Thirty-two years ago my wife and I were students at a newly established missionary school called Baptist Bible Translators Institute (BBTI). I was also trying to raise support to go to the mission field when our specialized training ended. One pastor was having a difficult time understanding me (maybe because I was speaking Yankee) as I explained the phonetics, culture, and language learning classes at BBTI. He said I was wasting time at this school and should just get on to the field. In desperation I asked, “Pastor, how many Baptist missionaries do you know who are translating the Bible?” He answered, “None.” I replied, “That is exactly why I need to be at BBTI!” I wish I could say that the lights came on in his mind; however, I think he stayed in the dark about linguistic training and Baptist involvement in Bible translation.
The attitude of many in those days was, “Let the Wycliffe Bible Translators take care of that work; you just go and build Baptist churches.” There was something radically wrong with that idea then, and it is still wrong today. Aren’t Baptists also commanded to go where Christ has not been named? This requires Bible translation. Without doubt, Wycliffe has been the leader in this field for more than half a century. Furthermore, they are very good at what they do. Nevertheless, many of us do not agree with their translation methods or the finished product. They base their translations on the Critical Text (the Greek text of the modern English versions, the Catholic versions, and the Bible of the Jehovah Witnesses). We believe a translation should be based on the Received Text, the one that underlies our King James Bible. Wycliffe’s method, often called “dynamic equivalent translation,” produces a less literal Bible, one we might call a paraphrase. Yes, we disagree with them – but not too loudly. We fear they might ask, “Okay, what are you fundamental, King James Bible Baptists doing to get the Scriptures into the languages that have never had one verse of God’s word?” We might say, “Gulp! Well, we aren’t doing much, but if we were to do it, we’d do it right!”
In recent years more Baptists have taken a stand for the Received Text and the Authorized Version and are no longer saying, “Let Wycliffe do it.” Some are even saying, “Let us do it!” I am happy to report that today there are more Baptists involved in Bible translation than in the past, and our interest in reaching Bibleless people groups is growing. Baptists have recently been involved in Bible translation in Spanish, Thai, Lao, Mongolian, Korean, Croatian, Pidgin, Japanese, etc. These projects are what we would call revisions, or retranslations. These languages already have Bibles, albeit questionable ones. They were probably translated from the Critical Greek Text—or perhaps from the Received Text, but contain some unacceptable Critical Text readings. These projects, although needed, do not reduce the number of languages (probably more than four thousand) that have no Scripture. In other words, Baptists have yet to do very much in the area of pioneer work in virgin territory.
It is easy to talk about translating the Bible, but actually doing it is extremely difficult. It requires a commitment of decades, and there are many obstacles for those attempting this noble endeavor. Let me briefly outline some of the steps, beginning when the missionary arrives on his field of service. His first challenge is to learn the trade language and culture of the country. This probably takes at least two years. He next moves to the area of the country where the target language is spoken. These people are sometimes hostile toward outsiders, and it is often a struggle to obtain permission to live among them. They are seldom located in easy to reach places, and the living conditions are usually very primitive. Now the missionary learns a second culture and a new, unwritten language. Without the benefit a language school or teachers, he must divide the mass of sounds into words and devise an alphabet that accurately describes the sound system. This requires that he know how to learn languages; unfortunately, our Baptist colleges do not teach this vital skill. The Wycliffe translators are very good at this, as are others such as New Tribes Mission. They are successful because they are trained to be!
We Baptists are beginning to convert our talk about people groups and Bible translation into reality by preparing our missionaries as Wycliffe does. Increasingly, churches are sending their missionaries to BBTI for training for Bible translation work in various parts of the world. We must prepare and send missionaries who are willing to pay the price, missionaries with the right Bible, the right method, and the right doctrine. Then we can say, “Let the Baptists do it!”