There’s an interesting debate going on within Christian missions circles these days. Wycliffe Bible Translators have taken out the term “Son of God” in the New Testament when referring to Jesus in their Arabic Bible translations. They’ve done this because (they say) it does not represent what the words originally meant to a Jewish audience when a modern Muslim is reading them in Arabic. As you might guess, there’s been a huge backlash from the Christian community.
And as is typical, there’s been little room for nuance. If our answers can’t fit on bumper stickers, most aren’t interested. So the simplified version of both sides are: It makes sense….and….Heresy.
(Although I’m not really writing about this point – my opinion would be to leave those words in since they are the words used, and footnote the phrase each time it’s used with an explanation at the bottom of the page).
But here’s the real issue – it’s communication. Language. Semantics. Here’s how the conversation often goes with a Muslim. They ask the Christian this “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Because, we don’t.”
The Christian, thinking he’s answering honestly and with integrity say, “Of course. Jesus is called that in the Bible.” The Muslim shakes his head and cries out to God to protect him from this awful heresy of the Christians. The Christian is offended and gets even more defensive about Jesus being “the Son of God” and round and round it goes….
Here’s what the Muslim is thinking when he asks the question: “Do you think that God had sexual relations with Mary and bore a small baby boy named Jesus?”
We, not knowing that this is what the Muslim is asking say “Yes, we think that. And we will defend it to the death.” So we unwittingly affirm what the Muslim thinks that we think (which of course we don’t think).
Same with the Trinity. The Muslim says: “Do you believe in the Trinity?” The well-meaning Christian answers with honesty and integrity: “Yes, I do believe in the Trinity.”
What the Muslim is asking is this: “Do you believe in three Gods.” And the Christian answers “Yes I believe in Three Gods and will defend that until the end.” The word in Arabic for “trinity” (which, of course is not even a biblical word), actually means “The Three.” No wonder Muslims think we believe in three gods.
Not only do words matter, but the meaning of the words matter. They matter to the one who is speaking them and to the one who is hearing them. But just as importantly, it matters that the hearer understands what the speaker of the words MEANS by those words….and….that the speaker understand what the hearer hears from his words.
So when I use words to communicate I need to be thinking at least three things:
1. Do I know what I mean by the words I’m using? If I call Jesus “the Son of God” do I understand what that means?
2. When the one listening to me hears me say that I believe that Jesus “is the Son of God” does he know what that means?
3. And do I understand what he is likely to hear when I say those words? And maybe even one more – do I know whether or not he knows what I mean when I use those words?
Communication is both art and science. It’s a beautiful thing when we get it right. When we actually communicate.
The next time you’re with a Muslim friend and he asks you if you believe in the Trinity or that Jesus is the Son of God, think before you answer. Ask some questions. Make sure you’re both talking about the same thing.
In this case, I think you’ll find that you’re not too far off from your Muslim friend. We both agree that God did not have sex with Mary and birth a son named Jesus. But that this is a title given to him. We may still disagree on its meaning – but maybe not much.
And as to the Trinity – simply put, we can both reaffirm that we are MONO-theists. We all believe in only One God. Muslims also believe that God is our creator and like a father in that he loves us. Muslims also believe that God is spirit. And Muslims also refer to Jesus as the Word of God. So…not far off. Not quite the same, but maybe we can hold off on killing each other over it! At least for now until we find a new disagreement.