One of the things that developed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was a move to modernise the language used to describe matters of the Christian faith in a way that was more accessible to the world. This is, I think, an important element of the New Evangelisation, and I heartily agree with Scotty McDonald when he calls for Christians to talk “like real people,” and I support him when he describes himself as someone whose goal it is “to tell the greatest story ever told in a language that speaks to the hearts of young people.” Quite simply, the proclamation of the Gospel in the language of the other is what St Paul would call “becoming all things for all people.” (1 Corinthians 9).
We cannot remain static in our language and still be evangelical, so we must translate the essential content of the Gospel out of Christianese, that niche language of Christians, and into the language of today. This is not necessarily “average English”, it may still use copious jargon if one is appealing to, for instance, a philosophical crowd, or a scientific one, as I noted in “Theology in the Language of Today.” In any case, one must adapt to the requirements of the one being ministered to.
There are two reasons why we must show some restraint. One is fairly obvious, and that is that translation almost invariably produces imprecision, and this can certainly be a problem with some of the areas of theology more prone to paradoxical statements, like Christology, theology of the Trinity, and perhaps areas like soteriology (study of salvation) when engaging in ecumenical endeavours between Catholics and Protestants. With due care, however, and noting that the Gospel is a fairly simple and “well-understood” message, I do not think that this issue is insurmountable.
The second reason is, in my opinion, a thornier matter. I do not think that everything can be translated out of Christianese because it may be impossible to translate the Gospel accounts out of their historical context. Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd, but that might mean close to nothing if one has never set foot on a farm. Peter writes that Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed, but nobody I have ever met has seen a Passover sacrifice with a lamb. These statements, as well as countless others in the Scriptures, are foreign to us, and yet it is unclear that we can actually translate them.
The central issue here is this: that whilst the Word is eternal, it was made flesh in a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, preached, died and was resurrected in a particular time, and all the accounts we have of him are of that time. Whilst we know that the temporally-bound, the particular, and the eternal can in principle be separated, we attempt to do so at our own peril. Hence, we still have our Archbishop with his crosier, which is shepherding instrument, at least symbolically. At least we use the language of “pastor” commonly in English now, there are other symbols which now are fairly arcane.
Therefore, we cannot simply translate Christianese into English with all matters, we are going to have to put in the effort of teaching the People of God the conceptual-linguistic framework of New Testament times, and earlier Israelite history. The Passover Lamb cannot be understood without the story of the Exodus, and we can find no translation for such a unique and particular practice. I cite this just as one example – in truth, I would go so far as to say that we must have an almost Pharisaic understanding of the Law of Moses to understand not only Leviticus, Deuteronomy and parts of Exodus, but also the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and even the one to the Philippians. Christianity is not a religion “of the book”, but it is a religion with a book. That book is old, but if we are right in saying it is inspired, we cannot change it.
This is not to say that analogues to things like the paschal lamb do not exist. It means that we must always be weary that any analogy we use, any translation we make of the language and of the culture, must be thought of as an imperfect copy. Anybody who has heard a biblical scholars speak will have heard lines like “most translations say … but the Greek/Hebrew says ...” It is part and parcel of translation that we get an imperfect copy, something that hopefully conveys the basics, but it is not the whole thing. Those same biblical scholars will tell us: we need the originals. They really make a difference.
Let me give an instance of where attempts at “dynamical equivalence” have failed. One is in replacing the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with something else, famously “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” This is a pretty extreme case because there is little sense in which the two are actually equivalent, but it is a good example case because it showcases something I think is important: some complain that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is patriarchal because Father and Son are masculine nouns, and God is not really a man. Jesus is, so they might grant “Son”, but not “Father.” That was just their patriarchal culture's way of expressing lordship.
I do not think that this critique is, at bottom, valid. But let me suppose for a moment that it is – so what? If we are to understand what the Trinitarian formula means, we are simply going to have to immerse ourselves in the culture from which we got those words from. We must learn to think like a first century Palestinian Jew to grasp what they mean. If we try and translate it to make it politically correct, trying something like “Parent, Child and Holy Spirit”, we will be losing something. If we try and go for a functional translation, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”, then we lose something – probably not the same thing, but something nonetheless.
My point is simple: we are trying to do a noble thing when we take the Gospel, take the fullness of the Christian message and take our theology, into modern language. We have to, really, because mission is what the Church is about. Yet we must be weary about imprecisions that come about, because translations are usually imperfect. Still more weary must we be that we always go back to the original, and ultimately, are capable of relating the original to those we minister to – because it is the original Jesus that we are seeking to bring them, and we are not the ones who get to decide what parts of Jesus Christ of Nazareth belong to him because he is from Nazareth, or which are his because he is the Christ. So we give them the fullness of him, and try and explain as we go along.