Why we translate the Bible

Bible translation is a crucial activity in the mandate of the church as it seeks to be effectively involved in God’s mission in the world. We believe God calls us all to be involved in mission in some way, since living out and sharing the good news of God’s Kingdom is an appropriate response in love to his demonstration of love. The theological and missiological aspects of Bible translation are important for establishing the basis for what we do, for motivation and for reflection on our actions.

1. Motivation for mission

From Carey to Amsterdam 2000, people have been motivated to mission involvement for a variety of reasons, some of which are appropriate and others which are not. Motivations which imply cultural, social or intellectual superiority, or lead to paternalistic attitudes have no place in Christian mission. In the post-modern world the seduction of consumerism easily influences a person’s motivation so that 'mission' becomes merely an adventure to be experienced or another line on the CV. Genuine zeal for God’s mission issues from the nature and character of God, the command of Christ and a realistic appreciation for the condition of people without him.

The social milieu of a particular time may determine what captures people’s imaginations and ignites their passion. For example different aspects of the character of God become the focus at different points in history. Where there is a heightened awareness of oppression and suspicion of authority, the justice of God is as motivating as the love of God. Likewise, the great compassion of Jesus will stir a response long before the great commission of Jesus. (1)

Critical to inspiration is a proper understanding of Christ’s commission. Some see excessive focus on this as overly legalistic while others consider it integral to the role of the church; for some a duty, for others a challenge. We believe viewing the commission as a call to joyful participation rather than a dutiful obligation is a more accurate portrayal of Christ’s expectation of his disciples.

Appropriate response to the commission of Christ must constitute a major element of motivation. Combining this with a clear understanding of the nature of God the evangelist, his will for all people, and a compassion for the desperate plight of those without him, establishes a galvanising, compelling motivation for service.

These are the very factors that motivate people to become actively involved in the broad ministry of Bible translation.

2. Bible translation as mission

We believe that Bible translation is one of the best, most appropriate and justifiable methods of Christian mission available. Bible translation involves working with people at some of the very basic, human-worth levels of interaction, namely language and culture incorporating a strong holistic focus on addressing human life issues in community. Bible translation also lends itself to close cooperation with a wide range of local and community institutions, from national governments to local churches, from universities to community health centres.

Bible translation deals directly with the Scriptures, God’s full and definitive revelation of himself in Christ. Helping provide the Scriptures is one of the least imperialistic methods of doing mission. Our method is primarily sowing the seed, not transplanting churches. It is lighting a spark, not establishing an institution. This does not mean that the Bible translation movement is unconcerned with the church – it is vitally concerned and involved. But the indigenous church we are committed to, whether in central Asia or in central Brisbane, is not the church we have structured, but one raised up by the Spirit of God.

Bible translation can incorporate the following mission activities:

i) Disciple-making. Bible translation is not just about helping provide people with a book. A strongly held goal is to work in cooperation with others (local churches, other Christian agencies) to provide people with the best tool they can have to grow as disciples of Christ—and in the process, to demonstrate the relevance of the biblical message. The translation process itself provides excellent opportunities for active discipling.

ii) Building churches. There is an implication of community in Christianity and in the Scriptures. Christians seem to have an in-built desire to meet together for Bible study and worship, to encourage each other and to share their Christian experiences. This is crucial to growth in Christ. The translated Scriptures give a means of connecting with God’s faithful people in the past, reflecting on their stories of faith and learning from them.

iii) Resourcing the church. The Scriptures in the language of the people become a reference for evangelism, teaching, preaching and devotion. An active, mission-oriented church needs resources for building community and for inspiring, informing and equipping Christian witness. These resources are found in, or based on, the Scriptures. Access to them is facilitated best when the Scriptures are available in form which communicates clearly.

iv) Developing a truly indigenous church. Translated Scriptures are a crucial element in a church becoming truly indigenous. The Bible in the local language is available for reflection and growth, removing the dependency that would otherwise limit freedom of development. Scriptures help promote a truly appropriate worship style, teaching style and approach to evangelism. Merely to 'indigenise' our own Christian structures can be quite inappropriate. Many churches have the so-called 'independent' characteristics but still do not fit within the society where they exist. The development of an indigenous church will always be the living response of people to the life-demands of the message. The source of the information for such development may be a person who will never be much more than a catalyst. Alternatively, the source could be the Scriptures themselves, available for personal or community reflection, for study, and for application through the Spirit who inspired them in the first place.

v) Involvement with unreached people groups. African theologian Professor Kwame Bediako believed that a people group should continue to be considered unreached until the Scriptures are available in the local language. There is no doubt people can become Christians, and churches can be established, without access to the written Scriptures in a local language. But without such Scriptures, there can be a lack of ownership, relevance and integration of scriptural truth, all of which are characteristics of a healthy, vital Christian community.

3. Bible translation as language-based development

Bible translation is not just about providing a book or introducing Christian religion but incorporates incarnational mission elements which minister to the whole person. Bible translation work demonstrates a care for people as people and a concern for their well-being and rights.

a) Language development. Bible translation is not just translating texts but, of necessity, involves many aspects of language development. Involvement in a language project explicitly signifies a high value for the local language. Language is an innately human characteristic, and an intrinsic part of human life. Because translation work is so closely connected to language development, language projects open the way for a wide range of language-related opportunities.

b) Literacy. Literacy and other education-related activities are an integral part of a language project based around translation. Scriptures in the local language anticipates that, for the most part, some form of literacy development work will be needed. This may vary from basic bridging materials to extensive child and adult literacy programs. The benefits of such programs are immeasurable. Not only do people have access to a whole new world of opportunity but they can gain skills to protect themselves and their resources from exploitation. Literacy can provide people with the choice of taking their place in local and national development and in the world. Opportunities previously denied are made possible.

c) Care for the marginalised. Many of the people groups where Scripture translation is needed are among the poorest and most marginalised in the world. They have tended to be ignored, or considered more than a reasonable challenge for national authorities when formulating educational or development policies. In many situations such as education, the national or local authorities have lacked the technical resources to deal with the issues, despite best intentions. Language development work, in the context of a Bible translation project, can meet many of the needs of marginalised people in the world.

d) Endangered languages. The loss of languages through extinction, and the loss of cultures and the people they represent, is as real an issue as the loss of biological species. A people’s identity and dignity are intimately linked to their language, and the loss of any language makes the world a poorer place. A Bible translation project and its related language development efforts can address this. Valuable linguistic records are preserved, the process of extinction may be reversed through language salvage and above all, respect is demonstrated for people, their language, culture and identity. Many of the language programs associated with Bible translation efforts in endangered languages attempt some sort of language salvage or maintenance program, including strategies such as literacy, education, and the production of literature.

e) Valuing culture. Lamin Sanneh (2) points out that no other act of the missionary empowers people and dignifies their culture more than Bible translation. It takes people seriously and says to them that God speaks their language.

4. In conclusion

The total scope of Bible translation is much more than just translating a text. It is helping people to be discipled in a language they understand best. It is facilitating access to the Word of God, which has everything in it that everyone needs for salvation and growth in the knowledge of God.

These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life. John 20:31

To have the truth and not proclaim it, or make it accessible to others, is to deny it.

A version of this paper was originally presented to a Wycliffe Australia Regional Conference in October 2003.


(1) Windsor, Paul. ‘Reality’ (BCNZ) 2002.

(2) Sanneh, L. Encountering the West: Christianity & the Global Cultural Process: The African Dimension, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993).

David Nicholls is Associate Director of Wycliffe Australia.

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