Various New Testament passages assume the gospel’s translatability: “ ‘This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come’ ” (Matt. 24:14; cf. Mark 13:10); “ ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations’ ” (Matt. 28:19; cf. Mark 16:15); “ ‘repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations’ ” (Luke 24:47); “ ‘you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:8); “I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people” (Rev. 14:6).1
Each text nuances, in one way or another, the gospel’s reach to the entire human family. Acts stretches the gospel’s horizon from Jerusalem to “the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Revelation’s “eternal gospel” engages nations, people groups within nations, unique languages, and dissimilar tribes, accentuating both the possibilities and challenges of gospel translation. Revelation further envisions social status and roles within human social order: the rich and poor, the slave and free, the small and great, the kings, noblemen, commanders, and the strong (Rev. 6:15; 11:18; 13:16; 19:5, 18; cf. Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). Thus, the global, regional, local, varied roles and standings within society as well as the individual person are alike in view. All peoples are to hear the eternal gospel. Every culture and worldview and person is imagined and involved.2
Together these passages point to the holistic nature, cosmic dimension, and universal application of the gospel. Not merely the transference of knowledge or the change of behavior is in view here but also worldview transformation, which results in personal redemption, conversion, and discipleship in relation to our risen Lord. “Christ commissioned His disciples to proclaim a faith and worship that would have in it nothing of caste or country, a faith that would be adapted to all peoples, all nations, all classes of men.”3
The book of Acts
No New Testament book reveals this translatability better than does the book of Acts. There we encounter the story of “the church’s earliest efforts [we might better say the Holy Spirit’s efforts and mentorship] to tailor its witness to particular cultural settings and groups of people.”4 The narrative of Acts lends profound insight into both the gospel’s character and nature in relation to our resurrected Christ and the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence. Here we find a pattern of contextualizing5 the gospel—real-life examples of the church’s Spirit-empowered gospel witness6 to various groups of people and cultures.7
Jesus commissioned His apostles to go “ ‘to the end of the earth’ ” (Acts 1:8, NKJV), and they did just that. The gospel spread from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and to Rome itself. The gospel touched and transformed a variety of cultures and lives: an Ethiopian eunuch on his way to Gaza, a Roman prison officer despairing of life, a businesswoman in Philippi, governors Felix and Festus, and King Agrippa. The gospel reached into the great cities of Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessalonica, rippling through Asia Minor, finally reaching Rome. But Rome was not the end of the earth (as per Acts 1:8); rather, it was civilization’s center. Here now, there is a sense of incompleteness about Acts. Luke has finished his story, but the story of the translatable gospel has not finished. “There is an unwritten ‘To be continued’ in the progress of the Gospel.”8
The last sentence of Acts stretches the imagination and horizon of the gospel’s reach, potential, and power, and contains the words openness and unhindered (Acts 28:31).9 Paul is under house arrest, chained to a Roman soldier. Given his circumstances, he is hindered. And yet Scripture leaves us with a very positive picture of the gospel. Paul is hindered, but the gospel is not.10 The gospel will continue to be spread and change lives no matter what. It is the translatable gospel—eternal, pervasive, aggressive, life-changing.
Pentecost is an epochal moment in history.11 It is followed by “three crucial decades in world history” (A.D. 33–64), during which the gospel “got sufficient growth and credibility to become the largest religion the world has ever seen and to change the lives of hundreds of millions of people.”12 That is all it took, 31 years for the gospel to turn “ ‘the world upside down’ ” (Acts 17:6, ESV). During these decades, hundreds of churches were formed through preaching, pastoral care, social concern, prayer, and the Holy Spirit’s anointing. We can learn much from the sacrifices, lifestyles, proclamations, and attitudes of the early church’s gospel workers. We cannot help but ask ourselves: What are the implications for today, given all the differences brought about by culture and time? What made the difference? Was it what these early gospel workers did and how they did it? Or was it something about the gospel itself together with the ministry and power of the Holy Spirit?
In exploring answers for these questions, let us begin with Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:1–12, ESV).
Notice the narrative detail Luke provides: people were present from “every nation under heaven” (v. 5, ESV), “each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (v. 6, ESV). The Greek words employed display the different languages that the disciples were empowered to speak (vv. 4, 8).
The questions that this phenomenon produced echo across the centuries: “And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ ” (v. 12, ESV). Peter’s answer was Christological and compelling, filled with a host of nuances; but we will attempt to answer this question in the context of the gospel’s translatability. Translatable is the gospel’s character and nature, manner and activity, purpose and summons. The gospel has a worldwide ethos at its very heart as it engages every language and culture in a global expansion.13 This worldwide ethos means that, no matter the culture or context, there is to be an indigenous reception and usage of the gospel. Translatability assumes that the implications of the gospel can be explored in different directions. No single person, language, or culture is capable of experiencing all the riches implicit in the gospel.
Also, the Christian Scripture’s relation to culture differs from that of other world religions.14 For example, “Buddhism conceives an ultimate reality which transcends human words, culture is of transitory value. For Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, the founding culture becomes itself the sacral mode of encountering ultimate reality.
