Trinity and translation

Trinity relationshipsI once heard a pastor joke about he and other pastors at a church trying to pass the buck as to which one of them would preach on the trinity as Trinity Sunday was approaching. I thought that was a great example of the perceptions of the trinity as a complex topic.

But since Trinity Sunday is May 31 this year, now is as good a time as any to write something on the topic. Especially as a number of theologians have pointed out a connection between the trinity and communication.

Our God is a God who communicates. He reaches out to us in communication which is at our level. That is stated in the Bible, as it is in Deut 30:11-14.

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Trinity b&wAnyone who does not believe that God reaches out to us in communication will find it impossible to interpret the life of Jesus or the fact that God sent him. God shows over and over by his actions in the New and Old Testaments that he reaches out to us to communicate with us. The Bible itself is a testament to God’s desire to communicate with us. This is where the trinity comes in. Since forever, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have been in perfect communication with each other.

All Christian communication starts with the fact that God is communication in Himself. – Joseph Oomen

Trinity communicationIf God were not triune, then he would have no need for internal communication. If a god existed forever without communication, then why would he need or want communication with his creation? But if God has perfect, loving and joyful communication between his different persons, then it is no mystery that he would want the same with the people he created. So he would send messages which would be written down in the Bible – his word, and he would send his Son – the Word – to explain himself.

“We love God’s Word because in his Word we hear him speaking to us. We see him coming to us.” – Valdir Steuernagel

“We love the Bible as a bride loves her husband’s letters, not for the paper they are, but for the person who speaks through them.” The Cape Town Commitment

“Translation is about letting God speak anywhere and everywhere … because that is what God is like.”
Dr. Lamin Sanneh


Title page to Latin edition of Calvin's Institutes

Title page to Latin edition of Calvin’s Institutes

Those of you following this blog will have notice that I have a fascination with the reformers. A lot of that is because of my ministry – helping African churches engage in Bible translation. So I wanted to know what provoked the spate of translation of the Bible surrounding the reformation, thinking that might help me with my goals. I believe that it does.

Today (May 26) in 1564, John Calvin died. He did not translate the Bible but he was a solid supporter of those who did. One of Calvin’s most lasting legacies is his systematic theology, which he entitled Institutes. In fact, it is still for sale today in several languages. As did many theologians of his day, Calvin wrote his theology in Latin. That was, after all, the language of the clergy and other theologians. It was, however, not accessible to the people. So, when Calvin revised his Institutes, he wrote them in his mother tongue – French. At the time, that was very unusual. But it is easy to see Calvin’s logic. He wanted to get theology out of academia and into the street. The best theology is not written by the pens of academics, it is the simple but profound beliefs written on the hearts of ordinary people when the Spirit makes the Scriptures real to them.

Calvin's Institutes in French

Calvin’s Institutes in French

Other reformers did the same – writing at least some of their academic and popular works in their mother tongues. They turned away from the recognition they might have received from the world of clergy and theologians; turning their focus toward ordinary people. This turn toward ordinary people as “worthy bearers of the message” (Lamin Sanneh’s words) and as a force in change, informed not just their translation efforts, but many other things they did.

Today I have the same confidence – that ordinary Africans, even those with little education, can be a force for change in their families, villages, cities and countries through knowledge of the Word of God in their languages. This confidence is not theoretical. In the places in Ghana where the Bible has been translated, ordinary people are changing things. Sometimes educated Ghanaians are surprised to see the degree of change initiated by those with much less education but who have become conversant with the Bible in their languages.