An historic summit took place down the hall from my office yesterday. It was fitting that it took place on the anniversary of the Reformation, because this event has the potential to spark as cataclysmic a shift as did a man nailing his declarations to a door in Germany. That day didn’t seem monumental in 1517, and to those attending the meeting yesterday, the day may have seemed somewhat ordinary – but it was not.
I am the product of Bible translation – in more ways than one. Just after Christmas in 1975, my parents left their tiny country parish church in snowy Indiana to attend SIL in sunny Dallas, TX. A simple move – a seismic shift. That move would set in motion a global paradigm shift, not just for me, but also for an unsuspecting tribe of people in West Africa. My parents became Bible translators, following the footsteps of thousands before them to bring the Word of God to an unknown people in the yet-unwritten language of their hearts.
Yesterday, all of the “powers that be” in Bible translation and Scripture use came together under the leadership of one humble woman with a passion for Scripture accessibility and the access to resources to help make it possible. The conference room was full of presidents, CEOs and board chairmen of Wycliffe, SIL, the Bible Society, the Seed Company and so many more. Some would see it as a veritable treasure-house of power and decision making ability. But I believe God saw it as a toolbox – instruments He could use to complete the task He started 496 years ago to the day.
These Instruments in His Redemption Plan came together under the vision of making the Scriptures ubiquitously available to everyone, everywhere, by any means – for free. We live in an age where that is possible – a possibility that Luther and his cohorts only dreamed of. Luther, among other declarations, said a resounding “NO!” to the sale of grace and the exclusivity of the Scriptures. A pontifical minority were profiting from the Scriptures and their interpretation, and Luther fought back by saying, among other things, that God’s Word should be available freely to all, in their own tongue. That was a blessing for the Germans, but we English-speakers still had to wait a while.
A few years later, William Tyndale caught the vision and ran with it – literally – for his life. The Bible, he said, would be made available to everyone, so that “the boy that driveth the plow [will] know more of the Scriptures than [the pope].” Heresy, they said – and they killed him. He never even saw the fulfillment of his dream. If Hebrews had not yet been written, he would have been listed in chapter 11 – by faith William Tyndale saw a day when common, ordinary farmers would read the Scripture in their own tongue and allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate it to their hungry hearts. Today there are more English-language Bibles in print that any other book – period. William, we are grateful.
Fast forward a few centuries…
Bible translation has been going on around the world for decades. Remote groups of people are given the Scriptures in the language of their heart, making God and His unchanging Word come alive to those who either never knew He existed or who believed He only spoke the language of another. My life was dramatically altered as a result of that movement of God. It is powerful and effective. But it isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds.
I now work in the same country where my parents translated God’s Word. I see the realities of Scripture use in Africa. Poverty, lack of literacy and corruption in the church create significant barriers to the accessibility of the Scriptures to the common person. The barriers to Scripture use and accessibility in Africa directly mirror that of medieval Europe. With my own ears, I have heard pastors say that they don’t want people to be able to read the Scriptures in their mother tongue on their own, because it will diminish their power in the church. I have heard the misinterpretation of Scripture preached from a non-mother-tongue translation (in this case, English) and witnessed the heresies that result, holding people in spiritual darkness. I have seen the profiteering from the Word as wealthy preachers gain from the ignorance and fear of the common farmer. I have watched ordinary citizens groan because they cannot afford a copy of the Book they desire more than any other. Where are the Luthers and the Tyndales of our age who will fight, and even die, to break this darkness and release the Light of His Truth??
Yesterday they sat down the hall from me. Luther and Tyndale had the recently invented printing press to carry their dream to reality. We have digital media. No longer does literacy have to be a barrier. No longer do bulky paper books have to be smuggled behind iron and bamboo curtains. No longer are the poor, the blind or the outcast unable to access His Truth.
The questions are real, I know. It DOES cost money to print Bibles or to produce audio players. But the resources exist. There are those poised to fund the distribution of billions of copies if the distributors will get out of the way. What about the subsistence farmers’ ability to interpret the Scripture with accuracy? That’s what they asked Tyndale too – while he was tied to the stake with flames licking his knees. Let’s be honest – it is HIS WORD! He is big enough to preserve the integrity of His Word! What about accuracy and quality? By all means, let’s use care in translation and distribution. It is God’s Word, after all. But let’s not let care stand in the pathway of progress. Look at all of the horrible translations and paraphrases we’ve endured in English! That didn’t stop the Truth. Again – God is big enough to preserve His Word.
I have watched, through tears, as women, blind from childhood, hear God’s Word proclaimed through a machine and their darkened eyes light up with joy. I have heard women, who have never learned to read, and quite frankly, WILL NEVER learn to read, listen to God’s Word as they exclaim to one another, “God speaks Themne?!?” I have listened as uneducated, deceived women hear the Truth with their own ears and discuss amongst themselves how they have been wrong about God and his anger toward them as women, hearing for the first time how He values them as women, and created them in His own image. The Truth will set them free.
My prayer for the Luthers and Tyndales who gathered down the hall from me yesterday, perhaps unknowingly commemorating Luther’s historic move in their own way, is that they too would have the courage to drive a nail in the door of the global church and say, “Enough!” May they hold fast to Luther’s 62nd and 63rd theses – “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.” – and in so doing may they make accessible all the treasure of our Father, by whatever means possible, at whatever cost may come.