The great auto-reformer: Scripture in the vernacular

Christianity is a form of indigenous empowerment by virtue of vernacular translation.
Ethnic self-preservation, it turns out, has a champion in missionary translation projects.
-Lamin Sanneh, Summoned from the Marin, p.217

In my studies over the past year in the history of Christian expansion in Africa, one thing has been become mightily clear.

Want to transform a culture? What do you do? Preach the gospel? Build churches? Build hospitals and schools? Dig wells? Protect them from war? Those are all good things but each requires an incredible amount of outside energy to be pumped into the system. Hospitals need a steady stream of super-skilled staff and equipment. Schools need teachers. Missionaries need an infusion of cash from far away to stay.

But one thing is like a magnificent perpetual motion machine – the translation of scripture. Translate the bible into the local language, give it’s propagation a little jump start and then step back as it spins like a whirlwind, quite literally out of control! Christianity has spread due to it’s ability to adapt itself to local cultures and the chief way it has done this is through vernacular translation – not just of the raw text, but of indigenous ideas too.

The gospel in the vernacular language is the great auto-reformer.

Some folks in the west get upset about the amount of syncretism that remains in these fresh new churches. Their theology is still a bit mixed up with some of their folk religion. I say: so what! I think it’s a small price to pay for the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ AND I think that if we are patient, those things will largely work themselves out in a few generations. The bulk of western Christian literature and understanding didn’t happen overnight and it can’t be transferred to them overnight either. Some of it is probably non-transferable, and that is maybe a good thing. With immediate access to the whole Bible and with the Holy Spirit having immediate access to them, their growth and maturity will continue. Let us pray that it does, as well as our own – in great measure.