It is essential to have a biblically-based theology of Bible translation in order to correctly understand the importance of the task, its place in the purposes of God for humanity, and its ultimate potential to give glory to God.
As a preliminary step in developing such a theology, I propose twelve propositions that provide a scriptural basis for reflecting on the translation of Scripture.
Following the chronology of Scripture, I address the creation and purpose of human language in the broader context of redemptive history. I conclude with the apostle John’s visions of the throne of God in Revelation which provide further insights into the place language in the purposes of God.
1. God Created Human Language
God created mankind in His own image, endowing humans with the ability to communicate with human language (Genesis 1:26). Furthermore, God intended human language as the means to communicate propositional truth to individuals and, by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers, to reign in their hearts and through them to accomplish His purposes.
When God created Adam and Eve, His first recorded action was to pronounce a blessing and then instruct them on their responsibilities to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue the earth, and have dominion over the other creatures (Genesis 1:28).
In the account of Adam’s creation from the dust of the earth, God’s first words to Adam were a command to not eat from a specific tree (Genesis 2:16-17). In these instances, God used language as the means for exercising His sovereign rule over Adam.
Similarly, when God had Adam name the animals, He was directing Adam to exercise his authority over the animals through the act of speaking and, specifically, by giving a name to the animals that he saw (Genesis 2:19-20).
The Fall did not change the divine purpose for human language, but it adversely affected the ability of humanity to use language to glorify God and advance His purposes.
2. Babel and Linguistic Diversity
At the tower of Babel, God changed a monolingual community into several linguistically distinct groups who could no longer communicate with each other, thereby impeding their rebellious plans (Genesis 11:1-9).
God ensured that humans are able to learn multiple languages, as opposed to each language community being unable to learn the language of another group and, as a result, being permanently separated.
It is significant that God dispersed the people at Babel over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:9). Geographic isolation insured that they did not reunite and choose one language from several to be their new language of diplomacy and rebellion.
Nonetheless, God preserved the original purpose of language as a means for Him to communicate propositional truth with humanity and for humans to communicate with each other. The confusion and dispersing of the peoples at Babel will continue until the final reunion of the redeemed in the New Jerusalem (Revelation 20).
3. God Speaks All Languages
God does not communicate with a single human language but rather communicates with individuals and communities in their respective languages, whether in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or another language.
Furthermore, conversations that were presumably in a language that the people of God did not comprehend, were communicated in translation so that the community receiving divine revelation could understand.
For example, Pharaoh’s conversation with Joseph was presumably in Egyptian but was recorded in Hebrew (Genesis 41:39). Similarly, Moses and Pharaoh may have spoken entirely in Egyptian, but their interactions were recorded for the people of Israel in Hebrew (Exodus 5:1-5).
It follows that there is not one single language uniquely reserved for God, given that God communicates in every language. Nor should there be any reservation about translation since God directed His prophets to record translated information.
On the contrary, God communicates in the language of every language community to accomplish His purposes by the power of the Holy Spirit as people comprehend and respond according to his will.
4. Translation to Equip the Church
From Mount Sinai to the Isle of Patmos, God’s revelation was preserved in writing so that God’s people in every generation may know the Word of God and respond in obedience to it (Romans 15:4).
Furthermore, God has commanded His people to read the Scriptures and, based on their reading, to exhort and teach others to respond in obedience and faith (1 Timothy 4:13).
The Scriptures are to be translated for the church so that they can be read, preached, and taught by the church, corporately and individually, so that believers may grow in their faith and non-believers may be called to repentance.
It follows that the ultimate purpose of translating Scripture is to equip the church to minister with the written Word, corporately and individually. To the extent that the believers are faithful to the Word, they will also have an impact on their language community.
5. Translation for the Nations
Following Christ’s commands to preach the Gospel to every creature and all nations, the church is to proclaim the gospel and teach the truths of Scripture to every ethno-linguistic group with the goal of establishing the church among the redeemed who have been purchased by Christ for the glory of God (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; Matt 28:18-20).
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enabled the believers in Jerusalem to proclaim the “mighty works of God” in the languages of the crowds, affirming that their languages and, by extension, all human languages are capable of expressing the truths that comprise the gospel message (Acts 2:1-11).
The proclamation and teaching of the gospel message in the language of a people, that is, a Bibleless people, should be accompanied by the translation of the Scriptures to ensure that the believes have the gospel in its fullest and all the resources to comprehend the faith and be firmly established it.
6. Translation and the Holy Spirit
As the Scriptures are read in a specific language, the Holy Spirit moves in the hearts of people and ministers to them in their own language.
The Spirit communicates the truth of the gospel, driving believers to conviction for their sins and enabling them to comprehend and learn from God in their own language (1 Corinthians 2:10-14).
However, when the gospel is not proclaimed in a language and the Scriptures are not translated and read aloud in corporate worship for a language community, the Holy Spirit does not work in their hearts through the Word.
