In the world of missions, anything that is “Western” or “traditional” is bad, while whatever is “contextualized” and “innovative” is good. So when it comes to old creeds and confessions of the Christian faith, it is a no-brainer for many missionaries. Don’t translate them. Don’t teach them. It is a paternalistic waste of time that smacks of cultural and theological imperialism. How could some antiquated Western document about Christian doctrine be appropriate for reaching Buddhists, Muslims, or animists in today’s world? The old language and sentence structure in these documents are difficult enough for Westerners, so how could they be understandable and useful for those with little to no background in Christianity, or Western culture and languages?
The rhetorical answer to those questions is obvious but I am convinced that there are positive reasons to translate the best and most enduring documents of the church of the past into the languages of the global church of today. The packaging may be old, but the content is good. As a missionary and a church history teacher, I am always thinking about how we can take the good stuff from the past and from other places in the world and make it beneficial for the global church. In my case, I am particularly thinking about the churches in Thailand, but the following reasons should be relevant for many contexts in the world today. I want to suggest three ways that translations of the older creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the faith (as well as other writings) can benefit the global church.
1. Connection with the Global Church
When people from Muslim, Buddhist, or animistic backgrounds come to faith, they may have no idea about the extent of the global family of faith that God has made them part of. Many people only know their own church, or perhaps their own network of churches or national denomination. In a society where Christians are in the minority, it is easy to feel alone. But when you realize that there is a huge global family of God that stretches around the world and through the ages, it is encouraging. You feel less alone with the knowledge that you have many more brothers and sisters than just those few who are nearby. If you have an historic confession of faith in your hand and know that many thousands and millions of people in the past and today have the same faith as you do, that can be a very encouraging thought.
2. Inspiration for New Creeds & Confessions
In some places, it may be appropriate to translate the old confessions and use them as-is, just like they have been used in the West. But the cultural, linguistic, and theological context in which those expressions of faith were written has changed. The way you communicate the faith in 21st century Thailand needs to be different than it would have been in 17th century England.
But just because we wouldn’t express our faith like someone else doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them. Christians have been experimenting with the best way to express their faith for nearly 2000 years so why would we want to ignore everything that has been done in the past and sit down with a blank piece of paper? Why re-invent the wheel instead of building upon and modifying previous conceptions of the wheel? As Christians in the global church see what has been done in the past, they can get inspiration for what might be done now for their people in their context.
As a Presbyterian, I subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, but all the translations of the Shorter Catechism that I’ve seen in Thai are a bit clunky and awkward. It is not a Thai way of expressing things, and the sentences, categories, and vocabulary are difficult to understand. I am glad that the Shorter Catechism is in Thai but its usefulness for discipleship in Thai churches is limited. That’s why I am working together with two Thai Christian brothers to write a new Thai-language catechism that preserves the essential system of doctrine from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but addresses the faith to a modern Thai audience, with Thai turns of phrases and categories that make more sense for the Thai context. We are not doing a new translation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, but we look to it for inspiration and guidance as we draft a new catechism in Thai from the ground up.
3. Reducing Dependency on the West
If we want to avoid paternalism, we should make as many resources of the historic Christian faith available to Christians in their native languages so that they can participate in the global Christian conversation. This is not theological imperialism which says, “You must adhere to the way it has been done in the West.” Rather, it is saying, “Here is our joint heritage of faith that the rest of the global church is looking at. Have a read and join the conversation.” If you don’t have those creeds and confessions in the local languages, then the churches outside the West have to depend on an intermediary to summarize and interpret those documents, subject to the priorities and biases of that intermediary. That makes the global church forever dependent on the few who know the original languages. If no one had ever translated the writings of Martin Luther or John Calvin into English, then English-speaking Christians would be forever dependent on speakers of German, French, and Latin to share the bits and pieces that those people think are important. But when the writings of those Reformers were translated into English, it opened up the riches of their writings for many more people.
If you provide access to the primary sources by translating them, then leaders of churches around the world can see for themselves what has happened in the past. They can mine the originals for riches that can be summarized, interpreted and passed on, emphasizing the bits that are most important for their particular cultural and religious context. And when someone wants to check their interpretation, they can simply look at the source and not just take their word for it.
There is a lot we can learn about the Christian faith from historic creeds, confessions, catechisms, and other writings. There's absolutely no reason to not make them available in as many languages as possible. We can certainly serve God without the church fathers but then it would leave a whole lot more to wonder rather than being able to look up for ourselves how others have understood the Scriptures. If you had a small group Bible study at your house, wouldn't it be fantastic to have Augustine, John Calvin, the Westminster divines, or Jonathan Edwards be present in the discussion? They are not Scripture, but maybe they can help us think about Scripture more accurately.
I feel quite privileged to have so many resources of historic and modern Christianity available at my fingertips. I'd like all my brothers and sisters in the global church to have the same.