Incarnation as Translation Metaphor

Seasoned linguist and Bible translator David Frank recently blogged about various Bible translation metaphors over on the Better Bibles Blog. He concludes by saying,

When it comes to Bible translation, my guiding metaphor is that of the incarnation: The Word became flesh. I see the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in a lot of different shades of flesh and a lot of different sounding languages, to speak to, and act on behalf of, a lot of different people.

There is, however, a critique to be offered concerning incarnation as a metaphor for Bible translation and ministry in general. While incarnation is the pattern adopted by God the Son in redemption, is it necessarily a pattern to emulate in translation or ministry? Is the Son’s incarnation descriptive or prescriptive?

J. Todd Billings in a lecture entitled “Ministry in Union with Christ: A Constructive Critique of Incarnational Ministry” has proposed that “the language of incarnation might be helpfully replaced with ‘the more biblically faithful and theologically dynamic language of ministry as participation in Christ.’” Billings’ concern is that incarnational ministry “tends to conflate the unique incarnation with our process of learning a culture.”

“Ultimately, our own lives are not the good news,” concluded Billings. “In the participation ministry model, we bear witness to Jesus Christ, who is the good news.”

Is “participation in Christ” as useful as a “guiding metaphor” as incarnation? What would it mean for Bible translation to participate in Christ rather than seek to incarnate him anew in “a lot of different sounding languages”? What is the best metaphor for Bible translation?

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12 Responses to Incarnation as Translation Metaphor

  1. David Frank says:

    Drew, I was not aware of the argument by J. Todd Billings against incarnational ministry. I did check out a summary of what he is saying, since you brought it to our attention. I’m sure this discussion of important topics in Christianity and missions will continue. Let me just clarify that I didn’t mean to emphasize the translator’s role, or any missionary role, though it is hard to remove those from the equation, I’m sure. I meant to say that the Logos became flesh one time, more than two thousand years ago, as a Jewish person in a Palestine where the Jews were subjugated by the Romans and the languages spoken in that environment were Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. For the most part we don’t even know what Jesus’ actual words were, because we only have them in Greek translation. I’m sure Jesus didn’t look as European as the pictures that we normally see of him. His incarnation was for all people, and through translation–which was taking place before Jesus’ time and continued immediately after Jesus’ time on earth–the message by him and about him can be presented to the intended global audience in a form they can relate to, so that they understand that God was speaking not just to the Jews thousands of years ago but is speaking to us today.

    • drew says:

      Dr. Frank, I’m glad you stopped by to offer a follow-up. I think you’re right about this being an ongoing discussion. I only hope to participate in the conversation in some small way as we work through these issues together. So, thank you!

      Let me just clarify that I didn’t mean to emphasize the translator’s role, or any missionary role…

      Absolutely. Even so, I’m pondering the applicability of the incarnation metaphor to the translation itself.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Billings’ concern is that incarnational ministry “tends to conflate the unique incarnation with our process of learning a culture.”

    It’s probably good to see the differences between “the unique incarnation” and “our process of learning a culture.” But isn’t it also good not too sharply to separate these as two non-overlapping things? What I mean is that the Jewish Jesus, so unique, did also learn, did grow into different sorts of culture. Luke 2:40 and 2:52 are pretty explicit about this. I imagine he learned to read and to hear the sort of Greek that Luke used to write and to translate his non-Greek words by. So did his incarnation stop the instant he was a fetus or when he was born of his mother? And aren’t there things translators now can learn from the incarnation? As T. S. Eliot once said, “All cases are unique and very similar to others.”

    • drew says:

      J. K., thanks for leaving your thoughts. After reading your comment, I wondered to what extend we might see contemporary vernacular Bible translation as typological of the unique incarnation of the Son of God. Is there the same danger of conflation in a typological view? In this view the Son of God would become the type (read: pattern) for contemporary Bible translation. Typology at least has solid biblical theological precedent.

      • J. K. Gayle says:

        Is there the same danger of conflation in a typological view? In this view the Son of God would become the type (read: pattern) for contemporary Bible translation. Typology at least has solid biblical theological precedent.

        Yes, there is the danger you mention. More than that, there are the dangers of any type, stereotype, or even prototype that translators might resort to. Who could sum up, could have a tidy or systematic theory — whether theological or otherwise — on the phenomenon of “the unique incarnation of the Son of God”? Now what I’m asking is whether the translators starting and ending with this “type” could do anything more than just project into it what it is and what it is not. This is the problem with prototype theory in the first place.

        All I was trying to suggest, to begin with, was the “metaphor” of “incarnation” (even the unique one of Jesus) does not need to be viewed as static, as something entirely different from ordinary human learning, again speaking metaphorically. It’s not like there’s a science of “the unique incarnation of the Son of God” that would keep this “thing” hermetically sealed from models that we call learning. If Jesus really did become and was really a learner and was a real becomer, and if he really was incarnated uniquely, then why not let David Frank and other Bible readers and translators see things this way: “I see the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in a lot of different shades of flesh and a lot of different sounding languages, to speak to, and act on behalf of, a lot of different people”?

  3. David Frank says:

    Drew, I’m going to take the opportunity to say a little more. I’m sure there is a lot of literature on incarnational ministry that I am not aware of, and I am not in a position to defend everything that might go on under that rubric, nor debate with J. Todd Billings. But I want to add something from the scriptures to what we are talking about here. I consider Paul to be a model for mission outreach, and he expressed his approach in I Corinthians 9:20-23 as follows:

    “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

    I always keep that in mind as a foundation for missions and Bible translation. I see Paul following the Messiah’s incarnational approach. I want to follow Paul’s approach, which involves also following Christ. Paul adds a couple of chapters later, in I Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Jesus called people to follow him and be his disciple.
    Jesus told people to take up their crosses and follow him. Both Paul and Peter say that we should share in the sufferings of Christ. So even though there’s no way that anything we could do that would be anywhere near what Christ did for us, including not only his incarnation but also his substitutionary death on the cross, we are still told to follow his example.

    • drew says:

      Wonderful thoughts, Dr. Frank! There is perhaps a greater danger of conflation in individuals’ consideration of themselves incarnate through contextualization than with the application of an incarnational metaphor to Bible translation. Still, as you point out, incarnation/contextualization is a clearly laid out in the NT.

      So even though there’s no way that anything we could do that would be anywhere near what Christ did for us, including not only his incarnation but also his substitutionary death on the cross, we are still told to follow his example.

      Absolutely spot on.

      Billings might respond that we unwittingly deemphasize the unique of Son with our incarnational language.

  4. David Frank says:

    One other thing to add… After I wrote the above, I clicked on “About” and then remembered where I know you from. It is good to be in contact again. I’m sure we don’t have any argument here, but I did want to add some clarification. I encourage you to keep I Cor. 9:20-23 in mind as an encouragement and motivation. But it’s not about us; it’s about Christ.

  5. Jim U. says:

    I’m not really comfortable with the “incarnational” language. I understand it, but I think it confuses the unique work of Christ with our work. But I appreciate David’s clarifications and can agree with how he’s using the term, yet prefer “imitation” language.

    • drew says:

      I always appreciate your thoughts, Jim. I know Michael Horton is equally not fond of incarnational language; but when blogging, I couldn’t find an article where it discusses it. I know I’ve heard him offer critiques on the White Horse Inn.

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