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Translations of biblical terms and their impact on non-Christian readers

14 June 2013


From Mr Christopher Briscoe

Sir, - I was astonished by your report on the World Evangelical Alliance review on preferred usage for translation of biblical terms such as God the Father and Son of God (News, 31 May).

I am not primarily concerned, as they were, with the likely impact of such translations on Muslims, although we do need to be sensitive to such reactions today. I am concerned about the impact on Christians, and especially on those unchurched folk who might ever consider becoming Christians.

All mainstream Christians of all traditions have always taught that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, is true God and true Man, born of a human mother in whom he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit. In that context, and relative to the Lord himself, it is fair enough to use terms such as Son or Sonship.

With the First Person of the Blessed Trinity, it is surely otherwise? The unanimous tradition here is that the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe is pure spirit. In so far as our feeble minds can comprehend that concept at all, it follows that the Creator is without magnitude, location, gender, or any other anthropomorphic quality that applies to mere creatures. It is thus misleading and deeply unhelpful to refer to him exclusively by anthropomorphic terms such as Father, or to describe his relation to the Son as Fatherhood.

The medieval mystics quite rightly taught that we can and should think, too, of the Mother-hood of God. It is simply playing into the hands of bigots of the Dawkins persuasion exclusively to adopt words that imply a solely human parentage. That would indeed be to create an idol made in our own image. Muslims have some reason to feel abhorrence if we do. It simply perpetuates the widespread impression that Christians worship an old man with a long white beard who sits up on a cloud.

As the possessor of a modestly long white beard myself, I regard such appendages as harmless and theologically neutral, but am very clear that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the Godhead. We can and should use Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in some of our speech and writings, but it is vital to balance that by using some such formula as Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, and be clear that, when we do use Father, it is in no crude biological sense.

Otherwise, we teeter on the edge of heresy, and lose all credibility with our paganised fellows to boot.

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