WHERE IS THEOLOGICAL CONTINUITY FOUND: TEXT OR CONTEXT?–Part 4

With the unchanging Truth of scripture established, contextualization finds its proper role in securing effective gospel communication. Part of this communication is based on a culturally relevant translation of the biblical text. As John Sailhamer points out, one studies the original languages, or a good translation, in order to grasp a biblical understanding of theology.[1] Thus, in order for a good translation to be accessible, translators must translate from the original languages, rather than just translating from translations. Moreover, the understanding of cultural context is necessary for a good translation. For instance, a translation in English is an interpretation of the original text for the particular English-speaking context at the time of translation. Similarly, a translation in Hindi is an interpretation of the original text for the particular Hindi-speaking context of the time. Thus, the form of the text is different in each cultural and linguistic context so that the unchanging meaning is retained; because, each language has a different genius (syntax, grammar, and lexicon).[2]

However much difference there may be between the biblical linguistic context and the context of another language, by focusing solely on the form of the text, translators may produce foreign translations. Paul Hiebert warns against rejecting the value of all forms in relation to meaning because, in certain religious symbols, the relationship is too inseparable.[3] One can easily argue for the transcending value of the textual symbolism of blood, the cross, etc. Of course, the more symbols one finds are transcendent, the more people one finds that disagrees, for instance, with the image of the lamb, wine and the bread in the Eucharist, etc. Hiebert, though, is not creating inseparable ties between form and meaning, but he is arguing that, in light of biblical theology, certain forms and meanings are inseparable because of the importance of recurring themes and repetition of ideas. This establishes the importance of solid, biblical theology for making wise contextual decisions in translation and cross-cultural communication. At the least, consistency in translation among important themes is necessary to retain biblical continuity.[4] Therefore, the use of inner-textuality, in-textuality, and inter-textuality aids the translation process.Certain problems accompany the translation of scripture.

Three possible problems are that (1) translations are made from interpretations other than the author-intended meaning original, (2) that they are made through an intermediary translator (not from the original context, which is impossible, and not from the receptor context), and (3) that translators do not involve the local church in the process. The first problem has been discussed at length above. Recently, Van Engen and Shaw have addressed the second problem, that dealing with outsider translators. They warn communicators to remove as much “noise” as possible so that the receptors can hear the text.[5] Noise is anything between the transmitter and the receptor that detracts from the intended meaning.[6] Translators from other cultural/linguistic contexts inherently produce noise due to their own deep-seated, cultural understandings. Nonetheless, initial translations must be by an outsider of some sorts. However, after time translations need revisions as insiders are transformed by the text; in other words, translation is an ongoing process.[7]

In response to the third problem, that of involving the church, William Smalley gives the following warning-translators, as outsiders, “in wanting to bring the scriptures to the people they may overlook the opportunity for enabling a church to get the Scriptures for itself.”[8] Without enabling the church, the noise between the text and the context will grow louder through time. Culture is always changing. This change is rapid, often too rapid for even insiders. Outsiders will always be hard-pressed to keep up with culture change compared to an insider. Kraft points out that only an insider can make cultural changes.[9] The local church is especially equipped by the Holy Spirit to be able to adapt to, even transform, cultural changes in light of the gospel, for the local church is the incarnation of the kingdom of God for a particular culture. Systematic theology serves in one role of reacting to new cultural (mis)understandings of God. But as we have noted, systematic theology is inseparably dependent on biblical theology, and biblical theology is ultimately dependent on the text. A practical action plan for change begins with insiders translating a faithful and culturally relevant text. These insiders must be equipped with the original languages as well as the worldview of the receptor language: “as Scripture was for the original audience, so it must become for modern receptors.”[10] From a culturally relevant text, the church can effectively communicate that text to the ever-changing culture.


[1]Sailhamer, “Old Testament Theology,” 23.[2]Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation (Lieden, Netherlands: United Bible Societies, 1969), 1-10.[3]Hiebert, “Form and Meaning in the Contextualization of the Gospel,” in The Word Among Us, 101-120.[4]Nida and Taber, 15-22.

[5]Van Engen and Shaw, 205.

[6]Ibid., 111.

[7]Ibid., 144-152.

[8]William A. Smalley, Translation as Mission: Bible Translation in the Modern Missionary Movement (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991), 245.

[9]Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness, 160-163.

[10]R. Daniel Shaw, “The Context of Text: Transculturation and Bible Translation,” in The Word Among Us, 156.

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