Free the Word

Today (May 3) is World Press Freedom Day. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. According to World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky, modern journalism has roots in the man whose started the Reformation – Martin Luther. In 1517 he posted a list of 95 thoughts (called 95 theses) on various church practices of his day on the door of the church at Wittenburg, starting the Reformation.

Within months, Luther’s document had been picked up by the newly invented printing industry and spread throughout Europe. I turned out that Luther wrote vivid prose and he turned out many short articles on the key religious and political issues of his day. He also translated the Bible into German.

Translating the Bible into German and writing articles in German for wide distribution are both underpinned by two ideas that most of us take for granted:

  • The way to promote social, spiritual, religious and political change is through spreading ideas. It is not by producing a law or edict at the top and forcing it on everyone. But the latter was the model in the minds of most leaders in Luther’s time. Luther decides to appeal to the masses aided by the printing press. It was a radical idea
  • The second idea is that ordinary people using their everyday language can understand and make their own decisions about the issues that affect them. This was also radical as many in Luther’s day expected people to just do what political and religious authorities told them.

In our days in the Western world, these two ideas are so basic that we don’t often think about them. But in some places they are still radical. I have met Protestant pastors and even the occasional missionary who didn’t like the translation in the heart language (the people’s mother tongue) because they felt it undermined their authority. The thing is, they are right; it does indeed undermine their authority.

When people read and study God’s Word, they start questioning what they have been taught. Yale history professor Lamin Sanneh has documented cases of Christians in Africa reading the Bible in their languages and then adopting different understandings than those held by their missionaries.

By submitting his ideas to everyone, Luther gave everyone the opportunity to judge them, thereby taking away some of his authority as a minister of the Gospel. That didn’t bother him. Why? Because he believed:

  • That changes in peoples’ heart and thinking was critically important.
  • Heart change cannot not be accomplished by applying authority.
  • That God will act powerfully through his Word in the people’s language.

The spectacular growth of Christianity in Ghana where the Bible has been translated into the languages of the people is one of the testaments to freeing the Word Luther-style. We are working to freeing it for the peoples in Ghana who have not yet been accorded the opportunity to it judge for themselves.

Dead-End Translation

Presbyterian Bible translator

Last week, this blog was about how Bible translations done in Ghana in the late 1800s contributed to dramatic church growth in the first half of the 1900s. I also noted that after a first wave of translations carried out by German Presbyterian missionaries, there were no translations started in other Ghanaian languages for 50 years. The churches that grew on the basis of those translations, who used them widely and enthusiastically did not take up the task of translating the Bible for their fellow Ghanaians who still did not have the Bible in their languages.

This situation is not unusual. The Bible was translated into the Ge’ez language (also called Ethiopic) of Ethiopia sometime in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries. It was one of the first translations of the Bible coming just after Jerome did his translation, the Vulgate, into Latin.

It was also followed by a time when no more translations were done, but the stoppage in Africa lasted over 1000 years! Having been blessed with a translation in their own language, Ethiopian Christians did not start other translations. Exactly the opposite! Even when the Ge’ez language died out sometime before the year 1300, the church and Christians in Ethiopia continued to use and revere the Ge’ez translation that no one understood except a few academics. Not only did they fail to translate the Bible into the Amharic language which became the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, they insisted that the incomprehensible Ge’ez translation was the only real Word of God.

Ge’ez translation

History shows that it is the usual pattern that people who receive a translation of the Bible from missionaries and use it enthusiastically, do not then decide to translate the Bible for others. In fact, they might insist that others use the Bible in their language, even when that translation becomes archaic or the language even disappears. In this sense, translating the Bible is often a dead-end task. Oh, it bears fruit in terms of faith and the growth of the church where that language is spoken. In that way it is anything but a dead-end.

But translating is most often a dead-end in terms of prompting the beneficiaries to do a translation for a language next door or in the next country. There are probably many American Christians who are deeply blessed by the Bible in English but who have not thought about making sure those who speak other languages have the same blessing.

Our role in Ghana is to work with Ghanaians to show the churches here the dead-end sign they have erected without thinking about it so that the Holy Spirit might prompt them to take it down and build a continuation of the road missionaries started by translating the Bible into the Ghanaian languages that still don’t have it, and then continue beyond Ghana’s borders.

Translation, Church Growth, Ghana

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that missionaries working with local people completed the first translations of the Bible into the languages of southern and central Ghana. At the time, less than five percent of Ghanaians were Christians. The German Presbyterian missionaries saw their churches grow slowly but steadily.

Then two things happened no one expected.

The first was World War I. At the time, Ghana was then The Gold Coast and it was a British colony. As you can imagine, Germans were not welcome when Britain entered WWI, not even missionaries. The authorities expelled the German missionaries. The church they had started had to stand on its own. It did, and it grew, using the Scriptures and liturgy in local languages.

