Tyndale the Theologian-Translator

In 1526 John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, preached a sermon against Martin Luther during the public burning of Luther’s books. In Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man, 23 pages are dedicated to attacking Fisher’s sermon, point-by-point. Daniell writes, “The seven points against Fisher add up to one total: the Scriptures show that first must be Christ and faith in him; the institutional Church denies these truths and puts first its own power. To demonstrate not only the error of the Church, but its malice (not only in silencing those who preach God’s word, but in actively distorting it), Tyndale has been comprehensive; he moved from the Old Testament (Moses and Aaron), to the work and theology of Christ, and then the Apostles, and to current Church practices” (Daniell, 234-235).

How many modern translators are able to move through Scripture to develop systematic and biblical-theological arguments on issues related to the gospel, ecclesiology, church polity, missions and church planting, etc? Or how many modern Bible translators can exegetically develop a systematic and biblical-theological argument for how to translate the phrase “Son of God,” whether in Muslim contexts that are offended at Christians calling Jesus the Son of God, or in any context that is offended at this Christological Title?

What are some of the results of the dis-integration of Bible translation from church planting and theological education? On the issue of translating the phrase “Son of God” in Muslim contexts, D. A. Carson writes, “[S]ome sectors of SIL/Wycliffe, Frontiers, and other organizations have for a number of years embarked on a variety of Bible translations that have replaced many references to God as the Father and to Jesus as the Son” (Carson, Jesus the Son of God, 89).

What happens when translators replace “Son of God” with “Messiah,” thinking those terms to be synonymous? Carson states that this “analysis leaves out of consideration the biblical-theological trajectories of the Davidic king motif and of the “Son of God” terminology” and that “once Bible translations are adopted, they become the standard for the rising Christian community that would then be saddled with translations that fail to preserve these biblical trajectories which make sense of the pattern of the New Testament use of the Old” (Carson, 96). Without even addressing the pragmatic arguments which often seemed to drive translators towards unfaithful Bible translations that replaced the phrase “Son of God” with more Muslim-friendly phrases like “Messiah,” what led to translators to lack the discernment garnered from systematic and biblical-theological thinking on such important theological issues in translation? Is it not the over-specialization of para-church ministries divorcing their work from the local church and its theological “generalist” education? And when Bible translation agencies focus exclusively on linguistic training for their translators, what will they teach the national (mother-tongue) translators?

Commenting on SIL/Wycliffe personnel, D. A. Carson commends and admires their work, yet offers a sobering critique of all who translate God’s Word without theological training: “I have to say that rather few of them are trained in exegesis, biblical theology or systematic theology. Very few of them have an MDiv, let alone more advanced training. With rare exceptions, I have not found them to be deep readers of Scripture, with the result that their approaches to translation challenges tend to be atomistic” (Carson, 107).

Carson admits that not everyone can be an expert. True enough, but we can have committee translations composed of teams of theologically trained translators. These exegetical consultants are trained in the biblical languages, exegesis and theology. But we need these consultants to have pastoral hearts that connect their work to the local church, so that the national brothers are trained in exegesis and theology. When the Word is translated, there must be men ready to read it publicly (1Tim. 4:13), preach it faithfully (2Tim. 4:1-4), and shepherd, equip and disciple others with the Word (2Tim. 2:2; Eph. 4:11-16).

Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers. Fellowship (which means to “partner”) with other churches to co-labor together in training, supporting and sending pastor-translators, theological-translators, who can reintegrate Bible translation with church planting and theological education.