Topical Studies


Bible Translator's Problem


Having worked with primitives tribes for a good part of my life as a Bible translator, linguist, and anthropologist let me share with you a some very serious problems I find with the SDA doctrine of sanctification, problems which I tried to make clear to a dear SDA friend of mine. The problem is basically this:

Is it is possible for someone to become a sanctified Christian according to the standards set by the SDAs if one lives in a culture which has no knowledge of a seven day cycle and the days of the week? Add to this the problem of having only one real number, the number "one." Such was the situation we found ourselves in when we went to the Cha'cobo Indians living in the Amazon jungles of Northern Bolivia. These people had no idea that the world's time system ran on months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes. For them there was the year cycle and day cycle and all days were equal. Now if the SDA doctrine of sanctification is Biblical, this means that I as a translator-missionary have some very serious problems, one being educational (they must learn the days of the week and know how to count lest they receive the the mark of the beast for unknowingly working on the seventh-day) and the other being a translation problem.

Now the goal of every translator is to convey into the receptor language the meaning and intentions of the writer, at least those who believe conveying the correct meaning of Scripture into the receptor language is important. Bible translation is all about conveying the meaning of the Old and New Testament writers into the receptor language. But in order to convey the correct meaning, the translator must, at times, make explicit in the receptor language what is implied or omitted by the Old or New Testament writers. This omission by the writers of Scripture is sometimes by design in order that the listener not stop to think about the words omitted but to dwell on other words which are thus emphasized by the omission. It is a figure of speech known as "ellipsis." But this omission can cause a real problem for the translator. If translated literally into Cha'cobo, it just might convey a very different meaning or no meaning at all. For example, in Matt 14:19, we read that the Lord Jesus "gave loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude." Now if I were to translate this passage into Cha'cobo without taking note of the ellipsis, it would actually mean that Jesus gave the disciples, not the loaves, to the multitude!! Now is that the meaning the translators should convey? Did Jesus give the disciples to the multitude? Therefore, in order to avoid wrong meaning I was obligated to add the words "gave them" so that it would read "and the disciples gave them to the multitude." This meant there was a slight loss of meaning in the translation process, which is a lot better than conveying wrong meaning. However, Matthew, because the grammatical forms allowed it, was able to make the omission in order to convey a transcendent meaning which was that it was really the Lord Jesus himself who was the true Giver of bread. Our thoughts are to be centered on him and not on what the disciples were doing as mere agents. .

Now how does all this relate to the SDA doctrine of sanctification which is made explicit in the following doctrinal statements I glean from their writings?

  1. From: Seventh-day Adventists Believe..., page. 255: "The Sabbath (keeping) is a sign of God's transforming power, a sign of holiness or sanctification.....
  2. From: Seventh-day Adventists Believe..., page 256: "Every human being's loyalty to God will be tested by the Sabbath command placed in the midst of the Decalogue. Scripture reveals that before the Second Advent the whole world will be divided into two classes: those who are loyal and 'keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus' and those who worship 'the beast and his image.' At that time God's truth will be magnified before the world and it will be clear to all that the obedient observance of the seventh-day Sabbath of Scripture gives evidence of loyalty to the Creator."
  3. From Testimonies, Vol 6 by Ellen White, p. 350: "To those who keep holy the Sabbath day it is a sign of sanctification....It is received through obedience to those principles to those principles that are the transcript of His character. And the Sabbath is the sign of obedience. He who from the heart obeys the fourth commandment will obey the whole law."
  4. From SDA spokesperson Doug Batchler. "A person will be marked in the right hand (by the Beast) by working on God's Sabbath... Will you decide now to move under His glorious Sabbath banner as evidence that you have accepted Him as your Creator and Savior?

Now from the perspective of a Bible translator, if the above statements are true, then it means that the Cha'cobo, and other Bibleless tribes like them, can never experience the blessings of a transformed life empowered by the Spirit of God and even salvation itself unless they first learn to count to seven as well as learn the seven day week cycle. That has not been the Cha'cobo experience. And we did not teach them to count and to learn the days of the week in order to keep the Sabbath and be saved from the mark of the Beast but rather to survive in the modern world!

Secondly, if Sabbath observance is the primary sign of holiness as the SDAs teach, then as a translator I must ask why this omission by Paul in Eph 4:30, as well as other passages? Was the omission intentional when he writes to the non-Sabbath observing Greek colony living in Ephesus these words: "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" ? If Seventh-day observance was a true sign of God's "sealing" then should it not have been made explicit in this verse, especially since Paul was writing to those unfamiliar with the Jewish Sabbath observance? Now if I were a SDA translator familiar with translation principles, I would immediately have to ask myself if this was a deliberate omission on Paul's part. If I had reason to believe it was, then I would be shocked to discover that this omission was there because what really "grieved the Holy Spirit" were the more important "signs" of lack of holiness such as "bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, every form of malice, and lack of kindness, love, and forgiveness" as Paul explicitly states in the following verses, 31 and 32. Implication: if this were a true ellipsis, a deliberate omission by Paul to catch the reader's attention about the dangers of the above possible behavioral traits appearing in the lives of the believer, then Paul, because he was writing to Greeks to whom Judaizer were teaching Sabbath observance, would also have implied by its omission that there was no need to get concerned about observing the Jewish Sabbath and that observing it was not a sign of holiness. I strongly believe that if SDAs were to learn the principles of translations and become Bible translators to tribal people like the Cha'cobo it would not be long before they changed their un-Biblical view on sanctification.

Clearly, seventh day observance was never on Paul's radar screen as being a "sign of sanctification." This is because seventh day observance was a ceremonial law rather than a moral law; and because it was ceremonial there was no ellipsis. On the other hand, if the 4th commandment was moral, it should either have been at the front of the list of moral signs of an unholy life, especially since he was writing to those who never practiced a Sabbath day worship, or if there was an ellipsis ( which was not the case) then it would have signified its unimportance in matters of sanctification.

In addition, let me note that all the moral signs of an unholy life such as "bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, every form of malice, and lack of kindness, love, and forgiveness" described by Paul are universally understood by all societies, even the most primitive. For example, we didn't need the Ten Commandment to let the "primitive" Cha'cobo know that they were sinners. These principles of righteousness and sin were already there because they were "written on their hearts" (Rom. 2:18) and they were fully aware of them. In fact, it is these universal moral laws "written laws on the heart" which make men and women everywhere moral human beings and not animals. They are innate! On the other hand, if Sabbath observance were a moral law, the Cha'cobo would have innately known how to count to seven, would have known the concept of a seven-day cycle called a week, and would have had terms for the days of the week. The very fact that the concept of a Sabbath was absent from the culture is sufficient proof that Sabbath-day observance was never a moral law but rather a ceremonial. Of course, as I have discovered, such linguistic analysis is easily brushed aside as a "trick of the Devil," unless of course it fits their interpretation of Scripture.

In conclusion, if counting to seven and knowledge of the seven-day week cycle are necessary for our sanctification, then why did Jesus not make this clear when he commanded us to make disciples of all nations? Why did he, the Son of God, not say something like: "Now for you who are going to nations which can only count to one and have no knowledge of the seven-day week cycle, be sure to teach these "nations" how to count to seven as well as the days of the week otherwise they cannot become my disciples?" I think that is a fair question to ask from someone like me who went to such a people.

I trust this complicated liguistic stuff makes sense and is helpful.


From a Bible translator who has seen the lives of the Cha'cobo marvelously transformed by his Grace apart from any written law.


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