In 2004 the Bible society movement became 200 years old. The British and Foreign Bible Society was founded in London in 1804, and from it a global movement has arisen. Today its best-known expression is the United Bible Societies (UBS), a fellowship of more than 140 national Bible societies around the globe. The UBS has played a significant role in the changes Christianity has undergone in the past two centuries. Studies about the expansion of Christianity make reference to the distinctive contribution of Bible societies to that process. Bible societies have had an influential presence in the practice of mission as an expression of the missionary thrust of the church. They have also made a decisive contribution to the theory of Christian mission, especially through the reflection of UBS agents and translators.1
Contribution to Christian Mission
The beginning of the Bible society movement had a definite British imprint when the British and Foreign Bible Society was founded on March 7,1804. But its initial vision also included a global awareness and vocation, as is evident from the following anecdote. Rev. Thomas Charles of Bala, Wales, related a story to Joseph Hughes, then secretary of the Religious Tract Society, about a little girl named Mary Jones who courageously searched for a copy of the Bible. Hughes was struck by the story and recognized the need for an organization that would put the Bible within the reach of ordinary people. He commented, "Surely a Society might be formed for the purpose and if for Wales, why not also for the Empire and the world?"2 Two centuries later and far beyond the old British Empire, Hughes's dream has become an amazing reality, as there is now a large and vigorous global family of Bible societies.
During its bicentennial celebration in August 2004-in Wales, of course-delegates reviewed the road covered thus far and committed themselves to pursue the Bible society vision throughout the twenty-first century. The motto chosen for this assembly was "God's Unchanging Word for a Changing World." The leaders of the movement today believe that the initial global mission of the founding generation was shaped by the same global thrust we find in the Lord's command to take his message "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), and in the apostolic vision of Paul "that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you" (2 Thess. 3:1).
In this article I explore the missiological significance of the Bible society movement by reviewing four distinctive marks of its historical development, namely, the participation of volunteers mobilized for mission, the belief in the translatability of the Bible, the practice of a true ecumenism beyond denominational barriers, and the search for excellence in service. In each area the Bible societies have made a significant contribution.
A Popular Movement
A key to understanding the enduring impact of the Bible society movement on Christian mission during the last two centuries is that it has been a popular movement. Although one could say that the pioneers of the Bible societies were members of an Evangelical elite with a profound sense of mission, the movement also mobilized the rank and file of churches for mission. The question of its composition has been carefully analyzed by Andrew Walls, who considers that a key for the advancement of the Christian missionary cause was "a development initiated by the British and Foreign Bible Society and copied by missionary societies, including the CMS, of establishing local auxiliaries."3
Those "local auxiliaries" became the core of a mobilizing movement both at home and abroad. As Walls remarks, "The local Bible societies had a dual function: they distributed the Bible in their own localities by arranging easy-payment subscriptions, and enrolled those who already possessed a Bible to contribute to making it available elsewhere in the world, both at home and overseas."4 The movement was inspired by two convictions: that the Word of God was intended to reach every person in the world, and that every member of the Christian community could participate and become involved in the task of getting the Word out into the world. These convictions brought about a creative implementation of the theological truth of the priesthood of all believers.
There was also an educational component for those involved with the Bible societies. Volunteers of the Bible society auxiliaries gained a well-informed global awareness. "Subscription was encouraged and sustained by a flow of information, information from and about lands with which the subscribers had had hitherto nothing to do, but in which by their subscriptions they were now personally involved."5
During my own childhood in Peru I remember discovering the periodical La Biblia en America Latina (The Bible in Latin America) on the desk of my father, who was a faithful and enthusiastic contributor to the Peruvian Bible Society. This UBS publication was one of my first sources of information about the Christian presence in other countries and continents-my introduction to global awareness!
