Sunday, August 8, 2010

“Son of God” in Bible Translation for Muslims

Here is an article in SFM by J. Scott Horrell, an expert in theology of the Trinity at DTS in Dallas, who writes about the term Son of God, its meaning and history, and how this should impact Bible translations for languages of Muslims: “CAUTIONS REGARDING “SON OF GOD” IN MUSLIM-IDIOM TRANSLATIONS OF THE BIBLE: SEEKING SENSIBLE BALANCE.”  Here is the conclusion:

We began with the question of how fidelity to Scripture and classical Christian confession of Jesus as the “Son of God” can be held together with Muslim-sensitive translations? Ingrained in Islamic cultures, the words “Son of God” elicit the image that Jesus is God’s offspring through physical relations with a woman. Conversely, central to Christian faith is the invitation to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). I have addressed the following questions:

First, exegetically, are non-word-for-word renditions of Jesus as the “Son of God” omitting too much? My response is that the multi-layered meanings of “Son of God,” as in the Gospels, often point beyond the limited concepts of those in Jesus’s immediate world. Replacing Sonship language—as uttered from heaven at the baptism and the Transfiguration, by Satan in the temptations, and by demons as early testimonies to Jesus’s supernatural origin—can detract from the canonical text’s post-Easter implications. Jesus’s own Father-Son language reaches the deepest levels of divine self-disclosure.

Second, should the traditional centrality of “Son of God” terminology in both Eastern and Western Christianity be set aside for non-Christian religious and cultural concerns? I reviewed early second-century witnesses such as Ignatius, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, Aristides, and Justin who give strong place to describing Jesus as the “Son of God”—this in the midst of Jewish and pagan misinterpretations. The Nicene Creed (325) later codified the meaning of “the Son of God” as “from the substance of the Father…true God from true God.” The full deity of Christ as God’s Son is the fundamental doctrine of all major Christian traditions. In that name millions have faced discrimination and martyrdom. For that reason, Muslim-idiom translations that replace literal “Son of God” terminology are often perceived by long-standing national Christians in such cultures not only as accommodating another religion but also as betraying the church that has endured under oppressive regimes.

Third, from a theological perspective, what does it mean to confess Jesus as the “Son of God”? And how does this relate to biblical translation? We first observed the analogous nature of God-language, yet how the names “Father” and “Son” (more than any others) transcend merely this-world significance to allow us into the heart of Trinitarian relations. To confess Jesus as the “Son of God” is finally to recognize both his essential equality with the Father and his eternal filial relationship. As for translation of the “Son of God,” all translation is unavoidably interpretation. Biblical translation carries the special responsibility of bridging not just from the text to the receiving culture. It further functions as an invitation to enter the Christian faith—the faith of the church. Therefore, especially in regard to the phrase “Son of God” when related to Jesus, extreme care should be exercised lest the rich meanings of the deity of Christ and his eternal relationship with the Father be subverted.

I offer these thoughts as cautions to Muslim-idiom translators who are sometimes zealous to circumvent barriers to communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a motive is wholly commendable, with over one-fifth of the world population in the balance. Both national and expatriot translators suffer hardship, opposition, and long hours of tedious linguistic analysis. Nonetheless, no Christian worker is autonomous from the greater body of Christ. No translator can ignore (and most do not) the basic precepts of Christian theology or the long history of the church. Fresh translations of the Bible are vital and consequential, whether in contexts of an existing church or where the word of God has never been heard. My exploration of the questions are intended to contribute to greater balance in approaching the translation of Sonship terminology for Muslim readers. To replace the grammatically accurate and traditional translations of “Son of God”—a phrase central to Christian confession—should be done with the full corpus of exegetical and historical factors in view, and then only with reverence and reserve.


Scott Seaton said...

Where these translations are being done, national believers, including those from a Muslim background, attest that the meaning of Father, Son and Son of God is being lost in translation.

Ask those responsible for producing these translations to keep "Father" and "Son" in the Bible by signing the petition at

Conroy Family said...


Are you behind the petition? I could not find who the author(s) were.