This post is taken from a comment posted by Paul Blackham on this post…
As we all know Wycliffe is a wonderful organisation with deep commitment and passion for the Bible – yet this debate is going on within Wycliffe itself.
Wycliffe’s mission statement at is especially useful here because it indicates the kind of theological questions that are at the heart of this debate – and why so many Arabic speakers are upset about it.
In the section dealing with “Son of God” the initial assumption is made that the English phrase “Son of God” “is a tremendously meaningful term in English. It carries a critical message about Christ, the Messiah, the second Person of the Trinity.” However, I would suggest that this is only the case among the minosrity Christian community. The English phrase “Son of God” no longer communicates the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity to general English speakers. Many English speakers feel that such a phrase either does imply some kind of procreation or else it is polytheistic or even simply incoherent. I constantly come up against massive misunderstandings of “Son of God” in English – but I’m not convinced that we need to use a different English vocabulary to deal with this. Notice the kind of discussions and arguments about the Trinity that are increasingly common in English culture. We have to constantly and carefully explain and define what we are trying to say with these words.
My Arabic friends tell me that the new words and phrases do not convey the ontological Trinity and they do not reflect the full deity of Jesus as the original languages do. I have to take their word for that becuase my own Arabic is too weak to grasp the nuances. BUT, for us English speakers, try the same experiment. If we want to avoid all the misunderstandings that “Son of God” has acquired, what alternative words or phrases could we use? Can we think of words or phrases that are genuinely equivalent to Father/Son that contain the same relationality and ontology? If we say that Jesus is “the specially loved one from God” or the “unique messenger”… do those phrases do the job? Would those phrases lead us to see how Jesus is the eternal Word/Son/Angel of the Father/Ancient of Days? The Bible itself uses different words and phrases to express the Trinity… and yet if we lose the Father/Son language from the pallette then can we properly understand the other terms correctly?
The final paragraph of the article on the Mission Frontiers website with the summary points is a clear statement of the translation practices, but they don’t quite solve the problem that has been at the heart of the debate. The problem is that the words “father” and “son” in English, and in Greek and in Hebrew, basically “are biological in meaning and imply procreation”. Yes, father/son can also have other non-biological meanings in specific contexts, but to ENTIRELY escape those natural connotations means a serious danger of losing the ontology that is so vital for the doctrine of the Trinity. All languages struggle to grasp this aspect of the Trinity. The normal usage of these words is in terms of procreation. Think of the long lists in the Bible of this man begot that son etc… and yet with all those long lists defining “begetting” in such normal, biological ways, yet the Holy Spirit still used the ‘begetting’ word to describe how the Father and the Son relate. It seems a bit too risky for Him to do that… yet by doing it that way we see how the Son is of the very ‘substance’ of the Father rather than any emanation or creature. The Son is of the very being – “of the same stuff” as the Father… and no matter how messy or complicated it is to get our minds around this in a non-sexual and non-chronological way, yet anything less than that understanding of the Son is a serious problem.
The article by Rick Brown on the Mission Frontier website almost perfectly expresses the problem. He does a great job of clearly and simply setting out the reasons why the new translations have selected words and phrases that are more like “Lord” or “God” for the Father and “Messiah” or “uniquely Loved One” for the Son. Rick seems to quite genuinely believe that the “social” understanding of father/son is more appropriate in most contexts than a biological one.
On page 29 Rick acknowledges the ontological dimension of the Father/Son relation, but then goes on to say – “Bible scholars suggest that the mediatorial meaning is the most prominent in many contexts of Scripture, but they also recognize that the Bible uses the phrase with six additional components of meaning: familial/relational, incarnational, revelational, instrumental, ethical and representational.”
Might I suggest that far more of the Bible’s usages of Father/Son language are to do with ontology than some may allow.
That assumption about replacing ‘biological’ father/son words with equivalent ‘social’ ideas of father/son is precisely why there have been these protests over recent years. The deep concern from the Arabic churches is that if Muslims and new Muslim background believers read a version of the Bible that does not articulate, in the main text rather than in footnotes, the ontological Trinity, then how can they get to grips with the reality of the Trinity?
Round the world, in all kinds of cultures and languages, for hundreds or thousands of years, there has been that wrestling to understand and express the rich complexity and wonder of the One God who is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father who begets His Son – all in an eternal, non-successive and non-sexual but ontological way. Look at how careful and nuanced we try to be In English… and in every other language. Remember how the ancient Greek theologians had to invent and adapt and superintend words and language to articulate what the Bible means by Father and Son.
Rick suggests that people in polythesistic cultures might struggle to understand the relation between the Father and Son – yet, it was precisely in the polytheisic culture of Greek and Roman gods on the one hand and the philosophical culture of the Platonic One who was too pure to have any contact with material things on the other hand that the classic creedal formulations of the Trinity arose. We might look back and wonder how they managed to avoid both the sexuality of the pagan gods and also the untouchable transcendance of the Neo-Platonic One, so beloved of Arius.
To try to short-cut or even entirely avoid this wonder and glory may have profound consequences not only in the short-term understanding of this generation of Muslim background believers but also in the longer term theological health of the emerging churches around the Islamic world.
For those of us who have been involved in this debate, especially over the past 5 years, the points that Rick so clearly make actually underline why there is such concern among Arab speaking Christians. The strongest protests against these new translations are from Arabic speakers because they claim that the family or ontological connection between a father and a son is such a vital aspect of the relationship between Jesus and the Father.
The ‘problem’ with the father/son language is part of the basic fabric of the Bible itself. When we go back to the church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, they too are wrestling with how God the Father begets/begot God the Son yet without physical procreation or chronological succession. It is not as if we can simply import an analogy to solve it because the ontological connection between God the Father and God the Son is so essential.
The alternative words and phrases cause so much upset with many Arabic Christians precisely because to use words like “Lord” or “God” instead of Father or to replace “Son” with words like “Messiah” or “Uniquely Loved One” do not contain the ontology that is so vital to a Biblical doctrine of God.
Yes, there is a massive and common misunderstanding of the Trinity among most of our Muslim friends – yet, this misunderstanding [focussed on the idea that God the Father had sexual union with the human Mary in the way that the Greek/Roman gods would do], still continues among Muslims who speak English as their first language. Look at Islamic websites that engage with the Trinity – in any language. Many commonly discuss the idea that Christians believe that the Trinity is the Father, Mary and Jesus. This is not simply a matter of words but doctrine.