(Check out Part 1 of this essay.)
Recently, an increasing number of Western Jesus-followers have been trying to adopt an insider approach as they minister to Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists; these three major religious blocs contain the majority of the world’s unreached people groups and where Western forms of Christianity have only been marginally adopted. The contextual approach has encouraged local believers to retain certain aspects of their socio-religious culture, and many new believers self-identify as Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist followers of Jesus, rather than “Christians,” and meet to fellowship in ways that are more like the early church than modern Western style “churches.”
This contextual approach has become a hot-button topic when it comes to Bible translation. Though the vast majority of Western believers are supportive of translations that are understandable for non-Western believers, many shirk at the idea that certain words might be translated in such a way that other religions’ terminology are used. For instance, some do not think that contextual translations written for Muslim peoples should use the word “Allah,” because that is the universal Muslim word for God. Those with this apprehension may not realize that the original word “God” was the name of an obscure German god, which Christians redefined, as was “theos,” which was a Greek pagan term Paul redefined.
As was discussed in the previous post, modern thinking presupposes that there can be little deviation from forms and terminology that come from Christian-majority cultures. Postmodern thinking, on the other hand, affirms that there are likely many ways to transmit the Gospel in various forms. In order to discover effective means of transmitting the Gospel, however, people must be willing to do a lot of experimentation, and willing to try and fail many times. Thankfully, Jesus did not say that you would recognize false teaching by it theology, but rather by its fruit. Fruit does not come instantaneously, but takes a while to grow and develop; only at maturity can we see if it is healthy or not. So too we will see the fruit of innovative and untraditional ways of communicating the Gospel. Postmoderns are likely fine with Bibles that are contextualized for Western Christian cultures, but will be more than willing to advocate for new Bible translations that are contextualized to the myriad of socio-religious groups in the world that lack access to the Scriptures in forms and translations that those groups understand.
Today’s discussion about Bible translation is similar to the time of the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation: only those who could read Latin (often the educated elite) could read the Bible. But with the advent of the printing press, new translations into the common man’s languages (which we would probably label as flawed), suddenly made the Bible accessible to the masses. The established church fought hard against this shift, often because it took away power and authority from the Catholic clergy, but, praise God, the Bible continued to be produced and distributed to countless people. It is important to acknowledge that many of those first Bible translations were crude and had significant flaws; nevertheless, God powerfully used His Word to release a new movement that changed the face of the global Church in the centuries that followed.
Universally, scientists know that most mutations (changes) in DNA are fatal to the organism. Only a few mutations make the organism stronger. The same is true as the Gospel advances across cultures. Without a doubt, there will be a lot of flawed approaches as we try to figure out what the Kingdom of God might look like in new, unreached arenas. We can certainly see this precedent during the Reformation era. But as we explore numerous ways of communicating Jesus’ Kingdom, we will find new expressions that suit new contexts, and ultimately make the Body of Christ stronger.
The Kingdom of God has never been limited to one cultural form or tradition, and that is certainly true today! In this postmodern era, we will continue to see an increase in new ways to express God’s Word and live out the faith, which will involve much trial and error. As this takes places, we must allow our brothers and sisters in Christ the freedom to experiment with innovative forms, trusting the Holy Spirit to help them find appropriate ways for the Kingdom to grow and thrive in ways quite different than what we are familiar with. God never planned that Judaism would be the only expression of the Kingdom of God, nor Catholicism, nor Evangelicalism. In each age, era, and culture, God has given His people the responsibility and the freedom to find the forms of the Kingdom that allow it to become visible to all ethnic groups and spread without needless cultural restraints. We can be assured that He has been doing this since the advent of the Church, as we remember how the Jewish leaders in Acts 15 let the numerous Gentiles who had come to faith begin to express their faith in completely new ways.