The Double-Edged Sword: Theology and Linguistics

I believe that at times Satan tries to convince us that the best way to honor God is to fight with one another. We criticise one another and sometimes pit two doctrines, or two pastors, or two methodologies against each other unnecessarily. In this vein, we have sometimes heard in the missions community a criticism of linguistics/linguistic education OR on the other side, a criticism of theology/theological education. If you know Dave and I at all, you probably know that we have pursued both theology and linguistics. And in doing so, we have discovered that training in linguistics and theology as both advantageous, and even essential, for those pursuing Bible translation. 
The importance of linguistic education
For example, in the language we work in, the sole way to differentiate between the sentence “Jesus rose again” and “Jesus did not rise again” is through the pitch of one’s voice (tone). All the consonants and vowels are the same, but depending on the pitch of one’s voice, the stumbling missionary (me) will either communicate something true or something completely false. 

It’s funny because all through Bible college and all through seminary, I was taught how to do faithful exegesis, how to use excellent commentaries, and how to teach the Word in an understandable way. And yet, no one ever taught me how tone can affect meaning in many of the world’s languages. I received no counsel to keep the pitch of my voice a bit lower when talking about the resurrection or else spread heresy.

The reason? It’s because the goal of seminary was to teach me to learn Greek and Hebrew, translate it into my mother tongue and then teach it in my mother tongue. Understanding the role of tone in an African language was outside the scope of what the seminary could offer. And that’s OK.

The importance of theological education
On the other side of the coin, in Cameroon, I found myself at times teaching three Bible studies in three different languages on the same day. One Bible study was in French with a woman in our village from a different people group. At another study, I would read a children’s Bible in French then translate it in Bakoum for the neighborhood kids. Lastly was the study of the book of Mark with my son who has been known to ask why we would pray for people to be saved if God chooses people to be saved beforehand (thankfully that study was in English).

It was days like these that I would thank the Lord for all the papers that I was asked to write in seminary about this theological position or that. With the French speaker, I could go to the verses that talked about the sufficiency of Scripture and explain why the Bible was so important. With the village children, I could explain to the that we could trust God as a fair judge who doesn’t take bribes. With my son I could draw from all those papers that I wrote on God’s sovereignty in the ends as well as in the means. With all the headache of living overseas and pulling my hair out with other languages, I was thankful for the knowledge of the Scriptures that I had received in seminary.

Can’t have one without the other
Asking a Bible translator to choose between linguistics or theological education is like asking him to choose between his toothpaste and toothbrush. Linguistics education and a solid theological foundation work hand-in-hand to help the translator do his job well. Tone in African languages is outside the realm of theology and the various views of the end times is outside the realm of linguistics. And that’s OK. A person shouldn’t have to choose between their toothbrush and their toothpaste and the missionary shouldn’t have to choose between theological education and knowledge of how non-English/non-Greek and Hebrew languages work.

Schools that get it
Fortunately, there are schools that understand the necessity of equipping the translator in both of these domains:

The Master’s Seminary

This seminary is based out of Los Angeles, California has as its mission “to advance the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ by equipping godly men to be pastors and/or trainers of pastors for excellence in Christian ministry.” They have recently broadened their scope to include training men to be pastor-translators. Their director, Dr. Aaron Shryock, writes of the importance of both linguistics and theological training: “Instead of pitting one tradition against another, we should recognize the contribution of both and bring them together at the start of the translator’s training. That’s what we seek to do at the Tyndale Center.” For more information about this program, you can visit their website here. As a Master’s University alumnus, I am thrilled to see the burden for the Bibleless on this campus.

Southern Seminary and the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics 
Two other schools that have greatly prepared us for our work in Bible translation have been The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) and the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (Dallas, TX). These two schools work together to ensure that their students have both a solid theological and linguistics foundation. In fact, they have a dual degree program in missions and Bible translation that results in students receiving both an MDiv from Southern and an MA in linguistics from GIAL. Their website explains that this program is “designed to produce graduates qualified to serve in specialist cross-cultural roles in Bible translation, ethnology, descriptive linguistics, or in other cross-cultural service.”

Another way the Devil likes to sow discord among missionaries and church leaders is to blind us to the beauty of the body of Christ working together. He replaces an awe for this beauty by trying to tie our allegiance to one good thing at the expense of the other. There is no need to roll our eyes at the importance of linguistic study from the pulpit, nor to scowl at theology from the jungle. I appreciate these schools because they see their need for both disciplines.


Author: Stacey Hare

Stacey is a servant of Jesus Christ as well as a wife, mom, linguist, and Bible translator among the Kwakum people of Cameroon.