No doubt the future of the Bible society cause depends on the ability of the movement to keep a focus on the Bible as the book for everyone everywhere, and to involve every member of the Christian church in the effort to distribute it. The "local auxiliaries" may adopt new names, and the practical ways of organizing them may have to be adapted to new situations, but these two principles-that the Bible is for everyone and that all Christians should be involved in distributing it-are worth keeping.
As a result of the information explosion in globalized societies, people today have a wide array of sources from which to learn about countries, regions, and cultures other than their own, and to become globally aware. Such awareness is more than entertaining information; it develops the perception of global realities as an opportunity to participate in what God wants to do in the world. Knowledge and wisdom are more than information, however, and the explosion of information today does not mean that people are wiser or more knowledgeable than they were in earlier days. It is the way such information is processed that can turn it into a wise, knowledgeable, and educated global awareness.
A Translating Movement
A firm belief in the "translatability" of the Gospel has grown in breadth and depth during the history of the Bible societies. Along with this belief has grown the commitment to assume all the necessary tasks related to the translation of Scriptures. A tradition in church history acknowledges the importance of the vernacular for communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It includes such outstanding figures as Jerome, Ulfilas, Cyril, Tyndale, and Luther. By the eighteenth century this tradition seems to have diminished, but it revived during the new Protestant missionary era inaugurated by the Pietists of central Europe and by the Englishman William Carey. With the coming of the Bible societies, the rhythm of Bible translation gathered speed and exploded into what it is today.
By 2004 there were 2,377 complete or partial translations of Scripture, largely because of the contributions of the UBS movement.6 With their vast experience, UBS translators have made significant conceptual and technical contributions to the church at large and to the world. It is no exaggeration to say that the science of translation as it stands today owes a great amount to Eugene Nida, whose career is closely linked to the Bible society movement of recent years. Missiology has been enriched by the remarkable work of anthropologists involved in translation such as Jacob A. Loewen, Robert G. Bratcher, Charles R. Taber, and William A. Smalley. The UBS provided them with an opportunity to fulfill a missionary call and at the same time gave them a vocation for scientific research.7
An issue of the LIBS Bulletin from 2002 is an especially eloquent proof of this contribution to translation. In the table of contents of this issue, entitled "Current Trends in Scripture Translation," the first fact that attracts our attention is the broad, international composition of the group of contributing UBS translation consultants. In the editorial presentation Phil Noss recalls that in the 1960s there were so few experts that they could all meet in the Nidas' house, but by 2000 the Triennial Translation Workshop convened almost 200 persons in Malaga, Spain.8 It included UBS translation officers, as well as scholars in the fields of Bible studies, linguistics, anthropology, oral literature, communication, and computer technology for translators.
The global reach and international character of this group is also evidence of the way in which the Bible society movement has become a global enterprise and not just a European or North American one. The movement has involved and trained a large and worldwide company of experts who not only gather for triennial global meetings but also work together on a daily basis using all modern means of communication.
As the conviction about the translatability of the Gospel has grown in depth, so has the conviction about the need to contribute to the development of indigenous forms of Christianity. At this point the local and the global come together in a unique way. The translatability of the Bible is a demonstration of the universality of its message. At the same time, this universal message finds expression in local and contextual forms of life, testimony, service to human need, and worship that are relevant to their respective contexts. Now, in 2006, we have the perspective to better appreciate this outstanding and paradoxical aspect of the Christian faith. In its universality it is a message addressed to all human beings and received by all human beings, but it takes shape in the most varied and singular cultural contexts.
In a document published by UNESCO, Jewish scholar Leon Roth noted that the Bible does not start with Abraham but with Adam.9 It is not a book exclusively for and about Jewish people, but it is a book for and about all of humankind. It is not a book created by a white dominant culture to impose its values and worldview on poor, dominated cultures. It is a book that originated in the Fertile Crescent, and it took the shape it has now in a region that was then a peripheral area of the world. When Paul wrote of his desire "that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere," the Word was then spreading from an obscure corner of the world into the center of the Roman Empire. Jesus had taught in Aramaic, but the written record of his life and teaching was set in Koine Greek, the language spoken by the majority of people in the empire. The message had to be translated because it was meant for all human beings!
