Remembering Dr. Lamin Sanneh: Reflections on a Champion of Global Christianity

”The mission of the church is to be a servant to the world in the name of Christ, to hear the cry of the poor, the wounded, the outcast, the hungry and thirsty, the sick, the orphan, the cry of mothers for their children, to hear these cries with the ears and compassion of Christ and to respond with his grace and example.” — Dr. Lamin Sanneh

On Jan. 6 global Christianity and Bible translation lost a giant — Dr. Lamin Sanneh.Dr. Sanneh was the author of many books, but my favorite is Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans, 2003). This book, with its focus on the shift in the Christian church from West to East, was reflective of my experience (20 years in 2003) in Christian missions. It also highlighted the critical role mother-tongue Bible translation — a primary focus for Wycliffe Bible Translators USA. One theme I remember quite clearly was Dr. Sanneh’s insistence that Christianity, like no other world religion, was a translated religion. It was meant to be translated.

Dr. Sanneh, along with Dr. Andrew Walls, championed the critical need for a global understanding and perspective of our Christian faith, including the critical need and importance of Bible translation in local languages. He’s quoted as saying, “Language is fundamental to culture and society. Once believers possess the Scripture in their own language they become decision-makers in issues of identity and ethical responsibility.”

Dr. Sanneh rightly observed the power transfer in the church from West to East. He said, “The renewal of world Christianity may have lessons to teach us all. The West is confident that the key to access to the mind of God is cultural and [resource] advantage … [but] by the same token, given the meager [resources] of societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America … it is [mistakenly assumed] they lack a corresponding grasp of the mind of God and thus must be discounted in any serious reckoning with the teachings of Christianity. … We flatter ourselves to think that truth and faith are mere evolutionary adjuncts of the human condition. … We know better, as witnesses of how much we retain of the heritage of the past. Movements in world Christianity will make this truth even more evident to us.”

Quoted in a Christianity Today article, Sanneh argues throughout all of his work that “contrary to folklore, Christianity preserves indigenous life and culture, thanks to its emphasis on mother-tongue translation and the difference [between Christianity and other major world religions] lies in the Christian missionary insistence upon translation.”

In another interview, he says that the effects of such changes [in the global church] have been profound, transforming not only worship, prayer and the interpretation of Scripture, but also art, aesthetics and music associated with the church, and he attributes that change to the cultural renewal of vernacular translation. He goes on to say, “Christianity has no revealed language. The Gospels are a translation of the teaching and preaching of Jesus. … Christianity does mission entirely by translation.” The impact of Christianity is measured by how effective mother-tongue translation is. Christianity spawns variety and diversity because it is invested in translation, which is dependent on interpretation.

You can read more about Dr. Sanneh’s life and work here. In addition, here is a very well written article that articulates his perspective.

About Bob Creson

President/CEO of Wycliffe Bible Translators USA, Orlando, Florida. It is an injustice not to have the right to read the Scriptures.
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