If you read or listen to Christian news, you may have heard about the controversy surrounding translations of the Bible for Muslim audiences. The problem stems from the translation of the term “Son of God.” Many have suggested that this term is offensive to Muslims because it implies that God had sexual relations with Mary, and therefore it is necessary to use an alternative translation in order to effectively communicate to Muslims what the Bible really says. Specifically, Frontiers has produced a translation of the Gospel of Matthew in Turkish that uses wording that means approximately “representative of God” where Son of God should appear. Since the term “God the Father” has the same implications, that title is presented as “great protector.”
Frontiers has explained that the new wording is essential to efforts to reach Turkey, where 99.8 percent of the population is Muslim. The U.S. director of Frontiers, Bob Blincoe, has been quoted in WORLD Magazine as saying that “these are paraphrases that help a conservative Sunni Muslim audience know what the Bible really says.”
With all due respect to Mr. Blincoe and Frontiers, how can you help someone understand what the Bible really says by telling them something that it doesn’t really say? If I was attempting to explain to someone who does not speak English that I am the son of Robert, it would never occur to me to tell them that I am Robert’s representative. And cultural differences aside, the Bible itself promises that it will be offensive. The very message of Scripture is offensive to unbelievers. But I see several glaring problems with this new version of Matthew.
First, it violates Scripture. Revelation 22:18-19 makes it clear that it is dangerous to mess the Word of God, either by adding to it or taking away from it. Proverbs 30 makes it clear that every word of God is pure. 2 Timothy 3:16 states that “all Scripture” is given by God, and is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (ESV). Furthermore, John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (ESV). It was not the representative of God that became flesh; rather, it was God Himself in the person of God the Son, Jesus Christ.
Second, one of the strongest testimonies to the authority of Scripture is the fact that so many lives have been completely transformed by faith in Christ. From John and Peter telling the Sanhedrin that they would obey God rather than man when there is a contradiction between the two, to the disciples dying martyr’s deaths rather than deny faith in Christ, to many examples over the two thousand years since of people who have willingly endured persecution, torture and even death because of the faith in the Scripture, because of their confidence that through the birth, life, death burial and resurrection of God’s Son that they have been saved and can look forward to eternity in the presence of God.
Third, I would be the first to agree that it is important to use methods that take culture into consideration. In other words, I would not expect anyone to go plant a church in the jungles of Brazil, the deserts of Africa or the slums of India and utilize the exact same approach that is used by churches in suburban USA. Part of spreading God’s message is doing it in a way that will effectively reach the people. Paul talked about becoming all things to all people in hopes that he would reach some with the message of salvation (1 Corinthians 9:22). So methods can and should change, and should reflect the culture in which the gospel is being shared unless and until that presents a conflict with Scripture. What should not change is Scripture itself.
Is it hard for a Muslim to understand that God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Spirit? I’m sure it is. It is hard for me to understand, too. Does it boggle the mind to think that Mary could carry a human baby without ever having had sexual relations, that she could give birth to God in human form? Absolutely. I don’t know anyone who thinks that makes perfect sense and is not amazed by it at all. The point is, the gospel message is not an easy one. It is simple, yet incredibly complicated. But if the foundational aspect of the message can be changed in order to prevent giving offense, what else might be changed? If, in an effort to win the lost, it is okay to say that God’s representative was born of Mary, and that, after his baptism by John, the great protector said that he was well pleased with God’s representative, what is to stop someone from changing other offensive parts? You know, the parts about the blood, the crucifixion, the complete worthlessness of human works?
At the end of the day, you simply cannot explain what the Bible says by changing what the Bible says.