When the need for Bible translation is presented, well-meaning Christians sometimes ask, “Why not just teach people English and give them an English Bible?” After all, we have a perfect copy of the scriptures. It works for us; shouldn’t it work for the rest of the world, too? But the teach-them-English method is inconsistent with Christ’s mandate. Jesus said to teach the Gospel and to teach them to observe all things. He did not tell us to teach them English!
The teach-them-English approach is impractical. There are language groups consisting of millions of speakers that have no scriptures. But let’s just consider a smaller group of fifty thousand. Suppose we had fifty English teachers willing to teach them. (Although supposing is a big waste of time. If we can’t find one person to go as a missionary, how are we going to find fifty dedicated people to go as English teachers?) These fifty thousand people live in many different villages, some of which will be very inaccessible to foreigners. It is more practical to give those fifty thousand people the Bible in their own language. The printed Word has no limitations; it can go anywhere at any time.
With the teach-them-English method, you face the unrealistic task of motivating the people to learn English. The first thing you would have to tell them is “Listen you guys. If you want to know God’s message to you, be in your seats every day at our English school for the next three or four years.” Can we really expect them to abandon their crops and animals and let their family suffer so that they can learn a new language? Surely, at least one of the pupils would ask, “Hey, how come God loves you so much and gave you a Bible, but He doesn’t love us that much?”
Anyone that would propose giving people an English Bible, planning to teach them to read and understand English, must have never learned a new language himself. Even if the foreigner could learn some English, it is going to take him several years to learn and understand a book as deep as the Bible. The following experiment will show you what I mean. You probably studied French, Spanish, Latin, or Greek in high school or college. Try doing your morning Bible reading in that language. You will probably find it inadequate and reach for the Bible in your heart language. How, then, can we expect other people to read a Bible they only partially understand?
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. And the second is to love our neighbor as our self. The Good Samaritan story teaches us that our neighbor is the person we see in need. Brother Don Fraser, founder of Bearing Precious Seed, taught us a practical application of this story. It means that if we have a Bible and our neighbor doesn’t, we should be compelled by love to give him one. Love demands we go the extra mile to give people what we enjoy—an understandable Bible. To do otherwise would be very insensitive.
Forcing people to learn a new language and read a foreign Bible is ineffective. A person’s worldview, what he knows and believes, is stored in his mind and expressed in his first language. He may learn a trade language such as English for communication with outsiders, but his concept of spiritual things stays in his heart language and culture.
It is true that someone must learn a new language and culture. But is it the responsibility of the native or the missionary? Has God commanded the lost to come to us on our terms, or are we commanded to take the message to them? A missionary can study linguistics, culture, and Bible translation, invest time learning the native language and culture, and effectively teach the people God’s Word in a language they understand. Anything less than this is irresponsible. The native church, equipped with their own Bible, can perpetuate the work long after the missionary has gone. But with the teach-them-English way, the work ceases when the missionary or English teacher leaves.
The policy of withholding God’s written word from people in their native tongue was the practice of the Roman Church, not that of the church of Jesus Christ. Rome didn’t kill John Wycliffe for translating the Bible in the language of his people, but it did show its hatred forty years later by digging him up, putting him on trial, and then burning his bones. What did Rome do to William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English? It hunted him like a criminal, forcing him to translate outside of his country. Thank God he completed the New Testament and smuggled it back into England. But a so-called friend, a loyal papist, betrayed Tyndale, and he was strangled and burned at the stake. These men suffered to give us a Bible in our language; shouldn’t we be willing to do what it takes to give it to others in theirs? There were German and Spanish Bibles long before the King James Bible was translated, but aren’t you glad Martin Luther or Casiodoro de Reina did not say, “Teach them my language and give them my Bible”?