This universal message took the shape of the cultural context in which it was received. When John the Evangelist used the Greek word logos, he found a meaningful term from the Greek culture to communicate the greatness and uniqueness of Jesus: "And the Word [the Logos] became flesh" (Johnl:14).Since then, the eternal unchanging Word of God has continued to become "enfleshed" in the most diverse languages and cultures. Now past the age of empire, we acknowledge that the universality of the message of the Bible is better grasped through the rich variety of cultural forms in which it finds expression. So the celebration of 200 years of Bible societies is not the celebration of the imposition of a European cultural tool on the rest of humankind but the reception of the unchanging Word in the most diverse kinds of human flesh.
There are new and difficult challenges in the translation task today. As Phil Noss states, "In the 20th century technological inventions rapidly opened the door to mass communication through new media. This is a door that the Bible societies have but slowly entered."10 Julian Sundersingh, a UBS consultant in India, reports that in the 1996 assembly at Mississauga, Ontario, the UBS agreed that "together with enthusiastic embrace of new technology there has been a change of reading and listening habits in most societies. This change demands that Bible societies seek innovative ways of presenting the Word of God to people whose lifestyle has moved from print to non-print, and also to those who may not be interested in the Bible or the life of the Church." Sundersingh's article in the LiBS Bulletin, which explores the complexities involved in this new form of translation, affirms an important principle: "Appropriateness to the medium needs to be seen both in the preparation and in the presentation of an aural text in the new medium. However this aspect of appropriateness to the media is not to be taken as license to indulge in deliberate attempts to misrepresent the message of the Biblical Scriptures."11 Thus, for instance, the American Bible Society has sponsored the launching of the CD Elementz of Life, which is a kind of holy hip-hop, "a project that hopes to reach atrisk youngsters by translating the biblical message into their pop culture language and lifestyle."12
An Ecumenical Movement
Looking back on the history of the Bible society movement, it is impossible to deny the evangelical stance of its founders and the corresponding convictions that explain what we could call the genius or the ethos of the movement. Inasmuch as some of these principles have been, and continue to be, a driving force of the movement, it is worthwhile to identify them and the way they have been worked out in the past two centuries.
An evangelical stance presupposes that the preaching of the apostolic Gospel as it is found in Scripture is what the Spirit of God uses as the source of life and truth for the birth and growth of the church. Closely connected with this stance is a conviction about the priesthood of all believers and the concern that Bibles should be available to every person, especially to every Christian believer. Part of the genius of evangelicalism is to express these convictions in a practical way by creating missionary structures through which the missionary drive can be channeled into actions of obedience.
Not long after the first Bible society was founded, its agents became the kind of truly evangelical missionaries that engaged in the distribution of Scriptures and the sowing of the Word that eventually gave fruit in new churches. Colportage has been an evangelistic method that opened the way for the presence of missionaries themselves. It was an evangelism that majored on the basics, that is, on the Bible, rather than on particular denominational tenets.
The UBS today has become one of the most ecumenical expressions of Christianity, and one of the most inclusive movements within Christianity. It is not a secret that now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ecumenism has experienced many setbacks, and the enthusiastic mood of the midtwentieth century is gone. Yet the UBS member societies continue to play a key role as platforms for common service and dialogue around the Word of God.
The UBS member societies are not conclaves of theologians who debate ecumenism at theological and philosophical levels, as some may think upon hearing the word "ecumenical." I am referring to a more practical kind of ecumenism. In my past experience as president of the UBS, I experienced this ecumenical reality in my day-to-day contacts with Bible societies around the world. Although my personal experience has been limited mostly to the Americas and Europe, my acquaintance with the Bible societies in other parts of the world through board activities and assembly experiences reinforces what I have learned through personal observation and experience. Whenever I would visit the local offices or stores of the UBS member societies, I almost invariably discovered that they were a meeting place for Christian leaders from all denominations. The societies serve all churches, and in their service they try to obtain the cooperation of all churches.
