John Wycliffe was the first person to translate the Bible into English. Christianity had been present for a long time, but no one had thought it important to translate the Bible into English. The Bible in Latin, accessible only to the educated, was thought enough by educators, church leaders, theologians and pastors. Wycliffe was himself an educator, theologian and pastor. So, why did he think that a translation was useful when his peers did not? Well, Wycliffe held ideas which were quite different from those of most of the elites of his day. He wrote:
the New Testament is of full authority, and open to the understanding of simple men
He also believed that everyday men and women can make a positive impact in their families, churches and communities if they are armed with God’s Word in their language.
The translation of the Bible into the language of the ordinary person flowed naturally from those ideas. Then Wycliffe organized a group of men who traveled around reading and teaching out of the new translation.
Wycliffe, as an intellectual, took a position that elevated non-intellectuals. This rings true of the Gospel and of Jesus life. Jesus worked with disciples who had no formal education. Translating the Bible into the language of everyday people follows in that tradition.
If we think that only the most educated can have an impact in our churches, we err. Both those with little education and lots of education had a significant impact on the early church. Both should have an impact today.
We are working with churches in Africa with the goal that they would run and support their own translation programs. But support for translation by a church in Africa must also flow from Wycliffe’s ideas. Furthermore, without those ideas, there will not be long term use and impact of the translated Scriptures.
When people or a church restricts its conception of who can have significant, positive impact to the educated, it follows that translation into the mother tongue and reading Bibles in the mother tongue will become marginal activities. This is because the educated in Africa can read their Bibles in English or French, languages mastered only by the elite. If only they need the Bible, then English and French are enough.
The church in Africa will succeed in promoting the Bible in the heart language when it embraces the positions that the Bible is the final authority, that anyone can understand it, and that ordinary people armed with the Bible in their language can change lives. Of course, a church must not just espouse those positions, it must also align its practices with them.
So, we work with Ghanaians who hold those same ideas to get them heard in places where they have not yet firmly taken hold.