

    I’m writing too much- thanks for bearing with me…

  31. Neil Shenvi says:

    Pierre,
    I hadn’t noticed your distinction between Arabic and non-Arabic speakers; I apologize. It is worth noting, though, that some commentors on the original CT article seemed to imply that Allah should not be used to refer to God in any translation, Arabic or otherwise. I think it’s important to recognize that this view does exist.

    Regarding how to translate “God” into predominanly Mulsim but non-Arabic speaking cultures, I would then return to JD’s question about the apostles’ use of “theos” in Acts. It seems like they found the Greek word that was closest in meaning to the concept they were trying to convey and then corrected wrong pagan ideas about it. For instance, in Acts 17, Paul goes so far as to affirm that certain pagan ideas about God were correct (‘we are all his children’) and that the pagans were indeed ‘unknowingly reverencing’ God, although they had extremely wrong ideas about him. What relevance do you think this has for translatiing “God” into predominantly Muslim cultures? For instance, I could imagine that some traditional word for God dating back to pre-700 A.D. might have pagan/animist associations. So we have a choice between using a word which has Muslim connotations or pagan connotations. If the apostles were not troubled by using a word with known pagan connotations and then overwriting it with Christian meaning, should we? I’m not trying to be confrontational; I’m honestly interested in your opinion.
    -Neil

  32. Salaam Corniche says:

    Reply to Neil.
    Neil you raise some pertinent issues. Many of them circle around a Biblical view of other religions. This is a critical matter. Your reference to Acts 17 made me recall an article in the St. Francis Magazine about Paul at the Areopagus. It was the June 2010 issue. There the author seems to dig into the passage and touch on the whole area of how we view other religions. His conclusions and what you say above are different.
    Personally, I think that the scripture shows that God takes certain forms and resurrects them. Resurrection is a whole lot different than remodelling or cosmetic surgery.
    I think some of the comments that are being made on the Christianity Today discussion forum especially by Hussein Wario might help you in your thinking. He seems to know Islam from the inside.
    Shalom

  33. Hi Neil,

    I’d be interested to know who, if anyone, thinks that “Allah” should not be used in Arabic. I can say for sure that this argument absolutely does not exist among Arabic speakers or Bible translators. If anyone does hold that view, it’s simple ignorance and I’m sure they would change their position if they knew that Arab Christians have used “Allah” since before Islam.

    Anyway, as far as the comparison between “theos” in Acts and “Allah” in non-Arabic Muslim contexts, there is really no similarity.
    To apply this to Acts 17, Paul was quoting texts that referenced Zeus in particular. He did not, however, take “Zeus” and try to fill it with Christian meaning.
    “Theos” was a word for “god” that did not specify which God. That’s why it could be, and was used by NT Christians.
    If we apply this concept to Iran, for example, using “Allah” in a Farsi translation of the Bible is like using “Zeus” in a pagan context, because it refers to a specific and well-known god of a specific and well-known belief system. Ask any Farsi speaker, and they will tell you that “Allah” in the Farsi language means “the God of Islam”, whereas “Khoda” means “God” generally. That’s why Iranian Christians use “Khoda”.
    That’s exactly why Turkish Christians use “Tan-ru”, because in Turkish, the word “Allah” (borrowed from Arabic) also means “the God of Islam.” This is true in several other non-Arabic Muslim contexts as well.

    Does that help clarify the issue?

  34. Doug Clark says:

    As someone who has worked in the (non-Arab) Turkish context for a few years, allow me to respond to the Allah Controversy. The Bible translation started in the 1980s—the one currently most-widely used—chose the Turkish word “Tanrı” for God. It’s a Central Asian word meaning “the blue sky god”, or supreme deity of pre-Islamic Turks. Not a bad choice, but it has baggage, not least of which is that the Turkic people of that day worshipped a pantheon of at least eight ‘tanrı’s. Be that as it may, the political changes that have overtaken Turkey in the last 15 years—namely, the rise of the observant Muslims of rural Turkey (and recent immigrants to the big cities)—has made public display of one’s Islam a thing to be proud of. So now, some 65% of all women wear the headscarf as a statement of their commitment to Islam. This rising tide of Islam means that 65% of the nation finds a Bible translation that uses ‘Tanrı’ to be massively offensive. They simply will not read it. Accordingly, a fresh translation—that once again uses ‘Allah’—is being readied for release. And I, for one, am delighted! Refusing to re-translate the Word of God into the “language of the people” (the majority who use ‘Allah’) would grieve the Holy Spirit as much today as the refusal to translate the Bible for the majority Muslim population in the 1970s did. We cannot afford to make the same mistake twice.

  35. Mark says:

    I also work in the Turkish people group as Mr. Clark above.

    The Turkish church has stood up against translations that replace the literal word ‘Son’ with any other word. Frontiers tried to do such a translation and were emphatically told to stop and destroy all copies.

    As for using Tanri vs. Allah, much thought went into this, and they chose Tanri, as does 100% of the Turkish churches I have ever attended. Some of the old songs might say Allah, but they are few and far between. Allah is a word that is as loaded if not more than Tanri. Do not pander to one crowd to the forsaking to the other. There needs to be conformity between the Turkish believers and the Bibles. That conformity has been set and it has worked perfectly well.