It could be said that an evangelical stance and an ecumenical vision are part and parcel of the ethos of the UBS movement. Such an ethos has been the key for the openness to the future and the flexibility to use new technologies in responding to the challenges of numerical growth and geographic reach in the movement. I find a valuable illustration of this ethos, which is at the core of the UBS identity, in the evolution of the understanding of the principle "without notes or commentary," which David Burke has examined extensively. The genius of the UBS stance is a fascinating example of the ability to maintain a principle in a creative and progressive manner, discovering new possibilities without abandoning the validity of the principle itself. In Burke's own words, "This is an extremely important principle and the controlling model for the success Bible Societies have had over the years in being able to work with and serve the Scripture needs of almost every Christian denomination and tradition within the broad spectrum of Christendom. It is precisely their model of setting aside their own particular doctrinal stances for the sake of advancing the cause with and in all the ecclesial spheres of Christendom that was the key to making the movement work."13
What the Bible societies were able to do within the framework of the "Christendom" paradigm could be the guideline for the movement as it enters into the post-Christendom era of today's global Christianity, the new setting for promoting and distributing the Bible. It is the complex world of the great Protestant denominational families, which have reached a global dimension; the world of a post-Vatican II Catholicism that has demonstrated a renewed commitment to the promotion and distribution of Scriptures; the world of the Eastern churches, which live now in a new atmosphere of freedom for the fulfillment of their mission. It is also the world of the new forms that the church has taken in contextual expressions such as the African Initiated Churches or the house church movement in China. It is the world of the so-called postdenominational churches in North America.
An Efficient Movement
This Bible society movement has been capable of enduring for more than two hundred years thanks to its unchanging sense of mission and its ability to attract people and provide a product. An equally important ingredient in its persistence and duration has been the development of structures through which human vocation is able to express itself in an efficient way. The UBS has been successful because of its ability to develop and grow from a national entity of the British Empire into a worldwide fellowship by reproducing itself in some regions and entering into cooperative alliances in others. This formative process of the UBS has coincided with, and even contributed significantly to, the process by which the Christian church has become a truly global church.
In reviewing the history of the UBS, it is noteworthy that the piety and the sense of commitment of its leadership is accompanied by a continuous search for excellence, a kind of holy discontent that allows for self-criticism. The search for excellence was a mark of character of the initial generation, and it has been the genius of the movement to keep it alive. Vision, creativity, and hard work are necessary to set up standards, structures, and procedures that will turn a dream into a reality. At every point in this long story God has provided personalities whose life and ministry were marked by the necessary combination of piety, commitment, and efficiency. In the latter half of the twentieth century alone, there were outstanding personalities such as Olivier Beguin from France, Ulrich Fick from Germany, Eric North from the United States, and Lord Coggan from Great Britain, all of whom left their mark on UBS history.
A businesslike approach for the achievement of this missionary vision has been necessary, given the unique nature of the Bible societies with their business and mission aspects. Key questions had to be dealt with, and certain emphases developed as a result of careful and sometimes painful evaluation. At a certain point in the late 1960s it became clear that millions of men, women, and children were open to receiving the Word, but that the Bible societies had not kept pace with the demand by also increasing the production of Scriptures. So production became an emphasis, and through a contagious enthusiasm it was multiplied around the world. Later on, in the 1980s, with a renewed awareness of the accelerated population growth, the fellowship realized that distribution had to be improved, and there followed a concerted, systematic, and intentional emphasis on that aspect of the ministry. Then fund-raising became the area to explore and develop on a global level. More recently, the UBS has embarked on actions and reflection about Scripture engagement, realizing that in addition to producing and distributing, steps are necessary to foster the reading and enjoyment of Scripture.