The second unexpected event was the arrival of Pentecostalism. A layman named Peter Newman Anim left a church founded by missionaries, encountered some pentecostal theology coming out of Portland, Oregon and founded the Christ Apostolic Church. Those who ministered with him were uneducated farmers, laborers, fishermen and even hunters. So they didn’t know English. The Bibles in Ghanaian languages became their only source of faith and truth. They worshiped, read, taught and evangelized in those languages. In the first half of the 20th century, Pentecostalism reached deeply into the uneducated who were most Ghanaians at the time. They learned to read in church, their songs were full of Scripture and they took the Bible as the Word of God. The results were astounding. Over the first five decades of the 20th century, the percentage of Ghanaians professing Christian faith grew from a paltry 5% to at least 50% (it stands at 60% today). But only where the Bible had been translated. Elsewhere, other religions made headway.

It was quite a combination: the Scriptures in the mother tongue and a church that took both the mother tongue and the Scriptures seriously. They had no doubts whatsoever that God speaks through his Word. Nor did they wonder if their language was up to the task of conveying Bible truth.

Some of my colleagues recently went to visit the head of the church Anim founded. On hearing that they are involved in translation into Ghanaian languages, he spontaneously launched into a historic and theological rationale for the use of the heart language (including the translation of the Bible) to create vibrant churches. He should know; his church has grown to have several million members and although it has many educated members, the backbone is still preaching, singing, worship and reading the Bible in the heart language.

The modern religious map of Africa reveals in a striking way the close connection between the growth of Christianity and the widespread employment of the vernacular. The converse also seems to hold: Christian growth has been slightest in areas where vernacular languages are weak—that is, where a lingua franca such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic or Swahili has succeeded in suppressing mother tongues. -Lamin Sanneh in Christian Missions and the Western Guilt Complex

The translation of the Bible in Ghana stopped after the German missionaries left. No new translations were started for 50 years.  In the 1960s, a new wave of Bible translation, this one initiated by Wycliffe Bible Translators, started in the north. By the 1970s New Testaments were being dedicated here and there in the North. More recently, and 100 years after it happened in the south, a number of whole Bibles have been dedicated. Just as happened in the south 100 years ago, churches based on the Scriptures in the heart languages of the people are taking hold. But, there was a short stoppage again from 1990 through 2010. We are working to have the third wave of translation in Ghana be the last and be the one designed, implemented and resourced by churches and Christians in Ghana.

Laugh of faith

Warham's article against heretical books

Warham’s article against heretical books

In May last year, a country lifted a ban on the Bible which had been in place since 1969. When I learned about it, I laughed. I was thinking about the futility of banning the Bible. There has been a long history of banning the Bible and all attempts have failed. In one case hundreds of years ago, William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to ban Tyndale’s translation into English as well as other books.

Did you know that China now prints more Bibles than any other country? The Bible is now available in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. In fact, Russians are translating the Bible into the languages of Ghana.

It is silly to ban the Bible. For one thing, the ban never sticks. Oh, it might stick for a few decades, but history shows that a ban on the Bible is not sustainable government policy.

That’s why I laughed. I was also thinking of God’s reaction to the machinations of governments, recorded in Psalm 2 (emphasis mine):

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.

Because I have spent most of my adult life in Africa, people in the US sometimes ask me how I see my country. One of my observations: Christians don’t laugh enough at the actions of government, officials and politicians while wringing their hands too much.

We need to imitate God more by having a good belly laugh at some stuff that usually has us in consternation.

There are still plenty of places in the world where the Bible cannot be freely distributed, studied or translated. Join me in a laugh of faith in the hope that will change.

Naval Blockade

This week is Banned Books Week which is an annual celebration of the freedom to read, first celebrated in 1982. I don’t like everything that everyone celebrates during banned books week, but I would like to celebrate a particular case.

Do you know what country mounted a military operation, including deploying its navy to prevent a book from being imported into the country? And do you know what book that might be?

Given the subject of this blog, you have probably guessed that the banned book was the Bible.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale

Years before the King James translation was commissioned, some wool merchants secretly sponsored an Oxford scholar named William Tyndale to do a translation of the Bible into English. But King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, the head of the church, banned the Bible in English. Not only that, they set up a network of spies to seek out translators, arrest them and burn them at the stake. So Tyndale fled to continental Europe where he completed his translation and had it printed. But King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey heard of Tyndale’s translation and that he was planning to smuggle into England. Their reaction was dramatic. Here’s what Melvyn Bragg wrote about it in his book The Adventure of English:

It now seems quite extraordinary, but the whole country was put on alert. In order to prevent the word of God in English landing in the land of the English, naval ships patrolled the coastal waters, boats were stopped and searched, men were arrested and a great many Bibles were intercepted. The action taken was indistinguishable from being on a war footing and to Henry VIII and Wolsey it was just that. Latin was the only word of God allowed by the state and now the state came out in full armed force to defend its most loyal ally, the Church.

