Guarding and proclaiming the unchanging truth in a changing world

A perspective from two bible translators on the importance of Sola Scriptura

Ross and Lyndal Webb have served with Wycliffe Bible Translators since 1982. They spent 17 years in Papua New Guinea with the Irumu people, translating the New Testament and the Psalms. After returning to Australia for just 3 years, they relocated to Vanuatu where they served as directors of Bible translation for 11 years. Since 2015, they have continued in Vanuatu in a small language group on Epi Island. They have helped to finish a translation that was started over 30 years ago for the Lewo people.

Why are you so passionate about Bible Translation?

We are passionate about Bible translation because without Scripture there will be no new Christians, and existing Christians won’t be able to grow. People need to hear God’s Word in as close to perfect communication as possible, in a language that makes the best sense to them. This is important so that they can work out how to respond to Jesus in ways appropriate to their culture.  It needs to be the local Christians who work out what it looks like for someone in their culture to live as a Christian. Missionaries can help them to figure this out, but they shouldn’t have the final say; what will do it best is for local Christians to have a good understanding of God’s Word. Local Christians are the ones who need to work out what it looks like for someone in their culture to live as a Christian. Missionaries can help them to figure this out but shouldn’t have the final say; God’s Word understood well is what will do it best.

This year we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the reformation. Why is Sola scriptura so important?

Scripture alone is important because there is nothing else worth standing on. The only legitimate authority that a Christian missionary has, or any Christian for that matter, is the Word of God. If we don’t take Scripture as our supreme authority then we are wasting people’s time; in our village it would be our word against their tradition and any NGO who breezes through. But if the arguments come from Scripture, then the culture must answer to it, missionaries aside.

What does a person gain when they surrender themselves to the supreme authority of the word of God?

It’s a total game changer; you gain the kingdom! It happens slowly though. In Vanuatu, people don’t question the authority of God’s word intellectually as we do in the West; the major worldview change that needs to happen here is seeing God as having exclusive ownership of them, and his word as the supreme authority over them. This is where amazing freedom is found. We have seen people come to realise that they aren’t bound by the traditions that their culture dictates. It is a slow process of chipping away, but to see people surrendering themselves to the supreme authority of God’s Word is what we long to see more of.

How then do you help people move from having God’s Word in their hands to having it in their hearts as their ultimate authority?

Ah! This is the million-dollar question and as Bible translators it’s really the goal from the very beginning. You can produce a Bible for a language group, but the only people who will buy your Bible are your friends. That’s an overstatement, but it means that in our context the job is really about building relationships and about discipleship. It’s about helping people to look at the Bible and listen to it, to take it seriously as a message from God and to see that it is life changing. We try to help people see that it is all about relationship with God, and to raise up locals who will evangelise their communities.

Helping children read the Bible and love Jesus is strategic. If children grow up with the Word of God, then their impact on the village could be quite profound. But overall the task is huge; we live in one village of 300 people, and there are seven other villages just within this language group. It is especially difficult because these are oral cultures. People don’t particularly value books; many don’t read, or can’t read easily, so it’s very counter cultural to live by reading a book! We must keep remembering, like any ministry, that this is part of God’s doing; we must keep trusting him and praying.

Psalm 40:3 has been of particular comfort to us as we persevere: 'many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.’

We have access to lots of great English translations. Are there any dangers in that?

We Westerners have an abundance of English translations, just like we have an abundance of everything! The first danger is taking our wealth and resources for granted. These are a gift from God and something to be grateful for, but there is a danger of sitting back and loving our luxury of plenty without seriously asking ourselves what we will do with all of our resources. 

Secondly, it is probably true to say that the more you have of something, the more critical you become of what you have. We are fortunate to have an abundance of good and overall accurate translations of the Bible, but there is a danger of becoming petty and idealistic about the translations we have at our fingertips. Really there is no such thing as a perfect translation and there are many people in the world who don’t have a single one in their language.

How do we guard against losing our value of the authority of Scripture?

We must keep reading it humbly, listening to Jesus and actively choosing to live by it. It’s precisely because we have such good resources for understanding Scripture that we are all the more responsible to do this.

How might Christians support the work of Bible translation so that more people might come to know that Scripture is supremely authoritative?

First of all, don’t discount it as a career! Learn about it, contemplate it, and pray about it. Encourage others to do the same. If you decide it isn’t for you, then be an advocate for Bible translation and keep mission on your Church agenda. The lead pastor needs to be the one commending mission and showing that this is what God is on about in his world, otherwise your congregation will just view it as another church department. Most of all pray with us, that through the work of Bible translation many more people will see Scripture to be God’s authoritative Word for this life and the next.

This interview was originally published in the 2017 edition of Societas - The annual student magazine publication of Moore College, Sydney, Australia. It is republished here with permission.

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