The ethical standards that have been set for the business aspects of the Bible societies correspond to good business practices as well as to Christian principles. A movement that promotes the use and reading of the Bible must be based on ethical standards that follow biblical principles. No contradiction can be admissible at this point. Keeping and applying such standards has meant making painful decisions at some points. As one of the historians of the UBS reminds us, "The test of seriousness in any organization with standards was what it did when a member, once accepted, breached the rules by which it was admitted."14 This is a most relevant truth to keep in mind in our times. We are familiar with the corruption of petty tyrants in poor countries who have siphoned money from foreign help into accounts in Switzerland or the Bahamas, but today even more rampant corruption is sweeping across the world of business corporations in the West. If Bible societies are going to be consistent with the message they promote and translate, they need to keep being models of corporate honesty and responsibility, "a light to the world."
One of the great challenges of recent years in the UBS fellowship has been the need for new structures in order to maintain efficiency and to move according to the standards of this new century. Comments by Lutheran missiologist Paul Varo Martinson to a symposium about the future of missions seem relevant to the UBS: "Rather than centralised bureaucracies, we need dispersed networks that fit the communication realities of our day. And rather than functioning as centres of top-down control, mission agencies should serve to consult, inform, inspire and connect, functioning differently at different levels, letting the energy of local communities of faith take shape in any number of ways, in many manners of configuration.... Initiative for action can and should come from any and every sourcewhether local, regional or international-that carries a vision and can justify that vision."15
In summary, the UBS as a movement has been popular, translating, ecumenical, and efficient. It is now a robust global family in which the founding members continue to be leaders, partly because their vision and willingness to share ha ve contributed to the rise of new members around the world. They have demonstrated a unique ability to update their agenda according to the new demands of the changing world, without abandoning the basic principles rooted in an unchanging Word. Together, these qualities give the UBS a unique missiological significance.
The universality of the message of the Bible is grasped through the rich variety of cultural forms in which it finds expression.
An evangelical stance and an ecumenical vision are part and parcel of the ethos of the UBS movement.
The UBS has contributed significantly to the process by which the Christian church has become a truly global church.
1. An earlier form of this article was delivered by Samuel Escobar in Wales as his presidential address at the bicentennial celebration of the United Bible Societies, August 2004.
2. Roger Steer, Good News for the World: The Story of the Bible Society (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2004), p. 54.
3. Andrew Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002), p. 233.
6. See the UBS Web site, www.biblesociety.org/index2.htm.
7. A good summary of this process appears in William A. Smalley, "Language and Culture in the Development of Bible Society Translation Theory and Practice," International Bulletin of Missionary Research 19, no. 2 (April 1995): 61-71. see also by the same author Translation as Mission: Bible Translation and the Modern Missionary Movement (Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press, 1991).
8. Philip A. Noss, "Current Trends in Scripture Translation," United Bible Societies Bulletin (hereafter UBSB), no. 194/95 (2002): 1.
9. Leon Roth, E/ pensamiento judio como factor de civilization (Paris: UNESCO, 1954), p. 15.
10. Noss, p. 4.
11. Julian Sundersingh, "Call for a New Translation: A Media-Based Translation for Audio Scriptures," UBSB, no. 194/195 (2002): 199-213.
12. American Bible Society Record, Winter 2004, p. 24.
13. David Burke, 'Text and Context: The Relevance and Viability of the Bible Society Movement's Fundamental Principle-'Without Doctrinal Notes and Comments'-Past, Present, and Future," UBSB, no. 194/195 (2002): 301.
14. Edwin H. Robertson, Taking the Word to the World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), p. 215.
15. Paul Varo Martinson, "Social Capital and the New Missionary Pragmatics," in Mission at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century (Minneapolis: Kirk House Publishers, 1999), p. 49.
Samuel Escobar, a contributing editor, serves the Baptist Union of Spain as theological educator under the Board of International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches.…