Consequently, Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit have become inseparable from the [spiritual and moral] truth as seen by adherents of these religions. . . . [T]ranslating
scriptures for canonical purposes in these religions is considered invalid, for the tones and sounds [and the richness of the meanings of words] cannot be reproduced in other languages.”15
In particular, “[t]he position of Islam, as a missionary religion, on nontranslatability provides an illuminating contrast to Christianity” and the book of Acts.16 Of the three world religions, “only Islam has emerged as a major missionary movement, with converts spread across innumerable cultural frontiers.”17 But “the missionary success of Islam has never been fueled, or followed, by the translation of the sacred Qur’an. . . . [T]his implies a major downgrading of the mother tongues of these Muslims in the decisive acts of faith and devotion. For these non-Arab Muslims, Arabic is also the exclusive mode of religious orthodoxy.”18 “All
Muslims must step into Arabic when they daily enter the mosque to perform the obligatory rites,” or join the annual hajj.19 “From its uncompromising Arabic pre-eminence, Islam confers on mother tongues the pejorative status of ‘profane.’”20 For Islam, other cultures and languages are not legitimate vehicles for revelation. They may be of temporary “tactical advantage . . . [but] ultimately irrelevant to faith.”21
Not so with the translatable gospel!22 Pentecost “set a seal on mother tongues as sufficient channels of access to God.”23 In doing so, the gospel exhibited the truth that “no culture is inherently unclean in the eyes of God.”24 And so, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, including visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans, and Arabians—all were to receive the gospel in their own tongue. “In the jumble and tumble of social encounter, Christians spoke a bewildering variety of languages,” and from the point of view of God’s plan of salvation, all cultures, while equally inadequate, were nevertheless accessible to the gospel and could authentically express the gospel in its own unique way.25
Translatability assumes that the implications of the gospel can be explored in different directions. No single person or culture is capable of embracing all the riches implicit in the gospel. “[D]ifferent cultures ask different questions and view reality in different ways,” so that God’s truth will be expressed somewhat differently from one culture to another.26
We know that language and the culture it reflects are “a complex system of values, assumptions and habits of mind that reveal themselves in the words we
use and leave unsaid.”27 In fact, much is left unsaid, and yet values or meaning are assumed. Pentecost and the book of Acts project a cultural (and linguistic)
maturity and open-mindedness on a staggering scale. The eternal message of Scripture to the world is unequivocally the translatable gospel.
(Part 2 will appear in the January 2014 issue)
1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the NASB.
2 See Larry L. Lichtenwalter, “Worldview Transformation and Mission: Narrative, Theology, and Ritual in John’s Apocalypse,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 21, nos. 1–2 (2010): 214–217.
3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 820.
4 Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 16.
5 Contextualization has proven to be a slippery word—often more nuanced by linguistics, anthropology, cross-cultural communication studies, or contextualized theology than Scripture. And yet we all know that at bottom it has to do with “how the gospel revealed in Scripture authentically comes to life in each new cultural, social, religious and historical setting” (ibid., 13, 14). Our task here is to see through the book of Acts how Scripture itself can offer us a more adequate approach to the challenge of gospel translation. However, one must remember that our modern notion of cultures and contextualizing the gospel for various cultures was a notion unknown in the early church and should not be imposed on the book of Acts. The message of Acts is not about a strategy of cultural contextualization, nor is it about cultural sensitivity; rather, it is about the translatable gospel. It is calling one to both experience it and become its witness.
6 See Michael Green, Thirty Years That Changed the World: The Book of Acts for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
7 Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament, 25–88. See M. Dumas, “The Church of the Acts of the Apostles: A Model of Inculturation?” in Inculturation: Working Papers on Living Faith and Cultures, ed. A. A. R. Crollius (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1987), 10:3–24; David K. Strong, “The Jerusalem Council: Some Implications for Contextualization: Acts 15:1–35,” in Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context eds. R. I. Gallagher and P. Hertig (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 196–208.
8 Derek W. H. Thomas, Acts, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2011), 739.
9 Ibid., 3.
10 Ibid., 739.
11 Ibid., 27.
12 Green, Thirty Years, 7.
13 See Lamin Sanneh, “Pluralism and Christian Commitment,” Theology Today 45, no. 1 (1988): 23.
14 I am indebted to Lamin Sanneh for some ideas expressed in this section in connection with the translatable gospel but do not share his presuppositions or notions of pluralism in the context of Christian commitment (ibid.).
15 Sanneh, “Pluralism and Christian Commitment,” 23.
20 Ibid. I remember an exchange with an imam regarding Arabic preeminence in reading the Koran. Somehow contextual understanding and implications of a text read in English wereoverridden by supposed nuances and deep meanings of Arabic words. In the dialogue, he was shocked to realize that his own choice of possible meanings of a given Arabic word was itself a translation. Similarly, rabbinic readings of the Hebrew text create multiple possibilities of meaning that, in the end, yield no meaning unless context is included. See also Abdullah Saeed, The Qur’an: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2008), 27–31.
21 Sanneh, “Pluralism and Christian Commitment,” 23.
22 Early Muslim scholars were “aware of this difference, and in consistency with their position judged [translatability] a major defect of ‘falsification’ ” in Christianity (ibid., 23, 24.).
23 Ibid., 24.
25 Ibid., 25.
26 Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 47. See the chapter titled “The Missiological Implications of an Epistemological Shift.”
27 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 71.