There are two competing ideas about religious truth. One is that it is known by experts who tell the rest of us what we should believe. That was the view of Henry VIII and Wolsey, one they were willing to defend to the extent of deploying the military. For them, the Bible should be in Latin and accessible only to the clergy who would interpret it for everyone else. Lamin Sanneh points out that this idea is found in some cultures:

In many traditional societies, religious language has tended to be confined to a small elite of professionals.

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

Ghanaian girls with Bibles in their languages

In contrast to this view, Tyndale held the view that God created every person with the ability to know what is true when they have the Word of God to consult and the Holy Spirit to guide them. Tyndale subscribed to that idea. To a member of the clergy critical that he was translating the Bible into English, he said:

If God spare my life, I will see to it that the boy who drives the plowshare knows more of the scripture than you, Sir!
Lammin Sanneh points out that Bible translation is the enemy of the “expert” approach to religious truth:

The Christian approach to translatability strikes at the heart of such gnostic tendencies, first by contending that the greatest and most profound religious truths are compatible with everyday language, and second, by targeting ordinary men and women as worthy bearers of the religious message.

Jesus said:

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 13:16)
“Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.” (John 17:17)

Ghanaian man reading the Bible in his language at a church service

Ghanaian man reading the Bible in his language at a church service

Today, few Christians subscribe openly to the idea that we should blindly follow religious experts. But sometimes our actions are not fully aligned with the idea every person can know the truth when they have the Word of God to consult and the Holy Spirit to guide them. I have seen missionaries and churches willing to put resources into propagating their doctrines but not into giving people the Word in their language. That approach is closer to Wolsey’s than it is to Tyndale’s. I have full confidence that making God’s Word widely accessible is good for Christian faith, the church, families and all of society. Research into the impact of Bibles in Ghanaian languages confirms this.

During banned books week, let’s celebrate Tyndale. Let’s also check the practices of our churches and missionary endeavors to make sure that they do not subtly elevate something else to the place where it eclipses the Bible.

Tyndale Bible

Tyndale Bible

Calvin

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.

Mesrop Mashtots

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Painting of Mesrop Mashtots with his alphabet

Every year, Armenian Christians celebrate Mesrop Mashtots who passed away on this day (February 17) in the year 440. He was an Armenian theologian, linguist and hymnologist, best known inventing the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD.

He was born to a noble family and had a classical education, but left his privileged position to preach the Gospel in Armenia. He had great difficulty establishing people in faith because Syriac was the only language used in church services and few Armenians understood it. Mesrop wanted to minister in Armenian, the language of the people. There was a problem; the Armenian language did not have an alphabet. It has never been written.

Mesrop enlisted the support of the King for this endeavor to create an alphabet for Armenian. As soon as he finished the alphabet others translated the Bible into Armenian using the new alphabet. He then started schools in Armenian to drive learning down to everyone.

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

Armenian alphabet carved in stone

The very first sentence written in the new Armenian alphabet was the first verse of the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.” Even today, Armenians consider Mesrop’s creation of the Armenian alphabet one of the most important events in their history. Not only did it enable the translation of the Bible, it also caused an explosion of writing in Armenian. Literature abounded.

Such was the religious, social and cultural impact that there is hardly a town in Armenia which does not have a street named after Mesrop.

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots

It is odd to think about Europeans as illiterate peasants speaking languages without writing – people needing to climb the tall hill of learning another language to get education or have access to the Bible. But it was really like that. In that context, which is the same as that or most bibleless peoples today, Mesrop did not see developing an alphabet as an academic exercise. Rather he saw it as fundamental to anchoring Armenians in the faith and to having an informed society. It is this same motivation that even today keeps people developing alphabets for unwritten languages, organizing literacy and translating the Bible.

Driving information, and the ability to store and process information, down to the grassroots is not a paternalistic endeavor where the missionary seeks to “civilize” local people. Rather, it is a way to give people the tools that enable them to make their own decisions and promote the changes they want. It is a missionary method that believes that the through the Bible the Holy Spirit will guide new converts to make the right choices. It is quite different from an approach where the Christians at the top expect people at the grassroots to learn the language of those at the top to get access to the Bible. Or one where the VIPs tell people at the grassroots what they should believe and do.

This table shows the codes for using the Armenian alphabet on computers. In a few short clicks I put the Armenian keyboard on my computer and typed this: աբգդէֆքհիճկլմնոպխրստըվւցեզ. Mesrop would be pleased.

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Table showing how the Armenian alphabet is encoded on computers

Why Cyrillic?