In 1535, John Calvin wrote a preface in Latin for a new translation of the Bible in French. He noted in his preface that a right view and respect for the Holy Spirit should lead to providing God’s people with the Scriptures in a language they understand.
If we truly believe that the Spirit works through the Scriptures, then we have to be committed to seeing the Scriptures translated for the sake of the Holy Spirit.
7. Translation for Evangelism
The Holy Spirit works through the Scriptures and communicates truths which bring people to conviction and repentance and ultimately spiritual growth as believers.
To be faithful to the purpose of the Scriptures, a translation should not be made which is intended only for evangelism and not for the edification of believers.
Nor should a translation be made for the edification of a limited group of believers and not the church at large and those outside the Christian community.
The claim that a translation is only for a specific purpose is dubious, given that it is the Holy Spirit who works in the heart of the readers and listeners according to the will of God, whether to save, sanctify, or confound.
Furthermore, a translation of Scripture is not greater than the source. If the Scriptures have several beneficial uses (2 Timothy 3:16), on what grounds are translators allowed to produce a translation with a limited function?
8. Translation and the Audience
The Scriptures were given to the people of God over the centuries in very different circumstances and with widely divergent audiences (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Regardless of the nature of the audience, it remains that God intends His people to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures as part of corporate worship and outside of worship as well.
The church has leaders with the spiritual gift of teaching to ensure that the whole congregation benefits from the Scriptures, regardless of their age, educational background, or proficiency in the language.
It follows that diversity in a language community is not sufficient justification for multiple translations. On the contrary, resources for teaching should be developed to assist the Christian community in making the Scriptures as accessible as possible. It should be the exceptional case that requires a new translation for a specific segment of a language community.
In order for a single translation to serve a language community over a long period of time, it is essential to regularly revise the translation. If the translation is not revised, those who use it in church may understand it with study while those outside the church will not comprehend the text at all.
When such situations persist, the first translation is less and less effective outside the local churches, and the desire for a second translation grows.
9. Translations Are Not Perfect
A translation is not a perfect reproduction of the source text in every facet of meaning and structure.
Nonetheless, a faithful translation sets forth the essential truths of Scripture. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit works through the translated Word to bring people to faith in Christ and enable them to grow in their faith.
The church should have the Scriptures in their own language as well as the ability to study the Scriptures in the original languages to ensure the accuracy of their translation and prepare for future revisions, given that a translation is not inspired and is only as trustworthy as it is faithful to the source.
10. Translators As Servants
Translators are servants of the Word, producing an equivalent text which faithfully communicates the glorious truths of our triune God.
Translators are servants of the church, globally and locally, equipping believers with the Word so that they, translators and the church alike, can read, preach, and teach the Scriptures and, thereby, grow in their faith while they call their community to repentance.
Translators are servant of Jesus Christ, responding in obedience to their Savior, working by the power of the Holy Spirit, and seeking in everything they do to glorify the Father.
Translators should work as a team, bringing their unique skills and gifts to the work. It is not uncommon for some members of a translation project to not be servants of the Word, the church, or Jesus Christ, since they do not profess faith in Christ.
It is important to exercise wisdom in balancing the contributions of these individuals while ensuring the faithfulness of the work and the acceptability of the final translation from the vantage point of the local churches.
11. Translation and the Church
The church, globally and in every language community, has been entrusted with the ministry of the Word of God.
The church is to minister the Word and should ensure that local churches in every language community are able to read, preach, and teach the Scriptures in their own languages in obedience to the Scriptures.
It is imperative that churches recognize their unique role in the ministry of Bible translation. They should guard the Scripture from faulty translation practices while supporting and affirming laborers for faithful translation ministries.
12. Translation Fades Into Eternal Praise
In Revelation 5-7, Jesus Christ, as the Lamb of God, receives praise for completing His mission of redeeming His elect from every ethno-linguistic group and, by implication, the church has succeeded in proclaiming the gospel and teaching the commands of Christ in the languages of the redeemed.
In Revelation 20, the redeemed are gathered in eternal worship around the throne in the new Jerusalem, revealing that the effect of the Fall and the scattering and linguistic barriers that followed the events at Babel are reversed and fade from view in the eternal and perfect praise of heaven.
These reflections on language and translation underscore the importance of the task of Bible translation in accomplishing the purpose of the church, as empowered by the Holy Spirit, for the praise of the Lamb and the eternal worship of the Father around the throne.
Even though we recognize the dignity of every language and ethno-linguistic group, the ultimate purpose of translation isn’t found in such affirmations. Nor is the purpose of translation found in the beauty of the Word or its status as a cultural heritage. Not even the need of individuals to hear the gospel and put their faith in Christ is the fundamental reason for translating the Bible.
Viewed through the perspective of the Scriptures themselves, their translation is one part of the great redemptive work of God, culminating in eternal worship in the language of heaven around the throne.