    First, if someone refused to read the Bible because it says Tanri, vs. Allah. I will leave that up to the Holy Spirit on how to judge that person. All men are rebellious, no matter the reason they refuse to read, they are rebellious, and are responsible for their sin. Do not think we can change the rebelliousness of a man’s heart by changing one word! That is naivety.

    Second, I have never met a Turk though who has ever used the argument of Tanri vs Allah. I find it shocking. And if there is such a Muslim, their rebellion likely goes much deeper and they would find any number of reasons not to Read the Kutsal Kitap (Bible). The only one who can save any person, is the Holy Spirit, and as Jesus says, none that the Father has given to the Son will be lost. So have some faith in the Father to call, the Son to save, and the Spirit to sanctify! Or do you instead believe our Father in heaven is too weak to fulfill his call?

    The lack of faith in translators to worry so much about how people interpret, that they change words to meet the demand of perceptions, when it is the LORD God who’s perception we should be worried about. They argue dynamic equivalence, an the desire to properly communicate. Rather they have set-up false idols of their own wisdom in Anthropology, Sociology, and Linguistics, and have abandoned the simple truth of the Word of God, the Bible, that God Alone Saves, God Alone Calls, and God Alone is completely and absolutely sovereign.

    Finally, To move back and forth between Tanri and Allah benefits no one. It only shows weakness and that Christians are continually changing their message to ‘convert’ and confuse. The Muslims are not foolish. Turks are not stupid. They see the ploys. And let’s be honest, they are ploys. Because we do not see mass conversions to Christ, some think of so called wise strategies and methodologies to do the Work of God. Come on, on your best day your wisdom and self righteousness are foolishness and dirty rags in comparison to the OmniSapience of the LORD God.

    Brothers and Sisters, trust in God, be truthful and faithful in translation. Do not think you’re overly wise to choose a word that will bring more to Christ. You cannot. Just translate the words simply and faithful, being true to what the word literally means. Let God figure out how people perceive and how He saves them.

  36. Adnan Avlu says:

    Hi, thank you very much for this discussion, I appriciate your balancedness and will recommend this article to my English speaking friends here. Let me just make one comment from my context. The term “Son of God” is not very offensive in the Turkish context I have been involved in now for many years. We have used the story of the prodigal son as a means to explain the good news and of the hundreds of people who went through the story even quite religious people responded that to them God being portrayed as a Father was something they felt was appropriate even if they were and stayed very remote from the message of Christ. Of course the term “Son of God” has to be explained but once done so it is not universally offensive among Muslims. Maybe people with an Arabic background are different but from more than fifteen years of talking and writing with Muslims I cannot see that “nothing is so offensive to Muslims” as “Son of God” in my context.

  37. Mark says:

    Adnan,

    I totally agree with you about Turkey. I haven’t ever seen the backlash some people have alluded to. Also, I work with many Saudis, Egyptians, and others from the Gulf in the States now, and while they may disagree, they certainly don’t find it incomprehensible when properly explained by not apologizing for ‘Son’ or ‘Father’, but honestly and lovingly, and boldly relating the truth of the scriptures.

  38. Stan says:

    Why? Because it explains the facts behind the use of “Allah” by Mulsims who have come to Christ. JD is correct in his description of why we use “God” instead of Jehovah.
    We live in a Muslim culture and know many several Christians who have come from a Muslim background…to a person, they use the term “Allah” when praying.

  39. Mark says:

    Stan,

    I’m not clear what the ‘Why’ is in reference to. I don’t think anyone here is saying Arab Christians shouldn’t use the term ‘Allah’. As a general word for God, simply because the precedent in history Christians in the arab world is to use that word.

    However, I think the issue comes up when there is another general word for ‘God’ in the mother tongue of the people, and that ‘Allah’ distinctly points only to the name of the Islamic God. For example in Turkish, Tanri.

    Also the issue is precedence. For example, in the Turkish example since the modern translation of the Bible into Turkish, the Turkish church has made a conscience and purposeful effort to use ‘Tanri’ rather than ‘Allah’. That is something that should not only be respected, but also, consider two things 1) The deep heart motivations to change the word to get the ‘approval’ of Muslims. Is there an approval idol here somewhere? Or a fear idol? 2) Frankly, changing the word is also a PR issue, and the media will take note as well as the Muslims, saying Christians are trying to convince Muslims with sneaky methods. Which, honestly is exactly what they would be doing.

    I know not everyone in this list is Reformed, but if you are, isn’t it God who saves and communicates perfectly through his Holy Spirit? Can you miscommunicate enough to send someone to Hell? Can you communicate well enough to send someone to Heaven? Theologically, I’d say a resounding No! So then, let’s be reasonable here, and realize that god is Omnipotent-Scient-Sapient-Present and that he can handle the hearts of Muslims, and let us as a body of Christ work with the body of Christ in there issues, and use the terms the nationals have chosen with a good conscience not to communicate to the lost, but to express worship to the God they know.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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