Bible for all tongues

Sep 14, 2015 by

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Growing up in Holmes County, Ohio, I attended Sunday evening services that featured the stories of missionaries on furlough from assignments in exotic locations. I particularly remember a presentation by Albert and Lois Buckwalter, then hard at work alongside indigenous groups in the Argentinian Chaco translating the Bible.

Roth

Roth

I recall their story in part because it triggered theological questions in my adolescent mind:

Could meaning be preserved from one language to another?

Would God really condemn to hell all those people who died before they heard the gospel in their own language?

Why were people so defensive about the King James Version of the Bible if the authority of Scripture survived translation to other languages?

But along with those questions, I recall being deeply impressed by the years of dedication it took to “crack the code” of a new language — and the evident joy of the people who were now able to encounter Scripture in their own tongue.

The pioneering work of the Buckwalters notwithstanding, Mennonites have not generally been at the forefront of biblical translation. To be sure, we have supported the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators and similar initiatives. But our mission efforts have tended to find expression in other areas.

So it came as a surprise when I ran across the newsletter of the “All-Nations Bible Translation,” an organization based in State College, Pa., whose goal is to “provide an Anabaptist foundation for Bible translation and church planting.” ABT was formed in 2009 with the support of Christian Aid Ministries, a conservative Mennonite relief and mission organization. Its work is overseen by an independent board, composed of representatives from a variety of conservative Mennonite groups.

The first issue of the bimonthly ABT newsletter appeared in May 2011. It envisioned translation teams of three couples — an Old Testament translator, a New Testament translator and a couple trained in the medical field — who would commit to two years of study, including an intensive focus on the biblical languages and training in mission work and cross-cultural understanding.

Subsequent issues give insight into the organization’s evolving structure — reports on a new headquarters, the development of ABT’s Kingdom Warriors Training Camp — along with challenges they are facing. One newsletter reflected on the potential problem of unhealthy dependency in mission settings. Others note the fundamental challenge of indigenization — or, how to translate the gospel in ways that are true to the original but culturally relevant. None of the newsletters has yet wrestled explicitly with how an “Anabaptist foundation” finds expression in ABT’s translation and mission effort. Clearly, ABT’s program is developing, encountering afresh many of the same issues the Buckwalters addressed decades ago.

According to ABT, there are still some 1,800 languages without access to any of the Bible. This summer “All-Nations Bible Translation” is attempting to reduce that number through the efforts of its first translation team now on location in a Mixtec Indian village in southern Mexico. With 20 additional members in training, ABT hopes to soon expand its work, possibly to Colombia and Papua New Guinea.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.


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