Have you ever wondered why the alphabet for Russian is not called Russian, but rather Cyrillic? Well, that is because it is named after a missionary name Cyril who died on February 14 in the year 869.

Cyril and Methodius

Cyril and Methodius

In 862 Cyril and his brother Methodius moved from Rome to Moravia to evangelize. They were not the first missionaries to Moravia. But, they are the most remembered because they did things differently. They wanted worship and preaching in the language of the people, instead of Latin. Some in the church opposed that. They wanted everyone to learn and use Latin because that was the language of unity, education and progress.

But Cyril and his brother were not deterred, but they did run into a problem – the language had never been written. Cyril set out to produce an alphabet that suited the language. He did not finish, but those working with him did. That alphabet fit the language really well. In fact, it fit other Slavic languages as well. It was later modified to become the Cyrillic script which is still used in many Slavic languages, including Russian.

Places using Cyrillic Script

Places using Cyrillic Script

Eventually the objections to the use of the local language were overcome and the liturgy Cyril and Methodius developed was formally authorized for use in the churches. Cyril died in Rome on February 4, 869, but he and his brother are still celebrated every year on May 11 in Bulgaria. That celebration includes spelling bees.

Cyril was one of the first in what has become an important, if unnoticed, contribution of missionaries. Did you know that missionaries developed the alphabets of most of the languages in the world? But Cyrillic might be the only one named after a missionary. Writing is probably the most foundational element of learning and transformation, and Christians have promoted it for all languages, even in places where others have opposed it. The benefits are so pervasive that it seems unjust to call the development of an alphabet a “by-product” of Bible translation. Let’s not forget that Cyril’s alphabet documented the discoveries and engineering of a successful  space program.

Cyrillic alphabet

Cyrillic alphabet

It is ironic that the Cyrillic Script, having been developed by a missionary was then used as a tool for an atheist political philosophy, Soviet communism. But that did not last, of course, and Bibles printed using the Cyril’s alphabet now flow freely throughout Russia and other Slavic countries.

About 70% of the worlds living languages have alphabets, most developed by missionaries working in the tradition of Cyril. But there are still about 1900 languages without an alphabet. It looks like people motivated by Christian faith will develop alphabets for those in the coming two or three decades. Time is running out for anyone with Cyril’s holy ambition.

Coverdale and transformation

Coverdale Bible

Coverdale Bible

Today in 1569, Myles Coverdale died. His translation of the Bible into English was the first complete Bible in English to be printed thanks to Gutenberg’s invention. Previous translations were hand copied.

While Coverdale was known as a translator, translation was his method, not his goal. Like many reformers of the time, he wanted wholesale changes in the church, in politics and in society. It was an era were church services and Bibles were in Latin, the language of education and the elite. Politics was controlled by a few. Coverdale wanted to break down the language barrier and give the Bible and all sorts of information to ordinary people in their ordinary language, English. When that happened, he believed that change would come from the grassroots.

It took decades to see the beginning of the changes he wanted, and longer to see their full conclusion. The flight of believers to the New World is a testament that the grassroots changes were underway and that there was opposition to them from above.

One Ghanaian researcher has noted that through Bible translation, biblical interpretation ceases to be the property of professional theologians. People begin to question prevailing teachings and practices in the light of the mother-tongue Scriptures. That is exactly what Coverdale wanted for England and what eventually happened. Through translation, people cease to be pawns in their religious and political systems.

Girls reading Bibles in their languages

Girls reading their Bibles

In the end, Bible translation is not about translating the Bible. It is about creating an environment ripe for transformation – one rich in the information people need to decide for themselves, one where the Holy Spirit illuminates them individually and empowers them to produce changes. Evaluations have shown that where Bible translation and literacy has been carried out in Ghana, people take more individual initiative and start movements to undermine harmful traditional practices. In addition, church leaders have noted the emergence of a new level of local church leadership which is solidly grounded in the communities and in the cultures, but also solidly grounded in the Bible. The changes are slow, as some measure speed, but they tend to be permanent.

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

Woman seeing the new Bible presented

At the dedication of the Bible in Lelemi (Buem), as the new translation was being read. Dayle heard someone behind her exclaiming with deep emotion,

“Ooooooooooh, so sweet. (pause) So sweet!”

One speaker, Dr. Elias Kwaku Asiama, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, said:

The launch of the Buem Bible is a turning point in the history of the Buem people.

When translation is over, the sweet revolution begins! That’s why I’m in Bible translation.

On this day in 1604

King James

King James

On this day in 1604, King James agreed to order a new translation of the Bible into English. It was finished in 1611, a little more than 200 years after the first translation in English started a long-lasting controversy that now seems silly – whether the Bible should be translated into the language of ordinary people or not.